A History of Medieval Christianity
in Southern Wollo
(excerpted from a Unesco-sponsored project that resulted in a senior thesis at Addis Ababa University by W/o Zewdie, "A History of Ancient Christianity in Southern Wollo, date not clear, 2005?)
Note: Here is a synopsis followed by excerpts which establishes the centrality of Wollo in the establishment of a post-Axumite Church and State in medieval Ethiopia. Northern Shewa, Eastern Gondar, and Eastern Gojam were frontier districts while the Tigrayan highlands lost their geographic centrality during this period.
It is interesting to note here for history buffs that for 600 years (c. 900-1500), today's Wollo was the center of Ethiopia (half under Agew/Zague and half under the Amara/Solomonic leadership). By comparison, and subsequent to the turmoils of the sixteenth century, Gonder served as the political center for just 150 years (c. 1620-1770), contested and geographically fluid rule by warlords for 100 years (Era of the Princes to the rise of Menilik II), and consolidation under Shewa for another 100 years (1875-1974):
The rise of Gragn and the willful and intentional destruction of churches perpetrated by Gragn’s followers have devastating consequences not only to the Ethiopian church but also to the Ethiopian society in general. Many of our past relics were destroyed or misplaced and buried under the ground. One of the forgotten and unrecognized areas was Southern Wello. The historical and cultural contribution of the area has not been fully recognized and appreciated. In Southern Wello, Saynt’s Tedbebe Tsion and now Tedbabe Mariam was one of the earliest Synagogues to accept the Worship of One God and later was one of the first to be transformed to church by Abuna Selama, Abrha and Atsebha.
Beginning the 12th Century until the rise of Gragn in the early 16th century, Southern Wello became the center of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. Famous monastic schools and theological centers like Hiaq Estifanos developed. Haiq Estifanos monastry was established in 1248 by Aba Iyesus Mo`a. St Tecle Haimanot , Aba Georgis the Gasiicha and others (800) monks were trained there. Haiq was the first theological college and it had also the first church library organized. Aba Iyesus was also a known calligraphist.
Gasitcha Georgis in Kelala, Borena was also a famous religious center. Aba Georgis himself composed se`atat – great book of literature, praise and prayer and famous spiritual music that the Ethiopian Orthodox church still uses in its liturgical services. He authored more than 40 books some of which the church is still using to this day. King Zer`a Yacob was the student of AbaGeorgis. Aba Georgis died in July, 1417. Gastcha is one of the rockhewon churches in Southern Wello carved by Aba Georgis himself.
It was the religious scholars of Tedbabe Mariam in Southern Wello Azaze Gera and Azaze Raguel who rearranged the notation of Deggua and invented symbolic representation of the sound. Before that the eight hymn signs in St. Yared’s System were simply memorized.These two scholars introduced graphical representation of Yared’s hymns.
Miskabe Kidusan in Debresina, Borena was founded in 904 by Abuna Zera Haimanot where St. Tecle Haimanotserved 12 years. It was also the place of Abune Petros- the martyer who sacrfied his life in defence of his country and faith. Monastry of Aba Tsege Dingil found inWogedie, Borena is another famous one. Aba Tsege composed Mahelete Tsegie in 150 verses. Legend has it that Monastry of Abuna Yakeob Zedebre Kerbe, Gezaz Abo, Borena was built by Lalibela . The structure has praising cave and Monks’ cave. Aba Betselote Michael (in Kelala, Borena); Mekane Selassie in Woreillu built by Na`od in 1513 took 25 years. At the inauguration of the church, the Portuguese traveler Alvarez was among the attendants. When Gragne attacked the church monks threw themselves into the burning church. It was also in the famous monastry of Bete Negodguad, woreillu where horrific massacre of monks took place.
Imprtant Historical and archeological areas in Sothern Wello are Tehuledere, Amara-Saynt, Maqdella, Tenta, Were-illu, Debre Sina, Borena, Kalala, and Wogede in Borena. This area used to be called Amhara, or Woleka.
Here below is a heavily-excerpted, edited for grammar, account:
2.2. The introduction of Christianity into the region
There were places in Wollo province of South Wello where the belief of Old Testament and synagogues existed before 34 A.D. 2 So this region was one of the place where the synagogues were transformed into Churches and Churches were built everywhere by Abreha and Atsebha with the Bishop Aba Selama. For example, Tedbabe Mariam, Sekoru Silassie and other Churches around Weleka were built.3 Many people were converted from paganism to Christianity and they believed in Our Savior Jesus Christ and were baptized. From those the people of Weleka were one example. Therefore, the introduction of Christianity in South Wollo was at the time of Abreha and Asebeha.
2.3. Historical development and its climax
In this region, the worship of One True God with a tradition of Judaism and paganism were practiced before the introduction of Christianity. Later Christianity propagated and both paganism and Judaism were replaced by it.
2.3.2. Christian life and its major Church works within the region
The peoples of South Wollo were the strongest adherents of Christianity, and the beliefs and customs of the Church from an essential part of Tradition and culture to this area. Believers contend that the monastic life is the highest stage of Christian life. Devout Christians hope to live their last years as monks or nuns, and many take monastic vows during old age.
As a result of this, several Church works were performed and it was the land of Saints and Christian kings. Therefore, many famous Churches were built by Christian kings and Monasteries were established by great Saints and wonderful Rock Hewn Churches were carved out of rock. Furthermore, it was the center of Church Education. For example, from the Monastery of Hayq Estifanos the well-known Saints and Christian kings had learnt Church education. For this reason, literature, paintings and other heritages flourished throughout the land.
22.214.171.124 Church Education
Until the introduction of modern secular education, Church schools were the only source of educational institutions for Ethiopian children, and that education centered on religion. The primary purpose of these schools was to instruct children in Christian religion and literature and to recruit and prepare likely candidates for the priesthood. Generally, the most qualified students pursued their studies, sometimes for twenty years or more than that, in the most famous centres of learning, the Churches and Monasteries.
