An Ethiopian Journal

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The monastic community of Ethiopia

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By Robert Van de Weyer


The following is a description of the life of the Ethiopian monastic community (nefru gedam), based on visits to 18 major monasteries and lengthy interviews with the monks. It is remarkable that from one end of Ethiopia to the other the life of the monasteries is essentially the same, varying only in degrees of strictness. It is possible therefore to typify that life.

Fortunately monasticism also spread southwards to the Land of Sheba. Ethiopians coming to be ordained by the Coptic Patriarch would often stop at the desert monasteries on their way to Alexandria, and on their return imitated what they had seen. Over the centuries the monks of Ethiopia have jealously guarded the primitive traditions, and they claim that even today their monastic communities are identical to those of the early desert fathers.


The Monastic Village

Like the first convents of Egypt the monasteries of Ethiopia are built like ordinary villages, using the same materials as the poor people. In Eritrea and Tigre it is rough, dry stone, and in the southern provinces mud and eucalyptus. Most have between 50 and a 100 monks, usually with about half as many boys studying in the monastery school. Each monk has his own hut, perhaps eight or 10 feet square, in which he has a skin to sleep on, a drinking gourd, a bowl for food and a prayer book. An older monk may have a few luxuries such as a metal bed and a torch. The students, on the other hand, have no privacy, three or four sharing one hut, and are allowed no extra possessions. There is a common kitchen where the food is cooked over an open fire, a granary and an assembly hall. Dominating the whole is the church, and this alone is built in expensive materials, such as cut stone and mortar or, in modern times, brick and concrete. Next to it is the sacristy where the vestments and sacred objects are kept.

The monasteries are mostly situated on mountains or cliffs since many of the founders were hermits living in mountain caves, and the original communities grew up around them. Debre Libanos of Ham, for example, is on a narrow ledge in a sheer rock face where Abba Libanos used to meditate in the fifth century; monks and visitors climb down to it by the hand and foot holes which Libanos’s disciples are said to have cut into the cliff. Debre Damo and Debre Salam are both reached by rope up a perpendicular wail of rock, and legends abound on how their founders made the first ascent. Some monasteries are at the bottom of a steep valley or ravine, such as Gunda-Gundet which takes five hours to reach from where it is first visible from above. Few are easily accessible.



The center of the monks’ life is prayer. The monks rise on most mornings at around four o’clock and assemble in the church to chant the morning office (Sa’atat) which last about two hours. On Sundays and major feast days they start the office at midnight and then perform the Mass (Kiddase), finishing at dawn. Unlike the large secular churches few monasteries have trained singers and the monks do not dance as the secular priests do. Some of the more ascetical monasteries do not even chant the office and the Mass, but prefer simply to say them. In mid-afternoon the monks gather once again, usually in the assembly hall, for a short office of about 15 minutes. Apart from these common prayers the monk is expected to pray frequently in private. Each monk is free to choose his own method of private prayer, though certain ways are common. Many retire to their huts every one or two hours and say the Lord’s Prayer and the Canticle of St. Mary. Others repeat ” Jesus Christ, please save me ” or ” Through Blessed Mary, have mercy on me ” 41 times. Most monks also spend long hours at night in silent contemplation.



The monasteries all own sufficient land for the monks, needs. Although manual work is not considered essential in the monk’s life, as it is in the contemplative communities of Europe, the stricter monasteries such as Debre Libanos of Ham and Waldebba regard it as important that the members plough the land themselves. At harvest time all able-bodied monks and students are working in the fields, and only the old and lame remain behind. However in most monasteries a proportion of the land is rented to peasant farmers in return for a share of the crop. At Abba Gerema, where almost all the land is rented out, the monks explain that at the foundation of their monastery in the sixth century the Emperor dispossessed all the peasants living nearby to give their land to the monks; since the peasants then starved the monks in their mercy gave back the land in return for a third of the crop, an arrangement persisting to this day. The domestic work – cooking, cleaning, carrying water and the like – is mostly done by the students. Nevertheless some monks want a daily occupation and volunteer to do some particular chore: at Sequar, for example, two venerable monks have been the wood­cutters for the past half century and, as one of them said, death alone will make him lay down his axe.

Almost all monasteries trade with the local people, and every week on market-day a group of monks go to the nearest town with mules carrying produce from the monastery lands. In exchange they buy soap and candles and any other small luxuries. Some monasteries purposely grow fruit and vegetables which they never eat themselves to sell at the market; at one community they even grow cha’at, a drug forbidden to Christians, for the local Muslim population, and they have become so proficient that their cha’at is reckoned the best in the province. Most monasteries, however, simply sell their surplus grain. Apart from the obligations of prayer and work, the monk is free to use his time as he thinks fit. The monks spend many of their leisure hours chatting with each other, and it is not uncommon to hear a heated discussion coming from one of the huts. On Sundays and feast days many visit nearby villages, and they are invited into the peasants’ homes to drink barley beer (talla). Some go regularly to teach in the village schools: even today most children are educated by the clergy, and monks are usually preferred as teachers to secular priests. For spiritual guidance also people prefer to come to a monk since he can listen to their problems with detachment. Once a year on the feast of the founder the village people are invited to the monastery, and the monks entertain them with bread and beer.



