Articles in this series:
Series: Dynastic Marriages
Imperial Dynastic Marriages and the Beta Esra’el, or Falashas
Dynastic marriage for at least the last half millennium, for which relatively good documentation is available, played a major, and well-attested, role in Ethiopian political life. Imperial rulers effected a number of important dynastic and other unions which freely transcended divisions of religion, ethnicity and class.
The early sixteenth century Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares, generally a reliable informant, writing of the Shewa-based Christian monarchs prior to the reign of Emperor Na’od (1494-1506), claimed that they “always had five or six wives”. These were chosen, he says, from among “the daughters of the neighbouring Moorish [i.e. Muslim] kings”.
Hadeya and Oromo
One of the most important inter-religious and inter-ethnic marriages of this period took place during the reign of Emperor Ba’eda Maryam (1468-1478), who effected a dynastic union with Ite Jan Zela, the daughter of Garad Mehmad, a Muslim ruler of Hadeya. Converted to Christianity she later became better known as Empress Eleni, the author of two Ge’ez works on theology, the Regent for her grandson Emperor Lebna Dengel, and a stateswoman, who, fearing the advance of the Ottomon Turks, took the imaginative and historic step of opening up relations with the Portuguese.
The Ethiopian State’s involvement in inter-religious and inter-ethnic unions found no less important expression some two and a half centuries later when another great woman Regent, Empress Mentewwab, of Gondar, arranged for her son, Emperor Iyasu II (1730-1755) to marry Wobit, the daughter of Amizo, an Oromo (or Galla) leader from Yajju. The Scottish traveller James Bruce, who visited the country only a generation or so later , claims that their half-Oromo son Emperor Iyo’as (1755-1769) brought many of his mother’s Oromo kinsmen to his court, with the result that “in an instant nothing was heard in the palace but Galla”, i.e. Afan Oromo, and Emperor Iyo’as himself “affected to speak nothing else”. A no less significant dynastic marriage took place between Mentewwab’s daughter,. Wayzero Altash, and Dajazmach Walda Hawaryat, the son of Ras Mika’el Sehul, the great eighteenth century ruler of Tegray.
There is reason to suppose that beside such important, and well documented, dynastic unions connected with the ruling house there were many other inter -religious and inter-ethnic marriages among the lesser nobility and peasantry which were also politically significant, but passed unrecorded.
In this and the two following articles we will examine how far the Beta Esra’el, or Falashas, fitted into the prevailing Ethiopian pattern of inter-religious royal marriage.
Emperor Sarsa Dengel and Emabet Harago of Samen
Contacts between the Ethiopian State, which was based on Shawa in the centre of the empire, and the Beta Esra’el, who lived for the most part in the far north-west of it, were for reasons of geography, fairly restricted until the late sixteenth century. It was then, during the reign of Emperor Minas (1559-1563) that the move of the imperial capital from Shawa to the Lake Tana area, brought the imperial rulers into more direct contact with some of the more important areas of Falasha settlement in and around the high and rugged Samen mountains. The Beta Esra’el country, despite its proximity, was, however, far from easy of access, or conquest.
The first Ethiopian ruler to establish himself firmly in the north-west of the country was Minas’s brother, the great Emperor Sarsa Dengel, also known as Malak Sagad (1563-1597), who, it is interesting to recall, had a Falasha, or probably more correctly ex-Falasha wife from Samen. The scholarly Jesuit Pero Paes, who was in Ethiopia at the time, expressly states in his History that she was a “newly converted Christian” of a Judaic background. Believed to have been a sister of Gedewon, the notable Beta Esra’el ruler of Samen, she is referred to in the royal chronicles of the time by the title Emabet or Tegazanyi (honorific titles perhaps the equivalent to Princess), and is variously called Harago or Haragwe, perhaps an abbreviation of Haraga Amlak, i.e. Creeper, or Plant, of God. The union of Sarsa Dengel and Harago, which we must now consider, was on the face of things scarcely less important than the above-mentioned marriages of Ba’eda Maryam and Jan Zela or of Iyasu and Wobit.
