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Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Educational System

By Mehari Worku with Wendy Laura Belcher

February 16, 2024

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has an ancient system of education, with many schools for learning the church's literature, practices, rhetoric, and interpretation.

The EOTC educational system has five main areas of study, which take at least twenty-five years to complete.

ንባብ ቤት Nəbab Bet, EOTC school stage of learning to read

First is the Nebab Bet, the house of reading, in which a student learns to read and memorize the Psalms and other set prayers. Children learn to read around the age of four and are sent to Nebab Bet at the age of seven, where they memorize the entire Psalter in the four reading styles, three melodies, and two chanting forms. They must properly perform each Psalm in front of their teacher before going on to memorize the next one. This bone deep knowledge of the Psalter informs every aspect of how Ethiopian Orthodox Christians live their lives and create texts.

From this school, students can enter the following schools: Zema Bet, Qədasse Bet, or Qəne Bet.

View Ethiopian children learning the Psalms. The boy sitting on the ground is practicing reading the Psalms aloud, with the right intonations. The boy standing is practicing singing the Psalms aloud, as they are sung during the church service.

View a priest teaching how to read the Psalms aloud.

View a priest teaching how to ...

ዜማ ቤት Zema Bet, EOTC school of studying music and hymnody

One next stage is the Zema Bet, the house of music, in which students learn chanting and memorize hymns. 

View priests singing the hymns they have memorized and dancing during the church service.

ቅዳሴ ቤት, Qəddase Bet EOTC school of studying liturgy

Another possible next stage is Qeddase Bet, the house of liturgy, is the stage in which students learn and memorize the various anaphoras for the Divine Liturgy for the Eucharist and Horologium. This stage is most relevant for priests, who must memorize this material to perform the liturgy.

ቅኔ ቤት Qəne Bet, EOTC school of studying rhetoric and poetry

The next possible stage is perhaps the most difficult, the Qene Bet, the house of poetry, in which they study grammar, style, and history; analyse the canon of poetry going back centuries; and compose original poetry. First, students learn sewasew (grammar), studying Geʿez verb conjugation, parts of speech, phrase structure, and sentence structure. Next, they listen to poetry, including that of students ahead of them. Then, they start to prepare short works of poetry and perform them for their teacher, who corrects them for melody and meter. Students at the end of this stage must be quick-witted, able to create poems on the spot, in the larger African tradition that came to inform rap in the United States. These students create sophisticated poems with double meanings, textual allusions, and rhymes. They often quote and adapt phrases from the lectionary, the Gospels, the Psalter, and the Synaxarium. Since these are public performances, a better student may snatch a line away by finishing it with other words. In the modern period, a famous scholar spent forty years studying qene in different schools to get all the nuances and melodies in every qene tradition in Ethiopia.

View a church singer instantly singing the qene (poetry) provided to him by the poet in that moment.

View a qene student reciting his qene poetry aloud to his friends.

መጽሐፍ ቤት Mäṣḥaf Bet, EOTC school stage of studying exegesis

After studying in Qene Bet, students can enter Matsehaf Bet, the house of exegesis, in which students learn to interpret scripture and texts. Today, it takes a student many years to study the interpretation of the Old and New Testament (the first taking about four years, the second three years). Students must memorize great swathes of andemta (commentaries) on the Gospels. For many, this is is the final stage of school, but students can go on to Zema Bet or Qədasse Bet, if they did not do them before. 

This summary is based in part on the Introduction of The Hatata Inquiries.

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