Perhaps the most important aspect of Ethiopian Christianity is its monasticism. Introduced into the country probably at the time when Christianity itself was first preached, its centers, the monasteries, have set the rule of conduct for the domestic and foreign policy of the Christian kingdom up to the twentieth century. The monks were the voice of the church, and the monasteries were the heart of the church. Risking their lives and frequently suffering martyrdom, the monks openly castigated political leaders when they behaved in an un-Christian manner. The monks dictated their views to the leaders of the nation by various means, including excommunication.

The monasteries, headed sometimes by abbots appointed by the political head of the country, were small empires, building daughter churches in their territories and collecting large revenues. They were also places of banishment to which disgraced dignitaries were exiled after being condemned to be clothed in the monastic garb. Most importantly, the spread of Christianity into the interior and to the furthest frontiers of Ethiopia was the accomplishment solely of the monks. Both solitary eremitism, based on the Rule of Saint ANTONY, and communal cenobitism, based on the Rule of Saint PACHOMIUS, became part of Ethiopian monasticism. The Rule of Pachomius was among the first books translated into Ge‘ez, or Ethiopic.

Early Period

Tradition ascribes the introduction of monasticism into Ethiopia to monks who entered the country between the fourth and sixth centuries. Their number, origin, motive, and even the time of migration into the highlands of East have been points of speculation. Broadly speaking, they came from the Mediterranean or Hellenistic world, more specifically from and Syria. Internal sources indicate that most of them had connections with the Monastery of Apa Pachomius in Egypt. Tradition has it that Abba Yohannes Kama (JOHN KAMA) and Abba Libanos, or Matta‘, were ordered, at different times, by Pachomius (d. 346) to go to Ethiopia to teach.

If this is a historical fact, it must have taken place on the occasion of Frumentius’ consecration by ATHANASIUS as the first bishop of Axum in 340 (see ETHIOPIAN PRELATES: SALAMA I). In any event, each of these two monks taught and established monasteries that, although their ancient churches have become victims of time, are still centers of pilgrimage, Dabra Sina by Yohannes Kama and Dabra Libanos by Libanos, both in the province of Eritrea. Of the monks who are said to have migrated to Ethiopia in groups, the so-called Nine Saints are the most celebrated fathers of monasticism. These are Aragawi or Zamika’el of Dabra Damo, Pantalewon of Asbo or Beta Pantalewon, Garima or Yeshaq of Madara, Afse or Afasim of Yeha, Gubba (whose monastery seems not to have survived), Alef of Ahse’a or Behza or Allelo, Yem’ata of Guh, Liqanos of Dabra Qwanasel, and Sehma of Sideya. It is not certain whether Os or Oz is a name of either Alef or Sehma, as several sources suggest, or of another monk, Os of Dabra Kweraza.

The tradition, whether written or oral, is firm in asserting that the hundreds of monasteries that have flourished in the course of the of the Ethiopian church were founded by individual monks who traced their monastic genealogy to one of these eleven or twelve saints. But it is quite possible that there were from time to time other monastic fathers who received their monastic habits in one of the Egyptian monasteries and went to Ethiopia, where they founded new monasteries.

Gabra Manfas Qeddus of Zeqwala (d. c. 1382), for example, went to Ethiopia from a monastery in Nehisa (Egypt) and taught in the regions of Medra Kabd before he settled on the summit of Mount Zeqwala, where his monastery is still a center of pilgrimage. As in all aspects of Ethiopian history, it is very difficult to trace the of the spread of Ethiopian monasticism from the time of its beginning in the fourth century to the fall of the Zagwe dynasty in 1270. But many of the monasteries known only in the literature (e.g., Kadih, Akwren, Awhezi, Wasif, Dabra Tabayda, Dabra Harasa, Beta Danagel in or near Axum, Dabra Barah, and Si’at) must have been famous centers of worship established by the first, second, and third generations following the founders of Ethiopian monasticism.

