The Zagew Dynasty

The Rise of Dynasty

Ethiopian historical sources, most of which were compiled from the late fifteenth century onwards, states the Zāgwē Dynasty began ruling Ethiopia in the first half of the tenth century, i.e. 929 AD. The Zāgwē are therefore supposed to have ruled the country for a period of three and a half centuries. There is no certainty regarding circumstances in which the Zāgwē Dynasty ascended to power. Widely used version attributes the Dynastic change by the marriage between the daughter of the last Aksumite king Dil Ne‟ad and one of his generals, Mera Tekle Haimanot, a man from Lasta and believed to be the founder of the Zāgwē dynasty.

The story which was told for generation goes like this, Long long time ago… a large number of Isarealite middle-aged men, bachelors, and priests came to Ethiopia at the time of Minilik I (the son of Queen Shiba ‘Makeda’) return to Ethiopia. On the return back to his homeland, Minilik I and his accompanies brought the original Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem. The Rabbies started to preach about the Old Testament and started converting the locals to Judaism.  Till the day father Fremnatus አባ ሰላማ(a Christian archbishop) came to Aksum and converted the kings Abreha, his other king brother Astbha(It’s common to see dual kings ruled Ethiopia at the same time) and people of Aksum, the Falashas lived with the locals, especially with the Agew People.

Historically the Agäw people are one of the oldest and indigenous Cushite people, who were under the rule of the Aksumite Empire. They originally located in Lasta, Roha and its surrounding. Today they settled in the northern, central and north-western Ethiopia and some part of Eritrea. The Agew inhabited with the Amhara, Tigre, who are hardly distinguishable from one another. These groups have many common cultural, historical, geographical roots and somatic characteristics. Agaw society has various names in different regions. In Wollo they are called Yewag, in Gondar-Kemant, in Gojjam – Agaw (Awi) and in Eritrea – Blen(Halal).

King Abraha and Astbeha

King Abraha and Astbeha

The ‘Felasha’ has got the name because they have been moving from place to place for a while. First, they moved from Jerusalem to Aksum, then from Axum to Lasta, and finally to the Semien mountains which were their last stronghold. From this point on they progressively become powerful, as such, they started crowning their own kings. Their first king named Gideon has a daughter named Yodit, she also has been called ‘Aster’. Aster was married to the governor of Lasta named Zere Yakob. He was blinded by her magnificent beauty, he changed his religion of Christianity to Judaism to make his beloved but deceptive wife happy. To make his conversion formal he even changed his Christian name Zera Yakob to Solomon.

This was the time that the king of Aksum king Degnajan (ruled 825-845)A.D passed away, and his son king Anbesawedem (ruled 848-849)A.D became the king of Aksum while he was an infant. When the beautiful Yodit heard this news; She and her husband wage a war against the Aksumite Empire and invade its entire territory. In 849 A.D, Yodit became Queen of Ethiopia(Abyssinia). From this time, the Queen ruled Ethiopia with Absolute Anarchy for the next 40 years. because of that, the people start changing her name from Yodit to Gudit (ruffian) and her family name Aster to Esato(the fire).


Debre Damo Church

To save the complete collapse of the Empire the king and princes of Aksum fled to Shewa. when the people of Shewa hear the news of the exiled young king Anbesawedem arrival to their state, they were ready to protect and help the infant king restore his power. He was always indebted to the people of Shewa, as they were his proactive guardian from several attacks, which came from the Queen. This was the time that she destroyed countless churches, artifacts, and numerous rock-hewn churches including the famous and the still-standing Debre Damo. When the people of Ethiopia especially, the people who live in the Tigray province were thrilled when they hear the news of the Queen death (889 A.D.). Following her death, Anbesawedem (ruled 889-909)A.D restore the Aksumite Empire once again. His son Dil Na’od (ruled 909-919)A.D became his successor, and many historians believed Dil Na’od was the last king of the Aksumite Empire, meanwhile, Meta Tekelhazmont (ruled 919 – 932)A.D. became the unofficial first king of Zāgwē dynasty.


There are a number of possible derivations of the word Zāgwē. Some writers claim that it is an abbreviation of Zāgwē Michael, the Christian name of Mera Tekle Haimanot, and the founder of the Zāgwē dynasty. Others believe that it drives from Agaw in Geez (ዘአገው means “from Agew”), the place where the tribe of this dynasty originated-the north-central part of Ethiopia. The second explanation seems the most probable since the previous dynasty also took its name from a locality and, more specifically, a capital city-Aksum. As a capital city which could symbolize the whole empire had not yet been established.

The Zāgwē dynasty flourished between the eleventh and thirteenth century. Four out of its eleven rulers represented by ‘kings-saints’. The kings-saints of the Zāgwē dynasty are credited with the foundation and endowment of extraordinary monuments. For instance, they have created the famous rock-hewn churches of Lasta, which lie immediately to the South of Tegray and are considered to be one o the most distinctive artistic products o the Ethiopian Christian civilization. The Zāgwē dynasty is also the first for which definite artistic objects can be attributed to historical personalities. One recent and extremely interesting example is that of the inscribed processional cross of King Tantaweddem.

