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Ethiopian Church History

1 - 7
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Messenger: Eleazar1234 Sent: 8/31/2008 9:51:17 PM

4th - 6th Century

The Expansion and Consolitation of Orthodox Christianity


According to the chronological list of the Bishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, St. Frumentius was succeeded as the Orthodox Bishop of Ethiopia by Bishop Minas, who was appointed by the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which afterward held jurisdiction over the Ethiopian Church; this jurisdiction lasted for sixteen hundred years. Bishop Minas left certain literary works that have come down to us through history concerning his missionary activities. However the major contribution in the missionary field in Ethiopia was that of Missionaries who are known in Ethiopian Tradition as "The Nine Saints."

These men, "the Nine Saints," came to the ancient Capital City of Axum about 480 A.D., and were well received by the Emperor Ella Amida and by the inhabitants of the City. The most outstanding figures among the Nine Saints were the Priest's Za-Mikael Aregawi, Pantalewon, Afse, and Garima or Isaac (Yeshaq). As their names indicate, they came from different parts of the Eastern Roman Empire, such as Constantinople and Syria. These Priest's were all adherents of the same Orthodox Faith; however it seems that they left the countries of their origin because of the persecution by the Christian Roman Emperor, who was an ardent supporter of what Oriental Orthodox Christians consider the Greek - Roman Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 A.D. The gathering at Chalcedon rejected the ancient Orthodox Doctrine concerning the Nature of Christ and adopted the "two natures" notion of Pope Leo of Rome.

From Church History we are told that these Priests's (The Nine Saints) went first to Egypt, and lived some years at the Monastery founded by St. Pachomius, before proceeding to Ethiopia. In the Capital City of Axum they studied the language of Ethiopia at that time (which was Ge'ez) and became familiar with the people and customs. After this preparation they set out in different directions throughout Ethiopia to bring the Christian Good News of Salvation in Christ Jesus and to introduce Monastic institutions. Only two of them, Abba Libanos and Abba Pantalewon, remained near Axum itself; the others went further east of the Capital and founded hermitages in the old pagan centers of the country. Abba Za-Mikael went to Debra Damo where the worship of the serpent had long flourished. He succeeded in eradicating the cult, and founded a Monastery there. Abba Pantalewon transformed a pagan temple into a Church. Abba Afse went to Yeha, the renowned Sabaean center, and likewise transformed the famous temple there into a Church. The efforts of the Nine Saints to wipe out paganism did not result in their persecution, as had happened in the Roman Empire, since in Axum they had the protection and support of the Monarch.

The Nine Saints also contributed greatly to the development of the Ge'ez Liturgy and literature. They introduced terms and vocabulary into Ge'ez, such as Haymanote, Religion, qasis, priest, and ta'ot, idols. Their major contribution was undoubtedly the great work of translating the Sacred Scriptures into Ge'ez. The work of translating the Scriptures had begun the time of St. Frumentius; at that time only a few of the basic Books for worship, such as passages of the Psalms, had been translated as revealed in contemporary inscriptions. The Nine Saints undertook the massive task of translating the whole Bible. Since they were familiar with both Syriac and Greek, they used most likely a Syrio-Greek text for this purpose. Most probably each of the Nine Saints translated one portion of the Bible. This is why the Ethiopic version reveals considerable differences in style from one Book to another. The Ethiopic version is one of the earliest Biblical translations, and as such it is great importance in textual criticism and in establishing the original text.

Along with the translation of the Sacred Scriptures in the common language of the period, the Nine Saint's translated a number of basic religious works into Ge'ez. These are of both doctrinal and literary content. Under the title of Qerllos (Cyril) were translated dogmatical treatises and homilies of the Church Fathers, in particular the work known as de Recta Fide by St. Cyril, Pope - Patriarch of Alexandria. On this book which was translated from the Greek text, is based the teaching of the Ethiopian Church. Other works translated at this period include The Ascetic Rules of Pachomius, which still today regulate the monastic life of Ethiopia, and the Life of Saint Anthony by St. Athanasius, which is still widely read in Ethiopian Church circles.

Music and Art

The coming of the Nine Saints inaugurated a new era in the Liturgical life of the Ethiopian Church and in cultural development in general. Music and the Arts Flourished. To St. Yared, an Aksumite scholar of the time, is attributed the creation of Ethiopian Churches Liturgical music. He was a disciple of the Nine Saints, probably of Abba Aregawi, and composed music in three modes, which is still used in the Ethiopian Church. The hymnal attributed to him is rich in inspiration and expression: perhaps it is one of the best of its kind in the Orient. The influence of the Nine Saints extended also to Art and Architecture. The ruins of Basilicas found in the ancient cities of Axum, Adulis and Hawlti may show a resemblance to Syriac Churches. Of Aregawi at Debra Damo is the oldest existing example of Christian architecture in Ethiopia, and traces of this influence can be seen at this Monastery Church.