Late and Postmedieval Periods

The founders of Ethiopian monasticism as it is known today are Abba Yohanni, Iyyasus Mo’a, Abuna Takla Haymanot, and Abuna Madkhanina Egzi’.

No reliable historical source is known to exist on Abba Yohanni. The gadl, or acts, of Iyyasus Mo’a, his spiritual son, describes him as the seventh abbot of Dabra Damo, the monastery founded by Abba Zamika’el, one of the Nine Saints. Genealogically, this fits into the picture of another source that makes him the seventh abbot beginning with Zamika’el (Zamika’el, Mateyas, Yosef, Masqal Bezana, Madkhanina Egzi’, Masqal Mo’a, Yohanni). The chronological problem with this genealogy, that Yohanni, flourishing in the twelfth century, is only six generations from Abba Zamika’el, who is said to have arrived in Ethiopia in the sixth century, may be related to the time when Zamika’el and the rest of the Nine Saints arrived in Ethiopia rather than the time when Abba Yohanni lived. Yohanni left the comfortable life at the royal court of the Zagwe dynasty to lead an ascetic life in Dabra Damo. In the church tradition, Yohanni is remembered as one who never left his hermitage from the time he entered it, and he became the spiritual father of two influential monks of the Ethiopian church, Abuna Iyyasus Mo’a and Abuna Takla Haymanot.

Iyyasus Mo’a was the founder of the famous monastery Dabra Hayq Estifanos, in Amhara (now Wollo). He successfully stood the harsh monastic test under Abba Yohanni of Dabra Damo, who eventually clothed him in monastic garb. An insignificant spot before Iyyasus Mo’a, Hayq became a center of education and pilgrimage even during the lifetime of its founder. There is a tradition that Yekunno Amlak, the founder of the so-called Solomonic dynasty in 1270, studied there under Iyyasus Mo’a before moving to Qawat and Tagwelat in the south. According to a tradition of Hayq, it must be assumed that Abuna Iyyasus Mo’a must be credited with helping the future king to seize power from the Zagwe, though historically this controversy remains unresolved. As a result of this, the abbots of Hayq Estifanos became the ‘aqqabe sa‘at (administrative heads) of the Ethiopian church from that time to the rise of Dabra Libanos in Shewa.

Like the eccage (high church dignitary) of Dabra Libanos from the sixteenth century onward, the ‘aqqabe sa‘at of Dabra Hayq was the indigenous head of the church in administrative matters. Dabra Hayq, which also occasionally had Coptic monks, was a center of education and was usually an ardent supporter of the Egyptian metropolitan in any decrees he issued. The manuscript of the four gospels that Iyyasus Mo’a donated to his monastery and is still found in its library contains written references to visits to the monastery by the two most powerful Ethiopian monarchs of the day: Yekunno Amlak (1270-1285) and ‘Amda Seyon (1314-1344). Many spiritual sons of Abuna Iyyasus Mo’a established other monasteries.

Takla Haymanot, the brightest luminary of Ethiopian monasticism, was a pupil of Abba Yohanni of Dabra Damo as well as Iyyasus Mo’a of Dabra Hayq before the former returned to his homeland in the south with vigor and enthusiasm to start his preaching. It is through the energetic Takla Haymanot that Christianity and monasticism flourished in Shewa and Damo. Although his monastery of Dabra Asbo (later renamed Dabra Libanos) was devastated by pestilence in which many monks, including Takla Haymanot and his successor, Abba Elsa’, perished, those who survived succeeded in the south and the west and in establishing other important monasteries, such as the famous Dabra Besrat of Zena Mareqos.

