Articles in this series:
Series: Dynastic Marriages
The Half-Falasha Emperor Ya’qob Overthrown, and His Brothers Rebel
Readers will recall that Emperor Sarsa Dengel’s half Beta Esra’el, or Falasha, son Ya’qob was overthrown by the nobles and army, but was later recalled to power. Now read on!
Yaq’ob’s second reign was even shorter than the first, for his power was shortly afterwards challenged by Abeto, or Prince, Susneyos, the notable future Emperor of that name (1607-1632), who defeated and killed him in battle, in February or March 1607.
His two reigns, though short, were, however, not unimportant. On the one hand he continued the imperial policy, dating back to the time of Empress Eleni, of seeking a dynastic alliance with the gold-producing country of Hadeya. On the other he conceived a diplomatic opening to the Jesuits and to the Portuguese, which in fact was later developed by his successors Za-Dengel and Susneyos. He seems also to have won some popular recognition in that an impostor proudly claiming to be Ya’qob was soon to appear on the scene. The real Ya’qob’s historical reputation has on the other hand suffered from the fact that no chronicle of his reign was ever written.
Harago’s Sons, Kefla Maryam and Matako
Emabet Harago, Ya’qob’s ex-Beta Esra’el mother, we should here mention, had at least two other politically important sons: Kefla Maryam. and Matako. They were apparently both her children by Emperor Sarsa Dengel.
Kefla Maryam, the more prominent of the two, is mentioned by both the Jesuit Pero Paes and the subsequent chronicle of Emperor Susneyos (1607-1632). The latter annals state, without giving any details, that Kefla Maryam was one of three “rebels” whom Gedewon, the Beta Esra’el ruler of Samen, nominated as a “king”, but was shortly afterwards captured by Susneyos’s men, after which he was convicted and “killed by the sword”.
Gedewon’s support for Kefla Maryam, supposedly his nephew, is revealing. It shows that the imperial and Beta Esra’el ruling dynasties were in one way or other more closely connected with each other than might at first sight be supposed. Kefla Maryam, though reputedly the son of Sarsa Dengel, also had, it would seem, some political relationship with the Falashas, from whom his mother, the late Emperor’s “concubine” had sprung.
The rebellion of Kefla Maryam probably occurred in the first year of Susneyos’s reign, or a little earlier, during the time of Ya’qob, for the chronicle states that he and Matako and were accused, apparently in 1608, of certain unspecified “idle and vile acts”, for which they were sentenced to death. The chronicler, who naturally presents the story from Susneyos’s standpoint, states that one of the brothers (whom Paes identifies as Kefla Maryam) “claimed to be the son of Malak Sagad”, i.e. Sarsa Dengel, and therefore entitled to the throne, while the other brother (Matako, according to Paes) declared that should his brother become king he for his part wanted to be wazir, or in effect Prime Minister.
The plot originated, the chronicler would have us believe, in the two brothers’ personal ambition (a common charge in Ethiopian political history), and resulted in a considerable amount of fighting. The rebels reportedly “destroyed many districts” of “lower Samen”, i.e. territory near that inhabited by the two brothers’ Falasha kinsmen, who, we may assume, were probably involved in the struggle.
Kefla Maryam and Matako were duly captured, and, according to the chronicle, “fell into the hands of the righteous king”, i.e. Susneyos, who then interrogated them. In response to his questions they declared that they had been “led astray”, by whom it is not specified, into doing “evil” things. The Emperor, having obtained this confession of guilt, handed them over to his judges, who, not surprisingly, found them guilty, and sentenced them to death. Susneyos then commanded that they should be killed by the sword, and, the chronicle sardonically states, they were thus both killed.This account was probably substantially correct, for it is fully corroborated by Paes.
Susneyos’s Brother Ras Yamana Krestos Attempts another Falasha Dynastic Marriage
Despite the cruel fate meted out by Susneyos to Harago’s three sons, Ya’qob, Kefla Maryam, and Matako, all three apparently Sarsa Dengel’s children, the idea of a dynastic union with the Beta Esra’el rulers of Samen was not dead. It was revived, remarkably enough, by none other than Susneyos’s brother, Yamana Krestos, an ambitious prince who was strongly opposed to his imperial sibling’s attempt to convert Orthodox Christian Ethiopia to Roman Catholicism.
