1In February 1897, a legal dispute erupted between the churches of Dima Giyorgis and Märtulä Maryam located in the northwestern Ethiopian province of Gojjam. The dispute concerned precedence and rank, ecclesiastical office, and the rights of entering the royal court and banquet halls first on state and public events such as banquets and commemorative feasts. The clergy of churches regarded to be the oldest were entitled, by reasons of their antiquity and custom, to enter the royal court and commemorative feasts held at the houses of kings and princes. Within Gojjam, Dima, founded in early 15th century, held and enjoyed such rights and privileges in peace until 1897, when Märtulä Maryam’s clergy petitioned to have the rights of precedency be given to them, claiming that their church was the oldest in the province. Märtulä Maryam dated from the late 15th century, but in trying to prove that their monastery antedated their rivals, its clergy spuriously regressed the date of its foundation to the 4th century CE and appropriated the mythical twin-kings Abreha and Aṣbeha as founders. Dima rejected Märtulä Maryam’s case as false and argued, correctly, an older foundation than their rivals. The dispute was aired at a judicial hearing overseen by Emperor Menilek II and his noblemen at the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. After reviewing the evidence presented to them and hearing the arguments of the litigants, Menilek II, together with his noblemen who were present at the court, brokered a negotiated settlement between the disputing churches. The clergy of Dima dropped their challenge to Märtulä Maryam’s claim of ancient origin and accepted its antiquity, but Dima was left intact with all the privileges it had traditionally enjoyed. Märtulä Maryam, in turn, was to be satisfied with its newly recognized primacy and elevated ecclesiastical status and agreed to give up its claims to all of the disputed privileges and rights.
- 1 Letter 1 is kept in a manuscript of the Tarikä Nägäśt at the church of Däbrä Marqos. It is address (...)
- 2 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha. There are two parchment manuscripts of this gädl at Märt (...)
2The story of the dispute and its resolution unfolds within the pages of two letters written from Emperor Menilek II to King Täklä Haymanot of Gojjam.1 Currently held in the churches of Däbrä Marqos and Märtulä Maryam, the letters are practically unknown to scholars of Ethiopia. The account of the dispute in these letters stands out from other dispute records in Ethiopian church collections. So far as I am aware, it is the first recorded case over the issue of deference and decorum involving Ethiopian church dignitaries. Perhaps more importantly, the case is the first known instance of the use of a hagiographic writing, or saintly biography, in court to defend ecclesiastical seniority and allied privileges and rights. Märtulä Maryam successfully deployed a gädl (hagiography) dedicated to the mythical twin royal saints Abreha and Aṣbeha to put forward a claim for precedency. The gädl is a complete fabrication prepared to strengthen its case before the judicial assembly that oversaw the case.2 The record the case engendered is significant on several levels. It illuminates how powerful a tool writing was to those who wielded it to impact legal decisions and defend and legitimize social and economic rights and privileges in 19th-century Ethiopia. In particular, the case offers us an insight into how hagiographic writing could be used to readapt and reposition the past to meet the social and economic needs of the present and future. The dispute records can also be mined for information concerning the cultural and religious mindset that shaped the understanding of forgery in the period. It is therefore fitting to reconsider Ethiopia’s textual practice, especially the writing of hagiographic texts, and the administrative and legal function of written texts in 19th-century Ethiopia in light of the court case under investigation.
3In this study, I revisit the question of the role of both literary and non-literary texts for legal and administrative purposes. I first begin, then, by analyzing in depth the arguments of Dima and Märtulä Maryam over precedency and the evidence used by the authorities arbitrating the case. In so doing, I concentrate first on the transmission, preservation, and administrative and legal function of the two letters and verdicts originating from Menilek II’s court, which record the action of the judicial assembly and the terms of settlement it arranged between the litigants. Thereafter, I shall examine how authentic texts were verified and recognized to be authentic in the period by analyzing the judicial council’s handling of the hagiographic work Märtulä Maryam presented to support its case. The analysis will unravel the forgery that allowed credibility to Märtulä Maryam’s antique origin. In all this, I seek to establish that the narrative in hagiographic texts could serve current and future administrative and legal purposes by being used as evidence in court to defend social and economic rights and privileges. The study will conclude with a brief comment on a topic that demands further research: the origin of the Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha and development of Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth. In order to do this, I will examine the various extant texts of the gädl available to me. I argue that it was the need to defend Märtulä Maryam’s prestige that prompted developments that led to the birth of the myth and the writing of the supporting gädl.
- 3 C. Beke, 1847, p. 38-58; S. Bell, 1988, p. 125-129; M.-L. Derat, H. Pennec, 1998.
- 4 Among the earliest known historical references to Dima are those found in the hagiographies of Täk (...)
- 5 C.F. Beckingham, G.W.B. Huntingford, 1961, vol. 2, p. 459.
- 6 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Ewäsṭaṭéwos. The document reflects the conventional features of devotiona (...)
4The history of Märtulä Maryam has been studied by many historians and non-historian alike during the last two centuries.3 Because this background is so important for understanding the dispute between Dima and Märtulä Maryam in the 19th century, an overview of the early phases of their history is presented here. Christianity was introduced into Ethiopia in the 4th century CE, yet it was not until the 14th century that it spread into the region of Gojjam. The 15th century in particular had witnessed a flurry of monastic foundations in Gojjam, of which Dima and Märtulä Maryam were notable examples. Credible historical sources concerning Dima’s history reach back to the 15th century. The church credits a saint called Täkästä Berhan as its founder, a monk who lived in the late 14th century.4 In the case of Märtulä Maryam, its founder was Queen Elleni (d. 1522), widow of King Zär'ä Ya‘eqob (1434–1468) and a luminous figure in late medieval Ethiopian history. The exact date of Märtulä Maryam’s foundation is obscure; contemporary accounts show that the church was firmly established by the early 16th century.5 For several centuries after her death in 1522, Elleni was celebrated by her church for the purity of her soul and piety, her exemplary Christian life and character, and the generosity of her benefaction. In a devotional text dedicated to eulogizing her life and achievement found at Märtulä Maryam, Elleni is extolled as ‘the house of holiness,’ ‘the queen of kings’ and the equal of the eminent historical figure Saint Helena in moral worth and achievement.6
5Later in the 19th century, however, Märtulä Maryam radically rewrote its history and claimed the mythical twin-kings of Abreha and Aṣbeha as its founders. This origin myth struck hard at the heart of the long-held traditions about and feeling of gratitude owed to Queen Elleni. Long recognized by Märtulä Maryam to be its patron and founder, the church disowned Elleni, who is now hardly remembered. The origin and context of the church’s origin myth deserves a detailed examination in a separate study. Here suffice to say that at the root of the myth was the great rivalry between Dima and Märtulä Maryam over precedence. As noted in the beginning, in the late 19th century, Märtulä Maryam claimed ancient origin and the rights of precedency for itself thereby challenging Dima’s position as a senior church in Gojjam. Naturally, Dima strongly (and persistently) rejected Märtulä Maryam’s claim throughout the late 19th century. Dima had a venerable past and hagiographical materials to back it up and defend its claim for seniority. Contrary to Dima, Märtulä Maryam lacked a credible ancient past and written material to support it, which proved to be a serious deficiency in its quest for preeminence. But if Märtulä Maryam’s ancient origin was questionable for lack of written evidence, then it was only natural that the church remedied the gaps in its records by means of forgery. Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth and the writing of the hagiography of Abreha and Aṣbeha in the 1890s must therefore be understood in this context.
- 7 Täklä Iyäsus Waqǧera, 2014, p. 125.
6Dima and Märtulä Maryam appear to have been engaged in a heated debate over the issue of precedency throughout the last half of the 19th century. The Gojjamé historian Täklä Iyasus, writing in the early 20th century, tells us that such dispute broke out between the clergy of the two churches over order of precedence during the celebration of Däjjach Tädla’s commemorative feast at Bichäna in the mid-1860s.7 Finally, the question of Märtulä Maryam’s antiquity was brought into dramatic focus in 1897, when a royal court presided over by Emperor Menilek II heard the case. After reviewing the evidence presented to them and hearing the argument of the disputants, Menilek II and his courtiers arranged a negotiated settlement between the two parties. A summary of the judicial assembly’s judgment and the terms of the dispute settlement are given in Menilek II’s letters addressed to King Täklä Haymanot of Gojjam. Both letters are the official record of the same proceedings and deserve to be quoted and published in their entirety.
- 8 Letter of Emperor Menilek II to King Täklä Haymanot, 4 July 1897, MS Tarikä Nägäśt, Däbrä Marqos.
ሞዓ፡ አንበሳ፡ ዘእምነገደ፡ ይሁዳ፡ ዳግማዊ፡ ምኒልክ፡ ሥዩመ፡ እግዚአብሔር፡ ንጉሠ፡ ነገሥት፡ ዘኢትዮጵያ። ይድረስ፡ ክንጉሥ፡ ተክለ፡ ሃይማኖት፡ ርቱዓ፡ ሃይማኖት፡ ወልዱ፡ ለቅዱሥ፡ ማርቆስ፡ ወንጌላዊ። ወንድሜ፡ እጅጉን፡ እንዴት፡ ነህ። እኔ፡ እግዚአብሔር፡ ይመሥገን፡ ደኅና፡ ነኝ። ዲሞችንና፡ መርጡለ፡ ማሪያሞችን፡ አጋጥሜ፡ ነገራቸውን፡ ጨረስሁላቸው፤፡ ነገሩም፡ እንዲህ፡ ነው። ዲሞች፡ መርጡለማሪያሞችን፡ በአብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ አልተተከላችሁም፡ ይሏቸው፡ የነበረውን፡ አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ ተክለዋችኋል፡ ብለው፡ ተፈጸሙላችው። ነገርግን፡ ቀድሞ፡ ስለተተከላችሁ፡ ሹመትም፡ ቡራኬም፡ እቤተ፡ መንግሥትም፡ እተስካርም፡ ቀድሞ፡ መግባት፡ ለኛነው፡ ከጃችን፡ ወጥቶ፡ አያውቅም፡ አሏቸው። መርጡለማሪያሞችም፡ በአብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ መተከላችነን፡ ካመናችሁልን፡ ቡራኬውንም፡ እቤተመንግሥት፡ መግባትም፡ ፈጽማችሁ፡ ልቀቁልን፡ አሏችው። በዚህ፡ ተፋረዱ። ፍርዱ፡ ግን፡ መርጡለ፡ ማሪያሞች፡ ቀድሞ፡ ሥለተተከሉ፡ ቡራኬም፡ እቤተ፡ መንግሥትም፡ ቀድሞ፡ መግባት፡ በዲሞች፡ እጅ፡ እስካሁን፡ ከኖረ፡ ዲሞች፡ ይርቱ፡ ተብሎ፡ በመኳንቱም፡ ቃል፡ በፍትሐ፡ ነገሥትም፡ ተፈረደ። በዚህ፡ ቃል፡ አረታተን፡ አፈጣጥመናቸዋል። አሁንም፡ መርጡለ፡ ማሪያሞች፡ በአብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ አልተተከሉም፡ እየተባለ፡ ተጽፎብናል፡ በደብሩ፡ ብለዋልና፡ ከየደብሩ፡ የተጻፈው፡ ይፋቅላቸው። ቡራኬና፡ እቤተ፡ መንግሥት፡ ቀድሞ፡ መግባት፡ እስከ፡ አሁን፡ በዲሞች፡ እንደሆነ፡ ይጽና። ይህን፡ አያፍርሱ፡ ብለው፡ ልክው፡ በሰኔ፡ ብ፳፯፡ ቀን፡ በደብረ፡ ማርቆስ፡ ከተማ፡ በ፲፰፻፹፱፡ ዓመተ፡ ምሕረት፡ በንጉሥ፡ ተክለ፡ ሃይማኖት፡ ፈቃድ፡ ተጻፈ፡ ታተመ። ከአጼ፡ ምኒልክ፡ የመጣው፡ ማህተም፡ ከዲማ፡ ነው።
- 9 The term šumät means office. But it is not clear from the letter exactly what office was under dis (...)