For example, the Monastic school of Lake Hayq founded in 1248 by Aba Iyesus-Mo'a was the fundamental school to Saints, scholars and Christians. The Monasteries spread along with the Ethiopian Empire and Tekle-Haymanot (1215-1313) was trained at Hayq by Iyasus Mo'a and started the important Monastic community of Debre Asbo in Shoa /DebreLibanos/, Abune Hirute Amlak was also trained in this Monastery by Iyasus Mo'a and started the imperative Monastic community of Daga Estifanos in Lake Tana and Aba Georgis Zegasecha trained and started the Monastic community of Gasecha, etc.
126.96.36.199. Monasteries and Rock Hewn Churches
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a great history of Monasticism. Many Ethiopian Monasteries trace their origins to the so-called nine monks, who came to Ethiopia from Syria and Asia Minor in the 5th century. They performed many spiritual works and among their deeds are the teachings of monastic order, monastic life, and translation of books not translated during Frementius's time, establishment of Monasteries everywhere, strengthening of the Church established by Frementius and the like.
In South Wollo region many rock hewn Churches were built by Saints like, King Abrha and Astbha/Most of them were in the place of Woleka but they destructed and hidden during the invasion of Ahmad Gragn/, Aba Betselote Micheal, Aba Giorgis Zegasecha, Aba Tsegie Dengel, Abune Yaekob Zedebrekerbe and by King Lalibela /King Lalibela, the rock Church builder - 1140-79 A.D. had a set of ten Rock Hewn Churches built in his capital of Roha, which was later renamed Lalibela. It is also said that he built the Gezaza Abune Gebre Menfes Kidus Church / Gezaza Abbo/ in this region around Wegdie/ … etc. All these are rock hewn Churches craved in sold rock, deserve to be taken as few among wonders and are a remarkable monument to the skill and craftsmanship of the Ethiopians.
188.8.131.52. Church services
The Church is a treasure house of the Orthodox Faith throughout the twenty centuries in the golden days as well as the times of tribulation. These treasures had been preserved for centuries by the grace of the Holy Spirit and passed down to this day. The day to day service of the Church both during the day and the night is based on these spiritual works which had been revealed to the holy fathers throughout the past. With these ecclesiastical assets, God is glorified, the Hosts of heaven are praised and the faithful receive blessing and grace.
The unique tradition of hymnology developed by an Ethiopian Saint called Yared who lived in the time of Emperor Gebre Meskal. (550-564). St. Yared learns music by divine revelation, in which he was taken to heaven by Angels to learn the plain song of Paradise. Our Church express this divine revelation in his paintings, the Saint is usually depicted with singing doves of Paradise that sing divine music to him. He was the great scholar composed in varieties the Church hymn which is used by the Ethiopian Church from ancient time up to now. He is recognized as a composer of spiritual music in Ethiopia
Aba Giorgis Zegasecha is also the great scholar raised after St. Yared and he is recognized as a composer of spiritual music next to St. Yared in the Church. For example, from many his works Seatat or Horologium is the one famous spiritual music of our Church. In addition to him there were many scholars like Aba Tsegie Dengel, who is also a great scholar of the Church who lived in Woleka in South Wollo around Wogde with Aba Georgis Zegaseceha and known by his special work “Mahilete Tsegie.”
Services in the Church are performed in the variety form and presentation of the services held in the Church. It has facilitated for the most relevant service to be delivered throughout the hours of the day and all the days of the year. A few of the prominent ones composed by great scholars are briefly presented hereunder. Some are conducted on specific occasions while some others are done on regular basis. Degua, Tsome Degua, Zemare Mewase’et, Me’eraf, Ziqe, Se’atat, Mahlet, several Holy Anaphoric Liturgies, Qene, and other different Prayers.
All this are served with in the Church and reflects the fact that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church is unique from other Churches. The services are made with its emphasis on the holy mysteries in the center of the Church, the Tabot (the Ark of the Covenant) also in the center, and with the participation of multiple priests and lay clerks chanting and drumming in side and a round Church.
184.108.40.206. Church literature
Most Ethiopian manuscripts are religious texts from the Christian faith. Manuscripts were written on parchment (made from processed animal hides, usually goat or cattle) and decorated with ink drawings and ornamental designs. Christian manuscripts are written in an ancient form of the Ethiopic language Ge’ez which is still used by in our Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They made in the form of prayers, poetry, devotional readings, the gospels, etc.
220.127.116.11. The rise of Saints
This region was a very spiritual place covered by the grace of God. So many greater Saints were emerged from this place. The period from the 11th to the 15th century is a period in which Ethiopian Saints and scholars appeared in great numbers and the Churches destroyed by Yodit were repaired. The great apostles St. Tekle Haimanot, Aba Betselote Michael, Abba Giorgis Zegasecha, Aba Tsegie Dengel…etc. and other Saints came into prominence in great number during this period. This was the period in which the evangelical works embraced all Ethiopia, the monastic life was strengthened, religious books were translated from Arabic to Ge’ez and many Church books were written by native scholars.
Abune Tekle Haimanot had come to the Monastery of Aba BeetElite Michael to learn the monastic life from Aba BeetElite Michael and he stayed 12 years serving the Monastery. Not only this, but he went to Maskable Kidusan Monastery in another part of South Wollo and stayed twelve years. Abune Zena Markos and other numerous well-known Saints had passed a many year in this region.
18.104.22.168. The contribution of Christian Kings
In addition to this, they defend the Orthodox Tewahido faith by writing, and by their different knowledge. Among them, Atse Gelawdewos / Asnaf Sagad I/After the invasion of Gragn had strived to restore the Church into the former status/, Emperor Lalibela, the rock hewn Church builder - 1140-79 A.D and Emperor Zera Yaekob, the author and writer of Christian Theology - 1426-59 A.D. are mentioned from many Christian kings to show how they made their contribution into the Church.
