Nä‘akweto-Lä-‘Ab, or Nä‘akuto-Lä-‘Ab, Emperor of the Zagwé dynasty, was the nephew and successor of Emperor Lalibäla. He was probably the son of Lalibäla’s elder brother and predecessor on the throne, Emperor Harbay, who appears under the name of Gäbrä-Maryam in some sources. The Gädlä Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab gives his father’s name as Gäbrä-Mäsqäl, however, perhaps in error for Gäbrä-Maryam or through confusion with Lalibäla’s own throne name which was Gäbrä-Mäsqäl. The name of his mother appears as Markéza , and his date of birth is given, doubtless erroneously in the light of known dates of the reign of Emperor Lalibäla, as 29 Sebat, 338, i.e. 24 December 1154. The account of his life as recorded in his hagiography can be summarized as follows.
Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab was brought up at court by Emperor Lalibäla and his queen, Mäsqäl-Kebra. In his youth he was married to a certain Nesehet-Maryam, by whom he had one son, Bä-Haylä-Mäsqäl, who died in childhood. The name of Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab is particularly associated with Qoqhena, in Sewa’a, a short distance east of Roha, now called Lalibäla, where he built a church with the help of three architects, Bäkimos, ‘Endreyas and Sawel, sent by Emperor Lalibäla himself. Shortly afterwards he was apparently dispatched by the Emperor on a campaign against the rebellious chief of Gojjam, Särä-Qemmes, and distinguished himself by bringing the latter back to Roha.
The Empress Mäsqäl-Kebra is said to have been so impressed by the young man that she persuaded her husband to abdicate in his favour a short time later. It appears that Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab then began to govern from his seat at Qoqhena, but a year and a half later the Queen was so angered by reports that some of his soldiers had ill-treated a poor peasant by taking away his only cow for their master, that Lalibäla took back the crown from him. Only upon his uncle’s death did he finally ascend the throne and reign for forty-seven years.
Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab is credited by his hagiographer(s) with bringing famine to Egypt by diverting the flow of the Nile for three years and seven months because the Egyptians had failed to pay him the tribute paid to Emperor Lalibäla. He relented only when the survivors of the famine promised henceforth to pay the tribute. Through the agency of an earthquake the river was then restored to its course.
It is of course extremely difficult to sift fact from fiction in the analysis of hagiographical traditions. It is, however, clearly unlikely that Emperor Lalibäla and his queen deliberately excluded their own son, Yetbaräk , from the succession in favour of their nephew, unless the former had seriously displeased them in some way. (Although a curious paper MS. entitled Gädlä Yetbaräk, examined by the contemporary scholar Taddesse Tamrat at Lalibäla says that his parents forced him to live in Tegré in poverty.) In the context of the peculiar circumstances attending the succession to the throne of the Zagwé princes, where son seldom, if ever, succeeded father, it can be assumed that a struggle for the succession took place either upon the death of Lalibäla or in his last years when his powers were declining. It seems probable that Yetbaräk and Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab were brought up together at the royal court. Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab may have been much older or a potentially stronger candidate for other reasons. As the son of a former Emperor, deposed by Lalibäla, he doubtless had his own core of supporters and probably, with their backing, was able to take the throne for a time. There is little doubt that, at a later date, Yetbaräk successfully contested the throne with his cousin, although the exact circumstances are not known. A mysterious episode related in his gädl (fol. 104r) seems to hint that Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab was later deposed and forced to take refuge from another king in the cave church of Qoqhena. It is tempting to interpret this as an allusion to his probable deposition by Yetbaräk and to assume that he lived on in hiding, as some traditions relate, depicting him as perpetually wandering between Jerusalem and the desolate land of Zäbul, east of Angot.
Another later tradition, which ascribes a dominant role in the restoration of the Solomonic line to St. Täklä-Haymanot , makes Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab the last Zagwé ruler and credits him with concluding a peaceful accord to hand over the kingdom to Yekuno-‘Amlak, first Emperor of the new Solomonic line.
It is interesting to note that, in contrast to the hagiographical traditions concerning his life, some oral traditions survive depicting Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab as a ruthless and even tyrannical figure. The Zagwa of Eritrea had a tradition that he killed many of their ancestors and forced them to flee northwards. This is perhaps a distant echo of the struggle for the succession between Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab and Yetbaräk. Another somewhat garbled story concerns his attempted abduction of a daughter of Lalibäla named Yodit or Judith; pro-Muslim leanings are also imputed to him. While little credence can objectively be attached to the legends as such, they may perhaps indicate a darker side to his character or confused memories of violent acts associated with his name.
In spite of these discrepancies, Nä’akweto-Lä-‘Ab has been canonized by the Ethiopian Church, being with Yemrehannä-Krestos, Harbay and Lalibäla, one of four Zagwé emperors officially recognized as saints.
J. Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (Edingburgh, 1813), Vol. II, 447-449.
C. R. Markham, A History of the Abyssinian Expedition (London, 1869), 248-9.
E. A. Wallis Budge, A History of Ethiopia (London, 1928), 216-19, 277, 283.
C. Conti Rossini, “Gli Atti di Re Na’akueto La-‘Ab,” Annali dell’Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, N. S., Vol. II (1943): 105-232.
——–, Studi su popolazioni dell’Etiopia (Roma, 1914), 74.
J. Perruchon, Vie de Lalibala (Paris, 1892).
Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia 1270-1527 (Oxford, 1972), 55, n. 3, 62-64.
Sergew Hable-Selassie, Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270 (Addis Ababa, 1972), 240, 241, 279, 281, 284.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from The Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography, Vol. 1 ‘From Early Times to the End of the Zagwé Dynasty c. 1270 A.D.,’ copyright © 1975, edited by Belaynesh Michael, S. Chojnacki and Richard Pankhurst, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. All rights reserved.