By Hagos Abrha Abay
The Monastery of Waldba is believed to have been visited by Christ during the Holy Family’s wanderings in the wilderness. Yet Eritrean and Ethiopian forces attacked the monastery on March 21, 2021. Monks were killed, their priceless library destroyed along with their homes and stores.
Hagos Abrha Abay – a Postdoctoral Researcher at Centre for the Study of Manuscript Culture, University of Hamburg in Germany – visited the Monastery of Waldba in north-western Tigray.
Here is his assessment of the importance of its heritage and his personal reflections on their loss.
Waldba as Icon of East African Asceticism
As the Ge’ez Book of Monks records, monks have no nationality. “Our citizenship is in heaven” as Paul said in the Philippines 3:20.
Monks and hermits of Waldba (Waldǝbba) were persecuted, their heritages tarnished not because of their religion but because of their “ethnicity”.
More than 500 days have passed since Tigray came under a total siege. The most terrible atrocities have been committed over the last eighteen months.
Tragically, Waldba has suffered the same fate.
The Ethiopian proverb “Sometimes, even dancing can happen in Waldba” is to designate a situational deviation that shows this Tigray monastery is one of the most revered and sacred religious sites where no one can expect entertainment.
Waldba is a historical territory in the north-western Tigraysituated in the remote, hot lowlands near River Tekeze. It borders on two other magnificent rivers: the Zarema and Ensya [ʾƎnsǝya]. To reach the monastery, can take 6-9 hours on foot.
Based on the local tradition, the Holy Family visited this site during their travels to Egypt when they reached Ethiopia and stayed, among other zones, in this wasteland. Today it is the site of a monastery and hermit’s retreat.
Monastic tradition believes it was personally adopted by Jesus himself.
The toponym Waldba is also believed to have been derived from ዋሊ/Wali and often called ገዳመ ዋሊ (lit. the desert/monastery of Wali), “a plant brought from heaven by Christ.”
Hagiographic evidence suggests the monastery dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, most importantly from the hagiography of Abba Samuel of Wali (originally from Aksum, central Tigray), the founder of the monastery.
Even though its monastic cult was under the influences of other Tigray monasteries from Enderta, Temben, Shire, and Aksum (especially the Monastery of Debre Bonkol, where Abba Samuel received his monastic habit), Waldba remained as a symbol for a higher level of saintliness in Tigray, as well as in the whole of Ethiopia.
There are hundreds of Tigray monasteries, like the desert of Mizba‘(Mǝzba‘) in Eastern Tigray (Enderta) whose traditions of asceticism have long existed.
However, Waldba endured as vast and unique in various aspects; It is believed that there have been more than 18 sections of coenobitic communities from all over Ethiopia (mainly from Tigray), and Eritrea.
It is considered the largest Christian monastery and is regarded as a benchmark for ascetism in East Africa. Thousands of monks, as well as a few hundreds of nuns. are believed to live in the monastery.
Heterodox spiritual and theological traditions of Orthodox Christianity have been well established; concepts of prognostication, astral travel, etc are well developed. It is also believed to be the land of Sǝwuran (invisible monks). Abba Samuel (the founder) himself was considered to be a hermit rather than an abbot monk.
Medieval and early modern Ethiopian nobles and emperors visited this holy site to ask for a blessing; King Susenyos I is among the well-known kings to have made such a journey.
Not only is it a secluded region of retreat and meditation, but also known for theological hermeneutics, especially on the idea of Trinity. The accreditation provided to the monastery as a divine place where Lord Jesus and His Mother St. Mary stayed has been validated to be the home of strong tradition and treasury of irreplaceable heritage.
Moreover, when Ahmed b. Ibrahim al-Gazi, in the 16th century, assaulted numerous monasteries and churches including the Monastery of Debre Abay (on the other side of Tekeze), Waldba was not attacked, but it is not known why. Sadly the losses the monetary has endured in the current conflict are beyond our imagination.
Monks of Waldba, after their exile, in a congregation of supplication at Aksum
After a brief discussion with Prof. Kindeya (as Mekelle University president), Dr. Kelali Adhana, representing East Africa Astronomy Department (Addis Ababa), and I on behalf of St. Yared Center for Ethiopian Philology and Manuscript Studies (Mekelle University), decided to visit Waldba.
We wanted to do preliminary research on astronomy-related manuscripts from Waldba. We did not know if such manuscripts existed in the monastery, but we thought that “Waldba should preserve such precious texts.”
