Roughly 40 percent of Ethiopians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), which was founded c.340 AD by Emperor Ezana of Aksum following his conversion by Syrian monks. The EOC is classified as an Oriental Orthodox church, a category that also comprises the Armenian and Syrian churches, the Malankara Church of India, and the Coptic Church of Alexandria. What all these relatively obscure – to Westerners at least – churches have in common is a centuries-long adherence to the miaphysite doctrine (known as Tewahedo in Ethiopia), which asserts the united divine and human nature of Christ, and was outlawed as heretical by Rome and Constantinople back in the fifth century.

Because the EOC developed in virtual isolation prior to the arrival of the Portuguese Jesuits in the fifteenth century, its rituals are infused with all manner of singularities. The EOC has long maintained that the original Ark of the Covenant rests in Ethiopia, and the consecration of any church depends on a tabot – a small replica of the Ark – being placed in its Holy of Holies. Other archaic customs, many with Old Testament roots, include the separation of sexes during church services, strict menstruation taboos, and a ban on wearing shoes inside a church. Also unique to the EOC is the use of an otherwise obsolete proto-Amharic language called Ge’ez in the liturgy and other spoken or chanted texts.

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