Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el IV: Royal Lineages and Early Foundations

This is the fourth of a series of posts going back to a paper presented at the International Medieval Congress 2017. See for the first post and an overview over the whole series.

Betä Ǝsra’el Royal Lineage as a Test Case

A possible indication that some Betä Ǝsra’el genealogies contain information which can be traced back to medieval times can be found in the incorporation of the names of Betä Ǝsra’el monarchs within them. The name which features most prominently is that of the Betä Ǝsra’el monarch Gedewon.[1] A Betä Ǝsra’el leader by that name plays a central role in accounts of wars against factions of the Betä Ǝsra’el waged by the Solomonic monarchs Śärṣä Dǝngǝl (1563-1597, Conti Rossini and Guidi 1807: 123, 170-171; Halévy 1907) and Susǝnyos (1607-1632, Kaplan 1992: 79-96; Pereira 1900: 116-118, 136, 209, 215-218, 387, 437, 441, 464, 553). However, mentions of a monarch bearing this name in Betä Ǝsra’el genealogies can arguably be considered generic: According to Betä Ǝsra’el tradition, prior to their conquest by the Solomonic Kingdom, they were ruled by a series of kings, all of which were named Gedewon (Ḥädanä Täqoyä 2011: 71-83).

Far less prestigious, and therefore possibly more significant, is the incorporation of a ruler by the name of the Bet Agir in the genealogy of qes Ḥädanä Täqoyä (2011: 217). A Betä Ǝsra’el ruler with an identical name appears in a number of Christian Ethiopian chronicles.[2] While it is certainly possible that information contained in the chronicles reached the Betä Ǝsra’el community, either directly or via a medium, it seems unlikely: Solomonic royal chronicles received a relatively limited readership, and were not as widely distributed as scriptural works. It is, in the opinion of the present writer, far more likely that traditions regarding Betä Ǝsra’el leaders and their acts were passed down orally by the Betä Ǝsra’el community (and, to an extent, by the non- Betä Ǝsra’el neighbors of this community).[3]

It should be stressed that what is being argued for is not the precision or historicity of all the components of Betä Ǝsra’el genealogies, but rather the possibility that information originating in medieval times is incorporated within them. With this in mind, we shall examine certain aspects of the monastic lineage of the Betä Ǝsra’el.


The First Generations of Betä Ǝsra’el Monks

Christian monastic movements, as well as the Betä Ǝsra’el monastic movement, cannot, due to the requirement of celibacy, produce a lineage of physical descent stemming from a prestigious monk and composed of monks.[4] This did not mean that lineage was unimportant. The contrary was often the case – genealogies of monastic lineage were formed, stemming from a prestigious founding father to his disciples, considered his spiritual sons, and onwards to their disciples. Ethiopian Orthodox monastic communities, for example, would often trace their monastic lineage back to the prestigious fathers of Egyptian monasticism (Derat 2005). What of the Betä Ǝsra’el? Did their monastic movement keep track of monastic lineage? Is there an oral tradition relating to the monastic genealogy of medieval Betä Ǝsra’el monks? An examination of a number of sources elaborated below would indicate that this was indeed the case.

As stated above, Betä Ǝsra’el tradition recognizes Abba Sabra as the founding father of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism. Together with his disciple, Ṣagga Amlak, he is believed to have fled from the court of the Ethiopian monarch Zär’a Ya’əqob, and to have visited a number of localities in the provinces of Dämbəya and Säqqält, before establishing his renowned monastery on Mt. Huhwara in the province of Armač̣əho. Ṣagga Amlak can therefore be considered the spiritual son of Abba Sabra. He was not the only monk to have traditionally studied under the great founder. A number of prestigious Betä Ǝsra’el monks are recognized as Abba Sabra’s disciples or contemporaries. As such, the search for the medieval history of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism must begin with them and with the sites in which they resided.

Taamrat Emmanuel, a well-known leader of the Betä Ǝsra’el community, wrote an account of various Betä Ǝsra’el monks and holy places, based on information he had gathered from the community (Leslau 1974). In this account, a disciple of Abba Sabra by the name of Abba Gärsäm is mentioned. The latter is considered either the brother or friend of two additional Betä Ǝsra’el monks: Abba Täntän and Abba Həssen. Abba Saquyän, also a Betä Ǝsra’el monk, is mentioned as living together with Ṣagga Amlak at Mədraru (see below), and can therefore be considered his contemporary. Thus, if we accept the traditions documented by Taamrat Emmanuel at face value, we can name five monks living contemporarily with or slightly after Abba Sabra. While this might not necessarily reflect precise historical reality, it is likely that the above-mentioned monks lived significantly earlier than the second half of the nineteenth century – by that time at least some of them were already considered as having lived in the distant past (Halévy 1994: 45).


Traditions Regarding the Earliest Betä Ǝsra’el Monastic Foundations

On their way from the royal court to Mt. Huhwara, Abba Sabra and Ṣagga Amlak traditionally visited three sites: Gwang Ras, Geǧen and Mədraru. These sites became sanctified in the Betä Ǝsra’el tradition, and were known as dwelling places of monks (Ben-Dor 1985: 43-45; Leslau 1974: 626).

