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Gunda-Gunde Visit

A VISIT TO GUNDA GUNDE (Irob) – February 1998

by Paul B. Henze


I cannot remember when I first heard mention of the Monastery of Gunda Gunde, but I became aware of its prominence in the history of Ethiopian manuscript illumination and icon painting from the numerous references to it in Stanislaw Chojnacki’s monumental study of Ethiopian Art. Chojnacki, however, had not visited the monastery. Visitors, even among Ethiopians, have been few and far between because of its inaccessible location deep in the complex of mountains and gorges of eastern Agame in the northeastern corner of Tigray. The Lazarist missionary, Father Justin de Jacobis, was the first European to leave a record of a visit, in 1842. The Italian scholar, Antonio Mordini, visited it more than once in 1940. The intrepid Englishwoman Beatrice Playne went there in 1948 and published an account of her journey in St. George for Ethiopia in a chapter entitled “The Dreadful Journey to Gunda Gunde”. As a woman she was not allowed to come inside the monastery, but considerate monks brought manuscripts outside the walls for her to examine. From one of them she copied a striking Madonna and Child in bright colors which is reproduced in her book. Another intrepid Englishwoman, Ruth Plant, included a brief description of Gunda Gunde at the end of her catalogue of rock churches, but she appears not to have gone to the monastery, though she provides interesting comments on the architecture of its great rectangular stone church. Perhaps the most interesting accounts of Gunda Gunde and its religious background were published in Abbay Nos. 10 (1979) and 11 (1980-82) by an Ethiopian who was born in the area, Gigar Tesfaye, who also discovered rudimentary rock carvings of long-horned cattle in a nearby gorge in the early 1970s. He provides information on several satellite monasteries of Gunda Gunde, for in its prime the Stephanites were active founding establishments in the whole northeastern escarpment region of Tigray and northward to Debre Bizen in Eritrea.

The first and second Ethiopian Art conferences included detailed discussions of Gunda Gunde manuscript art by scholars who had studied published illustrations as well as a few manuscripts from Gunda Gunde in the collection of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, but these scholars had not visited the monastery. The Stephanite movement, which had its origins in the activities of the Tigrayan monk Ewostatewos in the 14th century, has long attracted the attention of scholars of religion, for several energetic personalities were active in it and it produced a large hagiographical literature which continues to attract attention. Gunda Gunde became a major center of manuscript production and illumination and acquired a large library.

The Ethiopian church was involved in continual doctrinal controversies in the late middle ages. The monastic movement that led to the establishment of Gunda Gunde has its origins in the activities of Ewostatewos who originated from a religious family in the Geralta. Born about 1273, he established a monastery in Serae and gathered many followers, but eventually fell out with the church hierarchy and departed Ethiopia for Cairo, Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia, where he remained. He died there in 1352. His fundamentalist teachings continued to inspire a sizable group of followers in Tigray. Of these the most prominent became Istifanos, born about 1394 at Merwa in Agame. Though starting life as a shepherd boy, he developed an interest in religion, studied in a church school and at 18 was sent to the court of Egyptian Bishop Bartolomewos to be ordained a deacon. He returned to Ethiopia and joined the monastery of Qoyatsa, headed by Abba Samwil, where he copied manuscripts and developed a deep interest in doctrine and tradition. Continuing the “protestant” tradition of Ewostatewos, he questioned practices he felt did not accord with the Scriptures, including excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary. After several years of teaching he fell out with Abba Samwil and was expelled from Qoyatsa. He established a community in Shire, dividing his followers into small units, stressing austerity and self-reliance: …his followers were to live on their own labour and share the fruits thereof among themselves and with such others as may need their help. Having once given a pledge to God, a monastic community should not turn back to the world nor depend on it for its living. He prescribed a strict observance of the apostolic canons and the Holy Scriptures, and condemned all local customs that could compromise these.

Controversies with Shire monasteries led to violence, the intervention of the governor of Shire and eventually to confrontations with Emperor Zara Yakob, who was determined to bring religious dissension to an end and called a conference for this purpose at Debre Mitmaq in 1450. Istifanos refused to accept the agreements reached there and was arrested. The details of subsequent developments are unclear except that the Stephanites retreated to Agame, the home territory of Istifanos, and proceeded to establish themselves in remote areas along the edge of the plateau, close to the lowlands inhabited by Muslims, where they could adhere to their austere doctrines without interference. One element of their doctrine seems to have been avoidance of hostile relations with non-Christians.


