Matewos was metropolitan during a stormy period in modern Ethiopian history, which covered the reigns of Menelik II (1889-1913), Lej Iyyasu (1913-1916), and Empress Zawditu (1916-1930).
After the death of Abuna Atnatewos (1876), Emperor Yohannes IV, alleging that one bishop was not sufficient for his whole empire, asked the Coptic patriarch Cyril V (1875-1927) to send Ethiopia four bishops. Thus, at Maqale, in the late fall of 1881, the Ethiopian sovereign received a new metropolitan bishop, Abuna Petros IV, who was to reside in Tigre province. Three coadjutor bishops came with him: Matewos, who was to become bishop of Shewa and all territories governed by Menelik, negus of Shewa (1865-1889); Mark, who was to become bishop of Bagemder and Semen, but who died soon after his arrival at Dabra Tabor; and Luqas, who was to become bishop of Gojam, where he died in 1901. Matewos, who was received with great pomp and ceremony in his diocese, rapidly gained Menelik’s confidence, and even officiated at the negus’s marriage to Taytu at Ankobar, in April 1883.
Born in 1843 at Bani Khalid, in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Asyut, Matewos took his monastic vows in DAYR AL- MUHARRAQ at Qusqam and came to Ethiopia from the Monastery of Saint Antony (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS). At the beginning of his tenure in this country, knowing none of the many tongues spoken in Ethiopia, he had to make use of an interpreter. But unlike his predecessors, he quickly learned not only Amharic but also Ge‘ez, the liturgical language of the church.
After Yohannes IV was killed in the battle of Matamma (10 March 1889), Menelik ascended the throne and promptly requested that Matewos be promoted to the rank of metropolitan bishop in place of Petros IV. The latter tried in vain to prevent this; but Menelik succeeded in obtaining approval from the Coptic patriarch in Egypt, and thus Matewos replaced Petros IV. At this same time, Menelik repartitioned the territories of these two prelates, Matewos obtaining not only the greater part of Shewa but also many other important lands, such as Yajju, Bagemder, and Dambya.
As metropolitan bishop, Matewos crowned Menelik II King of Kings on 3 November 1889 at Entotto. Henceforth, he became deeply involved in the political life of the empire. Alongside the imperial troops, he even followed the entire military campaign of Adwa against the Italians (1895-1896).
In 1902, Matewos journeyed to Cairo, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and St. Petersburg. This was an extraordinary trip, for no acting metropolitan bishop had ever before been permitted to leave Ethiopia. It was officially justified by “family reasons,” but according to Maurice de Coppet, it was actually an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the problem of DAYR AL-SULTAN, the Coptic monastery at Jerusalem near the Holy Sepulcher, whose possession has been disputed over the years by the Egyptian and Ethiopian churches.
In 1907, when Menelik decided to establish public schools in Ethiopia, Matewos asked that the schools remain under church control, for by tradition the church had always been responsible for education in the land; and indeed, the first government school founded by the emperor did have a corps of teachers consisting mainly of Egyptian Copts. Matewos’ concern was based on a fear of possible Catholic or Protestant influence upon the youth of the country, which might have resulted, had foreign instructors been recruited. In fact, he was generally hostile to any Ethiopians suspected of adopting a “foreign” religion, and because of this, certain intellectual groups often considered him to be too conservative and opposed to the spread of knowledge. Nonetheless, he enjoyed great prestige among the Ethiopian clergy.
His influence grew even greater after Menelik was stricken with paralysis in 1909. On 18 May of that year, the ailing emperor publicly proclaimed his grandson, Lej Iyyasu, inheritor of the imperial throne, and on this same occasion, a declaration was also read announcing that Matewos would summarily excommunicate anyone opposed to the emperor’s proclamation. Following this, Matewos supported Lej Iyyasu and even backed the nobility in efforts to prevent Empress Taytu from meddling in any affairs of state (Pronunciamento Pacifico, 21 March 1910).
However, some years later after a long and prudent silence, Matewos reversed his position, for Lej Iyyasu was increasingly leaning toward Islam and the Muslims, a fact that alarmed nobility and clergy alike. Finally, on 27 September 1916, conspirators approached Matewos, demanding that he proclaim the dethronement of Lej Iyyasu, and the enthronement of Menelik’s daughter, Zawditu, with Ras Tafari Makonnen (the future Emperor Haile Selassie I) being designated heir to the throne. After some hesitation, Matewos acceded to these demands, and the abortive reign of Lej Iyyasu thus came to an end. The bishop officially crowned Zawditu empress on 11 February 1917.
In 1923, Matewos, gravely ill, went back to Egypt. He returned to Ethiopia a few months later, but never again completely regained his strength. At this time, problems concerning his succession began to arise, and he became the subject of several attacks in articles published in Berhan-enna Salam, the newspaper founded by Ras Tafari Makonnen. After a bout with pneumonia, he died in Addis Ababa on 4 December 1926, at eighty-three years of age, having resided in Ethiopia for forty-five years and having officiated as metropolitan for thirty-seven. His death put an end to the bitter accusations against him, but in widening the debate about his successor, it also opened a very delicate phase in the relations between the Egyptian and Ethiopian churches.
His successor, Qerelos III, did not arrive in Ethiopia until some three years later (1929).
- Bairu Tafla. ed. A Chronicle of Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-89), p. 153. Wiesbaden, 1977.
- Cipolla, A. Nell’impero di Menelik, pp. 272-77. Milan, 1911. Greenfield, R. Ethiopia: A New Political History, pp. 138-39. London, 1965.
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- (n. 3), 530, 540-42, 622, 629, and pl. 16, containing a large portrait of Abuna Matewos. Paris, 1930-1931.
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- Zewde Gabre-Sellassie. Yohannes IV of Ethiopia: A Political Biography, pp. 108-109. Oxford, 1975.