Ethiopian & Eritrean Monasticism has two purposes:


The first purpose of this book is to make a modest, yet engaging historical presentation on Ethiopian and Eritrean monasticism as a single and collective establishment.


Outside of the numerous and various articles, conferences and chapters in books, there has not been any major comprehensive publication on Ethiopian and/or Eritrean monasticism since Steven Kaplan’s epic The Rise of the Holy Man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia (1984).


Perish the thought that this study on Ethiopian-Eritrean monasticism is as in-depth as Kaplan’s presentation, for his expansive treatment of the Ethiopian holy man during the Medieval Period cannot be equaled. However, while the book concurs with Kaplan’s thesis that socio-political and economic factors played a role in the holy man’s rise as political leader, which, in turn, helped shape Ethiopian society, Kaplan does not provide any insight on how the holy man infused local culture into the Christian religion. This, too, was an essential element of the monk’s status among Ethiopians, for they saw him as one of their own, a status the emperors were unable to achieve for themselves. Effectively, this became a vital factor in establishing a national Church and national identity. This book also expands on the role of the holy man in shaping Ethiopian- Eritrean society as early as Late Antiquity, beginning with the Nine Saints. It also builds upon Krzysztof Piotr Blazéwicz’s proposition that there was already a well-organized monastic institution in place prior to the holy man of the Solomonic era (c. 1270 – 1527), which was continually helping to shape a centralized Christian state.


The second purpose is to see what we can learn from these holy men and holy women in today’s secularized, indifferent and globalized society. For nearly two millennia, these men and women have made personal sacrifices in order to imitate Christ, attracting numerous people. They have been a pillar of unity for their country during times of warring tribal factions, governmental disputes and ecclesiastical crisis, not to mention an instrument for the Christian faithful to find spiritual guidance and tranquility. Essentially, as the representatives of Christianity, they played a vital role in spiritual formation from the inception of the Ethiopian state. This was evident when Benito Mussolini intended to exterminate Ethiopians and whoever else stood in his way during Italian invasion of October 1935-39. When they captured the capital city of Addis Ababa on 5 May 1936, the Italians knew that the monastic leaders, some of them bishops, like Abune Petros, were the point of unity for Ethiopians. Hence, Orthodox Christians and anyone who supported them became targets of genocide. It is true that there were others, such as Sylvia Pankhurst and the future Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Spellman, who were campaigning against the onslaught while the western world watched. But, within the Ethiopian country, those who kept the cause of freedom alive were numerous holy men and holy women whose many individual stories are not known.


This book is divided into 14 chapters:


Chapter One presents an historical and archaeological background of Aksum and its First Christianization. According to legend, when St. Matthew the Apostle preached in ancient Ethiopia, he

 ”…baptized [the Ethiopian king] Egippus with his wife and the whole people. Matthew dedicated Ephigenia, the king’s daughter, to God, and put her at the head of more than two hundred virgins.”

The baptism of King Egippus meant that his entire kingdom became Christian. This is evidenced by the reaction of the Ethiopians to King Hirtacus killing St. Matthew in church:

“The people found this out and thronged to the royal palace, intent on setting it and everything in it afire, but the priests and the deacons restrained them, and they all celebrated Saint Matthew’s martyrdom joyfully.”

Since it was apparent that the entire kingdom embraced Christianity, this would make Ethiopia, according to the legend, the first Christian nation! While Armenia claims to be the first nation to officially embrace Christendom, according to legend, this did not happen until King Trdat III was baptized in the early 4th century. While legend holds when the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus preached in Armenia at about the same time Matthew was preaching in Ethiopia, they did not convert its king or his kingdom. Whether or not the account of Matthew is to be taken with a grain of salt, Ethiopians (and Eritreans) place greater emphasis on the evangelization of the Ethiopian eunuch in bringing Christianity to their homeland because personal affiliation with him paved way for religious nationalism. This became the essential historical basis for Aksumite society and its Christian unification under the Nine Saints.

Chapters Two and Three are a succinct, yet in-depth exposition on the origins of monasticism in general. These chapters include a detailed explanation of the concepts of asceticism, its historical roots from Judaic and Hellenistic thought, and the development of monasticism and how Ethiopians and Eritreans incorporated the spirit of the desert fathers.