After the Tigray Tourism Commission was established in the early 1990s it produced a series of large posters to advertise the region’s historical attractions. One featured a dramatic photograph of Gunda Gunde. When I enquired in 1996 of Tourism Commissioner Atakilti Hagega in Makelle about a visit, he admitted that neither he nor any of his people had made the journey but said they soon hoped to. The same year I made the acquaintance of priests at the Catholic seminary in Adigrat. The seminary and the boarding school it maintains serves the Irob people who inhabit the northeastern highlands of Tigray with their center at Alitena, a short distance south of the Eritrean border. The Irob were converted to Roman Catholicism in the 19th century by Father de Jacobis, who permitted them to retain the Ge’ez rite and many features of Ethiopian Orthodox ritual. The next year in correspondence with Abba Gebre Egziabeher Yohannes of the seminary I started planning a visit to Gunda Gunde. Though he had not been to the monastery before, he was eager to see it, for the Irob Catholic community has had a long and relatively friendly relationship with the monastery and has congregations in villages en route to it.

A visit to Gunda Gunde was first priority during my 1998 winter visit to Ethiopia. The Tourism Commissioner had a guide ready who had made the trek with another ferenji a few months before. It was the second week of February, the height of the dry season, an ideal time for foot travel in this region. At the Adigrat seminary I found that not only Abba Gebre Egziabeher, but also another young priest, Abba Haddis Kifle Mikael, who had just returned from study in Rome, were eager to go. They heard that the abbot of Gunda Gunde, Abba Lemlem, happened to be visiting Adigrat and after a search found him at the Qiddus Yohannes Hotel, a hostelry for monks and priests which takes no women. A tall, dignified black-bearded man in traditional dress, he said he had finished his business in Adigrat and was ready to return; he would be happy to lead us down. So the next morning we registered with the police in case we should encounter difficulties and our party of six, including my driver/photographic assistant, set out southward toward Edaga Hamus.

It was a bright sunny morning. Just north of Edaga Hamus we turned off the highway onto a track that led northeastward over the flat plateau past stone homesteads surrounded by bronze aloes in bloom. At one point the road led to the edge of a shallow valley where we looked down on richly cultivated lands the Catholic priests said were farmed by their parishioners. After 21 kilometers we reached Geblen, site of a large relatively recent rectangular church and a few buildings on the edge of the escarpment. From there we had splendid views over the mountains and gorges that extend all the way to the desert along the Red Sea. Contemplating this scenery it was easy to understand the appeal of this region to monks seeking isolation and security.

Several local men and boys joined us, some to carry our packs, others, as always happens in the Ethiopian countryside, for the pleasure of joining a party of travellers. Our party made no effort to set a speed record, but we maintained a steady pace with only a few stops to enjoy outstanding views. There were a few smooth stretches but we also had to negotiate several steep ascents and descents where the trail led over heaps of huge boulders, the most challenging being a mountain called Sudalo. I thought of having to climb up again over these same rockfalls and hoped there was a less steep route back (there was not). Vegetation was mostly scrub chewed over by goats. We had seen a few terraced fields near the top of the escarpment and now and then a rock-walled, flat-roofed building. For a while the region seemed totally uninhabited until we reached valleys where old trees survived along streams with clear water and terraces had been built to make small fields that could be irrigated. We began to encounter parties of young men carrying huge baskets on their heads and shoulders. The walkers were often followed by donkeys with double boxes balanced over their backs. What were they carrying? Oranges which they were taking to Adigrat. They offered us some. Large, tender and sweet, they were welcome refreshment as the air became warmer as we descended. Where did they come from? From gardens deep in the gorges. Lemons, bananas and papayas grow in these terraced gardens too, they told us. They are watered by streams that flow down from the plateau. Year-round these streams supply at least a trickle of water. In the rainy season they become torrents and would wash out the orchards if they were not protected by terracing.

