Sinoda (D. 1699) – Ethiopian Saints

SINODA (d. 1699)

The annals of Negus Yohannes I (1667-1682) and Negus Iyyasu I (1682-1706) record much historical information about Sinoda (Shenute), who assumed his duties upon the dismissal of his predecessor, Abuna Krestodolu II, a dismissal that resulted from the controversy over union and unction. Negus Yohannes I, who favored the doctrine of the Unctionists (the monks of the order of Ewostatewos), suspected Abuna Krestodolu II of leaning toward the Unionists (the monks of the order of Takla Haymanot); thus, he requested the Coptic patriarch MATTHEW IV (1660-1675) to send a new metropolitan to Ethiopia.

Sinoda arrived in Ethiopia via Sennar, but did not go immediately to Gonder. He was forced to remain a few months at Celga near the because of unrest in the capital, which had been invaded by warrior-monks engaged in violent polemics. When Gonder became calm, the new metropolitan entered the city on 9 Teqemt 1664 of the Ethiopian calendar (A.D. 17 October 1671).

Krestodolu II was quietly dismissed and the new metropolitan immediately enthroned.

Sinoda was a wise and able metropolitan, for he succeeded in avoiding making any incisive decisions in the discussions that were rocking the Ethiopian clergy. Near 1678 he convoked a to examine disciplinary questions, but some of the assembly insisted upon discussing the “problems of faith” before touching those of discipline. As a result, the council had to be suspended. In November of the same year, Sinoda convoked another council to discuss the validity of the negus’s marriage to Sabla Wangel,

daughter of the ruler’s paternal aunt, a marriage that part of the clergy considered contrary to canon law. A few monks, however, affirmed that the Coptic patriarch Matthew IV had already pronounced in favor of this marriage’s validity, whereupon Abuna Sinoda declared that they should abide by the patriarch’s decision.

During this same year, an Armenian bishop named Hovannes (John) arrived in Ethiopia. He brought a letter of introduction from the Coptic XVI (1676-1718), along with a relic, a bone from the hand of Ewostatewos, the Ethiopian saint who died in Armenia during the fourteenth century and was founder of the order supporting the unction doctrine.

Hovannes was an ambitious man who was hoping to make his career in Ethiopia, but his sojourn in that country was brief. Nonetheless, by a decision of the negus and with the approbation of the metropolitan, the relic was to be kept in the Church of the Savior at Gonder. This action aroused vehement protests from the Unionist monks of the order of Takla Haymanot, who were difficult to appease.

In year 1672 of the Ethiopian calendar (A.D. 1679-1680), by order of the negus, Sinoda convoked another for the purpose of examining an “impure” letter addressed to the king from the clergy of Lasta, who wished to maintain that “the Father had been incarnated in the Virgin Mary.” The council condemned this thesis, and Sinoda threatened to excommunicate all those who accepted it.

Sinoda also had to intervene in the conflict between Yohannes I and his son, the future Negus Iyyasu I. Suspecting that his father wished to apprehend and place him in seclusion, Iyyasu fled, finding asylum in the territory of the Oromo (who are also called Galla). He refused to return to Gonder until his father gave him certain guarantees. The negus had to promise not to deny his son freedom, under penalty of excommunication issued against the sovereign by the eccage, the head of the regular clergy.

However, since the metropolitan could absolve all excommunications, Sinoda had to promise not to absolve this one, under penalty of his own excommunication by a priest chosen by Iyyasu. (The royal chronicler added, however, that the excommunication issued against the metropolitan was “contrary to the usual custom.”) Finally, on 10 Teqemt 1673 (A.D. 17 October 1681), Sinoda participated in a ninth that concluded with a reaffirmation of the Unctionist doctrine and the excommunication of the adherents of the Unionist doctrine.

However, the situation changed with the of Negus Yohannes I and the accession to the throne of his son Iyyasu I on 15 Hamle 1674 (A.D. 19 July 1682). Iyyasu favored the monks of the order of Takla Haymanot (Unionists), and from the first years of his rule he thought of requesting another Coptic metropolitan. Because he liked Sinoda, the negus told him of his plans and explained that with this request he hoped not only to facilitate the throne’s ecclesiastical but also to protect the metropolitan himself, who had been pressured by the Unctionists and invited to “fight and die” for the doctrine that he had helped to have proclaimed during the reign of Negus Yohannes I.

The new Coptic bishop, named Marqos, arrived at Gonder during the eighth year of Iyyasu’s reign and was introduced by Sinoda himself to the civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries on 18 Maskaram 1681 (25 September 1689). The chronicle states that “Sinoda was not dismissed, and Marqos was sent to Sarka, where he was installed with all the honors due him, for two metropolitans could not reside in the same city.” In other words, the negus decided, for the time being, to treat Marqos as if he were the coadjutor bishop to Sinoda, who thereby continued to occupy his supreme position for a few years.

During the eleventh year of his reign, Iyyasu I visited Tigre and was received with great pomp on 6 Yakkatit 1685 (A.D. 10 February 1693). Accompanied by Abuna Sinoda, he spent the day in the cathedral of the holy city, near the “Ark of Zion” (i.e., the most famous tabot of all the Ethiopian churches, said to be the true Ark of the Covenant, containing the Tablets of the Law, described in the Old Testament).

This was probably the last grand function in which the old metropolitan participated. In fact, upon his return to Gonder, the negus convoked an assembly of dignitaries and prelates before whom he had a letter publicly read in which the Coptic XVI ordered that Marqos be enthroned in Sinoda’s place. This occurred on the feast day of Abba Salama, the first bishop of Ethiopia, 26 Hamle 1685 (A.D. 30 July 1693). The elevation of Marqos IV occurred immediately.

Sinoda must have lived a few years longer in general esteem.

According to the Abridged Chronicle of Ethiopia, he died during the month of Khedar in the eighteenth year of the reign of Iyyasu I (November 1699). This is confirmed by the account of the French physician Jacques Charles Poncet (1713, pp. 82-84), who was then in Gonder and who, at the request of the negus, visited the dying Sinoda. Poncet added one interesting detail: Iyyasu told him that he had great affection for Sinoda because Sinoda had been his teacher.


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