In contrast to the Western monastery where the monks always eat in common, in Ethiopia they eat separately. After mid-afternoon prayers in the assembly hall the daily food is brought from the kitchens by students and distributed. The monks take it to their huts and eat it as and when they please. The food is generally bread and boiled beans, with a cup of barley beer or, for sick monks, a cup of milk. In stricter monasteries the bread and beans are served on alternate days. A few monasteries, such as Assabot and Zuquala, allow the monks to grow their own vegetables near their huts which they can cook themselves to supplement the diet. The monks keep all the normal fasts of the Church, and add many private fasts of their own. On major festivals the monks have stewed meat, and on these occasions they eat together in the assembly hall. The students receive the same food as the monks, though occasionally an older monk or one undergoing a private fast may give some of his food to a favourite boy.


Old Age and Death

As in every other part of the world, be it Buddhist, Christian or whatever, Ethiopian monks have a reputation for longevity. Yet in most monasteries no special provision is made for the decrepit and helpless old monk; his food is brought to him each day in his hut where he lies waiting for death. A few monasteries, however, have an infirmary. At Dalshiha, for instance, they have a long hut with bamboo beds on either side: the old monks chat to each other, those still able to see read the prayers and psalms for those who cannot, and students are always on hand to serve them. In Debre Libanos of Shoa old monks are taken to a nunnery two kilometres away where the nuns look after them. The normal funeral service for a monk is the same as for an ordinary lay person. A few monasteries, however, such as Abrentant profess such contempt for the human body that the monk is buried without ceremony.


Abbe Minet

The Chief Monk Each monastery is entirely independent in administration, both of other monasteries and of the local bishop. The head of the monastery in all temporal matters is the Abbe Minet. He does not directly order the monks as the abbot in the West does, but he appoints three senior officers to govern each area of the community’s life (see next section). In most monasteries the Abbe Minet makes these appointments alone, but in some he calls a meeting of all the monks to hear their views. For example at Enda Abuna Booroch after the harvest the monks meet to review the work of the previous year, and if necessary to advise on the replacement of senior officers. Sometimes an officer asks to be dismissed, and it is not uncommon for a newly-appointed officer to have disappeared by next morning.

The main job of the Abbe Minet is not in the monastery at all, but is as ambassador to the outside world. He usually has a house in the nearest large town where he spends most of his time, dealing with disputes over monastic lands – in a country where the monasteries are major landowners the Abbe Minet can be no stranger to the law courts – and employing men to ensure that the tenants pay a fair share of the crop. He also has much influence in local church affairs. In Eritrea, for instance, the bishop calls a council one or two times a year of the Abbe Minets of the 18 major monasteries to discuss major decisions of policy in the diocese.

The Abbe Minet is elected by the monks of his monastery for life or until he desires to leave the post. On the whole he is an untypical monk since he is chosen for his worldly wisdom, and many are quite young, some apparently in their early thirties. There is no special ceremony for the installation of a new Abbe Minet, but prayers for his guidance are added to the morning office, and at midday there is a feast in his honour. Occasionally an Abbe Minet is promoted to the episcopate, but more often he retires to pass his declining years as an ordinary monk.


Senior Officers

The Abbe Minet’s deputy is the Afe Memhir, and he has charge of the monastery when the Abbe Minet is away. The Afe Memhir keeps the general discipline of the community, and he has the authority to judge and to punish. Students who fight or who are insolent or disobedient, the Afr Memhir orders to be beaten, appointing a junior monk to administer the punishment. This happens quite frequently, and no shame attaches to the offending student. Monks, on the other hand, he rarely needs to punish, and it is considered a terrible disgrace. For such offences as persistent disobedience or physical violence the Afe Memhir sentences the monk to be put in the stocks: the offender’s legs are put through two holes in a rough log, his feet are tied together, and he sits on a flat stone. For extreme crimes, particularly any kind of sexual immorality, the monk is expelled.

As far as the ordinary monks and students are concerned, the most important officer is the Magabi. He governs the whole livelihood of the community and assigns each person to his task. He decides when the seed should be sown and the grain harvested, and he ensures that the food is distributed fairly each afternoon. He does not have his own hut, but generally sleeps in the granary to guard against thieves. Above the granary door at Enda Bona hangs a fading sign, supposedly inscribed 700 years ago by the monastery’s founder, which reads: ” No one may enter without the Magabi’s permission.” The Magabi’s job is so hard that, although only young and able-bodied men are chosen, after two or throe years he usually retires and a replacement is found. The church and sacristy tire maintained by the Gabaz. Apart from students who clean the buildings, the Gabaz has under his direct charge an Ackabeit who guards the sacristy, sleeping there at night, and a bell-ringer who calls the monks to prayers. In large monasteries, such as Debre Bizen and Debre Libanos of Shoa, the Abbe Minet also appoints two or three older monks as advisers. They have no authority of their own, but they often accompany the Abbe Minet to meetings in town, and help to keep him informed of events within the monastery. Most monasteries, however, are sufficiently small and intimate to make such advisers unnecessary.


Komas – The Spiritual Father

The spiritual head of the monastery is the Komas. He is appointed by the bishop as his representative, and is often an older monk known for his exceptional sanctity. He does not guide the individual monk’s inner life, as the Spiritual Director in the West does, but he gives advice when it is asked for, arbitrating in any conflicts in the community. As one monk described it: ” While the Afe Memhir punishes by the rod, the Komas punishes by prayer.” Large monasteries may have more than one Komas, and new bishops are appointed from the Komases.