The above-mentioned monks identified as belonging to the first generation of Betä Ǝsra’el monks are associated with specific localities: Abba Gärsäm regularly prayed in two places on the mountain of Qärn Amba (Leslau 1974: 626). Abba Saquyän resided in Mədraru together with Ṣagga Amlak (Leslau 1974: 626-627). A holy site dedicated to Abba Täntän, commemorating his miraculous survival of a fall down a cliff, is located near the village of Səmen Mänaṭa (Leslau 1974: 628). Abba Həssen traditionally lived, died and was buried at Sənkot in the province of Armač̣əho (Leslau 1974: 628-629). And, of course, Abba Sabra and Ṣagga Amlak founded the monastery on Mt. Huhwara. An additional monk, Abba Däbtära, identified by Taamrat Emmanuel with the monk Abba Halen (though this identification is disputed, see Leslau 1974: 627-628), traditionally founded the monastic center of Č̣aqo Abba Däbtära in Č̣əlga province, and lived during the reign of King Fasilädäs (1632-1667, Halévy 1994: 54).

The identification, in the oral tradition, of specific localities as the dwelling places of medieval Betä Ǝsra’el monks is an ideal starting point in an attempt to shed light on the “forgotten years” of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism: If these localities could be identified, and the remains of the monasteries within them found and examined, and if indeed elements of these remains date back to medieval times, a corpus of new information on medieval Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism could be produced. However, reaching and identifying there remains is no easy task:

Due to the decline of Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism and the immigration of the Betä Ǝsra’el community to Israel, all Betä Ǝsra’el monasteries in Ethiopia have been abandoned. Prior to this process, no systematic documentation of the location and layout of these monasteries had ever been attempted.[5] Furthermore – even the location of the majority of Betä Ǝsra’el villages has never been precisely pinpointed on topographic maps, and remains undocumented.

As in the case of Betä Ǝsra’el medieval history, the attempt to study geographic aspects of Betä Ǝsra’el life in Ethiopia must compliment documented accounts (in this case, maps) with oral accounts – the absence of detailed maps pinpointing the location of Betä Ǝsra’el-associated sites does not mean that these locations are unknown. On the contrary, they are well-known to both members of the Betä Ǝsra’el community and to some of the present inhabitants of the areas in which this community used to reside. The names of a number of localities mentioned as the site of Betä Ǝsra’el monasteries do appear in historical maps. These may indicate the general area in which the monastery existed, and hence serve as potential starting points for attempts to locate the actual remains in situ. Locating the actual site, as has been conclusively proven in recent fieldwork (see below), can often be achieved with the help of local informants.

Fortunately, two of the place-names in the above-mentioned list of monastic foundations to which the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition assigns a medieval date have been pinpointed in historical maps: Geǧen and Mədraru.[6] The location of two additional localities can also be pinpointed, albeit with a lesser degree of certainty:  a place by the name of Č̣aqo in the Č̣əlga province is probably the location of Č̣aqo Abba Däbtära; and the site of Gwang Ras is traditionally located at the source of the Gwang river, the latter of which is a well-known topographical feature.

In a survey of Betä Ǝsra’el monastic sites conducted in October 2017,[7] two additional sites appearing in the list above were pinpointed – the site dedicated to Abba Täntän at Səmen Mänaṭa and the mountain of Qärn Amba. Unfortunately, due to logistical and security reasons, both sites could not be visited.


[1] For examples of genealogies in which monarchs named Gedewon are incorporated, see Ḥädanä Täqoyä 2011: 216-218; Rosen 1994: 125. For an overview of the tradition regarding the Gedewon monarchs, see Quirin 2005.

[2] Basset 1882: 11-12, 101; Taddesse Tamrat 1972: 200. Kaplan (1992: 57-58) suggests that the phrase “Bet Agir” served as a title rather than the name of an individual. An account of the Bet Agir as the nephew of the Betä Ǝsra’el king Gedewon was narrated to the present writer by Ǝnyäw Taräqäñ (pers. com.).

[3] During an archaeological survey of Betä Ǝsra’el monasteries in the Səmen Mountains conducted in October 2017 (see below), a number of the Christian inhabitants of localities in which Betä Ǝsra’el communities used to dwell recounted traditions regarding a military commander by the name of Gedewon. Surprisingly, he was not identified as the leader of the Betä Ǝsra’el. It is the intent of the survey team to publish an account of these traditions in the near future.

[4] There are documented cases in which Betä Ǝsra’el monks had children – either these were born before the monk had become a monk (Flad 1869: 33-34), or, less frequently, after a monk had renounced his monasticism and rejoined lay society (Gobäze Baroḵ 2007: 5-6). However, such cases were the exception to the rule, and the former has parallels in Christian Ethiopian monasticism (Kaplan 2014: 446).

[5] Research conducted by the present author, in collaboration the European Research Council project “Jews and Christians in the East: Strategies of Interaction between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean” (JewsEast), based at the Ruhr University, Bochum, is aimed at locating and examining the remains of Betä Ǝsra’el monasteries. For preliminary publications, see Kribus forthcoming a; Kribus forthcoming b; Kribus and Krebs forthcoming.

[6] See, for example, the following map: Great Britain. War Office. General Staff. Geographical Section. East Africa 1:500,000. Map. London: War Office, 1947.

[7] This survey was led by Bar Kribus and Sophia Dege-Müller, and conducted under the auspices of the ERC project JewsEast (Ruhr University, Bochum), in collaboration with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was conducted under the authorization of the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, and supervised by Seminew Asrat and Laka Andarge. We hope to publish the results of the survey in the near future.

For full bibliography, see the last post in the series.

Cite this article as: barkribus, "Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el IV: Royal Lineages and Early Foundations," in Africana, 24/02/2018,

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