Zara Yaqob

Zara Yaqob (Ge'ez: ዘርዐ ያዕቆብ)[nb 1]; 1399 26 August 1468) was Emperor of Ethiopia, and a member of the Solomonic dynasty who ruled under the regnal name Kwestantinos I (English: Constantine I), from the old province of Shewa, where the capital of the Amhara emperors was located before the post-16th-century Oromo migrations and the destructive war with Ahmad Gran. Born at Telq in the province of Fatajar (now part of the Amhara Region, near the Awash River), Zara Yaqob was the youngest son of Dawit I and his youngest wife, Igzi Kebra.

Zara Yaqob
Emperor of Ethiopia
PredecessorAmda Iyasus
SuccessorBaeda Maryam I
Died26 August 1468(1468-08-26) (aged 68–69)
HouseHouse of Solomon
ReligionOrthodox Tewahedo

The British expert on Ethiopia, Edward Ullendorff, stated that Zara Yaqob "was unquestionably the greatest ruler Ethiopia had seen since Ezana, during the heyday of Aksumite power, and none of his successors on the throne excepted only the emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie can be compared to him."[2]

Paul B. Henze repeats the tradition that the jealousy of his older brother Tewodros I forced the courtiers to take Zara Yaqob to Tigray where he was brought up in secret, and educated in Axum and at the monastery of Debre Abbay.[3] While admitting that this tradition "is invaluable as providing a religious background for Zara Yaqob's career", Taddesse Tamrat dismisses this story as "very improbable in its details." The professor notes that Zara Yaqob wrote in his Mashafa Berhan that "he was brought down from the royal prison of Mount Gishan only on the eve of his accession to the throne."[4]


Upon the death of Emperor Dawit, his older brother Tewodros ordered Zara Yaqob confined on Amba Geshen (around 1414). Despite this, Zara Yaqob's supporters kept him a perennial candidate for Emperor, helped by the rapid succession of his older brothers to the throne over the next 20 years, and left him as the oldest qualified candidate.[5] David Buxton points out the effect that his forced seclusion had on his personality, "deprived of all contact with ordinary people or ordinary life." Thrust into a position of leadership "with no experience of the affairs of state, he [Zara Yaqob] was faced by a kingdom seething with plots and rebellions, a Church riven with heresies, and outside enemies constantly threatening invasion." Buxton continues,

In the circumstances it was hardly possible for the new king to show adaptability or tolerance or diplomatic skill, which are the fruit of long experience in human relationships. Confronted with a desperate and chaotic situation he met it instead with grim determination and implacable ferocity. Towards the end of his life, forfeiting the affection and loyalty even of his courtiers and family he became a lonely figure, isolated by suspicion and mistrust. But, in spite of all, the name of this great defender of the faith is one of the most memorable in Ethiopian history.[6]

Although he became Emperor in 1434, Zara Yaqob was not crowned until 1436 at Axum, where he resided for three years.[7] It was not unusual for Ethiopian rulers to postpone their coronation until later in their reigns.

After he became Emperor, Zara Yaqob invaded the Hadiya Sultanate and forcefully married the captured princess Eleni, who was baptized before their marriage.[8] Eleni was the daughter of the king of Hadiya, one of the Muslim Sidamo kingdoms south of the Abay River. Although she failed to bear him any children, Eleni grew into a powerful political person. When a conspiracy involving one of his Bitwodeds came to light, Zara Yaqob reacted by appointing his two daughters, Medhan Zamada and Berhan Zamada, to these two offices. According to the Chronicle of his reign, the Emperor also appointed his daughters and nieces as governors over eight of his provinces. These appointments were not successful.[9]

He defeated Badlay ad-Din, the Sultan of Adal at the Battle of Gomit in 1445, which consolidated his hold over the Sidamo kingdoms in the south, as well as the weak Muslim kingdoms beyond the Awash River.[10] Similar campaigns in the north against the Agaw and the Falasha were not as successful.

After witnessing a bright light in the sky (which most historians have identified as Halley's Comet, visible in Ethiopia in 1456), Zara Yaqob founded Debre Berhan and made it his capital for the remainder of his reign.[11]

In his later years, Zara Yaqob became more despotic. When Takla Hawariat, abbot of Dabra Libanos, criticized Yaqob's beatings and murder of men, the emperor had the abbot himself beaten and imprisoned, where he died after few months. Zara Yaqob was convinced of a plot against him in 1453, which led to more brutal actions. He increasingly became convinced that his wife and children were plotting against him, and had several of them beaten. Seyon Morgasa, the mother of the future emperor Baeda Maryam I, died from this mistreatment in 1462, which led to a complete break between son and father. Eventually relations between the two were repaired, and Zara Yaqob publicly designated Baeda Maryam as his successor.