The recollection of the king-saint, merits and good deeds towards the church and clergy has been adduced as a reason for their sanctification. Indeed, Yernrebanna Krestos (the king-priest excellence of the Zāgwē dynasty, who is thought to have been early identified as the ante litteram ‘Prester John’ of Ethiopia), Na’akkweto La’ab, and especially Lalibela were all great builders. The last-named, in fact, was so important as to have given his name to the famous town where the incredible monolithic rock-hewn churches were carved. The Zāgwē did show a commitment to the church building and their strict adherence to orthodoxy is shown by their early observance of the ‘Christian Sabbath’ praised by King Lalibela in an inscription on an altar-throne (manbara tiibot). However, it seems overly positivistic to think that these things were the only reason for their sanctification, even for those contesting their legitimacy to rule. The Zāgwē was also considered usurpers.

king Tantawedem

Tantāwedem (ruled 932 -972A.D.), the son of Mera Tekle Haymanot, is considered to be one of the first rulers of the Zāgwē dynasty. He presented himself as the son of Mera Tekelhazmont. The reign of Tantāwedem was documented by contemporary sources: a cross, carrying an inscription, was found and is still preserved in the church of ‘Urā Masqal (Gelo Makada, Tegrē).

ዘንተ፡ መእተበ፡ አቅነይኩ፡ አነ፡ ሰሎሞን፡ ንጉሥ፡ ወልድ፡ ሙራራ፡ ወሰምየ፡ ጠንጣውድም፡ I acquired this cross (sign of the cross), myself Solomon, son of Murārā, and my name is Tantāwedem.

He also gave a manuscript to the church of Abbā Mattā‘e of ’Ahām, now known as Dabra Libānos of Šemazānā, in the south of present-day Eritrea. The binding of the manuscript, protected by a golden metal cover, carries an inscription bearing witness to the name of the donor:

ወአሰረኩ፡ ዘንተ፡ ግለ(sic) [ግላ]:- ወንጌል፡ አነ፡ ንጉሥ፡ ሰሎምን(sic) [ሰሎሞን]:- ለቤተ፡ አባ፡ ምጠ፡ ዘአሀም። I, King Salomon, have had this cover of the gospels made for Bēta Abbā Metta’e of Aham.

Finally, he richly endowed the church of Qefereyā/‘Urā Masqal by granting it much land, including lands taken from a nearby Muslim community. All this suggests that Tantāwedem was the founder of the church. These land grants were later written down and copied into a collection preserved in the church of ‘Urā Masqal. In these donations King Tantāwedem presents himself thus: 

አነ፡ ሐፀይ፡ ጠንጠውድም፡ ሰመ፡ ፡መንግሥትየ፡ ሳሎሞን፡ ወሰጓየ፡ ገብረ፡ መድኅን፡ በ ፲ ወ ፪ ዓመተ፡ መንግሥትየ፡ ዓመተ  ፳ ፬፡ ለወርኀ፡ ሚያዝያ፡ ለመካነ፡ ቅፍርያ፡ ለቤተ፡ መስቀል፡ I, hadāy Tantawedem, whose regnal name is Salomon, and my surname (is) Gabra Madòen, in the 12th year of my rule, on the 24th of miyāzyā and in the place named Qefereyā, at the church of the Cross…


The Continuity

There is, therefore, no doubt that this was one king alone who, following the custom of the Aksumite kings, possessed three names: his regal name, Tantāwedem, his regnal name, Salomon, and his surname, Gabra Madòen. Tantāwedem is known for rebuilding, those churches destroyed and burned by Yodit during his reign.

The successor to Tantāwedem was Jān Śeiyoum, who ruled 972 – 1012 A.D. He is presented as being the son or the brother of Tantāwedem, who might have had another nephew or son named Germā Śeiyoum (ruled 1012-1052 A.D.). Power would then have been passed on to Germā Śeiyoum.

Indeed the rise of the Zāgwē dynasty did not represent a break in the Aksumite tradition. For over three centuries the center of the Christian kingdom was on the doorsteps of Wagra and Lasta, and it was from here that it controlled its extensive sphere of influence in the ninth and early tenth centuries. A close review of the few available historical notes on the period shows no signs of a sudden and dramatic advent to power of a completely new cadre of leadership in the country. It rather seems that the culmination of a natural political development within the Christian kingdom of which the central parts had long consisted of the crucial area of the headwaters of Takaze and Sallari. The Zāgwē period is believed to be one of the richest and most artistic periods of Ethiopian civilization.

The Zāgwē bordered the Muslim Shirazid Emirate and County of Assab, the Jewish Kingdom of Aksum, and the Nubian Christian Hayya, Meroe, and other small chiefdoms. During the reign of Yemrehana Krestos of Abyssinia (known as “the Wise”), the Zāgwē campaigned against Assab, and his son Kedus Harbe of Abyssinia would fight against Axum and conquer Assab for himself, becoming a great leader.

