Although the existence of inscriptions prove that literacy preceded the adoption of Christianity as the recognized religion in Ethiopia, by the time of the earliest surviving records formal education was controlled by the church. Educational opportunities were seen as the preserve of Ethiopia's ruling Amhara class. However, these efforts provided educational opportunities to only a few; Samuel Gobat estimated that "where Amharic is spoken, about one-fifth of the male population can read a little, and in Tigre about one twelfth."
According to Richard Pankhurst, the traditional education provided by the church
began with the learning of the alphabet, or more properly, syllabary, made up of 26 base characters, each with seven forms, indicating the various vowels. The student's second stage comprised the memorization of the first chapter of the first Epistle General of St. John in Geez. The study of writing would probably also begin at this time, and particularly in more modern times some arithmetic might be added. In the third stage the Acts of the Apostles were studied, while certain prayers were also learnt, and writing and arithmetic continued. The children, who also studied signing would now be able to serve as choristers. The fourth stage began with the study of the Psalms of David and was considered an important landmark in a child's education, being celebrated by the parents by a feast in which the teacher, father confessor, relatives and neighbors were invited. A boy who had reached this stage would moreover usually be able to write, and might act as a letter writer. ... Other work in this stage included the study of Praises to God, and the Virgin Mary, the Song of Solomon and the Songs of the Prophets. Many people have learned the song of Solomon.
The higher education the Ethiopian Church provided involved Church music (divided into digua, zemare and mawaset, and qidasse), poetry, math, history, philosophy and manuscript writing. Another field of study was aquaquam or the religious dance performed as part of church services.
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