During the early half of the sixth century the Christians of Ethiopia made various Missionary and Military expeditions to South Arabia, present day Yemen, to assist and support their fellow Christians who were subjected to persecution by their King named Dhu Nowas (Nunaa). Dhu Nowas had adopted Judaism and was endeavoring to spread the same by force among his subjects. Reports of this persecution reached the ears of Emperor Caleb (also known as Elesbaan, who came to the throne of Axum before 528). Caleb sent Representative to King Dhu Nowas to protest his forceful persecution of the Orthodox Christians in his kingdom. After much diplomatic endeavor which bore no fruit, Emperor Caleb determined to assist his fellow Christians and with his Army crossed the straits of Bab-el Mandeb and in battle defeated the tyrant, King Dhu Nowas, even to the point of driving him from his own lands. Emperor Caleb having completed the task of coming to the aid of the persecuted Christians of South Arabia, he returned to Ethiopia and left a Governor to watch over the people. All was peaceful for a period of a few years until the Governor died and upon hearing this the exiled King Dhu Nowas left his place of exile, gathered an army together and attached Nejran which was the Capital of the Ethiopian Governor Generals power in Yemen. After a battle based on treachery, Dhu Nowas entered the City and massacred all the inhabitants who refused to abjure their Orthodox Christian faith. Some Christians escaping the massacre spread through out the east the news and the Pope - Patriarch of Alexandria upon hearing the news urged Emperor Caleb to once again take up arms against King Dhu Nowas and rescue the Christians. Emperor Caleb being a faithful son of Holy Church gathered his forces and once again invaded South Arabia - Yemen and defeated King Dhu Nowas, who was slain in battle. After his victories, the Emperor abdicated and retired into seclusion as a hermit. As a side note Emperor Caleb has been declared (canonized) Saint not only by the Ethiopian Church but also by the Church of Rome, were his Feast is celebrated on October 27th.

Messenger: Eleazar1234 Sent: 8/31/2008 9:51:52 PM


7th - 12th Century


The rise of Islam and its impact on Ethiopia

The period following the rise and the rapid expansion of Islam in the near and the Middle East was a very critical one for the Christian kingdom of Axum. The whole civilization and culture of Axum, as well as its economic life, was based on its international maritime connections, Ever since the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemeys had taken a scientific and economic interest in the Red Sea area, Axum had become an integral part of the Hellenic world. Axum held the same position also during the Roman and Byzantine Empires. It was indeed not a mere coincidence that the Church in Axum was established immediately after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of his Byzantine dominions. There seems to be no doubt, now, that there were many individual Ethiopian and foreign Christian's residing in the Aksumite kingdom, even before the formal establishment of the Church there. But the crucial step taken by Ezana to adopt the new religion and to make it a state Church followed upon a similar imperial decision by Constantine. It was also from the Eastern Mediterranean that the first Christian missionaries come to Axum. Abune Salama and others such as the Nine Saints came from the Byzantine world, and endowed the Aksumite Church with its earliest characteristics. These regular contacts continued down to the seventh century, and all-important economic, political, and religious developments in the Byzantine world were also reflected in Axum. With the rapid Muslim conquest, however, these historical channels of communication were almost completely cut off. Only with the Alexandrian Church did Christian Ethiopia continue to have precarious contact.

Before the rise of Islam, Axum was an extensive maritime and commercial Empire. In its heyday, it ruled many districts in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea. It controlled the land of the Beja, a people who inhabited northern Eritrea and what northeastern part of the Republic of the Sudan. In the west, the political and military sphere of influence of Axum had already reached the Nile valley by the fourth century A.D. Beyond the River Takazz'e, the district of Semien and probably also the region as far as Lake Tana were within its territorial limits. However, it was in the south, in the predominantly Agew populated areas of Tigrai, Wa'ag, Lasta, Anogot and Amhara where the heritage of Axum struck its deepest roots. When almost completely excluded from the Red Sea trade, and having lost its maritime international orientation, the kingdom of Axum turned towards this Agew interior, and made it the center of a distinctive Christian culture over the centuries.