Whether the Sarsa Dengel-Harago union was a dynastic union in the normal sense of the word may be a matter of debate. The Jesuits, with their implicit and explicit preoccupation with monogamy, regarded Harago merely as the Emperor’s “concubine”. Several later scholars have therefore tended to dismiss her as a person of little consequence. Her assumed position as sister to the Samen Beta Esra’e leader Gedewon would, on the other hand, suggest that she was a person of some significance, at least locally, in her own right, as was the case of the consorts, official or unofficial, of more than one other Ethiopian ruler. Harago’s role as mother to several of the Emperor’s sons would moreover have given her prominence, and would by itself have justified her being accorded the above-mentioned titles of Emabet and Tegazanyi, if not that of Etege, or Queen.
Emabet Harago, like Jan Zela and Wobit, was not the Emperor’s first or principal wife: Sarsa Dengel’s official consort was Maryam Sena, a woman of Orthodox Christian descent. Harago, we would reiterate, was nevertheless a woman of by no means negligible status: in part because of her believed descent from the ruling Falasha dynasty, and in part because of her apparently long-standing relationship with the Emperor, which caused her to bear him at least four sons. (Whether there were also any daughters is not recorded).
The tie between Sarsa Dengel and Gedewon’s alleged sister Harago, like several dynastic arrangements in Ethiopian history, did not produce peace between the parties concerned, in this case the Ethiopian Christian empire and the Beta Esra’el leadership. The Emperor in fact fought a major, and later well-documented, war against Harago’s Falasha kinsmen. His ties with Harago may, however, have led him to afford Gedewon some personal protection, as Steven Kaplan has suggested. Suspicion of this arises from a curious passage in the royal chronicle, which records that the Beta Esra’el leader, at the close of a disastrous battle, escaped with fifteen armed men, and passed, supposedly unobserved, through the armies of two of the Emperor’s principal commanders. The chronicler protests, at perhaps more than reasonable length, that if anyone asserted that Gedewon and his party had been recognised, and knowingly allowed to escape, such allegation was totally false.
Mother of Four Sons
Be that as it may, Harago was the mother , as we have seen, of four sons by Sarsa Dengel, and this was later a matter of considerable political importance in that Maryam Sena reportedly had given birth only to daughters. This was a great moment towards the end of the reign when the question of the royal succession came to be considered.
The fact that Harago was not Sarsa Dengel’s official consort – but only , as the Jesuits assert, a “concubine” – was, it should be emphasised, entirely irrelevant to the succession issue. This was later clearly, and correctly, stated by James Bruce, who, rebutting any suggestion that “illegitimate sons” had “no right to succeed to the crown”, observes that any such idea was “absolutely contrary to truth”, for in matters of royal succession “no sort of difference” was ever made in Ethiopia between legitimate and illegitimate sons. Harago’s sons were thus fully entitled be considered for the throne, which, as we shall see, one of them duly attained.
We may conclude that Harago, though mentioned only in passing in our records,and, like so many of her community an apparent convert to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, deserves a significant place in Beta Esra’el biography and history. Thanks to her, Ethiopia was soon to have an Emperor of half-Falasha descent.
Towards the end of his life Sarsa Dengel, having, as we have seen, no male heir by Maryam Sena, is said to have contemplated giving the royal inheritance to his nephew Za-Dengel. The latter was the son of the Emperor’s brother ABetahun Lesan Krestos. Shortly before his death, however, Sarsa Dengel, if we can believe Pero Paes, was brought his son by Harago, a child called Za-Krestos, whom he had never previously seen. Moved by his love for the infant the ageing monarch reportedly started to show less honour to his nephew Za-Dengel, whom he made to stand, and, no longer sit, as formerly, in his presence. He also began to criticise his nephew behind his back, saying that he lacked the strong personality which Ethiopia then required of its ruler.
The chief courtiers of the realm, according to Paes, quickly understood their master’s new way of thinking. Not to displease him it had long been their custom to agree with whatever he said. They therefore now began to praise the young half-Falasha Za-Maryam, and showed the Emperor that they wished to have his son as heir to the kingdom. Za-Dengel was in this way soon almost entirely excluded from court activities.
This state of affairs lasted, however, for only about six months, at the end of which Za-Maryam suddenly died. Sarsa Dengel, Paes tells us, was much shocked by his son’s death, and regarded it as a Divine punishment for what he had done to poor Za-Dengel, whom he thereupon once again befriended.
Next Week:A Succession Crisis, and the Advent of Ethiopia’s half-Falasha Emperor.