Ethiopian Saints


The Ethiopian Orthodox Church recognizes most of the saints of the Universal Church before the Council of CHALCEDON (451) and all the saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, about whom it has knowledge through the SYNAXARION, accounts of their acts (gadl; Arabic, sirah), or through other means. The Synaxarion of the Coptic church, which is the major source for the lives of saints of the Ethiopian church, was translated into Ge‘ez (most probably for the second time) in the thirteenth century. The Synaxarion, which contains entries also for saints from the other non-Chalcedonian churches, is the only source about the lives of many saints. However, since the “restoration” of the Solomonic dynasty in 1270, the famous monasteries, such as Hayq Estifanos in Wollo, were actively engaged in translating acts of saints and martyrs from the Arabic hagiographical literature of the Coptic church. The sources credit particularly Abuna Salama II (1344-1388) for the importation of this genre of literature to Ethiopia.

In the course of time, the translated Synaxarion assumed an Ethiopian character by being enriched with entries for indigenous saints and for other saints from the translated hagiographical literature. As a result, the Coptic and Ethiopian Synaxaria differ, at least in details in entries dealing with the same saints.

The Ethiopian church does not have a formal procedure for canonizing indigenous holy men and women, but the roads taken by these devout people to sainthood are more or less clear, although following them in any measure of strictness may not always lead one to attaining sainthood. The first step to sainthood is accepting the monastic life. It can be safely concluded that, with the exception of the kings and queens, especially those of the Zagwe dynasty (1137-1270), the church does not have indigenous saints who died leading a family life. In the Ethiopian church unmarried as well as married men and women can take the monastic habit.

Although monks and nuns are expected to live in cloisters, rich monks and nuns may stay in their houses with their (landed) properties, doing charitable deeds, such as feeding the hungry and receiving strangers and providing them lodging and board. Such charitable deeds could gain fame and recognition for the monks and nuns from the church, their fame beginning in the monastery or nunnery to which they adhered. Following the Coptic tradition, members of a monastic community are commonly referred to as saints or holy men (qeddusan) and women (qeddusat).

A monk deeply devoted to God in prayers and worship and to the words of God in learning and reading is soon recognized by the monastic community and its head. His knowledge of the literature could reach a standard that makes his interpretation of problematic biblical passages divinely inspired. In the course of time, admirers, especially disciples, start telling stories of remarkable or miraculous deeds performed by such a person during his lifetime. Death at the hands of non-Christians (i.e., Muslims or pagans who surrounded the Christian kingdom and were constantly at war with the Christians), while preaching the Gospel or defending the monasteries against assaults, could be the next and final step to sainthood.

Then, perhaps a young child or an elderly person respected in his community might see a vision that tells him that a new or an old fountain, usually in the neighborhood where the monk spent his life, is a holy spring flowing in the name of the saint to heal the sick. In a country where the faithful are taught to believe that all types of ailments are caused by demons and where the practice and use of medicine is discouraged by the teachers of the faith, the healing power of the holy spring is crucial in the winning of fame and in gaining national recognition for a saint. Furthermore, all founders of monasteries and nunneries are saints of varying degrees of recognition in the nation, whether or not they have holy springs.

Saints are normally commemorated on the day of their death.

For a very few saints, such as Abuna Takla Haymanot, days commemorating other occasions (e.g., birth or translation of relics) are also celebrated. Until the introduction of modernity into Ethiopia in the twentieth century, memorial days of the highly celebrated saints were national holidays. But most of the saints are still revered and commemorated in the regions where they lived and served.

The acts and miracles of these saints, compiled by immediate or second- or third-generation followers, have become important sources of the history and sociology of Ethiopia. Many regional synaxaria have entries of varying length, though usually short, for saints who flourished locally. Since over the course of time every day of the year in the Synaxarion has been laden with entries of several saints, the saints of the day are commemorated only by reading the entries for the day during office services.

Most of the saints who made a lasting contribution to the church of Ethiopia are mentioned under ETHIOPIAN MONASTICISM. However, special entries for a few may be in order. Knowledge of the Nine Saints, also mentioned in the entry for Ethiopian monasticism, is in its infancy. They will be listed here with the dates of their commemoration.


Libanos is the earliest foreign saint (probably after Yohanni, about whom very little is known) in recorded history who taught, died, and was buried in Ethiopia. Understandably, the exact dates in his life remain uncertain. He flourished during the reign of Ella Gabaz, whose dates are not known, and the metropolitanate of Elyas (Elijah), who is not even listed in the list of Ethiopian metropolitans.

According to a homily allegedly composed by the metropolitan Elyas, Libanos came from a very wealthy family of Abraham and Negest (probably a Ge‘ez version of the name Regina). On the night of Libanos’ wedding, the called him and commanded him to go to Dabra Zayt (perhaps Mount Olive or the Monastery of Olive), there to be clothed with monastic garb. He immediately followed the archangel and went to the monastery, where he became a monk.

The order to go to Ethiopia is said to have come to him from PACHOMIUS himself. He went to Ethiopia and immediately started working among the people. When Metropolitan Elyas heard about him, he invited him to his residence in Axum. His time in the city was not long, however. The king asked him to leave when he heard that he had accused the metropolitan of simony.