2.3.9 Church Administration
Many of Saints like Aba Iyesus Mo’a ‘s pupils later acquired considerable fame as monastic leaders of the Ethiopian Church. Aba- Hirute Amlak, Aba Tekle Haymnot, Aba Giorgis of Gasecha, Aba Ze’Iyesus, Aba Betselote Micheal and Aba Aron Ze Debre Daret are a few of those that have played a decisive role in Church administration. Most of the 800 monks who have graduated during Iyesus Mo’a’s days took Church administration.
2.4. Factors contributing for the Decline of Christianity and Destruction of the Church
The Church faced many challenges in the history. Christianity declined from its hierarchy by different enemies of the Church at deferent times. These are, in the 9th century, the destruction of Yodit, in the 16th century the invasion of Ahmad Gragn, the catholic missionaries and Oromo Migration and during 19th century the invasion by Italy. The external and internal forces had on several occasions risen and attempted to weaken the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church but, she has existed by overcoming the suffering and trial with the help of Christ, the source of her power.
2.4. 1. Destruction of Yodit
The destruction of Yodit is one of the declining factors of Christianity. The Christians faced the terrible suffering in Tigray and Amhara East when the Solomonian Dynasty was removed from Axum (A.D. 928-968) to the Zagwe Dynasty in Wollo. Now, an opponent of the Christian religion by the name of Yodit rose from the Jewish community in Ethiopia and assumed power and inflicted great damages on the Church.
She was instrumental for the killing of the clergy, laity and destruction of Churches. Therefore, numerous Churches and Monasteries were burnt, destroyed and many Christians were killed and massacred. Because of this mass destruction of treasure and Christians, Christianity decline from its status at this time.
2.4.2 The invasion of Ahmad Gragn
The 16th century was a period of great trial for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. Ahmed Gragn (the left handed), a Muslim persecutor and a bitter opponent of the Christian religion rose from Eastern Ethiopian in 1527 and supported by the Ottoman Empire he caused much suffering, agony and endangered the very survival of the Church and the state. He killed extremely many clergy and laity. He destroyed Churches and ecclesiastical objects. He forced the mild-hearted Christians to convert to Islam and become his followers.
Gragn Ahmad (1527-1543) with the aid of Turkish troops, attacked the country from one end to the other, and could oppose the Christians mercilessly. Over a decade the invaders pillaged the land affecting untold damage. Innumerable Monasteries and Churches were sacked and burned to the ground, ancient manuscripts and other works of art were stolen. The ancient Church of the region was erased to the ground and many famous Monasteries were entirely demolished".
2.4.5 The Non-Christian Oromo Expansion
Orthodox Christianity lost considerable ground in nineteenth century, in part due to the expansion of the Oromo Muslim. Among those places in the southern Wollo regions of Ethiopia was the one which had been a Christian stronghold and many of the Monasteries destroyed, priests, monks and deacons were killed by a greater Oromo Muslim or pagan.
2.5. The Aftermath of the invasion and its impact on the Church
2.5.1. Forceful Conversion of Christians
The effect of the Islamic invasion of Ethiopia was profound. Countless people were forced to convert to Islam forcefully from an option of being beheaded and losing their lives. The power of Christian kings was weakened…etc. After the revival of the Church, some of the converted laity had returned to their faith while many remained under conversion. As the result of this, the once rich center of Christianity turned to be a grave victim of this conversion.
2.5.2. The Decline of the Spiritual Status of the Church
As the researcher had mentioned repeatedly, many prominent figures of the Church had emerged from South Wollo region and they had flourished the place with great blessing. Their spiritual fruits had covered the region and many Monasteries and Churches were built. However, all their works had been demolished and hidden behind the curtain of time. Many schools which were once populated with hundreds of students had become deserted and completely empty. Due to this, spiritual status of the Church had declined within the region.
4.0. Uncovering of the Ancient in the 21st Century
Wollo is a historical region and province in the north-eastern part of Ethiopia, with its capital city at Dessie. It covers a large area and it would be ambitious to describe it all in detail. Therefore, this study is limited to Southern part of this region /Debub Wollo/. It is one of the 10 Zones in the Amhara National Regional State.
This region is the geographical center of the country and had also served as a religious center at different times in the far past. Great number of Saints and prominent Church figures had emerged from this region. This region has a total of 18 woredas namely Dessie, Dessie Zuria, Kutaber, Amba-Sel, Tehuledere, Were-Babu, Kombolcha, Kalu, Jama, Debre Sina, Kelala , Legambo, Legehida, Amahara-Sayint, Maqdala, Tenta, Were-Ilu, and Wegde.
However, it is too difficult to cover all South Wollo woredas. Therefore 7 functional, ancient, historical and archeological areas are selected by the researcher for the objective of this paper. These are Tehuledere, Amahara-Sayint, Maqdala, Tenta, Were- Ilu, Debre-Sina, Kelala and Wegde.
4.1 Selected Historical and Archeological Sites
The sub-region particularly covered under this paper previously used to be called Borena. Like the name Wollo, the Borena had also been named after the Oromo Migration. It came from the name Boren which was the name of one of the two major Oromo tribes namely, Bertuma /Bereytuma/ and Boren /Borena/.5 before this name was coined, it was interchangeably called Midre Amhara, Midre Weleka, Hagere Leko-Melza, Shegla, etc.
The area especially around Borena is adorned with many historical and archaeological sites. The specific sites selected in the above eight sub-regions had been categorized under historical and archaeological sites to uncover the ancient Christianity under each of them. This classification is made based on the dominantly present artifact at the location currently. It is true that some of the sites might fall in both categories. However, for presentation, the researcher had adopted the following categorization.
Historical Sites Tehuledere - Haiq Estifanos Monastery Saynt - Re’ese Adbarat Tedbabe Mariam, Atronse Mariam Church Tenta - Tenta St. Michael and Gifa Medhanealm Church Debresina - Miskabe Kidusan Monastery
Archaeological Sites Wegdie - Aba Tsege Dengil, Abune Yaekob, Gezaza Abo Monastery Wereilu - Yohannes Wolde Negodguad, Mekane Silasse, Genete Georgis Church Kelela - Aba Giorgis Zegasecha, Aba Betselote Micheal Monastery.
