In the catalog that accompanies "African Zion: Sacred Art of Ethiopia," the groundbreaking exhibition currently at the Walters Art Gallery, historian Richard Pankhurst offers a view of the ancient kingdom as seen through contemporary eyes:
"The Ethiopians were regarded by the Greeks as one of the best peoples in the world," Pankurst writes. "Homer speaks of them in the 'Iliad' as 'the blameless Ethiopians.' He claims that they were visited by Zeus, the king of the gods, by the goddess Iris, who went to their country to participate in their sacrificial rites, and by Poseidon, the sea god, who 'lingered delighted' at one of their feasts."
Mr. Pankhurst also notes that, according to one source, both Hercules and Bacchus were "awed by the piety" of the Ethiopians, whose sacrifices "were the most acceptable to the gods."
The piety which in pagan times elicited such admiration continued into the Christian era, beginning in the 4th century when the new religion was brought to Ethiopia by shipwrecked Syrian travelers. The conversion of the Ethiopian monarch, Ezana, who ruled from his capital at Aksum, is recorded by the change in the coins issued by his government, in which the disc and crescent of the pagan deities were replaced by the sign of the cross. The Walters' exhibition begins with examples of early Aksumite coins, which mark Ethiopia's emergence as the first Christian state, preceding the official manifestation of Rome's conversion by nearly half a century.
Most of this art has never been seen outside of Ethiopia. The exhibit, which will tour next year, is a collaboration of many
institutions, including the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. Accompanying it are photographs by Chester Higgins Jr. of an Ethiopian church congregation in New York that show the link between ancient Ethiopia's attempt to create a New Jerusalem in Africa with a modern-day community that is trying to fulfill its traditions in the Bronx.
This is an important show that has made Baltimore a major center of Ethiopian culture in the U.S. At a time when Africa's contribution to world civilization is gaining increasing recognition, "African Zion" is not only a compelling portrait of a unique society but a richly realized essay on the diversity of the African achievement.