Susenyos I

Susenyos I
Emperor of Ethiopia

Ruins of Susenyos' palace at Dankaz
Reign 1606–1632
Coronation 1608
Predecessor Yaqob
Successor Fasilides
Born 1572
Died 17 September 1632(1632-09-17)
House House of Solomon
Religion Roman Catholic

Susenyos I (also Sissinios, in Greek, Ge'ez ሱስንዮስ sūsinyōs; throne name Malak Sagad III, Ge'ez መልአክ ሰገድ, mal'ak sagad, Amh. mel'āk seged, "to whom the angel bows"; 1572 – 17 September 1632)[1] was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1606 to 1632. His father was Abeto (Prince) Fasilides, son of Abeto (Prince) Yakob, who was a son of Dawit II. As a result, while some authorities list Susenyos as a member of the Solomonic dynasty, others consider him, instead of his son, Fasilides, as the founder of the Gondar line of the dynasty (ultimately a subset, however, of the Solomonic dynasty).

Manuel de Almeida, a Portuguese Jesuit who lived in Ethiopia during Susenyos' reign, described him as tall, with the features of a man of quality, large handsome eyes "and an ample and well groomed beard. He was wearing a tunic of crimson velvet down to the knee, breeches of the Moorish style, a sash or girdle of many large pieces of fine gold, and an outer coat of damask of the same colour, like a capelhar".[2]


As a boy, a group of Oromo fighters captured him and his father, holding them captive for over a year until they were rescued by the Dejazmach Assebo. Upon his rescue, he went to live with Queen Admas Mogasa, the mother of Sarsa Dengel and widow of Emperor Menas. His mother was Ḥamälmal Wärq, who conceived Susenyos with Fasilidas while married to another man.[3]

In 1590s, Susenyos was perceived as one of the potential successors to the throne, as Emperor Sarsa Dengel's sons were very young. In order to eliminate him from the competition, Empress Maryam Sena had Susenyos exiled, but Susenyos managed to escape and find refuge amongst the Oromo. At the death of his one-time ally, Emperor Za Dengel, he was proclaimed his successor and returned to the realm, although the fight against Emperor Yaqob continued.

Susenyos became Emperor following the defeat of first Za Sellase, then on 10 March 1607 Yaqob at the Battle of Gol in southern Gojjam. After his defeat, Za Sellase became a supporter of Susenyos, but fell out with Susenyos early in his reign, and was imprisoned on an amba in Guzamn. After a year, Za Sellase managed to escape and lived as a brigand for a year until he was killed by a peasant, who sent his head to the Emperor.[4]

In 1608, a rebel appeared near Debre Bizen. Because the body of Yaqob had never been found after the Battle of Gol, there had been some doubt that the previous Emperor was truly dead, and a pretender announced that he was the dead Emperor Yaqob. The pretender managed to disguise the fact he did not resemble Yaqob by keeping part of his face covered, claiming that he had suffered grievous wounds to his teeth and face from the battle.[5] The governor of Tigray, Sela Krestos, eventually heard of the revolt, and not trusting the loyalty of a general levy of troops struck against the rebel with his own household and the descendants of the Portuguese soldiers who had followed Cristóvão da Gama (son of the legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama) into Ethiopia. Despite their defeating the rebels three different times, the pretender managed to escape each battle to hide in the mountains of Hamasien.[6]

Meanwhile, Emperor Susenyos was preoccupied with raiding parties of the Oromo. An initial encounter with the Marawa Oromo near the upper course of the Reb River ended in a defeat for the Ethiopians; Susenyos rallied his men and made a second attack which scattered the Oromo. The Marawa allied with other Oromo, and the united force entered Begemder to avenge their defeat. Upon hearing of this, the Emperor responded by summoning his son-in-law Qegnazmach Julius and Kifla Krestos to join him with their troops, and defeated the raiders at Ebenat on 17 January 1608. According to James Bruce, the Royal Chronicle of Susenyos reports 12,000 Oromo were killed while only 400 on the Emperor's side were lost.[7] With the Oromo threat dealt with, Susenyos now could turn his attention to Yaqob the pretender; he marched to Axum by way of the Lamalmo and Waldebba, where he was formally crowned Emperor 18 March 1608, in a ceremony described by João Gabriel, the captain of the Portuguese in Ethiopia.[8] Despite this act legitimizing his rule, Susenyos had no luck capturing the pretender, and was forced to leave the task to his servant Amsala Krestos. Amsala Krestos induced two brothers who had joined the rebellion to assassinate Yaqob the pretender, who then sent the dead man's head to Susenyos. Without a scarf obscuring his features, writes Bruce, "it now appeared, that he had neither scars in his face, broken jaw, nor loss of teeth; but the covering was intending only to conceal the little resemblance he bore to king Jacob, slain, as we said before, at the battle of Lebart."[9]

