A Hidden Jewel in Jerusalem, the Story of an Eastern Ethiopian Orthodox Nun

A Hidden Jewel in Jerusalem, the Story of an Eastern Ethiopian Orthodox Nun August 5, 2023

A resident of Jerusalem’s Ethiopian Eastern Orthodox Kidane Mehret Church (Convent of Mercy) since 1984, Emahoy Tsege Maryam Gebru, composer and musician passed away in March 2023 just a few months before her 100th birthday. (Photo Credit: Emahoy Tsege Maryam Gebru Music Foundation)

From the aristocratic life of Haile Selassie’s regime to a cloistered nun, this is the story of Emahoy Tsege Maryam Gebru

Yewubar (Amharic meaning ‘most beautiful one‘) Gebru was born in Addis Ababa on December 12, 1923 to a wealthy, aristocratic Ethiopian family.  Her father, Kentiba Gebru was the mayor of Gondar and Vice President of Ethiopia’s first parliament. Yewubar’s mother was from the family of Emperor Haile Selassie’s second wife.

At the age of five, along with her older sister, Yewubar was sent to study in Switzerland. It’s claimed they were the first two Ethiopian girls educated in Europe.

While studying in Switzerland, Yewubar was introduced to Western Music. She even studied the violin. And after attending her first live concert, she was thunderstruck by the beauty and  power of the piano. She immediately taught herself some basics before moving on to regular piano lessons.

Feeling alienated and suffering years of separation from her beloved mother and father, Yewubar said, “Loneliness grew up with me like a childhood friend.”

Later in her life she would compose several pieces to express the deep loneliness of her soul. Her music was described as having a sense of melancholy.

“Homesickness,” One  “Mother’s Love” Two  and “The Song of the Sea” Three are three compositions embedded with the sadness of her heart, the longing for her family.


Return to Addis Ababa and the Italian Invasion

Living in the world of high society before and after World War II, Yewubar broke many barriers. She worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a translator and secretary. She often drove automobiles and loved the glamorous fashions of the time. Date of photo unknown. (Photo Credit:Buda Musique)

In 1934, at the age of 11 Yewubar and her sister left Switzerland and returned to Addis Ababa. However, two years later tragedy would strike all of Ethiopia. In 1936, Benito Mussolini invaded her country and unfortunately the Italians at times were exceptionally ruthless.

Three of Yewubar’s brothers were executed and she along with other family members were forced into exile. For the next three years she lived in an Italian detention camp on the island of Asinara.

The experience of war and personal loss is the theme of her composition, “Ballad of the Spirits.” Four

After five years of occupation, the Italians eventually left Ethiopia. Yewuar returned home to Addis Ababa with the rest of her family.

Proficient in several languages, Yewubar found work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a secretary (the first woman to hold that position) and translator. On top of that, she drove automobiles which was a profound rarity when most Ethiopians traveled by cart and horse.

In a 2017 interview with Kate Molleson for the BBC, Yewubar (known by the honorific title of Emahoy) said, “Even in my teenage years, I would say, ‘What is the difference between boys and girls? They are equal.

You can listen to the April 2017 audio interview from the BBC where Kate Molleson refers to Yewubar, (now known as Emahoy) as ‘The Honky Tonk Nun.”  BBC 2017 Interview

Off to Cairo to study with Polish violinist, Alexander Kontorowicz

In the mid 1940s fate brought Yewubar to Cairo where she studied with the noted Polish violinist, Alexander Kontorowicz. Four hours a day she practiced the violin and five hours a day she studied the piano.

But the relentless sun and the intense heat did not suit Yewubar. She longed for the cooler air of her Ethiopian homeland.

She convinced Alexander to return to Addis Ababa with her.

As fortune enveloped him, Kontorowicz was appointed musical director for Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Body Guard’s Band.

From the October 30 1948 edition of the New York Times, a review of Alexander Kontorowicz’s first recital in New York’s Town Hall. The article explains he studied in Poland, Russia and Germany. After touring through Europe he was appointed concert violinist to the King of Egypt. When he arrived in Ethiopia he was appointed court violinist to Emperor Haile Selassie. Although this review was less than enthusiastic, there’s mention of how Kontorowicz was influenced by Ethiopian melodies and chord structure. (Photo Credit: New York Times Archives)

Yewubar was so talented that she received a full scholarship to study at the prestigious and world-renowned Royal Academy of Music in London, England.

