Amda Seyon I & the Ethiopian Empire

Joshua Provan

In the late 1320’s a great Ethiopian army came to the south-western shores of the Red Sea

In the late 1320’s a great Ethiopian army came to the south-western shores of the Red Sea, whose ‘sacred flood,’ Aeschylus wrote, dazzled with it’s gleam of brass and ‘furnishes all nourishment to Ethiopians.’ The army marched under Christian banners, led by a man whose name and title: Amda Seyon, Nagusa Nagast translates to, ‘Pillar of Zion, King of Kings.’ In the King’s own words, ‘I took up my arrow and spears, killed my enemies, and saved my people.’ No Christian army had ever penetrated as far into Africa, which conjures up the wry comment of the Roman geographer, Pliny the Elder, writing centuries before; ‘who ever believed in the Ethiopians before actually seeing them?’ In 1270 the Lord of Amhara, as the Muslims called the kings of Ethiopia, Yekuno Amlak, Amda’s grandfather, had come to power, claiming descent from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon to found the Solomonic dynasty. In the period between 1270 and 1314, multiple kings of Ethiopia warred with the muslim & pagan kingdoms that surrounded them, not to mention rival successors, and attempted to gain recognition from the Mamelukes in Egypt as the overlords of the region by reducing their neighbouring Islamic and pagan kingdoms to the status of helpless vassals, especially the rival Walashma dynasty of Muslim Ifat. Amda Seyon I took power in 1314. His reign existed in the historical orbit of the fall of the Dongola kingdom of Christian Nubia. It was also a significant period in the progress of the Coptic church in Mameluke controlled Egypt, which also traditionally provided the Ethiopian orthodox metropolitan, or Abūn. In 1301 the Mameluke sultan had ordered a mass closure of churches due to a fear that The Copts were deriving too much land and wealth through their property. Lynchings and violence towards Christians was now common, with multiple churches being destroyed across the land in 1321.
Amda Seyon I & the Ethiopian Empire
Ethiopian Nobleman or King as depicted in the Gondar Frescos, Reconstruction by the Author.

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Amda saw himself as the shield and sword of Christendom in Africa

After vanquishing the Pagan and Muslim kingdoms of the south and east during his early reign, Amda’s arrival at the Red Sea allowed him to address the plight of his brothers in Christ, as he now certainly saw himself as the shield and sword of Christendom in Africa. In 1325, or thereabouts, an Ethiopian embassy went to Cairo and had the temerity to issue a warning: if the sultan did not adopt a more tolerant attitude to the Christians, Amda Seyon could make life very difficult for the Muslims now under his power. The Ethiopian king further claimed he had the means to divert the course of the Nile, and would not hesitate to do so. His threats went unheeded, at first. It was not until early 1332 when, Amda faced the threat of a resurgent Ifat, that an opportunity presented itself to finally achieve the ambitions of his ancestors. Amda Seyon had a gift for leadership and believed in responding quickly and mercilessly to any threat. The sultan of Ifat, Sabr-Ed-Din had gathered a Muslim coalition to break Ethiopian power but the great Christian army, augmented now by a large contingent of Pagan and Muslim troops, brought out its holy relics from their chapels and under the lion banners of Solomon marched swiftly and directly on Ifat. Sabr-ed-Din was caught by surprise, his army was scattered and he also fled. Ifat was sacked, and his brother was installed as ruler. The King then led his sometimes mutinous army to re-subjugate the kingdoms of the Muslim coalition. At times the war effort was kept alive only through Amda’s own drive and personality, but it achieved brilliant results for the Christians in the end. With the security offered by the sword of Amda Seyon, clerics began to organise missionary efforts into areas that before were too hostile. In 1337, after pleas of the Ifatis reached Sultan An-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun in Cairo, the Abūn, Yakob was released to go to Ethiopia, the fulfilment of Solomonic ambition going back to Yekuno Amlak. 1332 marked the apotheosis of Amda Seyon as a conqueror, and his remaining twelve years as King are notable less for his direct role in fighting, but for the political stability that his conquests had brought, best seen in the missionary activities of Abūn Yacob between then & 1344 when Amda died. A great hero in Ethiopia, Amda is also remembered as a brutal conqueror but his main goal was always to present himself to Egypt and the wider Mediterranean as the leader and suzerain of all the kingdoms; christian, pagan and muslim, that surrounded the realm since the time of his grandfather, and in doing this he laid the foundations of an empire.
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Amda Seyon I & the Ethiopian Empire

Joshua Provan

Joshua Provan began writing his first short stories when he was 15. His award-winning history blog Adventures in Historyland was started in 2012, a place where he could indulge his ‘relatively absorbent but unfocused mind.’ Always intending to write a novel, the research of true-life history for his blog & social media platforms led him to finish his debut non-fiction book; Wild East: The British in Japan 1854-1868 in 2020. Since then, he has written a second book on the British in India, appeared regularly on popular podcasts & started a YouTube channel. Josh (sometimes known as “Lando”) is based in the UK, & to paraphrase one podcast host continues to share history with literally everyone whenever he gets the chance.
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