Tedbabe Mariam Negist: the Queen of the Monasteries

December 15, 2015
By Kassa Nigus 
Tedbabe Mariam, one of the ancient monasteries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido church, is found 600 km north of Addis Ababa in south Wollo Diocese west of Dessie Town in Amhara Saynt Woreda. The distance from Addis Ababa to Dessie Town is 400 km and from Dessie to Tedbabe Mariam 200 Km, covering a total of 600 km.  

The church was established in 982 B.C during the reign of Minilik I and has a very long historical significance aged about 3000 years. It was one of the centers where the Old Testament sacrifice was performed in Ethiopia.  It is also the second in the Ethiopian Church hierarchy next to Axum Tsion. The name “Tedbabe Mariam” means the highest place chosen for God.

The first temple of Tedbabe Mariam was built by the Israelites coming from Jerusalem accompanying King Minilik I under the coordination of the high priest Azarias. Since Ethiopia is the first African nation to appreciate and worship the One True God of the Old Testament, adopting the Judaic element (1,000 B.C.). Tedbabe Mariam was one of the centers (Temples) in Old Testament times.

The book of Kibre Negest narrates the coming of Israelites to Ethiopia and their historic ties with the Ethiopians. Even if the idea of worship of one God has been in existence earlier, the worship of the true God was officially announced and established by Queen Makeda on her return from her historic visit to King Solomon at Jerusalem. Makeda stayed in Jerusalem for six months during which her union with Solomon produced King Minelik I, who was born while she travelled back to Ethiopia.

According to the recorded history, when Menelik grew up he visited his father in Jerusalem, and he came back home accompanied by Azarias, the son of Zadok the high priest and many other Israelites carrying with them the Ark of the Covenant, and they placed it in the St. Mary of Zion Church in Axum, which is the birthplace of the Ethiopian civilization. From this point of view Judaism and paganism were in effect in Ethiopia. Judaism became a channel for direction and introduction towards Christianity. It was at that time that Tedbae Mariam was established.

According to Metsihafe Suba’e (Part Two, p.206), when the Levities reached Yeju (one of the provinces of the area) under the guidance of Azarias, the son of Zadok, they rested there and built the Temple of Tedbabe Mariam on the mountain, which has twelve entrances. Then some of the Levities assigned the place as “Debre Dibab”, but Azarias and Sabek, the cousin of King David, decided the name of the place as “Tedbabe Tsion” ( literally translated as “Mount  Zion”) to remember Jerusalem and David.

Due to this historical account, Azarias, the Israelite high priest, who established Tedbabe Mariam, assigned the surrounding localities parallel to place names in Jerusalem, such as Gelila, Bitania, Dabre Zeit, Kebron, Gaza, Lotha, Eyyariko, Debre Tabor, Golgota, Livanos, Iyyerusalem, Palestine, Kisaria, etc. From that time on wards the places have been known by these names. 

After the introduction of Christianity into Ethiopia during the era of the Apostles by the Eunuch (as it is narrated in Acts 8:26-39), Tedbabe Mariam also became one of the leading centers of Christianity next to Axum Tsion, being converted from the center of OT Temple to the New Testament Church.

Tedbabe Mariam was also among the four sites of Zion in Ethiopia: Axum Tsion, Mertule Mariam, Tana Kirkos, the fourth being itself, which served as the centers where the Old Testament scarifies were performed. According to the Ethiopian church canon, the high priest of those churches are entitled as, “Nibure’ed”, Re’ese Re’usan” and “Like Kahin” respectively, and “Patriarch” being a title for the high priest in Tedbabe Mariam.

The four churches played a great role in the monarchial rule of the Ethiopian state system that existed for thousands of years until the reign of Haile Sillasie (1974).  During the coronation of the monarchs, the presences of the high priests of these churches were compulsory to nominate the newly assigned king and they had specific duties during the ceremonial coronation of the newly assigned kings. 

Axum’s high priest (Nibure’ed) put the crown up on the newly assigned king, Tedbabe Mariam’s high priest (Patriarch) made the king hold the sword of king, Mertule Mariam’s high priest (Re’ese Reusan) put on the king’s garment on the newly assigned king and Tana Qirkos’s high priest (Like Kahin) anoints the newly nominated monarch with oil.

After finishing the required prayers for the ceremony, the high priest of Tedbabe Mariam handed the sword to the newly nominated king and made the king an oath saying: “Through this sword we have handed to you, you shall judge a true justice; you shall keep the law of God; you shall rebuilt the spoiled things; you shall validate the correct one; you shall take a measure up on the criminals; and you shall nominate the humbles so as to serve our God through all these and to rein with Him in the coming of His everlasting reign”.

Later, the name of Tedbabe Tsion changed to “Tedbabe Mariam” by the order of Abriha and Atsibha, the kings of Axum, the capital city of the time. Currently the church is known by the name “Tedbabe Mariam Negist”.

Heritage of the Monastery
The monastery is endowed with multiple incredible heritages including a relic or the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint preserved for purposes of veneration  and material heritages as a tangible memorial.

