Given our history, you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that religion plays a huge role in the daily lives of Ethiopians. A country where a good majority identifies as either Christian or Muslim has also produced some of the most fascinating art pieces that tell the history of the country and God.
Christian art does what most religions forbid; depict its messiah. Mainly through Jesus Christ and his teachings. To mainstream Christianity, God is a trinity, described as fully three and fully one being and so illustrating the life and teachings of Jesus represent the holy trinity (God).
Ethiopia houses the oldest illustrated bible, the Garima Gospels. Two edited versions of the bible were fully illustrated and translated into Ge’ez. One of the Bible’s dates back to 390-570 AD while the other is estimated to have been written around 530-660 AD.
In Ethiopia, Orthodox Christianity since its introduction in the 4th century C.E has influenced artistic expressions. Especially in paintings. Mostly because the early Christian arts were done by monks and priests. It’s also one of the few arts where Jesus and other biblical figures are depicted as colored as opposed to the caucasian image we’re used to. By comparison, the images of a white Jesus in Ethiopia are fairly recent. Some art is also said to have blessings and hidden meanings if properly blessed by a church official. Making them distinct from what you’ll find in the marketplace.
In general, Christian art also attempts to convey messages of the bible through subtle visual cues that let its watchers know of important details such as character traits of personalities. Think of the angel heads, those that look to the left have malintent in the story while the ones that look to the right are good angels.
In Islam, depicting God is seen as something akin to idolatry. Because an artist wouldn’t have the remotest visual reference. Instead, one would resort to filling in the gaps found with his/her imagination. In Islam, God is the Creator of all creations and nothing came before him. He is not a human, animal, or any other creation and so there is no physical image to draw him from. So drawing an image of God would invite people to worship the artists’ rendition of God. The same goes for the depiction of prophets and other important religious figures. In some traditions, the human form or even any other living form is also forbidden.
“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision…” (Quran Chapter 6. Al An’am ayat 103)
So instead, Muslims have taken the word as a means to express God. Something that’s entirely permissible as it is possible to see how God(the word Allah) is written in the Qu’ran, a book also seen as an expression of the eternal will of God and his word. While some schools argue that the Qu’ran is an attribute of God and therefore uncreated.
This art form is thoroughly present and encouraged in the Muslim community. You can see it in mosques and Muslim homes around the world. These have also found their way on secular objects such as coins, tiles, and metal works. So long as the object isn’t used as a replacement of who God is or partnered with God, it is permissible.
Another popular way of expressing God is geometric patterns. Something a little more subtle and conveys the underlying meaning of creation and other complex thoughts. These are meant to lead the viewer to understand reality and are often more than just decoration.
In terms of architecture, the same rules apply. No statues, no persons. Instead, architects focus on inspiring adherents in the abstract. Ethiopia is also home to some of the world’s oldest Muslim architecture, the Nejashi mosque, and the city of Harar. The Nejashi mosque was named after the Axumite king that welcomed the first Muslims in Ethiopia. Following the persecution in Mecca, the first Muslims came to Axum and settled there. Granted full protection by the Christian King Nejashi. Even refusing to give up the Muslims when their pursuers offered him Gold.
A translation of the text reads:
“The Prophet Mohammed realized that he could not protect his followers from the attacks, and said ‘go to the Habesha, there is a Christian king there. There is justice in his kingdom. Habesha is the land of truth. Therefore, go there until we achieve victory with the help of Allah”.
In addition to the mosque, the city of Harar is also considered a holy place for many Muslims. A city filled with Islamic visuals and designs. To name a few, the Jugol walls, hundreds of historically important mosques, and even residences that seem to mirror Meccan architecture.