Yemrehanna Krestos The priest-King

The Servived Christian Kingdom

Tantāwedem reigned in the region of Begwenā and had two sons, the oldest being Jan Seiyoum (ruled 972 -1012 A.D.); and a nephew named  Germa Sieyoum ruled (1012 -1052) A D. It was during the reign of these three kings the Egyptian Caliphets start oppressing, harassing and imprisoning the Archbishops and Christian residents of Alexandria. Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who was the ruler of Egypt at the time urged all Egyptian to convert to Islam. To fulfill his ambition, the Caliph arrested Pope Zacharias (Papacy 1004 – 1032 A.D) of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. He also ordered his generals to burn all the churches in Alexandria. The Egypt Christians then turn to the East to seek for refuge, but;

The Constanoples Christians believe in the incarnation of Jesus, which similarly holds that Christ was both fully human and fully divine; but the Alexandria Christians believe that Christ had two natures ― one human and one divine ― united as one “without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration.”,

So they drop that option and start looking at their other option. They turn south to Nubia, however, Nubia was going through a rough time of its own, it was under the complete control of Arabs. The only choice they had left was to look further South. The only Christian kingdom, which managed to survive from the complete Islamization of the area was Ethiopia(Abyssinia). Since the Ethiopian Christians 

have the same beliefs, when it comes to Jesus, a large number of Alexandria Christians started their journey towards Ethiopia. The voyage includespainters, craftsmen, handyman, artesian, bishops, priests and many more. The then kings, princes, governors and other regional leaders accommodate them well and assign them with their own merit and work experiences.

Once Caliphs have got his wish, he settled down a bit and stop imprisoning the Christians of Alexandria. The relation between Ethiopia and the rest of the world (Alexandria, Nubia and the rest of the Arab world) restored once again. While pope Christodolos(1046 -1076 A.D) was archbishop of Alexandria, a man named Abedum came to Ethiopia with a fake letter, which states him as the archbishops of Ethiopia by the name of pope Karl. When the news of this fake pope arrives in the ear of an Arab General named Visor Bader Al Jemal, he was outraged and brought the issue to Pope Christodolos. The pope was so happy to see a friend of Ethiopia after he gave a few instructions and advise he sent him to Ethiopia with his new name pope Sawiris. He was known for helping the Muslims building new mosques.

When the new king Yemrehanna Kristos hears about pope Swariris, he sent him to jail and requested the Archbishop of Alexandria to send him another one. Archbishop Christodolossent sent him pope George. Soon after, as if the first two was not enough, this one was caught in another scandal. This time father Gorge was involving running his own little trade scheme, which is against the church rule. The frustrated king Yemrehanna Kristos sent beck the new pope to Alexandria.

Who was Yemrehanna Kristos?

The prediction Yemrehanna Krestos apparent ascension to power was announced to king Mera Tekelhazmont (ruled 919 – 932 A.D.) and the founder of the dynasty, “that a man named Yemrehanna would take his throne” while he was at sleep. What he didn’t know was, Yemrehanna would be his 7th successor. The wife of Morara (ruled 1054 – 1069 A.D.) gave birth to a boy for whom royal stature was foretold. He was named Yemrehanna Kristos. He lived for some time alongside his brother Herbey I (ruled 1069-1084 A.D), until Herbay I unable to endure the idea that his own brother would succeed or force him out his power, so he sent the young man to the wilderness. Since he now faced the threat of assassination on the orders of his own brother, Yemrehanna Krestos take flight. After he wandered from desert to desert, first, he went to visit the metropolitan who ordained him deacon. Then, he married a woman named Qeddest Hezba, who is described as being of Levitic origin. Thereafter, he became a priest.

Wagra Seòin, that can be identified as the church currently known as Yemrehanna Krestos, and the region to which the hagiography relocates the rule of the saint-king. He was in the region of Say, in Begwenā, when he heard of the death of Herbay I. Named king, he was led to Adafā, which is introduced as his capital. He built the first church at Zāzyā before founding the one in Wagra Seòin, also known as Geshat. Only two of these place names are familiar: Begwenā, which is more or less the region now known as Lāstā, and Adafā, presumably situated in this same region.

yemrehanna kristos

yemrehanna kristos

The nave clerestory windows,  opening onto the roof above the side aisles,  alternate with false windows. Above the  clerestory, a tie beam across the nave  carries a double kingpost, which supports  the saddle-back roof. The sanctuary walls  are decorated with a so-called “Aksumite  frieze” of false windows.  Image CHWB

The nave clerestory windows, opening onto the roof above the side aisles, alternate with false windows. Above the clerestory, a tie beam across the nave carries a double kingpost, which supports the saddle-back roof. The sanctuary walls are decorated with a so-called “Aksumite frieze” of false windows. Image CHWB

One day, as he was celebrating mass, God informed him that he would become king and that his regnal name would be David, and anointed him with the Myron of royalty. He entreated him to return home with his wife, guided by the archangel Raphael. During the voyage, Yemrehanna Krestos performed miracles: he cured a blind man, exorcised a woman possessed by the devil and resolved a conflict between two brothers. Then the news of the death of Germa Sieyoum reached him and the prophecy was fulfilled. He was led to the Adafā region to reign, where he advised his subjects to marry only one woman and not to believe in soothsayers. He continued to carry out his sacerdotal duties, celebrating mass, to the despair of some of his subjects who complained that he did not conduct himself as a king should, that is to say by marrying several women and going hunting. Then he erected a church at Wagra Seòin to house his future sepulcher and God made a pact (kidān) with him, promising that those who prayed at his tomb in his name would enjoy a blessed life by his side for one thousand years.

To embellish the church, he brought wooden shutters from Egypt and alabaster for the windows. Its fame was such that a patriarch of Alexandria named Qērlos (Cyril) and/or Atnātēwos (Athanasius) visited to pay it homage. Before Yemrehanna Krestos died, God asked what he would like. He answered that he wished the kingdom of Ethiopia to be returned to Israel and so God declared that he would give it back to the one who was known as Yekunno Amlāk. Then, the king left his capital to seek gold to complete his church. He died during his travels on the 19th of October. His troops transported him to Wagra Seòin, where he was buried by the patriarch Atnātēwos.