4.1.1 Historical Sites
Historical investigation of the Churches and Monasteries listed below reveal how greatly influential had they been to Christian faith in the region. Furthermore, these Churches and Monasteries remain as greatly honored and recognized as in their ancient past. Debre Negodguad Hayq Estefanos Abune Iyesus Mo’a Monastery is found in Tehuledere wereda of South Wollo in Amhara Region. The distance from A.A to the monastery is 436 km and from Dessie to the monastery is 36 km.
Before the establishment of the Church of St. Estefanos on the island of Hayq the area was populated by pagan worshiper. Later Aba Selama II heard about those pagan peoples. Therefore, he arrived at this island and he abolished paganism through his teachings and consecrated the place. Then he told the Axumite King Del Nead about Lake Hayq. The King arrived to Hayq on right side of the Lake with Aba Selama II and he founded Debre Egziabher Church.
The Church of St. Estefanos was founded in 862 AD by King Del Nead and like Debre Egziabher Church he made inauguration for St. Estifanos Church. Hereafter, he called the Church Debre Negodguad. At the end, he placed 300 clergies and other necessary things were given to the Church.
22.214.171.124.1 Biography of Abba Iyesus Mo’a
Abba Iyesus Mo’a was born of a Christian family in a place called Dahana, which is found in Begemder. He received some primary education in his home district. In 1241, he decided to travel to the famous Monastery of Debre-Damo located in Tigray province. The abbot of the Monastery at the time was Abba Yohannis. Iyesus Mo’a was a young man of about thirty when he joined the Monastery. The abbot gave him hard assignments. He traveled long distances to deliver things for which he was sent and was always obedient in fulfilling the orders entrusted upon him.
In addition, he had acquired the important skill of writing. He lived in solitude by his own in a cell and there, he wrote the four Gospels. After staying for seven years in Debre Damo where he obtained his monastic instruction, he then traveled to the island of Lake Hayq. It is understood that Iyesus Mo’a‘s choice of Lake Hayq as a place of settlement is not motivated by a need for a solitary life. It is written in his Hagiography that there had already been the Church of St. Stephan at the time that he traveled to the island. The Church of St. Stephen was built by an Axumite King and an Egyptian Bishop of before his time. In fact, there was a settled Christian community with the different Churches such as Debre Egziabher, the Churches of St. Peter and Paul, and other Churches in the neighborhood.
Iyesus Mo’a himself stayed in the Church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, on the western shore of the Lake for six months before being admitted to the island. Christian men and women lived clustered around the secular Church of St. Stephen. Iyesus Mo’a found these Christian communities with rich potential for further development. Like many of the Churches in other parts of Ethiopia at the time, Hayq Estefanos was insufficiently supplied with priests and deacons, and probably had no adequate schools of its own.
This last need was now well provided for by Iyesus Mo’a on his advent to Hayq in about 1248. He thus opened many opportunities of learning or the Christians of central Ethiopia and many have taken full advantage of this. He founded a very big monastic school, which attracted young students from the local Christians and from areas further away from Hayq. Upon graduating from the college, they left Hayq to establish their own monastic centers in different areas. Among the pupils of Iyesus Mo’a, Abuna Aba Bestelote Micheal the founder of the Monastery of Debre Gol, Tekle Haymanot the founder of the Monastery of Debre Libanos in Showa, Abba Hiruta Amlak the founder of the Monastery of St. Stephen on the island of Daga in Lake Tana, Aba Giorgis Zegasecha the founder of the Monastery of Debre Bahery Gasecha monastery, played significant role in the monastic traditions of the Ethiopian Church.
Abba Iyesus Mo’a had a great deal of achievements in many regards those are:
126.96.36.199.2 Establishing of Monastic Communities Though there had been Christian communities and some Churches on the island, no major community of monastic nature was available. This was achieved by Iyesus Mo’a who developed a strong community of monks by converting the Church to a Monastery. To this end, several young people had traveled from different parts of Ethiopia to receive monastic instructions from Abba Iyesus Mo’a. Most of them traveled to other places to start a community of their own while some remained there. However, a far-reaching result had been achieved in this regard, when the monks travel to different localities after having learnt the community order from Iyesus Mo’a and later from his disciples. A few of the major Examples as mentioned on the above the communities at Debre Libanos, Debre Gol, Daga Estefanos in Lake Tana and Debre Bahery Gasecha Monastery.
188.8.131.52.3 Opening of Church Schools
The school that Iyesus Mo’a had opened on the island is considered as the first theological college of Ethiopia. The college was known all throughout the land and thousands of students could successfully graduate. During the time that Iyesus Mo’a was an Abbot, 800 monks graduated as “Nebure’ed”. These people went to different districts of the country and set up schools of their own some of which became very strong and famous. King Yekunno Amlak (1270-1285) was also a student of Iyesus Mo’a. In addition, Iyesus Mo’a copied and collected different books from various Monasteries and set up the first modern Church library for the college. This has played an important role in preserving these important assets of the Church. Furthermore, the graduates of the college were aware of the invaluable values of the spiritual Church books and hence were doing their best to preserve books where ever they went. This awareness played a significant role at the time of Gragn Ahmad in guarding a great deal of these assets.
184.108.40.206.3 Development of Literary Works
Iyesus Mo’a had been a very serious student, and he had particularly distinguished himself as an outstanding calligraphist. He apparently copied many books while at Debre-Damo, and he is renowned for having left a large collection of manuscripts when he died at Hayq in 1292. These collections of all kinds of ecclesiastical books were rich sources of literature. The students attending the college had made uses of this opportunity and many of them had become known scholars of the Church. This period had undoubtedly seen much of the art of hand writing on the parchment adorned with artful and colorful decorative frames. Among the students of this college is Abba Giorgis of Gasecha who had contributed a substantial volume of religious and literary works.
However, during invasion of Ahmad Gragn the existing Christian heritage of the Monastery was looted. After a serious destruction, the great Monastery remain with some local monks. Some recent attempts are being made to restore and strengthen the Monastery by establishing various development works By Abune Athanatewos Bishop of South Wollo. A nunnery had also been opened near the old Monastery. A modern library is also established to properly contain all the manuscripts and old books.