- 10 According to the modern Amharic dictionary by T. Kane, 1990, p. 886, the word buraké is derived fr (...)
The Lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed. Menilek II, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia. May it reach King Täklä Haymanot, follower of the true faith, son of Saint Mark the Evangelist. How are you, really, my brother? I, thank God, am well. I brought the clergy of Dima face to face with the clergy of Märtulä Maryam and resolved their court case. Herewith are [their respective] arguments. Having dropped their challenge to Märtulä Maryam’s [claim of ancient] foundation by Abreha and Aṣbeha, the Dima clergy then accepted their [Märtulä Maryam’s] foundation by Abreha and Aṣbeha. They said to them “even if you were the first to be founded, šumät,9 buraké10 [the saying of benediction], [the right to] enter the royal court first [to partake in state ceremonials] and memorial banquets belong to us. We have never lost possession of these rights previously.” The clergy of Märtulä Maryam replied to them: “If you acknowledge our [church’s] foundation by Abreha and Aṣbeha, then you must entirely relinquish to us the right to enter the royal court first and buraké.” They judged one another [in these terms] over the case. However, the judgment rendered according to the Fetha Nägäśt and the vote of the nobility (mäkwanent) is that, “although Märtulä Maryam was the first to be founded, if the rights to enter the royal court first and the saying of benediction have been hitherto in the possession of Dima , let them [the clergy of Dima] win the case.” This is the term by which we arbitrated the disputants and concluded the case. Since the clergy of Märtulä Maryam have said that there are records in church [collections within Gojjam] which assert that Märtulä Maryam was not founded by Abreha and Aṣbeha, let such writing in churches be deleted. Since the rights of saying benediction and entering the royal court first were in the hands of Dima, let them be confirmed to hold them as before. Let them not violate this decision. This was sent by [Menilek II] and copied and authenticated by seal on the 27th day of Säné at the town of Däbrä Markos 1889 Year of Mercy [4 July 1897] with the permission of King Täklä Haymanot. The seal brought from Menilek is found in Dima [Giyorgis].
- 11 Letter from Emperor Menilek II to King Täklä Haymanot, 5 February 1897, Märtulä Maryam.
ሞዓ፡ አንበሳ፡ ዘእምነገደ፡ ይሁዳ፡ ዳግማዊ፡ ምኒልክ፡ ሥዩመ፡ እግዚአብሔር፡ ንጉሠ፡ ነገሥት፡ ዘኢትዮጵያ። ይድረስ፡ ክንጉሥ፡ ተክለ፡ ሃይማኖት፡ ርቱዓ፡ ሃይማኖት፡ ወልዱ፡ ለቅዱሥ፡ ማርቆስ፡ ወንጌላዊ። ወንድሜ፡ እንዴት፡ ሰንብተሃል። እኔ፡ እግዚአብሔር፡ ይመሥገን፡ ደኅና፡ ነኝ። መርጡለ፡ ማሪያሞች፡ እና፡ ዲሞች፡ በቀደምትነት፡ የተጣሉትን፡ እናት፡ በሌለው፡ በሐዲስ፡ መጽሐፍ፡ አስረቱን፡ ቢሉኝ፡ እናት፡ የሌለው፡ ሐዲስ፡ መጽሐፍ፡ ምስክር፡ አይሆንም፡ ብለን፡ ነበር። አሁን፡ ግን፡ ትግሬ፡ ላይ፡ ገድለ፡ አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ አሮጌ፡ መጽሐፍ፡ ተገኝቶ፡ ሁላችንም፡ ብናየው፡ ለመርጡለ፡ ማሪያሞች፡ መሰከረላቸው። መርጡለ፡ ማሪያሞች፡ ቀደምትነታቸውን፡ በዚያው፡ በመጽሐፍ፡ ረትተዋልና፡ የቀደምትነታቸውን፡ ነገር፡ እንግዴህ፡ አንተ፡ እንደእውቀትህ፡ አድርግላቸው። በጥር፡ በ፡ ፳፰፡ ቀን፡ ባዲስ፡ አበባ፡ ከተማ፡ ተጻፈ። በ፲፰፻፹፱፡ ዓመተ፡ ምሕረት።
The Lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed. Menilek II, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia. May it reach King Täklä Haymanot, follower of the true faith, son of Saint Mark the Evangelist. How have you been, my brother? I, thank God, am well. In the dispute between Märtulä Maryam and Dima Giyorgis over precedency, when they [the Märtulä Maryam clergy] said that “you let us [use the evidence of a] recently copied manuscript [lit. “motherless new book”] and lose the case, we said [to them], “a newly copied manuscript cannot be adduced as evidence.” Lately an ancient manuscript of Gädlä Abreha and Aṣbeha has been found in Tegre and when we all inspected it, it substantiated the claims of the Märtulä Maryam clergy. Since the clergy of Märtulä Maryam have won the case with the evidence of the book, please deal with the matter of their precedency as you see fit. Written in the city of Addis Ababa on Ṭer 28. 1889 Year of Mercy [5 February 1897].
9Although both were written by one person and addressed to a single recipient, the letters were preserved at different institutions. One of the letters is preserved in the church of Däbrä Marqos in Gojjam, a major foundation of Täklä Haymanot. The manuscript into which it is copied is Tarikä Nägäśt. It was copied into this manuscript on 4 July 1897 with the permission of King Täklä Haymanot and authenticated by Menilek II’s seal. The one at Däbrä Marqos is evidently a copy of the original retained by Dima. The existence of Menilek II’s original letter at Dima is alluded to in the copy at Däbrä Marqos. It is possible that the letter is still kept at Dima. For the purpose of clarity, I have designated it Letter 1.
- 12 S. Rubenson, 1987 and 2000.
10Menilek II’s other letter, which is precisely dated to the 5 February 1897, is preserved in Märtulä Maryam’s collection. The letter is encased in a glass frame and is the first object that greets the visitor to the treasury store of the church. I have designated it Letter 2. Letter 2 has all the appearance of an original sent to Täklä Haymanot. If a letter is found in the recipient’s church or court, or even any institution that was not intended to be its destination, we generally assume that it is the original letter. This is because in 19th-century Ethiopia copies were not often made before the originals were dispatched. This conclusion is true in the great majority of cases.12 From this we might reasonably conclude that the letters found in Märtulä Maryam and Dima but addressed to Täklä Haymanot are originals of letters dispatched from Menilek II. Before the original made its way into Märtulä Maryam’s collection, it is very likely that Letter 2 was presented to Täklä Haymanot and a copy was made of it at Däbrä Marqos. A searching scrutiny of the manuscript collection of Däbrä Marqos church might yield a copy of this letter. At this point, however, we are not in a position to compare the copy with its original, since we have only one or the other. It should be borne in the reader’s mind that 4 July 1897 refers to the date on which Letter 1 was copied into the Däbrä Marqos manuscript. Unless conclusive evidence to the contrary is found, I suggest that both letters were written at the same time soon after the conclusion of the court hearing sometime in late January or early February 1897, but reached their intended destinations at different times.
- 13 Bairu Tafla, 2000, p. 36, p. 360.
- 14 S. Rubenson,1987, p. 89.
11The above letters follow the formulaic epistolary pattern of Menilek II’s letters, opening with the usual royal title of “The Lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed.” Täklä Haymanot’s royal title of “follower of the true faith, son of Saint Mark the Evangelist” is also found in both letters. This expression occurs in the correspondence exchanged between Täklä Haymanot and other people during this period.13 Its appearance in the letters above indicates Menilek II’s or his secretary’s familiarity with it. The letters also contain words of greeting similar to those which commonly started letters addressed from one person to another in 19th-century Ethiopia. One typical letter opens as follow: “May this letter sent by Blatta Gebre Mesih reach my lord Michel (Mīkaél). How have you been? Have you been well?”14 In Letter 1 above, this formulaic way of expressing greeting “ejjigun endét aläh” (lit. “how are you, really”) appears. This phrase conveys feeling of effusive affection and esteem and heartfelt concern for the health and well-being of an addressee during this period.
- 15 S. Rubenson, 2000, p. 20-21.
12The letters provide us with some interesting insights into the relationship between Menilek II and Täklä Haymanot. Menilek II used the familial terminology of “my brother” in addressing Täklä Haymanot. Such terminology of family relationships rarely occurs in the exchanges between emperors and regional kings. Instead, terminologies that convey unequal relations, lordship and subordination, tended to be used in exchanges between central and regional powers.15 Surely this familial notion presenting Menilek II as brother was not applied in the exchanges of letters between the emperor and provincial princes. Brotherhood in the sense used in our letters implied not only parity of social status, but also the existence of close friendship, cooperation, and personal links between the two persons. The use of the terminology “my brother” was an indication of the respect the emperor had toward the Gojjamé king, a symbol of social parity and royal brotherhood. To Menilek II, Täklä Haymanot was not just a mere regional king but his peer as well.
