Ethiopia’s Early Solomonic Period Ends

The decline of the Solomonic Dynasty and the rise of a powerful Muslim movement threw the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia into a period of severe crisis that threatened the very existence of the Ethiopian state.

Summary of Event

The Solomonic rulers who assumed the Ethiopian throne in the thirteenth century, claiming descent from the biblical king Solomon and the mythical Ethiopian queen Sheba, ushered in an era of territorial expansion, state building, and a remarkable revival of Christian culture. However, by the early sixteenth century, the Solomonic Dynasty no longer enjoyed its original level of political and military dynamism. The later kings not only failed to maintain the momentum generated by the early Solomonic rulers but also proved incapable of neutralizing the gathering political storm that was soon to overwhelm the country and to test the continued viability of the Christian kingdom. Religion;Africa
Solomonic Dynasty
Zara Yacob
Baeda Mariam
Lebna Dengel
Aḥmad Grāñ
Gama, Christóvão da
Zara Yacob
Baeda Mariam
Lebna Dengel
Aḥmad Grāñ
Gama, Christóvão da

A number of internal and external factors contributed to the downward spiral of Solomonic power. In a way, the Solomonic rulers were victims of their own success. The spectacular expansion that began in the fourteenth century had dangerously overextended the Christian empire. The process of cultural assimilation and political integration of the diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious communities within the empire remained incomplete. Outside the core area that constituted the predominantly Christian population of the northern and central highlands, the remaining vast regions to the west, the south, and the east were only marginally affected by the cultural and political traditions of the center.

Loyalty to the Christian monarch at the center of the empire did not extend beyond nominal submission, expressed through the payment of annual tributes. While in theory the Solomonic emperor had absolute power over political and military affairs throughout the empire, in practice, local hereditary families were often left in power in each community, especially in newly incorporated regions. Only the presence of strong imperial garrisons and fear of the wrath of the powerful Solomonic kings kept the periphery of the empire loyal to its center. Weakness in the center almost invariably resulted in unrest at the periphery.

The viability of the medieval Ethiopian state rested heavily on the person of its Solomonic rulers. The extraordinary political and military exploits of a succession of capable kings, combined with a skillful propaganda apparatus that linked the dynasty with the House of David, had invested the monarchy with an aura of invincibility. Powerful emperors like Zara Yacob not only reigned supreme over affairs of state but forged a much tighter union with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Orthodox Church, Ethiopian as well. The Solomonic system suffered from a fatal flaw, however, that eventually proved its undoing: It lacked an orderly system of succession. The death of a monarch was often followed by political strife. The problem was complicated by the polygamous customs of Ethiopian emperors. The institution of a royal prison at Mount Gishen, where all male members of the Solomonic Dynasty except the reigning monarch and his own sons were detained, was only partially successful in ensuring an orderly transfer of power.

The succession problem grew far worse after the death of Zara Yacob, the last effective medieval emperor. His son, Baeda Mariam, reversed Zara Yacob’s centralizing policy and created conditions that encouraged the proliferation of powerful factions within the empire. On the death of Baeda Mariam, civil war broke out between rival supporters of his two minor sons. Rivalries and internal division among the officials of the royal courts greatly undermined the unity of the Christian polity that was so essential for the defense and administration of the extensive Ethiopian Empire.

The political strife in the capital distracted the Christian kingdom from focusing on the management of its frontier areas, thereby allowing the opposition at the periphery to grow unchecked. The predominantly Muslim region in the east was a particular source of resistance, beginning from the early years of the sixteenth century. While in the past Ethiopia had dealt effectively with Muslim resistance to the east of its borders, it had not yet been challenged by such a unified and highly organized Muslim force. The new Islamic Islam;Ethiopia movement was centered at Adal Adal , a Muslim principality located around present-day Harer, far from the immediate reach of the emperors. Adal provided the focal point for widespread Muslim insurgency against Christian hegemony. Muslims in the frontier provinces of Yifat, Dawaro, Fatagar, and Bali were inspired to follow Adal’s example and leadership. The limited military successes of emperors Naod and Lebna Dengel were insufficient to reverse the insurgency. Naod himself was killed in battle with the eastern Muslims in 1508.

The expansion of Ottoman power over the Red Sea area in the second decade of the sixteenth century provided an additional moral boost and material support to the Muslims of Adal. The fighting strength of the Muslim forces was greatly increased, moreover, by the introduction of firearms and the arrival of Turkish and Arab matchlock men to swell their ranks.

