Yekuno Amlak

The Ethiopian king Yekuno Amlak (reigned ca. 1268-1283) restored the Solomonic dynasty to the throne of Ethiopia after it had been held by the Zagwe dynasty for about 300 years.

Almost everything that has been written about Yekuno Amlak pertains to a single, central event in his life: his restoration of the Solomonic dynasty to the Ethiopian throne. The official royal chronicles were begun about this time, but until the next century these chronicles record little more than lists of names and tell us little about Yekuno Amlak's life. Much of what has been written about the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty was in fact written several centuries later and is largely apocryphal.

According to traditions in manuscripts written after the 13th century, the Solomonic kings, whose ancestry was traced back to Solomon and Sheba, had been ousted by a northern dynasty known as the Zagwe about the 10th century. However, the Solomonic kings managed to maintain their dynasty in the Shoa Province of central Ethiopia while the Zagwe ruled from Lasta in the north. Naakuto Laab, the successor of the most famous Zagwe king, Lalibela, was said to have been convinced by Takla Haymanot, head of the Ethiopian Church, that Zagwe rule could never be "purged from the stain and crime of usurpation." Naakuto Laab was then supposed to have voluntarily relinquished this throne to Yekuno Amlak, who was ruling Shoa as the last survivor of the Solomonic line.

This story of peaceful transfer of power is of course highly suspicious. Naakuto Laab and his heirs were to retain a sort of quasi-independence in a small section of Lasta; the Church was to receive for its efforts a third of the land in the entire country. Regardless of the exact details of these events, it is clear that the Church grew greatly in wealth and power from this time until the 16th century.

Little else is known about Yekuno Amlak's reign. He established his capital in Tegulet in Shoa and thus continued the historical movement of the center of the Ethiopian state to the south, while touching off what has been called the era of "roving capitals." By this time Amharic had replaced Geez, or Old Ethiopic, as the court language, though Geez continued to be used in the Church much like Latin in the Western Church. Friction with the neighboring Islamic states, which had kept Ethiopia isolated for almost 6 centuries, was growing, and Yekuno Amlak mounted some military campaigns against them. However, the main conflicts came much later.

Yekuno Amlak was succeeded by Yagbea Sion, who ruled from about 1283 or 1285 to 1294; and his grandson, Amda Sion (reigned 1314-1344), who finally consolidated the empire and began a period of major expansion.


Further Reading on Yekuno Amlak

Since nothing has been written specifically on the life of Yekuno Amlak, students must rely on general histories for information. Good surveys include Estelle S. Pankhurst, Ethiopia: A Cultural History (1955); Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians (1960; 2d ed. 1965); and Richard K.P. Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia, from Early Times to 1800 (1961). A rare but important traveler's account is the source of much of what modern historians have written on Yekuno: James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (5 vols., 1790); volume 1 contains a discussion of Ethiopian history based on what were then contemporary traditions.