The farther down we went the deeper the gorges became as we crossed ridges from one valley to another. Morning turned to afternoon and shadows lengthened as the sun sank and the trail led back and forth across a shallow river meandering through a wide, flat bed: the Gunda Gunde, from which the monastery takes its familiar name, though it is formally known as Debre Garzen. At dusk Abba Lemlem announced that there was too little time to go on. He pointed far down the long gorge and said the monastery was around a bend. He led us up a short trail to a small cluster of stone buildings on a terraced hillside and said we would stay for the night at his house. We had been underway seven hours and had probably trekked about 30 km., though as a bird would fly we may have been no more than 12-15 km. from Geblen. On one side of his courtyard Abba Lemlem had a long shelter roofed with green-leaved branches. The rocky ground was carpeted with durra stalks overlain by a red plastic tarpaulin. The open side faced the gorge. In no time several young men had a coffeepot boiling on a brisk fire in front and soon dinner was in preparation. Lounging on the tarpaulin we watched a full moon rise over the opposite gorgeside as we ate mashila injera and light tibs with another orange as dessert, followed by tea. Moonlight had enveloped the entire landscape by the time we stretched out to sleep. Abba Lemlem reminded us that we must rise at dawn to trek on to the monastery.

Having descended over a thousand meters during the day, we slept soundly in the warm, still air of the lower country. A bit stiff when we rose, we drank hot tea and set off down the gorge, making our way through the broad riverbed of scree. The sides of the gorge were a geological museum on a grand scale: great walls of layered sedimentary rock, sometimes up-ended, with volcanic intrusions. We climbed over piles of flat compacted sandstone ideal for construction. The monks who came to build Gunda Gunde did not have to go far for material. On both sides we could see walled terraces. There were occasional willows. The sun began to spread light into the gorge as we caught our first view of the monastery buildings ranged on the lower east wall of the gorge. We crossed a stream rushing out of a side valley to the east and were told it was the monastery’s tabal(source of holy water). It fell in low cascades to the level of the river. Several massive old trees shaded the area. As we made our way up to the gate we noticed that Abba Lemlem had disappeared.


We were met at the gate by a young monk in a bright yellow robe, Abba Kidane Mariam Kahsai, who led us inside the walls. We later learned that he was now the abbot in charge, the memhir. There had been dissension among the monks and Abba Lemlem had recently been banished from the monastery. He was said to have started a fire in the church, to have eaten meat on fast days, and to have been disliked by all the monks. We never managed during our stay to learn the full story of the contentiousness. This was only one of several mysteries we failed to penetrate during our brief stay at Gunda Gunde. It argues for a future visit and a longer stay.

We found ourselves in the midst of a complex of buildings made of flat stones without mortar with roofs held up by huge logs darkened by the smoke and wear of centuries. There are open spaces between many of the buildings. These not only provide convenient places for relaxation and discussion but permit views of the front and south side of Gunda Gunde’s most striking architectural monument, the huge rectangular church. It is unique in my Ethiopian experience. Does it date from the time of the founding of the monastery? What kind of roof would it originally have had? Thatch? Thin, flat slices of stone? At some time since 1940 it has been rather crudely roofed with tin that forms a roof over the entire structure. It was evident that the monastery of Gunda Gunde once held a far larger complement of monks than it does now, for stone living quarters extend for two or three hundred meters upward along the slope above the buildings that form the center of the monastery around the church. At first the monks seemed to be unwilling to tell us much about the monastery’s history, but we later realized that in our excitement at arriving there we were simply asking too much too soon.

The atmosphere was actually very hospitable; they were eager to show us everything. We were first led to the eastern side of the monastery compound where men were slaughtering an ox. “The men are Muslims,” the memhir told us, “as are most of the people living in the area. But we have very good relations with them. They provide us with fruit and other food. They brought the ox as an offering because they know we will not eat meat during Lent.” We watched them cut the ox into chunks, pile them onto a long hand-hewn wooden tray and carry it to the kitchen. Then we were led to a veranda along the edge of the north wall where we looked down on a recent tin-roofed rectangular stone church outside the walls. It is dedicated to St. Tekle Haymanot. They told us it was endowed by Emperor Haile Selassie. It was built as a favor to women who came for ceremonial occasions but had to remain outside the walls. A morning service in this church was just concluding. We watched monks in brightly colored vestments march out and return up a stone stairway into the monastery. We intended to ask to visit the church, but were kept so busy during the rest of the day that no opportunity arose.

