ZAR’A YA‘QOB (c. 1399-1468)
Strictly speaking, Zar’a Ya‘qob (Seed of Jacob) is not a saint. But he is one of the very few theologians who have left memorable traces on the life of the church of Ethiopia.
Zar’a Ya‘qob was born around 1399 to Emperor Dawit (1382-1413) and Queen Egzi’ Kebra from Tigre. He grew up in monasteries, with little hope of ascending his father’s throne, because he had many older brothers. His years in the monasteries were very fruitful. He was able to study Ge‘ez and its literature thoroughly, staying away from palace politics and the struggle for the crown until his brothers reigned and died without leaving capable successors. The throne was left empty, and after a few turbulent years, the army discovered him and installed him on the throne.
Zar’a Ya‘qob came to power when the country was on the brink of total collapse. The Muslim vassal rulers of ‘Adal in the east were putting pressure on the Christians with regular raids, and the church was divided into monasteries based on differing theological views, notably the Zamika’elites, the Ewostatewosites, and the Estifanosites (see ETHIOPIAN HERESIES AND THEOLOGICAL CONTROVERSIES). Equipped with his knowledge of the theological and Christological literature and aided by his chosen kahnata dabtara (palace clergy), the emperor decided to have a church united in its belief and teaching, as defined by himself and his theologians.
The main obstacle he had to face was the fact that the mother church in Alexandria, the Coptic church, had a tradition slightly different from that of the local church. As regards the scriptural canon, for example, the Book of Jubilees, which is enumerated in the Synodicon, was not canonical in the Coptic church. Therefore, theologians at the emperor’s court challenged the emperor’s reference to the Book of Jubilees. The Saturday Sabbath, to mention another example, was not observed in the Coptic church, even though the Synodicon, which came to Ethiopia from the Coptic church, commands clearly that it should be.
For some event in his own personal life, Zar’a Ya‘qob became indebted to the Blessed Virgin. In gratitude, he expected extreme reverence to her and her icon, more even that what was the practice in Egypt. One of his tasks was, therefore, to settle these differences with the metropolitans, who did not dare to challenge the Synodicon before the emperor. He summoned several councils to rule on the theological issues, but he dictated his own views on them. Through persuasion, persecution, and sometimes acceptance of other views, Zar’a Ya‘qob finally achieved a certain degree of success in uniting the church and hence the Christian population.
The number of the Miracles of Mary, which first appeared in translations from Arabic commissioned by his father, grew considerably during his reign through the translation of additional miracles and the composition of new miracles, incorporating local events. He or his priests composed collections of homilies to be read in the churches on holy and feast days. These homilies are mostly refutations of heresies and expositions of the position of his church on certain issues. Collections included the Masehafa milad (Book of Nativity), dealing with the theology of the unity and trinity of God and the Incarnation of the Word; the Masehafa berhan (Book of Light), dealing with several theological issues; and Tomara tesbe’t (Letter of Humanity), explaining the evils of magic and idolatry. One of the doxologies of the Ethiopian church, a collection of hymns, is also ascribed to him. These writings, including the Miracles of Mary, are part of the service books in Ethiopia even today. Several books, including the Jewish history ascribed to Joseph Ben Gorion (Josippon), were also translated into Ge‘ez by his priests.
Zar’a Ya‘qob introduced his reforms with force. He did not hesitate to have religious offenders executed. He even ordered that all Christians bear a tattoo of the cross on their foreheads. Relapsing violators of the order to attend religious instruction on each Saturday and Sunday had their properties confiscated. Holy days for the angels, the saints (thirty-three a year for the Blessed Virgin), and martyrs were reordained. He ordered the reading of the Miracles of Mary to be part of the service in every church.
Zar’a Ya‘qob also had great success on the political front. He successfully repulsed a raid from ‘Adal, killing its king, and the new king of ‘Adal pledged to be submissive and peaceful. The emperor suppressed palace coups, destroying everyone he suspected of conspiracy. He wrote a strong letter of protest to Sultan Jaqmaq (1438-1453) when he heard of the persecution that the Copts suffered under the rule of his predecessor, Sultan Barsbay (1422-1438). He cried bitterly in public mourning when the news of the destruction of DAYR AL-MAGHTIS in Lower Egypt came to him and immediately set out to build a new monastery that carried the name in Ge‘ez: Dabra Metmaq. He received with great honor the Egyptian delegation that came to his palace to inform him of the end of the persecution. He himself had also sent envoys to the Middle East and Europe, including a delegation of observers to the Council of FLORENCE in 1439-1440.
Zar’a Ya‘qob is commemorated on 3 Paguemen (al-Nasi).