What did the hagiographers said about Yemrehanna Krestos?

Melchisedech, the hagiographer places Yemrehanna Krestos in the same league as those Byzantine emperors who summoned the great councils. That Yemrehanna Krestos had a mission to carry out is several times mentioned in the Life. It is recorded that just before the saint became king, people murmured while praying:

“As for us, we heard from our fathers that during the rule of Yemreha the faith would be Orthodox, and under his rule, the people of Rome shall submit to those from Ethiopia!”

This prophecy came true as the reputation of Yemrehanna Krestos spread so far that many believers from Rome came to him, as did the patriarch of Alexandria, abbā Qērlos (Cyril), who declared to the king, while prostrating himself before him:

“Blessed be the country of Ethiopia, by the word of Ethiopia, and by the mouth of Our Lady Mary, because this remoteness is the share allotted to Mary. Neither a Jew nor a pagan will rule over them, but (only) one on an Orthodox throne who has a straight faith. Listen to what I am telling you, your country will be glorified more than all other countries”.

And the hagiographer concluded with these words:

“Beyond everything else, the people of Rome submitted to him.

‘Rome’ here stands for ‘Byzantium’ and the submission of Byzantium concerns the schism produced by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. Yemrehanna Kristos embodies the Ethiopian king who succeeded, after several centuries of separation, in making the Byzantines recognize what was the only true Orthodoxy in the eyes of the Ethiopians, that of the anti- Chalcedonians. The patriarch Cyril’s actions stemmed from this when he acknowledged the Ethiopian ruler as the guide of the non-Chalcedonian Christians. The submission of Rome to Ethiopia and the acknowledgment of its Orthodoxy echo other well-known Christian apocalyptic texts, especially the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. The text closest to the form followed in the Life of Yemrehanna Kristos is a letter of Pisuntios, bishop of Qeft in the eighth century, and dated to the 10th century.

As mentioned above, the successors of the Zāgwē kings tended to present them as usurpers, and a break from the kings of Aksum because they were not of the Israelite family that represented the dominant power group in Ethiopia and, according to a tradition, resulted from the meeting between King Salomon and the Queen of Sheba and the birth of their son Menelik. The Life of King Yemrehanna Krestos present a version of the rise and overthrow of the Zāgwē, which reflects this idea in a way that suggests the Zāgwē knew they were usurpers:

the figural wall-paintings may  have been created somewhat later in that  century, which means that they are the oldest  wall-paintings known so-far in Ethiopia. Image CHWB

the figural wall-paintings may have been created somewhat later in that century, which means that they are the oldest wall-paintings known so-far in Ethiopia. Image CHWB

Because of a word that the king of Ethiopia spoke, and because he diminished my prestige, saying to one of his officers

“But look at me when you speak of my power. You always say you have done these things by the power of the Lord. When will you say that you did them by the power of the king?”

And after he had said that, I became angry with him. (…) So I took his kingdom and I gave it to him who wanted it. (…) There, it has been many years since I took it from them. I miss him a little now because the construction of my edifice is nearly finished, and because a great king shall be born, called Yekunno Amlāk; and I shall give it to him.”

Figurative wall paintings, which are confined to two bays in the north of the church, are remarkable for their quality, style and iconography, showing connections with Coptic Egypt and other influences. Image WMF

Figurative wall paintings, which are confined to two bays in the north of the church, are remarkable for their quality, style and iconography, showing connections with Coptic Egypt and other influences. Image WMF

And when the blessed Yemrehanna Krestos had prayed thus, Jesus-Christ came to him with many angels and he said to Yemreha:

 “Hail to you, my loved and chosen one! I shall give and do for you everything you ask of me”. 

Yemreha said to our Lord:

“I ask of you one thing, my Lord: return this kingdom to Israel (…)”. When he had thus spoken, the God of the mighty answered him and said: “Listen, my loved one, what I say to you: “(…)

Figurative wall paintings, which are confined to two bays in the north of the church, are remarkable for  their quality, style and iconography, showing connections with Coptic Egypt and other influences. Image WMF

Figurative wall paintings, which are confined to two bays in the north of the church, are remarkable for their quality, style and iconography, showing connections with Coptic Egypt and other influences. Image WMF

The Only Priest-king of the Dynasty

Of all of the rulers of the Zāgwē dynasty who are recognized as saints, only Yemrehanna Krestos is described as being a priest-king. The sainthood of his successor, Lālibalā, rests more particularly on his asceticism, even more, meritorious since he was a king, and on the model of Christ. Na’ākweto La’āb is sometimes called a priest (kāhen) but according to the author of his Life, he did not receive ordination as a priest but was only a deacon.

