The period of Zagwe rule in the central Ethiopian highlands was one of the most remarkable in the region’s medieval history. The dynasty presided over an energetic Christian expansion through the central Ethiopian plateau, as well as a period of notable commercial and cultural interaction with Egypt and the Middle East; it was also responsible for the creation of some of Ethiopia’s most stunning architecture. All of this notwithstanding, however, the Zagwes have been disparaged by the region’s subsequent chroniclers, being represented as usurpers of power from the legitimate “Solomonic” line. The Zagwes sought legitimacy by creating the myth that they descended from Moses. They also attempted to assert moral authority with their remarkable architecture. Neither, however, has impressed Ethiopia’s royal chroniclers, who have in general depicted the Zagwes as transgressors with no “Israelite” connection, while even Zagwe rock-hewn architecture is actually supposed to have been the work of angels.
Our knowledge of the entire Zagwe period is in fact somewhat limited, while the circumstances of their rise to power are unclear. The Zagwes were originally Agaw-speakers, with their home base in the province of Lasta, an area which had long been part of the Christian kingdom, and which was strategically located to take advantage of north-south trade and communication links. They belonged to an increasingly successful military and political class that had become assimilated into Semitic and Christian culture in the centuries following the decline of Axum, during which period they were integrated into post-Axumite ruling elites. They seized power around 1150 (or 1137, according to Ethiopian tradition), but there is little evidence to suggest that their emergence represented a “revolution” as such, or that there was a dramatic episode at the time of the first Zagwe ruler’s accession. It seems, rather, that the assumption of royal powers by the Lasta political class was the culmination of a sociopolitical process dating back at least two centuries and did not represent a significant break with the past. As the state expanded, Christian military leaders, chosen either from among the royal family or those close to it, were appointed as territorial governors with considerable local powers; many members of the Zagwe court were drawn from Lasta and held high ecclesiastical and administrative positions, while military leadership and economic power were also probably awarded to such courtiers. The territorial expansion of the state was attended by Christian missionary activity and, backed by a substantial army, Christian settlement and control were pushed southward, particularly into Gojjam and onto the Shoan plateau.
There was a significant growth in the kingdom’s external relations during the era of Zagwe rule. The rise of Fatimid Egypt led to renewed commercial activity along the Red Sea, and the Ethiopian highlands benefited from such trading links. The slave trade in particular expanded, although gold and ivory were also important exports. Textiles and other luxuries from the Islamic world were imported by Muslim merchants through Massawa on the Red Sea coast. In addition to this increased commercial interaction, the Zagwes also strengthened their links with the Egyptian Coptic Church, and strong trading relations between the Ethiopian region and Egypt enabled pilgrims from the highlands to pass through Muslim territories on their way to Jerusalem. Such contacts brought the region once again to the attention of Europe, where in the twelfth century stories began to circulate about a remote but devout and wealthy “kingdom of Prester John.”
Visits to the Holy Land may also have been, partly at least, the inspiration behind the remarkable rockhewn churches of the period. While a tradition of carving churches out of solid rock already existed, the Zagwes raised the architectural form to new heights. The third ruler in the dynasty, Yimrha, is credited with initiating the program of building rock-hewn churches, but it is Lalibela with whom some of Ethiopia’s most outstanding architecture is associated. Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, undoubtedly the peak of the Zagwe state, Lalibela presided over what appears to have been an attempt to reconstruct Jerusalem in the central Ethiopian highlands. The stunning results are an indication of the strength of Christianity in the region and represent the Zagwes’ determination to demonstrate the primacy of their political and religious order. This was also a period in which, in spite of the links with the Egyptian church, the Ethiopian church developed its own particular characteristics, centered around the idea that it was an outpost of Christianity surrounded by infidels, and that the Christians of the region were God’s chosen people. The increasing influence of the Old Testament gave rise to the perception that the Christian kingdom was Israel’s true successor.
Despite its considerable achievements, weaknesses in the Zagwe state had begun to appear by the early thirteenth century. Unable to forge regional unity, the Zagwes were also undermined by their own repeated succession disputes, and such internal conflicts encouraged the emergence of anti-Zagwe movements among the Semitic-speaking Tigrayans and Amhara. The most powerful challenge ultimately came from the Christian community in Shoa, which had grown prosperous from the eastbound trade routes and which had the support of the church. The Shoan rebellion under YekunoAmlak started around 1268 and, after a series of battles across Lasta and Begemedir, the last Zagwe king was killed in 1270, whereupon YekunoAmlak declared himself ruler. In order to assert its own legitimacy, the new dynasty developed the myth that they descended from King Solomon and Queen Makeda of Saba; the “Solomonic” line claimed that it was now “restored,” following the Zagweusurpation, but it seems fair to say that only insofar as the monarch was once again a Semitic-speaker can YekunoAmlak’s advent to power be considered a “restoration.” While the Zagwes were thereafter generally denigrated, Lalibela himself was subsequently canonized by the Ethiopian church, and Zagwe influence continued to be felt in terms of both the architectural and administrative styles of a kingdom, the success of which owed much to Zagwe innovation.
REID, R. and Reid, R. (2004). Ethiopia: Zagwe dynasty, 1150-1270. In K. Shillington (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African history. London, United Kingdom: Routledge. Retrieved from https://login.ezproxy2.library.drexel.edu/login?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Froutafricanhistory%2Fethiopia_zagwe_dynasty_1150_1270%2F0