The rulers of Axum had acquired strong footholds in these central highlands already before the establishment of the Christian Church in the kingdom. They sent numerous expeditions of war and conquest into these areas from where they obtained tribute and a continuous supply of ivory, gold, and slaves. The Aksumite governor of the Agew was responsible for the long-distance caravan route to Sassou-some where near Fazolgi in eastern Sudan -from where Axum obtained much gold. These precious commodities were used for the international trade across the Red Sea in which Aksum was most active.

After their conversion to Christianity the kings of Aksum consolidated their power by establishing churches and military colonies in these central highlands. There are still today a number of churches many of them dug out of the living rock in Tigrai and Lasta-which are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. These churches and military settlements became centers of still further movements of small family groups from the more crowded parts of northern Ethiopia. In this way, the areas as far south as the region of northern Shoa were gradually affected by these slow population movements. Local traditions indicate that already in the tenth and eleventh centuries a number of small isolated Christian families had been established in the districts of Menz, Merhabite, Muger, and Bulga in northern Shoa. The spear head of Aksumite expansion may have even further south and east. This seems to be suggested by the geographical distribution of some of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia-Amharic, Argobba, Harari, Guragi, and Gafat.

All these regions in which the Aksumite were expanding were originally pagan lands, and the people spoke different Cushitic language. We have no historical data to show how these people lived, and how they were socially and politically organized before the advent of Aksumite rule. When the Aksumite conquered them, however, they imposed upon them their own religion, language, and Political organization. It was this Aksumite impact on the Agew and Sidama interior of the Ethiopian region which resulted in the creation of a number of small, predominantly pagan kingdoms of which we have distant echoes in the traditions of early and late mediaeval Ethiopia. Among these, were the political units of the Athagaw (=Agew) mentioned in the inscriptions the Aksumite kings against whom fought long wars of resistance; the Semenoi (that is, the ancient people of Semien) who also fought against, and were conquered by the Aksumite; the pagan kingdom of Gojjam, (also of Agew extraction),which was only integrated into the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia in the fourteenth century; and the legendary kingdom of Damot (probably inhabited by Southern Cushitic or Sidama peoples),which was still very strong between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in the whole region south and south-west of Shoa.

The beginnings of the Zagwe' Dynasty

One of these political units, the kingdom of Bugna in Lasta, later emerged in the twelfth century as the most dominant single power in the region, and took control of the inland Empire that was once ruled by Aksum. The new rulers are collectively known as the Zagwe Dynasty in Ethiopian history and the y ruled the world of the Christian kingdom until the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The power of Aksum had declined, and her commercial supremacy in the Red Sea area had been taken first by the Persians and later by the huge Muslim Empire which dominated the whole of the near and Middle East and Northern Africa. The descendants of the ancient rulers of Aksum thus lost their Red Sea ports and much of the semi- desert coastal strip, and they seem to have concentrated their attention on their inland provinces south of Aksum. Even Aksum was apparently abandoned as a political center by the ninth century, and the center of gravity of the Christian kingdom moved to the region of southern Tigrai and what is today northern Wollo.

For about three centuries this area remained the center of the kingdom, which revived, once again, with a new identity as a land-locked Christian Empire. It entered a new period of conquest and expansion, and, according to an Arab historian of the tenth century, its political sphere of influence reached the region of Harar and Zeila. The same historian tells us, however, that in the middle of the same century the kingdom had suffered a number of military reverses, and the southern part of its territory was conquered by an apparently pagan queen, the queen of the Banu al-Hamuiyya, who had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Muslim kingdom of Yemen. The new political situation seems to have brought about a period of decline and internal conflict in the Christian kingdom. But the kingdom held on in the northern part of its territories unit the new Zagwe rulers took over in the middle of the twelfth century as we have mentioned earlier.

The term "Zagwe dynasty" means the dynasty of the Agew. As already stated above its rulers came from the district of Bugna, in Lasta. Their homeland was apparently one of the most important strongholds of the Agew people in their centuries-old relations with the Semitized Agew kingdom of Aksum. It was probably here that the armies of ancient Aksum were confronted with very strong movements of resistance when they were expanding southwards. It was also probably here that the Aksumite governor of the Agew had his headquarters from where he protected the long-distance gold trade of Aksum in the sixth century. All the dialectical groups of the Agew peoples consider this region as the land of their ancestors, and as a point of dispersal in their traditions of population movements. It was therefore not accidental that the Agew dynasty of Christian Ethiopia should emerge from precisely the same area.