The following are among the few heritages of the monastery: more than three hundred ancient manuscripts written in Aramaic, Arabic,  Ge’ez and other  languages, which were mostly produced during the Axumite kingdom and other inscribed materials (locally known as Awed) aged more than about 1500 years (as is measured by the European research group known as Jakmers), bones of martyrs and emperors, the  Icons of St. Mary that is believed to have been painted by the Evangelist Luke,  and many other icons which are believed to have come from Jerusalem to Ethiopia during the reign of Atse Dawit II, many hand cross of ancient saints etc.

 Liturgical Services
Church services including Se’atat (horologe sung during night time) and sibhate negh (morning praise) are performed throughout the year. Only the virgin monks and deacons, under the age of 16, are allowed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The annual feast of the church falls on Ginbot 1 (May 9), to commemorate  the birth day of St Mary, and on Ginbot 2 (May 10), in remembrance of Atse Gelawdewos, who rebuilt the church after the damage by Grang Ahmed.

• Dn. Daniel Kibret, 19 99 E.C. Yebetekristian Merjawoch, page 245-246.
• Memhir Hiruy Baye 2006 E.C. Qidusat Mekanat, page 199-208.

If you have comments, suggestions and questions, please feel free to mention them at: kibrekidusan5@gmail.com

The Communal Monastery of Dabre Zemeda

May 11, 2015
The communal monastery of Dabre – Zemeda is found in North Wollo Zone of the Amhara Region in Kobbo district (kebelle 031). The church is found in the valley of a natural cave which is located between the two chains of rugged mountains that extend from the North-East to a South Eastern direction (in the Western part of Rayya1).

It is bordered by Wessan Maryam (in the North-West), Wakkat Michaʾel (in the East), and Giyorgisoch (in the North). The monastery is about 612 km distance from Addis Ababa and the condition of the road that covers 585Km (from Addis Ababa to Wajja.) is an asphalted high way and the remaining 27kms is graveled road which is around 6 hours walk in the westerly direction from Wajja2.

According to the hagiography of Abune  Bertelomewos who founded the monastery, the monastery has a very long historical background related to the flight of St. Mary with St. Joseph to Egypt and their coming to Ethiopia. As we read in the Gospel, St. Joseph fled to Egypt with St. Mary and her Son after a visit by the wise men from the East because they heard that king Herod intends to kill the infant of that area. In the Gospel according to Matthew read as:-

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the LORD appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His Mother, flee to Egypt and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy HIM” when He arose He took the young Child and HIS Mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod.” (Matthew 2:13-15).

Along with this Biblical event, the hagiography of Abune  Bertelomewos associated and narrated the coming of St. Mary to Ethiopia specifically to the monastery of Dabre – Zemeda.

“ …ወይእቲኒ መካነ እግዝአትነ ማርያም
ዘወሃባ ወልዳ አመ ተሰደት በምድረ ግብፅ
 ወአመ ዖደት ብሔረ ኢትዮጵያ
እንዘ ይብል ትኩንኪ አስራተኪ ዛቲ ዓፀድ…

…and that is the place of our Lady Mary which her Son gave her during her flight to the land of Egypt and while encircling the country of Ethiopia saying “that yard will be for your tenth…”   From this line of tradition, therefore the place was holy ground before it became a monastery.                  

Who is Zemeda?

According to the tradition of the monastery, there was a man whose name was Yonas who lived together with his wife (Zemeda) and his relatives by breeding the horned cattle in his home and lived in Wollo in the jungle area of Lasta in which different kinds of plants were grown, and is found bordering the two provinces of Rayana kobbo and Wag under the province of Lasta.

……..  ወስማ ለይእቲ ብእሲት ዘመደ ማርያም፡፡
ወትነብር ውስተ ጽላሎተ እብን፡፡ወሞተ ምታ
ወትነብር ዕቤርተ ምስለ ውሉዳ ወብዙኅ ንዋያ…..”

…..and the name of that lady is Zemede Maryam. And she lived under the shadow of the cave. But her husband died and thus she lived as a widow with her children and (with her) much property.

As indicated above, GOD predicted and promised Zemeda to be the promise land of St. Mary. In due course, when the prophesied time reached, the patriarch of the time, Ya ‘aqob sent Abune Bertelomewos with the Ark3 of St. Mary to the place; and when Abune Bertelomewos reached there through the guidance of the HOLY SPIRIT, he found Zemeda under the shadow of the cave with her children and went into retreat to the yard to ask GOD where he should put the ark. At that moment the angels, Michael and Gabriel in the image of elders asked Zemeda to leave the cave, but she refused them saying:

“…አይቴ እበዕሕ ወኃበ መኑ አሰምክ… ወሐኒፀ ቤትኒ ኢይትከሀለኒ
ብእሴየኒ ሞተ ወደቂቅየኒ ንዑሳን ወንዋይየ ብዙኅ….”