The Ethiopian church

At the time Zara Yaqob assumed the throne, the Ethiopian Church had been divided over the issue of Biblical Sabbath observance for roughly a century. One group, loyal to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, believed that the day of rest should be observed only on Sunday, or Great Sabbath; another group, the followers of Ewostatewos, believed with their founder that both the original seventh-day Sabbath (i.e., Saturday, or Lesser Sabbath) and Sunday should be observed.

He was successful in persuading two recently arrived Egyptian Abuna, Mikael and Gabriel, into accepting a compromise aimed at restoring harmony with the House of Ewostatewos, as the followers of Ewostatewos were known. At the same time, he made efforts to pacify the House of Ewostatewos. While the Ewostathians were won over to the compromise by 1442, the two Abuns only agreed to the compromise at the Council of Debre Mitmaq in Tegulet (1450).[12]

Emperor Zara Yaqob also continued as the defender of the Patriarch of Alexandria. When he heard in 1441 of the destruction of the Egyptian monastery of Debre Mitmaq by Sayf ad-Din Jaqmaq, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, he called for a period of mourning, then sent a letter of strong protest to the Sultan. He reminded Jaqmaq that he had Muslim subjects whom he treated fairly, and warned that he had the power to divert the Nile, but refrained from doing so for the human suffering it would cause. Jaqmaq responded with gifts to appease Zara Yaqob's anger, but refused to rebuild the Coptic churches he had destroyed.[13]

According to Richard Pankhurst, the Emperor was also "reputedly an author of renown", having contributed to Ethiopian literature as many as three important theological works. One was Mahsafa Berha "The Book of Light", an exposition of his ecclesiastical reforms and a defence of his religious beliefs; the others were Mahsafa Milad "The Book of Nativity" and Mahsafa Selassie "The Book of the Trinity".[14]

Foreign affairs

Zara Yaqob sent delegates to the Council of Florence in 1441, and established ties with the Holy See and Western Christianity.[15] They were confused when council prelates insisted on calling their monarch Prester John. They tried to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob's list of regnal names did that title occur. However, the delegates' admonitions did little to stop Europeans from referring to the monarch as their mythical Christian king, Prester John.[16]

He also sent a diplomatic mission to Europe (1450), asking for skilled labour. The mission was led by a Sicilian, Pietro Rombulo, who had previously been successful in a mission to India. Rombulo first visited Pope Nicholas V, but his ultimate goal was the court of Alfonso V of Aragon, who responded favorably.[17]

See also

  • Abba Saga, son of Zara Yaqob


  1. Translates to "Seed of Jacob"


  1. Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to the Country and People, second edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 69. ISBN 0-19-285061-X.
  2. Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 68. ISBN 1-85065-522-7
  3. Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 222 ISBN 0-19-821671-8
  4. Taddesse Tamrat, pp. 278–283.
  5. David Buxon, The Abyssinians (New York: Praeger, 1970), pp. 48f
  6. Taddesse Tamrat, p. 229.
  7. Hassen, Mohammed. Oromo of Ethiopia with special emphasis on the Gibe region (PDF). University of London. p. 22.
  8. Richard K. P. Pankhurst, The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles (Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 32f.
  9. His war against Badlay is described in the Royal Chronicles (Pankhurst, pp. 36-38).
  10. The founding of Debre Berhan is described in the Royal Chronicles (Pankhurst, pp. 36–38).
  11. Taddesse Tamrat, p. 230.
  12. Taddesse Tamrat, pp. 262–3
  13. Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 85. Edward Ullendorff, however, attributes to him only the Mahsafa Berha and Mahsafa Milad.
  14. "Zare'a Ya'eqob, Ethiopia, Orthodox". Archived from the original on 6 August 2016. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  15. Silverberg, Robert, The Realm of Prester John, Ohio University Press, 1996 (paperback edition) ISBN 1-84212-409-9, p. 189
  16. Taddesse Tamrat, p. 264f

Further reading

Krebs, Verena (2019). "Crusading threats? Ethiopian-Egyptian relations in the 1440s". Croisades en Afriqe. Presses universitaires du Midi. pp. 245–274. ISBN 978-2810705573.

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