Madkhanina Egzi’ of Bankwal was one of the earlier disciples of Abuna Takla Haymanot. His master left him in Tigre when he headed south. Madhanina Egzi’ owes his fame to the fact that a great number of his disciples became celebrated stars, or kawakebt, in Ethiopian monasticism. Among them are Samu’el of Waldebba, Samu’el of Qwayyasa, Samu’el of Tareta, Samu’el of Saqwar, Yohannes of Guranqwa, Tadewos of Baltarewa (or Bartawa), Yassay of Mandabba, Yafqeranna Egzi’ of Gwegwben, Aron of Ketur, Marqoreyos of Heba, Zakkareyas of Gefa, Gabra Krestos of Bitaneya, Dane’el of Sa‘damba, Endereyas of Ama’ta, Demeyanos of Dabra Sina, Krestos Bezana of Ta’amina, Hirut of Maya Sakaym, Gabr Kher of Zan Megaga, Gabra Krestos of Anagse, and Malka Sedeq (of Dagina). Most of these in turn trained other noted followers who established their own monasteries.

It should be pointed out here that, although monasteries were built in places “far from this world,” they were not merely places of seclusion inhabited by anchorites who devoted their lives to prayer and worship. They were also centers of education and evangelical activity for the surrounding regions. Children came to them from far and near to learn. The monasteries were (and still are) institutions for traditional church education in literature (including poetry), music, biblical studies, and canon law. In them, books were composed, and translations of Christian literature into Ge’ez were produced, and from there monks went out in bands of two or three into the neighborhood to spread Christianity. Many suffered martyrdom in the field.

Metropolitan Ya‘qob (1337-1344) is remembered by tradition as one who encouraged Ethiopian monks to go and preach the Gospel in the regions. He seems to have contacted the most important monasteries of his time to organize these missions efficiently. According to the sources from Dabra Libanos, for example, he chose twelve of its monks and divided Shoa and Damot among them. Each of the twelve monks (the Twelve Apostles) was given the title nebura ed (appointed by the laying on of the hand; pl. neburana ed) and ordered to limit his evangelical activity to the region assigned to him.

Only the abbot Fileppos, who was considered to be the counterpart of Saint Peter, was allowed to visit any region he wanted. The list of the neburana ed varies slightly from one source to another. But because of their great success in their apostolic mission and the part they played in the of the church, they became recognized among the important saints of Ethiopia. They included such names as Adkhani of Damot, Anorewos (the Elder) of Warab of Dabra Segaga, Iyyoseyas of Wag, Mateyas of Fatagar, Yosef of Ennare’et, Gabra Krestos of Dembi, Tadewos of Selalesh, Samu’el of Wagag, Qawestos of Mahaggel, Anorewos (the Junior, in some sources identified with the famous Zena Mareqos) of Morat, of Dabra Besrat, Tasfa Hezan of Dawwaro, and Marqorewos of Marha Bete. Metropolitan Ya‘qob and the monks could have done more if only the emperor ‘Amda Seyon had been cooperative.

Ethiopian monasteries were semiautonomous institutions. The most important factor that held the monasteries together was the priesthood that was received from the metropolitan. The independence of the monasteries was a serious problem for the head of the church as well as for the monarch, both of whom saw that the strength of their authority depended on a united church and country behind them. The first test in recorded took place when a metropolitan and the king at the time issued a decree to stop the practice of Jewish customs, especially the observance of the Saturday Sabbath. Many monasteries resisted the decree to the bitter end. One of the leaders of the opposition was Abba Ewostatewos (c. 1273-1352), who was a disciple and a relative of Dane’el of Gar’alta, a spiritual descendant of Libanos.

Ewostatewos left his monastery in Sara’e (Eritrea) and went to Egypt, accompanied by a few of his disciples, to seek support from the patriarch himself. To his disappointment, the view of patriarch BENJAMIN (1327-1339) was not different from that of his opponents. Ewostatewos died in Armenia. In Ethiopia, his followers left the church and established their own fully independent monastic communities. Ewostatewos’ most important and immediate descendants founded important monasteries, including Absadi of Dabra Maryam (Qohayyen), Marqoreyos of Dabra Demah, Bakkimos of Dabra Sarabi, Gabra Iyyasus of Dabsan (or Dabra San), Matewos of Barbarre, Gabra Masqal of May Qwerqwer, Buruk Amlak of Maraquz, and Sewa Dengel of Bur.

