In two field trips conducted by the JewsEast project (December 2015, October 2017), the second of which was a proper archaeological survey, an attempt was made to locate Betä Ǝsra’el monastic sites. In both cases, the information collected prior to fieldwork indicated the general location of the monasteries, and informants encountered during fieldwork pinpointed the exact location of the sites. In both cases, remains of structures erected by the Betä Ǝsra’el, including synagogues, dwellings and probable monastic compounds, could still be seen and identified.
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. 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).
Oral Sources and the Study of Betä Ǝsra’el History and Religious Life
The Betä Ǝsra’el cannot be considered an illiterate society. Betä Ǝsra’el clergy and religious scholars were required to learn to read as part of their education. While prayers were largely committed to memory and recited, texts, mainly holy books, were used (Kaplan 1992: 73-77). However, Betä Ǝsra’el historiography was, as we have seen, almost completely oral.
Sources Relating to Betä Ǝsra’el Monasticism and the Chronological Gap of the Middle Ages
The vast majority of sources shedding light on Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism date to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include accounts written by the above-mentioned Christian missionaries and representatives of World Jewry, as well as a number accounts written by scholars who encountered Betä Ǝsra’el monks (d’Abbadie 1851-52; Leslau 1949). A number of studies deal with Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism, and incorporate within them information from both written sources and the Betä Ǝsra’el oral tradition (Ben-Dor 1985; 1987; Kaplan 1992; Quirin 1992; Shelemay 1989).
Shedding Light on Medieval Betä Ǝsra’el (Ethiopian Jewish) Monasticism:
An Examination of Sources and Suggestions for Future Study
One of the most intriguing aspects of Betä Ǝsra’el (Ethiopian Jewish) history and religious life is this community’s monastic movement. Betä Ǝsra’el monasticism is the only type of Jewish or Judaic monasticism known to have existed in medieval or modern times. It is a monastic movement in the full sense of the term: The monks were celibate, lived in monasteries, observed ascetic practices and dedicated their lives to the worship of God.
The (shiny, silvery) printed programme for the 25th International Medieval Congress is out now, I got my paper copy today, with all the “Reclaiming the Middle Ages for Africa” and “Medieval Ethopia” sessions in! Anyone interested in using the Africana blog in preparation of these sessions, or indeed later on, just drop me note: christof.rolker (at) uni-bamberg.de.