A monk by the name Adhennani or Adhani finally succeeded in bringing peace between the two religious leaders after Libanos had spent three years in a cave in seclusion. Subsequently, the two monks Libanos and Adkhenanni became associates in leading their spiritual lives. They founded a monastery in Hawzen (in Tigre) and built a church that they dedicated in the name of the Holy Cross, Beta Masqal. Libanos lived several years after the death of his associate, healing the sick and praying for the peace and safety of the church and perhaps playing some role in the translation of the Gospels from Greek to Ge‘ez or Ethiopic.

Before he died, Libanos struck a rock and brought forth a holy spring by which his healing power continued.

He is commemorated on 3 Terr (Tubah).


The so-called Nine Saints were monks who went to Ethiopia in the early history of the Ethiopian church. The exact date and reason for their going to Ethiopia from the Hellenistic world, including Egypt and Syria, are not known. The Ethiopian ruler at that time was Al’ameda, son of Sa’aldobba, who was succeeded by Tazena, father of Kaleb. When Kaleb, the Ethiopian king, set out to campaign in Arabia in 527 to rescue the Christians there from the persecution of their Jewish ruler, he solicited the prayer of Abba Pantalewon, one of the Nine Saints. Historians propose that the arrival of the Nine Saints in Ethiopia was related to the schism and disturbance in the universal church over the nature of divinity and humanity in Christ at and after the Council of CHALCEDON in 451. This view arose in a consideration of this date and other circumstances, such as the struggle for Nubia (now Sudan and southern Egypt) between the Chalcedonians, led by the emperor of the East, and the non- Chalcedonians, led by his empress, THEODORA.

The assumption is that it was non-Chalcedonian monks who rushed to Ethiopia to protect the local church from the teaching of those who accepted the decision of Chalcedon. Even though some of the sources insist that these monks arrived at Ethiopia as a group via the monastery of Apa Pachomius in Egypt, it is plausible that at least some of them came separately at different times.

Aragawi or Zamika’el.

His names are Ge‘ez, the first meaning “The Elder” and the second “of Michael,” an indication that his native name has not been preserved. According to tradition, Aragawi was the leader of the group during the journey from Egypt to Ethiopia, a position that befits his name. The founding of the celebrated Dabra Damo is attributed to this saint. It was at this monastery that Iyyasus Mo’a of Hayq Estifanos in Amhara and Abuna Takla Haymanot of Dabra Libanos in Shewa were clothed with monastic habits at the hands of Yohanni, a spiritual descendant of Aragawi. The saint was said to have used a long serpent to ascend the impregnable summit of Mount Damo, where he built his monastery. Today people use rope to reach it. It is also reported that the saint’s mother, Edna, followed the group to Ethiopia and established there a nunnery for virgins. Aragawi is commemorated on 14 Teqemt (Babah).

Pantalewon (Pantaleon)

Pantalewon is most remembered for the role of his prayers in the success of Kaleb’s campaign in Arabia. Before leaving his African realm for the campaign, Kaleb visited the saint at his cell and received his blessing and encouragement to fight Zu Nuas (or Finnehas, according to local tradition), the Jewish ruler of Arabia who had inflicted serious persecution on his Christian subjects. Pantalewon is also famous for the ascetic life he led. It is reported that the cell with which he is identified—he is sometimes known as Pantalewon of the Cell—was so narrow that he never slept or sat in it, even though he never left it after he entered it forty-five years before his death. His cell, which was north of Axum and was known first by the name of Dabra Asbo, later developed into a famous monastery carrying his name, Dabra Pantalewon. Pantalewon is commemorated on 6 Teqemt (Babah).

Yeshaq (Isaac) or Garima

Both names are non-Ethiopian, even though his hagiographer attempted to derive Garima from an Ethiopic word meaning wonderful. Yeshaq joined the group only after it had arrived in Ethiopia. It is reported that he left his parents’ royal palace in response to an invitation by Pantalewon. When the group decided to leave their center at the king’s palace in Axum, Yeshaq moved to Madara, not far from Adwa. He was famed for performing many astounding miracles. A monastery bearing the name Abba Garima still exists today at another place in Tigre and is an important religious center. His feast is celebrated on 17 Sane (’unah).

Afse or Afasim

The gadl of this saint offers very little historical information about him, except that he made Yeha, an important archaeological site for pre-Christian Ethiopia, his center of activities. The name is clearly non-Ethiopian. The monk is believed to have ascended to heaven like Elijah. The feast of Afse is celebrated on 29 Genbot (Bashans).


His gadl reportedly exists but has not been studied by scholars, nor is his name listed in an important fifteenth-century calendar. According to tradition, he founded his hermitage west of Madara, not far from the original hermitage of Abba Garima. The fact that neither of these two hermitages survived may indicate resentment and resistance to Christianity at the heart of Axumite paganism. It is interesting to note that most of the places where these saints established their evangelical activities were centers of pagan worship. The feast of Gubba is celebrated with that of Afse on 29 Genbot (Bashans). It could be that the two names, Gubba and Afse, belong to one saint.