13The letters under review are official records of the judicial verdicts and dispute settlements between the parties to the case brokered by Menilek II and his courtiers. It is in Letter 1 that the fundamental issues underlying the case are clearly brought into view. Letter 1 assumes that it was the clergy of Märtulä Maryam who initiated the petition and presents the church as the party whose rights were injured. While both letters present a finished case, Letter 1 includes a list of charges and the argument of both sides. Märtulä Maryam argued that the rights of entering the royal court first on state occasions and for partaking in the commemorative banquet belonged to them. The right of giving blessing and benediction during these occasions, they argued, likewise rightly belonged to them. The basis for Märtulä Maryam’s claim to these rights and privileges was the antiquity of its foundation in the 4th century CE by the twin royal saints Abreha and Aṣbeha. The argument of Märtulä Maryam was that Dima was not sufficiently antique. They charged their opponents with having benefited from and infringed on privileges which were rightly Märtulä Maryam’s.
- 16 Paulos Tzadua, 1968, reprinted 2009.
14Letter 1 then begins by describing what the clergy of Dima said in the meeting in reply to the charges. Dima at first appeared to have rejected Märtulä Maryam’s claim of foundation by Abreha and Aṣbeha as implausible and denied all the charges leveled against it. The dispute ended in reconciliation. Our letter describes the settlement of the dispute as a compromise negotiated by the two disputing parties with the mediation of Menilek II and his noblemen. The judicial assembly convinced Dima to drop its challenge to Märtulä Maryam’s foundation by Abreha and Aṣbeha. Märtulä Maryam also prompted Menilek II to include instruction in his letter to Täklä Haymanot to see to it that all records in the collection of the churches of Gojjam that contradicted their invented history be destroyed. Nevertheless, the judges prevented Märtulä Maryam from extending their grasp over the disputed rights and privileges. Despite the acknowledgment of Märtulä Maryam’s antiquity, the court judged that Dima ought to be confirmed with the traditional rights. This is undoubtedly a Dima victory. The letter records the means by which Dima’s victory had been won: the vote of the noblemen and the evidence of the law book called Fetha Nägäśt.16 Dima based its claim to the rights and privileges under dispute on the sanction of long-standing customs and usage which had existed in the collective memory ‘time out of mind.’ Obviously this claim had strong merit to convince the royal judges to confirm Dima with the traditional rights. Märtulä Maryam was compelled to acquiesce in these arrangements and withdrew its claim to the disputed rights. By agreeing to accept the compromise, Märtulä Maryam closed the door for another attempt to claim the rights later. The decision of the court was therefore demonstrably pro-Dima.
15Contrary to Letter 1, Letter 2 clearly presents a different outcome that worked more to Märtulä Maryam’s benefit. As in Letter 1, Letter 2 states that the dispute was aired before the same court, but the charges leveled against Dima are not identical. Letter 1 shows Märtulä Maryam trying to use its invented past to unsuccessfully claim seniority over Dima and the associated rights and privileges. However, Letter 2 represents the church as petitioning Emperor Menilek II only to assert its precedency over Dima without mentioning the associated rights and privileges that were under dispute. The letter records that the judicial assembly confirmed the precedency of Märtulä Maryam over Dima. The acceptance of Märtulä Maryam’s antiquity established the church’s moral victory and validated the truth and justice of its case.
16Furthermore, Letter 2 presents an old hagiographic text brought to the court from a church in Tegray as the key to the settlement, but, unlike Letter 1, it makes no mention of the use of the Fetha Nägäśt by the judicial assembly to reach its decision. In Letter 1 Märtulä Maryam is represented as giving up all their claim to all of the disputed rights and privileges. Although they are the reasons Märtulä Maryam petitioned the emperor in the first place, the disputed rights and privileges are nowhere to be found in Letter 2. While Letter 1 presents the dispute as a negotiation brokered by Menilek II and his courtiers, there is no account in Letter 2 of the compromise Märtulä Maryam reached with its opponent. In this way, Letter 2 casts the outcome of the court hearing as a clear Märtulä Maryam victory.
17My analysis above leaves out the question of why Emperor Menilek II had two letters written for recording the same dispute aired at the same court and sent to the same recipient. Dispute records over the issue of decorum and protocol are uncommon in Ethiopian documentary tradition. Still less common in the Ethiopian church collection are records written by a single individual describing a single dispute from very different perspectives. Although both letters are addressed to Täklä Haymanot and record the same court hearing, the letters represent significantly different descriptions and outcome of the dispute between Dima and Märtulä Maryam. In Letter 1 the outcome of the hearing appears as a clear Dima victory, whereas Letter 2 portrays the court’s decision as favorable to Märtulä Maryam alone. There is no obvious explanation for this. The most straightforward explanation is that the emperor and the judicial assembly did not want to appear to particularly favor one church over the other. But their decision undoubtedly worked to the benefit of Dima. Both letters depict Märtulä Maryam as the party whose right is injured. Yet Dima was left intact with all the privileges it had traditionally enjoyed. In writing double records of the dispute settlement and verdict in line with the interest of each party to the case, the judicial assembly tried to appear neutral.
18From the foregoing it is clear that records of the court case under review bear the characteristics of three genres: letters, judicial verdicts, and dispute settlements. These documents were also more than just records of the events of the hearing at the court of Menilek II. My conviction is that the letters and verdicts were meant not only to serve as a memorial to the event, but also to stand for all time and serve future administrative purposes. Consequently, they merit the term administrative and legal documents. As is standard for legal documents, they are authenticated by royal seal. Furthermore, similar to legal texts, the letters and verdicts are structured so as to put into effect the prohibitions, limitations, and rights sanctioned by the judicial assembly. For instance, Letter 1 ends with the injunction, “Let them [the parties to the dispute settlement] not violate this decision.” The letters are crafted so as to remove the basis for future dispute between the parties to the case. The manner of their preservation points to the same conclusion. The letters were stored in appropriate archives for future possible reference. The letter and verdict at Märtulä Maryam is encased in a shining glass frame and prominently displayed at the main entrance of the church’s treasure store and collection. It still serves as a tool to provide the church with memories of its disputes and legal victory over its opponent and the means by which it had been won. The accounts of disputes with Dima could provide Märtulä Maryam with useful and readily available arguments that could be used against any potential challengers in the future. Securing Märtulä Maryam’s status as a senior church in Gojjam in future therefore depended on the permanent preservation of the letter. This explains why the church carefully preserved the verdict of the royal court presided over by Menilek II. In the next section, I examine the process involved in reaching the decision concerning Märtulä Maryam’s antiquity by Menilek II and his noblemen.
19In their award of the case over precedency to Märtulä Maryam and the privileges and rights associated with precedency to Dima, the arbiters had consulted the legal code called Fetha Nägäśt, as Letter 1 indicates. As recorded in letter 2, however, the chief point of reference and the basis of their judgment of precedency was Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha, which was presented by Märtulä Maryam as evidence for the court hearing. The hagiography offered proof of Märtulä Maryam’s ancient foundation and therefore seniority over its rival. It gives substance to the church’s foundation myth, as in the following:
አደው፡ ፈለገ፡ ጊዮን፡ ወበጽሑ፡ ብሄረ፡ ጐዣም፡ ወረከብዎሙ፡ ለኵሎሙ፡ ሰብእ፡ እንዘ፡ ይገብሩ፡ ሥራየ፡ ወይቀትሉ፡ ኵሎ፡ ሰብአ፡ ወአስተጋብኡ፡ ማርያነ፡ ወይቤልዎሙ፡ አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሐ፡ እስኩ፡ አርእዩነ፡ ዓቢየ፡ ኃይለ፡ ዘይገብር፡ አምላከክሙ፡ ወውእተ፡ ጊዜ፡ አምጽኡ፡ ጣዖታቲሆሙ፡ ወሶበ፡ ቀርቡ፡ ኅቤሆሙ፡ አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ ወድቁ፡ ጣዖታት፡ እመናብርቲሆሙ፡ ወተቀጥቀጡ፡ ከመ፡ ብርዕ፡ ወደንገጹ፡ ኵሎሙ፡ ማርያን፡ ወዓቀብተ፡ ሥራይ፡ ርእዮሙ፡ ዘንተ፡ መንከረ፡ ወይቤሉ፡ ኦነገሥት፡ ህሩያን፡ ግበሩ፡ ላዕሌነ፡ ኵሎ፡ ሠናያተ፡ ወአብኡነ፡ ወስተ፡ ሃይማኖትክሙ፡ ርትዕት፡ ወአምኑ፡ ኵሎሙ፡ ወተጠምቁ፡ በይእቲ፡ ዕለት፡ ወመጠዎሙ፡ እምሥጢር፡ ቅዱስ። ወፈነውዎሙ፡ ይእትው፡ ወስተ፡ አብያቲሆሙ፡ በፍስሐ፡ ወበሰላም። ወእምድኅረዝ፡ ፈቀዱ፡ አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ ከመ፡ ይሕንጹ፡ መቅደስ፡ በህየ፡ ወሐነጹ፡ ማህደረ፡ ሰናይተ፡ ወገብሩ፡ አረፋቲሃ፡ ዘወርቅ፡ ወዘብሩር፡ ወሤሙ፡ ካህናተ፡ ወዲያቆናተ፡ ወአስተሣነዩ፡ ኵሎ፡ ሥርዓተ። ወሤሙ፡ ርኡሰ፡ ርኡሳን፡ ዘውእቱ፡ ሊቀካህናት። ወሰመይዋ፡ ለይእቲ፡ መቅደስ፡ መርጡለ፡ ማርያም።
- 17 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha, folio 54 r-54 v.
