On October 2017, members of the JewsEast research team embarked on a 3-week archaeological survey in the Semien Mountains, the highest mountains in Ethiopia. Their aim – locating and studying the remains of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) monasteries there. These monasteries were abandoned in the decades prior to the late-twentieth-century immigration of the Beta Israel to Israel. Their locations were known only to members of the Beta Israel community and to other people who lived near them. They have never been documented in detail before.
Why the Semien Mountains?
Today, the Semien Mountains are a famous tourist attraction in Ethiopia, renowned for their natural beauty and wildlife. Few of the hikers travelling their trails are aware of the dramatic historical events that took place in these mountains a few centuries ago: Until recently, the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) inhabited an area extending from the western edge of Tigray Province to the lowlands of Qwara near the modern-day Ethiopian-Sudanese border. Following its establishment in the 13th century, the Solomonic (Christian) kingdom expanded and incorporated into itself areas in which the ancestors of the Beta Israel lived. Gradually, all Beta Israel came under effective Solomonic rule. But one region remained, to an extent, autonomous – the Semien Mountains. From the 15th to the 17th century, Solomonic monarchs waged war against factions of the Beta Israel in these mountains, until finally subduing them.
Even after the last autonomous Beta Israel in the Semien Mountains were subdued, these mountains remained a focal point of the Beta Israel population. Due to their remoteness, and to the religious devotion of their Beta Israel population, they earned a reputation in modern times as one of the last places where the Beta Israel religious tradition was practiced properly. Famously, these mountains were the last place in which Beta Israel monastic communities existed. They therefore seemed an ideal place to hold the first full field season of the JewsEast archaeological survey of Beta Israel monasteries.
The Survey of Beta Israel Monasteries
The aim of the survey of Beta Israel monasteries is to locate, document and study the remains of these monasteries, as well as to collect information about them from present-day inhabitants of the places in which they were located. The results of the survey enable us, for the first time, to examine Beta Israel monasticism based on archaeological evidence, and thus better understand how this monasticism was practiced.
The place we most hoped to reach was the Beta Israel monastery in the village of Semien Menata. This monastery was the most important Beta Israel monastery of recent generations, home to several prestigious Beta Israel monks, and the place where many of the Beta Israel priests were consecrated into the priesthood. We hoped that, since the monastery was active until recently, it would be preserved to an extent that would enable us to locate and document its components. We were not disappointed.
The JewsEast team members leading the expedition were Bar Kribus, Sophia Dege-Müller and Zara Pogossian. Seminew Asrat and Laka Andarge from the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) served as supervisors. Tadele Molla Tegegne and Yonas Addisu Takele of Semien Eco Tours served as guides. Logistical support was provided by Semien Eco Tours.
Semien Menata – the Last Stronghold of Beta Israel Monasticism
The journey to Semien Menata was not easy – we travelled for several hours by dirt road into the Semien Mountains. Then, our equipment was loaded on donkeys, and we walked for several more hours in challenging terrain, before finally climbing down into the valley of Semien Menata. But what we found there was well worth it – Semien Menata seems to have been one of the largest Beta Israel villages. It had two synagogues and three cemeteries. According to the information we obtained, there were Beta Israel monks living near each of the two synagogues.
On the mountain above the village is the holy site dedicated to the Beta Israel monk Abba Tenten. This monk lived in solitude and was buried near his place of residence. In times of need, the community would make a pilgrimage to the site and offer sacrifices to God.
Upstream of the village is an additional Beta Israel holy site – the springs of Westa Tegay. The site served as a sanctuary for the monks – they would occasionally leave their homes in the village and go there to pray. According to Beta Israel tradition, the Solomonic monarch Yeshaq (1414-1429/30) once decreed that all the Beta Israel should renounce their religion and convert to Christianity or be killed. Two groups of 75 people who refused to convert gathered on two mountaintops, on either side of the river which flows to Semien Menata. The Solomonic army spotted one of the groups and charged. The other group called out to their brethren on the opposite mountaintop and warned them of the approaching army. But there was no escape, so the 75 people decided they would rather die than convert. They climbed into a large basket tied to a rope and suspended over a cliff. Then, they cut the rope. All but one fell to their deaths in the valley below. In the place where they landed, springs began to flow, one for each of the fallen heroes.
We documented the remains of the two monastic synagogues in the village and of two of the village’s three Beta Israel cemeteries, one of which was the burial place of the monastic community. We also documented the remains of a dwelling which may have been the home of a monk, but this has yet to be determined. The archaeological finds, as well as the detailed information about the village’s monastic community provided by people who still remember the monks, enable us to reconstruct the layout and history of the most important Beta Israel monastery of recent generations.