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Yekuno Amlak

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June 19, 1285


Yagbe'u Seyon

Yekuno Amlak


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Ethiopian Orthodox Christian

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Emperor Yekuno Amlak (Amharic: ይኵኖ አምላክ?; throne name Tasfa Iyasus) was nəgusä nägäst (r. 10 August 1270 – 19 June 1285) of Ethiopia and restorer of the Solomonic dynasty. He traced his ancestry through his father, Tasfa Iyasus, to Dil Na'od, the last King of Axum.


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Rise to power

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Much of what is known about Yekuno Amlak is based on oral traditions and medieval hagiographies. Yekuno Amlak was educated at Lake Hayq's Istifanos Monastery near Amba Sel, where later medieval hagiographies state Saint Tekle Haymanot raised and educated him, and helped him to depose the last King of the Zagwe Dynasty. Earlier hagiographies, however, state that it was Iyasus Mo'a, the abbot of Istifanos Monastery in Lake Hayq, 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.

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.

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, and with an army of followers, defeated the Zagwe king. Taddese Tamrat argued that this king was Yetbarak, but due to a local form of damnatio memoriae, his name was removed from the official records. A more recent chronicler of Wollo history, Getatchew Mekonnen Hasen, flatly states that the last Zagwe king deposed by Yekuno Amlak was none other than Na'akueto La'ab himself.


Yekuno Amlak is said to have campaigned against the Kingdom of Damot, which lay south of the Abbay River.

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. 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.

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 III David'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.

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.

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


Yekuno Amlak Wikipedia

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