A boy was preparing coffee over an open fire in a kitchen nook at one end of the veranda. No females are allowed in the monastery in any capacity. Housekeeping tasks are all performed by boys or men from the area. While the coffee was being roasted, ground and put into the jabana to be boiled, we were led up to the far end of the veranda where a sturdy brown goat was tethered. In a brief ceremony it was presented to me as a gift. I accepted it protesting their generosity. They said they would take it off for slaughter and promised a feast later in the day. We came back and stretched out on mats for coffee and conversation with the memhir and several of the monks. Oranges and bananas from nearby gardens were served. In contrast to most of those I have met at other monasteries in recent years, the monks here were all comparatively young. They said they were ten in all, but before 1974 there were usually 30 or 40. There were now about 15 deacons and a number of boys and local men serving the monastery. They explained there were also a few laymen in teaching positions, Merigeta Woldu Halefom, for example, who was introduced.

The monastery used to possess lands all the way to Adigrat, they told us, but the Derg took them all away. Did they have trouble with the Derg? Derg officials and Derg soldiers never came to Gunda Gunde, but TPLF fighters did. They were always friendly. The discussion led back into history. They told us Ahmad Gragn had been unable to penetrate into this region, so they suffered no damage from his depredations. They recounted that the monastery had been founded by Abba Yeshaq, a disciple of Istifanos, in the mid-15th century. He had chosen the site because he sought isolation, as did others who followed him to Gunda Gunde. Their monastery, they insisted, had always enjoyed good relations with the Muslims of the lowlands. Muslims caused no problems during the commotion of the Derg years, for they were mistreated by the Derg. They also spoke of their friendly relationship to the Irob Catholics, which were demonstrated by the warm welcome the Adigrat priests in our party received and the ease with which they related to the monks.

It was noon. We were led through a small door into a passageway that brought us to their bet mahaber, the “community house” with the kitchen nearby. There the megabi, the monk in charge of food, was the host. The ox had been cooked and huge trays of boiled meat were brought in and placed before a monk who was expert at slicing the meat into small strips at lightning speed. The strips were thrown into enamel bowls partly filled with highly seasoned broth. We were invited to dip and savor the strips of meat as the bowls were passed around. They were tasty as a first-class London Broil. Practically everyone at the monastery had gathered for lunch in the high-ceilinged room. It was a festive occasion. Teakettles of talla and beakers appeared. After one draught one’s beaker was immediately filled to the brim again. When most of the meat had been eaten men carried in a tray with what looked like a giant cake. “Tihlo! several exclaimed. Along with it came bowls of deep red pepper sauce and a basket of skewers. Another man took the place of the meat-cutter and began to operate on the huge pastry. It was a Tigrayan specialty, a kind of pudding of finely ground roasted barley. The tihlo man began rolling it into small balls. Skewered, these were dipped into the pepper sauce and popped into the mouth. We were well into the afternoon when lunch was finished. We asked to begin a tour of the monastery, for I was eager to see the inside of the church and whatever objects it might contain and, if they were agreeable to our doing so, visit their eqabet and examine some of their manuscripts.


The outer walls of the huge rectangular church are of neatly laid flat tannish stone which has a bit of clay as mortar. They do not give the impression of ever having been rigidly regular. At several places there has been a moderate degree of subsidence which has caused cracks, never very wide, and there is occasional evidence of repairs. Between the outer and inner walls there is a passage about 1-1/2 m. wide. We were not able to determine whether it extends completely around the inner square structure of the church which houses the maqdas (sanctuary). The walls were covered with white plaster in the interior sections we were permitted to walk through. The exterior walls are pierced by simple, undecorated windows without grillwork. These windows continue in two rows in the front of the church. There is a single window in the angle which forms the top of the facade just below the roof. On the side walls there is a row of projecting stones below an upper row of windows. The windows in the inner walls are elaborately framed. Some of the frames are of thick, carefully carved wood; others are of stone or masonry with plaster. All these windows are topped by a rounded arch. The projections at the corners are large with scroll finials in the wooden windows, heavy and squared in the stone ones. The centers of two of the wood-framed windows are fitted with intricately carved wooden panels. Doors are similarly constructed with projecting corners and a rounded arch on top. The large double door to the maqdas has elaborately decorated double rounded arches above and these are topped by a five-section frieze which is, in turn, topped by a single smaller rounded arch. All of these features were illustrated by Mordini and have remained unchanged since he sketched and photographed them.

