The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Christian Churches. It has a membership of between 45 and 50 million people, the majority of whom live in Ethiopia. The Church has maintained a quiet presence in Jerusalem for more than 1,500 years, with some people claiming that there has been an Ethiopian delegacy in the Holy Land ever since the renowned meeting between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon some 3,000 years ago.

The scriptures of the Ethiopian Church emphasize the importance of the Old Testament and strengthen the religious connection between Ethiopian culture and the Bible. This assertion has a national-political dimension, as it claims that the kings of Ethiopia descended from Solomon, thus making the Ethiopian people the chosen people. Ethiopian Christianity is also influenced by Judaism: customs such as brit milah, kosher food and the sanctity of Shabbat—the observance of the Sabbath—are among the cornerstones of Ethiopian Christian beliefs.

The church has three large centers in Jerusalem. For many centuries, the center of the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem was a place called Deir Es-Sultan, a collection of structures and a courtyard behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Nowadays, the Church has (to a large extent) relocated outside the walls of the Old City. The move began in the 19th century, when a succession of powerful Ethiopian monarchs decided to establish a strong presence outside of Africa.

While working on my last project—”Mea Shearim“—I encountered this church because it bordered the area where I was working. I remember noticing a small sign along the road that stated “Please take your shoes off.” I later learned that this practice is based on an ancient custom where a person must remove his shoes before entering the church as a sign of respect and honor.

This small sign drew me in, setting me on a journey and exploration on the subject of religion, in the city of gods—the city of Jerusalem.

—Ofir Barak

Editors’ note: A photo from Barak’s project “Mea Shearim” was a single-image winner in last year’s Magnum Awards. If you’d like, you can support Barak’s upcoming photobook for “Mea Shearim” by donating to his Indiegogo.

The 2017 Magnum Photography Awards are now open for entries—submit your work for a chance to be recognized by leaders in the photographic community from National Geographic, Aperture, Magnum, LensCulture, and more. You can also check out the jury and prizes for the Magnum Awards 2017 on its Call for Entries page.