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.

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