According to his Royal Chronicle, Susenyos made his power felt along his western frontier from Fazogli north to Suakin.[10]

Susenyos and Catholicism

Susenyos's reign is perhaps best known as the brief period in Ethiopian history when Roman Catholic Christianity became the official religion. The Emperor became interested in Catholicism, in part due to Pedro Páez's persuasion, but also hoping for military help from Portugal and Spain (in union at the time of Susenyos's reign). Some decades earlier, in 1541, Cristóvão da Gama had led a military expedition to save the Ethiopian emperor Gelawdewos from the onslaught of Ahmed Gragn, a Muslim Imam who almost destroyed the existence of the Ethiopian state. Susenyos hoped to receive a new contingent of well-armed European soldiers, this time against the Oromo, who were ravaging his kingdom, and to help with the constant rebellions. Two letters of this diplomatic effort survive, which he entrusted to Páez to send to Europe: the one to the King of Portugal is dated 10 December 1607, while the other is to the Pope and dated 14 October of the same year; neither mention his conversion, but both ask for soldiers.[11] He showed the Jesuit missionaries his favor by a number of land grants, most importantly those at Gorgora, located on a peninsula on the northern shore of Lake Tana.

In 1613, Susenyos sent a mission heading for Madrid and Rome, led by Jesuit priest António Fernandes. The plan was to head south, in an attempt to reach Malindi, a port on the Indian Ocean in what is Kenya today, hoping to break through the effective blockade that the Ottoman conquests had created around the Ethiopian empire by sailing all the way around the southern tip of Africa. However, they failed to reach Malindi, due to delays caused by local Christians hostile to the mission.

Susenyos at last announced his conversion to Catholicism in a public ceremony in 1622, and separated himself from all of his wives and concubines except for his first wife, Wäld Śäʿala. However, the tolerant and sensitive Pedro Páez died soon afterwards, and he was replaced by Afonso Mendes, who arrived at Massawa on 24 January 1624. E. A. Wallis Budge has stated the commonly accepted opinion of this man, as being "rigid, uncompromising, narrow-minded, and intolerant."[12] Strife and rebellions over the enforced changes began within days of Mendes' public ceremony in 1626, where he proclaimed the primacy of Rome and condemned local practices which included Saturday Sabbath and frequent fasts. Yet a number of Ethiopians did embrace the new faith: Richard Pankhurst reports 100,000 inhabitants of Dembiya and Wegera alone are said to have converted to Catholicism.[13] The most serious response was launched by a triumvirate composed of his half-brother Yimena Krestos, a eunuch named Kefla Wahad, and his brother-in-law Julius. Susenyos avoided their first attempt to assassinate him at court, but while he was campaigning against Sennar they raised a revolt, calling to their side "all those who were friends to the Alexandrian faith". However, Susenyos had returned to Dembiya before the rebels expected, and quickly killed Julius. Yimena Krestos held out a while longer on Melka Amba in Gojjam, before Af Krestos captured him and brought him to Dankaz where Susenyos had his camp; here the Emperor's brother was tried and sentenced to banishment.[14]

