MIKA’EL III (d. c. 1450s)
Contrary to the tradition which held that there could be only one metropolitan in Ethiopia, Mika’el (Michael) held this post simultaneously with Abuna Gabr’el. Succeeding Abuna Bartalomewos, these two metropolitans arrived in Ethiopia together. With the coadjutor bishop Yohannes, they formed a small group of Coptic prelates who, according to the Liber Axumae, had come to the country in 1431 of the Ethiopian calendar (A.D. 1438-1439). Thus, they had been consecrated by the Coptic patriarch JOHN XI (1427-1452).
Upon their arrival in Ethiopia in February 1439, during the reign of Zar’a Ya‘qob (1434-1468), the negus demanded that they condemn the heretical trinitarian doctrine of the Zamika’elites (initiated by a monk named Zamika’el). This was probably because the negus remembered that Abuna Bartalomewos had been suspected of favoring this heresy. Consequently, Mika’el and Gabr’el were required to proclaim, “We believe in three persons, but one sole divinity.”
Likewise, in August 1449, at the request of the negus, both metropolitans subscribed to the verdict that Zar’a Ya‘qob once again declared in the old dispute of the celebration of the Sabbath on Saturday. In effect, the two metropolitans agreed to the observance of “the two Sabbaths,” in conformance with the decision adopted during the reign of Abuna Bartalomewos. Afterward, during the sovereign’s residency at Dabra Berhan (1454-1468), the three Egyptian prelates participated in the tribunal that judged and condemned the Zamika’elites.
The exact circumstances for the joint reign of Mika’el III and Gabr’el as metropolitans are unknown. Probably when they were consecrated and sent to Ethiopia, the Coptic patriarch intended that they govern in succession (i.e., one after the death of the other, as often happened subsequently). However, once on Ethiopian soil and probably at the orders of the negus, the two divided their territorial jurisdiction. As a result, there were documents issued with both men holding the same rank wherein Mika’el governed Amhara and Gabr’el ruled over Shewa. Each one proceeded to ordain deacons and priests within his own territory. At first this arrangement did not include Tigre, where the clergy refused to accept any metropolitan at all, for they felt that the quarrel of the Sabbath had not yet been definitively resolved. The negus then convoked a synod in 1450 that confirmed the observance of the two Sabbaths.
Only approximate deductions can be made as to the dates of the deaths of these two metropolitans. The Life of Ezra, a contemporary Estifanosite monk, states that in 1475 Ezra decided to go to Egypt in an attempt to have himself ordained a priest, “for, since the death of Abuna Gabr’el, there was no longer a bishop in Ethiopia with the authority to consecrate priests” (Caquot, 1961, p. 95). This story is also confirmed by a traditional list of metropolitans found in an Ethiopian document, which states that Mika’el and Gabr’el arrived together and that when Mika’el died, Gabr’el carried out the duties alone.
Elsewhere, Francisco Alvares (1961, Vol. 2, pp. 356-57), the chaplain of the first Portuguese mission to arrive in Ethiopia (1520), reported that Abuna Marqos I told him that during the reign of Zar’a Ya‘qob, the church in Ethiopia had been without a metropolitan for twenty-three years—that is, until the arrival of Abuna Yeshaq II toward the end of 1481. From these data, it may be deduced that Gabr’el succeeded Mika’el and that he died in 1458. As to Mika’el’s death, it must have preceded this date by a short while.
- Alvares, F. The Prester John of the Indies, Vol. 2, ed. C. F. Beckingham and G. W. B. Huntingford, pp. 356-57. Cambridge, 1961.
- Caquot, A. “Les Actes d’Ezra de Gunda-Gunde.” Annales d’Ethiopie (1961):95.
- Cerulli, E. Il libro ethiopico dei Miracoli di Maria, pp. 109-120. Rome, 1943.
- Getatchew Haile. “The Letter of Archbishops Mika’el and Gabra’el Concerning the Observance of Saturday.” Journal of Semitic Studies 26, no. 1 (1981):73-78.
- Guidi, I. “Le liste dei metropoliti d’Abissinia.” Bessarione 6 ser. 1 (1899):9.
- Rossini, C. “L’omilia di Yohannes, vescovo d’Aksum, in onore di Garimâ,” In Actes du XIe Congres international des orientalistes, p. 142. Paris, 1897.
- . Documenta ad Illustrandam Historiam, Vol. 1, Liber Axumae. In CSCO, 58, p. 82. Louvain, 1954.
- Rossini, C. C., and L. Ricci. Il libro della Luce del Negus Zar’a Ya‘qob (Mashafa Berhan), Vol. 2. In CSCO 261, pp. 153-55. Louvain, 1965.
- Taddesse Tamrat. Church and State in Ethiopia 1270-1527, pp. 228-30, 235-36. Oxford, 1972.