There have been other Ethiopian figures from the fourteenth century with the name Giyorgis that have been confused with one another at various points. However, the author of the Maṣḥafa Mǝsṭir (“Book of Mystery”) has been considered by most to be Giyorgis of Sagla, or Gasecha. The Maṣḥafa Mǝsṭir provides minimal information about the life and ministry of Giyorgis. However, a fifteenth-century gadl—or “biography”—of Giyorgis provides more detailed information about his life. This volume presents the first English translation of the gadl of Giyorgis as well.
Giyorgis was born during the mid-fourteenth century in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia to a nobleman named Hezba Seyon and a woman from the Walaqa region named ʾEmmena Ṣeyon. Indeed, Giyorgis’ Christian father was renowned for his knowledge of the Bible, a trait that likely passed to Giyorgis. Hezba Seyon was a part of the imperial court and had connections to the chief priests in the capital city. It is perhaps for this reason, that Hezba Seyon was able to take Giyorgis to the abuna of Ethiopia to ordain Giyorgis as a deacon. However, Giyorgis is remembered in Ethiopian tradition as being slow to theological education in the beginning. Giyorgis’ father brought him to the famous monastic community at Lake Hayq, during the leadership of Śaraqa Berhan, the ʿAqabey Saʿāt (“Head Monk”) of the Estifanos Monastery. Giyorgis struggled academically and was very discouraged at first, for the rigorous Ethiopian monastic system of theological education relied on memorization of Scripture and theological writings.
However, Giyorgis continued to pray to the Virgin Mary, who appeared to him and counseled him to continue his study with diligence. Giyorgis had “little knowledge” of the Scriptures, a trait that was destined to highlight the glory of God who gave Giyorgis miraculous intelligence. The glory of ʾƎgziʾabḥer (“God”) would be manifest in spite of Giyorgis’ lack of intelligence, much like the blind man who was given sight for the glory of Jesus in John 9. The theological renown of Giyorgis resulted in his invitation to the imperial court. However, Giyorgis retired from the capital to take up the ascetic life in order to avoid the emperor’s constant attempts at betrothing Giyorgis to the princess. Nevertheless, Giyorgis remained a close advisor and mentor to the leadership of Ethiopia. He returned to his native Sagla and began to compose his own writings.
Other than the Maṣḥafa Mǝsṭir, the most famous composition of Giyorgis was his Saʿatat (“Hours”). Until this work from Giyorgis, the Ethiopian Church relied on the Coptic Horologion. Giyorgis adapted and expanded the Coptic liturgical hours to include indigenous Ethiopian saints that were absent from other liturgical compositions. Giyorgis also wrote the Arganon Weddāse (“Harp of Praise”), a hymn in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Ḫoḫǝta Bǝrhān (“Portal of Light”), the Wǝddāse Masqal (“Praise of the Cross”), a hymn in honor of the cross.
After his tenure at Lake Hayq, Giyorgis lived at the Debre Damo monastery where he eventually served as the Nebura Ed (“Chief Abbot”). Giyorgis educated the children of Emperor Dawit I (1382-1413 CE) and enjoyed the support of the Emperor for many years. However, this dynamic shifted when a theologian named Bitu began to teach a dissident theology from that of Giyorgis. Dawit eventually favored Bitu and the tension between the two theologians resulted in the imprisonment of Giyorgis. The Gadla Giyorgis claimed that Giyorgis’ imprisonment was due to false claims by Bitu that Giyorgis called the emperor a heretic.
During the time of Emperor Tewodros (1413-1414 CE) and Emperor Yeshaq (1414-1429 CE), Giyorgis was freed from prison and Bitu was struck dead by ʾƎgziʾabḥer. Giyorgis then continued the ascetic lifestyle at the famed Debra Damo monastery for a time and was then sent to Debra Libanos by Emperor Yeshaq. Much of Ethiopia was embroiled in a theological controversy regarding Sabbath observance during this time. The community of Debra Libanos embraced an opposing view of that of Giyorgis, which led to his departure from this monastic community. Giyorgis entered and eventually became the head of another monastery during the last years of his life.
Giyorgis became ill and died at 60 years old. It was during these years that he composed the Maṣḥafa Mǝsṭir with the aid of multiple scribes. He was buried in a church that he built in anticipation of his death, at the site of the martyrdom of the Ethiopian saint, ʾAbba Baṣlotä Mikaʾeyl. He died in the year 1424 CE during the reign of Emperor Yeshaq.
Vince L. Bantu
Giyorgis of Sagla, Maṣḥafa Mǝsṭir (Book of Mystery), ed. Yaqob Beyene, CSCO 515-516, 532-533, Scriptores aethiopici 89-90, 97-98 (Louvain : Secrétariat du SCO, 1990-1993). Vie de Georges de Saglā, ed. Gérard Colin, CSCO 492-493, Scriptores Aethiopici 81-82. (Louvain: Secrétariat du SCO, 1987).
This biography, received in February 2024, was written by Dr. Vince L. Bantu, the Ohene (President) of the Meachum School of Haymanot and Assistant Professor of Church History and Black Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.