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Letter from Ethiopia

Exploring a Forgotten Jewish Land

Using oral history, texts, and survey, archaeologists search for traces of a once-vibrant religious community

By SARA TOTH STUB

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Ethiopia Semien MountainsAlong the banks of the Gerzeman River, which runs through a valley in northern Ethiopia’s Semien Mountains, sits the village of Semien Menata. Too small and remote to appear on most maps, it is reachable only by walking paths from nearby larger villages. Today Semien Menata is dotted with small wooden homes, flocks of animals, and agricultural fields typical of the region. Scattered about, however, lies evidence of the village’s former inhabitants: Ethiopian Jews known as the Beta Israel who trace their origins to Biblical times, but whose exact roots remain unclear.

 

Ethiopia’s Jewish community, which settled throughout the rugged north of the country where it was a minority in a mostly Christian kingdom, is first documented in fourteenth-century sources. The Beta Israel consisted of farmers and artisans as well as a religious hierarchy including a class of ascetic high priests, or meloksewoch, and lay priests, or qesoch, in Ge‘ez, a Semitic tongue that became the main liturgical language of the Beta Israel. Meloksewoch lived separately and adhered to strict purity laws that prohibited physical contact with the laity. Both types of priest performed animal sacrifices according to Biblical decree, a practice that lasted into the twentieth century in Ethiopia, long after it had been abandoned in the rest of the Jewish world. The meloksewoch are the only known example of an ascetic Jewish movement after the first century A.D., when sects such as the Essenes, who are generally credited with writing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, faded away with the rise of the Roman Empire.

 

Ethiopia MapCurrently, a team led by archaeologist Bar Kribus of Ruhr University Bochum and Sophia Dege-Müller of the University of Hamburg is trying to learn more about the community’s obscure history and unique practices. Team members have drawn on a combination of archaeological survey, texts, and the oral history and memories of living members of the Beta Israel, whose population of 100,000 fled to Israel en masse beginning in the 1980s to escape war and famine. Between 2015 and 2018, Kribus and Dege-Müller’s team surveyed 17 Beta Israel villages, focusing on locations associated with the meloksewoch. The researchers have found evidence of the community’s pilgrimage practices, their hardships, and events known from oral and written history. They have also explored the institution of the ascetic priesthood, which played a key leadership role and was likely responsible for the development of aspects of the group’s liturgy and for canonizing its sacred texts. “Since this project, the work on this group’s history suddenly has become much more grounded,” says Steven Kaplan, a historian who studies the Beta Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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