They [Abreha and Aṣbeha] crossed the Giyon River [Blue Nile] and came to the land of Gojjam. They gathered the people and the witches and instructed them to bring out their idols before them. The idols fell from their throne and shattered into pieces like silver when they were brought before Abreha and Aṣbeha. The witches and idolaters trembled in fear when they saw this great miracle and said: “O, chosen kings, please do the right thing for us and convert us to the orthodox faith.” They were all baptized and became believers in a day, and the sacred mystery was revealed to them. They sent them to their homes with joy and in peace. After this, Abreha and Aṣbeha wanted to build a temple and they built a splendid structure and made its pillars from gold and silver. They settled priests and deacons and established all its rules and appointed the re’esä re’usan [head of heads] as leader of the clergy. They named this temple Märtulä Maryam.17
20Märtulä Maryam’s case rested primarily on the evidence of the passage quoted above. It describes how the royal saints arrived from Semen to Amhara, and from there they came to Gojjam across the Giyon River, and then to the Märtulä Maryam area. There they destroyed idols, converted the idol worshippers of the area to the Christian faith, built a church adorned with gold and silver and dedicated it to Saint Mary, named the church Märtulä Maryam, and appointed a leader for the church called re’esä re’usan. The exact details of Dima’s argument presented to the judicial assembly is not recorded to us. Both the clergy of Dima and the royal councilors did not, it appears, dispute the existence of the royal saints. Nor did they seem to have denounced Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha as a forgery in its entirety. But the clergy of Dima appear to have criticized the copy of the gädl at Märtulä Maryam as comparatively recent and unreliable for use in legal proceedings. They suspected that their rivals might have interpolated fabricated stories to prove their claim. What Dima challenged was therefore only the parts of the text of the gädl concerning Märtulä Maryam.
21The evidence of Letter 2 shows that Menilek II and his courtiers took Dima’s allegation of forgery seriously. When the case came to be heard in 1897, they hesitated to accept Märtulä Maryam’s account of ancient heritage fully because the church lacked authentic hagiography. The court was presented first with a recent copy of the gädl, which Menilek II and his royal councilors found suspect and refused to admit it as evidence. According to Letter 2, the royal judges refused the evidence of the gädl, on the grounds of its recent origin. It appears that Menilek II, seeking a resolution of the dispute, perhaps sent for the original of the gädl in Tegray. On this occasion the ‘oldest’ extant manuscript from an unidentified church in Tegray was found. It was this gädl that was presented to the court. The records of the court decision make many assumptions about the origins and place of composition of the oldest extant gädl and do not give an account of the exhibition and inspection of this supposedly ancient manuscript, beyond reference to “when we all inspected it, it substantiated the claims of Märtulä Maryam.”18 But it is clear that it sufficiently satisfied the emperor and his councilors, and it was admitted as evidence in the legal proceeding. Menilek II and his courtiers declared the ‘original’ to be genuine and decided in favor of Märtulä Maryam. First criticized as inauthentic or suspect, the narrative of the hagiography of the royal saints then became accepted as credible.
- 19 The key question addressed by the royal judges was not, therefore, whether the story of Märtulä Ma (...)
22This paradox between a non-existent past backed by a forged text and legal victory, and an actual past and legal defeat raises questions. What made the narrative of the gädl, which asserts something that never in reality happened, credible? What was the methodology used to establish the authenticity of hagiographic texts? Despite its long history of literacy and documentary tradition, Ethiopia had not established any ‘national’ standards for record appraisal, description, preservation, and access until very recently. There was no prescribed law against forgery in 19th-century Ethiopia to understand the method by which forged texts were recognized. The treatment of the copy of Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha first as suspect and then the acceptance of the original and the oldest extant manuscript as genuine shed light on the mode by which genuine texts were distinguished from forgeries and the process used to verify the authenticity of texts. It is worth noting that originality was important, as the emperor’s council equated originality and old age with truth and authenticity. The royal judges rejected the recent copy of the gädl as evidence but accepted an original and older manuscript in Tegray, thereby contrasting originality with forgery. In the eyes of the royal council, older manuscripts carried more value than comparatively recent ones. The assumption of royal judges was that, unlike recent copies, older manuscripts in their original form could not be manipulated or falsified. Therefore the principal agreed methodology of distinguishing forgeries from genuine texts was establishing the origins of the extant texts. This meant that apparently Menilek II and his noblemen never inspected the gädl for the credibility of the narrative it enshrines. Thus the case makes it clear that the implausibility of the narrative of hagiographic texts mattered little in 19th-century Ethiopia in assessing their value and authenticity.19
- 20 The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, 2009, [accessed 01 June 2016]
- 21 The fact that the kings never existed means that the story of their lives in the gädl is essential (...)
23In the final analysis, it was forgery that gave Märtulä Maryam the pretense of a case and eventually guaranteed its legal victory. The dictionary meaning of forgery is “the action of forging or producing a copy of a document, signature, banknote, or work of art.”20 A forger produces or fabricates false objects to pass them as genuine. Judged by this criterion, the gädl presented by Märtulä Maryam to support its case could be designated a forgery. The gädl refers essentially to a virtual or non-existent past: both the supposed foundation date and the founders of the church were products of the pure imagination of the gädl’s writers.21 Without forgery, therefore, the case of Märtulä Maryam would have been lost. However, this does not, obviously, explain why the church invented its origin myth in the first place and why it expected the gädl it presented as evidence would be accepted by the royal council without doubt. The mere concept of forgery does not do justice to the complexities of the phenomenon under investigation. Forgery in its modern understanding will easily lead to the conclusion that Märtulä Maryam was intentionally practicing deception in writing the hagiography that ensured its legal victory. Our gädl was far from being a self-consciously fictive text, created with a fraudulent intention.
- 22 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha, folio 1r-84v.
24Mythical history closely resonates with and better characterizes the content of and narrative in the gädl. The gädl is written in a way that made its narrative reliable in the eyes of contemporaries. This is accomplished by using the traditional literary techniques used in composing hagiographic texts. The writers of the gädl freely borrowed materials from, and strictly adhered to, the formulaic pattern of classic Ethiopian saintly biography. Its central narrative contains these common elements of similar texts about the life of the royal saints: their parentage, birth and youth, their spiritual struggles and missionary zeal, a kidan or pact between God and the royal saints, and their death and miracles performed before death and posthumously. Information about the parentage and birth of Abreha and Aṣbeha is contained in formulaic passages describing the circumstances of their birth. They were born by divine will from saintly and royal parentage. Their father was the Aksumite King Tazér and their mother was Sofya, who is referred to as saintly or holy. The bulk of the gädl is dedicated to recording their missionary deeds after ascending the throne. It portrays them as ideal Christian rulers and evangelizers of the whole of Ethiopia. Towards the end, they died at the hands of devil-inspired pagans after a life dedicated to the service of God and became martyrs to their faith. Their saintly virtues included the powerful miracles performed both before their demise and posthumously.22
25Like similar works, the writers of the gädl are primarily motivated by the need to reveal divine truth. The birth of the twin kings, the acts of building churches, the work of Christianization, the miracles they performed, and so on are all presented as having being initiated by divine will. Typical to hagiographic texts, the gädl also deals with faith rather than reason. Hagiographies are devotional writings and their appeal is to emotion and faith. In sum, in methodological orientation, purpose, epistemology, and literary tools, the writers of the gädl followed standard Ethiopian textual practice. It is this formal framework of a hagiographic text followed by the writers of the gädl that invested Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth with the form of undisputed historical fact. In light of this discussion, the acceptance of the gädl by Menilek II and his courtiers as a genuine historical record is hardly astonishing. It now remains to investigate what the records of the dispute can tell us about the origin and making of the hagiography.
- 23 Mekrä Sellasé Gäbrä Amanuel et al., 2000 Eth. Cal., p. 212.
- 24 The gädl mentions Ṭeqemt 4 as the date of martyrdom of Abreha (Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha wäA (...)
26Understanding the origin and place of composition of the gädl requires us to analyze its content and organization. However, to establish the date of the gädl’s writing, one must first of all consider, even if only in a general way, the formation of the cult of the mythical royal saints. I will therefore briefly discuss the formation of the cult of the royal saints because of its relevance for the topic. The cult of the royal saints is acknowledged by the Ethiopian church at national level, with the saints being honored on Ṭeqemt 4 (11 October) every year.23 Martyrdom was a convenient means through which a person could become a saint of the Ethiopian church. A martyr who is regarded as a saint is honored by establishing a commemoration day on the day of the saint’s martyrdom and birthday. The commemoration date for Abreha and Aṣbeha has been established on the supposed day of their martyrdom.24 But I have found no hard evidence of the exact date when the royal saints were officially recognized among the ranks of saints by the Ethiopian church. Unlike its Catholic counterpart, the Ethiopian church had no standardized canonization process through which individuals were officially declared to be saints of the church. Often, popular recognition of the sainthood of a person was enough to have him or her canonized as a saint. The hagiography of Abreha and Aṣbeha, I argue, provided the chief basis for the development of their cult and acknowledgement as saints at national level.
- 25 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 159.
- 26 A. Wion, forthcoming; C. Conti Rossini, 1909, p. 1, p. 18-19.
27The origin of the cult of Abreha and Aṣbeha and the hagiography dedicated to them remain shrouded in mystery. No evidence has been uncovered that would allow an assertive statement about the original place or circumstances of the gädl’s writing and the writer or writers of the various redactions. We do not know, either, where and by whom the detail about Märtulä Maryam was included in the text. Since the evidence so far available is not conclusive, any suggestions about the origins of the cult of the royal saints must be considered only tentative. Paolo Marrassini has analyzed and written on the origin of the gädl, arguing that the cult of the royal saints was known in the 14th century and that their gädl was composed in the late 14th century during the ministry of Bishop Sälama (d. 1390) of the Ethiopian church.25 However, there is no evidence to back up Marrassini’s suggestions. The official recognition of the twin kings as saints and popular cults about them took a long time period to be developed. The royal saints were invented whole-cloth by the clergy of the church of Aksum, who credit them as founders. While the earliest known notions concerning the twin kings can be traced back to earlier centuries, their gädl in its present content and form could not have been written earlier than the late 19th century. The saints are already mentioned in some 18th-century codices and documents. The documents are two charters allegedly issued for the church of Aksum by the twin kings. The charters have been preserved in a manuscript that was copied for the Scottish scholar James Bruce in 1771, when he was in Ethiopia. However, the original text was possibly produced at an earlier date than 1771. The historian Anaïs Wion recently argued that the earliest preserved version of the text through which the charters come down to us was copied during the reign of Iyasu I (r. 1682–1706). At the very least, the text gives evidence of the existence of the cult, if not the saintly status, of the twin brothers already in the second half of 17th-century Aksum.26
- 27 Girma Getahun, 2003 Eth. Cal., p. 25-28.
