Hayk Istafanos

10/03/2014 11:55

Written by Philip Briggs

Hayk Istafanos was the most powerful monastery in Ethiopia from the late 13th to the early 15th century, largely as a result of the role played by Iyasus Moa in the ‘restoration’ of the Solomonic line c1270.

Hayk Istafanos, set on a thickly wooded peninsula within easy walking distance of the town of Hayk, is one of the most historically important and influential monasteries in Ethiopia. According to the local priests, the church’s founder was one St Kala’e Selama, a monk from Jerusalem who arrived there in AD862. The story goes that Hayk formerly supported a pagan cult of python worshippers, who were converted to Christianity when the saint made the python disappear with his cross. Shortly after, Kala’e Selama persuaded Emperor D’il Nead to visit Hayk, and together they founded a church. While they were deciding which saint to dedicate the church to, a large animal descended from the sky with two tabots, one for Istafanos and one for Giyorgis. The church was named for Istafanos, and the second tabot was stored within it for several centuries before a second church – today the nunnery of Margebeta Giyorgis – was established alongside Hayk Istafanos.

Although one tradition states that a monastic community called Debre Egziabher (Mountain of God) existed on the shores of Lake Hayk as early as AD627, it is probable that Hayk Istafanos remained an ordinary church for the first 400 years of its existence. Then, in the middle of the 13th century, during the reign of Nakuta La’ab, the Gondar-born monk Abba Iyasus Moa, having completed a seven-year apprenticeship at Debre Damo, was led to Hayk Istafanos by the Archangel Gabriel to found a monastery there. Iyasus Moa presided over the monastery for 52 years; he died in 1293 at the age of 89 and is buried within the church. Legend has it that he slept in a sitting position throughout his tenure, and that his waking hours were spent lugging around a heavy stone cross and kissing the ground – 10,000 times every day!

Hayk Istafanos was the most powerful monastery in Ethiopia from the late 13th to the early 15th century, largely as a result of the role played by Iyasus Moa in the ‘restoration’ of the Solomonic line c1270. It is said that the rightful Solomonic heir Tesfai Iyasus visited Iyasus Moa to ask for his help in usurping the throne from the Zagwe rulers. The monk prophesied that his noble visitor would one day have a son who would grow up to become king – and so the as-yet-unborn Yakuno Amlak did, after having first trained for several years at Hayk Istafanos. Ancient tradition claims that Yekuno Amlak transferred a third of the realm’s property to Hayk Istafanos. During the 15th century, Hayk Istafanos faded in political significance due to the rise of Debre Libanos, the monastery founded in western Showa by Tekle Haymanot (who trained under Iyasus Moa), but it remained sufficiently important that Francisco Alvarez was taken to see it in the 1520s. A few years later, Ahmed Gragn destroyed the original church. In Alvarez’s day, Hayk Istafanos was set ‘on a small island’ which the monks went ‘to and from … with a boat of reeds’. A more recent visitor, the German missionary Johan Krapf, who visited in 1841, was paddled to the monastery across a deep channel. Today, however, Hayk Istafanos lies on a peninsula and can be reached on foot – it is not clear whether this is because the water level has retreated, or the channel has simply been filled in. Either way, Hayk Istafanos is a fascinating and peaceful spot, set in lovely wooded grounds teeming with birds. The church itself appears to be quite modern, but the superb treasury houses several unusual artefacts, ranging from the heavy stone cross that belonged to Iyasus Moa, to a set of hollowed-out sacrificial stones formerly used by the pagans he converted. Women are not permitted to enter the monastery grounds, but may visit the adjacent nunnery of Margebeta Giyorgis, which was reputedly founded about 800 years ago. Several of the most valuable treasures held at Hayk Istafanos were hidden from public view when I visited the monastery in 2001, but I was told they would be displayed in a new museum as of September that year. Most notable among these is an illustrated biography of Iyasus Moa written during his lifetime, making it one of the oldest books in Ethiopia. According to tour operator Yared Belete, the museum at Hayk Istafanos is now open and charges an admission fee of US$6.

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