220.127.116.11 Re’ese Adbarat Tedbabe Mariam Church (Saynt)
Re’ese Adbarat Tedbabe Mariam Church is found in Saynt Wereda of South Wollo Region. It was established 900 years before the birth of Christ (B.C.). Tedbabe Mariam is a special, ancient and historical place for Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church as well as for the region of South Wollo. It has a long period of double history before and after the birth of Christ.
During the destruction of Gragn Ahmad, the Church had not been destructed because of the difficulties in accessing the place. So, it has many ancient heritages and relics in the Church accumulated from ancient times unlike other Churches.
Tedbabe Mariam is a place of prominent scholars like Azaze Gera and Azaze Ragueal. The notation of Deggua was rearranged by these two well-known scholars who were appointed to serve as “debteras” at the Church of Tedbabe Mariam during the reign of Emperor Galawdewos (1540-1559). The eight hymn signs in Yared’s system were simply memorized, chanted and passed down orally and never graphically represented. But these two scholars invented numerous notations / symbolic representation/ to help and learn easily for the students of Zema. Because of this Emperor Galawdewos gave the title Azaze and he placed them in Tedbabe Mariam in great honor.
The innovation made Yared’s system more accessible and more manageable to students. Besides these major additions, chanting movements have been established. However, Yared’s system of sacred music has continued un-altered in its essentials throughout the last fifteen centuries.
18.104.22.168 Atronse Mariam Church (Saynt)
Atronse Mariam was established during the time of Abreha and Astebeha around 346 A.D.9 Fremnatos (Aba Selama), the first bishop of Ethiopia had appointed Hizbekedes to evangelize Midre-Amhara which he did successfully. The first church he had established for the Christians was at Wereilu region at the place called Debre Kelanto where he consecrated the Church with the Ark that he received from Aba Selama. This Church was consecrated by the Ark dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary which was later on transferred to the present Atronse Mariam Church in Saynt.
The places named Legehida and Legegura were dedicated to the honor of Atronse Mariam as written in the Chronicle of Be’ede Mariam. Since its establishment, till about 1465 i.e. the time of King Be’ede Mariam (1460-1470) all the kings used to give their crown and precious items to the Church as a way of vow and gratitude whenever they won battles.
On the other hand, another version of the story says that many kings had desired to build this Church for 100 years before Atse Be’ede Mariam. The first one who wanted to build this Church was Aste Seif Are’ed (1327-1355) who had just prepared the place for the Church construction. The next king who attempted to build the Church was King Zerea Yaecob (14261466) who built a small housing (mekagno) and placed an ark naming it Debre Paraklitos but he also died before he managed to build the Church.
The name Debre Kelanto had been changed to Atronse Mariam by King Be’ede Mariam after the death of his father. King Be’ede Mariam, who had been well informed about this great Church from his highly spiritual father King Zerea Ya’ecob, built a big Church in Debre Kelanto and adorned it with gold and other precious materials. The Church was built using big stones and heavy solid wood with much care and wisdom. He had further granted a large extent of land as a source of income so that the service of the Church and the praising of God will never be discontinued due to lack of income for the priests.
Aste Be’ede Mariam had given many gold and other precious gifts to this Church and endeavored to give it a great legacy. It is also written that he had given all the wealth and many books that he had personally accumulated since childhood to Atronse Mariam. After the inauguration of the Church, Aste Be’ede Mariam had gathered the relics of many Saints and kings and buried them here in order to elevate the status of theplace. He himself was buried there.
At the coming of Gragn Mohammed, Atronse Mariam was one of the standing marks of a deeply implanted Christian faith that he destroyed by looting and burning the Church while he killed the priests. As Gragn was heading himself to destroy Mekane Sellassie, he sent Nur Ben Ibrahim to loot this church. By the time Ibrahim reached the Church, the priests had already removed the treasures and hide them elsewhere. He immediately killed four monks who refused to tell their location. He later spotted the house where everything was hidden. He started removing everything. As Arab Faki the chronicler of Mohammed had written, they could not finish looting all the wealth accumulated. Among the items were gold laminated Gospel Books, Silk clothes, golden crosses, countless books and so on. Finally, they removed only what they considered valuable for themselves and burned the rest with the house.
However, some priests had managed to escape with the Ark seeking refuge to Amhara Saynt where it currently exists. There፣ King Sertse Dingil had built a smaller Church and its service had continued. At the time of King Suseneyos, he built a new and magnificent Church trying to restore its glory as in the time of Aste Be’ede Mariam. This Church had survived to this date at its second location. 12 King Menelik had later attempted to excavate this place and had subsequently uncovered a good part of the rock foundation which was described as astonishing.
22.214.171.124 Tenta St. Michael Church and Gifa Medhanealm (Tenta)
Tenta is a historical town and one of the weredas found in South Wollo region. It is 80 km from Dessie. In Tenta there are historical and ancient Churches like Gifa Medhanealm, Tenta Micheal … etc.
It is said that the Church of Gifa Medhanealm was established in the reign of Atse Kaleb. The Church is found on the mountains and during the invasion of Ahmad Gragn, his attempt for destruction failed. According to a verbal legend, Gragn reached close to the Church and tried to burn it, and the mountain was covered by clouds and his horse was unable to walk and he finally failed down. Then he went back to other areas and the sign of the leg of his horse is found at the place now.
126.96.36.199 Miskabe Kidusan Monastery (Debre Sina)
The Monastery of Miskabe Kidusan is found in Debre Sina Wereda of South Wollo region. It takes 630 km from Addis Ababa to Mekane Selam. After Mekane Selam it takes another 5 hours on foot. Miskabe Kidusan Monastery was established by Abune Zerea Haymanot in 904 in the reign of King Del Ne’ad. The former name given by Abune Zerea Haymanot was Misehale Mariam but in the reign of King Zera Yaecob the former name was changed into Miskabe kidusan. When he went to Amhara Saynt he saw many hidden Saints at this Monastery while singing and praying. Thereafter, King Zera Yaecob called the place Miskabe Kidusan.
