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1270-1294 - Solomonic Restoration

In order to attain a clear view of Abyssinian history, as distinct from the visits and influence of Europeans, it must be borne in mind that the old chroniclers may be trusted to have given a somewhat distorted view of the importance of the particular chieftains with whom the Europeans came in contact. The country has been merely a conglomeration of provinces and districts, ill defined, loosely connected and generally at war with each other. Of these the chief provinces were Tigr (northern), Amhara (central) and Shoa (southern).

The Zagwe's championing of Christianity and their artistic achievements notwithstanding, there was much discontent with Lastan rule among the populace in what is now Eritrea and Tigray and among the Amhara, an increasingly powerful people who inhabited a region called Amhara to the south of the Zagwe center at Adefa. About 1270, an Amhara noble, Yekuno Amlak, drove out the last Zagwe ruler and proclaimed himself king. His assumption of power marked yet another stage in the southward march of what may henceforth be termed the "Christian kingdom of Ethiopia" and ushered in an era of increased contact with the Levant, the Middle East, and Europe.

The new dynasty that Yekuno Amlak founded came to be known as the "Solomonic" dynasty because its scions claimed descent not only from Aksum but also from King Solomon of ancient Israel. According to traditions that were eventually molded into a national epic, the lineage of Aksumite kings originated with the offspring of an alleged union between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whose domains Ethiopians have variously identified with parts of Southwest Arabia and/or Aksum. Consequently, the notion arose that royal legitimacy derived from descent in a line of Solomonic kings. The Tigray and Amhara, who saw themselves as heirs to Aksum, denied the Zagwe any share in that heritage and viewed the Zagwe as usurpers. Yekuno Amlak's accession thus came to be seen as the legitimate "restoration" of the Solomonic line, even though the Amhara king's northern ancestry was at best uncertain. Nonetheless, his assumption of the throne brought the Solomonic dynasty to power, and all subsequent Ethiopian kings traced their legitimacy to him and, thereby, to Solomon and Sheba.

Under Yekuno Amlak, Amhara became the geographical and political center of the Christian kingdom. The seat of government, or rather of overlordship, was usually in Amhara, the ruler of which, calling himself negus negusti (king of kings, or emperor), exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. The title of negus negusti was to a considerable extent based on the blood in the veins of the claimant. All the emperors based their claims on their direct descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba; but it is needless to say that in many, if not in most, cases their success had been due more to the force of their arms than to the purity of their lineage. Some of the rulers of the larger provinces at times were given, or gave themselves, the title of negus or king, so that on occasion as many as three, or even more, neguses have been reigning at the same time; and this must be borne in mind by the student of Abyssinian history in order to avoid confusion of rulers.

The new king concerned himself with the consolidation of his control over the northern highlands and with the weakening and, where possible, destruction of encircling pagan and Muslim states. He enjoyed some of his greatest success against Ifat, an Islamic sultanate to the southeast of Amhara that posed a threat to trade routes between Zeila and the central highlands.

Upon his death in 1285, Yekuno Amlak was succeeded by his son, Yagba Siyon (reigned 1285-94). His reign and the period immediately following were marked by constant struggles among the sons and grandsons of Yekuno Amlak. This internecine conflict was resolved sometime around 1300, when it became the rule for all males tracing descent from Yekuno Amlak (except the reigning emperor and his sons) to be held in a mountaintop prison that was approachable only on one side and that was guarded by soldiers under a commandant loyal to the reigning monarch. When that monarch died, all his sons except his heir were also permanently imprisoned. This practice was followed with some exceptions until the royal prison was destroyed in the early sixteenth century. The royal prison was one solution to a problem that would plague the Solomonic line throughout its history: the conflict over succession among those who had any claim to royal lineage.

The crown of Abyssinia was hereditary, and had always been so, in one particular family, supposed to be that of Solomon by the queen of Saba, Negesta Azab, or queen of the south. It was, nevertheless, elective in this line ; and there was no law of the land, nor custom, which gives the eldest son an exclusive title to succeed to his father. The practice had, indeed, been quite the contrary. When, at the death of a king, his sons are old enough to govern, and, by some accident, not yet sent prisoners to the mountain, then the eldest, or he that is next, and not confined, generally took possession of the throne by the strength of his father's friends; but if no heir was then in the low country, the choice of the king was according to the will of the minister, which passed for that of the people; and, his inclination and interest being to govern, he never failed to choose an infant, whom afterwards he directed, ruling the kingdom absolutely during the minority, which generally exhausted, or was equal to, the term of his life.

From that flowed the misfortunes of this unhappy country. This very defect arose from a desire to institute a more than ordinary perfect form of government ; for the first position of the Abyssinians was, "Woe be to the kingdom whose king is a child!" and this they know must often happen, when succession is left to the course of nature. But when there was a choice to be made out of two hundred persons, all of the same family, all capable of reigning, it was their own fault, they thought, if they had not always a prince of proper age and qualification to rule the kingdom, according to the necessities of the times, and to preserve the succession of the family in the house of Solomon, agreeable to the laws of the land. And, indeed, it has been this manner of reasoning, good at first view, though found afterwards but too fallacious, which ruined their kingdom in part, and often brought the whole into the utmost hazard and jeopardy.

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