Select Page

Emperor Libne Dingel was a boy of 13 when he assumed the Imperial Throne upon the death of his father Emperor Naod in 1507. Born to Emperor Naod and his wife Empress Naod Mogassa, Libne Dingel was named Dawit (David) but assumed his baptismal name, Libne Dingel upon becoming Emperor. He is sometimes refered to as Emperor Dawit I He was also given the royal nom-du-guerre of Wanag Seged upon his enthronement. Seged means “to whom bows” in Ge’ez, the ancient language of the Ethiopian Church. Wanag means Lion in Somali, so Wanag Seged translates to “He to whom the lions bow.” As the new Emperor was a minor, it was decided that a regency council should rule the country in his name until he reached the age of majority. The regency was headed by the widow of Emperor Beide Mariam I, the Dowager Empress Eleni, grandmother of the new monarch.

The other members of the Regency Council included Dowager Empress Naod Mogassa, mother of the Emperor, Dejazmatch Wossen Seged of Gojjam, a royal relative who bore the title Gojjam Negash, and several other relatives and officials. Empress Eleni, was the senior of the two Dowager Empresses, and as such, she presided over the council as the chief regent. Empress Eleni was the widow of Beide Mariam the Great, and had also briefly served as regent for her son Naod. She was the daughter of a previous sultan of Adal, and was thus a member of the muslim Walasma dynasty of that vassal state. She had converted to Christianity to marry the Empreror of Ethiopia, and had become a very devout member of the Orthodox Church. Empress Naod Mogassa was the sister of the Bahir Negash Dori. The Bahir Negash was the ruler of the northernmost province which bordered the Red Sea, which roughly corresponds to the modern state of Eritrea. Dejazmatch Wossen Seged was a powerful nobleman who was related to the new Emperor, and was a man feared and respected throughout the Empire.

With the help of these regents, the boy Emperor began his long reign. Ethiopia was prosperous and reasonably peaceful at the time. The Islamic Emirates, Sultanates and Imamates of the lowlands were in submissive vassalage to the Imperial Crown, paying their annual tribute. At this time, there were about 60 foriegn nationals in the Ethiopian Empire. Most were Middle Eastern, Armenian, Greek or South Asian (Indian), but one was a man named Pedro De Corbelam, who was Portugese. This man had become very influential at court, particularly with the young Emperor, and the Empress-Regent Eleni. He impressed upon the Queen, the greatness of Portugal and the Christian piety of her King and people. The Empress, troubled by the increasing influence of the Ottomans among the Islamic subjects of the Empire, decided that Portugal might prove to be a valuable ally against the Turks. In 1508, the Turks had provided a large amount of weapons to the Emir of Harrar and the Adal, Mahfuz (or Mahfud), and the Emir had invaded the Shewan district of Yifat and had burned farms and churches.

The young Emperor Libne Dingel had led his first military expedition against the Emir, and defeated him in July of that year in Yifat, and was presented with the Emir’s severed head. Although the crushing of the Adal forces at Yifat was to provide peace for the following 10 years, Empress Eleni was not reassured. She feared that the Turks would continue to arm the Islamic principalities in the lowlands, and it was only a matter of time before another invasion was lauched. Therefore, she decided to send a letter seeking freindship and a gift of a large gold processional cross to the King of Portugal. As the first Ambassador of the Ethiopian Monarch to be sent abroad, she chose an Armenian merchant named Matthew. Matthew the Armenian set out from Ethiopia in 1510 and arrived in the Portugese colony in India. From India, Matthew traveled to Portugal, arriving three years later, in 1513, and was recieved by King Emanuel the Lucky. The letter from the Dowager Empress Eleni, proposed that marriage ties be established between the two royal families, and that the Portugese with their powerful navy help push the Turks from the Red Sea region.

