Egypt: the real Cradle of Christianity

September 25, 2015

Few African Christians are aware of a great and important place which Egypt occupies in the history of Christianity.For many, or even most of us, we hardly even think about the Church of Egypt during the celebration of Christmas, when the story is told of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt; nor do we even pay much attention to the Prophet Isaiah, who foretold many centuries before Christ that "Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

But it is a fact of history that Jesus Christ was brought to Egypt as a child, by His mother Mary and His foster father, Joseph, fleeing the tyranny of Herod, the Roman king of Judea. The very free which sheltered them in what was known as Mataria, on the bank of the Nile, in Old Cairo survives till this day. One writer has interpreted this to be a sign of God’s desire to bring reconciliation be¬tween Himself and the people of Egypt, following the Pharaohnic plagues. Because she sheltered and preserved the Christchild in His infancy, Egypt may well be called the real cradle of Christianity.
 
Beginning with the Christchild’s visit, is seemed that Egypt was destined to play a significant role in the life of the early church. Just at the dawn of Christianity Mark, who was originally named John, became the one to Evangelise Egypt.  Mark had been born three years after the birth of Christ, of Jewish parents, in the city of Cyrene on the western borders of Egypt, now known as Lybia. Mark’s parents migrated to Cana in Galilee, near Jerusa¬lem where the young boy be¬friended Peter. Mark studied Greek, Latin and Law in this new home.
 
Coptic historians suggest that Mark’s home in Cana became the first church in the world, for it was there that Jesus met the Apostles early in His ministry for prayer and in¬struction. Mark, of course, was one of the Apostles who fol¬lowed Jesus everywhere He went; he even served at the marriage feast of Cana. One historian suggested that it was also at Mark’s home that Jesus celebrated the Passover.

St. Mark began preaching in Jerusalem and Bethany, and later accompanied St. Paul and St. Barnabas on their missionary journey to Asia Minor. He later accompanied Peter to Rome. It seems that Mark first visited Alexandria with Peter in the year 43 A.D. During the reign of Claudius, in 43 A.D, St. Mark began his ministry in the Jewish quarter of Alexandria while St. Peter went to the torn of Babylon, where he is believed to have written his first General Epistle.
 
Egypt and the entire Mediterra¬nean were, at the time, under Roman Empire, which was bound on the north by Britain, on the west by Spain, on the east by Chaldea and on the south by Egypt. The Romans permitted people to worship their own gods, but the empire was man’s first loyalty. The Egyptians, Jews and Greeks and a few Romans were at that time the inhabitants of Egypt. The god of Egypt then was Serapis.

 St. Mark, on entering Alexandria, was impressed by the glittering face of the city–its majestic buildings, temples, museums, gymnasiums, shops, great markets and schools. Its harbor pro¬vided the main pipe line through which food was exported to all parts of the empire. Alexandria was also an intellectual centre where oriental theosophy, Greek culture and philosophy claimed the burning attention of the intellectuals.

It was in the Jewish quarter of town that St. Mark began his ministry, and achieved his first conversion–Annianus, a Jewish shoemaker who became his suc¬cessor.It is suggested also that St. Mark visited Babylon in the City of Cairo, where many Jews were living, and converted a good many of them. A church was founded among them, in the Crypt, where Jesus had taken refuge. A synod of the Coptic Church was established, with bishops, pres¬byters and deacons. In 189 A.D. during the Patriarchate of Demetrius, the 12th after St. Mark, the church was divided into dioceses.

Liturgy
St. Mark was the first Apostle to formulate a liturgy, as a regular church ritual to be strictly followed in the cele¬bration of the Eucharist. It was first done in Greek, and memorized by his successor and presbyters, until it was written out by Pope Athanasius in 330 A.D.A copy was given to Frieminatius, first Bishop of Ethiopia. The liturgy was revised by Pope Cyril the Great, and is now used in both Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

LINKS WITH TRADITIONS
One of the most inspiring reve¬lations which members of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) General Committee and Staff be held during their visit to Cairo was the link between the Coptic Church and ancient Egyptian traditions. To begin with, they were as¬tounded to learn that the idea of one God was first conceived by the young Pharaoh, Akhnaton, who lived in 1500 B.C. Dr Hakim Ameen, an expert on Coptic studies, underscores the validity of this link.