28So far as I am aware, outside Tegray the cult of royal saints existed only at Märtulä Maryam, where it emerges in written sources about the church towards the end of the 19th century. The earliest mention of the saints is in the gädl itself. The connection was presented in two redactions of the gädl of the saints, both preserved in copies made in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The Gojjamé author Aläqa Täklä Iyäsus included Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth in his famous genealogical work written sometime in the late 19th and early 20th century.27 Did the myth already exist before the writing of the gädl? There is no evidence in textual sources concerning Märtulä Maryam whatsoever that indicates its existence prior to the writing of the gädl. The limited spread of the cult of these two royal saints both within and beyond Tegray points to the relatively recent composition of the gädl, to which we will return shortly. It is logical to conclude that the royal saints never were well known in Gojjam until the 20th century. We might tentatively put the date of development of the cult of Abreha and Aṣbeha between the 1680s and the earliest surviving gädl (the late 19th century).
- 28 Aksum, MS Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbehä, photographed by Yohannes Gebre Sellasie; R. Cowley, Aleme Teferu, (...)
- 29 See note n. 1.
- 30 Abreha wä-Aṣbehä, MS Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbehä and Aksum, MS Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbehä.
- 31 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 159; S. Strelçyn, 1976, p. 67-69.
- 32 Kinefe Rigb Zelleke, 1975, p. 60.
29Let us now return to the question of when and where the gädl was originally written. Eight versions of the gädl of the royal saints which survive at seven institutions are known to me. The churches of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, Aksum, Aṣbi, and Täklä Haymanot, all located in the province of Tegray, are known to have the gädl.28 Two copies of the gädl are preserved at Märtulä Maryam. Of the eight manuscripts currently known to exist, four are dated to the late 19th and 20th centuries. The date of composition of the remaining four versions of the gädl are not known to me. The oldest of the preserved manuscripts of the gädl at Märtulä Maryam is dated to the 1870s. The latest redaction of the hagiography at Märtulä Maryam, obviously based on the first one, was produced sometime in the first half of the 20th century.29 The gädl at the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha in Gämad available to me was copied in 1925, a date which is mentioned explicitly in the text. The manuscript at Aksum, is dated precisely to 1955, as stated in the text, indicating that it was written later than those of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and Märtulä Maryam.30 A copy of the gädl is also found at Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. Paolo Marrassini’s study of the text is based on the copy at this institution.31 Finally, the existence of a copy of the gädl at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University is reported.32
- 33 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 160-162, p. 178.
30From when, then, does our gädl date? So far as can be judged by the extant evidence, the general date of the writing of the gädl can be assigned with greater degrees of certainty not earlier than the late 19th century. The only known versions of the gädl available to me are those preserved in Märtulä Maryam and some sections of the text originating from the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The discussion in this study is primarily based on the oldest gädl at Märtulä Maryam and Marrassini’s study. As a whole, the gädl does seem to have a single date for its composition in its current form and content, but it was compiled from a number of sources, both oral and written, some of which were drawn from scriptures and historiographic texts, some of which were local legends developed in the eponymous church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and Aksum, and some of which were taken from legends cultivated in Märtulä Maryam and other areas.33 The gädl’s writers drew on, more importantly, their pure imagination. There is a great deal that we do not yet understand about the origin and dissemination of the gädl. We lack any contextualizing information about place and time of composition of the original manuscript. The gädl is of very poor literary quality. It is written, as whole, carelessly and perhaps in haste, and is excessively repetitive, formulaic, and enigmatic about many important points.
- 34 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 164-167, p. 170-172.
- 35 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 164-171.
31The internal organization and the emphasis of the content of the gädl provide a crucial clue to the place of its composition. With this in mind, it is appropriate to briefly present the content of the text. The introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia and the foundations of the churches of Aksum and Abreha wä-Aṣbeha (folios 5r-29r, 33r-46v) form the central narrative of the hagiography.34 The manuscript of the gädl (folios 2r‒4v, 79r-79v) also contains a selection of the Queen of Sheba stories emanating from the Kebrä Nägäst. The destruction of pagan idols, fictional battles and rebellions, and the building of churches and the promotion of Christian religion by the twin kings in the Lake Ṭana region (47r-51r), Tegray (51r-53r), Amhara and Gojjam (53r-55v, 59r), Ennarya, Jimma, and Shäwa (55v-56v) occupy some folios of the manuscript.35 Since Aksum and Abreha wä-Aṣbeha are the topic of special interest in the gädl, the hagiography must have been originally composed by the clergy of one of these churches. I consider the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha to be the most probable alternative. As the following discussion will show, one may point out that throughout the text the writer(s) focus much more on Abreha wä-Aṣbeha than they do on Aksum. There is in fact a conspicuous lack of focus on the later history of the church of Aksum after its foundation. The references to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha are too numerous to cite here; hence I will focus on the two aspects of the relevant information in the gädl. First, I will present the main characters in the gädl, the geographical setting, and the narrative spaces within which many of the events represented in the hagiography took place. Then I will present the miracle stories which are attested only in Abreha wä-Aṣbeha.
- 36 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 160-163 and Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä fol. 4v, fol. 13-15v, (...)
32The writers of the gädl used Gämad and the localities around it in the district of Hawzén as a setting for unfolding the plot. References to place-names in and around Gämad are plentiful in the gädl (33r-35v, 50r-53v, 68r-70r). The connection between the royal saints and Gämad was particularly strong. It is notable, for instance, that Sofya, the mother of the twin kings, and her father and the chief priest at the royal court in Aksum, Ambaram, are made to be natives of Gämad. Likewise, the seven named childhood companions of the twin kings are presented as natives of Gämad. These children were brought to the court in Aksum from Gämad as pages and grew up at the royal household together with the future twin kings. King Tazér, the father of Abreha and Aṣbeha, made special arrangements for the support of the seven children, who would also play a prominent role at the court of the twin kings when they came of age. It is significant that they were baptized by Bishop Sälama, the first bishop of the Ethiopian church in the 4th century, by a special order of Abreha and Aṣbeha “before any priest from Aksum” was converted to Christianity. Before their eventual resettlement at Gämad, they served Saint Mary of Zion at Aksum as deacons and priests, while others became translators of books from Arabic to Geez. Abreha and Aṣbeha also confirmed the seven priests from Gämad with the privileges and rights granted them by King Tazér.36 It is obvious that the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha were the source of information on the personal background of the mythical kings.
- 37 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 165-166 and Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä, fol. 34-38v, fol. 44 (...)
33Other references to Gämad sharpen the view that the gädl originated in Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. Soon after the advent of Christianity in Ethiopia, the twin kings turned their attention to the people of Gämad, who were baptized by Bishop Sälama en masse. Then the kings built a church consecrated to Saint Mary. It was this church at Gämad to which they showed special interest that would eventually become their shrine and be named after them. The construction of the church is described with considerable detail. It was chiseled out of solid rock in a rocky area in Gämad with the help of the Holy Spirit. The church was built “in the image of the heavenly Jerusalem,” and its architecture was without equal with 42 columns, adorned with gold, silver, diamonds, and mirrors. Every part of the church is said to radiate brilliant beams of light and shines like the sun. Abreha and Aṣbeha brought with them their childhood companions and resettled them at the new church in Gämad, their original homeland. The nephew of the kings, Amdä Haymanot, was appointed to be the neburä-ed or the head of the new church. He was instructed by the twin kings to preserve and enforce the law of the church and administer the lands of Gämad and the adjacent locality of Ayba which were given as fiefs to the seven priests together.37
- 38 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 169; Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä, fol. 61v.
- 39 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 169-172; Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä, fol. 59v-71.
34It is also important to take note that Gämad was the final resting place of the royal saints. Shortly before the day of his martyrdom on Ṭeqemt 4, Abreha prayed earnestly for many things, and God granted him all his requests. Among other items, God promised that Abreha’s resting place, the land of Gämad, “shall be the most glorious of all places.” In addition, God promised that “ወዘይመጽአ እምርኁቅ ውስተ መቃብሪከ ቅድስት ከመይስግድ በዕለተ በዓልከ አነ እምህር ለከ እስከ ፲ ትውልድ።,” which literally means: “If anyone undertakes a pilgrimage to your holy tomb to pray on the day of your feast, I will pardon him and his descendants up to ten generations.”38 Abreha was buried at Gämad as he wished, and his brother Aṣbeha continued to show a keener interest in Abreha wä-Aṣbeha at Gämad than in any other church in the country. He is reported to have created rules and regulations for the church, confirmed Amdä Haymanot as neburä-ed of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, and instructed the clergy to keep the commemoration feast of his deceased brother. Further, he gave the land of Ad Arbe’a in Ṣera and Ṣegéräda in Gäralta for the support of the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha at Gämad. Towards the end, Aṣbeha, in turn, prayed for God to grant him his wish to be buried at Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, and he was laid to rest with his brother following his death at the hands of a fictive pagan chief of Jimma.39
- 40 P. Marrassini, 1999, p. 172; Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä, fol. 71v-72.
35Abreha wä-Aṣbeha remained the special concern of Aṣbeha’s son and successor, Asfha, who gave land to its clergy in Amba Sänayit and Ad Wäd Sänit and instructed the church’s officials to preserve the bones of his royal ancestors and celebrate their commemoration feast on Ṭeqemt 4. He confirmed the lands granted to the church by the royal saints and had Bishop Sälama anathematize and condemn anyone who might violate the property of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. Asfha made lavish gifts to the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, including 24 silver and gold crowns, 24 gold and silver censers, innumerable pieces of furniture, and scriptures. He also ensured that Abreha wä-Aṣbeha’s laws and regulations were “like the heavenly Jerusalem” and the dignity of its priests was as exalted “as the priests of heaven.”40
36The details of the miracles reported in the gädl also speak in favor of the Abreha wä-Aṣbeha origin of the text. The church was the setting for many miracles performed by the twin kings. A total of 12 miracles specific to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha are reported in the gädl as having been performed posthumously by the royal saints (fol. 72-83). Four are stereotypical healing miracles. One of the miracle stories is an account of the death of a godly rich person. According to the text, as soon as he was buried under the burial of the royal saints and touched their bones, the dead man revived. The person then donated property to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha in gratitude for regaining his life (fol. 72v-73). In another instance, a person recovered from an ailment after praying to the royal saints. Out of gratitude for his complete recovery, the person kept the commemorative feasts of the saints (fol. 79r-79v). In still other miracle stories, we read that the saints exorcized demons from a possessed and much abused woman upon praying at the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The woman then lived a happy, married life with children (fol. 76v-77). In a similar case, a person came from a distant place to pray for a child and promised to donate property if his prayer was answered. The saints gave the couple a child, and the couple, in turn, visited the church on the feast of the saints and donated property (77r-78r).