Miskabe Kidusan is a great Monastery and was a place of famous Saints like St. Tekle Haymaont. The monastery is located in a forest making it is suitable place for Saints. Abune Tekle Haymaont stayed 12 years with his disciples. In addition, it was the place of Abune Petros the Martyr /during the invasion of Italy/. He stayed and learned in this Monastery. This place was not destructed during Gragn Ahmad and until recent times a good number of monks were there. However, currently, there are only few monks and it has also lost its past glory.
4.1.2 Archaeological Sites
In Borena the researcher saw numerous archaeological sites during the many visits paid to the place. From those around Wereillu, the Church of Yohannes Welde Negodguad and the Church of MekaneSilasse and around Wegdie the Monastery of Aba Tsegie Dengel, the Monastery of Abune Yaekob, the Monastery of Aba Betselote Micheal, the Monastery of Gebre Endrias, Debre Dembike Mariam, Weleka Zekarias are the prominent and famous ones. Therefore, the researcher has especially found Wegdie Wereda as an archaeologically rich place for much more investigation to take place in the future.
188.8.131.52. Archeological Sites Found Around Wegdie
184.108.40.206.1 Aba Tsege Dengil Monastery (Wegdie)
The Monastery of Aba Tsige Dingel is found in Wegdie Woreda at a place called Medre Chakata. The distance from Addis Ababa to Wogdie is 580 km. It is one of the oldest rock-hewn Churches eminent in the Southern part of Wollo. The Monastery is located in the low land which is 20 minute drive from the town of Wegdie and after traveling by foot 1½ to 2 hours. It is surrounded by mountain and it dramatically captures the spirit of a person right from a distance.
One remarkable and highly regarded item is a natural bridge that is miraculously built by Aba Tsege Dingel and Aba Giorgis over the Weleka River. It is said that the two Saints could not meet each other during the rainy period and as a result constructed this bridge miraculously from the soil of the area by the grace and blessing of God.
This Church is carved out of a solid rock having wide traditional and ecclesiastical partitions inside. It is located at the foot of a small rocky hill. It has two entrances i.e. one for males and another for females. It has the traditional “kidist”, “kenemahlet” and two numbers “mekdes” all neatly carved out of the rock. The “Bethlehem” is also curved out of rock and located at the left side of the entrance. To the right is also found a small cave where Aba Tsege Dingel had been staying and praying at the beginning while carving the Church.
One unique thing about this rock hewn Church is the structure of the columns and beams widely and symmetrically carved from the rock. The ceiling height and spaciousness of its inside together with the carefully prepared column designs makes this Church one of the great rock hewn Churches in Southern Wollo. Further inside, is also found another room where the relics of Aba Tsegedingel and some other Saints had been placed. In conclusion, this is a great surviving archaeological site that is yet not known to many. The kinemahlet had apparently undergone some damage at the entrance and some maintenance had been done during an unknown stage of the Church.
The service of the monastery had resumed its activities recently with new organization after being closed for many years. Currently it has several nuns and monks serving the monastery. As the monastery has been recently re-opened, it is struggling to become self-sustainable.
220.127.116.11.2 Abune Yaekob Monastery (Wegdie)
Another very interesting and rock hewn church found in the wereda is the Abune Yaekob Monastry. This monastery is found half an hour from the town of Wegede half way to the lowland in the direction of Gojam. Not much information is also available about the monastery or Abuna Yaekob. However, interview and oral legend had shown that this saint was educated in ecclesiastical education and had many students which he used to teach. He is believed to be a father to many monks and saints.
Like many of the Churches in the lowland area, this is also a rock hewn one and a visible sign of destruction on the Monastery is seen at the entrance probably from several hundred years of age. In addition, a clear mark of the destruction by Gragn is visible inside by the completely burnt inside which is supposed to have taken place in his effort to burn all the paintings on the wall. It is also said that Abuna Yaekob had foreseen the coming of Gragn and fled from the area before becoming a direct victim of his persecution. This Monastery was also re-opened recently by Abuna Athanateos (Arc Bishop of South Wollo Diocese) and had started to give service to the faithful.
18.104.22.168.3. Gezaza Abo Monastery (Wegdie)
This rock hewn Monastery is also found in this wereda and takes about half an hour drive by car and another one on foot from Wegede town. This Monastery is also one of the many interesting rock hewn archaeological heritages available in the wereda. Unfortunately, and like many others, no written documentation could be available for any reference.
Traditional orations say that this was one of the first Monasteries built by King Lalibela. This Monastery is located just on the side of a mountain having only a very narrow passage to it. This Monastery unlike the others has many caves dug all around it for many functions. The first part of the Monastery is the “kinemahlet” having two entrances. This is well cut out and supported by three numbers rectangular shaped columns. The walls are covered by very ancient paintings of angels, lions and tigers. On another part, a painting of one of the saints Gebre Endrias and Abuna Gebre Menfeskidus on a flying animal is painted. This Monastery had not been attacked by Gragn and many ancient relics are available. This is also another interesting location for detailed investigation and study.
22.214.171.124.1. Aba Giorgis Zegasecha Monastery (Kelela)
The Monastery of Debre Bahery Aba Giorgis Zegasecha is found in Kelela wereda across Weleka river which is a boundary between Wegedie and Kelela weredas. It is found at 3 hours on foot from the Monastery of Aba Tsege Dingel.
Aba Giorgis Zegasecha is known as a composer of spiritual music next to St. Yared in the Church. The great Ethiopian scholar and saint, Abba Giorgis was born from a Christian family in 1357 E.C. in Wollo Administrative Region, Borena District, at a place called Shegla. His father was Hizbetsion and his mother was Emnetsion. Both were very dedicated Christians and their life was like the father and mother of John the Baptist, Zekariah and Elizabeth. But as Hizbetsion and Emnetsion didn’t have a child, they prayed always in the Church of St. Urael in front of the picture of Arch Angel Urael. Hereafter, God saw their pure prayer and He send the Arch Angel Urael in order to announce to them that they would have a child, and that they would call their son by the name of George. This happened as the Arch angel had told them and they got a blessed son afterwards.