His gadl repeats what has been written about the rest of his colleagues—that they came together to Ethiopia, settled temporarily in the palace, and dispersed to establish centers of religious activities. Like that of Gubba, Alef’s name is not found listed with those of his colleagues in the fifteenth-century palace calendar of saints. However, the famous monastery Dabra Halle Luya is believed to have been founded by him. His name may be related to the name of the first letter in the alphabet. The feast of Alef is celebrated on 11 Maggabit (Baramhat).


Some scholars, including Dillmann (1880, pp. 1-51), state that he is also called Mata‘. This could be a confusion with another saint, Abba Matta‘, who flourished in Hawzen many years before the coming of the Nine Saints. The feast of Yem’ata is celebrated on 28 Teqemt (Babah).


This saint’s gadl, though known to exist, has not reached the hands of scholars. At the time of the dispersion of the saints, Liqanos moved to north of Axum and founded a monastery, Dabra Qonasil, known by its founder’s name to this day. His feast is celebrated on 28 Khedar (Hatur) and 4 Terr (Tubah).


Abba Sehma is believed to have settled southeast of Adwa. Like many of his colleagues, no gadl for him has yet come to light. Nor is there any religious center carrying his name. There is, however, a region of Tigre named Enda Abba Sehma. The feast of Abba Sehma is celebrated on 16 Terr (Tubah).

Os or Oz

This is most probably another name of either Alef or Sehma.


Yared is one of the very few early Ethiopian saints known to history, and no copy of his original acts has been discovered; thus, important facts about him are uncertain. His second hagiographer lived most probably in the fifteenth century. However, the tradition is firm that the Ethiopian church owes the composition of its antiphonary, the Deggwa, its music as well as the great part of its hymns, to this great saint.

Yared flourished during the reign of Gabra Masqal (c. 558-588).

He was a son of an Axumite priestly family of Yeshaq and Krestina (Isaac and Christina). When his father died while the son was still a child, his mother took him to Gedewon (Gideon), a famous biblical scholar of the time who also happened to be a relative. It soon became clear to the child and the teacher that Yared did not have the talent for learning. Frustrated after several trials and unable to further endure his master’s beatings, Yared considered abandoning school. He left his master and ran away into the woods. While sitting there resting, he watched a caterpillar trying to climb a tree. When he saw that it succeeded after very many attempts, he went back to his teacher to try further. With persistence and prayers, Yared succeeded in becoming a great scholar.

Yared grew up serving as a deacon at the church of Axum, site of the “Ark of Zion,” the tabot (ark) that was believed to house Moses’ tablets of the Ten Commandments. When he reached the age of maturity, he married and became both a father and an accomplished priest. His marriage was, however, not without problems. When he discovered that his wife had a lover, he planned to ambush and kill him. He abandoned the plan only when the messenger of God came to him in the form of three birds and reminded him that he should rather value his priesthood.

It seems that at this time Yared left Axum (or even Ethiopia) and probably went to the Holy Land and the neighboring countries where Christian worship had developed. According to his hagiographer, singing in church in a loud voice was not known in the Ethiopian church at that time. But in Jerusalem, he heard songs of praise to God in a loud voice. One of the birds appeared again and taught him the three types or modes of melodies that are still in use in the Ethiopian church.

As noted, tradition ascribes to Yared the composition of the voluminous antiphonary for the year, the Deggwa. There is no reason to doubt that Yared was responsible for the composition of the nucleus of the Deggwa, the text as well as the melody. But the Deggwa was greatly enlarged by the inclusion of hymns for the saints who lived after the death of Yared. It includes, for example, hymns of the majority of saints who flourished from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.

After serving at the church in Axum for several years, Yared decided to abandon his homeland and go west to Semen. The reason is not clear, but he spent the rest of his life teaching there. His concealed tomb is believed to be there.

Yared is commemorated on 11 Genbot (Bashans).


Lalibala is one of the saintly kings of the Zagwe dynasty that ruled Ethiopia from 1137 to 1270. Since its contribution and dedication to the Ethiopian church has no equal in the history of the country, it is rather curious that the clergy collaborated with a rebel, Yekunno Amlak (1270-1285), to replace it with a new dynasty. Tribal politics may have been a factor. The construction of the monumental rock-hewn churches of Lasta is ascribed to this dynasty, and specifically to Lalibala. In fact, the name of the capital city, Roha, and its surroundings where these churches are located has been changed to Lalibala.

Lalibala was born around 1150 to a princely Lasta family of Zan (or Jan or Zahn) Seyyum and his wife, whose name is not mentioned in the gadl of the saint. It is reported that when the child was born, bees encircled him, foretelling that he would become king and be escorted by the national army. The prophecy was not welcomed by his brother, Harboy, who was ruler of the country at that time. In fact, Harboy attempted to have Lalibala poisoned.

Even before Lalibala took power, the angel of God appeared to him in a vision and transported him to the seventh heaven, where the was enthroned. There, the Lord said to him, “Open the ears of your mind and comprehend what I shall show you, in order that you may build my temple on earth where I shall dwell with people and where I shall be sanctified by the mouth of my people.” Having said this, the Lord described for him the architecture and specifications of the ten rock-hewn churches. Today modern scholars do not have a better explanation of the existence of these breathtakingly impressive Lalibala churches in the middle of a cultural desert. The architecture does not resemble any of the churches or other buildings in neighboring countries, which might be expected to have wielded cultural influence.