37Two of the 12 miracle stories took place in Aksumite time. The first, which took place in the 6th century, refers to King Kaleb’s military campaign to South Arabia across the Red Sea. The king traveled to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and prayed for the royal saints to grant him victory shortly before his campaign. Kaleb fought and won and instructed his successor and son Gäbrä Mäsqäl to care for the relics of the saints and donate property to their shrine for the victory granted (fol. 79-79v). The second miracle pertains to King Ambäsa Wedem. This king prayed at Abreha wä-Aṣbeha church and received guidance from the royal saints to build a church at a waterless place called Wämbärta. The saints then struck a solid rock and miraculously created a perennial stream for the use of the new church. One of the miracles reported is related to a special event involving the churches of Aksum and Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The story, which took place during the reign of King Zär'ä Ya‘eqob (d. 1468), reports the dispute between the two churches over ecclesiastical title and rights to provisions. Abreha wä-Aṣbeha’s clergy claimed that the title of neburä-ed was given to the head of their church by the twin kings, but the clergy of Aksum disputed the claim and argued that the title exclusively belonged to them. Further, they argued that under the ancient grant by the twin brothers and their father, the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha were entitled to receive provision from the church of Aksum when they traveled there to attend holidays. This, too, was rejected by the clergy of Aksum as unfounded. The gädl reports that the royal saints intervened and brought justice to the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The clergy of Aksum were made to admit their mistake, repented their unjust act, and accepted all the claims of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha’s clergy (fol. 79v-80v). Another miracle story describes a fatal dispute between the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and the people of Gäralta over the land of Mända’e. Once again the royal saints intervened in favor of their shrine, and the people of Gäralta restored the property they unjustly took from the church (fol. 78-79).
38Three of the remaining miracles are equally interesting and point to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha as the origin of the gädl. One of the miracle stories refers to a poor person who borrowed money from a rich creditor for the purpose of trade (fol. 79v-76v). The debtor swore to pay back his creditor the principal and interest at the tomb of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The debtor made a fortune from his trading venture but denied the debt under oath when the creditor called upon the debtor for the return of the money due to him. When the debtor was summoned to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha over his debt, however, he immediately agreed to repay his creditor and repented his unjust act. The gädl reports that to show his gratitude for the restitution of his money, the creditor donated half of it to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The last of the miracles are punishment miracles. The first of these miracles refers to the 16th-century jihad wars of the Muslim leader Ahmad Gragn. Inspired by the devil, a prostitute from Aksum named Gudit assisted Gragn, whose army annihilated and plundered the ancient Cathedral of Aksum. When Gudit arrived at Abreha wä-Aṣbeha in Gämad with Gragn’s army to plunder and destroy it, angels took the relics of the royal saints to heaven and their shrine was miraculously saved. Gudit died soon after arriving at Gämad and was buried at Ṣera (fol. 80-80v). The second punishment miracle involves King Iyasu I (1682–1706). The gädl reports that upon hearing a story of the miraculous growth of the hair of the royal saints by a visitor to the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha from Gondar, Iyasu decided to go and see the miracle himself. When the king reached the tomb of the royal saints, they retaliated for his breaking of its rule. Iyasu was suddenly struck, causing him to fall into convulsions, and his Gondäré informant was killed. Iyasu repented his impious act and donated a large amount of property to the church to redeem his sin (fol. 82v-83). The fact that these miracle events happen only in Abreha wä-Aṣbeha suggests that the authors may have been from the same church too, although we cannot be entirely sure.
39While the gädl contains many references to the property of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, the gifts it received from successive kings, its dispute with Aksum and the people of Gäralta, and the many miracles performed there, the references to Aksum and the area around it are very limited in scope. What might be a reason for the lack of any miracles performed at Aksum? Why were the 12 miracles chosen to be reported by the hagiographers? Taken together, the purpose of the miracles appears to be to emphasize the point that the Abreha wä-Aṣbeha church was a special concern of the royal saints and under their perpetual protection. The purpose of the healing miracles appears to be to glorify the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and encourage people to donate property to it, whereas the punishment miracles are aimed at deterring potential competitors and violators of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha’s status, property and traditions. These punishments are perhaps indicative also of a growing concern about the church’s property. The stories of dispute between Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and the people of Gäralta and Aksum could indeed have an historical basis. They probably reflect contemporary conflicts and rivalry between Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and other churches of Tegray. It may also be the case, therefore, that the gädl was written to serve a contemporary purpose and justify the truth and justice of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha’s claim to property and ecclesiastical office. The church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, I argue, was the place of origin of Gädla Abreha wäAṣbeha. Therefore, the oldest extant text of the gädl can circumstantially be placed at Abreha wä-Aṣbeha.
- 41 Habtamu Mengistie, 1998, Appendix xv. This inventory exists in a Wängél or Gospel manuscript of th (...)
40The use of the hagiography by Märtulä Maryam to claim right of precedency can also provide a further clue to its dating and the sources from which the writers drew upon—and thus to its social context. As mentioned above, there are two copies of the gädl at Märtulä Maryam. The discussion below is based on the oldest extant manuscript dated to the late 19th century. In the extant text at Märtulä Maryam and other records at the church, there is some direct and indirect evidence that shows that the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha in Gämad was the provenance of the manuscript of the gädl that was inspected by the royal councilors in 1897. Moreover, the gädl at Abreha wä-Aṣbeha was very likely the basis of the copy of the gädl at Märtulä Maryam. Below I will therefore investigate the timing and circumstances in which Märtulä Maryam acquired the gädl. The oldest extant manuscript of the gädl is noted in an inventory of the manuscripts of the church in the early 20th century, but none of the inventories of the preceding centuries list the gädl.41 The text of the gädl itself does not include much paleographical information. There are only two later additions to the text which provide a few meager clues about the date of its copy. On the gädl’s penultimate folio is the genealogy of King Täklä Haymanot (fol. 87v). Based on the genealogical material, the recension must certainly be placed after 1881, when Täklä Haymanot was made king. However, the second addition suggests an earlier date of writing.
41The second addition reads like a colophon and contains some facts about the circumstances in which Märtulä Maryam came to acquire the manuscript. The passage of the second addition is brief and is quoted below. Furthermore, I have quoted the colophon of the manuscript of the gädl contained at the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha to facilitate discussion.
42Colophon from the gädl of Märtulä Maryam
ዝመጽሐፍ፡ ዘመርጡለ፡ ማርያም፡ ዘወሀባ፡ እራስ፡ አረአያ፡ አሀወ፡ እሙ፡ ለንጉሠ፡ ነገሥት፡ ዮሐንስ። ዘሰረቆ፡ ወዘፈሐቆ፡ ወዘተአገሎ፡ በስልጣነ፡ ጳውሎስ፡ ወጴጥሮስ፡ ወበስልጣነ፡ ዚአየሂ፡ ውጉዝ፡ ለይኩን፡ ብለው፡ አቡነ፡ አትናቴዎስ፡ ጳጳስ፡ ዘኢትዮጵያ፡ አውግዘዋል። ከመርጡለ፡ ማርያም፡ እንዳይወጣ፡ ገዝተዋል፡ አቡነ፡ አትናቴዎስ።
- 42 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä. This note is written in the front flyleaf of the gädl.
This book was donated to Märtulä Maryam by Ras Araya, who is brother to the mother of King of Kings Yohännes. Abunä Atnatéwäs, Bishop of Ethiopia, has pronounced a curse, saying: “He who steals it, deletes it, and damages it shall be cursed by the power of Paul and Peter.” Bishop Atnatéwäs has pronounced this curse so that it may not be removed from Märtulä Maryam.42
43Colophon from the gädl of Abreha and Aṣbeha
ዝመጽሐፍ፡ ዘራስ፡ ጉግሣ፡ ወስመ፡ ጥምቀቱ፡ ወልደ፡ ጊዮርጊስ፡ ወአቡሁ፡ ራስ፡ አርአያ፡ ሥላሴ፡ ወልዱ፡ ለዮሐንስ፡ ንጉሠ፡ ጽዮን፡ ንጉሠ፡ ነገሥት፡ ዘኢትዮጵያ። ዘወሀቦሙ፡ ለአብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሐ፡ ነገሥተ፡ አክሱም፡ ዘሀገረ፡ ገማድ። በዘመነ፡ መንግሥታ፡ ለንግሥትነ፡ አስካለ፡ ማርያም፡ ወእንዘ፡ ጳጳስነ፡ ማቴዎስ፡ ሊቀ፡ ጳጳሳት፡ ዘኢትዮጵያ፡ ከመይኩኖ፡ መድኃኒተ፡ ሥጋ፡ ወነፍስ። ስብሐት፡ ለእግዚአብሔር፡ ለዘአብጽሐነ፡ እስከ፡ ዛቲ፡ ሰዓት። ወለወላዲቱ፡ ቅድስት፡ ድንግል፡ ማርያም፡ ወላዕሌነ፡ ይኩን፡ ሣህል፡ ወምህረት። ለዓለም፡ ወለዓለመ፡ አሜን። ዘሠረቆ፡ ወዘፈሐቆ፡ በስልጣነ፡ ጴጥሮስ፡ ወጳውሎስ፡ ውጉዝ፡ ለይኩን። በ፲፱፻፲፯፡ ዓመተ፡ ምህረት፡ ተጻፈ።
- 43 Abreha wä-Aṣbehä, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä.