The School

The monastery school is intended to prepare the students for ordination, either as secular priests or as monks, and its syllabus is the same as that of the normal seminary attached to a large church. The type of student, however, is quite different. The pupils of the normal seminary are mostly the sons of priests, and boys who have no relatives in the priesthood are often refused entry or charged a large fee. The monastery schools, on the other hand, are bound by tradition to welcome all comers. No fee is charged and the students are given free food and lodging, since the menial work they do is considered sufficient payment. Thus most of the monastery students are from peasant families. In many cases they come from villages hundreds of miles away to avoid parental opposition, since by entering the monastery they are depriving their families of their labour.

Two or three of the most learned monks are appointed by the Abbe Minet as teachers. During the day when they have finished their chores the students are taught to read Geez and to memorize large portions of the religious books. Their raucous voices reciting in unison what they have just learnt frequently breaks the calm of the monastery. After dark they learn the liturgical chants. The school has no classroom, but generally there is a small courtyard where the students squat on the ground while the teacher sits on a low stool in their midst.

Over half the students drop out after one or two years and return to their villages. After about three years the promising student is sent to the local bishop to be ordained deacon which allows him to assist at the Mass. After several more years when they consider him fit the senior monks give the student a test of his reading ability and his knowledge of the holy books. A failed student can re-take the test indefinitely, and almost everyone passes eventually. The majority then want to become secular priests, and so they go to serve as deacons in a village church for a year or two before being ordained into the priesthood by the local bishop. A minority decide to become monks.



Most of those who profess as monks are graduates from the monastery school. The rest are widowers with no family ties; of these most are laymen with little or no education, though a few are secular priests or lay scholars. The intending monk firstly has a long interview with the Abbe Minet. The Abbe Minet does all he can to discourage him from his vocation, explaining the rigours of the monastery compared to life in the world. At the end of the interview the Abbe Minet asks: “Are you prepared to serve God as a monk, according to the ancient traditions governing the monk’s conduct?” The candidate simply replies: ” Yes, I am.”

The ceremony of profession is held a few weeks later in the church, usually on a feast day. Traditionally the candidate is wrapped in palm leaves, the funeral dress of the poor, and the monks sing the funeral requiem to signify his death to the world. He then rises up and the Komas places on his head a cotton cap (kob) which he must always wear in future as the sign of his profession, and gives him a new name. For the next 40 days the new monk often chooses to confine himself to his hut, in imitation of Christ in the wilderness, to prepare for his future life.

About a year after profession the young monk who previously graduated from the monastery school goes to the local bishop to be ordained priest. The uneducated widower, however, is considered unfit for ordination.



The monks do not have a reputation for scholarship, and few receive a higher education. Rather it is the lay scholars (debteras) who devote themselves to study. The monks, however, have traditionally patronised the lay scholars, inviting distinguished teachers and their students to live at the monasteries and giving them food and lodging. With the general decline in recent decades in the higher learning of the Church this patronage is becoming less common, though still in the large monasteries such as Debre Libanos of Shoa lay teachers and students live side by side with the monks.

Many monasteries, however, retain great numbers of manuscripts which were mostly donated by kings and noblemen in the past for the use of the lay scholars. Some libraries, such as those at Waldebba and Gunda-Gundet, remain justly famous for their collections of rare works. The manuscripts are generally kept in the sacristy, and though so few monks can appreciate them, they are greatly treasured.


Leaving the Monastery

The majority of monks spend their whole lives in the community where they professed. Nevertheless a monk is free to leave his community at any time, and he will be welcomed at any monastery in the country. The small number of monks who desire a higher education leave in search of a suitable teacher unless there is already one in their monastery. Generally they do not return, but either settle permanently where they find a teacher, or become perpetual wandering scholars moving from one teacher to another. A few leave to seek a more or less strict life than that of their present community. At Abrentant, for example, which is reputed to be one of the most ascetical monasteries in the country, hundreds of monks come each year to try the life, though few stay. Abba Gerema, on the other hand, where the monks do no manual work has a number of monks from other monasteries who have come to enjoy a more leisured life. A sick monk may move to a monastery with a healthier climate, as did one of the present teachers at Enda Sellassie in Adua who came to escape the heat of Hallelu, his original monastery. Occasionally a monk leaves because of a bitter feud with another monk.



Though it has long since disappeared in the West, the eremitical life is still widespread in Ethiopia. The cenobitical monks and indeed the ordinary people regard the hermitage as Man’s highest abode on earth, and often monks seem fearful at the possibility of God calling them to it. In almost every monastery there are a number of monks – perhaps one tenth of the total-who confine themselves to their cells. They are described as ” the monks who never see the sun.” They have no responsibilities within the community and do not attend the daily common prayers. Food is brought to their huts each day by a single monk permanently designated to the task, and the hermit only emerges for the Mass in church on Sundays and feast days. Usually their cells are within the monastery compound, though sometimes they are a short distance away: at Debre Damo, for instance, hermits can be seen in apparently inaccessible caves in the sheer cliff beneath the monastery. Other monks or lay people can visit them (if they can reach their cell), and even today many of the rulers of Ethiopia, including the Emperor himself, frequently seek the advice of these hermits on both spiritual and temporal matters.

