Orthodox Churches in Africa

The history of Christianity in northern Africa can be traced back to the first half of the first century AD. Even so, the Orthodox churches in Africa had no significant presence south of the Sahara until the twentieth century. There are now 17 Orthodox archdioceses and dioceses in sub-Saharan Africa under the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Four of these churches appear in Catherine’s Pascha.

All Saints Orthodox Church in Kasikizi, Tanzania, is one of the Orthodox churches in Africa

All Saints Church at the Diocesan Seminary

Kasikizi, Tanzania

The All Saints Church at the seminary in Kasikizi, Tanzania, is the sister parish of All Saints Greek Orthodox Church, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.

In a homily in 2001, Father George Livonas of All Saints, Pennsylvania, made an off-the-cuff remark about how little it would cost to build a church in Africa. At coffee hour, the leaders of the Philopthochos Society told him that, if he built the church, they would support the priest through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center.

A few weeks later, he learned that there were plans for a church in Tanzania. And then Father George was asked if his parish would host Bishop Jeronymos of Tanzania on his speaking tour around the US. It looked like God intended All Saints, Pennsylvania, to help build All Saints, Tanzania. And, indeed, that is exactly what came to pass.

Father George was blessed to be at All Saints, Tanzania, when it was consecrated by Bishop Jeronymos. You can find the rest of the story here.

St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, is one of the Orthodox churches in Africa

Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai

(St. Catherine’s Monastery)

Sinai, Egypt

The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai is built where Moses met God in a bush that burned but was not consumed.

The monastery was built between 548 and 565, by the order of the Emperor Justinian I. The date of the church is established by inscriptions carved into the beams of the church. One says, “For the salvation of our most august emperor Justinian.” The other says, “For the memory and repose of our departed empress Theodora.”

The church was therefore built no earlier than 548, the year when Theodora died. In 556, the church is mentioned in the writings of Procopius, so the church was completed by that date. The Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora are still commemorated in every Liturgy served at the monastery.

The monastery church was originally dedicated to the Transfiguration. When the remains of St. Catherine were discovered in 800, and taken to the Church, the church was rededicated to her. The monastery is now usually known by her name.

St. Catherine’s is the oldest Christian monastery still in use as a monastery. The thick, high walls ordered by Justinian protected it from every attack for many centuries.

The Monastery has always maintained close relations with Islam. In 623 a document known as the Actiname was drafted and signed by Mohammed. The document spelled out certain privileges for the monks of St. Catherine’s and obligated Muslims to help and protect them. The monks converted a chapel to a mosque during the Fatimid Caliphate. Unfortunately, the mosque was not oriented properly towards Mecca, so it was never used.

More information about St. Catherine’s Monastery is available on the monastery’s website.

Moon over the church of St. George, Cairo, one of the oldest Orthodox churches in Africa

The Church of St. George

Cairo, Egypt

The Church of St. George was built in the 10th century on top of a Roman tower. As a result, rather than having a cruciform shape, as most Orthodox churches do, it is round. It took its shape from the tower it was built on. It is the only round church in all of Egypt, and one of very few in the world. (Interestingly, St. George Church in Brasilia is also round.)

The stairs that lead up to the church are built on the outer wall of the Roman tower. As you walk up the stairs, you see a relief of St. George and the dragon that is worked into the outer brickwork of the tower.

According to tradition, when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with the child Jesus, they took shelter in the place now covered by the Church of St. George.

The Church is the see of Greek Patriarch of Alexandria. It is adjacent to the Monastery of St. George, a women’s monastery that houses the wonder-working chains of St. George.

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Axum, Ethiopia, is one of the Orthodox churches in Africa

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Axum, Ethiopia

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is the most important church in Ethiopia. The Ark of the Covenant is believed by many to be housed there. No one but a single guardian monk is permitted to enter the chapel where the Ark rests. When the guardian monk is selected, he stays with the Ark for the rest of his life.

The original Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built during the fourth century, during the reign of the first Christian emperor of Ethiopia. It is thought to have been destroyed in the 10th century by Queen Gudit. It was destroyed again in the 16th century, and rebuilt by the emperor Gelawdewos.

As with Mount Athos, it was believed that the Theotokos resides in a particular way at the Church of Our Lady Mary, and therefore no other women are permitted in the Church. However, in the 1950s, the Emperor Haile Selassie built a new cathedral of the same name, which is adjacent to the old church. The new building is open to both women and men.

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