Matthew also relayed a verbal message stressing the advantages Portugal could gain by pushing the Turks from the Red Sea, and having Ethiopia as an ally on the African coast, protecting Portugese interests in the Indian Ocean and it’s Indian colony. King Emanuel was so sufficiantly impressed by the idea, that he sent Matthew to Rome to meet Pope Leo X, with a letter explaining the proposal from the Empress-Regent of Ethiopia. The Pope listened to Matthew, and agreed that the only surviving Christian state in Africa must be cultivated as an ally. The King of Portugal and Pope Leo X decided to send a large delegation to Ethiopia. To lead this first European Embassy to Africa, King Emanuel appointed Dom Edwardo Galvam, and several deputies. The Pope added several clerics whose mission was to bring the Ethiopian Church into the fold of the Roman Catholic faith. They included the clergymen Dom Francois Alvarez, Juan Fernandez, and Alfonso Mendez. The King and the Pope wrote letters, (dated November 1st, 1514) and sent them off from Lisbon with Matthew the Armenian in 1515.

Their initial attempt to enter Ethiopia was aborted when the leader of the delegation, Dom Edwardo Galvam died suddenly on the Red Sea island of Camaran. Three other members of the delegation also died on the Dahlak Islands off Massawa, so the Portugese decided to go to India. Two years later, with the addition of Dom Rodrigo and George D’Albern, they entered Ethiopia and entered the Monastery at Debre Bizen to await an answer to the announcement of their arrival that they sent to the Emperor in Shewa. Matthew the Armenian died at Debre Bizen, the victim of an epidemic. The Europeans fled the monastery because of the epidemic and went to Debaroa, the seat of the Bahir Negash, who was the uncle of the Emperor. From Debaroa, the Portugese traveled into Shewa and attended the enstalment of the new Echege of Debre Libanos Monastery.

Then on November 20th, 1520, the Portugese and Papal embassy to Ethiopia arrived in Antsokia (Antioch), and were recieved by the Emperor Libne Dingel. The Emperor was now of age, and was ruling in his own right without any regents. He was still a young man, and perhaps a bit rash. The Chronicle of Kings states that he had founded a new capital at a place named Bokan. With the protracted period of peace, the Emperor had engaged in war games to keep up the battle skills of his army. The Chronicler was apparently disapproving of the manuvers, as he states that the Emperor’s war games had caused the walls of his citadel to crumble and kill many beggars who had come to beg alms. The Chronicler seems to have been implying that this may have contributed to the displeasure of the creator which led to the catastophe of the Gragn wars which were soon to follow.

The Chronicle also accuses the Emperor of practicing the Pagan Oromo tradition of painting the forhead of his horse with the blood of a slaughtered sheep and engaging in Pagan ritual including the smoking of tobacco. The chronicle also states that the Emperor sent loads of incense to the monasteries of Debre Libanos and Tana Qirqos and begged the monks to pray for war, so that he could earn glory on the battle field like his ancestors. These acts are what the chronicler believed caused the chaos to come. Perhaps Libne Dingel had behaved poorly in the early years after assuming full power due to his youth. Now he was faced with the first group of Europeans to visit Africa in an official ambasadorial capacity. He had apparently expected the Portugese to bring him weaponry, but instead, most of them were priests. This displeased him immensely, and he told the delegation so.

However things were quickly smoothed over. The delegation included a painter and a doctor. The painter was quickly put to work making religious Icons, and the doctor was also put to work. After a stay of 6 years, the Portugese (with the exception of the artist and the doctor) returned to Europe. They were accompanied by an Ethiopian priest, Tsega Ab, who was sent as an emmisarry to the King of Portugal. Dom Francois Alvarez was appointed as emmissary to the Pope. A gold crown was sent as a gift to the new King of Portugal, John II, and a gold cross was sent to the new Pope, Clement. The Emperor requested that artisans, builders and weapons be sent to him. They set off for Europe in 1526.

They were expected to return as soon as possible. Ten years later, however, with no sign of a reply, the Emperor sent one of the Portugese who had remained behind, Juan Bermudez to Lisbon. This time the messenger brought dire news. The Christian Empire of Ethiopia was on the verge of being utterly distroyed at the hand of a Moslem prince, and the Heir of the House of Solomon was pleading for help. His Empire was being crushed by a Moslem leader who had swept into the Christan highlands and was systematically erasing every trace of the Christian faith that he could find. His name was Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim Al Ghazi, better known to Ethiopians as Mohammed Gragn.