Yekuno Amlak

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Yekuno Amlak
ይኩኖ አምላክ
Yekuno Amlak.png
Immortalized in a contemporary colorful artwork on one of the pillars in the Geneta Maryam church, Lalibela protected by angels, symbolically linking the mortal world with the heavenly.[1]
Emperor of Ethiopia
Reign10 August 1270 – 19 June 1285
SuccessorYagbe'u Seyon[2]
BornBete Amhara
Died19 June 1285
Ethiopian Empire
Regnal name
Tasfa Iyasus
DynastyHouse of Solomon
ReligionEthiopian Orthodox Tewahedo

Yekuno Amlak (Ge’ez: ይኩኖ አምላክ); throne name Tesfa Iyasus (ተስፋ ኢየሱስ; died 19 June 1285) was Emperor of Ethiopia,[3] and the founder of the Solomonic dynasty, which lasted until 1974.[4] He was a ruler from Bete Amhara (in parts of modern day Wollo and northern Shewa) who became the Emperor of Ethiopia following the defeat of the last Zagwe king.[5]

Rise to power[edit]

Non-contemporary portrait painting of Emperor Yekuno Amlak allegedly from 18th century

Yekuno Amlak hailed from an ancient Amhara family.[6][7][8] Much of what is known about Yekuno Amlak is documented; his letter to the Egyptian ruler serving as one of the oldest examples, along with medieval hagiographies,[9] and to a lesser extent based on oral traditions.[citation needed]

Yekuno Amlak was the local ruler of Geshen and Ambassel around the Lake Hayq region.[10][11] where he was educated at Lake Hayq's Istifanos Monastery. Later medieval hagiographies state Saint Tekle Haymanot raised and educated him, helping him depose the last king of the Zagwe dynasty. Earlier hagiographies, however, state that it was Iyasus Mo'a, the abbot of Istifanos Monastery near Ambasel, who helped him achieve power. G.W.B. Huntingford explains this discrepancy by pointing out Istifanos had once been the premier monastery of Ethiopia, but Tekle Haymanot's Debre Libanos eventually eclipsed Istifanos, and from the reign of Amda Seyon it became the custom to appoint the abbot of Debre Libanos Ichege, or secular head of the Ethiopian Church. However, neither of these traditions is contemporary with any of the individuals involved.[12]

There was also the story, related in both the "Life of Iyasus Mo'a" and the Be'ela nagastat, that a rooster was heard to prophesize outside of the house of the Yakuno Amlak for three months that whoever ate his head would be king. The king then had the bird killed and cooked, but the cook discarded the rooster's head—which Yekuno Amlak ate, and thus became ruler of Ethiopia. Scholars have pointed out the similarity between this legend and one about the first king of Kaffa, who likewise learned from mysterious voice that eating the head of a certain rooster would make him king, as well as the Ethiopian Mashafa dorho or "Book of the Cock", which relates a story about a cooked rooster presented to Christ at the Last Supper which is brought back to life.[13]

Traditional history further reports that Yekuno Amlak was imprisoned by the Zagwe King Za-Ilmaknun ("the unknown, the hidden one") on Mount Malot, but managed to escape. He gathered support in the Amhara provinces and in Shewa, after receiving considerable aid from the Muslim Sultanate of Shewa with an army of followers, defeated the Zagwe king at the Battle of Ansata.[14] Taddesse Tamrat argued that this king was Yetbarak, but due to a local form of damnatio memoriae, his name was removed from the official records.[15] A more recent chronicler of Wollo history, Getatchew Mekonnen Hasen, states that the last Zagwe king deposed by Yekuno Amlak was Na'akueto La'ab.[16]


The church of Genneta Maryam, which is traditionally believed to have been built by Yekuno Amlak

Yekuno Amlak took the name of his father as his throne name upon becoming emperor of Ethiopia, and is said to have campaigned against the Kingdom of Damot, which lay south of the Abbay River. According to Arabic texts found in Harar, a deposed Dil Marrah of the Sultanate of Shewa successfully appealed to Yekuno Amlak in 1279 to restore his rule.[17] Due to Yekuno Amlak's friendly relations with the Emirs of Harar, he founded Ankober, an alternative capital near their principality.[18][19]