We decided to do primarily work on this well-known religious site; later we extended our survey to the Monastery of Samuel Qoyetsa, where we found one manuscript important to our purpose.
It was during springtime, some weeks after Easter that we left. As both had never been to the monastery, we were thrilled about the chance to tour this revered island of mysticism. Dr. Kelali arrived at the monastery a day before I did. I was not sure where to catch him as the telephone network didn’t work; of course, it was not because of war and siege, as exists today.
After traveling about 3 hours out of the main road, my assistant (from May Tsebri), who knows the area well, and I had to swim in River Ensya to cross and walked for more than 4 hours in the arid region until we reached the monastery.
Until we arrived at the centre of the cloister, we did not see anyone; we were overwhelmed with the disturbance of silence; everything is calm; only beautiful desert birds, with their catchy songs, and a mirage were visible.
It was both tranquil and frightening; as someone coming from the “worldly life” to this isolated realm of piety, one feels the soothingly but disturbing flow of mystical energy in the area, as well as the monastic tradition.
When we finally arrived at one part of the monastery I saw a young monk coming towards us. He treeted us by nodding his head without saying a word. I didn’t know then, but he he was fetching us from an open-air gate. Most of the monks were meditating in their allocated sites.
About three hundred meters from the gate, groups of monks were doing their respective duties: numerous monks but hushed. After we met Dr. Kelali, I was sure we had reached our destination.
Despite my prior experiences in other monasteries of Tigray, I was perplexed and lost my confidence.
After they washed our legs, they gave us Qwarf- their primary food mixed with roasted banana. It was one of the sourest meals I have ever eaten. I was challenged as it is not a good manner to say “no!” according to their customs.
It was not fasting season, but they used to eat very little. The hardship was unimaginable. It was also tough for us, despite the fact that they gave us special treatment.
When the Orion and other star constellations were depicted in the clear sky during the night, I was contemplating my childhood, as we used to count the stars when sleeping outside, as well as our mission to try to find manuscripts of astronomy.
One of the libraries of the monastery was not far from our dwelling area, but as the librarian monk who had the key had gone to visit other monks in a different part of the monastery.
The manuscript collection was housed in a library on a different site. It was an unidentified part of the monastery; designed to keep them safe. We had to wait for the librarian in the hope that he would come. We were lucky to wait only for three days in the sacred, but challenging place of these spiritual fathers. Throughout those days we attended saw their traditions and interviewed and held general discussion with some of the monks; most of whom spoke Tigrigna.
Waldba has preserved a big manuscript collection, but they only showed us a limited number of manuscripts, and none of them were important to our objective.
Based on some experiences in the manuscript collection in Tigray (and in other parts of Ethiopia), there could be three reasons for this. 1) They don’t have such manuscripts; 2) those specific manuscripts were in other sections of the monastery, and they didn’t know where they are; 3) they didn’t trust us and they didn’t tell us the truth, which is a common phenomenon.
All of these reasons are justifiable; especially the last one, as these treasures have been looted in different ways. Researchers and tourists can introduce new traditions, which sometimes unintentionally vandalize their spiritual way of life. Also, monastic communities are suspicious of city people.
We had left without a single manuscript. Despite our temporary failure, we were excited that we had visited such a special monastery. Had we predicated this tragic and destructive war, we would have begged the monks to digitize the whole collection. Perhaps we might have had a chance to save the thousands of manuscripts we have lost today.
Discussion with a monk in Waldba (Photo: Haftom Tesfay 2017), and returning from Waldba to May-tsebri after crossing Ensia (Photo: Hagos Abrha Abay 2017)
The monk you see in the picture was among those who were willing to talk to us. He told us that he had a wife and a son; he joined the monkhood life after his wife died; conversing on his personal life.
“How many monks are in this monastery?” we asked. “They are a lot, but we don’t know the real number; there are also many Sǝwuran, invisible monks” the monk replied.
We continued to ask him if there were monks who were members of the Derg Regime and asked for asylum there. He replied that it is true, but he was not sure who they were or where they were. It was also difficult to ask detailed questions about such issues.
The monks are happier to tell you about the futility of the world and the spiritual relief in the monastery. I have been to many churches and monasteries in Tigray (mainly for manuscript assessment).