All these disciples became monastic leaders with many followers, including the celebrated Fileppos, the founder of Dabra Bizan (in Eritrea), which is one of the leading religious and educational centers of Ethiopia even today. Since the council of Dabra Metmaq (1450), at which the church accepted their position, the Ewostatewosites have again become part of the established church.

The spread of monasteries during the Solomonic dynasty can be attributed to many factors, such as the return to the fundamentals of monasticism as outlined in the ancient literature. But the kings of Ethiopia and other dignitaries felt it to be their duty to show liberality in adding new land grants to what the monasteries already possessed, and such wealth apparently became a menace to the rule of monastic asceticism. The monasteries ruled over vast territories granted to them by the rulers as gwelt or territory (Arabic, awqaf).

They collected immense revenues from these territories and even ruled over their inhabitants, hearing cases, settling disputes, and punishing criminals. A closer look at the acts of the Ethiopian monastic leaders gives the impression that many of them left their mother monasteries and founded new ones in protest against the “worldly life” of their original foundations. Estifanos and his movement embodied this new tendency. Estifanos was a disciple of Abuna Samu’el of Qwayyasa.

He left Qwayyasa when his critical remarks brought him into conflict with that brotherhood. The tenets of his movement included the strict adherence to the old monastic rules and principles. He spoke out against any monastery that relaxed these rules and professed the principle of the separation of state and church. He preached the rejection of the worship of the cross and the Blessed Virgin through her icon, and forbade prostration before any man, the emperor included. The rulers, especially Zar’a Ya‘qob (1434-1468), used all kinds of persuasion, coercion and persecution to suppress the movement. Their father, Estifanos, and many of his followers died in prison or from other forms of martyrdom as leaders of a “heretical movement.” Although their movement, which alarmed the entire church of Ethiopia, died out toward the beginning of the sixteenth century, their monastery of Dabra Garzen in Gwendagwendi (Eritrea) is still one of the important religious centers of Ethiopia. For obvious reasons, however, the calendar of the church does not recognize the fathers and brothers of Dabra Garzen: Estifanos, Fere Krestos, Abakerazun, Minas, Galawdewos, Pawlos, Berhana Masqal, Yeshaq, Ezra, Gabra Masih, and many others.

Other monks who founded famous monasteries between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries include the uncompromising Basalota Mika’el of Dabra Gol (Amhara, now Wollo); Yohannes of Wifat, the Apostle of Manz (Shewa); Giyorgis of Gasecha (Amhara), who made important innovations in the liturgy; Yonas of Addi Ugri (Tigre); Akala Krestos of Dabra Makhew (Bagemder); Bezu‘ Amlak of Enda Sellase (Eritrea); Anbass of Hazalo (Shewa); Mother Feqerta Krestos of Emma Me‘uz (Amhara); Iyyasu of Jarr Sellase (Shewa); Maba’a Seyon of Endagabtan (Shewa); Yohanni of Dabra ‘Asa (Tigre); Mother Walatta Petros of Qorasa (Gojam); Takla Hawareyat of Semmona (Shewa); Sarza Petros of Dabra Warq (Gojam); Sinoda of Semmona (Gojam); Takasta Berhan of Dima (Gojam); and Mother Krestos Samra of Gwangwet Mika’el (Gojam).