How could they be sanctified? Paolo Marrassini has extensively studied the subject and formulated an interesting explanation.36 Pertinent is a passage from the hagiography of King Yernrebanna Krestos:

The following day, he ordered his retinue and said: “Come, let us hunt wild animals”. They rejoiced and followed him where he was going, and said: “The mind of the king has changed, and now he wants to go hunting like the previous kings! And after that he will come back to our table, and he will take many wives, as we have told him, because, look, he has begun to hunt wild animals. As for us, we are very sorry because of this fact, as he is a priest· king, and he lives in loneliness according to the monastic habit, whereas we were wondering what to do. But now the Lord has visited us, and has started for us the custom of the kings!” But others said: “He is a good man, and there is nobody who makes war under him; the people of Rom obey to him, and certainly not because of his spear, but because of his prayer! And we are quiet in his reign, and the Lord sent us the rain at every moment; with His help there has been also satiety for his retinue; why are you insulting such a king?” so said men that the Holy Spirit made speak. And because of this man is proud, if he dominates elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions, leop- ards, mighty and terrible dragons, but out of the clean animals five creatures only will suffice to him, and these are cows, sheep, goats, chickens, and bees; and out of the unclean another five, which are camel, horse, ass, dog and cat
[ … ]

[gmedia id=2079]

[gmedia id=2080]

It is in this context that the rex sacerdos status attributed to Yemrehanna Krestos in the hagiographic text dedicated to him is to be understood. This saint-king incarnates the eschatological hope of reuniting the Byzantine Church with the Churches of Alexandria and Ethiopia. For that reason, he is presented as the bearer of a higher sacerdocy. In all probability, this eschatological hope is not linked to the reign of Yemrehanna Krestos himself, but rather to the period when this Life were written, the end of the 15th century. And it is indeed from the end of the 15th century, that we can date the oldest known representation of the saint-king: a mural in the rock-hewn church of Yadibbā Māryām, in Dawent. The caption of the painting also establishes the monarch’s double role: “Image of King Yemreha, priest (qasis) and king (neguś).

As previously noted, the royal function disappears into the background and prominence is given in the Life to the qualities that made him a saint. Amongst these, his ordination as a priest before becoming king is central. He was called a priest-king (qasis neguś). He has ordained a deacon and then a priest before becoming king. The hagiographer describes him baptizing new converts or celebrating Mass. After his enthronement, he retained his priestly status, which allowed him to celebrate Mass. Some of his subjects considered him to be a less-than-complete ruler because he embraced the habits of monks, had only one wife and did not go on hunting expeditions.


King Harbay II

Since Yemrehanna Kristos did not have any children the famous King Lalibela older brother, Harbāy II (reigned 1124 – 1164 A.D) became his successor. Both Harbay II and Lalibela were believed to be the descendants of Jan Seyoum I(ruled 1067 -1084 A.D), who was the grandson of Mera Teklehaimanot (ruled 919 – 932 A.D).

Harbāy II also known for his regnal name as King Gebre Mariam has been called Kendu in the Arab world and the European called him Synod. He got both nicknames because he was once tried to create his own independent Synods. He was also known to foreigners as the legendary Prester John, the name believed to be given to him from the Ethiopian name Janhoy, meaning Emperor. Harbay was an unconfirmed priest at the same time a king. He ruled Roha, the then capital of Ethiopia during Christianity greatest challenges since its manifestation of the war against Islam to control Jerusalem. The war was led by the Ottoman Turks from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 14th century. It is believed that the European rulers during that period sent a letter to request help from the legendary Christian King, Harbāy.

At the time of Harbāy II reign pope Gabriel II was the pope of Alexandria 1138 – 1153 A.D.  and father Mikā’ēl was the metropolitan of Ethiopia. In the meantime, Harbāy was not satisfied by metropolitan performance, and he knew either language barrier or his age, or both play a major role in the lack of his achievement. Considering the number of people who reside in the country, Harbāy knew it is imperative to lead the country with an ambitious plan, which was not only expanding Chritntity throughout the Ethiopian highlands but also prevent the ever-expanding Islam. Harbāy assembled the priests, monks, and other church scholars and some government officials of the time to discuss the appointment of the first-ever seven Ethiopian metropolitans using the rules and regulations set by The First Council of Nicaea in 318 A.D

At the end of the meeting, Harbāy requested metropolitan Mikā’ēl I for the appointment of the seven Ethiopian monks to metropolitan position, but metropolitan insisted he didn’t have the power to appoint a single metropolitan let alone seven. Then, the Ethiopian ruler requested pope Gabriel, using the current metropolitan Mikā’ēl I as an intermediary, that more metropolitan be named by the patriarch in Ethiopia. However, Pope Gabrial II didn’t want to hear any of that saying,  the Ethiopians could then name metropolitans thus bypassing the patriarchate of Alexandria. Patriarchate of Alexandria even interprets this event as an attempt by Harbāy to separate himself from the Alexandrian Church.

Although the king was outraged and frustrated upon receiving the rejection letter from the of Alexandria, he was not deterred. Before he made his own call, he sent another letter, this time he was requested only for one metropolitan, who could assist the old metropolitan Mikā’ēl I. However, the response once again not any different from the first one. Soon after the conflict between the pope and the king went to the point where the king sent metropolitan Mikā’ēl to prison. Even though the reason might be related to the rejection of the letters, some people believed the metropolitan may cross the line by saying, the throne belongs to the Solomonic Dynasty who was governing Shewa regional state at the time, not King Herbay. 