Besides these monastic hermits, there are countless holy men (ba’atawi) living in remote forests and caves throughout Ethiopia. These men have totally rejected human contact, and if they ever visit a church they “come by night, crawling through the undergrowth so as not to be seen.” as an admiring priest described it. They live only on the wild fruits and herbs which Nature provides. A few of these holy men are ordained monks who have left their communities, but mostly they are lay people – as another monk put it, ” God has called them to holiness from nothing, as Christ called Peter and Paul.”




The Benedictine monastery of Europe, in the words of the founder, is” a school of perfection”: the monk’s daily life is a continuous lesson within a rigidly ordered institution, prescribed in detail in a written rule. By the same analogy the Ethiopian monastery is a university: each monk studies perfection in his own way within a loosely-knit community, governed by traditional rules and customs. Ethiopian monasticism has retained the flexibility and freedom of the first desert convents of Egypt. The monk is within broad limits his own master, both spiritually and physically. He can participate in the community life as much or as little as he chooses, from being a hard worker who enjoys the company of his fellows in his leisure hours, to being a hermit.

St. Benedict in the sixth century purposely moved away from this kind of monasticism, but in recent years the pendulum has begun to swing back in the West. The Western monks may now be reverting to the primitive traditions which Ethiopia has preserved for 15 centuries. (The research on which this article is based was done jointly by the author, his wife Sarah, Father Thomas Conway and Miss Jocelyn Grigg).

Written by Tseday

March 31, 2009 at 1:49 pm


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By Dom Colin Battell




Pope John-Paul II in his apostolic letter, Orientale Lumen (1995), speaks of the Eastern Churches as ‘an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church’. He goes on to say that the eastern contribution and especially its monasticism is necessary for ‘the full manifestation of the Church’s authority’. East and west should not be seen to be in opposition but to be complementary, the ‘two lungs’ necessary for a healthy body.

In a famous phrase, Khomiakov could speak of ‘a new and unknown world’ with reference to Eastern Orthodoxy. That is perhaps less true now than when he wrote as a result of easy travel and encounters through the Orthodox diaspora. While at first sight such encounters might seem to be with a strange and exotic form of the Christian faith, close contact soon reveals a fundamental similarity with Catholic belief and experience. What we have in common is far greater than what separates and divides us.

If Russian and Greek Orthodoxy, for example, might seem unfamiliar, for most people this is far more true of the Oriental (ie non-Chalcedonian churches) and in particular the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. According to recent figures from the Ethiopian Patriarchate, there are 40 million believers, including 40 Archbishops, 400,000 clergy, and 1000 monasteries. This makes it the largest of the Orthodox family of Churches after the Russian Church.

To enter the world of Ethiopian Orthodoxy is to be confronted with what at first may seem an exotic and certainly unique form of Christianity. This is the result of its distinctive history and geographical isolation even from other Christian communities.

Perhaps this should hardly be surprising. To the Biblical writers, Ethiopia stood for the back-of-beyond, the extreme limits of the imagination. Cf Are you not as the Ethiopians to me? Amos 9:14 and Psalm 87:4 . For them Ethiopia stood for anywhere beyond the fifth cataract of the Nile. Herodotus identifies it with the kingdoms of Nubia and Meroe. The much quoted verse from the Psalms: ‘Ethiopia will stretch out her hands to God’ originally had reference to the incredible universal extent of Yahweh’s sovereignty.

Certainly, Ethiopia was thought of as remote. Homer’s Odyssey could refer to the ‘distant Ethiopians, the farthest outposts of mankind, half of whom live where the sun goes down and half where the sun rises’.

The word Ethiopia come from the Greek ‘Aithiops’ meaning literally a burnt face .

The description Abyssinian comes from the people known as the Habasha, but is not used by Ethiopians themselves.

According to the Roman martyrology, St Matthew was the apostle of Ethiopia and he died there. By the fourth century there were some Roman merchants there who were Christian. In the Emperor Haile-selassie’s (his name means ‘might of the Trinity’) reign (1930-1974) tourist posters described the country as ‘the oldest Christian Empire in the world’ and certainly from about 332 the rulers were Christian almost without a break until the communist take-over in 1974. The leader during the communist years Mengistu Haile-Mariam also clearly has a name that shows his Christian antecedents.

Ethiopian tradition affirms that not all were converted from paganism but that some were Jews and some were animists. ‘Before the coming of Christianity, one half of the people was under the Mosaic Laws, the other half was worshipping the serpent’.

In the Fetha Negast (the Book of the Law of the Kings) a work which contains secular and ecclesiastical material (insofar as the two can be separated in Ethiopia), the queen of Sheba from Ethiopia was converted to Judaism by her visit to King Solomon’s Court. ‘From this moment I will not worship the sun, but the Creator of the sun, the God of Israel’. Although the Fetha Negast is a 13th century work in its present form, it is acknowledged to contain material dating from a much earlier period. As we shall see there is a strong Hebraic influence in Ethiopian Christianity.