Chapter Four deals with the historical origins of monasticism in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although, as we shall see in the same chapter, the 4th century letters of St. Jerome mention the existence of a well-developed community of Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem, it did not necessarily mean that there was at his time a formal establishment of monasticism. It was not until the arrival of the Nine Saints, who in their diffusion of Christianity throughout Aksum provided stability to the Christian community already in existence and gave a solid and formal foundation to monasticism in Ethiopia and Eritrea as the foundation of the faith. This chapter also argues, based on the late Kevin O’Mahoney’s The Spirit and the Bride (1994), against the traditional position that the Nine Saints fled their Byzantine homeland and found asylum in Aksum because of their Monophysite doctrine. Two principal points will support this: the alleged anti-Monophysite Byzantine emperors at the time were beyond favorable towards Monophysites, and there is no proof that the Nine Saints preached this tenet that was condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Chapters Five and Six discusses the rise of the monastic movement in Ethiopia during the Middle Ages. Here we see the holy man in his prime in confronting the monarchy and the cultural and socio-political issues, for which the book relies quite a bit on Steven Kaplan, Tadesse Tamrat and Tewelde Beyene. This chapter gives special attention to the four reformers of Ethiopian-Eritrean monasticism: Tekle Haymanot, Iyesus Mo’a, Ewostatewos and Estifanos; all four Ethiopizised the unassimilated Syrian-Egyptian monasticism, thus turning it into a national physiognomy. It was not so much their physical presence as it was with their names, the established monastic houses and genre with which they were associated that challenged the emperors’ quest for absoluteness (particularly Amda-Seyon and Zer’a Yacob).

Chapters Seven and Eight deals with a topic very rarely touched upon: female monasticism and the historical roles of the holy women in Ethiopian and Eritrean societies. This chapter relies on Selamanwit Mecca’s contribution on Ethiopic female hagiography. It is true that not much has been written on the lives of these saintly women, but they nevertheless tell us of their collective contribution to this field. The chapter also discusses the presence of Catholic nuns and their significant work.

Chapter Nine explores the holy man’s contact with the West, beginning with his distinguished presence in Jerusalem.

Chapter Ten traces the arrival of the monks in Italy. It is here that we see the height of Ethiopian Christianity exercising diplomatic and ecumenical skill, as we witness the arrival of the 8-monk Ethiopian delegation from Jerusalem in Florence for the Ecumenical Council in 1441. After achieving a formal unity with the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, Pope Eugene IV, who presided over the Council, wished to do the same with the Churches who had separated themselves from Rome in 451. Hence, he extended an invitation to Zer’a Yacob to take an active role in the reconciliation process, for which the 8 monks had been sent. 

Chapter Eleven is a modest biographical presentation of the Ethiopian and Eritrean monastic presence in Rome, specifically the old Hospice of St. Stephen Major, which hosted Ethiopian pilgrims for centuries as they traveled to Rome to venerate the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul. It was transformed into the present Ethiopian Pontifical College in 1919 and reconstructed in 1929 for the continuing education of seminarians and priests.

Chapter Twelve presents the first foundation of Catholic monasticism in Eritrea and Ethiopia, highlighting its main proponents, Cardinal Lépicier and the Venerable Abba Haile Mariam Ghebre-Amlak, O. Cist.

Chapter Thirteen is dedicated to the holy men and holy women of the modern period, of which three important figures are singled out: 1) Blessed Ghebre Michael, the 19th century Catholic monk who was martyred for his efforts in trying to draw both Orthodox and Catholics closer; 2) Abune Petros, the holy Orthodox bishop who kept Ethiopians united during the Italian invasion of 1935 – 1936. He was martyred for maintaining his religious convictions and for refusing to betray his countrymen; and 3) Abune Theophilos, the 2nd Patriarch of the Ethiopian Tewahdo Orthodox Church, who was tortured and killed by the Derg for his witness to the Christian faith.

Chapter Fourteen discusses the ecumenical and political dialogue between the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches and the Church of Rome. The efforts towards unity between Ethiopians and Catholics at the Council of Florence, based on their common faith, would be tarnished by the Portuguese Jesuits during the 17th century, but would be picked up by the 19th century missionaries and continue up to the present day. In this chapter special emphasis is given to the 19th century Capuchin missionary Cardinal Guglielmo Massaia’s ecumenical rapport with the Orthodox and his diplomatic approach with government officials. Exiled from Abyssinia on 7 different occasions, his perseverance and pragmatism planted the seed for the Roman Church’s permanence and stability in Ethiopia, as well as its re-established rapport with the Orthodox Church. Special mention shall be given in this chapter to the Emperor Hailé Sellassié for re-establishing and developing formal relations with the Church of Rome. Attention shall also be equally given to Pope Pius XI. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia, and like Massaia, Pius XI is mistakenly accused of sparking Mussolini’s aggression and genocide against Ethiopians.