Yemrehanna Kristos 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.

The prediction Yemrehanna Krestos apparent ascension to power was announced to king Mera Tekelhazmont (ruled 917- 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 1052 – 1067 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 1067-1084 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. He became the king the king of Ethiopia(1084 – 1124 A.D), 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

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
[ … ]


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.

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