Christian movements during the 14th-16th century in Ethiopia

ʾEwōsṭātewōs was a prominent figure of the Church during the early period of the Solomonic dynasty and was born in the village of Tsiraʿ (Enderta, Tigray). After being ordained as a monk, he founded many monasteries in the northern Ethiopian plateau of Tigray and Seraye (modern-day Eritrea). The 14th century to which ʾEwōsṭātewōs was born in can be considered the start of a “golden age” in Ethiopian Orthodoxy where both the kingdom and church saw exponential growth, not only in converts but in classical Ge’ez literature.

What set him apart from the mainline church of his day was his insistence on the Sabbath and how it should be observed on both Saturday and Sunday basing his position in the 10 commandments and the Canons of the Apostles. This doctrinal controversy led to his exile to Egypt where he tried to settle matters with the Coptic patriarch in Alexandria but to no success.

After moving from Cyprus to Jerusalem, he eventually settled in Armenia where he would eventually die. Many of his followers returned and the communities of Däbrä Maryam, Däbrä Bīzen (picture below) and Däbrä Yita in Ma’īkele Bahr (modern-day Eritrea) were built. This was the beginning of the “House of ʾEwōsṭātewōs” and their missionary efforts across the kingdom.

After Ma’īkele Bahr had been incorporated into Ethiopia by Emperor Zar’ā Yāʿiqōb, the Council of Däbrä Mitmaq was called by bishop Abouna Bertelomewos which resolved the disagreements with the “House of ʾEwōsṭātewōs” bringing an end to the long schism in 1450 AD. The mainline church accepted and adopted the observance of the Sabbath, which remains to this day one of the distinctive markers of Ethiopian Orthodoxy in contrast to the other apostolic churches.

This was among a few other traditions the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries heavily criticized in the late 15th-16th century, causing King Gälawdewos (Claudius) to write one of the first apologetic treatises in response to Jesuit accusations:

“Now with regard to observance of the Original Sabbath (Saturday) ; we do not keep it as the Jews do […] because those Jews neither drink water nor light a fire, neither cook food nor make bread, nor do they move about from house to house; but we keep it in that we celebrate thereon the Lord’s Supper, and hold Love feasts, were as our fathers the Apostles have instructed us in the Didaskalia. We don’t observe it as the Sabbath of the first day of the week (Sunday), which is a new day concerning which David says ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it’— because on it our Lord Jesus Christ rose again, and on it the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in the Hall of Zion, and on it He became Incarnate in the womb of Saint Mary, ever-virgin; and on it He will come again to reward the righteous and to recompense sinners.”

Another leading monk, who wasn’t received as well, was Esṭifanos. He was born in 15th century Tigray and would later organize his followers into a teaching of a distinct sect despite being under the umbrella of the church. They were known as the “Däqiqa Esṭifanos” (Stephanites) and if they had lived in Europe, would have been known as the first reformers, decades prior to Martin Luther.

Although their doctrines appear to align with some of the Reformers in Europe on the surface-level, it is somewhat more nuanced. Like the like the “Däqiqa ’Ewōsṭātewōs”, they observed two Sabbaths and persued a strict ascetic life. Their main position were as follows:

Although this appears very straightforward in the English language, the word used for “worship” is not “ämläka” (no disagreements) but “sägda”, the latter refers to a prostration or bow of respect. In other words, the Stephanites were against venerating kings, saints, icons and even the cross. Of course, their main opponents was the mainline church under the Emperor Zar’ā Yāʿiqōb who labelled them as heretics. The church stressed on the difference between veneration, a sign of respect, and worship. They constantly appealed to Scripture for their arguments and the Stephanites were known to appeal to the Apocalypse of John 22:10 (despite the context there being worship). The Emperor Zar’ā Yāʿiqōb would accuse the Stephanites for adhering to a polytheistic view of the Trinity, however, the their literature show the quite the contrary.

Unfortunately, the Stephanites were severely persecuted by the state which led to the end of their movement. However, some managed to survive and founded the monastery of Gunda Gunde (picture below), located south of ʿAddigrat (Tigray). Even today, the monks still celebrate the feast day of Esṭifanos, although, they’ve now conformed to the doctrines of the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahido Church.

Much of the available information on Esṭifanos comes from the chronicles of Emperor Zar’ā Yāʿiqōb himself documented in the Maṣḥafa Berhān (Book of Light) and the Maṣḥafa Milād (Book of the Nativity). The “Acts of Abba Esṭifanos” is one of the few surviving hagiographies left from this time period.

Yonathan Alem

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