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Constantine I Zara Yaqob, Emperor of Ethiopia

XV Century
Perhaps the greatest of mediæval Ethiopian emperors was Constantine I Zara Yaqob ("Seed of Jacob"), who reigned from 1434-1468. A theologian-king, Zara Yaqob pursued his entwined religious and political agendas with enormous but sometimes destructive energy; tireless in his defense of Orthodoxy, he nevertheless introduced dramatic innovations in Church life and policy. Many of these changes had to do with the liturgical cycle; after a Christmas Day victory over an invading Muslim army which greatly outnumbered his own, Zara Yaqob decreed that from then on Christmas would be celebrated every month, and went on to add numerous other monthly feasts as well. Intensely devoted to the Mother of God (and greatly impressed by reports of her contemporary miraculous apparition at Metmaq, Egypt), the emperor required that every church have an altar dedicated in her honor, and ordered all 33 of her festivals to be observed as if they were Sundays no matter when they fell in the week. Several classic works of Ge'ez literature date from his reign, most of them in some way connected to veneration of the Theotokos; among them is a translation of the Western European Miracles of the Virgin.

As the appearence of such a translation suggests, Zara Yaqob was extremely interested in Western Christianity and the expanding powers of Europe, which he saw as potential allies against Islam. Besides seeking a political alliance with Aragon, he initiated contacts with Pope Eugene IV, sending delegates to the re-union Council of Florence in 1438 and sponsoring a meeting in Africa between Orthodox theologians and the Venetian monk Francisco de Branca-Leone. A scholar and theologian in his own right and the author of numerous books, Zara Yaqob was passionately interested in the religious education of his people, and required priests to give sermons on the essentials of the Orthodox Faith. Much of his reign was spent in waging a relentless and sometimes brutal campaign against animism; everyone in the empire was required to wear fillets on their arms and foreheads bearing pro-Christian and anti-animist slogans.

These reforms were by no means universally popular. A Western-style Madonna painted by Branca-Leone provoked rioting, and an attempt to combine Saturday and Sunday into a two-day Sabbath was condemned as Judaizing by the monks of Dabra Libanos. Many aspects of the emperor's tyrannical domestic policy can only be described as anticipating modern dictatorships, and popular unrest forced him to repeatedly dismiss nearly all of his government officials to avoid a revolution. (At one point, interestingly, he experimented with a mostly female administration.) Fear of a palace coup and/or the desire to appear to appear implacably just and impartial in the enforcement of his strict decrees led Zara Yaqob to execute numerous members of his immediate family, including the Empress herself, for various infractions. In spite all this, his formidable personality and lasting influence have made him a popular figure in Ethiopian history, the "second Solomon" of the chroniclers.

Norman Hugh Redington


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