When the boy reached the age of education, his father sent him to a pastor called Sereke Berhan to educate him. For seven years, he was unable to study even the alphabet; therefore, he was given back to his father to find him an alternative job. But his father made him return to the same school and get on with it because he promised him to God thereafter. While Abba Giorgis was eagerly following his study, which would qualify him for monastic life at the Haiq monastery, because of his backwardness in his learning, he got unhealthy remarks from his fellow monks with which he became disappointed.
Soon he presented himself in the Church and bowed to the picture of our lady, the Virgin St. Mary. She listen his prayer and finally came with St. Urael and gave him in the hands of St. Uraelfull knowledge like that of Ezira Sutuel. He got a great blessing and inspiration from Her and Her Son Jesus Christ Our Lord. By the grace of God, Abba Giorgis became full of knowledge like St. Yared and became a famous author and wrote many books. His dedication to Our Lady the Virgin, St. Mary, was so great that he could write numerous books which glorify the Holy Virgin St. Mary, because of this She gave a covenant to him like St. Ephraim and Abba Hiryakos.
Some of his books are the following:
1. Metshafe Se’atat (the prayer book which is to be used every day and night) 2. Hohete Birhan 3. Metshafe Arganon (a praising of St. Mary) 4. Tseote Fe’tito (prayer of blessing of the Holy Communion) 5. Enzira Sebhat( a praising of St . Mary) 6. Hiwote Mariam (a life of St. Mary) 7. Te’amino Kidusan (Dedication of Saints) 8. Metsehfe Birhan 9. Fikarie Haymanot 10. Metsehafe Tebibe Tebiban 11. Melke’ea Hemamate Kirstos 12. Mezimure Dengel (a praising of St. Mary) 13. Wudasse Meskel (a praising of Cross) 14. Me’aza Kidasse 15. Wudasie Hawaryat 16. Wudasse Sebhat ( a praising of Saint) 17. Tselote Ma’ede (a prayer which is to be prayed during a meal) 18. Metsehafe Myster (a book of mystery containing arguments and evidences about the divine mystery).
The first one Se’atat can be called as a great book of literature from the way and manner that it is composed of. It is prepared in the form of History, Supplication, Praise and Prayer and mostly presented in the form of poems having two to five verses repeating at each chapter in different manner from one praise to the other. There are verses to be repeated three times. Of all the things that is most impressive is the use, application and presentation of the texts, phrases and sentences. Comparative and relative descriptions are abundant which gives the Se’atat a vivid and lively dimension. An indirect reference to a wide variety of stories such as from the Bible, Sinaxarium, Miracles of Jesus, Mary, the Angels, the Saints and Martyrs makes it comprehensive in its content. Let us look at some of the following verses as an example.
Like many of the Monasteries in the Borena area, Aba Giorgis of the Gasecha might have been attacked by Gragn. This assumption is made based on what has happened to the Monastery of Aba Betselote Micheal located at the foot of the same plateau as that of Aba Giorgis. However, no confirmed writing of destruction is found concerning the Monastery. To this end, it might not be surprising that this Monastery has many ancient books and relics which escaped any looting and damage.
126.96.36.199.2. Aba Betselote Micheal Monastery (Kelela)
This Monastery is found in the same wereda and area as Aba Giorgis of Gasecha. In fact, and as mentioned above it is located at the left side foot of the same plateau. This is also a cave carved out of a white sandy rock. It has only one entrance to a one kinemahlet/kidist and another one entrance to a single mekdes. The inside of the cave is relatively narrow and has basically a simple structure having no columns.
Aba Betselote Micheal was a contemporary of Abuna Teklehaimanot in the 12th century. It is written in the Hagiography of St. Abuna TeklaHaimanot (page 154) that he had learnt the life of monasticism and served Aba Beselote Michael for ten years. Aba Beselote Michael had been gifted with the grace of curing the sick and many of the miracles he made are written in this hagiography. Furthermore, his own biography tells many of his great deeds. Aba Beselote Michael is attributed a father to many Saints and his name is mentioned with great reverence.
The Monastery of Aba Beselote Michael had greatly been damaged by Gragn. The richly painted walls and roof of the rock church have been completely burned and one can see slight traces of the figures of the Holy Virgin Mary with her Beloved Son and some other Saints. The Monastery had been recently re-instated and started to provide service under the administration of the monastery of Aba Giorgis of Gasecha.
188.8.131.52. Archeological Sites Found Around Wereilu
Wereilu is one of the main places that had severely been destroyed by Gragn Ahmed and many ancient historical Churches and heritages are demolished and looted. The former name of Wereillu was Wasel.
Gragn gave the order to his soldiers to burn every Church they could find and personally oversaw the burning of the Church of Mekane Silassie (House of the Trinity). He then went on to Atronse Mariam church and demanded that the monks give him the Ark, relics, and treasure of the Church -- an order which they refused. He then had them massacred and burned down the Church, recovering the treasure with the help of informants. When he went on to burn the Church of Bete Semayat (House of Heaven), many monks were so distraught that they threw themselves into the flames and burned themselves to death along with their great Church. He also destroyed the ancient Monastery of Bete Negodguad (House of Thunder). In 1531, the now fugitive Emperor fled the overrun Amhara Sayint and crossed the Beshilo River into Beghemidir.
184.108.40.206.1. Yohannes Wolde Negodguad Relic (Wereilu)
Yohannes Wolde Negodguad /St. John Son of Thunder/ is in Wereilu wereda around 455 km from Addis Ababa. This Church was one of the deep imprints of Christianity in the Wereilu area. It was built by King Zerea Yaekob. Arab Fakih had mentioned that this church was built by Be’ede Mariam the son of Atse Zareayaecob and his tomb was within the church. The chronicle of King Zerea Yaekob as written by Perusho confirms that it was built by Zerea Yaekob and he made his father Atse Dawit’s tomb with in the Church.