However, Emperor Haile Selassie intervened and denied her an exit visa.

With her spirit broken, unable to sleep, refusing all food except for a daily cup of coffee, bedridden for two weeks and in hospital on the edge of death, the secular Yewubar asked for an Ethiopian Eastern Orthodox priest.

After receiving the priest’s blessings and last rites, Yewubar fell into a 12-hour peaceful slumber.

In a state of tranquility, having left her desires and wants behind, Yewubar left the world.

Her life was forever changed.

Yewubar transforms into Emahoy Tsege Maryam Gebru

She left the world, She went to the Gishen Mariam monastery in northern Ethiopia. She cut her hair and for the next ten years she went barefoot and slept on a dried mud bed. (Photo: Buda Musique)

Now in her early 20s, Yewubar made her way up the mountains to a remote corner of the Wollo Province in northern Ethiopia.

There she entered the mountain top Gishen Mariam monastery.

For the next ten years she abandoned her music and lived a cloistered life of prayer, meditation and solitude.

Head shaven, no longer wearing shoes, sleeping on a dried mud bed and living in isolation, Yewubar transformed into Emahoy (meaning Sister) Tsege Maryam Gebru.

Ten years later when the Archbishop of the Gishen Mariam Monastery passed away, Emahoy returned to her mother’s home in Addis Ababa.

Now in her thirties, remaining faithful to her religious vows, Emahoy returned to her music.

She wanted to know if she would experience once again that thrill of her hands on the piano keys.

And to her delight, music flowed from her fingertips.

Her years of contemplation, prayer and solitude brought out meditative sounds and reflections of monastery chants and melodies.

When interviewed in 2017 Emahoy said, “It was His willing.” She added, “I didn’t want to be famous, really. I asked God that my name be written on Heaven, not on Earth.”


Notation of her music written in Emahoy’s own hand. Her compositions were a blend of Western and Ethiopian melodies and musical phrasing. Her work was influenced by her love of Chopin and Mozart, Beethoven and Saint Yared, a sixth-century composer of liturgical chants of the Ethiopian Church. See this link for more details  Saint Yared Liturgical Chants  (Photo Credit: Snapshot/Instagram)

In the early 1960s, Emahoy and her mother visited Jerusalem.  Emahoy fell in love with the city and remained there for several years working as an interpreter for the Ethiopian Patriarchate.

Also in the 1960s, Emahoy traveled to Germany where many of her compositions were recorded. According to a studio technician, the piano she played for the recording was once used by Mozart.

The royalties from her 1967 German album entitled “Spielt Eigene Kompositionen” (Playing her own compositions) were donated to Ethiopian charities. Throughout the 1960s and 70s Emahoy continued to record a series of albums with the bulk of royalties donated to the homeless in her native land.

In 1974, a coup toppled Emperor Haile Selassie. This  ended the Ethiopian Monarchy. Anyone who participated in the royal court, anyone deemed close to the Emperor was under suspicion and carefully monitored.

With her religious beliefs under attack during the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam and after the passing of her mother, Emahoy left Ethiopia in 1984 to permanently live in Jerusalem, Israel.

The Last Chapter of Emahoy’s life, 30 years in Jerusalem’s Debre Genet Monastery

In the heart of Western Jerusalem along the narrow Ethiopia Street is the Debre Genet Monastery (aka Monastery of Paradise). Within the monastery complex is the Kidane Mehret Church (aka Covenant of Mercy).

According to Ethiopic traditional belief, the Covenant of Mercy refers to the promise Jesus made to his Divine Mother that he would forgive the sins of anyone who seeks her intersession.

An essential characteristic of Ethiopian liturgy and faith is their love and adoration of the Blessed Virgin as their own mother.

Many Ethiopian Eastern Orthodox holidays celebrate the Blessed Mother including the annual Feast of Our Lady of the Covenant of Mercy on the 24th of February.