At the time of the conflict between those two, either by coincidence or act of God major epidemic disease hit the country and claim the life many. Soon after the rumor started to spread throughout the country saying, his disobedience and conflict with the Pope caused all these devastations. Although he was canonized by the church as a saint, to this date not only the people of Lasta referred to him as ኃጢያተኛው ንጉስ ‘The sinful king’, but also the 18th of April(ሚያዝያ 10) of every year a priest of Lalibela read a passage from the chronicle of Lalibela, which celebrate and praise Pope Gabrial II and criticize and ridicule the king Harbāy. Harbay was the first and the only king who tried to appoint an Ethiopian Patriarchate till 1958. As a result of that different Ethiopian writers and poets, and religious scholars wrote many short poems which usually has double meanings.

ሰፌድና ወንፊት እያለ በእጃችን; የተነፋ ዱቄት ምነው መዋሳችን::

With a thumb and a Flour mill separator in hand, why would we borrow (worthless) flour?

በመርከብ ተሂዶ ምንድን ነው ቅልዉጡ; ግብጾች ለሀበሻ ደግሰው ላይሰጡ::

Why going by ship as a whitelist guest, the Egyptians may not give invitations (gentleman) for Habesha

The rejection of Harbay II was now coming to fruition from all sides including the church and his own family with the exception of his older sister, who once tried to poison the next Ethiopian King, Lalibela.

Lalibela’s unlikely ascent to the throne

As previously pointed out, both Harbay II and Lalibela were the descendants of Jan Seiyoum. In addition to that, the land grants preserved in the Gospel of Dabra Libānos, King Lalibela presents himself as the descendant of Jan Seiyum and introduces the name of Asseda (Anbasa Wedem) and Morara(reigned 1052 – 1067 A.D) into his genealogy, making Jān Sieyoum his great grandfather, and Morara as
grandfather or at least on the same genealogical level as his grandfather.

This most famous member of the Zagwe dynasty also named King Gebre Mesqel was born in Roha, the Zagwe capital. He was chosen as a leader in a unique way, following his birth, according to legend angels descended in the form of bees and gathered around him. Rather than stinging Lalibela, the bees created a protective shield and thus he was believed to possess divine nature and character. He was named Lalibela, which means “bees obey him.” in Agew language. Not surprisingly, this did not make him popular with other members of his family.

The life of the young man, who went down in history as the revivaler of Christianity was full of dangers. He could not even trust his half-sister who made a clear attempt to poison him. Luckily Lalibela had a servant boy in the rank of deacon, whose duty was to taste his master’s food and drink. He drank from the goblet with poison and died on the spot as well as a dog that licked his vomit. After having mourned his servant and the dog, the future King made up his mind to share their fate and finished the drink. However, by the Divine providence, he did survive and became privy of the mysteries of Heaven and Earth.

Being persecuted by his brother, Lalibela ran away into the desert. While the young man was on exile, he had visions of Jerusalem and spent some time as a hermit. In 1158 A.D, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was then in the hands of the Crusaders and it’s called the kingdom of Jerusalem. The Kingdom was established in the Southern Levant by Godfrey of Bouillon in 1099 after the First Crusade. The kingdom lasted nearly two hundred years, from 1099 until 1291. As mentioned previously, the Ethiopian clergies were unhappy with Lalibela’s half-brother Harbay due to his diplomatic raw with the papacy of Alexandria. Evidently, they feared Roman interference into their church’s affairs. 

When Lalibela returned from his pilgrimage in 1159 A.D, his noble origin, especially his rights to the Ethiopian throne were noticed by members of a rich family who lived locally. They decided to marry him to their daughter Mäsqäl Kəbra. While the newlyweds stayed in the house of the girl’s father, the “plasterers, cleaners and sweepers” (ምሩጋነ፡ ወኵስቱራነ፡ ወዕድዋነ።), who were renovating and refurbishing their abode; By the instigation of rumors, the news of Lalibela and his whereabouts had spread and reached the King’s ears. However, the clergy already rejected Harbāy as a king and urged Lalibela to take the throne from his brother. Soon after, Harby is said to have renounced his throne and abandoned power in favor of his younger brother, Lālibela(reigned 1164 -1204 A.d).

አነ፡ሐፃኒ፡ ላሊባላ፡ ወስመ፡ መንግሥትየ፡ ገብረ፡ መስቀል፡ (…) ወልደ፡ ሞራራ፡ ወልደ፡ ዛንሥዩም፡ ወልደ፡ ኣስዳ፡  I, the hadani Lalibala, whose ruling name is Gabra Masqal (…) son of Morārā, son of Jan seiyum, son of Assedā

Lalibela took the name Gebre Mesqel (Servant of the Cross) and began his reign with an extended fast. He attempted to rule as a Christian monarch, emphasizing peace and charity. He worked to secure his borders and to maintain good relations with Saladin, the premier leader in the Muslim world. He wanted to protect Ethiopian Christians in Muslim territories, and his positive relations with Saladin helped secure their safety.

The detailed description of Lalibela’s enthronement lists various stages of this ceremony called “kingdom wedding” (መርዓ፡ መንግሥት።). He was tonsured, elevated to the throne, received the new Royal Name, however, he was strictly speaking not crowned. To stress, no mention of the crown at all can be found in the text with regard to this occasion.

ወነሥአ፡ ንጉሥ፡ መላጼ፡ በእዴሁ፡ ወቀረፀ፡ ሥዕርቶ፡ ለላሊበላ፡ ወአንበሮ፡ ዲበ፡ መንግሥት፡  “And the king took a razor in his hand and shaved his hair and set him on the throne”.