Yohannes Wolde Negodguad’s first Church was constructed by rock pillars, and other materials. It had many hundreds of monks and priests serving in the Church. It was on the eve prayer and hymn time on Hedar 7, 1524 EC that Sid Mohammed who was sent to destroy Wolde Negodguad mercilessly martyred hundreds of monks, priests and debteras (chanters). It is said that their blood flowed like a small stream and all their bodies were scattered all over the place. This had been witnessed during a visit by the researcher that when farmers plough the neighboring land or heavy rain falls several skeletons of people get exposed here and there.
Although this Church had undergone several recent reconstructions like by King Yohannes, the old four column pillars which used to be the mekdes/member are the only remnants of the original Church. Each column is about 2.5m in total length and no one knows how and from where these rock columns had come. It is claimed that there used to be underground access leading to Mekane Sillase however, some attempts to uncover this had not been successful. Many living witness are present that show how great and miraculous this place still is.
The old tid trees that circle the remains of the ancient church are standing witnesses of its past glory. A foundation stone had been placed on Hedar7, 1999 (exactly 475 years after its destruction) and is expected to revive soon.
220.127.116.11.2. Mekane Silasse Church (Wereilu)
This ancient and historical Church is found in Wereillu wereda of South Wollo region. The distance from A.A to Woreillu is 476 k.m. and from Dessie to Wereillu 91 km. So, the exact location of Mekane Silassie Church is 15 km before reaching Wereillu and 4km to the western part of the small town Sehgno Gebeya.
Mekane Silasse Church was established before 485 years in 1513 E.C. The foundation was started by Atse Naod /1489-1500/ and it was finished by his son Atse Lebne Dengel /1500-1513/. This Church is different from other Churches because it took twenty five /25/ years to construct it. Atse Naod worked on it for thirteen /13/ years but he died before finishing it. So, his son Lebne Dengel finished it after twelve /12/ years by constructing a great Church and more beautiful than his father. At the inauguration of the Church in 1513 many famous persons were present. Among them, the Portuguese priest and historian writer, Fransisco Alvarez was the one who recorded the ceremonies of the Church inauguration at that time. He admired and writes about the Church’s architectural design.
The Church was constructed from Geha /ገሀ/ stone and it had a Mekdes, Kidist and Kine Mahilet. The four sides of the Mekdes and Kidist were equal in size and shape but the shape of the Kine Mahlet was circular. The Church was also much wider and bigger than other Churches of the time found around Wereillu. The Portuguese priest and historian writer, Fransisco Alvaraze said the following about its architectural design: “the wall of this Church was made from systematically carved stones / ጥርብ ድንጋይ / and it was designed by a graphic decoration / ሐረግ / …..the door of the main entrance was covered by gold and silver. Inside the gold and silver there were some precious stones. The roof was laid down on the six /6/ columns of the Church and the outer part of the roof was supported by sixty-one /61/ long columns. There were also sixteen / 16/ curtains made of golden cotton cloth.
On the other hand, the historical writer of Ahmad Gragn Arab Faqeh recorded about its architectural design before the destruction of the Church. He admired its construction and architectural design and said that the following: “there was one church in Bete Amhara which no church could imitate in Habesha land. It was constructed by the father of Wenag Seged/ Lebene Dengel/, King Naod. Its work and ornament had taken thirteen /13/ years but king Naod died before finishing it. His son Lebne Dengel finished it after twenty-five /25/ years. He finished the Church by covering all part of it with gold above what his father had done. So the Church reflects like a fire, because, it was covered by gold and all the church holy treasures liturgical objects) / ነዋያተ ቅድሳት / were made from gold and silver. The width of the Church was more than hundred yards /100 ክንድ / and the height was also more than fifty yards /50 ክንድ / ……… Christians called the Church Mekane Silasse……. In this Church, the tomb ofAtse Naod who is the grand son of Zera Yacob and the son of Be’ede Mariam/ Admas Seged/ is found.”
As stated above, Mekane Silasse Church had taken 25 years to construct and it was very large in size. It was also magnificently decorated with gold and silver. This greatly attracted Gragn and he decided to involve personally in the destruction of the Church. On Hidar 7, 1524, Gragn arrived at the Church and was astonished at the site of the Church. He went there with about a thousand Muslim soldiers each having an axe and spent the whole day cutting the gold and silver. Each one of them were full with gold and whatever they could not remove, they burnt with the Church. It is also said that the Yimam had asked the Arabs if they had ever seen a Church in India or Rome decorated so much with gold and silver and they had replied saying that they had never seen before. Finally all the great architectural work that took 25 years was reduced to shamble and this remains as such to this date.
18.104.22.168. Some Other Churches in the Region
Among the many other Churches found in Wereilu is also Genete Georgis Church which is also decorated with gold and silver. As recorded by Arab Faki, Genete Georgis Church was constructed by Atse Eskinder. It was burnt down on Hidar 12, 1524. Atse Yohannes, had tried to reconstruct it. However, it was built in its current form by Atse Menilik after his success over the battle of Adwa. Similarly Debreegziabher in Tehuledere, Seifeatra Kidanemihret in Mekaneselam are worth pointing out. Abune Gebre Endrias Monastery in Wegedie is also a very famous Church where the original rock hewn Church remains hidden and undiscovered. A new Church is constructed recently and its holy water is famous for curing the sick and making prayer beads/rosaries. The recently found remnants of ancient rock hewn Churches of Debre Dembike Mariam and Medhanealem Church in Wegedie also require more investigation. The hidden Monastery of Weleka Zekarias is believed to have housed many ancient relics and history books of the area.
The Cave of Shinet in Wegedie wereda Demasko area where the researcher of this paper had personally seen while traveling there also requires detailed investigation and attention. In general, the researcher believes that there still are much more Churches and Monasteries that are still buried and hidden from sight. These hidden Churches had probably many information that would help uncover ancient Christianity in the Southern Wollo Region. Until this happens, they remain to be the safe storehouse of the ancient past.