Jerusalem can experience a once or twice-a-year wintry dusting of snow. This photo looks down onto the Debre Genet Monastery. The round structure in the middle is the Kidane Mehret Church. Located in the heart of West Jerusalem, Emahoy lived here from 1984 until her passing at the end of March 2023. (Photo Credit: Yehuda Austin 2013)

When Emahoy first arrived in Jerusalem she faced several years of harassment concerning her music. Living in a small room in the monastery dormitory, her space was filled with photographs, original artwork and bags of her music.

When she received a piano as a gift from relatives living in the United States, several of the Jerusalem nuns complained that the hours of Emahoy’s practicing interfered and distracted from their monastic life.

Emahoy proclaimed, “You can praise God with any instrument.


The hands of the elderly Emahoy practicing on her piano in her little room at the Debre Genet Monastery. (Photo Credit:Emahoy Tsege Maryam Gebru Music Foundation)

“We can’t always choose what life brings, but we can choose how to respond” – Emahoy Tsege Maryam Gebru


In the world of Ethiopian music, there is the legendary “Éthiopiques Collection” produced by Francis Falcetto.

In 2006, Falcetto released a collection of Emahoy’s music and compositions.

Maya Dunietz, an Israeli pianist and musicologist was completely entranced.

She contacted her friend, Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov. They wanted to meet Emahoy and decided to track her down.  It was easier than they imagined and the three shared a wonderful meeting, filled with music, respect and dialogue.

Two years later, it was Emahoy who contacted Maya Dunietz.

Emahoy was obviously getting older. She had four large bags of manuscripts that needed to be organized and archived. Emahoy suggested collaborating with Maya Dunietz.

Maya was thrilled and quickly agreed to the collaboration.

In 2013, Dunietz put together a special tribute to Emahoy within the “Jerusalem Season of Culture” events. Among the festivities Maya Dunietz presented the very first publication, an anthology of Emahoy’s piano pieces in sheet music form.

Along with the local events, Dunietz also arranged a series of international concerts that included well respected musicians, singers and the Ethiopian Church Choir.

Below is a link to a video of Ethiopian Israeli singer Ester Rada performing with Ethiopian singer Hiwot Mekonnen on December 11, 2013, at Jerusalem’s beautiful YMCA auditorium on King David Street. Ester and Hiwot sang (in both Amharic and Hebrew) “Our Father, The Lord’s Prayer” as composed by Emahoy.

The video clip includes rare footage of Emahoy Tsege Maryam Gebru.

Ester Rada & Hiwot Mekonnen Tribute to Emahoy


Emahoy at her piano at the Debre Genet Monastery in Jerusalem. (Photo Credit: Gali Tivon, published in Haaretz)

Nick named, Ethiopia’s ‘Piano Queen,’ Emahoy remained faithful to her religion and her God inspired music.

She passed away at the end of March 2023, just a few months short of her 100th birthday.

Her legacy of musical composition lives on through those who are devoted to her passion and talent.

Her funeral was held in the Kidane Mehret Church at the beginning of April. She was laid to rest within the Monastery of Paradise compound.

You can listen to more of her music at this Youtube link: Emahoy Music Selection on Youtube


Emahoy’s funeral in the Kidane Mehret Church in West Jerusalem. Many articles have been published since the passing of Emahoy. Here is the link to the Times of Israel obituary dated the 2nd of April 2023 Times of Israel Obituary (Photo Credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Please note: The name and likeness of Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru are trademarks of The Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Foundation. The Foundation, a self-financed nonprofit, funds music programs that benefit underserved children in the U.S. and Ethiopia. To support this mission, Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Publisher preserves Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru’s musical compositions and manuscripts, generating revenue for The Foundation. www.emahoymusicpublisher.com

My sincere gratitude to Executive Director Tania Adams of the The Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Foundation. Thank you.

(Please note: the spelling of Emahoy’s name takes on several forms. Some refer to her as Sister Guebrou, and others refer to her as Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Others spell her last name as Gebru)

Thank you Maria Negroni who jogged my memory and became the catalyst for this article.

to be continued….








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