Yamana Krestos rebelled against his brother Emperor Susneyos, in or around 1617. To strengthen his position he is reported to have planned a dynastic alliance with the Beta Esra’el leader Gedewon. This plan, for which he was later accused and condemned by Susneyos, is mentioned both in the chronicle and in Pero Paes’s History. The alliance was to be effected by Yamana Krestos giving his daughter, i.e. Emperor Susneyos’s niece, to Gedewon’s son Walay. The fact that Yamana Krestos’s daughter was to become the young Falasha leader’s wife, and thus the subordinate partner in the proposed dynastic marriage, would seem an indication of the importance Yamana Krestos attached to a Beta Esra’el. alliance.
The rebellion against Susneyos was, however, soon crushed, and Yamana Krestos was obliged to surrender. He was charged with seven crimes, two of which are of direct relevance to our story:
Failing, during Susneyos’s campaign against Gedewon, properly to guard a passage-way, and thereby allowing the Falasha leader to escape.
Hating persons whom Susneyos loved, and loving those whom he hated; befriending the brothers and sisters of persons whom Susneyos had executed on account of their inequity; giving his sisters and nieces in marriage to such persons; and “deciding to become related with the Falasha leader Gedewon by giving his daughter to the latter’s son Walay”.
Convicted of Treason, but Pardoned
Yamana was duly tried, and found guilty of treason, but, doubtless because he was the Emperor’s brother, was, unlike Sarsa Dengel’s unfortunate sons, subsequently pardoned. He was nevertheless exiled to Gojjam, and, according to both Paes and the chronicle, expressly forbidden to carry out the proposed dynastic alliance with Gedewon.
Susneyos’s triumph, we may conclude, put an end to any further royal dynastic alliances with the Beta Esra’el. This was scarcely surprising. The Emperor, unlike his brother Yamana Krestos, had no need of the Falashas, for he hoped, as a result of his conversion to Roman Catholicism, to obtain much more valuable military help, including fire-arms, from the Portuguese. Encouraged by Pero Paes’s Jesuit successor, the rigid and fanatical Alfonso Mendes, he was moreover actively engaged in a struggle to suppress such “Judaic practices” as the Ethiopian Orthodox Saturday Sabbath, and was therefore ideologically unfavourable to any dealings with the Beta Esra’el, whose religion was even more “Judaic” than Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
By the time of the establishment of Gondar as the imperial capital in 1636 the Beta Esra’el royal house was a thing of the past. The Gondarine emperors continued to conduct dynastic unions with various ruling houses, including those of far-off Tegray, Hamasen, and Yajju – but no longer with the Falashas. A Beta Esra’el-Christian union, like that of Sarsa Dengel and Harago, was not repeated as Yamana Krestos seems to have wished. If marriages between members of the two communities occurred it was only at a much lower social level, which deserves a separate study.
Summary and Conclusion
To conclude: Significant contacts between the Ethiopian State and the Beta Esra’el began in the late sixteenth century with the move of the imperial capital from Shawa to the Lake Tana area. The latter was relatively near to the Falasha settlements in and around the Samen mountains.
At about this time Harago, an apparently high-born Falasha woman, supposedly the sister of Gedewon, the Beta Esra’el ruler of Samen, and reportedly a recent convert to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, became the consort, or as the Jesuits preferred to say a “:concubine”, of the redoubtable Emperor Sarsa Dengel. She bore him four sons. One, Za-Maryam, was chosen as heir to the throne, but died before he could succeed. The second, Ya’qob, actually ascended the imperial throne, but was too young to make a success of it. Two others, Kefla Maryam, and Matako, apparently threw in their lot with their kinsman Gedewon, and thus played no insignificant role in imperial and/or Falasha local politics.
The idea of a dynastic alliance with the Beta Esra’el was later revived by Emperor Susneyos’s rebel brother Ras Yamana Krestos, who proposed giving his daughter, the Emperor’s niece, to Gedewon’s son Walay, the heir to the Falasha ruler of Samen. Ras Yamana Krestos’s rebellion was, however, crushed, after which Susneyos exiled his brother to Gojjam, and forbade the proposed dynastic alliance with the Beta Esra’el. As a Roman Catholic seeking military support from the Portuguese, and an adherent of the Jesuits who wished to cleanse Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity of what they regarded as its “Judaic” elements, he would moreover have been predisposed against playing the Falasha card.
The subsequent decline of Beta Esra’el power, the disappearance of the Falasha ruling dynasty, and other political and military developments, including the growing importance of fire-arms which the Falashas lacked, created a new strategic and political climate in which dynastic alliances between the Ethiopian monarchy and the Beta Esra’el no longer had any place.