Ethiopia is the oldest Christian country in the world, having accepted Christianity as its state religion early in the 4th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church belongs to the five non-Chalcedonian or monophysite churches and traditionally is closely linked to the Coptic church of Egypt. From the Middle East, the orthodox tradition of contemplative monasticism and radical asceticism came to Ethiopia with the ‘nine saints’ of the 5th century. Nowhere in the world have Christian asceticism and mysticism survived as intact up to the present day as in Ethiopia and her bahitawis.
Bahitawi means, in the ancient Ethiopian language Ge’ez, ‘one who lives in the wilderness’. It is the name given to a certain type of monks who are most commonly found in the forests and caves near the monastery of Debre Libanos and near Lalibela in the central highlands of Ethiopia. Today’s estimated 7000 bahitawis are part of a long tradition that includes many of Ethiopia’s most revered saints, such as St. Tekle Haymanot and St. Gebre Menfes Kidus. But although these saints, whose lives are briefly outlined below, have set examples of holy, ascetic lives, every bahitawi lives according to his own individual calling. By definition, one cannot choose to become a bahitawi; one is called by God to a life of austerity and renunciation.
St. Gebre Menfes Kidus was born in northern Egypt, where he lived as an ascetic in the desert before being called by God to Ethiopia, to the mountain of Zuqwala near Debre Zeit. His hair was over 3 m or 10 ft long and his beard measured 45 cm or 1½ ft. His body was covered with hair; apart form this, he was naked. He neither drank water nor ate food, except occasionally some desert fruits or roots. He could fly on the winds and performed 40,000 prostrations (bowings) every day while reciting the 150 psalms of David and other scriptures. Lions and hyenas escorted him wherever he went. He had visions of God and the Trinity and was taken up to Heaven and back several times before he died around 1430, over 300 years old. His life was spent in prayer in order to release the souls of countless sinners from hell.
St. Tekle Haymanot was born in the 13th century in the central Ethiopian province of Shewa as son of a priest. His mother had long been barren, and the birth of her special son was prophesied by the archangel Michael. Zara Yohannes, as he was called then, performed miracles even as a child. As a young man he had a vision of Christ who told him to become a ‘fisher of souls’ and gave him powers to heal the sick and raise the dead. When his parents died, Tekle Haymanot gave away all his possessions and became a priest. He travelled to various holy places in Ethiopia and even to Jerusalem.
He performed 700 prostrations every night and could walk on water. He finally came to Gerarya, today Debre Libanos, where he founded the monastic order there and then entered a small cave, never to leave again. He fixed sharp knives to the walls of the cave that could pierce his body and remained standing there in prayer, without ever sitting down, for many years until one of his legs fell off. The saint continued his austerities on one foot until he died at the age of 99 and was buried in his cave.
Several characteristics of the bahitawis of Ethiopia are contained in these stories as recounted in the Meshafe Senkesar, the Book of Saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:
- Bahitawis are called to their lives as renunciates directly by God in visions. A bahitawi may be, but doesn’t necessarily have to be, a monk in one of the Ethiopian orders. Even today, men and sometimes women disappear from their workplaces or homes suddenly, leaving the world behind them.
- They usually wear dreadlocks – long, matted hair – and do not cut their fingernails. This is done as a sign that they do not care for their bodies, but only for the spirit. Bahitawis are Nazarites as described in the Bible in Numbers chapter 6. Many bahitawis never leave their caves, and as a consequence their bodies are wasted and very thin.
- They perform various, sometimes radical austerities. All bahitawis are monks. Most eat very little, often only a handful of chickpeas soaked in water or a handful of roasted wheat or barley per day. Some don’t eat anything at all for years, but live on the spirit alone. Some take vows of silence, others never sleep, but spend their nights in prayers, prostrations or meditation. Some stand upright for years, others sit in one spot without moving.
- As their name suggests, bahitawis usually live as hermits in caves, far away from all human contact. What little they eat is brought to them by the faithful who leave the food in a designated place. Bahitawis don’t normally attend mass or other religious functions, but may sneak into a church alone at night.
- The aim of all the austerities, deprivations and prayers it to save sinners from damnation. Bahitawis do not aspire to spiritual heights for themselves, but sacrifice their lives for the benefit of others.
- Bahitawis, both in ancient times and today, are known to perform miracles. They are not attacked by wild animals, may not be visible on a photo taken of them, or remain dry while walking in heavy rain.