The story of Rufinus


The story of the conversion of the first Ethiopian king, Ezana, is told by Rufinus of Aquileia. Two boys Aedesius and Frumentius were among a party who were shipwrecked and put in at the port of Adulis on the Red Sea. They were from Tyre in Syria. Their companions were slaughtered but being young the boys were taken to Axum, the capital of Ethiopia at that time, and attained positions of influence at the royal court. This was probably at the time that the Ge’ez language was replacing Greek as the language of the court. Aedesius who was less intellectual than his confrere was made chief steward to the king while Frumentius became his secretary and treasurer. Being foreign they were perhaps seen as independent of internal politics and intrigues and therefore trustworthy. On the death of the king, the Queen acting as regent for her son Ezana asked Aedesius and Frumentius to stay and assist her in ruling the country. Since they were Christian they promoted Christianity and encouraged the building of prayer houses for the Roman merchants who were present in the country. When Ezana became old enough to take over the reins of power, Aedesius returned to Tyre while Frumentius went to Alexandria and told the great St Athanasius that there were now Christians in Ethiopia but no bishop or clergy.

Athanasius decided to consecrate Frumentius himself and send him back as the first bishop. ‘What other man shall we find in whom is the Spirit of God as in you, who can accomplish these things?’ St. Frumentius is known in Ethiopia as Abba Salama (Father of Peace) and Kesate Berhan (Revealer of light). The story of Rufinus is confirmed by inscriptions celebrating victory over the Nubians and by the letter of Constantius, the Arian successor of Constantine, encouraging Ezana not to follow Athanasius. Aksumite coinage also testifies to the conversion of the king to the Christian faith.



Coptic Links


From this we see the close links from the beginning between the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches. The tradition begun by St Athanasius continued until the late 50s of the 20th century with the Patriarch of Alexandria sending the Abuna to lead the Ethiopian Church. Obviously there were difficulties in having a foreigner who often did not speak the language as head of the Church on earth, but there were no Ethiopian bishops until the 20th century. The calendar of 12 months of 30 days and one of 5 or 6 with New Year’s Day on September 11th is also Coptic. (It should be noted here however that Ethiopians are not Copts a word derived from the Greek for an Egyptian. However close the links may be Ethiopians are clearly not Egyptians.)

The Ethiopian Church shared in the Alexandrine Christology and hence the rejection of the Council of Chalcedon which it saw as failing to safeguard against Nestorianism. Nowadays, it would probably be true to say that this is not seen as a fundamental theological difference. Indeed the rapprochement between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches should perhaps be seen as a major ecumenical break-through (western ecumenists please note!). It is also wrong to describe Ethiopian Christians as monophysites. Ethiopian Christology is essentially that of St Cyril. The official title of the Ethiopian Church is the Ethiopian Orthodox Twahido (ie united nature) Church. The key phrase in Cyril writings is ‘mia physis tou logou theou sesarkomene’ (one incarnate nature of the Word of God) – ie ‘mia’ (one, not necessarily alone) not ‘mone’ which would mean ‘only incarnate nature of the Word of God’. In this St Cyril thought he was quoting St Athanasius though in fact the phrase comes from Apollinaris. There have been fierce Christological disputes within the Orthodox Church down the ages but the Twahido doctrine is the official teaching of the Church. Correctly understood, this does not mean as is sometimes alleged that the humanity of Christ was dissolved or swallowed up in his divinity. The Christology of the Ethiopian church is that of Severus of Antioch and St Cyril. As a modern writer, Peter Farrington, has put it, the Oriental Churches ‘utterly repudiate any teaching in which the distinctions of the natures of divinity and humanity cease to exist in the incarnation or any teaching which damages the complete and perfect reality and divinity of which Christ is.( But equally) in the incarnation and for our salvation, the Word of God has deigned to unite, in a manner past our understanding, humanity with his divinity such that even as there is no confusion or separation equally there is no division or separation, but we see ‘One Christ’ and one Lord as the creed confesses’.

So, from the 4th century apart from the odd aberration such as the Jewish, Queen Yodit (Judith) in the 10th century. Ethiopia was Christian ruled by a monarch who saw himself as vice-regent of God (the lion of the tribe of Judah) and head of a theocratic state.

From the beginning Christianity was very closely identified with the social, political and cultural life of the people. Of course it took time for the faith to spread. Unlike the Roman Empire where Christianity took hold, broadly speaking, first among the lower echelons of society and gradually worked upwards to the conversion of Constantine, in Ethiopia the opposite was true. The court was the first to be

Christianized and then the faith percolated downwards to the people. Certainly for centuries Orthodox Christianity has been an integral part of everyday life in a way that is scarcely conceivable to secularized westerners.



Jewish influences


Here is a form of Christianity strongly Hebraic in character that has experienced neither the Reformation nor the rationalism of Enlightenment thinking. Ge-ez is a Semitic language and other Jewish influences include circumcision on the eighth day.

This does not mean that Ethiopians are unaware of Pauline teaching. In any case they do not believe they were converted from paganism but from Judaism. ‘We are not circumcised as the Jews because we know the words of St Paul who says circumcision avails not, but the circumcision that is practised among us is according to the customs of the country like tattooing on the face in Ethiopia and Nubia and the piercing of the ear among the Indians. And what we do, we do not in observance of the law of Moses but according to the customs of men’. Other Jewish influences include the following of the distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods as legislated for in Leviticus. The Sabbath is also observed as well as Sunday. There was a long and bitter controversy about this in the 14th century and for a time the supporters of Sabbath observance led by Eustatewos were outlawed but the issue was resolved in their favour at the Council of Metmaq in 1450 by the Emperor Zara Yacob. Moreover boys are usually baptized 40 days after birth and girls after eighty days cf Leviticus 12:1ff

There is also a class of ecclesiastical professionals known as debteras who sing and perform a kind of liturgical dance to the accompaniment of drums, sistra and with prayer sticks (maqwamia) rather in the manner of the Old Testament Levites.

