The Dynasty


The royal line of kings of Ethiopia has its origins, as do many of those in European countries, in legend and story; but none can claim a longer descent, nor an origin so substantiated in national literature and primitive picture, than the dynasty founded by the ‘Queen of Sheba and her only son Menyelek.’ This story forms the principal theme of one of the earliest documents in Ethiopic literature—the Kebra Nagast—composed in the thirteenth century, and still remains the subject of a series of scenes painted on canvas to be bought to-day in the streets of Addis Ababa.

Moreover it is of supreme importance politically. In his book on Ethiopia, Archbishop David Matthew makes the cult of this dynastic theory the foundation on which the realm of Ethiopia has been built up; and in the introduction to his translation of the Kebra Nagast or ‘Glory of Kings,’ Sir Wallis Budge points out the awe and reverence in which this early document with its evidence of Solomonian descent is held throughout the country.

Here is the story. The Queen of Sheba—or the Queen of the South—having heard, as the Bible narrative tells us, of the wisdom and riches of King Solomon, journeyed from her kingdom—according to Ethiopian legend a city near Aksum or possibly the country of Sa’ba which forms part of the Arabian peninsula—to assure herself of the truth of all she had heard. Overcome by the splendour of his court, and the certainty that he had divine protection and inspiration, the queen, who had hitherto been a worshipper of the sun and stars, professed herself a convert to the monotheism of the Jewish king, and asked for counsel and guidance that she might return to her own country and rule it aright.

King Solomon was loath to let her go for he would have gladly made her his queen.

When the queen sent her message to Solomon saying that she was about to depart into her own country he pondered in his heart and said: ‘A woman of such splendid beauty hath come to me from the ends of the earth. What do I know? Will God give me seed in her?’ Then the story goes on to tell how by a ruse he achieved the union with her that he desired—yet she, preferring to be queen in her own country rather than one among many at the court of the Jewish monarch, departed bearing with her a ring which should be a sign of sonship if a man child should be born. Nine months later the queen bore a son whom she called Ibn Hakim, ‘and his whole body and its members and the bearing of his shoulders resembled those of King Solomon his father.’ So the child grew to be a young man of twenty-two years of age, and she sent him with a train of nobles and officers to claim sonship from Solomon, giving him in secret the ring that his father had given her. Then King Solomon recognized and received his first-born son, and much against his will sent him back again with his blessing. Thus the line of Solomonian kings was established.

The ancient history of this people from southern Arabia and the story of how, later, they crossed the Red Sea to establish themselves on the uplands of its western coast can only be a matter of surmise. Yet it seems certain that some such migration or conquest must have taken place in order to account for the Semitic characteristics and culture of the people who became leaders among the tribes of the highlands of Tigre, and for the Semitic form of its language. It is probable that these invaders from Arabia imposed their customs and their language upon the original Hamitic stock of the northern dwellers of Ethiopia; but their emergence into the actual facts of history does not take place until the middle of the first century a.d. The kingdom of Aksum which they founded is first mentioned in an account of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, composed by a Greek writer of the first century a.d. By this time its port of Adulis had been founded and it was from there that the kings of Aksum exported their ivory, gathered from the Nile valley, to the Roman Empire. The account mentions a certain Soscales, ‘king of all these regions’; and he must therefore be accounted the first historical king of Ethiopia known to the outside world.

This Aksumite kingdom flourished during the first ten centuries of the Christian era and we have from various sources descriptions of the court of the kings and of their conquests. During the third century one of these kings extended his boundaries north towards Suakim, south to the lakes of Rudolph and Victoria according to legend, and eastwards towards the Red Sea, and beyond, compelling the kings of southern Arabia to pay tribute to him. He might with justice be considered to have founded the Ethiopian Empire.

Yet far more important than the territorial conquests of its kings was its own submission to the new spiritual forces of Christianity. In the fourth century the two brothers Aedesius and Frumentius, both Christians from Tyre, were captured when their ship touched the west coast of the Red Sea, and were taken to the King of Aksum.

Seeing that Frumentius was ‘prudent and sagacious, the king raised him to be his treasurer and secretary.’1 So well did he acquit himself towards his royal master that, on the death of the king, Frumentius was installed as guardian for his infant son. Then the chronicler tells us that ‘God stirred up his heart.’1 He begged leave to visit the bishop—at that time Athanasius—in Alexandria, and laid before him the possibility of the conversion of the Aksumite kingdom to Christianity. So he returned as bishop himself to Ethiopia, ‘and a countless number of barbarians’2 were converted by him to the Christian faith.

Thus there emerged in the high plateau of Ethiopia, which stretched from the boundaries of Nubia to the great lakes which form the central depression of the great Rift Valley, and from the torrid Danakil and Somali plains that border the Red Sea to the humid heat of the Nile valley, a Christian kingdom which gradually absorbed and converted, either by persuasion or force, the surrounding peoples. Its ancient language Geez remains the language of the Bible and, until very recently, of the Church and its liturgies, and of most of the literature; but later Amharic became the spoken language of the court and government. For many centuries the coronation of the King of Kings—so ran the title of the ruler—took place at Aksum; but the court seems to have been perpetually on the move, the king travelling around his kingdom in great state, and displaying himself on the occasion of the great Church feasts to all his people. The extraordinary custom had grown up early in Ethiopian history of secluding all possible rivals to the throne—the princes in the direct line of descent—on an impregnable ‘amba’ or mountain fastness, where they lived out their lives under guard, though not in any kind of physical discomfort, well furnished with money, but prevented from any external contact with, or participation in the affairs of the kingdom.