The following stories of modern-day bahitawis show the individual character of each ascetic’s calling:
Bahitawi Gebre Medhin was born in the Amhara region of Ethiopia about 50 years ago. He entered a monastery as a child, then lived in a cave while still very young. After years of solitude, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary who told him to go to Shewa. He walked for hundreds of miles until he met a wolf who showed him a water spring on Entoto mountain above the capital Addis Ababa. But the priests of the church on that mountain chased him away, and he returned to his cave, only to have a second vision which again commanded him to go to Entoto. Once there, the priests confronted him again, until a serpent fell from the sky at their feet. Gebre Medhin prayed, ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God,’ and the serpent disappeared. Satisfied with this proof of his authenticity, the priests let him stay.
The spring proved to be ‘tsebel’ or holy water, which has healing properties. For the last 35 years, Gebre Medhin has been living on Mount Entoto, every morning ‘baptising’ hundreds of people with the holy water in a special compound near the spring which one is only allowed to enter after purifying oneself for a week and abstaining from sex, alcohol and cigarettes. After the morning ablutions with the ice-cold holy water and a prayer service, the faithful then have to drink, before taking in any food, five litres of the spring water. All manners of diseases, including AIDS, are said to have been healed in this way. Gebre Medhin also exorcises ‘devils’, and none of his helpers can spiritually control evil spirits as he can.
His personal power is at first disguised by his humble, unassuming appearance: He has no dreadlocks and always wears sandals and a simple training suit with the traditional white blanket and the small hand-held cross of a priest. He speaks gently and laughs a lot. Gebre Medhin plants wheat and teff (a kind of millet) on his fields and owns a herd of sheep. Every day his women followers prepare the traditional Ethiopian pancakes called injera and a lentil stew which he shares with the two dozen priests and laymen who join him for evening prayers at his humble home. He does this so naturally that one doesn’t notice at first that the bahitawi himself doesn’t eat anything but chickpeas soaked in water. He spends all night in prayer and meditation before getting up at 3 o’clock to perform the first ‘baptisms’ with the holy water.
A friend shared the following story of an encounter with a bahitawi: She was spending lent, the two months’ fast before Easter, in Addis Ababa, daily attending mass at St. Urael church. One day around noon, an ancient bahitawi with white locks that hung down to the ground entered the church compound. He was clad only in a loincloth; his body was extremely emaciated, and in his hands he held a Bible and a whip. It turned out later that he and two other hermits had walked to the capital from Lalibela, hundreds of miles to the north, after receiving visions. The bahitawi immediately began prophesying. He warned the faithful that they were only paying lip service instead of following the teachings of Christ. He chastised the priests as well as laymen for their worldly, unholy lifestyle and stressed that the end of days and the last judgement were near and that ones should repent and change their ways in order not to be damned to all eternity. He accentuated his prophecies by whipping himself on the back until streams of blood ran down his shoulders. The priests and congregation were all terrified. When the deacons offered him some food to calm him down, he flung it away, shouting that he would not partake in their sins, and sat down under a tree to read his Bible.
The two examples above show the spectrum of the bahitawis’ relationship to the church establishment: whereas Gebre Medhin is well-respected and often participates in church services in his area, the latter bahitawi went on direct confrontation course with the priests. Since bahitawis take their authority directly from God and do not need to answer to any abbot or bishop, they are mystics rather than religious practitioners. Even in the west, mystics and prophets such as St. Francis of Assisi have often criticised the church for its love of wealth and secular power. And yet, bahitawis such as Gebre Menfes Kidus are today revered as saints. The mystic bahitawi is the correction rod that keeps the established church from forgetting all its principles. He preaches in the tradition of Old Testament prophets and is often persecuted like them. During the reign of the current patriarch of Ethiopia, Abuna Paulos, many bahitawis have been imprisoned and even killed for criticising the church’s arrangements with the secular government of Ethiopia. The patriarch argues that bahitawis are hermits and have no business coming to the city to prophesy. They, however, follow God’s direct commandments in their visions undeterred by threats.
Bahitawis are given great respect in Ethiopia due to their austere lifestyle and their mystic calling. Their dreadlocks appearance is understood by the people as part of their spiritual lives which are truly ‘separated unto God’ in the tradition of the Nazarites. The difference between religious practice based on tradition and spiritual mysticism based on direct contact with God is clearly seen even in modern day Ethiopia. Whereas the Ethiopian Orthodox Church follows the worldwide trend to water down its principles in order to please its dwindling congregations, allowing the shortening of the fasts and the eating of fish while fasting as well as permitting women to enter the church in trousers, the bahitawis do not change or compromise.