Christianity fell on fertile ground in Egypt, he said, because the Egyptians found in Christianity many features which they had been practicing  in their ancient religion … The Egyptian is and always has been religious minded. The ancient Egyptian’s enquiring mind was always searching with¬in the domain of religion and ultimately reached certain tenets and concepts which were later identified with the theory and sublime teachings of the Christian religion. After noting the origin of the con¬cept of one God in Egypt, Dr. Ameen goes on to say, "the idea of the Holy Trinity has its parallel in the ancient Egyptian triads, of which the most famous was that of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. (Triad means three persons in one). It was this triad which helped Egyptians to understand the concept of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 
Nor was the sacrament of Baptism a complete novelty to the Copts. It reminded them of their ancient religion, in which a person was washed by holy water. The con¬cept of the Cross as a symbol of everlasting life also re¬sembled the Ankh sign used in a similar sense in ancient Egypt. The cult of Osiris provided the ancient Egyptians with hope of a future life through Osiris who, slain by evil, had triumphed in a resurrection. Groves adds, to carry out successfully the magical rites by which he had overcome the enemy was there¬fore the ambition of the Egyp¬tian devotee. Christianity, which preached a Savior who has also conquered death, was therefore particularly attrac¬tive and credible to the Copts.

The Martyr and Saint
 St. Mark founded five churches in Egypt and his native Lybia and went on preaching fearlessly against pagan gods. This coupled with the great worry which the rapid spread of the Christianity caused the Roman conquerors, pro-voked great hatred of Christians.
 
On April 26, A.D., while cele¬brating the Easter mass in the Church of Baucalia, St. Mark was attacked by pagans. The Pagans were celebrating the feast of Serapis at the same time in the temple of Serapium. In conni¬vance with the Roman prefect of Alexandria, they marched to the Baucalia church and grabbed St. Mark, dragged him to death through the streets of the city. His body was taken by his fol¬lowers and buried in the church but later stolen by Venician merchants. His head remained. But the church in Egypt suffered several other persecutions from the hands of pagans and the Romans. Persecution only made the faith more attractive to people.
Source: —–. All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) Bulletin Vol.9, No.1, pp.3-6.

Brief History of Tekle Aquaquam

June 15, 2015


By Kassa Nigus

Tekle Aquaquam is a unique style of chant and spiritual skip by church choir using sistra and prayer sticks. This chant system was instituted in the 19th century by Aleka Gebre Hanna, an Ethiopian Church scholar, and the hermit Tse’ada Gebre Meskel.

The church believes that the two fathers were led by the Holy Spirit when they composed the chants at Rema Medhanie Alem, one of the monasteries on the Lake Tana islands. The Tekle Aquaquam chants are composed in line with the hymns of St. Yared, the great composer of Ethiopian Church melody.  

Aleka Gebre Hana was born on November, 18 14 E.C at Nabega Giyorgis in Fogera district, east of Lake Tana. His father is Desta Tegeng, and his mother W/ro Sahilitu Tekle. The renowned scholar lived until 1898 E.C.

Currently, the garden at his home in Nabaga Giyorgis is covered with coffee and bamboo trees. Christians in the locality had built Bethlehem, the chapel where the Holy Communion is prepared, on his sepulture as a memorial for his name. His relics have been found in different parishes where he served.  

During the reign of Atse Tewodros, when the priests opposed the king’s land tenure reform which affected the church, Aleka Gebre Hana was blamed for coordinating the opposition. He then fled to Rema Medhani Alem church at one of the islands in Lake Tana, where he found Tse’ada Gebre Meskel, the hermit. That’s when the two worked together to compose the Tekle Zimame, a distinct system of spiritual chant and choreography based on the Gondere Aquaquam. They had drawn inspiration from the way bamboo trees in the area moved as wind blew through them. Then, the hermit Tse’ada said to Aleka Gebre Hanna, “I will not return to this fleeting world but you yourself shall go and teach this chant system.”

Arefe Ayne Hagos, 1979 E.C stated the invention of Tekle Zimmame by Aleka Gebre Hanna as follows:

“His life was strongly connected with the Lake Tana in various ways. One day when he was sitting on the beach of Lake Tana, he observed an amazing scene that the wave of the lake caused bamboo trees on the shore from right and left side as if the movement was carefully choreographed. He drew inspiration from the scene to create his composition known as Tekle Aquaquam.”

Many church scholars also agree that Tekle Aquaquam was invented by Aleka Gebre Hanna. After the death of Emperor Tewodros in 1864 E.C and the succession of Emperor Yohannes, Aleka left the monastery and went to Tigray where he lived at Axum Tsion church interpreting Fitha Negast (law of king). That perhaps explains why Aleka Gebre Hanna’s name is mentioned in some manuscripts in Axum Tsion Church. (Face bookpage: zekere teklie)

After Emperor Yohannes was killed in a battle at Metema, Aleka Gebre Hanna returned to his birth place, Nabega Giyorgis and started to teach the chant system he composed to the priests in the neighborhood. Through time Tekle Aquaquam expanded its reach to Gondar as it became more and more popular among church fathers. However, church fathers in Gondar banned the Tekle style of chant as it is accompanied by fervent bounce system. They considered the prance system inappropriate for church service as those who perform the choreography usually drop their attire as they prance passionately. Students in Gondar were also banned from learning the Tekle Aquaquam. (Ibd)