This book belongs to Ras Gugsa, whose baptismal name is Wäldä Giyorgis, son of Ras Araya Sellasé, son of Yohännes, King of Zion, King of Kings of Ethiopia. He gave it to [the church of] Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, [which the] kings of Aksum [built] at Gämad, during the reign of Queen Askalä Maryam [Empress Zäwditu, r. 1916–1930] and during the tenure of office of Matéwos, Archbishop of Ethiopia, so that it may be a salvation for his body and soul. Glory to God for bringing us to this hour. And may the mercy and prayer of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, be upon me. Forever and ever. Amen. Whoever steals or deletes [this book], may he be cursed by the authority of Peter and Paul. Written in 1917 Year of Mercy [1924–25].43
44The Abreha wä-Aṣbeha redaction is precisely dated to 1924–25. For reasons discussed above, it is obviously based on an older extant text found most likely in the same church. The manuscript colophon from Abreha wä-Aṣbeha represents a common genre in Ethiopian texts. Colophons conventionally mark the completion of the production of a manuscript. Usually written by scribes, colophons contain information about the date when the writing of the text of a manuscript was completed, the names of the scribe and the commissioner of the manuscript, a request for prayers and God’s blessing for the scribe and commissioner, and cursing and condemnation of those who might steal the manuscript or delete its content. And in Ethiopian scribal culture, the general tendency was to write the colophon in the last folios of the texts of manuscripts and as part of the main texts. In light of Ethiopian scribal culture, the dedicatory and attribution note above from Märtulä Maryam is bizarre. First, the note gives no hint of possible reasons for the donation and the exact date of the copy. Second, contrary to established practice, the attribution note is written on the front flyleaf of the gädl (fol. 2v). Third, the note was written by someone different from the main scribal hand of the gädl. Admittedly, such information can be written years after the completion of the writing of the text of a manuscript, although I do not have any known instance for this. In Märtulä Maryam’s case, however, where the attribution note is positioned in the text and when it was written really matters.
- 44 Habtamu Mengistie, 1998, p. 17.
- 45 S. Rubenson, 1976, p. 322, p. 341.
45The attribution note makes a number of assumptions. First, it assumes the existence of spiritual connections between Araya and Märtulä Maryam. Second, the note presupposes that Atnatéwäs and Araya were together when the manuscript was produced. Third, it presupposes the existence of a firm, local, popular tradition or a cult about the mythical twin brothers at Märtulä Maryam already before the writing of the gädl and Araya’s or the writer’s awareness of it. There are many notable anachronisms and improbabilities in the above note. On closer inspection, one discovers that the ascription to Araya Sellasé as the source of the donation of the manuscript is spurious. To begin with, besides that suggested by the gädl, I have found no hard evidence, even speculation, about a spiritual friendship between Araya and Märtulä Maryam to account for his gift of the manuscript, thus rendering the donation note suspect. Not only is there no indication that Araya had any link with the clergy of Märtulä Maryam, but also his uncle, Emperor Yohännes IV (r. 1872–1889), was known to have openly bad relations with churches such as Märtulä Maryam. Conversely, the emperor had a rapport with Märtulä Maryam’s rival, Dima.44 The note provides imprecise chronological information about the acquisition of the gädl by Märtulä Maryam. Bishop Atnatéwäs came to Ethiopia in 1869 and died in 1876. Thus, the manuscript would have been written between 1869 and 1876. But this is unlikely. In between 1869 and 1878, Ras Araya was governor of Akkele Guzay, a troubled region to the north of Tegray. Then he was appointed as governor of Dämbya in 1878, two years after the death of Atnatéwäs. The physical presence of Atnatéwäs at Araya’s residence in Akkele Guzay is undocumented. Atnatéwäs was in Yohännes’s court, whose residence was at Adwa throughout the 1870s.45 In short, the anathema pronounced by Atnatéwäs and Araya’s donation of the manuscript to Märtulä Maryam are almost a historical impossibility. What then is the function of the reference to Atnatéwäs and Araya? It is my guess that Atnatéwäs is mentioned to reinforce the authority of the message of the attribution note. Moreover, since Yohännes IV had bad relations with Märtulä Maryam, attributing the donations to Araya Sellasé would make the gädl credible.
- 46 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä, fol. 10v.
46Whatever the nature of the link between Araya and Märtulä Maryam, there is nothing whatsoever in the manuscript itself to support it. Araya’s name is mentioned in the following formulaic passage: “ጸሎቶሙ ወበረከቶሙ የሃሉ ምስለ ፍቁሮሙ አርአያ ሥላሴ ወምስለ አቡሁ ድምጸ መለኮት ወምስለ እሙ ታቦተ ሙሴ ወምስለ ጸሐፊሁ ኃይለ ኢየሱስ ለዓለም ዓለም። አሜን።.” This literally means, “may their [Abreha’s and Aṣbeha’s] prayer and blessing be with their friend Araya Sellasé, his father Demṣä Mäläkot, his mother Tabotä Musé and the writer Haylä Iyäsus forever. Amen.”46 Araya appears in a similar formulaic passage of the gädl (fol. 16v) alongside one Wäldä Maryam, who is identified as “Araya’s liqu,” a term of uncertain meaning. In yet another formulaic passages, he is mentioned alongside his spiritual father called Abisa (fol. 82v). Toward the end of the text (fol. 83), Araya is mentioned alongside one Mäggabi Wäldä Maryam and his spiritual father Abunä Wäldä Maryam, and the writer of the manuscript named Qäsis Haylä Maryam. If we take all this to be genuine, then there were two writers of the gädl and two spiritual fathers of Araya Sellasé, which is clearly erroneous. There is only one clearly recognizable handwriting, adding to doubts about the authenticity of the attribution note. As suggested earlier, a phrase like “may their prayer and blessing be with their friend Araya Sellasé” may be regarded as purely formulaic and therefore mere verbiage. Such a phrase cannot be given any weight because it could be just as easily employed when the person described was dead. This was indeed the case with Araya Sellasé’s parents, who surely were already dead at the time when the manuscript was allegedly copied and donated.
47There are other compelling reasons to cast doubt on the authenticity of the donation and anathema note quoted above. If Araya in fact did hand over the gädl in its current form to a church with which he had no recorded connection, it means that Märtulä Maryam’s clergy had no hand in its writing. If that had been indeed the case, then we may ask who initiated Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth? What served as a source for the story concerning Märtulä Maryam in the gädl? As indicated above, no earlier text than the gädl confirming the existence of the cult of the royal saints has been found at Märtulä Maryam. The records of the legal battle between Märtulä Maryam and its rival reviewed above show that the cult of Abreha and Aṣbeha was in its infancy even during the 1890s. Could Märtulä Maryam’s foundation myth have been invented in Tegray and Ras Araya was responsible for bringing the myth to public notice at Märtulä Maryam? I am skeptical, however, that Märtulä Maryam would accept such an extraordinary myth invented elsewhere at a stroke and radically rewrite its history. Instead, I suggest that Märtulä Maryam was responsible for the creation of its origin myth and was involved in the composition of Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha. The assertion of ancient origin, the generation of the hagiography, and the propagation of the origin myth before the final legal showdown were all part of the same project. As I will show below, either someone from Märtulä Maryam, or someone from Abreha wä-Aṣbeha who knew Märtulä Maryam’s history and was in close contact with its community, included the church’s origin myth.
48Since its mythical founders were outsiders, Märtulä Maryam lacked the basic background and personal information about them to write their hagiography. Because of this paucity of information to create an appropriate past, its clergy needed to convince friendly institutions in its campaign to assert seniority over Dima and recuperate the allegedly lost privileges. One such institution which Märtulä Maryam engaged in its effort to prepare for the court battle was Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha championed the accounts of Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth and was perhaps an accomplice in the acts of fabrication as well. The strongest and the best evidence available to me in support of this claim is a letter written by the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha to Märtulä Maryam. The letter does not contain explicit chronological information, but it can be dated to the 1897 court litigation, or shortly before. Besides Menilek II’s letters and verdicts, the letter is practically the only surviving source containing reference to the origin myth and the controversy on the antiquity of Märtulä Maryam. It thus adds another piece to our picture of the dispute between Dima and Märtulä Maryam and deserves to be published in its entirety:
መልዕክት፡ ዘማህበረ፡ አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ ዘሀገረ፡ ገማድ፡ እንተ፡ ይእቲ፡ መቃብረ፡ ነገሥታት፡ ወጳጳሳት።ይድረስ፡ ሀበ፡ ማህበረ፡ መርጡለ፡ ማርያም፡ ርዕሠ፡ ርኡሳን፡ አድባር፡ ወእመ፡ አህጉር፡ አበይት። እንደምን፡ አላችሁ። መምህሩም፡ ማህበሩም፡ አሉ፡ አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ አክሱምንና፡ መርጡለ፡ ማርያምን፡ አልተከሏትም፡ የሚሏችሁን፡ ሁሉ፡ እንኳን፡ በከብት፡ በአንገት፡ ተወራረዱበት። ሲሆን፡ ዕርቀተ፡ ሀገር፡ ነው፡ እንጂ፡ እኛ፡ የምንቆምበት፡ የነበረ። አለዚያ፡ ደግሞ፡ እለአንተ፡ አትሰንፉበትምና፡ ተወራረዱብት። ግድ፡ የላችሁም፡ እኛም፡ አለንላችሁ። አብርሃ፡ ወአጽብሃ፡ አክሱምን፡ መርጡለ፡ ማርያምን፡ ተድባበ፡ ማርያምን፡ ፃና፡ ቂርቆስን፡ ደብረ፡ ሳንን፡ እንፍራንዝን፡ እኒህ፡ ከተተከሉ፡ ፲፮፻ ወ ፹፯፡ ሆኗልና፡ እለአንተን፡ እበልጣለሁ፡ በአባት፡ የሚል፡ ክርስቶስ፡ ሰው፡ አልሆነም፡ ሥጋ፡ አለበሰም፡ ማለት፡ ነው። ሃይማኖት፡ ነውና፡ አትልቀቁ። ሰላመ፡ እግዚአብሔር፡ ይጠብቃችሁ። በአይነ፡ ሥጋ፡ የምንተያይበት፡ በአካል፡ ተገናኝተን፡ የምንጫወትበት፡ ጊዜ፡ ይኖራል። አትርሱን፡ በጊዜ፡ ፀሎት። እኛም፡ በአቅማችን፡ ወንድሞቻችነን፡ አባቶቻችነን፡ አንረሳም፡ አንድ፡ አካል፡ ስለሆነ።
- 47 Habtamu Mengistie, 1998, appendix II. I originally attributed this letter to the clergy of Aksum b (...)