Apparently fearing the ruling monarch, Lalibala left the city and lived in the woods until the time was right for his return. In the wilderness he devoted himself to God in prayer and fasting. His true devotion to God in his own way comes through clearly in his gadl. For example, among those who resented his eventual reign was one who gave this reason: “If this man reigned, he would exchange me for incense for use in the church.” His judgment was not totally wrong: there is a tradition that Lalibala indeed sold his own son when he had nothing to give to the poor. While in hiding, Lalibala married Masqal Kebra, who is also commemorated as a saint. His hagiographer claims that Lalibala had visited Egypt and the Holy Land before he ascended the throne. He supposedly received his other name, Gabra Masqal (Servant of the Cross), in a revelation while he was in the Holy Land. Pilgrimage to these places is an aspiration of every religious Ethiopian. There are cases where hagiographers take the liberty of including pilgrimage stories in the acts of their saints, regardless of the actual facts.

According to his hagiographer, the end of Lalibala’s reign and life coincided with the end of the construction of the rock-hewn churches, for it was for this important mission of building lasting temples that the raised him. Lalibala is commemorated on 12 Sane (’unah). Although the month is the beginning of the rainy season, pilgrims from all over the country flock to Lalibala in Sane every year to participate in the celebration.


Iyyasus Mo’a is the founder of the famous monastery Dabra Hayq, also called Dabra Estifanos because of the church built in the monastery in the name of Saint Estifanos (Stephen) the Protomartyr. His life was composed centuries after his death. As a result, it offers very little of historical importance.

Iyyasus Mo’a came from a religious family of Zakrestos and Egzi’ Kebra. (In fact, one of his two brothers, Gabra Seyon, died from harsh asceticism.) He received his call to monastic life when he was thirty years old while living in celibacy with his parents. After spending an anguished night in prayer, he set off the next morning with another man to Dabra Damo to devote himself to God under its abbot, Abba Yohanni. Abba Yohanni, who left the service of the palace and his wife, the daughter of the king, earned his fame from the strict ascetic life he led. He believed that only those who can endure physical sufferings should be admitted to monasticism. He is best remembered for his being the spiritual father of Abuna Iyyasus Mo’a and Abuna Takla Haymanot. He clothed Iyyasus Moa in monastic garb after the latter completed seven years of hard work and rigorous fasting.

After a while, around 1248, Iyyasus Mo’a took leave of his spiritual father and returned to his homeland. At Hayq he started as one of the underlings serving at the local church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. The original church that served the entire community, men as well as women, was built most probably in the ninth century on a site where serpents were worshiped. As soon as the community discovered the greatness of the monk, it requested that the king appoint him their abbot.

It was during the time Iyyasus Mo’a was abbot of Dabra Hayq that Yekunno Amlak, the founder of the Solomonic dynasty in 1270, came to the monastery to study under the abbot. The two made several pacts that Yekunno Amlak agreed to observe if he became king through the prayers and support of Abuna Iyyasus Mo’a. One of the promises Yekunno Amlak made was to fulfill the wish of Iyyasus Moa that women should leave the island and the place be designated a monastery for men only. The women were obviously disappointed when they had to leave the island, even though the new king had invited them to live at his court. “We brought this monk in,” they complained when they left in tears, “holding his hand, and he took us out holding our hands.”

The monastery flourished during the forty years of his leadership. Many important monastic leaders were clothed with monastic garb by his hands. These include Abuna Takla Haymanot of Dabra Asbo (or Libanos) in Shewa, Abuna Basalota Mika’el of Dabra Gol in Amhara; Abuna Gabra Endereyas of Qozat in Shewa; Abuna Gabra Nazrawi in Tigre; and the ECCAGE Aron of Darit in Amhara. Since the high priesthood of the church, the office of ‘aqqabe sa‘at, was promised to the followers of Iyyasus Mo’a by the new king, the monastery maintained close ties with the palace for several centuries. For this and other reasons, the monastery was richly endowed with land grants by the kings and many dignitaries of the empire. The monastery used the wealth to promote religious education at the monastery and, apparently, at daughter monasteries. Many Egyptian monks who helped in translating Egyptian religious books, especially acts of saints and service books, lived at Dabra Hayq with their Ethiopian brothers. Although its enormous heap of gold and precious clothes was plundered by the forces of Graññ in the sixteenth century and its library was looted at different times, Dabra Hayq (or Dabra Nagwadgwad) is still one of the very few important centers that has a library of rare manuscripts. Iyyasus Mo’a’s own copy of the Gospels is still preserved there.

Iyyasus Mo’a himself spent the last years of his life in silent seclusion. He is commemorated on 26 Khedar (Hatur).