Aleka Gebre Hanna faced serious opposition from the clergy, and was warned not to teach his chant system to any student. He and his wife, Weizero Mazengia had two sons named Tekle and Sinu and a daughter called Tirunesh. As the children grew up, he secretly taught Tekle and Tirunesh his style of melody and choreography. Tekle excelled at his studies and finally became a famous scholar at an early age.  Aleka Gebre Hanna passed away on February 24, 1898 E.C at the age of 84 and was laid to rest at Nabega Giyorgis, his birth place. (Ibd)

During the invasion of Mahdist army (Dirbush) of Sudan during the reign of Yohannes IV, Tekle went to Ras Michael in Wollo where he performed a chant at the inaugural ceremony of Tenta St Michael church. The clergy and the congregation marveled at the sight of his chant style, and he was hired by Ras Michael to serve in Tenta St Michael church and to teach the chant there.(Deacon Danel Kibret…)

Later on, Ras Gugsa brought Tekle to Debre Tabor Iyyesus church through the good will of Ras Michael and appointed him to the chief of the church. Tekle spent the rest of his life there serving in the church and teaching his unique chant style which he got from his father.

The death of Aleka Tekle came as a shock to all those who knew him and especially to Ras Gugsa, the local governor. As Ras Gugsa heard the news of Aleka Tekle’s death he said he would rather see the church collapse, because while a shattered church can be rebuilt in a better way, the death of the scholar was irreversible.

When he was at Debre Tabor Iyesus church, Tekle had many disciples. Since his days there, Dabre Tabor Iyesus became the center of Tekle Aquaquam (Tekle Aquaquam Gubae bet/school) where many people were trained in the chant system and served in church choirs.

Genealogy of Tekle Aquaquam professors  

Name of Teachers                      Name of successors

Aleka Gebre Hanna    succeeded by   Aleka  Tekle Gebre Hanna

Aleka Tekle                          »                Aleka Mekonne and others

Aleka Mekonnen                 »                Aleka Keleme werk and others

Aleka Keleme werk             »                Aleka Mahitem

Aleka Mahitem                    »               Re’ese memhiran  Mersha

Currently, head professors (Re’ese Memhiran) Mersha and Mergeta Zewde are the custodians of the Tekle Aquaqum which they are teaching to their students at Debre Tabor Iyyesus church.

The parish council of Dabre Tabor Iyyesus and Mekane Birhan Holy Trinity Church is preparing to celebrate Aleka Tekle Gebrehana’s Centenary in a special way under the theme ‘Zikre Tekle’ (the memorial of Tekle).

The event will be marked from May to Pagumen (the shortest 13th month, 5 to 6 days in the Ethiopian calendar), 2007 E.C through different programs:

  •  Presentation of research papers, documentary, exhibition;
  •  Panel discussion;
  •  Visit to the historical birth place of Aleka Gebre Hanna, i.e. Nabega Giyorgis and Rema Medhane Alem;
  •  Procession to Debre Tabor Eyesus Tekle Akuakuam Gubae Bet;
  •  Sermons, songs, Tekle Zimame, Ge’ez poetry recital , etc  

A main purpose of this program is to discuss, with relevant stakeholders, solutions to the problems the Tekle Aquaquam School is facing so that this unique chant system can be passed on to the next generation.

Organizer of the event: The parish council of Dabre Tabor Iyyesus and Mekane Birhan Holy Trinity Church

Sources:

• Deacon Daniel Kibret’s View: Reflections on Ethiopia’s History, Culture, Religion, politics and Tradition http://www.danielkibret.com/2010/05/blog-post_4667.html:(retrieved on May 7, 2015)

•  የእንጦጦ  ደብረ  ኃይል ፻፳፭ አመት  መታሰቢያ  መጽሔት

•  ዐረፈ ዓይኔ  ሐጎስ  አለቃ  ገብረ ሐና  እና አስቂኝ ቀልዶቻቸው አዲስ አበባ ፲፱፻፸፱  ዓ.ም

•  አዲስ  ዘመን  ጋዜጣ ታኅሣሥ ፲ ቀን ፲፱፻፸፰  ዓ.ም ምን ሠርተው ታወቁ  ?  በመንግሥቱ ለማ

•  አለቃ  ለማ  ኃይሉ  መጽሐፈ  ትዝታ  ዘአለቃ ለማ ኃይሉ ወልድ ታሪክ አዲስ አበባ ፲፱፶፱ ዓ.ም

•  ኅሩይ ወልደ ሥላሴ የሕይወት ታሪክ አዲስ አበባ ፲፱፻፲፰ ዓ.ም

• Face bookpage: zekere teklie : (https://www.facebook.com/notes/450386981730757/) retrieved on May 7, 2015)