ወሰመዮ፡ እኁሁ፡ ስመ፡ መንግሥቱ፡ ገብረ፡ መስቀል፡   “And his brother gave him the name of his royalty Gabra Masqal

The Vision

Lalibela, who have seen Jerusalem in a vision and also in person decided he needed to recreate the city of Jerusalem in his capital Roha in order to response the capture of old Jerusalem. King Lalibela immediately set out making a plan to build the new Jerusalem. He was determined the town of Roha become a city worthy of the name Jerusalem to stand the test of time. He began by renaming aspects of the town to reflect biblical names such as the river which run through the town became river Jordan. Most importantly, however, Lalibela commissioned the building of a network of rock-hewn churches connected by an intricate system of tunnels that were intended to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.

Further associations with Jerusalem were stressed: a church was dedicated to Golgotha, signifying the Crucifixion, and within it, Lalibela himself was buried. Directly in front of this structure rises a curious monolithic cube which is popularly called the Tomb of Adam. From the Bible, we know that Golgotha was “the place of the skull,” which in the mind of Christians soon became associated with the skull of Adam. Frequently in Byzantine representations of the Crucifixion, we find, in a cave-like recess directly underneath the cross, a skull, and some bones. The sacrificial blood of the Saviour was supposed to have washed away the sin of the first man. A theological culmination was reached in the Church of the Redeemer of the World, Medhane Alem. The complex was completed by a structure which stands apart from the others, dedicated to the warrior from Asia Minor, patron saint of Ethiopia, St. George.


[gmedia id=2118]

The Zagewe Architecture

The physical construction of the colossal complex of monolithic churches cannot be explained to be possible in the society predominantly based on the natural economy. However, one can find an explanation in the then history of the Coptic Church. At the end of the time of Crusaders its members were severely persecuted by Muslim authorities, so that didn’t possess any means to construct new churches on the territories controlled by Muslims, but still could to invest into the building churches elsewhere. This suggestion is textually supported by Lalibäla’s appeal to the workers who constructed the churches. The King-Saint suggested they should ask to be paid for their efforts (ዓስበክሙ፡) as much as they would like. And indeed, he was able to pay their wages regularly from the day they began the construction until they completed their work. An act of obvious generosity could only take place if the king would have had at his full disposal money provided by very wealthy donors and benefactors.

The Lalibäla Rock hewn churches share a fundamental characteristic of being built in caves: flagstone flooring. These structures are never built directly on the cave floor, because of the unevenness of the natural stone and of the tendency for water to collect in the nither areas. Consequently, the architect’s first consideration was the construction of a firm foundation upon which the church could be built. This is immediately apparent today in the level cave interior around the churches in question.


There are a total of eleven rock-hewn churches in Roha/Lalibela. These are all monolithic churches, meaning that they are carved from a single rock rather than built of stone masonry. The craftsmen carved a wide trench in the bedrock around the four sides of the churches and then went to work with hammers and chisels to carve out the church building itself, including doors, windows, moldings, crosses, etc. The roofs are level with the ground, and the entrances are reached by staircases down to the level of the excavated courtyard.

The names of the churches are as follows; Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World), Beta Maryam (House of Mary), Dabra Sinai (Mount Sinai), Golgotha, Beta Masqal (House of the Cross), and Beta Danagel (House of the Virgins) as belonging to the first group, all with the exception of Beta Maryam being small chapels. Adjoining them were two other structures, Beta Gabriel (House of Gabriel and Rafael) and Beta Abba Matte, united with the same wall. To these another group was joined, comprising Beta Merqorewos (House of Mercurios) and Beta Amanuel (House of Emmanuel). Finally, Beta Giyorgis (house of Gyiorgise), the isolated church of St. Geiorgis.

 [gmedia id=2118]

The systematic design of these churches cannot be understood if they are taken as separate units. All of them were erected in the vicinity of the river and their dedication had a clear theological meaning: the oldest church among them was dedicated to Mary, who for the Byzantines was the God-Bearer (Theotokos), and for the Monophysites was the vehicle of incarnation. The structures which surround it are of lesser theological significance and ought to be understood as additional chapels. The structure which ties theologically with that of the Mary is dedicated to Amanuel (Emmanuel), which means “God with Us.” This is a dedication to one of the aspects of Christ as the Incarnate Word. In Byzantine iconography, Christ Emmanuel is always represented as a child. This theological application to the sanctuary is carried further: the structures near the entrances or directly in front of the churches are dedicated to the archangels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, considered to be “bodyless” heavenly militia. They guard the sanctuaries just as they do in Hagia Sophia, where we find their mosaic images in the lunette above the royal portal and on the vault of the bema. Although a local saint, the much venerated Abba Libanos was not forgotten, and a very handsome church was dedicated to him, which was built by Lalibela’s widow in his honor.

Each church is unique, though they follow the design of Axumite churches. The northern group includes the largest monolithic church in the world, Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World). This church is believed to be a copy of the Cathedral of St. Mary of Mt. Zion in Axum, where the Ethiopian church believes the biblical Ark of the Covenant is housed.

Bete Medhane Alem

Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World) has three bays, 31 a sanctuary and two aisles flanking a central nave. Height is added under a saddle-back roof over the nave,32 and a cupola over the sanctuary. The aisle ceilings are flat. The church measures 8.75 m long, 6.4 m wide and 5.2 m high. It is belittled by the enormous cave in which it resides, a space measuring approximately 57.36 m deep, 29.6 m wide and 14.33 m high. The church could have been built bigger and higher than Yemaranhe Kristos and had ample room for a gallery, but by this time, staircases and galleries, like the west end rooms, were a thing of the past.

