Iyasu I

Alternative Spellings: Iyasu the Great
Coptic Church

Iyasu I (about 1658 - October 13, 1706), emperor from 1682-1705, was called Adyam-Saggad I, but posterity knew him as Iyasu the Great. He led many military campaigns, sought to reconcile religious differences, and built many churches

He was the son of Emperor Yohannes I (q.v.), and of his wife Sabla Wangél. He was carefully educated, and was trained in the arts of war. In 1676, on the death of his eldest brother Yostos, he inherited his brother’s house in the capital at Gondar, his arms and treasures, and his position as Aggafari (chamberlain) of Semén, in what is now northwestern Ethiopia. He also became Nagash (governor) of Gojam. In 1677 he took part in an expedition to Lasta.

He disagreed with his father Yohannes, probably about ecclesiastical policies, and sided with his opponents. He twice escaped from Gondar, in 1680, and on the second occasion sought refuge among friendly Galla. But Abuna Sinoda, the head of the Ethiopian Church, arranged a reconciliation, and Iyasu returned to Gondar. Although he then lost the governorship of Gondar, he retained that of Semén

When Yohannes died, on July 19, 1682, Iyasu was unanimously proclaimed, and crowned emperor. Although he was not personally aggressive, and often preferred reconciliation to fighting, his reign was marked by many military campaigns, in which he was generally victorious. He had to defend his empire against the Galla, who constantly invaded the south during the dry seasons. His major campaigns were against the Wallo Galla to the east in 1684, and various Galla groups to the south (1685, 1686, 1688, 1690-91, 1696, 1699, 1700). In 1696 he fought the Tola Galla to the southeast, and on that occasion Iyasu visited Shawa. On his last expedition in 1705, Iyasu went as far as the Gibé river region in the southeast, and visited the Galla monarchy of Enarea.

Iyasu also made several expeditions to the north and northwest of his empire against the people whom the chroniclers called the Shanqélla. Campaigns were conducted in 1687. Later, in 1693, during the expedition against the Dubani, the Naib (ruler), Musa, of Areqiko (a Red Sea port south of Massawa), previously an enemy, was so impressed with the emperor’s power that he decided to surrender and go to the ancient capital and religious site of Aksum, to pay tribute and ask for pardon.

The most difficult problems of the reign were religious. Iyasu, unlike his father, adhered to the Dabra Libanos school (whose religious orthodoxy followed the doctrines of the Coptic church of Alexandria), and this aroused the hostility of the Gojam party, who were followers of Ewostatewos (an heretical monk). But Iyasu dealt with all segments of the clergy with patience and tolerance. He arranged several councils to which all opposing parties were invited, and encouraged discussions for the settlement of differences. Although important councils were held in Gondar in 1684 and 1686, and private discussions were also held in 1687, 1688 and 1691, the parties could not agree on a single formula to describe Christ’s Nature. Iyasu occasionally interfered in church affairs, and even caused the deposition of Abuna Sinoda in 1693, and the appointment of a new head of the Church, Abuna Marqos

Taking advantage of these religious disputes, pretenders, encouraged by Iyasu’s religious opponents, laid claim to the throne. The most dangerous conspiracy was that of his former counselors, Blattengeta Yohannes Dajazmach, and Walda-Giyorgis

Iyasu built many churches, the most important being the churches of the Trinity at Dabra Berehan in Gondar, and Qeddus Gabriel on the island of Kebran on Lake Tana. He fixed the rate of customs dues for Tegré in 1698, and also issued a proclamation in 1690, ordering women to wear trousers while riding. He liked to travel incognito through his country, and used sometimes to retire to the islands of Lake Tana to fast. Although his favorite residence was his palace at Aringo, 11 miles (18 km) west of Dabra Tabor, east of Lake Tana, his magnificent court at Gondar was described by the French traveler Charles Jacques Poncet, who visited Ethiopia in 1699-1700.

Iyasu married one wife, Walatta-Tseyon, but had many concubines, by whom he had several children. Poncet mentions eight princes and three princesses, but a 20th-century authority, E. A. W. Budge, gives the figure of 10 sons and 20 daughters.

The death of his favorite concubine, Qeddesta-Krestos, was a turning point in his life. On learning of her illness during the Enarea expedition of 1705, Iyasu returned from the campaign to Gojam, where he found her already dead. Grief-stricken, he returned to the islands of Lake Tana. Meanwhile the dignitaries in Gondar announced Iyasu’s deposition, and enthroned his son, Takla Haymanot, who had been left in Gondar during the expedition. Iyasu at first collected an army to regain his throne, but then fell sick, gave up the fight, and returned to the island of Chaqela Manzo, where he spent the winter. His partisans tried to return him to power, but Takls Haymanot sent his maternal uncles to murder him on the island on October 13, 1706.

Stanislaw Chojnacki


R. Basset, Etudes sur l’histoire d’Ethiopie (“Studies in Ethiopian History”), Paris, 1882; J. Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, 3rd edition, 8 volumes, Edinburgh, 1813; E. A. W. Budge, A History of Ethiopia, 2 vols, London, 1928; C. Conti Rossini, “Iyasu I re d’Etiopia e martire”, Revista degli studi orientali, Vol. 20, Rome, 1942; I. Guidi, Annals Iohannis I, Íyasu I et Bakaffa (“Annals of Yohannes I, Iyasu I, and Bakaffa”), Paris, 1905; C. J. Poncet, A Voyage to Ethiopia 1698-1701, London, 1949; J. Perruchon, “Chronique de Iyasu I” (“Chronicle of Iyasu I”), Révue Sémitique, Paris, April, 1899.

This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1997 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.