GIYORGIS OF GASECHA
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 doxology 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).