Figure 3. The Early Period, Thirteenth to Seventeenth
Yekuno Amlak's grandson, Amda Siyon (reigned 1313-44),
distinguished himself by at last establishing firm control
over all of the Christian districts of the kingdom and by
expanding into the neighboring regions of Shewa, Gojam, and
Damot and into Agew districts in the Lake Tana area. He also
devoted much attention to campaigns against Muslim states to
the east and southeast of Amhara, such as Ifat, which still
posed a powerful threat to the kingdom, and against Hadya, a
Sidama state southwest of Shewa. These victories gave him
control of the central highlands and enhanced his influence
over trade routes to the Red Sea. His conquests also helped
facilitate the spread of Christianity in the southern
Zara Yakob (reigned 1434-68) was without a doubt one of the
greatest Ethiopian rulers. His substantial military
accomplishments included a decisive victory in 1445 over the
sultanate of Adal and its Muslim pastoral allies, who for
two centuries had been a source of determined opposition to
the Christian highlanders. Zara Yakob also sought to
strengthen royal control over what was a highly
decentralized administrative system. Some of his most
notable achievements were in ecclesiastical matters, where
he sponsored a reorganization of the Orthodox Church,
attempted to unify its religious practices, and fostered
proselytization among nonbelievers. Perhaps most remarkable
was a flowering of Gi'iz literature, in which the king
himself composed a number of important religious tracts.
Beginning in the fourteenth century, the power of the
negusa nagast (king of kings), as the emperor was called,
was in theory unlimited, but in reality it was often
considerably less than that. The unity of the state depended
on an emperor's ability to control the local governors of
the various regions that composed the kingdom, these rulers
being self-made men with their own local bases of support.
In general, the court did not interfere with these rulers so
long as the latter demonstrated loyalty through the
collection and submission of royal tribute and through the
contribution of armed men as needed for the king's
campaigns. When the military had to be used, it was under
central control but was composed of provincial levies or
troops who lived off the land, or who were supported by the
provincial governments that supplied them (see
Tradition in National Life, ch. 5). The result was that the
expenses borne by the imperial administration were small,
whereas the contributions and tribute provided by the
provinces were substantial.
In theory, the emperor had unrestrained control of
political and military affairs. In actuality, however, local
and even hereditary interests were recognized and respected
so long as local rulers paid tribute, supplied levies of
warriors, and, in general, complied with royal dictates.
Failure to honor obligations to the throne could and often
did bring retribution in the form of battle and, if the
emperor's forces won, plunder of the district and removal of
the local governor. Ethiopian rulers continually moved
around the kingdom, an important technique for assertion of
royal authority and for collection--and consumption--of
taxes levied in kind. The emperor was surrounded by ceremony
and protocol intended to enhance his status as a descendant
of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He lived in
seclusion and was shielded, except on rare occasions, from
the gaze of all but his servants and high court officials.
Most other subjects were denied access to his person.
The emperor's judicial function was of primary importance.
The administration of justice was centralized at court and
was conditioned by a body of Egyptian Coptic law known as
the Fetha Nagast (Law of Kings), introduced into Ethiopia in
the mid-fifteenth century (see
The Legal System, ch. 5).
Judges appointed by the emperor were attached to the
administration of every provincial governor. They not only
heard cases but also determined when cases could be referred
to the governor or sent on appeal to the central government.
Data as of 1991