The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 11th October 2011

The church of Tekle Haymanot, Azezo

Given by - María-José Friedlander

Reviewed by - Robert Farwell


María-José Friedlander interestingly focussed on the buildings and the site as well as on selected scenes in the paintings. She had herself been involved with excavation, in 2008, of the buildings from Susenyos' time, when there was a palace and pleasure garden with park and pavilion, the precursor of Fasilides' bath in Gondar today. There was also a small Roman Catholic church which was reconsecrated to Orthodoxy when Fasilides resettled the monks of Debre Libanos there, long displaced from their monastery in Shoa by the depredations of Ahmed Gragn. Not until 1902 did they return to Shoa.

Jacob's dream, Burning bush
Some of the prefigurings of Mary's role:
Jacob's ladder (left) and Moses and the burning bush (right)
Photo © M J Friedlander

The paintings at the west have a large and magnificent rendering of the Virgin and Child on the right of the doors, and Saint George rescuing Birutawit, the maiden of Beirut, to the left. At the east are some of the prefigurings of Mary's role, from the Old Testament: the Burning Bush on fire, but not consumed, just as Mary would bear the Christ without being harmed; Jacob's ladder on which the angels of God ascended and descended, a representation of God descending to earth through Mary; Zechariah and the lampstand, interpreted as a vision of Mary. Also there is the Sacrifice of Isaac, when Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son parallels God's willingness for Christ to sacrifice himself, and the anointing of David by Samuel, to become the ancestor of Christ the Messiah.

Tekle Haymanot with HIM Haile Selassie and Abuna Basilewos
Tekle Haymanot (with wings and spikes to stop him falling asleep) with HIM Haile Selassie (left) and Abuna Basilewos (right).
Photo - © M J Friedlander

Returning to the west, great emphasis is seen on Tekle Haymanot. The tradition is that he was responsible for re-establishing the Solomonic dynasty under Yekune Amlak (c. 1270-83), and that in the 13th or early 14th century he founded the original monastery of Debre Libanos in Shoa. He is seen with wings for a time when he was leaving Debre Damo and Satan cut the rope as he descended; the wings instantly grew and he was safe. He is seen in the cave in which he prayed standing for 22 years, surrounded by spikes to prevent him succumbing to sleep; one leg withered and fell off and is seen separated with a small wing of its own. There is also the story of his birth. His father Saga Zaab and his beautiful wife Egzie Zharaya lived in Shoa. The area was laid waste by a pagan warlord but Saga Zaab was hidden by Saint Michael beneath the waters of a river in a space like a tent. His wife was seized, but just as the warlord was about to take her in marriage, lightning and an earthquake struck and Michael returned her to her husband, who was back at his church. They rejoiced at their reunion, and Tekle Haymanot was conceived after many years of childlessness.

HIM Haile Selassie and Abuna Basilewos attend the church's restoration ceremony
HIM Haile Selassie and Abuna Basilewos attend the church's restoration ceremony.
Photo - © Michael Mayr

In the paintings of the Virgin and Child there are Emperor Haile Selassie and Abuna Basilewos, who were present when the paintings were unveiled. Abuna Basilewos was the first Abuna from within Ethiopia over all the long years since Frumentius was appointed by the Patriarch of Alexandria in the 4th century. He had been eccege of Debre Libanos since 1934, effectively the head of the Ethiopian Church and with Tekle Haymanot at his spiritual mentor.

First Published in News File Winter 2011

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