Decline of the Solomonid Dynasty

The Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, recovering from the trauma of a sixteenth century invasion by Muslim forces, was once again confronted by massive population movements from its periphery. Triggered by profound ecological and demographic changes in the southern part of the country, this rapid expansion of the pastoral community into the central plateau contributed to the further disorganization of the centralized state apparatus and the decline of the Solomonid Dynasty.

Summary of Event

The Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, ruled by the once-powerful Solomonid Dynasty since the thirteenth century, had barely recovered from a debilitating Muslim invasion of the sixteenth century when it was engulfed by a new wave of population movements that threw the country into crisis and led to its decline. Propelled by ecological and demographic forces, Cushitic-speaking groups from the southern fringes of the empire burst into the highlands from several directions. [kw]Decline of the Solomonid Dynasty (beginning c. 1682)
[kw]Solomonid Dynasty, Decline of the (beginning c. 1682)
Government and politics;Beginning c. 1682: Decline of the Solomonid Dynasty[2750]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Beginning c. 1682: Decline of the Solomonid Dynasty[2750]
Africa;Beginning c. 1682: Decline of the Solomonid Dynasty[2750]
Ethiopia;Beginning c. 1682: Decline of the Solomonid Dynasty[2750]
Solomonid Dynasty

Of special significance was the migration Migration;Oromo into interior of Ethiopia of the Oromo Oromo , a pastoral community that originated from the Bale region in southeastern Ethiopia. The sudden upsurge of the Oromo and their rapid expansion into the southern and central plateau as well as northward into the rich highlands of Ethiopia and eastward into Harar dramatically altered the demographic features of the country. As they advanced farther into the interiors of Ethiopia, the Oromo absorbed other Cushitic-speaking peoples in the area and significantly boosted their numbers and strength within a short time. More and more areas slipped out of the control of the central government and fell into the hands of the advancing Oromo. Although they never succeeded in constituting themselves into a single political entity, the various segments of the Oromo-speaking communities became a major cultural and political force in Ethiopia.

Still reeling from the Muslim onslaught of the sixteenth century, the Solomonid rulers of Ethiopia were slow to address the new threat. The frontier garrisons on which the central government had relied for centuries to guard the periphery of the empire were already destroyed by the Muslim invasion. Lacking the resources to protect the outlying provinces, the Solomonid kings increasingly abandoned the effort to reclaim lost territories and instead focused on repositioning their forces to defend and stabilize the core region of the empire in the north. The Solomonid rulers of the seventeenth century also had to wrestle with an increasingly restive nobility.

Since the loss of the border provinces had drastically shrunk the revenue base available for the ruling elite at the center, there ensued fierce competition between the monarchy and the regional nobility for control of the limited resources of the northern region. The imperial regiments that were key instruments of Solomonid authority could no longer be relied upon to play their traditional role of protecting the center. The personal troops of the kings intervened frequently to settle succession issues to their favor—in one instance elevating a seven-year-old boy to the throne. The early decades of the seventeenth century witnessed such succession crises and numerous uprisings led by the nobility and army commanders. Two of the emperors, Za Dengel Za Dengel and Yacob Yacob (r. 1604-1606), were killed in battle by a coalition of disgruntled generals and noblemen.

The introduction of Catholicism Catholicism;Ethiopia and the growing influence of European Jesuit Jesuits;Ethiopia missionaries in the Ethiopian court added further complication to the many challenges facing the Christian polity. Impressed by the discipline and hierarchy of the Catholic establishment, and desiring to secure the support of Western Christendom against his numerous rivals in the center and the periphery, the Ethiopian emperor Susenyos Susenyos was converted to Catholicism in 1622. Susenyos set out to change the age-old tradition of the Ethiopian church and aggressively moved to force it to conform to Catholic doctrine and practice. This, however, created more rift in the country. Ecclesiastics and laypeople joined hands in defense of the national Orthodox church and fiercely resisting the king’s effort to impose Catholicism over the country. Susenyos spent the next decade trying to suppress one uprising after another, only to discover that the rebellion and the bloodshed grew worse from year to year. Finally, he realized the futility of his policy and abdicated in favor of his son, Fasilides Fasilides . Fasilides restored the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Orthodox Church and banned Catholicism from the country. Jesuit missionaries were expelled, and further contact with Europe was discontinued.

