Salambo discovering Ethiopia
Gondar was once the magnificent capital of the 17th century Ethiopian Empire, as mentioned in a previous post, but it was also the home of the Jewish people of Ethiopia, or Bieta Israel (house of Israel) as they call themselves. They are also referred to as Falachas but this is considered a derogatory term in Ethiopia.
According to scholars, Bieta Israel may be the descendants of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the tribe of Dan, which fled the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 10th century BC during the destructive civil war between King Solomon’s sons. Another version says that they are the descendants of the Israelite tribe who accompanied Menelik I, the first King of Ethiopia, supposed son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, when he travelled from Jerusalem back to northern Ethiopia. According to the legend, after her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem the Queen of Sheba returned to Ethiopia pregnant. She gave birth to a son, Menelik, who as a adult returned to Jerusalem to visit his father and bring the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. It is believed that since that day, the Ark of Covenant, containing the tablets of the ten commandements, has been kept in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum. However, it is the first version of the origins of Bieta Israel which is officially accepted.
Throughout the Middle Ages, a Jewish kingdom flourished in the area around Gondar and the Simien Mountains. However, in the 15th century, the Kingdom entered into bloody wars against the neighbouring Ethiopian Christian Empire, which eventually led to its loss of autonomy. In the early 17th century, it was annexed by the Gondar emperor Susenyios, father of the famous Fasilides. Many of its people were forced to convert to Christianity, although an important Jewish community continued to live in the area, making a living as craftmen, stonemasons and carpenters for the Gondar emperors, and building their magnificent castles. It was at that time that they were identified by European travellers and diplomats as a different people with rites and rituals similar to the ones of the Jewish faith. In the 19th century, more members were converted to Christianity by the Protestant missionaries of the time, and in international circles, there were still doubts as to whether they were Jewish.
It is only at the start of the 20th century that their existence became internationally acknowledged thanks to the work of French scholar Jacques Faitlovitch, who intrigued by Bieta Israel, led a mission to Ethiopia in 1904. Following his visit, he created an international committee for Bieta Israel, popularizing their existence through books and raising funds to establish schools in their villages. In 1908, they were officially recognised as Jewish people and supported by the different European Jewish communities. When the State of Israel was created in 1948, many of them contemplated emigrating, however, Emperor Hailé Sélassié did not grant them permission to leave the Empire. In 1975, the government of Israel officially accepted the Bieta Israel as Jews under the Law of Return, which grants all Jewish people in the world the right to immigrate. But it is only in the 1980s and 1990s, under the Derg regime that the Bieta Israel started a mass emigration process to Israel. A few members of Bieta Israel still live in Ethiopia. Their story is told in a 2011 French documentary, which I recently saw at the Alliance Ethio-française in Addis: Jacques Faitlovitch et les tribus perdues.