Ethiopian and Eritrean Monasticism

Mario Alexis Portella “Ethiopian and Eritrean Monasticism: The Spiritual and Cultural Heritage of Two Nations” [BP Editing, 2015]
“The first-ever comprehensive publication about both Ethiopian and Eritrean monasticism, this new book by Mario Alexis Portella describes in detail how the monastic structure and spirituality embodied itself in the religious and political fervor of the Ethiopian and Eritrean nations. With the only non-institutionalized monasticism in the Christian world, today’s nations of Ethiopia and Eritrea possess an historical heritage that has shaped their respective socio-political societies. Although ancient Ethiopia, formerly called Aksum (northern Ethiopia and present-day Eritrea), was the first nation to officially proclaim itself Christian, it was not until the arrival of the Nine Saints in the latter part of the 5th century that the country was united as a Christian nation. Despite political setbacks in the High Middle Ages, monks continued to inculturate local and ethnic customs into a unique branch of Christianity. Its watershed event was the 8-monk Ethiopian delegation at the Ecumenical Council of Florence in 1441, which not only continued to pave the way for a national church, but encouraged Ethiopians to unite themselves against foreigners who attempted to destroy their Christian-national identity. One case in point was when Ethiopian holy men and holy women sustained their religious integrity before a forceful attempt by the 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionaries to Latinize their faith. Another defining moment was when Abune Petros became the symbol of perseverance and unity before the Italian Fascist invasion of 1935 – an act of genocide which sought to exterminate the very monastic foundation that civilized its society. And even after society’s last Christian emperor, Hailé Sellassié, was deposed in 1974, modern-day monks, such as Abune Theophilos, martyred by the Derg Regime, remind us that they continue to provide stability to their community.”
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and is a Doctorate candidate in “Utriusque Iuris” (Civil and Canon Law) at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He received his Bachelor Degree in Government and Politics at St. John’s University in New York, where he taught as an Associate Professor. In addition, he holds a Master of Art in Medieval History from Fordham University, also in New York.
“The first purpose of this book is to make a modest, yet engaging historical presentation on Ethiopian and Eritrean monasticism as a single and collective establishment.

Outside of the numerous and various articles, conferences and chapters in books, there has not been any major comprehensive publication on Ethiopian and/or Eritrean monasticism since Steven Kaplan’s epic “The Rise of the Holy Man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia” (1984).
Perish the thought that this study on Ethiopian-Eritrean monasticism is as in-depth as Kaplan’s presentation, for his expansive treatment of the Ethiopian “holy man” during the Medieval Period cannot be equaled. However, while the book concurs with Kaplan’s thesis that socio-political and economic factors played a role in the holy man’s rise as political leader, which, in turn, helped shape Ethiopian society, Kaplan does not provide any insight on how the holy man infused local culture into the Christian religion. This, too, was an essential element of the monk’s status among Ethiopians, for they saw him as one of their own, a status the emperors were unable to achieve for themselves. Effectively, this became a vital factor in establishing a national Church and national identity. This book also expands on the role of the holy man in shaping Ethiopian- Eritrean society as early as Late Antiquity, beginning with the Nine Saints. It also builds upon Krzysztof Piotr Blazéwicz’s proposition that there was already a well-organized monastic institution in place prior to the holy man of the Solomonic era (c. 1270 – 1527), which was continually helping to shape a centralized Christian state.

The second purpose is to see what we can learn from these “holy men” and “holy women” in today’s secularized, indifferent and globalized society. For nearly two millennia, these men and women have made personal sacrifices in order to imitate Christ, attracting numerous people. They have been a pillar of unity for their country during times of warring tribal factions, governmental disputes and ecclesiastical crisis, not to mention an instrument for the Christian faithful to find spiritual guidance and tranquility. Essentially, as the representatives of Christianity, they played a vital role in spiritual formation from the inception of the Ethiopian state. This was evident when Benito Mussolini intended to exterminate Ethiopians and whoever else stood in his way during Italian invasion of October 1935-39. When they captured the capital city of Addis Ababa on 5 May 1936, the Italians knew that the monastic leaders, some of them bishops, like Abune Petros, were the point of unity for Ethiopians. Hence, Orthodox Christians and anyone who supported them became targets of genocide. It is true that there were others, such as Sylvia Pankhurst and the future Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Spellman, who were campaigning against the onslaught while the western world watched. But, within the Ethiopian country, those who kept the cause of freedom alive were numerous holy men and holy women whose many individual stories are not known.”
See also:
Dom Colin Battell “The Ethiopian Church and its Monastic Tradition”
Robert Van de Weyer “The monastic community of Ethiopia”

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