Abuna Takla Haymanot is the greatest Ethiopian saint and is recognized as such among all Christians of the country. He was born in Selalesh, in Shewa, under the Zagwe dynasty (1137-1270). The people in the area of his birth were converted to Christianity by his ancestors, who migrated from the north in search of a new home. According to tradition, they came to the south to evangelize the area, which was populated by pagans and Muslims. Apparently with some support from the central administration, these new immigrants seem to have been successful in taking the leadership of the communities in Wagda, Katata, Qawat, Selalesh, Sarmat, Fatagar, and Dawwaro. Their most important source of power, however, was in their roles as teachers. They spread Christianity in that region, endured severe persecution, and eventually succeeded in becoming religious and political leaders. In fact, before Takla Haymanot’s birth, his mother Sara (Sarah) or Egzi’ Kharaya, was taken captive by Motalomi, the ruler of Damot, who fiercely opposed the spread of Christianity in his realm. By the help of the archangel Michael, she was miraculously brought back to her husband, the priest Sagga Za’ab, while he was celebrating the mass in the church of his village.

As a boy, Fesseha Seyon (Takla Haymanot’s name at birth) served in the church as a deacon, consecrated for the office by Metropolitan Qerelos. When he reached the age of maturity, his parents married him to a daughter of one of the community leaders, but she died within two or three years. The call to serve God came to Fesseha Seyon when he was on a hunting trip with his servants: “Fear not, my beloved one; as of now thou shalt not be hunter of animals but fisher of souls of many sinners. Let thy name be Takla Haymanot [i.e., Plant of Faith], for I have chosen thee from the womb of thy mother and sanctified thee like Jeremiah the Prophet and John the Baptist. Behold, I have given thee the authority to heal the sick and to drive away evil spirits from all places.”

with such an authority, Takla Haymanot distributed all his property among the poor and set out to spread the word of God. He successfully converted many regions in Shewa and Damot to Christianity, and he endured persecutions from local chiefs who worshiped pagan gods. On several occasions, he visited the metropolitanate to seek advice on what to do when pagan traditions and Ethiopian Christianity conflict, asking, for example, if baptism could precede circumcision.

After teaching for many years in Shewa and Damot, Takla Haymanot went north to visit the ancient and traditional religious centers of Ethiopia, including Dabra Gol in Amhara when its abbot was Basalota Mika’el; Dabra Hayq Estifanos in Amhara when its abbot was Iyyasus Mo’a; and Dabra Damo in Tigre when its abbot was Yohanni. It was during this extended visit that Takla Haymanot was clothed with the monastic garb, the first stage by Iyyasus Mo’a of Hayq and the higher stage by Yohanni of Dabra Damo.

Equipped with the power to consecrate monks, Takla Haymanot returned to his homeland in the south and, with several followers, established the famous Monastery of Asbo, renamed later Dabra Libanos. Almost all of the close followers of Abuna Takla Haymanot were related both to him and to Yekunno Amlak by blood. This fact may have helped Yekunno Amlak in winning the support of the clerical establishment when he overthrew the Zagwe dynasty in 1270. In gratitude for the support of the clergy in establishing his dynasty, Yekunno Amlak is reported to have given to the church a third of his annual revenue from the lands of the country. However, Takla Haymanot’s role in the overthrow of the Zagwe dynasty is not very clear. The followers of both Takla Haymanot and Iyyasus Mo’a of Hayq Estifanos claim that it is their father who represented the church in helping Yekunno Amlak to establish the Solomonic dynasty in 1270.

Takla Haymanot spent the last years of his life in seclusion, standing for prayer to the point where one of his legs gave way. There is also the popular belief that he grew six wings (three on either side) to fly like the angels. Takla Haymanot died during a pestilence that decimated his community in its infancy. He is commemorated nationwide on 22 Takhsas (Kiyahk), his nativity; 24 Nahase (Misra), his death; and 12 Genbot (Bashans), translation of his body.


  • Budge, E. A. W. The Life of Takla Haymanot in the Version of Dabra Libanos, and the Miracles of Takla Haymanot in the Version of Dabra Libanos, and the Book of the Riches of Kings. London, 1906.
  • Getatchew Haile. “The Monastic Genealogy of the Line of Täklä Haymanot of Shoa.” Rassegna di studi etiopici 29 (1982-1983):7-38.
  • Rossini, C. C. “Il ‘Gadla Takla Haymanot’ secondo la redazione waldebbana.” Memorie della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali, storiche e philologiche, 2, ser. 5, pt. 1 (1896):97-143.

EWOSTATEWOS (Eustatheus)

Ewostatewos is known as the champion of the Jewish Sabbath in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He was born Ma‘eqaba Egzi’ (Trust of the Lord) to a noble family of Krestos Mo’a and Sena Heywat, a family known for gathering the elderly poor together and providing them with their needs. Their faith was strengthened when God heard their prayer of many years to have a child and gave them Ma‘eqaba Egzi’.

When Ma‘eqaba Egzi’ reached school age, his parents took him to Abba Dane’el (Daniel), brother of Sena Heywat, where he pursued his education diligently. This Abba Dane’el founded the monastery Dabra Maryam in May Qwerqwer (Tigre). Ma‘eqaba Egzi’’s inclination toward the religious life began as soon as he started school. He grew up paying no attention to his bodily comfort. Ma‘eqaba Egzi’ was still a young boy when Abba Dane’el agreed to clothe him with the monastic garb, and renamed him Ewostatewos.

