Estifanos is commemorated by his followers on 18 Takhsas (Kiyahk). For the Ethiopian church he is still a founder of a heretical sect, known by modern scholars as the Stephanite or Estifanosite movement. His father, Berhana Masqal, a chief of the Gefmala district in Tigre (east of Axum), died before his son, Hadga Anbasa, was born. After the birth, his mother, Sara (Sarah), gave the child to his uncle and married another man. Growing up without parents must have caused the child to ask many questions concerning life and encouraged him to reject the world. He himself says that he became God’s follower in gratitude to Him who became his parent. He first went to a school attached to a church called Beta Iyyasus (Church of Jesus), where he differed from other children in that he had an inquisitive mind. At school they called him Estifanos, a name that his hagiographer considered ominous for his later martyrdom.
Estifanos took the monastic habit in the Monastery of Abba Samu’el (apparently in Qwayyasa) at the age of nineteen. From that time he refrained from eating meat and dairy products and from drinking milk and alcoholic beverages. He became a solitary, disassociating himself from the rest of the monastic community. His colleagues resented his disapproving attitude toward their type of monastic life. He was a copyist of manuscripts, which he called “abundant in our churches, agreeing in teaching the truth . . . but with no court of justice in the country to implement their words.” His views became clearer and more attractive to many when he was assigned by the abbot to be a teacher of one group of monks working in the field. He was rightly accused of challenging the established tradition of monastic life. The metropolitan of the time, Bartalomewos (Bartholomew, 1398-1436), was supportive of Estifanos’ view.
It soon became apparent that Estifanos could not live in peace in the monastery if he was not willing to go along with the established tradition of a relatively comfortable life. Organizing his followers into groups of twelve, he left the Monastery of Abba Samu’el and established his own. His objective was to be independent of the government by receiving no land grants, unlike the rest of the monasteries in the empire. The members of his community depended entirely on their own work.
Estifanos’ fame reached places far and near, attracting more followers and alarming other monasteries, which felt the draining of their “monk power” to his. He was accused at the court of the governor of inciting unrest. At the hearing, the case was intermingled with politics. When he was defending his position, one of his opponents said, “We ask you by the [authority of the] king to keep silent.” Estifanos answered what he believed, but apparently unwisely, “I speak the words of God . . . The words of the Heavenly King cannot be stopped by the earthly king.” The opponent went further: “I call him [the king] Israelite,” a reference to the widely accepted tradition that the Ethiopian royal family proudly descends from Solomon, king of Israel. But the stubborn monk retorted, “And I call him a Christian,” implying that Israelites are Jews. The governor found this controversy beyond his jurisdiction. He sent the parties to the king’s court. The king, most probably Hezb Naññ (1430-1483), dismissing the political accusations as unrelated to the main issues, found the accused innocent. In fact, the king and the council of one thousand participants summoned to hear the case allegedly offered him the monastery of his spiritual father, Abba Samu’el, who was an ardent opponent of the new movement. Estifanos declined on the grounds that if he accepted, he would be dependent on the government.
Unfortunately for Estifanos, the new king, Zar’a Ya‘qob (1434-1468), although well versed in Ethiopian church affairs, was unable to disassociate politics from religion. He could not excuse Estifanos and his followers for their refusal to bow to the monarch, which according to him was a mere expression of respect, a tradition pervasive in those regions since the time of the Old Testament. Estifanos, however, considered bowing an expression of worship due “only to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” There is nothing in his gadl that could be considered to present an insurmountable theological difference between Estifanos and his followers, on one side, and Zar’a Ya‘qob and the established church, on the other.
Like Zar’a Ya‘qob, who represented the established church, Estifanos believed in the trinitarian theology of “three suns, one light”; he accepted the Synodicon as canonical; and he honored both the Saturday and Sunday Sabbaths. However, he refused to accept the undue reverence of the Holy Cross and the icon of the Blessed Virgin; he rejected the fast-spreading Marian literature (Miracles of Mary and the different apocryphal prayers ascribed to Mary, e.g., Bartos); and he developed an interpretation of millenarianism different from that of the emperor and his clergy, the kahnata dabtara. The emperor was particularly angered when Estifanos challenged his judicial system, in which monks, in violation of canon law and monastic principle, were made to participate as jurors, hearing worldly affairs, presided over by the monarch. His wrath was so fierce that the two prelates of the time, Mika’el and Gabre’el, were unable to contradict him.
Estifanos’ courage in challenging the king who ruled with an iron fist brought him further fame and encouraged others to follow their conscience. The king and the religious leaders were clearly threatened. No form of coercion—flogging, imprisonment, hunger, or the like—could change Estifanos’ views. The emperor banished him and his followers into provinces populated by his Muslim subjects. Locked up in prison in the village of Wazrema, Estifanos died in Gwatr, a region adjacent to Ifat and Dawwaro. At first he was buried near a church in Gedem. However, when his followers were caught smuggling their teacher’s body from the grave, the emperor had his body cast into the open at Sakra in Dawwaro, where by orders of the governor, the people piled stones on it. Sakra is the place where the remains of the ruler of ‘Adal, Badlay, were buried under a heap of stones when his rebellion was crushed in 1444.
The city of the king’s residence received the name Dabra Berhan (Mountain of Light) from the persecution of this sect by the emperor. It was reported that in approval of the persecution by the emperor, a light in the form of a cross appeared over the city for several nights.
The movement of this extraordinary monk survived Zar’a Ya‘qob and his successor, but by the end of the fifteenth century it was gradually integrated into the established church. Their center, the Monastery of Dabra Garzen in Tigre, is reported to have a library with valuable manuscripts, but some of the important ones have ended up in the hands of travelers and explorers.