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Christians in the Muslim World

The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopian Christianity

Author: Osvaldo Raineri Title: Salmi etiopici di Cristo e della Vergine Publisher: Edizioni Appunti di Viaggio, Rome, 2005

It may be a surprise for a Western reader to discover that Ethiopian civilisation has its roots in the epoch of the Queen of Sheba and King Salomon, from whom are said to descend the emperors who ruled the country until 1974. Ethiopia, which had already converted to Christianity in its Alexandrine and thus pre-Calcedonian form in the fourth century, produced a civilisation and a literature whose Christian element was harmoniously grafted onto local traditions.


One proof of this is the Salmi etiopici di Cristo e della Vergine ('The Ethiopian Psalms of Christ and the Virgin') which the author, a lecturer in Ethiopian and Ethiopian Institutions at the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome, here presents for the first time translated into a Western language.


The love, the assiduous recital and singing, and the familiarity of Ethiopian Christians as regards the prayers of the psalms have made their being learnt by heart rather frequent. But such attachment has also inspired some writers to compose 'imitations' of the psalms, and these are called Mazmura Krestos (Psalms of Christ).


These imitations can be defined as complete rewritings or as additions at the end of every Jewish psalm of a single-rhyme strophe of five verses in ancient Ethiopian (ge'ez) with the aim of taking up, re-reading and developing the contents of the holy text.


The author offers two examples of this last typology, one that goes back to the sixteenth century and one that is modern, of the writer Taye Gabra Maryam (1861-1924). He follows these with an anonymous Mazmura Dengel (Psalter of the Virgin), probably of the sixteenth century, which, once again with a single-rhyme strophe of five verses, celebrates and invokes Mary by referring the content of the psalms to the Virgin.


This practice bears witness to the Marian devotion which is widespread in Ethiopia, and indeed to such an extent that the country loves to define itself the 'land of Mary'.


It is impossible to give an account to the reader of the richness of these texts which are at one and the same time an echo and a re-proposal of the Biblical psalter.


A synchronic reading of the original and of the three re-workings clearly demonstrates the importance of this 'inculturation' of the Old Testament in 'another' language and culture.