- Restored–Solomonic Dynasty of Lake Tana and Gondar : 1543-1769 [20]

20. After Gragn’s revolt and the northward migration of the Oromo, the Restored Solomonic Dynasty under Minas Lebna Dengel established its domicile near Lake Tana , while Yaqub Lebna Dengel stayed in Shewa. A rebellion was started by baherenegash (Pasha) Yeshaq in the north (current day Eritrea ). Under the prompting of Turks and in support of the rebellion in the north, the sultan of Harar, Muhammad ibn Nasir went to war against Emperor Zerse Dengel, the Successor of Minas Lebna Dengel. The sultan was captured and executed and the military status of Harar was removed. Bahrenegash Yessaq along with his Turkish supporters was killed, and Turkish squatters from Arqiqo were removed. Zerse Dengel built Aksum Tsion Maryam to replace the one destroyed by Gragn. Later, Emperor Fassilides built a bigger cathedral of Aksum Tseyon next to the old one that Gragn had destroyed. Much later, Haile Selassie built yet another church of Aksum Tseyon . Meanwhile, Portuguese missionaries evangelized in the north. Eventually,they succeeded in converting some Ethiopian kings, Ze Dengel and Susneyos, to profess Catholicism as their religion. However, the Orthodox Christianity was restored and the Portuguese expelled by Emperor Fassilides after Susneyos abdicated his throne and his son Fassilides became emperor.

After resolving the Portuguese problem, the city of Gondar was established. Thus, Gonderine emperors built Gondar independent of influences by any country or religious group. Also, Gondar , like Aksum and Lalibela before it, is truly Ethiopian in its inspiration and dedication. However, the question is why was Gondar selected as the capital of Ethiopia ?

Emperors Minas, Zarsa Dingl, Za Dengl, and Susneyos had established residences by Lake Tana . Susneyos had built a Church of Tekla Haymanot in Gondar . Compared to Lake Tana , Gondar is not infested with mosquitoes, and its terrain offered excellent drainage for habitation even in the rainy season. Located in the Qaha and Angereb river basins, the Gondar woodland of that time could easily be turned into a city with Dambeya in the south and Wagara in the north furnishing food staffs of crops and cattle. Gondar was at the crossroads for trade with Enary (part of which is now southern Welega) in the south, Sinnar ( Sudan ) in the west, Sawakin and Massawa on the Red Sea coast as outlets to Yemen , India and elsewhere. These conditions and a desire to build a substantial capital city, perhaps in a place with a name that began with the letter G in accordance to legend, led Emperor Fassilides to commission the building of a castle at Gondar , where he had resided as of 1635. Fassil’s successors Yohannes 1 (1677-92), Iyasu I (1692-1706), Dawit II, Bakafa (1721-30) added structures to the walled city. Up to 44 churches were built in Gondar . Outside the castles, Gondar offered a large open space for public functions and open market activities. Also, there was a quarter for those that follow the Moslem faith (Islamege) adjacent to River Angered and near its confluence with River Qaha. Unfortunately, the building phase of Gondar was soon to arrive.

Recurrent fires, revolts, and fights between contending kings and usurpers, and earthquakes seriously damaged buildings and other properties at Gondar . Fires occurred in 1691, 1710, 1716 and 1726 that resulted in the burning of churches, doors and other flammable materials. In 1704, an earthquake shook Gondar and structures were damaged and people were killed buried in rubble. The most bizarre of fires was that initiated by the burning of gunpowder in the palace pursuant to an order by a usurper king, Yostos, who intended to smoke out the bad spell that he felt witchcrafts had placed in his domicile. Iyassu II had the misadventure of not winning a battle against the Funj King of Sinnar. That had brought such a discontent that the inhabitants had wished to follow another of the princes of Gondar and revolted against the seating emperor. The revolt against Emperor Iyassu II in the 1730's by followers of a nominee called Hezqyas resulted in the tearing down of some of the buildings of the city. After defeating the rebels, Iyasu II decorated the palace that James Bruce, a British visitor about 30 years later described as follows.