After his as a priest, Ewostatewos felt the call to go out and teach: “Sow the word of God, teach and make the law of the God of truth be heard even as you were commanded before.” However, he came back to his monastery regularly for retreat and seclusion, a practice that gave him occasion to study his holy books.

Ewostatewos soon became a prominent monastic leader with many followers, including Abba Absadi, his successor and a monastic leader in his own right. Ewostatewos set rules for his followers, including the punishable prohibition of speaking against others. He also advised them not to be eager to be ordained priests— advice with far-reaching consequences for the community. As to the general public, he admonished them against slavery, murder, robbery, and fornication.

Ewostatewos was among the monastic leaders who chastized Emperor ‘Amda Seyon (1314-1344) for associating himself with a wife of his own father. When ‘Amda Seyon banished him, Ewostatewos attempted to overthrow him by encouraging Warasina Egzi’, the ruler of Hamasen, to rebel.

A more serious controversy, one that forced the monk to leave Ethiopia for good, ensued from the questions of the Saturday Sabbath. According to the Synodicon, one of the books of the Ethiopian church, both Saturday and Sunday are days of rest to be observed by the faithful. The metropolitans coming from Alexandria made it known, however, that Saturday is not observed in the Coptic church. In fact, they even taught that Ethiopians should abandon Jewish practices, including the observance of Saturday as a Sabbath. This created a great schism in the Ethiopian church. Many agreed to observe only Sunday. But a few, led by Ewostatewos, refused to violate the commandments of their Scriptures, the New and the Old Testaments and the books of canon law which command the observance of Saturday.

The feuding parties came to the king’s court looking for a ruling.

There was apparently no metropolitan in the country at that time. However, since the king was not in a position to pass any judgment on ecclesiastical matters and feared the implications of schism for his kingdom, he asked the two parties to go to Egypt and settle their differences before the patriarch. Before Ewostatewos left for Egypt, he ordered his followers never to associate themselves with those who did not follow his teaching. This order created an independent community within the church and the state, which became a real problem for the political as well as religious leaders of the country. Some of his disciples accompanied their father as far as Bogos (in what is now Eritrea), where he asked Absadi to return to the monastery and take charge of its administration. Only twelve of his disciples stayed with him to continue the journey.

Predictably, Ewostatewos’ journey to Egypt was not a success as far as his cause of observing Saturday as a Christian Sabbath was concerned. According to his hagiographer, Patriarch BENJAMIN II (1327-1339) was sympathetic to his cause, but he is reported to have said that this teaching of the apostles had long been abandoned. Ewostatewos and his followers left the patriarchate and spent some time in the monasteries in SCETIS in strict asceticism. The hagiographer mentions the Monastery of Elijah as one of the monasteries they visited there.

After he left Scetis, he visited the Holy Land and Cyprus, and went to Armenia, where he spent the rest of his life. Why Ewostatewos wanted to go to Armenia is not clear. He had either heard a report that the Saturday Sabbath was observed there, or else he wanted to live in another country where monophysitism was the religion. His disciples at home made a statue of their teacher to be erected in Dabra Maryam, an unusual practice in the Ethiopian church.

His followers continued their separate life for many years to come. Most of those who went with him perished on the journey, but two of them were able to return to Ethiopia. They attempted to convert the Falasha (Ethiopian Jews) to Christianity. Observance of the Saturday Sabbath is the central point in the religion of the Falasha. When the number of the Ewostatewosites grew at an alarming rate and their order continued to differ from the tradition practiced by the established church—taking too seriously the advice of their teacher not to be eager to be ordained priests, they denounced priesthood—Emperor Dawit (1382-1413) banned the movement. Since they were many and determined, destroying them was impossible. Finally his son, Emperor Zar’a Ya‘qob (1434-1468), brought an end to the schism by summoning a council to consider the issue. The Council of Dabra Metmaq (1445) declared that according to the books accepted by the Ethiopian church, Saturday was a Sabbath to be observed by all Christians.

Ewostatewos is commemorated on 18 Maskaram (Tut).


The identity of Abba Giyorgis (George) is far from certain. Two or even three prominent personalities in the church of medieval Ethiopia may have been confused in the tradition. One of them, possibly Abba Giyorgis of Dabra Bahrey, may have flourished during the reign of ‘Amda Seyon (1314-1344). He must have been a disciple of Abuna Iyyasus Mo’a of Dabra Hayq. The other, Giyorgis of Sagla or Gasecha, died between 1424 and 1426. The assumption now is that this is the Giyorgis that the tradition refers to as Abba Giyorgis the writer, the preacher, and the musician. The single extant copy of his gadl is preserved in the Monastery of Hayq.

Giyorgis came from the noble family of Hezba Seyon (probably from Tigre) and Emmena Seyon from Walaqa (in present-day Wollo). Giyorgis must have inherited the zeal for learning from his father, who was widely known as “a comprehender of the Scriptures like Salathiel [Ezra].” The start, however, was not smooth for the child. His father took him to the Monastery of Hayq, the center of Ethiopian church education at that time. But Giyorgis was so slow in learning that his teacher lost hope of teaching him. A person who did not possess the faculty for memorization could not go far in the traditional Ethiopian system of education, where education was mostly oral preservation of knowledge. Faced with this problem, Giyorgis went daily to church, where he prayed with tears and total concentration to God and the Blessed Virgin. One night, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and told him to be diligent in his learning, forgoing even sleeping by night.

