Born into the heartland of Bete Amhara, Yekuno Amlak ascended the Ethiopian throne from 1270 to 1285. Revered for his foundational role in establishing the Solomonic dynasty, he reigned until his death on 19 June 1285. This esteemed lineage of rulers persisted until 1974, crafting a legacy that spanned seven centuries.
Yekuno Amlak’s origins can be traced back to an ancient Amhara lineage. In later years, tales circulated that he directly descended from the biblical King Solomon through the erstwhile royal house of the Kingdom of Aksum. Though these claims have been disputed and lack comprehensive historical evidence, they underpinned the assertion that Yekuno Amlak “restored” the Solomonic lineage after toppling the Zagwe dynasty in 1270. This change in regime labeled the Zagwe as “non-Israelite” interlopers, setting the stage for the Solomonic dynasty’s propagation of its origin myth well into the 20th century.
Amlak’s early years were spent in the regions of Geshen and Ambassel near Lake Hayq. His education was nurtured within Lake Hayq’s Istifanos Monastery. Two versions of history unfold regarding his rise: some texts claim Saint Tekle Haymanot guided him in dethroning the Zagwe monarchy, while others cite Iyasus Mo’a, the abbot of Istifanos Monastery.
Ascension and Reign
Legendary tales embellish Yekuno Amlak’s journey to power, including a prophecy surrounding a rooster, symbolizing his eventual rule. The motif of the rooster aligns with similar myths from the Ethiopian Mashafa dorho and tales about Kaffa’s first king.
His incarceration by the Zagwe King Za-Ilmaknun at Mount Malot is a defining moment in traditional history. Despite his imprisonment, Yekuno Amlak masterminded an escape, rallying support from the Amhara provinces and Shewa. With the combined might of the Muslim Sultanate of Shewa and a devoted army, the last Zagwe ruler was defeated at the Battle of Ansata.
Upon his ascent, Yekuno Amlak assumed his father’s throne name. His reign was marked by campaigns against the Kingdom of Damot and diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, notably with the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII. His attempts to secure an Abuna, or a head bishop, for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church led to strained relations with Muslim neighbors. However, Amlak’s rapport with the Emirs of Harar was so influential that it catalyzed the foundation of Ankober, a new capital near their domain.
Yekuno Amlak’s architectural contributions include the construction of the Church of Gennete Maryam near Lalibela, renowned for its ancient dateable wall paintings in Ethiopia.
Emperor Baeda Maryam I, his descendant, ensured Yekuno Amlak’s remains were re-interred in the church of Atronsa Maryam, further cementing his legacy as a pivotal figure in Ethiopian history.