REVIEWS Hermits West

Niall Finneran. "Hermits, Saints, and Snakes: The Archaeology of the Early Ethiopian Monastery in Wider Context" in International Journal of African Histoorical Studies, vol. 45, no. 2 (2012), p. 247-271.

This article surveys the early history of Christian monasticism in Ethiopia, from the hagiographic founding by Syrian hermits, the "Nine Saints," in the 6th century, to the decline of the Aksumite Kingdom that sponsored and supported  the monasteries as integral sources of community oversight. The Ethiopian Coptic monasteries reflected elements of Egyptian, Syrian, and Greek monasticism, retaining the preeminence of the hermit in its style and structure.

Christianity reached Ethiopia in the mid-300s, and monasteries emerged as agricultural centers around which secular communities grew, thus fostering  an eccesiastical system always influenced by the presence of cenobites. Monasteries themselves were built on mountains overlooking the secular agrarian communities, the mountains fostering eremitic tendencies familiar in other traditions: Syrian, Greek,  Anatolian, and equivalent to the dramatic landscapes in Europe and Britain favored by hermits. Furthermore, the monks did not actively intervene in secular affairs but provided a spiritual and psychological presence.

Yet, as the author points out, "Isolation is often a mere cover for fuller social engagement," so that the monasteries "became important centers of political and economic power in the landscape," again, analogous to the monasteries of the medieval West and Orthodox worlds.

Christianity in Ethiopia was originally centered in urban and secular areas. Because the Aksumite monasteries were a relatively late phenomenon, its occupants tended to be of the higher classes. Egyptian eremitism had by then been refined sufficiently to attract this higher class to its solitary styles of religious expression. The reputed "nine saints" settled in various areas of Ethiopia alone, outside of urban areas, and were especially attracted to mountains. As Ethiopia's first monastic presence, their dwellings were inevitably based on the lavra system. Of interest, too, is that "the first eremitic settlements were clearly sited upon high mountains or outcrops" and the settlements "could be seen from all around the immediate landscape: they are at once isolated yet central."

The snake reference in the title of this article refers to the legendary expulsion of a great serpent on one of the mountains -- a not unfamiliar motif in Western stories of expelling snakes from now-sacred places.

The rest of Finneran's article pursues monastic development in Ethiopia after the delineating period of the Aksumite era, which was succeeded -- or usurped -- by the non-Christian Cushitic peoples, the Zagwe. The Zagwe promoted pre-Christian era sacred places like caves and tombs that intersected with early Christian eremitic sites, and "founded" urban-based churches to dilute the influence of the monasteries without directly challenging them. Some of the new churches were encampments on the mountainsides of monasteries.

Finneran also notes archaeological evidence about the Aksumite-era Debre Damo, the largest Ethiopian monastery and still extant today, and the Zagwe-era Lalibela complex of monasteries. Of Debre Damo, the author says in reference to its monastic structure that "we may term this semi-eremetic." The term describes the central church and communal building plus monks or nuns "living outside the settlement in the wider landscape with no formal boundaries. He summarizes:

Eremetic monasticism, as in many other areas of the Chrstian east, ... does not really exist anymore.  Individual hermitages do occasionally still exist, but this is a phenomenon to be associated with the nascent stages of Ethiopian monasticism. ... [Nevertheless] , overall ... the best desciptor of an Ethiopian monastery is as a Lavra.

Ethiopian eremitism, both historical and in its present incarnation, has not been an object of widespread study, but the tradition continues, especially in the nourishing structure of the lavra.