Monasteries have always played an important role in the Ethiopian Church since the introduction of monasticism, traditionally associated with the Nine Saints, and the oldest monasteries in the country are held to have been founded by them. The famous monastery of Dabra Damo, north-east of the ancient capital of Aksum, was founded by Za-Mika'el 'Aragawi at the beginning of the sixth century. Built atop a flat-topped plateau, or amba, with near vertical sides, it is even today only accessible to people who are hauled up with ropes. It was, however, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that saw the greatest expansion in Ethiopian monasticism under the leadership of some of Ethiopia's most illustrious saints, such as 'Iyasus Mo'a, Takla Haymanot, 'Ewostatewos and Basalota Mika'el. 'Iyasus Mo'a (d. c.1292), who was at first a member of the monastic community at Dabra Damo, later founded the famous monastery of Dabra Hayq, on an island in the middle of Lake Hayq, near the edge of the eastern escarpment. From here other monasteries were established, such as the most renowned of Ethiopia's houses, that of Dabra Libanos founded by Takla Haymanot, who was a pupil of 'Iyasus Mo'a. Incidentally, the word dabr, which figures in the name of almost all monasteries, is used to describe both a monastery and a large church, and its original meaning of 'mountain' in Ge'ez doubtless reflects the preferred location for monasteries and churches. Larger monasteries are called gadam, a term which in Ge'ez also meant 'wilderness'.

Today, monastic houses in Ethiopia fall into two traditions, that of Takla Haymanot and that of 'Ewostatewos. Both traditions, however, base their organization on the Rule of Pachomius. Just before the revolution of 1974, it was estimated that there were over 800 establishments for men, often linked with one for women. Many of these were very small, with a dozen and a half or fewer members, though the very largest monasteries housed several hundred monks and nuns.

As in other orthodox traditions, Ethiopian monasteries can be divided into coeno-bitic communities that favour communal life, and those that emphasize the idiorrhyth-mic or individual ascetic way of life. It is additionally not uncommon for a monk or nun, living in a coenobitic community, to decide to withdraw from communal life and move away from the monastery. Traditionally, this retreat would be into an uninhabited and remote place, but since the latter part of the twentieth century there has been a movement for individual monks or nuns to establish themselves in towns and cities, while still maintaining their monastic and religious life. Ethiopian monasticism shows a remarkable degree of flexibility in respect of how an individual elects to pursue his or her calling, or indeed when they enter or leave a monastic community. Whilst many individuals may enter a monastery while still young, and traditionally children could be dedicated to the monastic life by their parents as part of a vow, others become monks or nuns only late in life, typically after being widowed. Larger monastic communities are governed by an elected council, or guba'e, 'synod', which in turn elects an abbot or mamhar, a term which also means 'teacher'. In the past, the appointment of abbots to the largest and most prestigious monasteries needed the approval of the emperor. The process of becoming a monk falls into three stages: after a period of novitiate which may last several years, the three vows of obedience, chastity and poverty are taken in succession, and at each stage the monk is invested firstly with the belt or girdle, qanat, a band wound round the waist and crossing the chest to make a cross pattern, secondly with the cap, qob, and lastly with the scapular, askema, usually made of braided leather and decorated with twelve crosses.

Monasteries have always been seen as the centres of Christian learning in Ethiopia, and many of the schools of higher learning are located either in or adjacent to monasteries. These higher schools fall into three brackets: the Zema Bet, or school of religious music and chant, the Qane Bet, or school of religious poetry, and the Mashaf Bet, or school of religious commentary. Particular monasteries have reputations as the preferred school for different studies, Dabra Warq, for instance, in the former province of Gojjam being famous as one of the best centres for the study of religious poetry. Monasteries have also been the repositories of valuable manuscripts, some dating back to as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and other works of religious art, such as metal processional crosses, thuribles and royal crowns, as well as icons and wall paintings. Often circumstances do not provide the ideal conditions for the proper conservation of such objects, and today there is much concern about the damage being suffered by these works of art.

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