" The skirting ... was furnished with ivory four feet from the ground. Over these were three rows of mirrors from Venice , all joined together, and fixed in frames of copper, or cornices gilt with gold." [M96] Iyasu II was Buried at Tekla Haymanot Church at which his father Bakafa was also buried.

As fate would have it, the widow of the late Emperor Bekafa, and the one that was remarried to a grandson of Emperor Iyasu I, herself raised to the rank of Empress Brehana Mogas, the Qwara girl that was baptized as Walata Giorgis but was named Mentwab, was too eager to protect her name and that of her family. Blinded by that ambition she gave the hand of her daughter Aster, born of her second husband, in marriage to Ras Mikael Sehul of Tigrey that the empress and her grandson raised to the position of King's master (enderasse, or viceroy) and housed at Ras Gemb that was built in Gonder by Iyasu I or his grandfather Fassilides as the domicile for the most favored and highest military general of the land. Her intention was to balance the rival factions of the Oromo and Qwara dignitaries of the Palace. Apparently, Ras Mikael excelled in making himself very important so much that the empress wanted him to relocate to Tigrey. In his wrath, Ras Mikael assassinated Emperor Iyoab, Mentwab's grandson that was born of Emperor Iyasu II and his Oromo wife Bersabeh, burnt the archival house and the Bete Mengist, appointed another emperor, and delivered the demise of the Gonderine kingdom and with it that of Mentwab's family. Didn't Mentwab preside over the demise of the Gonderine Kingdom ?

After assassinating the emperor that appointed him to the highest military rank, Mikael enthroned Bakafa's brother, Yohannes II, an old man with a decapitated hand that was housed at Amba Wahni north of Gondar , and who didn't desire the job. Yohannes II died (poisoned by order of Ras Mikael) in five months and five days and his son was crowned Emperor Tekla Haymanot II. People rebelled against Ras Mikael and fought to replace him. While learning about the rebellion, Ras Mikael who had already burnt books and the chancery was about to burn the whole of Gondar on the pretext that Saint Michael has so told him in a vision, but emperor Tekla Haymanot stopped that madness. Ras Mikael was defeated in 1771 by Ras Gusho after three battles at Sarbakusa, though he surrendered to his son-in-law in Gondar . After the defeat of Ras Mikael, Emperor Tekla Haymanot returned to his palace. While the emperor was in the palace, James Bruce, a Scottish traveler, reportedly was seated in one corner of the place and witnessed vandals breaking the glass windows. The vandals were overpowered and sent off for punishment. Mikael's action of deposing a king and enthroning another only to kill him too in 1769 heralded the era of Zamana Masafint, where the emperors were less powerful than the military generals (the Ras) and they grew poorer down the succession.

In 1797, after King Solomon III was overthrown, his supporters headed by Balambaras Asrat surrounded Gondar , burnt property and tore down buildings though they didn't succeed to capture Negus Tekla Giorgis. (that locals identified as the "Fesame mengist" because the prince acceded to the rank of emperor at six separate times)

In 1840-41, Mennen, the mother of Ali, married a usurper king and became Queen Mennen that way. After her son was defeated by Dejazmatch Kassa (later Emperor Tewodros), Queen Mennen pulled down as much wall as she was able to so that Gondar may not serve as a residence for the victor.

In 1864 and 66, Emperor Tewodros sacked Gondar and systematically destroyed churches, and robbed their books. Subsequently, Emperor Tekla Giorgis II (former Wagshum Gobeze) who replaced Emperor Tewodros gave moneys and offered land grants to restore the churches at Gondar .

In 1888, the Dervish burnt churches at Azazo and most of the 44 Churches of Gondar. Only the churches of Medhane Alam and Debra Brahan remained in tact.

Most of the churches were restored since. Significant restoration of the stone and cement masonry was done since April 1936 when Italian turned the old structure into government offices. But then the castle were damaged as the Italians had to be bombarded out of those structures. After the departure of the Italians additional restoration has kept up since.

The city of Gondar in its glorious days, and even after it was partly destroyed was the center of a) religious functions and learning, b) commerce, c) industry, d) rituals and public functions, and e) arts and letters.





Gene Sharp for nonviolent movement

Rubicon is crossed


Joint UEDF-CUD press release of July 2005