The division of Churches into three sections also follows the pattern of the Jewish Temple. Every Church is divided into the Meqdes (the Holy of Holies where the altar is situated and which only the clergy may enter), the Qiddest or place of Communion and the Qene Mahlet where the singers perform. Men and women have their separate entrances and are accommodated separately too. The whole of the church compound is regarded as part of the Church. Some who are doing a penance given to them by their spiritual father (nefs abbat) for certain sins do not enter the building. Shoes are removed on entering the church. Currently a massive church building programme is being undertaken and even during the communist years (1974-91) two huge monastic parish churches were built in Addis Ababa. Churches can be round or octagonal especially in the south of the country reflecting the domestic architecture or basilica style as is common in the north and are often decorated with scenes from the Gospels and the lives of the saints in the very distinctive style of Ethiopian iconography.

Large numbers of clergy are attached to each church as two priests and three deacons are normally needed to service the Liturgy .The Church is involved in aid and development work but this is usually done by the laity as liturgical functions are a full time job for the clergy. Careful preparation is needed for the reception of Holy Communion and the bread and wine are prepared by the deacons in a special building near the church known as the Bethlehem (house of bread).

Another Jewish influence is in the veneration for the Ark of the Covenant (tabot). The original ark according to Ethiopian tradition was brought from Jerusalem by Menelik I son of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba to Axum where it still remains in the Church of Debre Tsion Mariam closely guarded by a monk who after his appointment to the post of Guardian never leaves the compound. The manner of its transport to Ethiopia has been the subject of much speculation. (For a particularly fanciful account see Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal cf Raiders of the Lost Ark etc.)

A replica of the ark is found in every Church, indeed it is the sign of the building’s consecration and without it ceases to be a Church. Covered in richly embroidered cloths the arks are carried in procession on the heads of the priests on important festivals and are honoured with the greatest reverence.



The Nine Saints and the Monastic Tradition


The fifth century saw an important development with the arrival of the Nine Saints from Syria. They were perhaps among the refugees from the Byzantine Empire who refused to accept the Chalcedonian Christology. All of them were monks and all established monasteries which became very important centers of learning and evangelization. It would indeed be true to say that all evangelization and all education in Christian Ethiopia was in the hands of monks until modern times. Monks trained all the secular clergy and secular officials as well. (As in other Orthodox Churches, clergy may get married before ordination, but bishops are chosen only from the monks).

Many of these monasteries are still flourishing eg that of Debre Damo near the Eritrean border, still only accessible by rope. Its founder Abba Aragawi was conveniently provided with a snake in order to ascend and make the foundation.

Wisely he insisted that the snake’s head should be at the bottom! All Ethiopian monks trace their genealogy to one of the Nine Saints.

The Nine Saints translated the Bible into Ge’ez probably using the Septuagint for the Old Testament. They also translated some extra books as well as monastic writings so that the Ethiopian canon is much more extensive than any other church including works such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didascalia, Enoch, Jubilees, Synodos etc.

As with some other Orthodox churches there is no definitive text of Scripture. It raises interesting questions about whether the canon of Scripture is closed or open, at least potentially, to further development.

St Aragawi received his monastic habit from Theodore, a disciple of St Pachomius.

There were Ethiopian monks in the Egyptian desert from early times eg St Moses the Black who was head of a band of robbers until his conversion. He was changed one day when he and his group attacked a monastery, intending to rob it. Moses was met by the abbot whose peaceful countenance and warm manner overwhelmed him. He immediately felt remorse for his past sins and joined the monastery. For years he was continually tormented by his past ways and especially by lust until the prayers of his abbot St Isidore the Great miraculously healed him. Near the end of his life he became a priest and formed a monastery of 75 monks, the same number as his robber band and was martyred in 405 at the age of 75.

So there has been a continuous monastic tradition in Ethiopia from this time though there are some gaps in our historical knowledge. Axum declined in the 9th century and later the Zagwe dynasty emerged which was responsible in the 12th century for the famous churches at Lalibella carved out of the solid rock and recognized as one of the architectural wonders of the world. This dynasty was replaced in 1270 by the Solomonic, which traced its origins to the Queen of Sheba and her Son Menelik I whose father was King Solomon.

The great monastic revival of the 14th century led to the establishment of the monastery now known as Debre Libanos whose founders were St Tekle Haimanot and St Ewstatewos two very great influential Christian leaders through whom the monks of today trace their origins. The monasteries provided a counter-balance to a heavily established and controlled Church.

In their extremes of austerity the monks provide a prophetic and eschatological ministry in the Ethiopia Church. The bahtawi are an independent class of hermits who represent the anchoritic tradition – modern successors of St John the Baptist rebuking all including the emperor himself without fear or favour. As Shimei reviled King David, so the bahtawi have been know to hurl abuse at all and sundry including the emperor. Some live completely separately from society, unseen by all, their bones occasionally discovered after their deaths in the remotest of places. Others lived in trees (dendrites) or small holes in the ground. Often they live on leaves and bitter roots and reduce sleep to an absolute minimum. (One who had found his way to New York was taken to a mental institution after being found praying half-naked in the snow!).Those living in wilderness zones on the edge of the empire had the effect of expanding the empire because they invariably attracted followers. Evangelization was not systematic but the effect was to extend the frontiers of Christianity by being so successful in converting the surrounding population.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the spirituality of the laity in Ethiopia is essentially a monastic spirituality. Some emperors even saw themselves as monkkings.