The diligence recommended to him proved to be very effective.

A hymn composed in his honor says it all:

  • Rising from the region of Sagla like a bright sun, buckling the sharp sword of faith about his waist, Giyorgis swam the depth of the sea of the Scriptures.
  • He built his castle upon a firm rock, its foundation does not shake to right or left.
  • The power of the wind could not make it fall.

Abba Giyorgis is a scholar saint without equal in the Ethiopian church in the quality and quantity of original literature he produced. However, he is mostly remembered for two important works: a book of hours called Sa‘atat (hours), and Masehafa mestir (The Book of Mystery).

Before Giyorgis, the widely used service book for the hours was the Ge‘ez version of the Coptic HOROLOGION. For unclear reasons, different monasteries compiled their own books of the hours. Ultimately, however, that of Abba Giyorgis prevailed, even though many churches continue to use the Coptic Sa‘atat. The distinctive characteristic of the horologion ascribed to Abba Giyorgis is that it contains the of beautifully composed salutary hymns to many of the saints accepted by the Ethiopian church. As a musician, he provided the melody for his lyrics. His original horologion, probably intended to be used in shifts in his monastery, covered the twenty-four hours of the day.

The Masehafa Mestir, composed toward the end of his life, is a collection of twenty-seven well-documented treatises refuting different heresies of foreign and local origin. These treatises are arranged to be read in churches and monasteries at different holy and feast days of the year as part of the liturgy and are still in use. Other locally composed hymns to the Blessed Virgin, such as the Arganona weddase (Organ of Praise) and Khokheta berhan (Portal of Light), are now believed to have come from the pen of Abba Giyorgis. He also wrote a collection of hymns for the Holy Cross, Weddase masqal (Praise of the Cross). It is also quite possible that some of the locally composed anaphoras are his.

Giyorgis started his career at the royal court as a teacher of the children of Emperor Dawit (1382-1413). Later he held the office of nebura ed (abbot) of Dabra Damo. But it appears that he was not always on good terms with the emperor. Because of Ethiopia’s foreign relations, foreigners had easy access to the emperors. These foreigners very often included missionaries and travelers from the non-Monophysite churches. The church and monastic leaders, including Abba Giyorgis, found themselves at odds with political leaders influenced by such visitors. The “heretic” Bitu, who had great influence on Dawit, was instrumental in the banishment and imprisonment of Abba Giyorgis, who won his freedom only when the emperor died. One of the chapters in his Masehafa mestir is a refutation of the conception by Bitu of the image of God.

Abba Giyorgis was also actively involved in the Saturday Sabbath dispute, devoting a chapter of his Masehafa mestir to the defense of the practice. His wish to be clothed with the monastic garb at Dabra Libanos was frustrated when he saw that that community was in the opposite camp. Instead, he went to Dabra Gol in Amhara, the monastery of the nebulous saint Basalota Mika’el, which he later headed during the reign of Emperor Yeshaq (1414-1429).

Giyorgis is commemorated on 7 Hamle (Abib).

ZAR’A YA‘QOB (c. 1399-1468)

Strictly speaking, Zar’a Ya‘qob (Seed of Jacob) is not a saint. But he is one of the very few theologians who have left memorable traces on the life of the church of Ethiopia.

Zar’a Ya‘qob was born around 1399 to Emperor Dawit (1382-1413) and Queen Egzi’ Kebra from Tigre. He grew up in monasteries, with little hope of ascending his father’s throne, because he had many older brothers. His years in the monasteries were very fruitful. He was able to study Ge‘ez and its literature thoroughly, staying away from palace politics and the struggle for the crown until his brothers reigned and died without leaving capable successors. The throne was left empty, and after a few turbulent years, the army discovered him and installed him on the throne.

Zar’a Ya‘qob came to power when the country was on the brink of total collapse. The Muslim vassal rulers of ‘Adal in the east were putting pressure on the Christians with regular raids, and the church was divided into monasteries based on differing theological views, notably the Zamika’elites, the Ewostatewosites, and the Estifanosites (see ETHIOPIAN HERESIES AND THEOLOGICAL CONTROVERSIES). Equipped with his knowledge of the theological and Christological literature and aided by his chosen kahnata dabtara (palace clergy), the emperor decided to have a church united in its belief and teaching, as defined by himself and his theologians.

The main obstacle he had to face was the fact that the mother church in Alexandria, the Coptic church, had a tradition slightly different from that of the local church. As regards the scriptural canon, for example, the Book of Jubilees, which is enumerated in the Synodicon, was not in the Coptic church. Therefore, theologians at the emperor’s court challenged the emperor’s reference to the Book of Jubilees. The Saturday Sabbath, to mention another example, was not observed in the Coptic church, even though the Synodicon, which came to Ethiopia from the Coptic church, commands clearly that it should be.

