Yeshaq (bahr negus)

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Yeshaq (died 1578) was the Bahr Negus, or ruler of the realm of Mdre Bahri in what is now present-day Eritrea during the mid to late 16th century. His support of the Emperor of Ethiopia during the invasion of Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (also known as Ahmed Gragn), when so many of the local aristocrats had switched their support, helped to preserve the country from extinction.

Bahr negus Yeshaq first appears in history about the time the Portuguese fleet arrived at Massawa in 1541. When Christovão da Gama marched inland with his 400 matchlockmen, Yeshaq not only provided him provisions and places to camp in his realm, but also about 500 soldiers and information about the land.[1] The Bahr negus also joined Emperor Gelawdewos in the decisive Battle of Wayna Daga, where Imam Ahmad was killed and his forces scattered (1543).

When the Ottoman general Özdemir Pasha, who had been made governor of the Ottoman province of Habesh, crossed over from Jeddah in 1557 and occupied Massawa, Arqiqo and finally Debarwa, capital of the Bahri negassi, Yeshaq led the great Army of Midre Bahri against the invaders, recapturing Debarwa and seizing the "immense treasure" the invaders piled up within.[2]

Although Bahr negus Yeshaq enjoyed good relations with Emperor Galawdewos, his relations with his successors were not as positive. In 1560, the year after Menas became emperor, Bahr negus Yeshaq revolted against the new Emperor. While he was successful at first, eventually Menas drove Yeshaq out of Tigray, and the noble was forced to seek refuge at the court of his former enemy. In return for ceding the town of Debarwa, Ozdemur Pasha extended military support to the exiled Bahr negus, and Yeshaq led an army into Tigray and the other northern provinces.

Emperor Menas campaigned against the forces of this alliance again in 1562, but was not able to decisively defeat Yeshaq. When Sarsa Dengel was made emperor, Yeshaq at first pledged his loyalty, but within a few years he once more went into rebellion, and found another ally in the ruler of Harar, Sultan Mohammed IV Mansur. Despite these alliances, Emperor Sarsa Dengel defeated and killed Yeshaq in battle (1578).[3] Richard Pankhurst concurs with the judgement of James Bruce on Yeshaq, who points out that the status of the Bahr negus "was much diminished by Yeshaq's treachery. From then onwards the governor of the provinces beyond the Tekezé was not allowed the sandaq (Banner) and nagarit (War Drum), and no longer had a place in Council unless especially called on by the Emperor". This could also mean that the Bahr neguses' kingdom was no longer part of the "Empire" per se.[4]


  1. ^ As described by Miguel de Castanhoso in his account of the Portuguese expedition (translated in R.S. Whiteway, The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia [London: The Hakluyt Society, 1902]).
  2. ^ Richard Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia, p. 327.
  3. ^ Pankhurst, pp. 327f.
  4. ^ Pankhurst, p. 328.