The Agew people of Wa'ag and Lasta had already been within the Aksumite kingdom since the early centuries of the Christian era. It has already been said above that many churches in this area are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. It was also in southern Tigrai and in Angot (northern Wollo), just next door to Wa'ag and Lasta, that the Christian kingdom had its political center for three centuries after the decline and fall of Aksum. The Agew peoples of these areas had therefore been profoundly acculturized by the Aksumite kingdom, and they had even adopted Christianity as their religion. The Agew kings of the Zagawe dynasty were therefore completely Christian from the start. They had, however, successfully resisted complete assimilation, particularly in a linguistic sense. Thus, although it is certain that they used Ge'ez as the language of their church services; they apparently continued to use their Agew mother tongue for their daily needs. Signs of this bi-linguality are clearly seen in some of the land charters given by the Zagwe kings in Ge'ez. In the major aspects of their rule, however, the Zagwe kings continued the cultural and political legacy of Aksum.

Messenger: Eleazar1234 Sent: 8/31/2008 9:52:29 PM


13th - 14th Century

Written by

Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie

Professor Tadesse Tamerat

The Capital of the Zagwe Kings was at Adefa, at the present site of the town of Lalibela. From here they continued the Aksumite Imperial tradition of conquest and Christian expansion. At Adefa they received and entertained many delegations from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and probably also from the surrounding Muslim rulers of Egypt etc. Kings Yimrha and Lalibela, the greatest Kings of the Zagwe dynasty, had many such contacts with the eastern Mediterranean region and particularly with Egypt.

The history and traditions about the building of the beautiful Churches of Yimrahanne Kristos and the Lalibela group of rock-hewn Churches are dominated by allusions to such international contacts. The characteristic aspects of the building of these religious monuments are essentially loyal, however, to the best traditions of Aksumite architectural art. Thus, although it can be surmised that the Zagwe Kings may have used artisans from the eastern Mediterranean countries; the conception of the building was clearly indigenous and no doubt derived from the Aksumite heritage of the Zagwe dynasty.

Translations of many religious works from Arabic into Ge’ez are also said to date from this period. Despite later traditions to the contrary, therefore, the living achievements of the Zagwe dynasty clearly show that the period was one of cultural and literary revival in the Christian Ethiopic Kingdom.

The ‘Solomonic” Dynasty: This Dynasty was overthrown by Yikunno-Amlak, an Amhara warrior of the central province of what is now Wollo, which constituted the southern part of the Zagwe Kingdom. Besides Yikunno-Amlak’s successful revolt against the Zagwe, a number of crucial historical factors brought about this drastic political change in the Christian Ethiopic Kingdom.

Ever since the rise of Islam at Mecca, in the 7th century, the Aksumite had been losing their ancient ports and islands to the increasingly, dominant Muslim merchants of the Red Sea. From these marker stations on the seaboard, the Muslim merchants operated in the Christian highlands throughout the early mediaeval period. They gradually made a number of local converts to Islam, mainly in the major market villages and along the caravan routes. The right of public worship and free trade of these local Muslim converts was strongly championed by Muslim rulers of Egypt who could always put pressure on the Christian Ethiopian Kings through the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Until the tenth century it is very clear that these local Muslims were few in number, and their activities in the Ethiopian region were purely commercial in character. After the tenth century, however, their number began to grow and many Muslim settlements were established. These commercial Muslim settlements gradually assumed much political significance. This historical development was particularly true of the hinterland of the port of Zeila which was becoming the most important commercial outlet for the Ethiopian region. By the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries a number of small Muslim sultanates were established along the trade routes from Zeila to Ethiopian interior. The most important among these were the sultanates of Shoa, Ifat, Dawaro, and Bali. Since all these Muslim states were situated to the south and southwest of the central Ethiopian highlands, the Zagwe kingdom was growing more and more isolated and was receiving no benefits from the commercial exploitation of the rich regions of southern Ethiopia. The province of Amhara lay between the seat of Zagwe power in Lasta and these rich areas, and, when Yikunno-Amlak raised his banner of revolt in Amhara, the isolation of the Zagwe rulers became complete.

The dynasty founded by Yikunno-Amlak in 1270 is called the “Solomonic” Dynasty. This appellation is a result of an historical process that seems to have started in the early mediaeval period. After the decline of Aksum, the Christian Kingdom was surrounded by Muslim and pagan neighbors and was isolated from the rest the Christian world except the Alexandrian Church. During all this period the most important religious book in the possession of the Ethiopians was the Holy Bible which they took much inspiration. Taking accounts probably of the similar beleaguered circumstances, the Ethiopians began to identify themselves with Israel, and to deliberately imitate and adopt many of the institutions of the Old Testament. The most important expression of this attitude is the gradual identification of the Ethiopian ruling house with the family of King Solomon of Israel. This tradition is embodied in the "Kebre Negest," compiled in the thirteenth century, which tells the Ethiopic version of the legend of the Queen Sheba.

