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).