More revolts followed, some led by champions of the traditional Ethiopian Church. One revolt which resisted all of Susenyos' efforts to put down was by the Agaw in Lasta. Their first leader was Melka Krestos, a distant member of the Solomonic dynasty, whom the Agaw had recruited. Susenyos' first campaign against them, which began in February 1629 with raising an army of 30,000 men in Gojjam, was defeated and his son-in-law Gebra Krestos slain.[15] While Melka Krestos' master of horse was slain along with 4000 men not long after while pillaging Tigray, at the same time the men of Lasta made a successful raid out of their mountains into Susenyos' territory.[16] When he attempted a second expedition against the rebels in Lasta, Susenyos found his men's morale so low that he was forced to allow them to observe one of the traditional Wednesday fasts—which brought an immediate reproach from the Catholic Patriarch. Although Susenyos eloquently defended himself, Bruce notes that "from this time, it plainly appears, that Socinios began to entertain ideas, at least of the church discipline and government, very opposite to those he had when he first embraced the Romish religion."[17] Despite this concession to his troops, and despite the fact they reached Melka Krestos' headquarters, his forces fell to an ambush and Susenyos was forced to return to Dankaz with nothing to show for his effort.

Susenyos attempted one more campaign against the rebels, only to find his men mutinous. They saw no end to unrewarding expeditions to Lasta, and when at home confronted by the executions used to enforce Catholicism on Ethiopia. While expressing some skepticism at the matter, Bruce states the Royal Chronicle reports his son told the troops that if they were victorious in Lasta, the Emperor would restore the traditional Ethiopian practices. However, as they marched behind Susenyos to Lasta, his scouts reported that Melka Krestos had descended from Lasta with 25,000 men, and were at hand. On 26 July 1631 the armies clashed; 8,000 of the rebels were dead and Melka Krestos had fled the field. Upon viewing the field of battle, Susenyos' son Fasilides is reported to have said,

These men, whom you see slaughtered on the ground, were neither Pagans nor Mahometans, at whose death we should rejoice—they were Christians, lately your subjects and your countrymen, some of them your relations. This is not victory, which is gained over ourselves. In killing these, you drive the sword into your own entrails. How many men have you slaughtered? How many more have you to kill? We have become a proverb, even among the Pagans and Moors, for carrying on this war, and apostatizing, as they say, from the faith of our ancestors.[18]

Less than a year afterwards, on 14 June 1632 Susenyos made a declaration that those who would follow the Catholic faith were allowed to do so, but no one would be forced to do so any further. At this point, all Patriarch Mendes could do in response was to confirm that this was, indeed, the actual will of the Emperor, his protector. Catholic Ethiopia had come to an end.[19]


In 1630, the Viceroy of Begemder, Sarsa Krestos, proclaimed Susenyos's son Fasilides emperor; Sarsa Krestos was promptly captured and hanged. Despite this, father and son stayed on good terms.[20] After announcing his act of toleration, Susenyos abdicated in favor of his son, Fasilides. He was buried at the church of Genneta Iyasus.


  1. Vitae Sanctorum Indigenarum: I Acta S. Walatta Petros, Ii Miracula S. Zara-Baruk, edited by Carlo Conti Rossini and C. Jaeger Louvain: L. Durbecq, 1954, pg. 62.
  2. C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, Some Records of Ethiopia, 1593-1646 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1954), p. 189. Beckingham and Huntingford gloss capelhar as a "kind of short mantle of Moorish origin."
  3. Takla Sellase "Tinno". Chronica De Susenyos: Rei De Ethiopia: Traducção E Notas. Edited by F. M. Esteves Pereira. 2 vols. Vol. 2. Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1900, p. 374
  4. James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1805 edition), vol. 3 pp. 287–289
  5. Bruce, vol. 3 p. 289
  6. Bruce, vol.3 pp. 290–292
  7. Bruce, vol. 3 pp. 292–296
  8. Bruce, vol. 3 pp. 296–300
  9. Bruce, vol. 3 pp. 299f
  10. Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopian Borderlands (Lawrenceville: Red Sea Press, 1997), p. 369
  11. Bruce, p. 287
  12. Wallis Budge, A History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia, 1928 (Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications, 1970), p. 390
  13. Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 107
  14. Bruce, pp. 344–350
  15. Bruce, pp. 381–384
  16. Bruce, pp. 390f
  17. Bruce, p. 398
  18. Bruce, pp. 402f
  19. Bruce, pp. 403ff
  20. Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time (New York: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 98f

Further reading

Preceded by
Emperor of Ethiopia
Succeeded by
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