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The Ethiopian Orthodox Union church, an autonomous Christian Church headed by a patriarch and closely related to the Coptic Church of Egypt, was the state church of Ethiopia until 1974. About 40 percent of the people of Ethiopia are Christians, and Christianity is predominant in the north. All the southern regions have Muslim majorities, who represent about 45 percent of the country's population. Most of the Christians, belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose 4th Century beginnings came long before Europe accepted Christianity. A further small percentage of the population adheres to traditional and other beliefs, including Judaism. A sect known as Beta Israel or Falashas, who practice a type of Judaism that probably dates back to contact with early Arabian Jews, were airlifted to Israel in 1991 during Ethiopia's civil war. The kingdom of Axum officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century. But it wasn't before the 12th century (and up until the 15th) that Christianity spread, along with the Christian state, to the highlands of central Ethiopia. A remarkable collection of rock-hewn churches dates from this era. They were associated with monks, who were considered on a level with saints and whose lives were often recorded in writing. These monuments and manuscripts are still very important today as the living memory of Ethiopia's Christians. Ethiopia has a rich history that predates the Old Testament. According to the Old Testament, The Queen of Sheba was born in Axum, but travelled to Israel to meet King Solomon. They had a son named Menelik, who later became the first emperor of Ethiopia and adopted Christianity in Ethiopia about the beginning of 4th Century long before Europe accepted Christianity. Menelik brought the original Ark of the Covenant back to Ethiopia from Izse sole commitment is to protect the sacred vessel. Ethiopia's religious tradition is reflected in the day-to-day lifestyle of the people, and nowhere does this spiritual energy echo more than in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. On the central plateau, the Ethiopian Orthodox church holds sway, again an individual and fascinating feature of this unusual country. Priests and deacons abound in their often colorful robes, carrying their staffs and ornate crosses that people frequently kiss as they pass. Christianity came to Ethiopia in ancient times and became the official Ethiopian religion in the 4th century. The Orthodox Church has many connections with ancient Judaism. Fasting and detailed food restrictions, the specific ways of slaughtering animals, circumcision and the layout of the churches, all these things make for a very particular religious culture. Islam is also very strong in many parts of Ethiopia, frequently existing peaceably alongside Christianity. The city of Harar, in the east of the country, is officially the fourth most holy Muslim site in the world. Ethiopia has communities of 'falashas', Ethiopian Jews, especially in the Gondar region in the north. Many of these however have now departed to live in Israel, having been airlifted out of the country with Operation Solomon and Operation Moses in the latter part of the 20th century.

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Ethiopia, the oldest independent nation in Africa, has a heritage dating back to the first century AD. Traders from Greece, Rome, Persia and Egypt knew of the riches of what is now Ethiopia, and by the first century AD, Axum was the capital of a great empire. This realm became one of the first Christian lands of Africa. Late in the 10th Century, Axum declined and a new Zagwe dynasty, centered in what is now Lalibela, ruled the land. Axum, Lalibela and Gonder now provide the greatest historii cal legacy. It was in the 16th Century that the son of the great explorer Vasco Da Gama came to Ethiopia. He found a land of many kingdoms and provinces beset by feuds and war. In the 19th Century, under the leadership of the great Emperor Menelik, the country's passage to modernization began. The following are some of Ethiopia's historical attractions.

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Ethiopia has a proud and long history extending to the known beginnings of human kind. The Axumite kingdom was one of the great civilizations of the ancient world and has left behind the mystery of the great Stellae found at Axum. In the late middle Ages great religious civilizations flourished in many parts of the country, particularly at Lalibela where churches hand carved out of massive monolithic red rock testify not only to great faith but also to great architectural skills. And in the former capital of Gondar many significant castles speak of the same

THE MYSTERIOUS MONOLITHS

Axum, Ethiopia's most ancient city, and capital of one of the most glorious empires of the past, is one of the most illustrious links in the Historic Route. The Axumite Empire flourished 3000 years ago. Its riches can still be pictured on the magnificent stelae or obelisks, the graves of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, and the Legendary Bath of the Queen of Sheba. The 16th century Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion was built in the compound of an earlier 4th century church, and is the holiest church in Ethiopia. In its sanctuary is said to rest the original Ark of the Covenant. The churches and monasteries of Axum are richly endowed with icons, and some of the historical crowns of ancient Emperors.

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THE CAMELOT OF AFRICA

Gondar was the 17th century capital of Ethiopia, and is notable for its Medieval Castles and churches. The city's unique Imperial compound contains a number of Castles built between 1632 and 1855 by various Emperors who reigned during this period. These dramatic Castles, unlike any other in Africa, display richness in architecture that reveals the Axumite traditions as well as the influence of Arabia.

Other treasures of Gondar include the 18th century palace of Ras Bet, the bath of Fasiledes, the ruined palace of Kusquam, and the church of Debre Berhan Selassie with its unique

EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD

World's most incredible man-made creations, they are a lasting monument to man's faith in God. Most travel writers describe these churches as the "eighth wonder of the world". These remarkable edifices were carved out of a solid rock, in a region where the ragged landscape still protects the churches from mass tourism. The 11 man-made churches are found in and around the town of Lalibela.

Other churches are reached by a 45-minutes drive by 4x4 vehicle, or a three hour ride on mule-back. The venue for some of the most famous church festivals in Ethiopia, a visit during the great celebrations of Genna (X-mas) and Timket (Epiphany) is particularly rewarding.

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