Zemene Mesafint

Zemene Mesafint

The Zemene Mesafint (Ge'ez: ዘመነ መሳፍንት "zamana masāfint", modern "zemene mesāfint", variously translated "Era of Judges," "Era of the Princes," "Age of Princes," etc.; named after the Book of Judges) was a period in Ethiopian history when the country was rent by conflicts between warlords, the Emperor was reduced to little more than a figurehead confined to the capital city of Gondar, and both society and culture stagnated. Religious conflict both within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and with Ethiopian Muslims were often used as the pretext for the powerful to battle each other.

Traditionally, the beginning of this period is set to the date Ras Mikael Sehul deposed Emperor Iyoas (7 May, 1769), and its end to Kassa's coronation as Emperor Tewodros II (11 February 1855), having defeated in battle all of his rivals. Some historians date the murder of Iyasu the Great (13 October 1706), and the resultant decline in the prestige of the dynasty, as the beginning of this period. Others date it to the beginning of Iyoas's reign (26 June 1755).

Nobles came to abuse their positions by making emperors, and encroached upon the succession of the dynasty, by candidates among the nobility itself: for example, on the death of Emperor Tewoflos, the chief nobles of Ethiopia feared that the cycle of vengeance that had characterized the reigns of Tewoflos and Tekle Haymanot I would continue if a member of the Solomonic dynasty were picked for the throne, so they selected one of their own, Yostos to be "negusa nagast" - however his tenure was brief, and the throne came into the hands of the Solomonic house once again.

However, the reign of Iyasu II brought the empire once again to disaster. He ascended the throne as a child, allowing his mother, Empress Mentewab to play a major role as his regent. Mentewab had herself crowned as co-ruler, becoming the first woman to be crowned in this manner in Ethiopian history. Beyond the capital of Gondar, the Empire suffered from regional conflict between nationalities that been part of the Empire for hundreds of years -- the Agaw, Amharans, Showans, and Tigreans -- and the Oromo newcomers. Mentewab's attempt to strengthen ties between the monarchy and the Oromo by arranging the marriage of her son to the daughter of an Oromo chieftain from Yejju backfired in the long run.

Her attempt to continue in this role after the death of her son (1755) into the reign of her grandson Iyoas brought her into conflict with Wubit (Welete Bersabe), Iyasu's widow, who believed that it was her turn to serve as regent. When Iyoas assumed the throne upon his father's sudden death, the aristocrats of Gondar were stunned to find that he preferred to speak in the Oromo language rather than in Amharic, and favored his mother's Yejju relatives over the Qwarans of his grandmothers family. Iyoas further increased the favor given to the Oromo when adult. On the death of the Ras of Amhara, he attempted to promote his uncle Lubo governor of that province, but the outcry led his advisor Walda Nul to convince him to change his mind.

The conflict between these two queens led to Mentewab summoning her relatives with their armed supporters from Qwara to Gondar to support her. Wubit responded by summoning her own Oromo relatives and their considerable forces from Yejju. Fearing that the power struggle between the Qwarans and the Yejju Oromos led by the Emperor's mother Wubit would erupt into an armed conflict, the nobility summoned the powerful Ras Mikael Sehul to mediate between the two camps. He arrived and shrewdly maneuvered to sideline the two queens and their supporters making a bid for power for himself. Mikael settled soon as the leader of Amharic-Tigrean (Christian) camp of the struggle.

Iyaos' reign becomes a narrative of the struggle between the powerful Ras Mikael Sehul and the Oromo relatives of Iyoas. Iyoas effectively had little say, as he inherited an empty Imperial treasury and depended heavily on his Oromo relations. As he increasingly favored Oromo leaders like Fasil, his relations with Mikael Sehul deteriorated. Eventually Mikael Sehul deposed the Emperor Iyoas (7 May, 1769). One week later, Mikael Sehul had him killed; although the details of his death are contradictory, the result was clear: for the first time an Emperor had lost his throne in a means other than his own natural death, death in battle, or voluntary abdication. From this point forward the Empire devolved ever more openly in the hands of the great nobles and military commanders; because of its effects, Iyoas' assassination is usually regarded as the start of the Era of the Princes.

An aged and infirm imperial uncle prince was enthroned as Emperor Yohannes II. Ras Mikael soon had him murdered, and underage Tekle Haymanot II was elevated to the throne. Then Mikael Sehul was defeated in the Three battles of Sarbakusa and the triumvirate of Fasil, Goshu of Amhara, and Wand Bewossen of Begemder placed their own emperor on the throne. More emperors followed as these three fell from power and were replaced by other strongmen, who constantly elevated and removed emperors; Tekle Giyorgis is famous for having been elevated to the throne altogether six times and also deposed six times.

Meanwhile, Amha Iyasus of Shewa (1744-1775) wisely kept out of this endless fighting, devoting his energies to consolidating his kingdom and founding Ankober. This was a practice that his successors followed to the end of the kingdom.

The first years of the 19th century were disturbed by fierce campaigns between Ras Gugsa of Begemder, and Ras Wolde Selassie of Tigray, who fought over control of the figurehead Emperor Egwale Seyon. Wolde Selassie was eventually the victor, and practically ruled the whole country till his death in 1816 at the age of eighty. Dejazmach Sabagadis of Agame succeeded Wolde Selassie in 1817, through force of arms, to become warlord of Tigre.

This constant civil war left Ethiopia isolated, an isolation pierced by very few European travellers. One was the French physician C.J. Poncet, who went there in 1698, via Sennar and the Blue Nile. After him James Bruce entered the country in 1769, with the object of discovering the sources of the Nile, which he was convinced lay in Ethiopia. Accordingly, leaving Massawa in September 1769, he travelled via Axum to Gondar, where he was well received by Emperor Tekle Haymanot II. Bruce left Ethiopia in 1772, by way of Sennar and the Nile.

The end of the Zemene Mesafint came with the rise of Kassa Hailu -- better known by his later throne name of Tewodros II of Ethiopia. Originally little more than a bandit surviving in the Ethiopian marches against the Sudan, Kassa won his way to control of first one province of Ethiopia, Dembiya, then following a series of battles beginning with Gur Amba (27 September 1852) and ending with Battle of Derasge (1855), came to control all of Ethiopia. With imperial power once again in the hands of a single man, the Zemene Mesafint is considered to have ended, and the history of Modern Ethiopia to have begun.

Further reading

* Mordechai Abir, "The Era of the Princes: the Challenge of Islam and the Re-unification of the Christian empire, 1769-1855". London: Longmans, 1968.

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