Listen To The Article
For almost three centuries, the alleged Ethiopians of Qadisha were viewed as mere monophysite (1) Syriacs from the monastery of Saint Moses the Ethiopian. However, the discovery of Ge’ez inscriptions in Saint Assia’s cave in 1992 has compelled researchers to take a closer look into Estephanos (Estephan) Doueihi’s stories regarding this Ethiopian presence.
In his chronicles, Patriarch Estephanos Doueihi (1670-1704) mentioned the Ethiopians’ presence in the Lebanese mountains during the 15th century. For nearly three centuries, these professed Ethiopians were regarded as mere Jacobites, namely monophysites Syriacs, from the monastery of Saint Moses the Ethiopian in the Syrian region of Nebek.
An Unusual Discovery
In 1992, the uncovering of Ge’ez inscriptions in the cave of Saint Assia in the Qadisha Valley (Lebanon) compelled researchers to take a closer look into Estephanos Doueihi’s accounts regarding the existence of this group. This discovery by Pierre Abi Aoun and Fadi Baroudi from the GERSL, was subsequently measured with literary data.
In his work “History of Times,” Estephanos Doueihi recounts that in 1470, along with his Ethiopian companions, James the monk founded a monastic community close to Ehden. The convent they resided in, initially known as Saint James’ convent, ended up becoming the Monastery of the Ethiopians. According to the patriarch, by 1488, the Jacobite Syrians (monophysites) were expelled from the region by the Maronite Syrians (Chalcedonians), led by dignitaries and Bishop James of Ehden.
The Ending of Coexistence
The patriarch outlined that the Ethiopians “headed to Hadshit Valley under the protection of deacon Georges… and they lived in Saint John’s convent, also known as the Monastery of the Ethiopians.” The latter served as the Maronite episcopal seat under Bishop Qoriaqos in 1463, and again under Bishop Qoriaqos Hoblos in 1513. Therefore, Ray Jabre-Moawad pinpoints the stay of the Ethiopians between these two dates.
However, Ehden was vehemently opposed to monophysitism and relentlessly pursued the Jacobites and Ethiopians, and drove them out of their monastery in Hadshit and out of the entire Qadisha region. They were sent off to Hardin and Cyprus. The Ethiopians ultimately departed for Syria and settled in the monastery of Saint Moses the Ethiopian.
They left their mark on local traditions. For instance, the Lebanese Jacobite Noah of Bqoufa, who was appointed Bishop of Phoenicia in 1480 and Maphrian (prelate of the Jacobite church) assigned in 1490 “a tripartite division to the monophysite world: the kingship went to the Ethiopians, the priesthood to the Copts, and the gift of prophecy to the Syriacs”, as per Ray Jabre-Moawad’s writings.
Testimonials from this Ethiopian era are provided by contemporary manuscripts. As such, an Arabic note found in the Ethiopian Psalter Or.172 in Berlin (15th century) stipulates that this manuscript “went from the ownership of Melios the Ethiopian priest and chief of the Ethiopian convent in Mount Lebanon, to the ownership of Abd-el-Sayed the Ethiopian, in the year 1791 [according to the Greeks] (1479–1480 AD) for the price of 52 dirhams.” A second note states that three years later, it went from the Monastery of Libanos to the Ethiopian priest Moses of the Bizan convent in Ethiopia for 24 dirhams.
In literary works, the poetic passages of Maronite bishop Gabriel Barcleius (1447–1516) shed light on the controversy surrounding the Jacobite presence in Mount Lebanon. In his poem addressed to the residents of Bsharri, whose leader was backing the monophysite cause, he refers to the Ethiopians as follows: “The heretic has black skin” and promptly states that the latter is excommunicated by the popes. Then, as a devoted Franciscan and defender of the Chalcedonian doctrine, he scorns Bsharri for “being fond of a wandering black wolf.”
In other passages, Barcleius challenges the idea propagated in Lebanon whereby the salvation of Christians would arise from Ethiopia. He questions the Kebra Nagast, which glorifies the Negus by turning them into the potential saviors of the Holy Land. The Maronite bishop associates Ethiopians with monophysite heresy and only accepts salvation from the Franks, defenders of the true Chalcedonian and Roman faith.
Saint John of Hadshit
Ethiopian monks lived in three troglodytic monasteries in the Qadisha Valley. In addition to Saint James (Mor Yaacouv) in Ehden and Saint John (Mor Youhanon) near Hadshit, Saint Assia (Mor Ossio) in Hasroun was discovered in 1992.
Saint James of Ehden has become famous mainly due to Patriarch Estephanos Doueihi’s manuscript. The same applies to Saint John of Hadshit. However, the latter holds additional tangible evidence, including a raw rock-hewn fresco with an unmistakably Ethiopian style.
Despite its deteriorated state, this fresco unveils a cross with zigzag patterns, a processional cross commonly used in Ethiopia, in addition to a gazelle or Oryx, half of an unidentified quadruped, and finally, an enigmatic horned creature.
Saint Assia of Hasroun
Saint Assia, known as Ossio (the physician) in Syriac and Panteleimon among the Greeks, is one of the nine saints revered in Ethiopia. His monastery, located in Hasroun, was the first to have provided irrefutable evidence of the Ethiopians’ presence in Qadisha. The Ge’ez inscription found there was a proof of the African origin of these monks.
Saint Assia of Hasroun includes a cave that houses a double chapel. The apses are vaulted and located towards the entrance of the cave, while the two aisles can be accessed through the dark depths.
In the left nave, facing off, is a fragment of a fresco and an indecipherable Syriac inscription. The fresco depicts two riders, most likely Saint George holding his spear. The dragon right below is believed to have faded away due to the falling plaster. Both figures, along with their horses, exhibit an African style. Painted in red ocher and highly stylized, they are similar to the reddish figures of Saint John’s fresco in Hadshit.
Saint Assia’s Ge’ez Inscription
In the right apse, leaning against the original wall, are (opposite each other as well) a Ge’ez inscription and an Ethiopian cross on one side, and a cross etched within a circle on the other. Once again, a reddish paint commonly found in Lebanon’s Syriac, Greek, and Phoenician inscriptions, was used.
Despite its deterioration, the meaning of the inscription can be partially identified. Pierre Jacob might have recognized the Pater in Ge’ez language. The last words can be read as “la ‘alma ‘ala,” which is equivalent to “l’olam ‘olmin” (for now and ever) in Syriac.
The cross next to the inscription is typically Ethiopian, as each of its branches ends with a cross. This phenomenon can be manifold, as seen in copper or silver processional crosses that are usually designed with a myriad of birds, commonly found at the tips of the cross. The latter, better known as masqal in Ethiopian, is generally engraved into a diamond shape, bringing to mind the Syriac pattern.
This symbol holds special importance in Ethiopia and Lebanon alike, and is sacred in both countries. In Lebanon, during the day of the Cross, the night sky lights up with fervent and luminous crosses. They are typically raised on rooftops and mountains to commemorate the pyre ignited by Empress Helena in the 4th century.
(1) it is more correct to call them miaphysites.