Fasilides used his newly won prestige as defender of the national faith to revive imperial power and to stabilize the kingdom. Although efforts to reestablish authority over the old geographic framework proved impossible, Fasilides brought a measure of peace and order to the country. He founded a new capital at Gondar, which soon grew into a sophisticated city of splendid palaces and churches, a center of high culture and learning not seen in the country’s history since the fall of Axum about one thousand years earlier. The flourishing of Gondar as a major political and cultural center promoted the growth of trade and the resumption of Ethiopia’s commercial contacts with the “outside” world.

Fasilides’s successors, John I John I (emperor of Ethiopia) and Iyasu I the Great Iyasu I the Great , continued the drive to strengthen the monarchy and unify the core area of the kingdom. Iyasu in particular was determined to establish the absolute supremacy of the Crown over the regional lords and to build a powerful military that would reassert its authority over the lost provinces. He carried out reforms in the military and administration and conducted several campaigns in the south that reestablished, briefly, imperial authority over many Oromo settled areas. However, Iyasu’s forceful policy of national integration and royal supremacy encountered serious resistance from the regional nobility and the church establishment.

Torn by sectarian conflict initially triggered by disputes over the nature of Christ, the Ethiopian Orthodox church, which for centuries had served as the ideological arm of the Solomonid Dynasty, turned into a source of strife in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Iyasu’s efforts to impose unity among the dissident clergy backfired, as those who felt disfavored by the emperor joined the ranks of his enemies. The regional nobility that was threatened by Iyasu’s centralizing drive moved eagerly to exploit the religious controversy against the emperor. In the end, a coalition of the nobility and dissident clergymen succeeded in persuading Iyasu’s son to depose and assassinate his father. The removal of this powerful monarch marked the triumph of centrifugal forces in Ethiopia. For the next century and a half, the Solomonid kings virtually remained captives of the nobility.


The Solomonid Dynasty’s rulers who were instrumental in the creation of the mighty Ethiopian Christian empire of the medieval period became shadows of their former selves by the end of the seventeenth century. Although they were allowed to nominally occupy the throne, their authority never extended outside the confines of the palace in Gondar. The usurpation of real power by the regional lords destroyed central authority in the country, and Ethiopia entered into what is popularly known as the Era of Princes, a period of disorder and anarchy that lasted for more than a century and a half.

Further Reading

  • Abir, Mordecai. “Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.” In The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. 4. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A remarkably succinct presentation of the political history of the Horn of Africa in the seventeenth century.

  • Ethiopia and the Red Sea: The Rise and Decline of the Solomonic Dynasty and Muslim-European Rivalry in the Region. London: Cass, 1980. A detailed account of the saga of the Solomonic Dynasty and its impact in shaping the political landscape in northeastern Africa.
  • Beckingham, Charles F., and G. W. B. Huntingford, eds. Some Records of Ethiopia, 1593-1648. London: Hakluyt Society, 1954. An extremely useful work on seventeenth century Ethiopia that contains extracts from royal chronicles and other primary sources.
  • Crummey, Donald. Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia: From the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999. One of the best works on the political and social history of the highland Christian society of Ethiopia.
  • Haberland, Eike. “The Horn of Africa.” In General History of Africa: Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 5. Berkeley, Calif.: UNESCO, 1992. A brief outline of the history of the Horn of Africa region with helpful information on the massive population movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
  • Marcus, Harold. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. One of the best standard works on the history of Ethiopia by a well-respected historian.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Njinga. Solomonid Dynasty