Recorded history affords more certainty as to his relations with other countries. For example, E.A. Wallis Budge states that Yekuno Amlak not only exchanged letters with the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII, but sent to him several giraffes as a gift.[20] At first, his interactions with his Muslim neighbors were friendly; however his attempts to be granted an Abuna for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church strained these relations. A letter survives that he wrote to the Mamluk Sultan Baibars, who was suzerain over the Patriarch of Alexandria (the ultimate head of the Ethiopian church), for his help for a new Abuna in 1273; the letter suggests this was not his first request. When one did not arrive, he blamed the intervention of the Sultan of Yemen, who had hindered the progress of his messenger to Cairo.[citation needed] Taddesse Tamrat interprets Yekuno Amlak's son's allusion to Syrian priests at the royal court as a result of this lack of attention from the Patriarch. Taddesse also notes that around this time, the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch were struggling for control of the appointment of the bishop of Jerusalem, until then the prerogative of the Patriarch of Antioch. One of the moves in this dispute was Patriarch Ignatius IV Yeshu's appointment of an Ethiopian pilgrim as Abuna. This pilgrim never attempted to assume this post in Ethiopia, but—Taddesse Tamrat argues—the lack of Coptic bishops forced Yekuno Amlak to rely on the Syrian partisans who arrived in his kingdom.[21]

Yekuno Amlak is credited with the construction of the Church of Gennete Maryam near Lalibela, which contains the earliest surviving dateable wall paintings in Ethiopia.[22]

His descendant Emperor Baeda Maryam I had Yekuno Amlak's body re-interred in the church of Atronsa Maryam.[23]


  1. ^ Gates, Henry Louis; Akyeampong, Emmanuel; Niven, Steven J. (2012). Dictionary of African Biography. Vol. 6. Oxford University Press. pp. 204–205. ISBN 9780195382075.
  2. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay (2002). Ethiopia: The Unknown Land. I.B. Tauris. p. 24.
  3. ^ In the Ethiopian calendar, 10 Sené and 16 Nehasé, respectively. A. K. Irvine, "Review: The Different Collections of Nägś Hymns in Ethiopic Literature and Their Contributions." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. School of Oriental and African Studies, 1985.
  4. ^ "1270-1294 - Solomonic Restoration".
  5. ^ Fessha, Yonathan Tesfaye (2016). Ethnic Diversity and Federalism: Constitution Making in South Africa and Ethiopia. p. 153. ISBN 9781317140986.
  6. ^ Trimingham, J. Spencer (2013). Islam in Ethiopia. Routledge. p. 57. ISBN 9781136970221.
  7. ^ Olusoga, David (2021). The Black History Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 172. ISBN 9780241555620.
  8. ^ Shinn, David H.; Ofcansky, Thomas P (2013). Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. Scarecrow Press. p. 5. ISBN 9780810874572.
  9. ^ Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Volumes 34-35. Haile Sellassie I University. Institute of Ethiopian Studies. 2001. pp. 107–109.
  10. ^ Trimingham, J. Spencer (2013). Islam in Ethiopia. Routledge. p. 57. ISBN 9781136970221.
  11. ^ Dupuy, Richard Ernest (1993). The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present. HarperCollins. p. 428. ISBN 9780062700568.
  12. ^ See Huntingford, "'The Wealth of Kings' and the End of the Zāguē Dynasty", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies’’ 28 (1965), pp. 2f
  13. ^ Huntingford, "'Wealth of Kings'", pp. 4–6
  14. ^ Oromo of Ethiopia with special emphasis on the Gibe region (PDF). p. 4.
  15. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 68 n.1
  16. ^ Getachew Mekonnen Hasen, Wollo, Yager Dibab (Addis Ababa: Nigd Matemiya Bet, 1992), pp. 28–29
  17. ^ Selassie, Sergew (1972). Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. p. 290.
  18. ^ TUFFA, TSEGAYE. THE DYNAMICS OF TULAMA OROMO IN THE HISTORY OF CONTINUITY AND CHANGE, CA. 1700-1880S (PDF). University of South Africa. pp. 209–210.
  19. ^ Ankobar. Encyclopedia Aethiopica.
  20. ^ Budge, A History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia, 1928 (Oosterhout, the Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1970), p. 285.
  21. ^ Taddesse, Church and State, pp. 69ff.
  22. ^ Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 59.
  23. ^ "Local History in Ethiopia" Archived 19 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine The Nordic Africa Institute website (accessed 28 January 2008)
Regnal titles
Preceded by Emperor of Ethiopia
Succeeded by