Bete Medhane Alem is linked by tunnels and walkways to Bete Maryam (House of St. Mary), which may the oldest of the churches. A line of geometrically carved windows in the east wall of Bete Maryam illuminates the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant. The church also includes a number of painted decorations. Also in the northern group is Bete Golgotha, which includes life-size carvings of saints and the tomb of Emperor Lalibela. The Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam complete the northern set of churches.

Bete Mariam

Bete Mariam (the House of Mary) is a small three-nave basilica, its aisles separated from the naves by five rectangular piers on each side, with two more in the sanctuary (15 x 11 meters). The diminutive galleries surmount the aisles, but the nave does not project in height above them at the roof level. This simple basilica plan is enriched by three low porches which project to the south, west, and north. Nine supports, free ward a great elaboration of the interior reminds one not of contemporary structures elsewhere in the Eastern Christian world, but of the early Christian basilicas which were decorated with carved and painted stuccoes. The unassuming exterior of the Church of Mary suggests primitive efforts of a newly assembled crew of stone cutters.

Beta Amanuel

To the northeast of the Beta Mariam, there is a rectangular water basin carved into living rock, with a raised rim and several steps lead ing into it. Undoubtedly this served as a baptismal font where the ritual was carried out by immersion. To the southeast of the Church of Mary, stands the sanctuary of Emmanuel. Once again we find here a basilica structure, but very different in every respect from Mary’s sanctuary (18 x 12 x 11 meters). According to the Royal Chronicles, it is several churches younger, although still built during King Lalibela’s lifetime.

Beta Amanuel demonstrates not only a different source of inspiration but definite progress in the skill and artistic sophistication of its carvers. It is elevated from the ground by a four-step stylobate; it rises three stories high, with its vertical element underlined by prominent pilasters on all four façades. This also adds an element of strength at the corners. Its roof is sloping and has been rain-damaged along with the upper story of the church. Exterior walls are carved in imitation of alternate layers of exposed beams and dried mud. This technique probably came to Lalibela from Axum, but in its origin, it is tied to Arabia Felix. The beam is broader and the projecting part, while narrower, was at one time the mud layer. This horizontal, even rhythm is interrupted by the cornices, the second story being especially prominent. Western, northern, and southern doors give access to the church, and all three, together with the windows of the lower and upper zones, are framed by “monkey heads.” All the perforations of the lower windows are in the form of crosses, while the middle zone openings are arched.

Bete Georgies

Bete Georgis as the last church erected by King Lalibela. This sanctuary stands alone within its own enclosure, the walls of which rise to a height of 12 meters. Possibly because of its isolated position, this is among the most memorable structures in Lalibela. There is nothing to distract as one concentrates on its rust-colored walls of sandstone, their patina formed by rains and lichen. The building is a free-standing Greek cross, surging upward from a tall base (22×23 meters). The influence of Arabic architecture is to be seen in the pointed arch and in the fleuron surmounting it. The flat roof of Beta Gheorgis picks up the cross theme and uses it both symbolically and functionally. The roof, a cross within a cross, provides channels for shedding water, while water spouts project outward just below the upper cornice. The interior of this church is much simpler than the others, but it shows such precision of carving that one has the feeling that not only were skilled artists at work here but perhaps also there is already a touch of academism.

The central part of the cross, strengthened by monumental piers from which arches rise, has a shallow vault, while above the eastern arm of the sanctuary there is a webbed dome, a feature well known in Byzantine architecture. The free cross plan was also well-chosen with the specific knowledge of early Christian tradition, which often used this plan for the churches – martyria. Thus we are made to understand that the Ethiopians considered this church not only a dedicatory structure but also a true martyrium of the land’s patron, St. George.

 [gmedia id=2119]

[gmedia id=2121]

As if the churches themselves were not impressive enough, Lalibela also built wells at many of the churches fed by artesian springs that bring water up to the ridge on which the city is built. This feat of engineering makes Hezikiah’s tunnel in old Jerusalem look like child’s play in comparison. The monolithic churches at Roha/Lalibela are so amazing that a variety of legends have grown up around them. One popular legend says that angels worked on them at night when the workers went home. Bete Maryam contains a pillar on which it is said Lalibela carved the secrets of the churches’ construction, though the pillar is kept covered and so no one really knows what is on it except perhaps the monks at the church. Some people have suggested that the Knights Templar were involved in their construction, but there is no evidence that they were and the Ethiopian designs of the buildings effectively refute that claim. Records do indicate that foreign workers were involved in their construction, but given the artistic work, they were most likely Copts from Egypt.

Lalibela’s reign after he began building the churches was not very smooth, though the scarcity of primary sources makes it difficult to get clear information about his years as king. The official version of events states that his principal wife convinced him to abdicate in favor of his nephew Na’akueto La’ab, the son of Harbay whom Lalibela had deposed. The existence of orally transmitted historical tradition, which was living for centuries among the Ethiopian Christians revered him as a saint after his death. He also canonized by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a saint. Finally, to remember his legacy forever, Roha was re-named after his name Lalibäla, and his churches became the second most important pilgrimage destination in Ethiopia after St. Mery Zion Church of Axum.

To be Continued…