Most of the monasteries are on hilltops. The topography is mesmerizing; the environment’s fresh wind, the monk’s authentic spirit, and their lifestyle, the artistic design of the rock-hewn church paintings, and the epistemological and aesthetic value of the illuminated Ge‘ez manuscripts make me nostalgic for Tigray.
The same is true of the Monastery of Waldba.
Although my stay in Waldba was brief, my memory of the three days stay is intense: as though I had lived there for a longer time.
I feel strongly attached to it. I was deeply touched by the peace and calm; the spiritual and faithful, humble, and stable Waldba monks who have now been persecuted, exiled, and hunted.
Besides other bad news from Tigray, I was more devastated to hear such shocking news. No one could be as innocent as the spiritual monks of Waldba; what else a better status than a Waldba monk should someone have to get protected in a political(non-religious) war?
Most of the monks are not ethnically conscious. However, as this was a genocidal invasion, monks of Tigrayan origin were targeted, and their heritages devastated.
Tigray Crises, and the Monastery of Waldba
After the members of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, in collaboration with Amhara forces and Eritrean Defense Forces, controlled they area of Tselemti, they have massacred several civilians in the two sides of Tekeze. They also damaged and shelled churches, monasteries, and their tangible heritages.
The monasteries of Debre Abay, Samuel Qoyetsa, Waldba are among those that were attacked.
Previously we had reports of the destruction of Tigrayan heritage, but we have now received fresh updates on Waldba.
The invading Eritrean and Ethiopian forces attacked the monastery on March 21, 2021.
The monk’s homes, food stores, manuscript libraries (most of them constructed by the monks themselves) in the middle of the monastery were burned and destroyed.
Dimtsi Weyane Television (DWT) broadcast an interview with the monks who returned to the monastery after the Tigray forces recaptured the area.
According to the monks’ (including the librarian himself) report, more than 3000 Ge‘ez manuscripts were looted and burned.
More than 300 crosses made of gold, silver and wood were looted and destroyed. Other church heritages and ecclesiastical materials were vandalized.
The food stored inside the houses was poisoned; several monkeys died of the poison after eating the poisoned meals; their skulls were clearly visible in the footage.
Ruined Manuscripts’ Library of Waldba (Photo Courtesy: Dimtsi Weyane Television 2022)
This was not just the destruction of our heritage: monks of “Tigrayan origin” were singled out and persecuted.
There is a powerful tradition of sanctuary and sanctity of religious sights in Ethiopian culture. Hence the safety members which members of the Derg received – something I discovered when I had an interview with a monk in 2017. He explained that members of Derg Regime were using the monastery as a haven to rescue themselves during the 1980s war crises in Ethiopia. It is also a known story in Ethiopia.
This is not unique to Waldba. Ethiopian monasteries and churches have never been targets of war, unless it was a religious war.
During the current Tigray crises, hundreds of churches were targeted, thousands of civilians were killed.
Thousands of women were sexually abused or killed, including hundreds of religious leaders (including monks and nuns).
The number of monks massacred in Waldba are not yet well known.
“They are a lot; we have buried more than 13 [monks]; we don’t know who is living and who is lost. We are counting 12, 13 for those whom we buried; otherwise, there are many unidentified dead bodies.”
The monks are mourning their loss. Most of them were not aware of the present war.
Abba Gebresilassie, one of the monks, was said to have been killed while praying. Some were attacked during their travels to cities and other monasteries, especially around areas of Shire and Aksum. Abba Gebre Wahid was known to die during his travel and was buried at Aksum.
Destabilized Monks of Waldba in Shire (Photo: Tsegaziab Kidane 2021)
The Monastery of Mer‘awe Kirstos (North-western Tigray) is another known monastery on top of a stunning mountain in the middle of the vast wilderness of Hirmi.
This monastery is known for preserving illuminated medieval manuscripts and treasured Christian ornaments.
Its strong monastic tradition demonstrated the unique lifestyle of the monks; the humility they showed to us when we visit the monastery in 2016, is always in mind.
The monastery of Mer‘awe Kirstos was attacked by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and Amhara forces before the monks of Waldba were expelled from their monastery.
More than 50 civilians (10 of the members of the clergy) were reported of a massacre, and rare manuscripts and Christian heritages were looted. However, this monastery became an area of asylum for the destabilized monks of Waldba.
A few “non-Tigray origin monks” of Waldba were said to have, indirectly, supported the brutal soldiers who attacked Waldba. It is a tragic example of monks being attacked by monks.