‘When Lalibella established the throne he submitted himself to a fast more severe that that of the monks because to him the kingship appeared as the monastic life’. This may have been the ideal but of course there was always a tension between this and the reality. Emperors may have been the vice-regent of God on earth and protectors defenders of the faith but they were not its exponent even though they may have assisted in the settling of disputes eg regarding Sabbath observance. Moreover their moral laxity often came in for monastic chastisement





Monastic austerity is seen in the great emphasis on fasting. cf St Benedict’s somewhat unfashionable ‘love fasting’. The clergy fast 256 days a year, the laity 180.

On these days no meat or animal products are eaten and one meal is taken after the Liturgy which takes place on those days at mid-day, finishing around three-o’clock.

All Wednesdays and Fridays except in Eastertide are fast days (cf the Didache) and Lent lasts 56 days with an additional 16 days added in commemoration of the conquest of the city of Harar. There is also a major fast of 15 days before the feast of the Dormition of our Lady and Holy Week is observed very strictly indeed often with a complete fast from food and drink during the Triduum. The Fethe Negast says ‘fasting is abstinence from food and is observed by man at certain times determined by law to obtain forgiveness of sins and much reward, obeying thus the One who fixed the Law. Fasting also serves to weaken the force of concupiscence so that the body may obey the rational soul’.

Not to take part in fasting would still result in ostracism in many rural areas and many will fast strenuously who perhaps do not practice their faith much in other ways. The laxness of western Christians in this respect scandalizes the Ethiopian faithful. Ethiopia is not a secular society in the western sense. The cadres who went into the university to preach atheism during the communist years following the fall of Haile-Selassie were mostly laughed at. Cf Psalm 53:1

Saints such as St Tekle Haimanot were renowned for their asceticism. His life was seen as a sign of the angelic life to the extent that he is often pictured with wings. He surrounded himself with eight spears to prevent himself from falling asleep while praying. The true ascetic we are told does not need to eat or drink or if he does then the natural waste will be miraculously disposed of. We are in the world of the Desert Fathers here. Such asceticism is greatly admired if not always emulated. It is seen as an ideal to which all should aspire and as a superior form of the spiritual life rather than as a special vocation. This finds an echo in Pope John Paul II’s words in Orientale Lumen: the monasteries are a reference point for all the baptized.





But as well as fasts there are feasts too. Major saints have their feast day celebrated every month and the faithful flock to the church named after him or her on that day.

On important festivals the tabots are brought out in procession on the heads of the priests.Other major feasts with a distinctive ritual and enormous popularity include Timqet (the Baptism of the Lord) when water is blessed and the faithful sprinkled or even bathe in it! And Mesqel which celebrates the finding of the True Cross by the Empress Helena in the 4th century. Bonfires are burnt in recognition that she was led to the correct place by a mysterious smoke rising from the ground.



St Tekle Haimanot


The founders of monasticism as known today are St Ewstatewos, the upholder of the Sabbath observance in the 14th century and St Tekle Haimanot. The life of St Tekle Haimanot may be given as an illustration of the world in which we are moving.

St Tekle Haimanot was from a family of priests. Miracles attended his birth. His first recorded words were to object to receiving his mother’s milk on a fast day! He learned the psalms by heart and was ordained at 15. He traveled round the countryside demonstrating the power of Christ He met the devil occupying a tree which was worshipped by the local people. He ordered the tree to come to him and it was uprooted killing 21 people in the process. He raised these from death and such was the ‘dynamis’ that went out of him he also raised the dead of a neighbouring grave-yard. Since they were unbaptised, he baptized them then reburied them. He converted a pagan king and studied in three monasteries for many years under the great monastic saints Basalota Mikael, Iyesus Moa and Yohannes of Debre Damo.

Stability as propagated by St Benedict is unknown in Ethiopia. A monk may attach himself to a teacher for many years then move on to another. After three pilgrimages to the Holy Land he founded the monastery of Debre Asbo in Shoa, today known as Debre Libanos. It was here he prayed for seven years on one leg until the other dropped off and was given wings. Many miracles are recorded as the result of his prayers. Such stories raise questions about our common pre-suppositions. As children of the Enlightenment we tend to ask: did it happen? cf the quest for the historical Jesus, and the careful research of the Societe des Bollandistes in their patient weeding out of legendary material to preserve the historical elements in the lives of the saints.

We need to understand these stories on their own terms not from the perspective of a modern historian (cf Fr Raymond Brown’s tongue-in-cheek reply when asked if the New Testament was true: yes, everything except the facts!).

A strong belief in the miraculous and its practice following the New Testament is seen a strong tool for evangelization. The Christian missionary has to carry conviction in a society where the exercise of magic is a normal source of power.

Exorcisms and confrontations with evil spirits are seen as normal. The faith spreads by demonstrations of power as well as by catechesis. Animism is successfully challenged and the power of Christ is seen to be superior to all others. The conversion of King Matalome by St Tekle Haimanot is a symbol of the struggle with the monarchy. The monasteries were centers of influence sometimes opposed to the king and challenged the easy-going moral standards of the court. It has to be remembered that in Ethiopia for many centuries there were no city churches, bishops or councils – only monasteries.