We were given a rapid tour of the interior of the church but not permitted even to glance into the maqdas or explore the area behind it. We were shown a number of apparently quite old but heavily worn carpets and textiles and a few relatively recent paintings on canvas. Our attention was especially directed to a wide throne-bed in one corner in excellent condition. It was said to have belonged to the early 19th century Tigrayan nobleman Sebagadis Woldu who was of Agame Saho origin. A smaller leather-strap bed, also said to have belonged to Sebagadis, stood in front of it. There were many other objects in the church–drums, stands, chests–which would undoubtedly have been worth careful examination if we had had time. We asked if there were icons in the maqdas and were told there were not. Like so many other features of Gunda Gunde, this church would merit several days of careful study of both its architecture and its furnishings. We had no opportunity to take even elementary measurements. Our primary interest during the limited time we had left was to determine the condition of the monastery’s manuscripts and other valuable objects and to photograph its most significant illuminated gospels.

We were led out of the church to the eqabet (treasury), introduced to the monk in charge who unlocked the metal door and invited us inside, a rare occurrence in Ethiopian ecclesiastical establishments, for casual visitors are usually not permitted inside the eqabet. This smallish square building is solidly constructed of mortared stone. It is roofed with tin. It appears to be a 20th- century structure. We saw large numbers of manuscripts and some printed books piled on chests and low tables and shelves. There were also several crowns, crosses, censers and a few ecclesiastical vestments, though most of the vestments belonging to the monastery must be kept in another location. We asked about icons; they said they had none. The crowns were undistinguished. We did not see the distinctive diamond-shaped cross with portraits of Istifanos and two other Stephanite fathers on one side and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the other which was illustrated by Mordini. It seems probable that many objects originally held by this monastery have “gone astray”.

On the other hand, the most impressive gospel manuscripts are intact along with a great many others. Many of the manuscripts bore titles and numbers. These are indicated in illustrations in the Mordini article. I have not yet been able to determine by whom and when they were numbered and where an inventory of Gunda Gunde’s holdings is kept. Thememhir directed that eight manuscripts be taken out for us to photograph. A chair was set up in the full sun in the yard in front of the church and covered with a carpet. For the better part of the next two hours I examined these eight manuscripts and photographed all illuminations and canon tables, all significant harag, covers, titles, and selected pages of text.

These included three Gospels, Nos. 416, 440 and 442; No. 468, the richly illustrated Gebre Hamamat, a compilation of prayers and readings for the period preceding Easter illustrated by Mordini but with a different number; No. 94, Abu Shakr Bahr Hasub, a series of tables for calculating dates of feasts and without paintings; No. 194, the Gadla Abun Mezgeb Silase, with brightly colored portraits of Stephanite fathers; and Nos. 194 and 232, two richly illustrated Tamre Maryams. The richness of these manuscripts is particularly evident in their elaborately framed canonical tables, most with decorated arches and interlocking curtains, and in the unusually varied harag (geometrical and floral ornamentation at the head of pages of text and sometimes within them). The condition of the manuscripts was for the most part good, considering their age, though some of the paintings in Nos. 416, 442 and 468 showed wear. Bindings had become loosened on most of them, though there were no loose pages. The two elaborately dressed Virgins with Child in Nos. 416 and 440 are the most dramatic of all the paintings. The Christ on the Cross with twisted neck in No. 416 is unique in Ethiopian iconography, though not particularly well rendered. No. 440 has particularly good representations of the Evangelists in two renditions: all four together on a page, and separately. No. 442 has an unusual panel of eight female saints. No. 468, the Gebre Hamamat, has the most detailed and finely rendered paintings, especially those of Christ entering Jerusalem.


If we had had time to press for more, we could have examined more manuscripts, but the sun was getting low and the monks were getting tired. They were eager to host us to a final feast to fortify us for the all-night climb back up the escarpment. So we returned to the veranda where we had been brought after arrival in the morning. Joints of the goat which had been presented to us were boiling in a large pot. After devouring as much as we could, we were served oranges and coffee. The sun had descended well below the western wall of the gorge and its rays were touching only the highest distant peaks. Dusk had settled in on the monastery itself. I made a short speech thanking the memhir and his monks for their hospitality and complimenting them on maintaining the traditions of their faith. It was translated by Abba Gebre Egziabeher of the Adigrat Seminary. Thememhir responded by expressing his pleasure at our visit and urging us to return.