The Solomonic tradition was particularly important after Yikunno-Amlak founded his dynasty. All his descendants adopted the name of the “House of Israel”, and no one who did not belong to this house could accede to the Throne in the whole of the late mediaeval period. All the male descendants of Yikunno-Amlak, expect the reigning Monarch and his minor sons, were kept under heavy guard on the inaccessible mountain top of Gishen. When a King died, it was form among the detained Princes on Mount Gishen that his successor was chosen. This ingenious device gave a high degree of political stability to the mediaeval Christian Kingdom, a stability which was essential in that period of intensive struggle with the numerous Muslim sultanates that had been established in the south and the south-eastern part of the Ethiopian region.

Yikunno-Amlak’s grandson, King Amde-Seyon (1314-44), dealt effectively with these Muslim rulers in the area. His quarrel with them was not merely religious. He wishes to control their commercial activities by conquering the areas through which the trade routes passed, and break the age-old isolation of his kingdom. In a series of long wars he conquered Ifat, Dawaro, Bali, Hadya, and the pagan regions to the west and southwest of these centers of Muslim trade. From this time on the Christian Ethiopic Kingdom maintained its dominant position until the sixteenth century.

Just as in the preceding period of the Zagwe dynasty, the major aspects of the social, cultural, and military organization of the mediaeval Christian Kingdom were a direct replica of the Aksumite Kingdom. The “Solomonic” Kings of mediaeval Ethiopia maintained the Imperial traditions of ancient Aksum which remained their cultural and religious center to the end of the period. Unlike the Kings of Aksum, however, they did not build fixed urban centers or Capital Cities. They administered their huge unwieldy Empire from a series of peripatetic Royal Camps which nevertheless had the same functions as permanent towns or cities. This arrangement increased the mobility of the Royal Court, and the effectiveness of the Christian Army against local revolts.

In a vast empire with numerous big rivers, great mountains and spectacular valleys, without roads and bridges, the task of maintaining sufficient control over their heterogeneous subjects would have otherwise been impossible for the mediaeval Kings of Ethiopia.

Monasticism and the Expansion of the Church: It was within this historical milieu that the Church was making its impact felt in the Ethiopian interior. It has been mentioned in the second section above that the nine saints had instituted the earliest monasteries in the Aksumite kingdom. It is apparent that, together with monasteries other monastic communities later established in Tigre and Lasta, these ancient monasteries continued to be the cultural continued to provide educational facilities for the whole of the Ethiopian Christian leaders in mediaeval Amhara and northern Shoa, it is very clear that any ambitious young man had to travel all the way to northern Ethiopia to obtain any serious religious and literary training. When they returned to their native districts, some of these men opened small schools where they taught some of the local children how to read and write. But until the middle of the thirteenth century, it seems that none of these small local schools in the south attained any particular significance beyond providing very elementary educational service for a handful of local children.

In about 1248, however, a young monk, Iyasus-Mo'a (c.1211-1292) came to Lake Hayq and opened a small monastic school at the island church of St. Stephen. Iyasus-Mo'a was born in Dahna, a small district of Lasta bordering on the River Takazze. While still a young boy, he abandoned his home district, traveled to northern Tigre, and joined the famous monastery of Debra Damo. There, he studied for many years under the abbot, Abba Yohanni, who later conferred on him the monastic habits. Iyasus-Mo'a had been a very serious student, and he had particularly distinguished himself as an outstanding calligraphist.