….Where will I go (reached to)? And to whom shall I dwell? …. and I have no ability to construct a house. My husband had died and my children are little and my property is too much.

After this dialogue, the lady decided to spend the night there. Then, in the mid night Zemeda with all her property was found miraculously out of the cave with her cattle and settled in to another place, the so called “Siol meda”.

…  ወአንበረታ ላዕለ መርኅበ ሲዖል ወሶበ ነቅሐት እምንዋማ
ደንገጸት ወትቤ መኑ አምጽአኒ ላዕለ መርኅበ ሲዖል
ወበእንተዝ ተሰመይ መርኅበ ሲዖል ውእቱ መካን እሰከ ዮም…..

…And she put her on the plain of Si’ol (Hell), when she woke up from her sleep, she was frightened and said “who brought me unto this plain of Si’ol?” Hence, this plain is named the “plain of Si’ol” until today.

When she woke up suddenly from her nap she recognized later on as she was exposed to a severe cold and mighty wind and said “who brought me to this “Siol meda” (plain of Hade). After her word unto now is the place known by the name “Siol  meda”. This may be due to its harsh climatic conditions. Later when she regained her consciousness, she went to her former place to Abune Bertelomewos and asked him forgiveness, telling of how she made a fault unknowingly and asked him to name the place by her name and the saint forgiving her named the place Dabre Zemeda after her name to remember Zemeda.

        Heritages of the Monastery

The monastery of Dabre Zemeda also contains numerous heritages. Among those tangible heritages are the following:-

•  More than two hundred a sixty parchments which were written in Ge’ez and some of them are the rarest MSS which are scarcely to be found in other churches of the country.
•  A number of Tabots (arks) of different saints, JESUS CHRIST and St. Mary.
•  The staff and hand cross of Abune Bertelomewos
•  The staff of Abune Yohennes and St. Selome
•  The icon of St. Luke
•  The holy water that gushed out under  the sepulcher of Abune Bartelomewos which   healed different patients
•  The stone that suspended in the air without trap by the anathema of Abba Bä’ama though now it touched the land due to the growth of the soil.
•  The Corpse of Atse Na’od and some early Abbots of the monastery
•  Miraculous tree which is one in its upper part and three in its root (that is done to rebuke Abba Endryas to his refusal of nomination to be the successor of Abunä Bärtälomewos).

        The Icon of St. Luke

The Icon of St. Luke: – it is the sacred representation of the Virgin Mary holding her child JESUS CHRIST which many churches all over the Christian world latter on copied. It is part of church tradition that the Evangelist Luke painted the first Icon of the Mother of GOD during her life time. According to the tradition of the monastery, the icon entered to Ethiopia with the original right hand wing of the True Cross of JESUS CHRIST during the time of Dawit (1382-1413) and then transmitted from king to king up to Atse Naʾod4; and Atse Naʾod had given the icon to the monastery due to his close contact with the Abbot of the time, Abba Yohannes.

It is also believed that the icon made numerous miracles in different times, as written in her Book of Miracle (Te’ammere -Mariam), and she spoke like a man and her face  shone to indicate the bright future or dimmed to forecast the dark future. According to the tradition, the Evangelist St. Luke was a talented painter as well as physician. There is a composition of Ethiopian church music that described St.Luke:-


Salutation to thy Icon, which wise Luke,

one amongst the Evangelists, painted by his hand.

Foot Note:
1 The term Rayya refers to the elderly (Hangafa) Oromo group which spear headed the early movement and settlement in the whole area of Rayya – Rayyuma. Since Rayya was a successful vanguard group, the name came to be used as a reference to soldiers or warriors of the Oromo in the Oromo language. Gradually it became a place name after the early historical activities of Rayya clan in the process of Oromo expansion in the northern direction (Agezew Hidaru (2000:12).

2 A small town located half way between Kobbo and Alamața and that serves as a boundary using the big river Gobbu between the two current regional administration of  Amhara (northern wollo) and Təgray (southern tip).
3 The ark known by the name Etsube-kullenta (roughly means which looks very beautiful) interview with Abune Bertelomewos of Dabre Zemeda, the former bishop of Awasa diocese.

4 He is the king of Ethiopia who ruled from 1494-1508. Traditionally, he is believed to be the composer of Melke’a Maryam. He prayed to die before the entrance of the eight thousand years of the world (i.e. 5500 B.C+ 1500 A.D= 7000, which is the beginning of the 8th millennium) in the believe of Biblical thoughts; (Matt. 24:10-11) that in this period; many will be offended, and will hate one another; because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold which is the sign of the end of the world (Ezra Sutuʾel 2:36; 6:5, Deuteronomy 4:2; Psalm 76:5) (Afäwärq Täkle 1997 pp.427). And he died in Nehasie 7(August 13), in the eve of the eight thousands in the day of Tsensäta and Sellasie (the 8th millennium began in the year 1500 AD).



  • Kassa Nigus, 2004 E.C. Historical and Philological Analysis of Gadle Bertelomewos. (Unpublished MA Thesis, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.).