We set out along the same trail by which we had come, jumping from stone to stone as we crisscrossed the shallow river. When we reached Abba Lemlem’s compound a wedding reception was in progress. He came out and motioned to us to come up and drink talla to the health of newlyweds. We did and then continued on our way. The trek back to the plateau was less strenuous than I had expected, for the night air became cooler as we climbed. After a couple of hours the moon rose and shed silver light over the landscape. The quiet of the night was now and then broken by the call of a bird. Three or four times we heard voices ahead and soon encountered men and donkeys returning from hauling oranges to Adigrat. The orange season lasts two months, they told us. There are bananas the year round, but they cannot be supplied in such large quantities as oranges. We stopped to rest in a deserted sheepfold after a particularly steep stretch but discovered that we were being welcomed by hordes of fleas, so soon moved on.

We caught sight of the rim of the plateau ahead of us as it became clearly visible in the light of the new day. We settled down on boulders under a twisted old acacia to refresh ourselves with oranges and welcome the sunrise. As we looked back over the jumble of mountains and gorges through which we had climbed we saw that they had filled with puffy white clouds. The clouds move up during the night from the Red Sea lowlands in the winter season, just as they do in Asmara at this time of the year. The sun’s rays penetrated the tops of the clouds slowly. When we began to feel its full warmth we rose to move on. It was nine o’clock when we arrived back at Geblen. Having left Gunda Gunde at six and the wedding reception at seven, the trek back up had taken 14 hours, during which we had walked nearly twelve. The trek downward two days before had taken seven hours from Geblen to Abba Lemlem’s village and another hour in the morning to the monastery. According to my altimeter, Geblen was at 2,320 meters, Gunda Gunde at 1,195, i.e. 1,225 meters lower.


I returned from Gunda Gunde with a sense of accomplishment but also with the conviction that I must try soon to make a longer visit preferably in the company of specialists in manuscripts, painting and architecture to be able to explore the monastery thoroughly, draw ground plans, examine manuscripts more thoroughly and make a systematic record of traditions known to the present complement of monks. While it was encouraging to find that its ten monks are comparatively young and that they are training a sizable group of young deacons, it would be unwise to assume that this monastery can remain immune from the effects of rapid economic development which are making upkeep and protection of almost all Ethiopian monasteries and historic churches increasingly difficult. In terms of history and especially of architecture Gunda Gunde is one of the outstanding historic sites in Ethiopia. There is a need for careful planning for its preservation. Its isolation, and the difficulty of constructing vehicle roads into the region, will–in spite of the Tigray Tourism Commission’s advertising of it as a tourist destination–ensure that few but the hardiest tourists will visit it. There are, however, ways that the monastery could be made more accessible for specialized visitors and scholars. The existence in the area of subsidiary churches that have been connected with Gunda Gunde justifies serious exploration. The fact that petroglyphs have been discovered nearby gives reason to believe that there may be more.

I developed a number of tentative ideas along these lines, but events far beyond the control of the monastery or local authorities intervened. Little did I realize in February 1998 that I was seeing Gunda Gunde at the end of an era. The summer of 1998 brought extraordinarily heavy rains to the northeast Tigray. Bad land- and scree-slides did great damage to the monastery. As these were described to me months later in Addis Ababa, large sections of monks’ quarters collapsed and debris was washed down into the center of the monastery, but I was told that the eqabet remained undamaged and the church itself suffered no irreparable harm. Girma Elias and others in Tigray and Addis Ababa were instrumental in organizing a committee to gather donations for stabilization and repair which was relatively successful in raising money. The effort to put the money to work was hampered by the Eritrean invasion of June 1998. Eritrean forces captured Alitena, penetrated deep into the Irob-populated area and came within a short distance of Gunda Gunde. The Eritreans committed atrocities among the Irob, causing large numbers of people to flee. The area around Gunda Gunde became a refuge for some of these people. It is ironic that the disaster the old monastery escaped during the depredations of Ahmad Gragn in the 16th century has come to pass, twofold, at the end of the 20th.

Washington, DC

March 2000

Major Themes in Ethiopian Painting…from the 13th to the 19th Century, Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden, 1983.

His account was not published until 1954, “Il Convento di Gunda Gundie”, Rassegna di Studi Etiopici, XII, pp. 29-48. Meanwhile another Italian, Giovanni Cecioni, had published a geographical description of the region, “La Regione di Gunda-Gundie e il suo antico Monastero” in Revista Geografica Italiana, March-April 1941, pp. 113-133.