Monastic Rules


The monastic rules followed go back to St Pachomius and St Anthony with local adaptations and are set out in the Book of the Monks and the Fethe Negast. There are three professions symbolized by the girdle or belt (kedet), the skull cap (qob) and the scapular (askema) There are hundreds of monasteries mostly smallish but with some having as many as 500 monks. Usually monasteries started as a place of retreat for the founder who then attracted followers who came to ask for prayers and for education. A modern phenomenon resulting form the loss of land after the communist take-over in 1974 has been the emergence of an urban monasticism which has led to a Sunday School movement for adults as well as children. In the big cities there were no monks at first. Now many parish staff and administrators are monks. The emergence of this was also linked with the achievement of autocephalous status and the need for a patriarchal bureaucracy. Inevitably there is a certain tension between the demands of urban life and monasticism – the word for monastery – goddam – literally means a place of solitude and quiet. As one monk put it the pure ‘tedj’ (honey mead) of the rural areas is better than the watered down version available in the cities! The monks have introduced evening prayers in church which are well attended and promoted popular piety as well as being involved in catechetical teaching. Those with preaching gifts are much appreciated and long sermons are preferred in a way that those used to the sound-bite may find difficult to appreciate.





Ethiopia has the only ancient written culture in sub-Saharan Africa. Church schools are still active and there was no other education until the late 19th century. The educational system is highly complex. Clergy may seem often poorly or even shabbily dressed and may seem to be lacking in the most elementary principles of modern western education especially the sciences but that is not to say that they are uneducated. Many have spent years in disciplined study and are immensely erudite in a tradition completely foreign to western models. The educational system is also largely based on a tradition of oral culture. In contrast to a system that promotes individual creativity and independence of mind Ethiopian Orthodox education comes from a traditional society where the purpose is to fully integrate pupils into society.

That is not to say that lively theological debate and discussion is excluded – far from it – and there were long periods especially of Christological controversy before the Twahido doctrine emerged as normative in the 19th century.

Education begins with the Reading School (nebab Bet) which teaches the syllabary and the reading of religious books in the Ge’ez language. Reading is aloud and the murmuring of the law of the Lord day and night that this produces would certainly win St Benedict’s approval. Then the first letter of St John is learnt by heart followed by the Psalms, the Gospels and the Miracles of Mary. The Psalms (Dawit) are most important in Ethiopian spirituality, monastic and lay. They are read or chanted aloud and memorized since few books are available even for the Liturgy. The Qidane Bet or Liturgy School teaches the deacons and priests and educates them in their liturgical functions – the Liturgy is steeped in Scripture. The aim is to produce a mind-set steeped in the Word of God.

In the Higher Schools the debteras are often the teachers – they also have a ministry of healing linked with holy water and herbal remedies and are consulted to interpret dreams.


Church music in Ethiopia goes back to St Yared in the 6th century who is said to have been influenced in his compositions by the song of the birds. It uses a pentatonic scale and while Middle Eastern in character it differs from Coptic music. There was no notation until the 16th century. It is mostly restrained and slow and in strophic and ametric form. It also includes the hymns performed by the debteras at the end of Mass and the use of drums, sistra and prayer-sticks Music is performed without any books

The Qene Bet (poetry school) teaches a highly sophisticated poetry, the fruit of long pondering on the Scriptures (= Lectio Divina) It is highly creative and requires enormous skill. It generates lively discussion about the merits of a particular composition It uses word-plays so that there is a surface meaning and a deeper hidden meaning (wax and Gold) in a way that is difficult to convey in translation.

Because it requires great skill many of its practitioners attain to high positions in the Church. It takes many years to become a teacher in this field and a minimum of 12 years of full study is required for those who attend this school.

Finally, the Metsehaf Bet or Literature School studies the literature of the Church and especially the Amdemta Commentaries. These are collections of the comments of the Fathers of the church mostly on the Scriptures. Again all is memorized. Only recently have these commentaries received any attention from western scholars such as Roger Cowley. The teacher comments on the texts , not critically but to expound the text in a way that puts the student under the text. It is said to take 40 years to follow the complete course!

From this it should be seen that many of the clergy are highly educated. This is a living tradition. The Coptic monastic revival in recent times has been attributed in part to an Ethiopian, Abd al -Masih el- Habashi , the teacher of the renowned Matthai el-Meskin of the monastery of St Macarius in the Wadi el-Natrun He lived in a cave there from 1935-1970 and is a modern successor of Moses the Black who was also Ethiopian.



Concluding Remarks


As in Russia and Eastern Europe the Church underwent a testing time during the communist years but perhaps emerged stronger and purified as a result of the experience. Sometimes the Church could be compromised in its witness by its close relations with the state. The Church and especially the monasteries also lost their extensive land holdings though some urban property has been restored including the Theological College in Addis Ababa. The Church is popular in the best sense of the word and much loved by the ordinary people even though there may be criticism of the hierarchy. Here is an example of a truly inculturated Church with a rich monastic tradition. Whatever problems may be confronted as a result of western influence and the secularism that so often attends urbanisation, it is an Ethiopian article of faith that the psalmist’s prophecy will be fulfilled and ‘Ethiopia will continue to stretch out her hands to God’ (Psalm 68:31 ).

Written by Tseday

September 28, 2008 at 4:24 pm