Message from the community of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, land of Gämad, cemetery of kings [and] bishops. May it reach the community of Märtulä Maryam, which is the head of heads of churches and high-ranking countries. How have you been? The community and the leader said: “you should wager with your lives, let alone with your cattle, in the case against those who deny the foundation of Aksum and Märtulä Maryam by Abreha and Aṣbeha. Were it not for the remoteness of our dwelling, we could have stood for the case [on your behalf]. Otherwise, since you are diligent [and persistent], [we ask] that you participate in a judicial wager. There is no harm [literally “never mind”], and we will stand by you. It is 1687 years since Abreha and Aṣbeha founded [the churches of] Aksum, Märtulä Maryam, Tädbabä Maryam, Ṣana Qirqos, Däbrä San, and Enfranz, and for anyone to claim [historical] precedence over you [Märtulä Maryam] is tantamount to saying that Christ was not born in the flesh and did not become human. Since it is a serious matter [literally “religion”], do not give up easily. May the peace of God protect you all. There will come a time for us to see each other in the flesh and meet and converse with one another. Please do not forget us in your daily prayers. As much as we can, we will not forget our brothers and fathers [in our daily prayers] because we are one body.47
49The letter is currently held at the church of Märtulä Maryam, inscribed in its MS Dersanä Ura’el. What can be said, if anything, about Abreha wä-Aṣbeha’s motives for writing this strongly worded letter? The simplest explanation is that providing support for Märtulä Maryam’s cause was the impetus behind the letter. The clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha were obviously aware of the controversy between Dima and Märtulä Maryam. In this letter they proceeded to add further support to the credibility of Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth. It is worded in a way that left no room for speculations about Märtulä Maryam being the foundation of Abreha and Aṣbeha. The letter is clearly hostile to Märtulä Maryam’s opponents, whose claim is dismissed as unreasonable and unjustified. It quite forcibly states that for anyone to deny Märtulä Maryam’s ancient foundation amounts to denying the historical existence of Jesus Christ. The challengers to Märtulä Maryam’s ancient origin do not even merit having their name explicitly mentioned and recorded.
50What, then, can this letter tell us about the institutional settings in which the gädl was written? Where was the original manuscript of the gädl from which the Märtulä Maryam redaction derived? The letter reveals many important issues. First, the late 19th-century Abreha wä-Aṣbeha is the time and place to which we might trace the origins of the gädl. The letter gives the impression that it was written as a response to some kind of appeal by Märtulä Maryam to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. The appeal perhaps involved asking them to send a copy of the old text of the gädl to be presented as evidence during the court proceedings of 1897. It may indeed be the case as well that the gädl in its entirety was composed at Abreha wä-Aṣbeha at the instigation of Märtulä Maryam. On its own the letter does not constitute evidence that Abreha wä-Aṣbeha first invented Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth. The most logical deduction to draw is that the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha were fully engaged in Märtulä Maryam’s acts of fabrication—or, at best, complicit in such an act.
51The letter is an especially reliable source in establishing the fact that there was contact between Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and Märtulä Maryam. If there was no prior connection between the two churches, we may ask the inevitable question of why the letter was written in the first place. The circumstances and purpose of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha’s involvement in the dispute over Märtulä Maryam’s antiquity needs further study. But suffice here to say that the possibility of the joint involvement of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha and Märtulä Maryam in the composition of the gädl cannot be completely excluded. This might have been one of the former’s motives for writing the letter. In defending the credibility of Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth, the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha were at the same time defending the credibility of the account of the gädl as a whole, including the part concerning Abreha wä-Aṣbeha. There is no other way to explain the letter’s existence at Märtulä Maryam. All this would indicate that the gädl was not written much earlier than the court case of 1897.
- 48 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä, fol. 70v.
52The letter can also be linked with the crucial evidence in a brief chance note in the gädl itself to give a context for the origins of the manuscript. In the upper part of the manuscript’s 72nd folio is an insightful note which reads as follows: “ወኅበ ተለአኪሁ እመርጡለ ማርያም እስከ ትግሬ አባ ገብረ ኪዳን።" This literally means “the messenger who was sent from Märtulä Maryam to Tegray was Abba Gäbrä Kidan.”48 A clear resemblance can be noted between the handwriting and ink of this note and the handwriting and ink of the text of the gädl. Thus, this note appears to have been written at the time when the composition of the gädl was still in progress. In this note, Gäbrä Kidan presented himself as the messenger who was sent from Märtulä Maryam to Tegray.
53What can we make of this note? The note resists historical analysis. Nothing is known from other sources about who this Gäbrä Kidan was. There is no obvious explanation of why this note was written. Gäbrä Kidan does not say which church in Tegray he was sent to and what the purpose of his trip was. The logical conclusion that one can legitimately draw from this note is that Märtulä Maryam was occupied with a bogus research to produce a hagiography attesting to its ancient foundation. Gäbrä Kidan was likely given instructions by the church to look for written material and collect oral traditions on the life of the saints Abreha and Aṣbeha. Gädla Abreha wäAṣbeha could have been the result of his journey to Tegray. Although Gäbrä Kidan’s physical presence in the church cannot be proved, it is very likely that he was sent to Abreha wä-Aṣbeha at Gämad. The passage concerning Märtulä Maryam in the gädl may well have been based on information he supplied. At the very least, the note about Gäbrä Kidan requires us to discard as invalid the idea that Ras Araya donated the manuscript and Märtulä Maryam had no active involvement in the acquisition of the gädl.
- 49 See for instance, I. Guidi, 1903, p. 71-71.
54Two aspects of the gädl point to Märtulä Maryam’s contribution to its composition: the ways that the story of the church are told and the information the gädl left out of the account. The gädl comprises several piece of information specific to Märtulä Maryam. The honorific title bestowed on the head of the church by Abreha and Aṣbeha, the manner of building and the splendor of the church’s architecture, and the many monks and clerics settled by the twin kings are given. Significantly, the gädl’s writer(s) include details about the rich gold and silver ornaments that adorned the building of the church. These details about the physical magnificence and organization of the church were part of the old official stories Märtulä Maryam told about itself before its clergy perverted its actual history later in the 19th century.49 It is worth noting that no such details are given for other churches believed to have been built by Abreha and Aṣbeha in places outside of Tegray. Such curious details about the church could not be written by someone without intimate knowledge of the place and its history. We are therefore justified in arguing that Märtulä Maryam had a hand in the gädl’s composition.
- 50 Märtulä Maryam, MS Gädlä Abreha waAṣbehä, fol. 54v-55v.
55Finally, the gädl is written exclusively on Märtulä Maryam’s terms and along lines that would help its case for precedency. The writers of the gädl carefully filtered out any unfavorable information that might compromise Märtulä Maryam’s claim of ancient heritage. Naturally, the church of Dima is omitted from the account of the history of Christianity in the gädl. In other places within Gojjam where the twin kings briefly stayed, the construction of churches is barely implied in passing. For instance, the churches at Däbrä Zäyt (Mount Olive), Nazrét (Nazareth), and Qäranyo (Calvary, Golgotah) are not featured directly in the narrative; instead, these sites are mentioned only as the setting for multiple visions. They are described as having been named by the twin kings after holy sites in Palestine.50 The choice to include these places in the account of the gädl seems arbitrary, without any apparent deep meaning. The most plausible explanation appears to be that these places are mentioned because of their biblical-sounding names. The hagiographers never return to Märtulä Maryam after its foundation. A good explanation for this distinct lack of interest in the church’s later history is that such information was thought to lack ongoing significance and was therefore irrelevant. The alternative explanation for this neglect is that it was intended to avoid detection of fabrication. It is clear therefore that the writers made deliberate choices about the information they included in the gädl. The evidence presented makes implausible the suggestion that the gädl was written without the involvement of the clergy of Märtulä Maryam.
56I would conclude this analysis by suggesting that the Märtulä Maryam recension of Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbeha was produced for the hearing of the legal dispute in the court presided over by Menilek in 1897, or shortly before. Once again, the late 19th-century Abreha wä-Aṣbeha is the time and place to which we might trace the origins of the gädl. The gädl was fabricated by the clergy of Abreha wä-Aṣbeha, and the story of Märtulä Maryam’s ancient origin was inserted into the gädl at the urging of Märtulä Maryam. The allegedly ancient manuscript that was consulted by the judicial assembly and pronounced genuine could not have existed before the late 19th century. The circumstances of the growth of Märtulä Maryam’s origin myth are unrecoverable from surviving texts available to me. All we can state with certainty, then, is that the myth resulted from the need to assert seniority over rival institutions.
57The two epistles written from Emperor Menilek II to King Täklä Haymanot were part court judgments, part records of dispute settlement, and part letters, and they served a variety of purposes. The letters and verdicts must be viewed as legal texts in the first instance. Similar to all legal texts, these letters and verdicts were written so as to put into effect the terms of the dispute settlement between the churches of Dima Giyorgis and Märtulä Maryam as well as the rights and privileges that the judicial assembly authorized. Their preservation had an ongoing administrative purpose because they served in and of themselves as legal proof of the validity of the status and privileges of the two churches enshrined in them. Like all legal texts, their validity was expected to outlast the lifespans of the individuals involved at the time of their creation. They are also legal verdicts because they narrate the actions and judgments of a judicial assembly and the means by which the judgment was reached. This study has also established that the narrative in hagiographic writings had legal and administrative functions. The evidence presented in this study shows that the clergy of Märtulä Maryam saw hagiographic writing as a tool that they could deliberately shape to achieve pragmatic goals. They deployed the hagiography of Abreha and Aṣbeha to help their church realize what they saw as their privileges and rights and to disguise their actual history. Thus hagiographic writing should be studied not only for its literary and historical data, but also for its legal and administrative functions.
Figure 1 : Emperor Menilek II’s letter to King Täklä Haymanot
4 July 1897. Tarikä Nägäśt, Däbrä Marqos.
Photos from Habtamu Mengistie Tegegne.
Figure 2 : Emperor Menilek II’s letter to King Täklä Haymanot
5 February 1897. Märtulä Maryam.
Photos from Habtamu Mengistie Tegegne.
Figure 3 : Portraits of kings Abreha and Aṣbehä and two unidentified persons
Frontispiece of Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbehä held at the church of Abreha wä-Aṣbehä.
Photos from Yohannes Gabra Selassie.
Figure 4 : Beginning of the text of Gädlä Abreha wäAṣbehä held at Märtulä Maryam
To the left is the ownership note and the curse pronounced by Bishop Atnatéwos.
Photos from Habtamu Mengistie Tegegne.