c. 1571 to 1632

  One of The first examples of western interference in the political-religious life of a sovereign East African state.

Emperor Susneyos (circa 1571 to September 16, 1632) reigned from 1607-32. He was a strong ruler who imposed his authority on a divided realm. But after he had proclaimed Roman Catholicism to be the official religion of Ethiopia in 1622, rebellions occurred, so that the EthiopianOrthodox Church was restored and the emperor obliged to abdicate tenyears later.

Susneyos was the son of Prince Fasilidas, and great-grandson of Emperor Lebna Dengel (q.v.)[reigned 1508-40]. His mother, Wayzaro Hamalmal Warq, was the daughterof a provincial chief. He was brought up at his father's residence inGojam. While he was still a child, Gojam was attacked by thenon-Christian Galla, who had begun invading Ethiopia from the south 50years earlier, and were now posing a serious threat to the country. Theykilled Prince Fasilidas and a number of others. One of the Gallacarried off the infant Susneyos, and treated him as his own son. A yearlater he was released by Dajazmach Asbo, and entrusted to the care ofthe Dowager Empress Adems-Mogassa, who supervised his early education.When he was old enough, he was sent to his father's lands in Gojam,where he learned to fight and to hunt.

After the death of Emperor Sartsa Dengel (q.v.) [reigned 1563 to1597], and the accession of his young illegitimate son Yaeqob (reigned1597-1603), also known as Malak Saggad II, the fortune of Susneyoschanged. He was now a possible claimant to the throne, and as such athreat to the ambitions of the chief nobles of the realm who hoped toexercise power themselves during the young king's minority. To escapefrom them, Susneyos took refuge in Gojam and Shawa. He had to lead thewandering life of a bandit prince, with a few faithful followers. InSeptember 1603, Emperor Yaeqob, whom the nobles disliked because heshowed signs of independence, was exiled to Enarea, and another cousin,Za-Dengel (reigned September 1603 to October 1604) succeeded himbriefly. Throughout this period Susneyos refrained from claiming thethrone, but merely asked for the return of his father's "Gult", orfeudal estates, in Gojam. After Za-Dengel's death on October 24, 1604,Susneyos sent a message tot he leading nobles, asking to be recognizedas emperor. Ras Atenatewos, son-in-law of Emperor Yaeqob, and othersproclaimed him king on December 14, 1604, but another group of nobles,led by Za-Selasse, who wished to become viceroy of Gojam, rejected him,and sent for the exiled Yaeqob. The stalemate continued for the next twoyears until, on March 10, 1607, Susneyos fought a decisive battleagainst Yaeqob at Gol in Gojam. Emperor Yaeqob was killed, but his bodywas not recovered. This afterwards led to the appearance of severalimpostors claiming to be Yeaqob.

After the battle of Gol, Susneyos became the undisputed ruler ofEthiopia, with the throne name of Seltan Saggad. He was then about 35,and was described by contemporary observers as a handsome, well-builtman, intelligent and well-read, and an outstanding horseman, warrior,and military commander. He became emperor after Ethiopia had been ruledfor some years by a clique of nobles, and he therefore decided toestablish his authority firmly. To achieve this end, he replaced formergovernors and administrators with his own relatives and faithfulsupporters, like his half-brothers Ras Se'ela Krestos (q.v.), DajazmachHafa Krestos, Ras Yamana Krestos, and Malkea Krestos. But his reign wasfull of troubles. He had to struggle constantly against the intrigues ofdiscontented nobles and dignitaries who revolted against him, includingseveral of his own relatives and followers whom he had elevated. Healso had to face uprisings by the non-Christian peoples of Ethiopia. Hefought relentlessly against the Agaw of Gojam and the Falasha of Semén,both of whom constantly harassed the imperial forces, and repellednumerous assaults by the Galla, who had made considerable inroads intothe kingdom from the south and east, and who posed the greatest threatto the empire's stability. Susneyos also concluded campaigns as far asthe Atbara and Taka rivers, the Danakil region, Enarea, and Sarki in thekingdom of Sennar, in what is now the Sudan.

But Susneyos' major problem was religion. This was the period whenPortuguese catholic influence was greatly feared by the EthiopianOrthodox Church. The Emperor Za-Dengel had already been deposed forbeing pro-Catholic. From the first years of his reign, Susneyos alsoshowed great sympathy for Roman Catholicism, which he later publiclyembraced and proclaimed as the official religion of Ethiopia in 1622.While it is certain that Susneyos hoped for military assistance fromPortugal to enable him to repel the encroaching Galla and perhaps secureskilled craftsmen and artisans, it is apparent that he also sincerelyliked Roman Catholicism. His religious policy led inevitably to bitterresentment among the clergy and adherents of the Ethiopian OrthodoxChurch, culminating in increasing hostility between opposing factions,and ultimately to civil strife and the downfall of Susneyos. But beforethese events took place, he and his brother Se'ela Krestos had caused tobe baptized into the Catholic faith large numbers of the non-Christiantribes in Ethiopia, including many of the Agaw of Gojam, the Wayeto ofLake Tana, and the Waranesha Galla.

With the help of the Portuguese Fathers, Susneyos constructed severalstone churches near Lake Tana, a two-storied residential palace, and abridge over the River Abbay (Blue Nile). These enterprises won him fameand laid the groundwork for the remarkable building achievements of hisson Fasilidas (q.v.) [reigned 1632-67].

When the Roman Catholic Patriarch Affonso Mendez arrived in Ethiopia in1624, religious conflicts entered a new and bitter phase because of thePatriarch's intransigence, and culminated in widespread rebellions inthe provinces. Susneyos himself undertook a campaign to enforce Lasta'ssubmission, and after suffering one of his rare military setbacks,defeated the rebels in one battle. On his return to Danqaz, 12 mi (20km) southeast of Gondar, some of the leading personages in the kingdombegged him to abandon his pro-Catholic policy because the revolts andcivil wars resulting from the change in religion were ruining thecountry. Finally submitting to their pleas, and to those of his wife,Empress Walda Saala Seltan Mogassa, as well as of his eldest living son,Fasilidas, Susneyos proclaimed the restoration of the Faith ofAlexandria on June 24, 1632. He died a few months later, at Danqaz, onSeptember 16, 1632, a broken-hearted man, but a staunch Roman Catholic.He was buried with great pomp and ceremony at Gannata-Iyasus, the churchbuilt for him by Father Pedro Paez near Azazo, close to Gondar.

Belaynesh Michael

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