A crucial factor in the rise of a formidable Muslim power in Adal was the leadership of Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhim al-Ghāzī, popularly known to Ethiopians as Grāñ (the left handed). A charismatic imam who preached a fiery brand of Islam, Aḥmad Grāñ imbued the Muslim movement with a new sense of mission and coherence. He first carried out a series of expeditions against his own fellow Afar and the Somali tribes to impose discipline and unity upon the unruly desert warriors. He followed this campaign by declaring a jihad against the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia in 1527.

Religious fervor and the prospect of plunder galvanized the pastoral Muslims rallying behind the imam. Ethiopia’s defenses crumbled in the face of the superior leadership, firearms, and new tactics of the Muslim army. Most of the border provinces fell within the first two years of the offensive. The traumatized Christian army evacuated one post after another, allowing Aḥmad’s army deep into the Christian highlands.

The most important battle took place at Shimbra-Kure Shimbra-Kure, Battle of (1529)[Shimbra Kure, Battle of (1529)] on the central Shewan plateau on March 7, 1529. Here, the army of Emperor Lebna Dengel was decisively defeated by Aḥmad Grāñ. Although the emperor escaped with his life, a good portion of the military and political leadership of the empire died on the battlefield. Aḥmad pressed his victory by rapidly advancing toward the empire’s core, destroying churches and laying waste to Christian villages. Christian resistance was reduced to local guerrilla warfare.

Emperor Lebna Dengel spent the next decade retreating from one mountain fortress to another. In desperation, he appealed to the Portuguese king for military assistance, but he died in 1540, a few months before a contingent of four hundred Portuguese troops arrived at the coast to aid the embattled Christian forces. About half of this small Portuguese force, including its commander Christóvão da Gama, the son of the famous explorer Vasco da Gama, were killed in their first engagement with Aḥmad Grāñ at Tigray. The surviving Portuguese soldiers managed to join forces with the new Emperor Galawdewos. Galawdewos had some success in reviving Christian morale, and on February 22, 1543, he fought and killed Aḥmad Grāñ at the Battle of Woina Dega Woina Dega, Battle of (1543) . The overstretched Muslim army had been held together by the sheer force of the personality of the imam, and it fell apart soon after his death.


The decline of the Solomonic Dynasty and the rise of a powerful Muslim movement in the eastern part of the country threw Ethiopia into profound convulsion that threatened both the social order of the Christian community and the very existence of the state. Although the state survived, its power was greatly diminished, and it lost a significant portion of its southern territories as a result. Moreover, the wars of the sixteenth century caused enormous material and cultural destruction within the empire and impeded the development of Ethiopian culture for centuries.

Further Reading

  • Crummey, Donald. Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia, from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. An excellent work on the political and social history of Ethiopia, particularly useful in underlining the economic basis of political domination.
  • Marcus, Harold. History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A general survey of Ethiopian history from ancient times to the present.
  • Shihab ad-Din Ahmad bin Abd al-Qader bin Salem bin Utman. Futuh al-Habasha/The Conquest of Abyssinia. Translated by Paul Lester Stenhouse. Hollywood, Calif.: Tsehai, 2003. An eyewitness account of the Muslim conquest of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia by a Yemeni writer who accompanied Aḥmad Grāñ.
  • Tadesse Tamrat. Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1972. One of the most respected works on the history of medieval Ethiopia, especially useful for understanding the background to the decline of the Solomonic Dynasty.
  • Tadesse Tamrat. “The Horn of Africa: The Solomonids in Ethiopia and the States of the Horn of Africa.” In Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Vol. 4 in General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. A succinct account of the political conditions in the Horn of Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
  • Trimingham, J. S. Islam in Ethiopia. New York: Clarendon Press, 1952. A valuable work on the history of Muslim-Christian interaction in Ethiopia.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

c. 1464-1591: Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

May, 1485-Apr. 13, 1517: Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars

1491-1545: Christianity Is Established in the Kingdom of Kongo

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

1510-1578: Saՙdī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco

1525-1600: Ottoman-Ruled Egypt Sends Expeditions South and East

1529-1574: North Africa Recognizes Ottoman Suzerainty

Mar. 7, 1529: Battle of Shimbra-Kure

1591: Fall of the Songhai Empire