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King Zara Yaqob

king zara yaqob

King Zara Yaqob

The 15th-century king of the Solomonic dynasty left a starkly different legacy than his recent predecessor Amda Seyon I.

Zara Yaqob was an embarrassment on the battlefield. For example, his campaigns against the Falasha, a Jewish community in Ethiopia, and the Agaw, an ethnic group in northern Ethiopia, ended in humbling defeats.

Luckily, Yaqob had other redeeming qualities: he was a gifted religious reformer and an innovative statesman. How did he acquire these talents?

According to legend, Yaqob's jealous older brother Tewodros I had young Yaqob sent away when he was just a boy to be raised and educated in isolation in a monastery in Axum.

There he learned the ways of the church and became a noted theologian and scholar as he grew up.

When he came to power, Yaqob took the name Constantine I and set about transforming the church.

He announced new doctrines and cast aside the old, outdated orthodoxies.

Some of his notions were peculiar and met with strong resistance from the church establishment.

Yaqob decreed that Christmas be celebrated every month and demanded that every church in the land have a separate altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

He also introduced a combined two-day Sabbath to be observed on Saturday and Sunday.

Zara Yaqob's childhood had a downside: the seclusion he experienced as a youngster left him unprepared for the seething cauldron of politics and diplomacy, schemes and intrigue, that he was thrust into as king.

His reaction to encountering difficulty in these arenas was to take a despotic and intolerant tack.

He punished dissidents mercilessly and executed leaders of radical sects in the church that he deemed heretics, especially animists.

He even had many close members of the Royal Court, including the Empress, put to death when he feared a coup.

This callous approach to dissent led to turbulent internal politics during his reign; on more than one occasion he dismissed his entire cabinet and started from scratch.

Yaqob had a more progressive side, though. On one of these occasions, after firing all government officials, he appointed a nearly all-female administration.

He also issued the first edict on land conservation, a law that banned logging in the virgin forest of Menagesha Suba near Addis and ordered the transplanting of many Juniper seedlings to the forest.

Despite his mixed legacy, Zara Yaqob is often called the Second Solomon in the history books.