Bar Kribus on Ethiopian Jewish Ascetic Religious Communities

Can you tell us what Ethiopian Jewish ascetic religious communities are? And what inspired you to carry out research on them?

When I first had a chance to learn about Betä Ǝsraʾel (Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jewish) history and heritage, I was fascinated by how unique it is, and how different it is from how I imagined Jewish life in the Diaspora. In the Middle Ages and Early Modernity, Jews in most parts of the world lived as a minority under Gentile rule. The Betä Ǝsraʾel, on the other hand, had their own ruling dynasty, and waged a series of wars against the Christian Solomonic Kingdom. While most of the Jews in the world were led, in religious matters, by rabbis, the Betä Ǝsraʾel were led by priests, and observed several biblical traditions which are no longer observed by Jews elsewhere, such as severe purity rites and the offering of sacrifices.

The Səmen Mountains – until the seventeenth century – the focal point of Betä Ǝsraʾel political autonomy

I was especially fascinated by the mäloksewočč (meloksewoch), the ascetic high priesthood of the Betä Ǝsraʾel (commonly referred to as monks, though many in the Betä Ǝsraʾel community prefer the former term). These unique Jewish ascetics were considered an enigma for many years. Since the late nineteenth century, their numbers had been in rapid decline, and when the Betä Ǝsraʾel made Aliyah (immigrated) to Israel, there was only one mälokse (melokse) left. Their key role in the religious leadership of the Betä Ǝsraʾel was known, but no one had ever studied their way of life or their dwelling places and material culture before. As an archaeologist, and as someone who enjoys travel and exploration, I felt that this could be the perfect way for me to contribute to the study of Betä Ǝsraʾel heritage – to seek out and explore the dwelling places of the Betä Ǝsraʾel ascetic high priesthood and, through examining the remains and all other available sources – written, oral and cartographic – shed light on the way of life of these unique Jewish ascetics. When I began the research, I had no idea whether these places, which have been abandoned for decades, and in some cases – centuries, could be located, and whether there would be any remains left to examine. I also had no idea if enough information could be obtained to enable an understanding of their way of life. What we were able to reach and uncover far exceeded my expectations.

The village of Qolqwaločč (Qolqwaloch) in the Səmen Mountains, where a community of mäloksewočč dwelled in the early twentieth century

Can you tell us a bit about the archaeological fieldwork?

Our archaeological survey was very different from what is considered the norm in archaeological fieldwork, and was a true adventure, often entailing several hours, or in some cases – days of walking into the mountains. On one hand, the dwellings in which the mäloksewočč lived are very similar to dwellings used by the laity, and one cannot survey an area and based on architecture alone identify which structures were used by them. To this we can add the challenge of all Betä Ǝsraʾel sites having been abandoned before or during the late twentieth century, when almost the entire community immigrated to Israel. However, in our search for these sites, we could do something most archaeologists cannot do – talk with people who remember them prior to their abandonment, or who have heard about them firsthand. And in many cases – travel with such people to the sites and have them point out their components. Later, we could return with photographs from the field, and show them to elders of the Betä Ǝsraʾel community now living in Israel, originally from villages near the sites we surveyed. This was a moving experience, and often triggered their memory and led to detailed descriptions that would not have been possible otherwise.

Remains of the Ṣəbra synagogue in Səmen Mənaṭa, near which the last of the village’s mäloksewočč used to dwell

What were some of your major discoveries?

Without a doubt, the most important site we reached was Səmen Mənaṭa (Semien Menata), deep in the Səmen Mountains, the highest mountains in the Horn of Africa. This place served as the most important religious center of the Betä Ǝsraʾel in recent generations, the last major center of the Betä Ǝsraʾel mäloksewočč. Initiates would travel there from all the regions inhabited by the Betä Ǝsraʾel to receive their training and consecration into the priesthood. Near the village of Səmen Mənaṭa are two holy sites to which the Betä Ǝsraʾel would go on pilgrimage. One of them commemorates an act of bravery in the community’s wars against the Solomonic Kingdom – there, according to tradition, 75 members of the community committed suicide rather than be forced to convert to Christianity.

The valley of Səmen Mənaṭa – the last major center of the Betä Ǝsraʾel mäloksewočč

Since many places traditionally associated with the mäloksewočč served as holy sites and places of pilgrimage, we had the privilege of visiting such sites, and were the first to pinpoint Betä Ǝsraʾel holy sites with precision and document their remains and layout. We also came tantalizingly close to reaching the holy site which served as the dwelling place of the first Betä Ǝsraʾel mälokseAbba Ṣəbra (Abba Sabra), who traditionally lived in the fifteenth century.

The Betä Ǝsraʾel holy site of Abba Gan, one of the community’s most revered religious sites, and still today – a pilgrimage destination

One of the most important discoveries of the research has to do with Betä Ǝsraʾel synagogues – Betä Ǝsraʾel synagogue architecture was examined in detail for the first time, and we were able to understand how these synagogues were shaped to accommodate both the purity laws that the mäloksewočč observed and their need, as religious leaders, to pray with laymen and regularly interact with them.

What do you feel is most important about your work?

Many aspects of Betä Ǝsraʾel heritage were passed on orally, from generation to generation. Nowadays, with the immigration to Israel, a cultural and linguistic gap has developed between the older and younger generation, and much of the community’s unique heritage is undocumented, and not being passed on. We are privileged to be living at a time when the memory of Betä Ǝsraʾel life, including religious life, as it was in Ethiopia, is still alive, and Betä Ǝsraʾel historical and religious sites in the country can still be found and studied in detail. This will not be true indefinitely, and I feel that it is extremely important that as many aspects of this inspiring heritage as possible be documented and made available to future generations. The mäloksewočč, the supreme religious leaders of the community, have ensured the preservation of Ethiopian Jewry in the face of numerous challenges. I hope that this study will play a role in ensuring that their contribution to Betä Ǝsraʾel history and heritage be better known and appreciated.

by Bar Kribus

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