It has been suggested that some monasteries occasionally relaxed the strict rules of ascetism. This is a matter of relative degree and obviously an exception to the rule. The most important feature of Ethiopian monasticism, past and present, is the self-imposed torture of the body. The body, which is temporal, is the enemy of the soul, which is eternal, and it is necessary for the soul to be victorious over the body by tormenting it with fasting, prostration, and standing for protracted periods in one place, whether in the waters of the lakes and rivers or out of doors in exposed places where the temperature can be extremely hot or cold. Such deeds of asceticism may have been exaggerated in the gadlat, or acts, of the saints, but travelers, including Alvarez in the sixteenth century, have witnessed the harsh life of monks in what they eat (leaves and bitter roots of plants) and in what they wear (rough skins, sackcloth, and iron girdles). The abodes of the hermits are so narrow that they do not lie down when they sleep.

There is the belief in the monasteries that when an ascetic reaches the extreme limit of self-torture, he will grow wings like an angel’s as a sign of perfection. One finds many manuscripts depicting Takla Haymanot with six wings, three on each side. Perfection is also measured by the number of crowns with which a saint is bedecked in heaven. An accomplished ascetic does not need to eat or drink, and if he does, the waste is disposed of miraculously from the stomach. This is the level of perfection an Ethiopian ascetic aspires to achieve. The kind of fasting practiced by ascetics is tantamount to starvation. If two monks disagree on the number of days of a given fast, the rule is “side with him who is for fasting longer.” Many caves have been discovered with the mummified bodies of hermits holding crosses in their hands. A number of Ethiopian monks have lived in austerity in the monasteries in and the Holy Land, impressing the local monks. And in the New World, one of them had to be taken to a mental hospital for extending his standing in prayer into the winter snows of New York.

Modern Times

As an Islamic jihad, or holy warfare, the revolt of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, or Grann Muhammad, the ruler of the eastern territories of Ethiopia in the sixteenth century, was primarily aimed at eradicating Christianity from Ethiopia by killing the Christians or converting them to his faith and by destroying Christian religious institutions, including churches and monasteries, which were at that time excessively rich in solid gold and silver and fine vestments. For about fifteen years, Grann systematically sacked the churches and monasteries and set their buildings on fire. Very few monasteries escaped his devastations. As a result, many famous monasteries, such as Dabra Karbe, are known only in the literature or as archaelogical sites.

The mass migration of the Galla (Oromo) at the end of the war with Grann, in about 1559, also had its share in the destruction of the heritage of the Christian church. One must say with emphasis that although it survived, the church never recovered fully from those two shocks. With the exception of a very few, the present monasteries are those built anew on the sites of the ruins of the old ones. Today, the sites of famous monasteries, such as Dabra Sege in Borana (Wollo), are discovered occasionally and accidentally. There is no ostensible effort for the restoration of those archaeological remains of a glorious past. And since 1974 the voices heard throughout the country are clamoring for cultural revolution and burying the past rather than digging it up.

There has been no reliable survey to determine the number and location of active monasteries. Even the criteria for determining whether a given religious center is a monastery or not are unclear. In the local language there are two terms, gadam and dabr, which can be translated as monastery, although in many cases dabr indicates the size of the center. In the church register, one finds many churches that are listed as either gadam or dabr, but lack the characteristics of a monastic community. For example, the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Church of Saint Mary of the Patriarchate, both in Addis Ababa, are listed as gadam.

Dabra Libanos, on the other hand, is now not registered as a dabr. This may be the reason why the sources on the present number of monasteries in Ethiopia differ from one another by wide margins. As far as can be determined, a church and its courtyard is called a gadam, or monastery, because it is (1) a monastery in fact (e.g., Dabra Libanos and Dabra Bizan); (2) a center that once had a monastic community; or (3) a church that has been designated a gadam by the relevant authorities, the king, and the metropolitan. The last two categories of gadam may not have any monks other than the heads of their churches.

The nationalization of land by the military Marxist-Leninist that came to power in 1974 has left the monasteries without material possessions. They may have to find other means of subsistence, such as the establishment of cottage industries. But at present the future of Ethiopian monasticism is very dim.

[See also: Ethiopian Heresies; Ethiopian Saints.]


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