He apparently copied many books while at Debra Damo, and he is renowned for having left a large collection of manuscripts when he died at Hayq in 1292. The school he opened at Hayq becomes very famous as the first center of higher Christian education south of Lasta. Many young men from the surrounding Christian communities joined his school. According to the hagiographic tradition about his life, one of his pupil was the founder of the "Solomonic" dynasty, King Yikunno-Amlak (1270-1285), and there are more reliable indications that the island monastery of Lake Hayq continued to be one of the most important cultural centers of the "Solomonic" kings until the advent of Ahmad Gragn in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Many of Iyasus-Mo'a's pupils later acquired considerable fame as monastic leaders of the Ethiopian Church. Abba Hiruta-Amlak is believed to have been the founder of the important island monastery of Daga Estifanos on Lake Tana. Many others are said to have founded similar monastic communities in mediaeval Amhara and central Begemdir. One of the most outstanding pupils of Iyasus-Mo'a was Abba Takel-Haymanot of Shoa (d.1313). He apparently joined Iyasua-Mo'a's school as a middle-aged man with many years of clerical service in Shoa behind him. He spent some nine years with Iyasus-Mo'a who gave him his first serious Christian education. After having been invested with the monastic habits by Iyasus-Mo'a, Takel-Haymanot decided to visit the ancient monastic centers in northern Ethiopia. He went to Debra-Damo and other places in Tigre where he remained for over ten years. In the meantime, he undertook further religious and monastic training and he apparently gained a much deeper insight into the history and ecclesiastical traditions of Ethiopia. He returned to Hayq with many followers after his long sojourn in Tigre. Iyasus-Mo'a now advised him to go back to his native district of Shoa and start a new monastery of Debra Libanos which has become one of the most important religious centers of Christian Ethiopia.

Similar monastic leaders were emerging during the same period in northern Ethiopia, and they established other cultural centres. Abba Ewostatewos (d.1352) deserves particular mention. He was apparently born in Gar'alta, in central Tigre and he studied under his own uncle, Abba Daniel, who was the abbot of Debra Mariam there. He then left Gar'alta and began teaching in Sara's, in what is today the province of Eritrea. There he was joined by many students who later founded their own monastic centers in the area. Ewostatewos himself was persecuted by his colleagues in the Ethiopian church for insisting on the Biblical custom of the observance of the Sabbath, and he left his country for Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, and Armenia where he died after fourteen years of self-exile. He was accompanied by some of his pupils on his foreign travels, and some of them managed to return to Ethiopia after his death. Together with their colleagues who had remained in northern Ethiopia, these followers of Ewostatewos effectively organized themselves and they become one of the two monastic houses of the Ethiopian Church. (The other is the House of Takla-Haymanot of Shoa) important cultural and educational centers like Debra Mariam of Qohain, and Dabra Bizan (on the eastern edge of the Hamasen plateau) were later founded by the followers of Abba Ewostatewos. Thus, by the fifteenth century, numerous monastic centers had been established at a number of crucial points from northern Hamasen to Lake Zuway in the south, from the eastern edge of the Ethiopian plateau to beyond Lake Tana in the west. And, just like the ancient center founded by the nine Saints, the new monastic communities provided the only educational facilities available in the Christian highlands.

Development of Christian Literature: Each monastic community ran a number of schools depending on its size and its resources. A senior member of the community, specially noted for his learning and for his exemplary character, was given charge of each of these schools. The monasteries of Ethiopia vied among themselves for attracting well-known teachers, and the fame and prestige of a monastery largely depended on the quality of the teachers it employed. The courses given by each school were of course mainly religious and they depended on the level of the school.

There were mainly four general levels of education in these monastic communities. The first level concentrated on training children how to read. They started with the Ethiopic alphabet, and they were drilled into reading a series of increasingly difficult passages. The question of understanding and comprehension was not important at this stage. It was strictly a "Reading" exercise. After sunset, following the evening prayers and the community dinner time, the children of the "reading School" were taught to memorize and recite a series of increasingly difficult prayers. This "memorization exercise" often went on up to midnight.

The next stage was usually one in which courses in church Music were given at different levels. Since the days of Yared, who is believed to have been divinely inspired to compose the first notes of the distinctively Ethiopian church Music in the Sixty century, a meticulous system of courses was organized in this field. It is apparent that this elaborate program of musical studies was at the height of its development in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. The Dagwa, the collection of hymns traditionally attributed to Yared , was most probably a cumulative product of many centuries. A major aspect of the Ethiopian Church Music in the ritual dance that always accompanies the liturgical chant. Monneret de Villard, a well-known student of Ethiopian Christian art and the history of the Nile Valley, has suggested that the liturgical dance of the Ethiopians may have originated in ancient Egypt. But in its contemporary manifestations a religious musical performance of the Ethiopian priests is strongly reminiscent of the dancing and the rejoicing of the Levites in front of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:2-5). A casual look at the musical instruments used by the priests clearly shows that the Ethiopians have also drawn much inspiration from the Old Testament. The whole atmosphere created during a religious service in Ethiopia evokes the old Biblical scene transmitted in the last chapter of the book of psalms:

"Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and Dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the lord cymbals: Praise him upon the high sounding Cymbals."