Constable, London, 1954.

Architecture of the Tigre, Ethiopia, Ravens Educational and Development Services, London, 1985, pp. 173-4.

“Notes sur Gunda Gunde et d’autres Couvents Stephanites dans le Tigray”, Abbay #10 (1979), pp. 93-100; “Nouveaux Documents de Gunda Gunde”, Abbay #11 (1980-82), 125-131.

“Decouverte de Gravures prehistoriques dans la Valley de Gunda Gundie (Agame, Tigray), Abbay #10.

Marilyn Heldman, “An Ewostathian Style and the Gunda Gunde Style in Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Manuscript Illustration,” in Proceedings of the First International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art, Pindar Press, London, 1989, pp. pp. 5-14; Carla Zanotti Eman, “The Harag of the Manuscripts of Gunda Gundi,” in Paul B. Henze(ed.), Aspects of Ethiopian Art from Ancient Axum to the 20th Century, JED Press, London, 1993, pp. 68-72.

A few examples: Andre Caquot, “Les Actes d’Ezra de Gunda-Gunde” in Annales d’Ethiopie, Vol. 4 (1961), pp. 69-121; A. Ferenc, “Actes d’Isaie de Gunda Gundie” inAnnales… Vol. 10 (1979), pp. 243-294; Conti Rossini, Gadla Abuna Abakerazun, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium Vol. 56, Louvain, 1954; Robert Beylot, “Actes des Peres et Freres de Debra Garzen: introduction et Instructions spirituelles et theologiques d’Estifanos”, Annales…, Vol. 11 (1990), pp. 7-16.

Friedrich Heyer, Die Heiligen der Aethiopischen Erde, Oikonomia, Erlangen, 1998, pp. 72-76.

Tadesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527, Oxford, 1972, pp. 206-231.

Tadesse Tamrat, “Some Notes on the 15th Century Stephanite “Heresy” in the Ethiopian Church”, Rassegna di Studi Etiopici XXII (1968), p. 107.

Mordini speaks of thatch and a photograph in Cecioni’s article shows the church with what appears to be almost flat thatched roofs on the three main sections of the church. There could have been stone underneath.

It is important on a visit such as this to be discreet in asking questions until full rapport and a fully friendly atmosphere have been established.

Unlike the Derg and the EPLF in Eritrea, the TPLF, aware of the deep attachment Tigrayans feel to the church, developed a constructive relationship with the clergy and actually engaged priests as fighters. (See John Young, Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia, CUP, 1997, esp. pp. 174-78; also Jenny Hammond, Fire from the Ashes, Red Sea Press, Lawrenceville, NJ, 1999.) When I had occasion to discuss my visit to Gunda Gunde with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi a few weeks later, he recalled that the TPLF had gathered for several days for a field conference at Gunda Gunde in the late 1980s and had enjoyed the hospitality of the monks.

They did not claim, as those at Debre Bizen did three years before, that God had made their monastery invisible so that Ahmad Gragn could not see it; “A Visit to Debre Bizen”, Friends of Ethiopia Newsletter 2/9, Winter 1991.

A distinguished person’s bed is often preserved in Ethiopian churches and treasuries. Ordinary Ethiopians usually slept on skins on the floor (and many still do in the countryside). A solid bed with a wooden frame, sometimes ornamented corner posts, and strong leather strapping was the mark of high status.

Mordini measured the walls of the church and gives the width of its facade as 13.48 meters, its left and right outer walls as 18.7 meters and 17.65 meters respectively and the width of its rear wall as 14.9 meters.

I learned a few days later on meeting Jacques Mercier and Girma Elias in Tembien that a few weeks earlier they had photographed these and many other manuscripts at Gunda Gunde for eventual publication by the European Union-supported Ethiopian Orthodox Church Project for which they are responsible.

Note that two manuscripts bore the same number, 194; the monks, to whom the numbers are of no importance, refer to manuscripts by their titles. They had no explanation for the discrepancy. None of the manuscripts I saw corresponded with the numbers Mordini indicated on the photographs accompanying his article. Numbers must have been changed at a later date.

Some Italians who visited the region left no readily accessible records. The gazeteer Toponomastica Etiopica published by the Instituto Superiore Orientale di Napoli in 1937 gives its altitude at “more than 500 meters” (much too low) but gives its coordinates as 14-23′ North and 39-44″ East, which seems to be correct.



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