Abuna Takla Haymanot is the greatest Ethiopian saint and is recognized as such among all Christians of the country. He was born in Selalesh, in Shewa, under the Zagwe dynasty (1137-1270). The people in the area of his birth were converted to Christianity by his ancestors, who migrated from the north in search of a new home. According to tradition, they came to the south to evangelize the area, which was populated by pagans and Muslims. Apparently with some support from the central administration, these new immigrants seem to have been successful in taking the leadership of the communities in Wagda, Katata, Qawat, Selalesh, Sarmat, Fatagar, and Dawwaro. Their most important source of power, however, was in their roles as teachers. They spread Christianity in that region, endured severe persecution, and eventually succeeded in becoming religious and political leaders. In fact, before Takla Haymanot’s birth, his mother Sara (Sarah) or Egzi’ Kharaya, was taken captive by Motalomi, the ruler of Damot, who fiercely opposed the spread of Christianity in his realm. By the help of the archangel Michael, she was miraculously brought back to her husband, the priest Sagga Za’ab, while he was celebrating the mass in the church of his village.
As a boy, Fesseha Seyon (Takla Haymanot’s name at birth) served in the church as a deacon, consecrated for the office by Metropolitan Qerelos. When he reached the age of maturity, his parents married him to a daughter of one of the community leaders, but she died within two or three years. The call to serve God came to Fesseha Seyon when he was on a hunting trip with his servants: “Fear not, my beloved one; as of now thou shalt not be hunter of animals but fisher of souls of many sinners. Let thy name be Takla Haymanot [i.e., Plant of Faith], for I have chosen thee from the womb of thy mother and sanctified thee like Jeremiah the Prophet and John the Baptist. Behold, I have given thee the authority to heal the sick and to drive away evil spirits from all places.”
Girded with such an authority, Takla Haymanot distributed all his property among the poor and set out to spread the word of God. He successfully converted many regions in Shewa and Damot to Christianity, and he endured persecutions from local chiefs who worshiped pagan gods. On several occasions, he visited the metropolitanate to seek advice on what to do when pagan traditions and Ethiopian Christianity conflict, asking, for example, if baptism could precede circumcision.
After teaching for many years in Shewa and Damot, Takla Haymanot went north to visit the ancient and traditional religious centers of Ethiopia, including Dabra Gol in Amhara when its abbot was Basalota Mika’el; Dabra Hayq Estifanos in Amhara when its abbot was Iyyasus Mo’a; and Dabra Damo in Tigre when its abbot was Yohanni. It was during this extended visit that Takla Haymanot was clothed with the monastic garb, the first stage by Iyyasus Mo’a of Hayq and the higher stage by Yohanni of Dabra Damo.
Equipped with the power to consecrate monks, Takla Haymanot returned to his homeland in the south and, with several followers, established the famous Monastery of Asbo, renamed later Dabra Libanos. Almost all of the close followers of Abuna Takla Haymanot were related both to him and to Yekunno Amlak by blood. This fact may have helped Yekunno Amlak in winning the support of the clerical establishment when he overthrew the Zagwe dynasty in 1270. In gratitude for the support of the clergy in establishing his dynasty, Yekunno Amlak is reported to have given to the church a third of his annual revenue from the lands of the country. However, Takla Haymanot’s role in the overthrow of the Zagwe dynasty is not very clear. The followers of both Takla Haymanot and Iyyasus Mo’a of Hayq Estifanos claim that it is their father who represented the church in helping Yekunno Amlak to establish the Solomonic dynasty in 1270.
Takla Haymanot spent the last years of his life in seclusion, standing for prayer to the point where one of his legs gave way. There is also the popular belief that he grew six wings (three on either side) to fly like the angels. Takla Haymanot died during a pestilence that decimated his community in its infancy. He is commemorated nationwide on 22 Takhsas (Kiyahk), his nativity; 24 Nahase (Misra), his death; and 12 Genbot (Bashans), translation of his body.
- Budge, E. A. W. The Life of Takla Haymanot in the Version of Dabra Libanos, and the Miracles of Takla Haymanot in the Version of Dabra Libanos, and the Book of the Riches of Kings. London, 1906.
- Getatchew Haile. “The Monastic Genealogy of the Line of Täklä Haymanot of Shoa.” Rassegna di studi etiopici 29 (1982-1983):7-38.
- Rossini, C. C. “Il ‘Gadla Takla Haymanot’ secondo la redazione waldebbana.” Memorie della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali, storiche e philologiche, 2, ser. 5, pt. 1 (1896):97-143.