The third stage of education was usually what can be called the "Poetry School". It has not been possible to find out the definite origins of this school, nor to ascertain the earliest period of its establishment. But there is no doubt that it had already developed by the fifteenth century, and it constituted one of the advanced level of education in Christian Ethiopia. The most important aim of this school was to increase the level of comprehension of the Church scholar and to make him a master of the Ethiopic Grammar. An essential element of the training here is drilling the student to compose poems of different level. In the evening, the student recited before his master the poems he had composed for the day, and the master commented on the form and the aesthetic qualities of the poems. When the student reached a tolerable degree of excellence the master promoted him to the next level. After all the students had finished reciting their poems, they gathered around the master who composed spontaneously a series of original poems. These were often known for their outstanding qualities in both form and content, qualities which the student vied among themselves to master explained what he meant by the lines of the poem, and this was followed by groups of his students meticulously analyzing with him each of the words of every line to appreciate their grammatical and syntactical place in the poem. This session often went on well beyond midnight every day, and it was the major occasion when the scholars could have the personal guidance of their master. To pass through the eight or nine stages of this "Poetry School" a student often needed more than two years; but if the scholar had the intention of becoming a master himself, he usually spent as many as ten years visiting as many different masters as possible. The "Poetry School" was one of the most prestigious institutions to have gone through, and its inmates could hope for some of the highest positions in both Church and State.

The next and last stage was the mastery of the interpretations of all the canonical books of the Church. The Ethiopian clergy had developed an elaborate system of analytical studies of each of the books of the Old and New Testaments. The Canons of the Church were also studied in the same meticulous fashion with a lot of legal hair-splitting. These studied were so detailed that there was sometimes a special master for each of the Books of the Old and New Testaments, as well as for some of the apocryphal works of the Church.

These were the different stages of education in mediaeval Ethiopia. Although the content of the program was strictly religious, there is no doubt that it solved the essential problem of developing the intellectual faculties of the scholar, and it prepared him for specific roles in the mediaeval Ethiopian community. What is more important is that the graduates of the monastic school system were employed not only in the Church but in all various administrative, judicial, and other department of the State. Nor was it with the limited prospect of leadership in the Church that students went to those schools. Indeed many of the royal princes who later ascended the throne -kings like Dawit (1380 -1412), Zar'a Ya'iqob (1434-68), and Na'od (1494-1508) are known to have attended such schools. Zar'a Ya'iqob and Na'od were particularly noted for their considerable scholarship, and they were the authors of a number of important original compositions in the Ethiopic language. Prolific writers such as King Zar'a Ya'iqob and Abba Giyorgis of Gascha were products of the great monastic schools of the fifteenth century. The literary and artistic achievements of mediaeval Ethiopia were indeed outstanding. Many translations from Arabic, and numerous original Ge'ez works date from that period. A short visit to the Museum of the Institute of Ethiopia studies at Haile Sellassie I University also gives some idea of the works of Christian art of those times. The library collections of the numerous island and mainland monasteries throughout Christian Ethiopia, even today, are a living testimony to the splendor of cultural life in mediaeval Ethiopia.

Messenger: Eleazar1234 Sent: 8/31/2008 9:52:55 PM


15th – 18th Century


Written by

Professor Tadesse Tamerat

After the reign of Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-68) and his immediate successor Ba’ida-Maryam (1468-1478), the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Ethiopia had a series of minor kings who were too young to take the affairs of State in their own hands. This brought some of the more ambitious royal officials into temporary prominence as “guardians” of the Crown. These officials had numerous rivals for power, and the whole kingdom entered into a period of political conflicts and Civil War which lasted for about fifty years. The end result of this was the gradual weakening of the Christian army and the slackening of the frontier defense system. In the long struggle with the Muslim kingdom of Adal, this brought about a sudden change in the balance of power between the Orthodox Christianity and Islam.

The Wars of Ahmad Gragn

With the Ottoman (present day Turkey) conquest of the Greek Byzantine Capital of Constantinople, the whole Near and Middle East, Islam was given a special impetus in the Red Sea area and in the African Horn. The Muslim communities of the Ethiopian region began to be more and more aggressive particularly in their relations with the Orthodox Christian Empire. Many Turkish and Arab mercenaries came over from across the Red Sea, better equipped with the superior arms of the Ottoman Empire. The Muslim invasion of the Ethiopian highlands in the beginning of the sixteenth century was thus a tremendous success. The leader of the Muslim forces during this conflict was Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim or Gragn, as he is known in Ethiopian Chronicles. His Chronicle, entitled Futuh al-Habasha (meaning “The Conquest of the Abyssinians”), relates how the Muslim invasion was particularly aimed at destroying the Orthodox Church in the Ethiopian highlands. As the center of the mediaeval Christian culture of Ethiopia and as the place where the kings also kept their fabulous treasures, the Church was attacked by the Muslim forces with particular fury. Dazzled by the riches of the Churches and Monasteries, the Muslim troops burnt and looted for a period of about fifteen years, and almost completely destroyed the mediaeval heritage of Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. The following passage is a vivid description of how the island monastery of Hayq was sacked, and it characterizes the attitude of the Muslim army throughout the period of their success between 1531 and 1543:

“They carried off the gold… there were crucifixes of gold in great quantity, books with cases and bindings of gold, and countless statues of gold; each Muslim took 300 ounces; each man had sufficient gold plate to satisfy three men. They also took a vast quantity of cloth and silk… The next morning (the Muslim chief) sent the Imam three rafts loaded with gold, silver and silk; there were only five men on board, two in front and three at the back, the rest of the raft being covered with riches though it could have carried 150 persons. The cargo was unloaded in front of the Imam who marveled at it and forgot the treasure which he had seen before. The rafts returned to the island and were a second time loaded with riches. They came three times, on each occasion loaded; they then returned to the island and the men went on board to return to the mainland. On the following day Ahmad partitioned the spoil; he gave one part to the Arabs and … one to the troops who had gone on the water; the rest he divided among the Muslims”.

It was in this way that the material and spiritual heritage of Mediaeval Orthodox Ethiopia, like that of the Greek Byzantine Church, was destroyed during the wars with Islamic hordes. Many of the inhabitants in the Muslim-occupied areas were forced to renounce their Orthodox Christian faith and adopt Islam. Although some chose to die for their faith, the large majority of the Christian peasants acquiesced to at least a nominal acceptance of Islam.

The Dilemma in Ethiopian Relations with Europe

The Ethiopian kingdom was later restored after the death of Ahmad Gragn (1543) and after the defeat of his army by Emperor Galawdewos (1540-59) who was given effective military assistance by the Kingdom of the Portuguese. Relations with the Portuguese had already started towards the end of the fifteenth century, and reciprocal envoys had been exchanged between Lisbon and the Ethiopian court. The Ethiopians were impressed by reports of the technical advances in Europe and wanted to share in this material civilization. From the earliest stages of their contacts with Europe the Ethiopians expressed their desire to receive European technicians and artisans, and the kings were especially interested in firearms. Already in the fifteenth century some isolated European adventures had reached Ethiopia even before the Portuguese, and they had been employed by the kings as masons, craftsmen, and amateur painters. When official relations were later initiated with the Portuguese, it was precisely their interest in the material civilization of Europe which preoccupied the minds of the Ethiopians. Emperor Libna-Dingil requested artists, builders, craftsmen, and men who could make guns for him. He also desired to establish a strong military alliance with the Portuguese. But outside these cultural and diplomatic contacts, a completely different interest preoccupied the Europeans. Thus, almost completely ignorant of the history and the spiritual heritage of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Portuguese sought to act as the agents of the Roman Catholic Church - Pope. This caused a lot of unnecessary bloodshed in the first part of the seventeenth century, and led to the final expulsion of the Jesuit mission by Emperor Fasiladas in 1632.

The Roman Catholic Religious Order Priests, “The Jesuit’s” experience was very bitter for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and it naturally led to the creation of very strong hostility towards anything European for a long period of time. During their short time in Ethiopia, the Jesuits had done a great deal of damage and they had seriously disturbed the spiritual stability of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Thus, immediately after the official expulsion of the Jesuit mission, there was a very long period of intensive doctrinal controversies within the Ethiopian Church which sadly, lasted for over two centuries. When these controversies are seen in the right historical perspective, it is very clear that they arose from the need to re-examine the doctrinal positions of the Ethiopian Church and to purify the Church from possible external influences still lingering even after the expulsion of the missionaries. The end result of all this was an intensive movement of literary and intellectual revival in the kingdom of Gondar. What is most impressive is that, despite the decline of the monarchy and the disintegration of the State into a number of regional entities during the so-called “Era of the Princes,” the Ethiopian Orthodox Church preserved its basic unity. And from the middle of the nineteenth century, when the monarchy started to revive once again, the Church resumed its historic role as the most important unifying factor in Christian Ethiopia.

Messenger: Eleazar1234 Sent: 8/31/2008 9:56:10 PM

Medhani Alem
King of Kings
Lord of Lords
Conquering Lion of the Tribe of JUDAH
Prince of Peace

Messenger: Eleazar1234 Sent: 8/31/2008 10:02:33 PM



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