These ‘ambas’ are a striking feature of the plateau country. They are usually the isolated peak at the end of a chain of mountains which jut out into the desert, or into the deep ravines by which the country is intersected by its great river systems. The climate of these high regions is extremely healthy; they are well watered, and though the sun is hot the air is perpetually cool and fresh. In the valleys on the other hand are mosquitoes and malaria, snails and bilharzia, and all the other unpleasant accompaniments of the tropical low country.

Little wonder that the ruling race kept to their highlands where agriculture was easy and the three months of the rainy season never failed to fill up spring and stream, and so ensure rich pasture for their animals and fuel and food for themselves.

With the rise of Islam, and the subsequent occupation first of Palestine and later of Egypt by the Arabs, Ethiopia was cut off from contact with the Christian civilization of Europe, and her history is lost to us. We know that during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a dynasty not of Solomonian descent occupied the throne, and that one of these kings, Lalibela, was the reputed builder of the famous rock churches in Lasta, where he established his capital which bears his name. His memory is reverenced and he is regarded as a saint by the Ethiopian Church. But we know little of the historical facts of these two centuries, and it is only with the return to power of the Solomonian line in the person of Amda Seyum that the story begins to take shape historically in the chronicles that began to be written in the fourteenth century by the king’s scribe.

It was during the twelfth century in Europe that mysterious stories began to spread about a Christian monarch who lived and ruled somewhere in the East. Many fabulous tales were related of his power and wealth, and during the centuries that saw the last of the Crusades there was always a hope that this Christian king would come to attack the Moslems from the rear. When, however, this failed to occur and no trace could be found in Asia of a king to justify these stories, men began to look for him elsewhere. When explorers sent out by Henry the Navigator reported the existence of a Christian king in Africa, opinion began to identify him with Prester John, and expeditions were sent to locate him.

The Portuguese were therefore the first Europeans to make close contact with the medieval civilization of Ethiopia, and from the fifteenth century onwards the history of the country can be traced with comparative accuracy. Alvarez, who acted as chaplain to a mission sent to investigate the country in 1520, during the reign of Lebna Dengel (or David), brought back a clear picture of the condition of the country and the magnificent, if primitive state of its rulers:

We found a large and rich dais of very splendid carpets . . . and there we saw Prester John sitting on a platform of six steps very richly adorned. He had on his head a high crown of gold and silver, and a silver cross in his hand: there was a piece of blue taffeta before his face which covered his mouth and beard. ... At his right hand he had a page with a silver cross in his hand. The Prester was dressed in a rich robe of brocade and a silk shirt of wide sleeves which looked like a pelisse.

Most of the information about the country at that time comes from the same source.

During the sixteenth century the kingdom was still divided into a number of tributary kingdoms, though these had for the most part been reduced to the rank of provinces, ruled over by governors, rather than kings. Even those who still retained this title were selected and supervised by the King of Kings. Some of these tributaries were Moslem as well as Christian and it seems to have been quite possible for the Christian monarch to have chosen his wife at times from among the daughters of these subject kings of another faith, though the queen would then be expected to adopt the faith of her husband.

This may have led to the wars which Alvarez recounts to have taken place between the Christians and Moslems in the reign of Lebna Dengel; and these were followed by the far more serious invasion by Ahmed Gran, King of Adel in Somaliland, and his followers. Assisted by the Turks, who were now a power in the Red Sea, and furnished by them with the first match-locks ever seen in that part of the world, the armies of Islam overran almost the whole of the Christian kingdom. The churches and monasteries were ransacked and burnt, and the great majority of the people wavered in their faith before the onslaught of the infidel. The princes of the Solomonian line were massacred, and at last only the king with a small band of faithful followers, retreating before their pursuers into their strongholds among the hills, were left to defend the Christian faith.

In this calamity the king turned towards his Portuguese friends. The son of the great Vasco da Gama arrived with help—both men and guns—and within a year Ahmed Gran, who had reached as far north as Lake Tsana, was shot and his armies dispersed, though in this fighting the Portuguese leader had himself been killed. The defeat of the Moslem invaders was, however, complete; the Christian king drove south to regain his kingdom and even extended his conquests to include the former provinces of Bali and Doaro, but one loss he never regained; Massowah was seized by the Turks and Ethiopia was denied access to the sea.

The next two centuries are almost wholly taken up by various civil wars and religious wars which resulted from the advent to the country of Jesuit missions. It is not until the seventeenth century that we find the royal power successfully re-established by Basilidas, who built the new royal city of Gondar, north of Lake Tsana. This remained the capital for almost two hundred years. It was during this period that Bruce visited Ethiopia and that the first attempt at diplomatic relations with a European power was initiated. Nothing came of it, however, and during the following century the power of the kings of the Solomonian line declined, and their empire shrank within the loop of the Blue Nile. The province of Shoa to the south of Gojjam, although owing allegiance to the King of Kings, became virtually independent and had made this independence the more efficacious by setting a tribe of Galla nomads to the north, who acted as a buffer between them and the northern kingdom. Its very able governor kings achieved for it a high position of influence and importance as a barrier against the roving Moslem and Galla tribes to the east and south. It is from them that the present royal house is descended.

Meanwhile, constant intrigue and unending civil war threatened the very existence of the northern kingdom. Only one thing seemed to remain constant and unchanged—the Church with its many priests, monks, and monasteries. Yet the figurehead of the monarchy remained. Even when impotent to curb the quarrelsome nobles, when the power in his hands was at its lowest ebb, he was treated with ceremony and reverence for his person; meanwhile his unruly subjects vied with each other to achieve the hegemony for themselves and the puppet emperors whom they supported.

The decline of the empire was complete some twenty-five years before Sahle Selassie, King of Shoa, emerged into history in 1813.

1 Rufinus, quoted by Jones and Monroe: History of Abyssinia, p. 26.
2 Ibid.

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