For some event in his own personal life, Zar’a Ya‘qob became indebted to the Blessed Virgin. In gratitude, he expected extreme reverence to her and her icon, more even that what was the practice in Egypt. One of his tasks was, therefore, to settle these differences with the metropolitans, who did not dare to challenge the Synodicon before the emperor. He summoned several councils to rule on the theological issues, but he dictated his own views on them. Through persuasion, persecution, and sometimes acceptance of other views, Zar’a Ya‘qob finally achieved a certain degree of success in uniting the church and hence the Christian population.

The number of the Miracles of Mary, which first appeared in translations from Arabic commissioned by his father, grew considerably during his reign through the translation of additional miracles and the composition of new miracles, incorporating local events. He or his priests composed collections of homilies to be read in the churches on holy and feast days. These homilies are mostly refutations of heresies and expositions of the position of his church on certain issues. Collections included the Masehafa milad (Book of Nativity), dealing with the theology of the unity and trinity of God and the Incarnation of the Word; the Masehafa berhan (Book of Light), dealing with several theological issues; and Tomara tesbe’t (Letter of Humanity), explaining the evils of magic and idolatry. One of the doxologies of the Ethiopian church, a collection of hymns, is also ascribed to him. These writings, including the Miracles of Mary, are part of the service books in Ethiopia even today. Several books, including the Jewish history ascribed to Joseph Ben Gorion (Josippon), were also translated into Ge‘ez by his priests.

Zar’a Ya‘qob introduced his reforms with force. He did not hesitate to have religious offenders executed. He even ordered that all Christians bear a tattoo of the cross on their foreheads. Relapsing violators of the order to attend religious instruction on each Saturday and Sunday had their properties confiscated. Holy days for the angels, the saints (thirty-three a year for the Blessed Virgin), and martyrs were reordained. He ordered the reading of the Miracles of Mary to be part of the service in every church.

Zar’a Ya‘qob also had great success on the political front. He successfully repulsed a raid from ‘Adal, killing its king, and the new king of ‘Adal pledged to be submissive and peaceful. The emperor suppressed palace coups, destroying everyone he suspected of conspiracy. He wrote a strong letter of protest to Sultan Jaqmaq (1438-1453) when he heard of the persecution that the Copts suffered under the rule of his predecessor, Sultan Barsbay (1422-1438). He cried bitterly in public mourning when the news of the destruction of DAYR AL-MAGHTIS in Lower Egypt came to him and immediately set out to build a new monastery that carried the name in Ge‘ez: Dabra Metmaq. He received with great honor the Egyptian delegation that came to his palace to inform him of the end of the persecution. He himself had also sent envoys to the Middle East and Europe, including a delegation of observers to the Council of FLORENCE in 1439-1440.

Zar’a Ya‘qob is commemorated on 3 Paguemen (al-Nasi).


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.


Probably because Abuna Gabra Manfas Qeddus (Servant of the Holy Spirit) does not belong to the early period of the Ethiopian church and because his hagiographer knew very little about his patron, some scholars have wondered if the saint could have been a European. But there is no evidence supporting such a hypothesis.

According to tradition, Abuna Gabra Manfas Qeddus went to Ethiopia from a monastery in a district of Lower Egypt called Nehisa. The time of his arrival is not certain, but there are some sources that indicate that he died in 1382.

Abuna Gabra Manfas Qeddus can truly be called the saint of the people, a man who probably never visited the courts of any of the political or spiritual leaders of the country. He taught in the area of Medra Kabd and Zeqwala (in Shewa), about 28 miles (45 km) south of Addis Ababa, and died there. He is popularly known as a saint who had the miraculous power to split a cliff in two as one would split a stem of a grass. The exaggerated events in his life preserved in his acts could indicate that he was then, as he is now, highly popular among the ordinary people.

The name of the saint’s family is preserved as Semon and Aqleseya, which could be Egyptian. His native name is not preserved. He is reported to have grown up in a monastery from the time he was three years old. Either there was some real reason for this or, as the hagiographer hints, it was just an imitation of the tradition about the lives of the Blessed Virgin and the prophet Samuel.

The saint started a harsh ascetic life at an early age. The covered him with hair when he refused to protect himself from cold with clothes. His dark beard became an added cover to his body, especially when he celebrated the mass. His main prayer was to see and hear God himself, and to have those who were in judgment resurrected and pardoned before the Last Judgment.

When Abuna Gabra Manfas Qeddus came to Ethiopia, he found the physical environment of Medra Kabd very agreeable. He praised God quoting Matthew 11:25: “I thank thee, O Father, of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things [i.e., Ethiopia] from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes [i.e., himself].” The first people he met in Ethiopia in the wilderness of Medra Kabd were the wandering hermits. Soon wild animals became his friends, and lions and leopards offered him their services, especially to carry him around.

His evangelizing activities were supported by miracles of healing, which he performed among the people. People who heard of his healing power came to him and received his blessing, and he turned them to God. It is not very clear whether the pagans in the region where he taught were in the majority, but there were churches and several other hermits whom he met there.

On his death on 5 Maggabit (Baramhat), all who knew him in the neighborhood, including angels from heaven and the sixty lions and sixty leopards, attended his funeral and mourned him. His monastery, near the crater on the top of Mount Zeqwala, though unimpressive, is a center for pilgrims, especially on the day his death is commemorated.


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