Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Yohannes I

Orthodox Church

Yohannes I (l6?-July 19, 1682), the son of Fasilidas I [reigned 1632-67], was emperor of Ethiopia from 1667-82. During his reign he decreed a measure of segregation against Muslims, obliged Europeans (“Franks”) living in Ethiopia to join the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and continued the building of Gondar, begun by Fasilidas.

Yohannes was chosen by Belatengeta (“ Senior Councillor”) Malkea Krestos, with general agreement, as the most suitable of his brothers to succeed to the throne. His throne-name was Aelaf Saggad. He immediately showed a lenient spirit, proclaiming an amnesty for all those imprisoned during his father’s reign, and abolishing the tax on cattle. Meanwhile Malkea Krestos sent the other sons of Fasilidas to Amba Waheni for confinement, without Yohannes’ knowledge.

In 1668 Yohannes went to Gojam, ordered the reorganization of its defenses against the Galla, and appointed Malkea Krestos to the post of Bitwadad (a title of high seniority). In the same year a Church council was held to deal with various subjects, including the laws of marriage between relatives, and the segregation of Muslims, Turks, and Falasha. It was decided to expel foreigners, unless they chose to be baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and those who refused were given safe conduct to Sennar, in what is now the Sudan, in 1669. Dissension arose within the Church, however. Krestodolu was appointed Abuna (head of the Church), but was later deposed, and replaced in 1671 by Sinoda. The clergy of Lasta province had also begun to teach in opposition to the doctrines preached by the monks of Gojam with regard to certain aspects of the Trinity, and they threatened to break off their allegiance unless their doctrines were accepted. In 1677 Yohannes therefore sent an expedition against them, which went as far east as Angot, then a province just north of Shawa. The annals of Yohannes call this “the devastation of Lasta.” Meanwhile, a certain Fares, who later received the title of Bitwadad, aided at first by Dajzamach Za-Maryam of Adwa, led a rebellion in southern Tegre. But Za-Maryam turned against Fares, and, with his brother Beneyam, sided with the emperor. In 1680, Beneyam captured Fares and chained him, but he was freed by his guard. Fares then submitted to the emperor, realizing that his revolt had accomplished nothing but the loss of his province, Salawa.

In 1679 the emperor ordered another Church council to discuss a “detestable letter,” sent by the clergy of Lasta, in which they said that the Father was incarnate in the Virgin Mary, and “omitting the phrases of respect,” added a word to the emperor himself: “If thou wilt cease from saying to the people of thy kingdom that Christ was glorified by the unction of the Holy Spirit, thou shalt be our king and we will be thy servants and subjects.” The council ended with a threat of excommunication by Abuna Sinoda against all Ethiopians who sympathized with the clergy of Lasta. Another punitive expedition like that of 1677 then ravaged Lasta. When the expedition ended, the annual celebration of Epiphany then took place on the banks of the Takkaze River. Detailed accounts of many other royal expeditions, some of which were minor punitive expeditions, appear in the annals of Yohannes I, which give the names of all the emperor’s camping places.

At the end of 1680, while Yohannes was at Gamé in Gojam, his son Iyasu, who differed from his father on religious matters, though their relationship was otherwise amicable, was told that his father intended to chain him. Iyasu fled to his sister’s house, in spite of favorable assurances from the emperor. Yohannes sent one of his generals, Maleak Asrat, after him, but he did not cross the gorge of the Abbay (Blue Nile), and in January 1681 Yohannes sent a deputation of learned men to persuade him to return. Iyasu agreed, on condition that Yohannes promised, under pain of excommunication, not to harm him, and to make him governor of Gojam. The emperor promised, but in April asked Iyasu to go to Semen instead of Gojam, since Gojam was too remote, which would make defense difficult if any usurper tried to annex the kingdom on Yohannes’ death. Accordingly, a certain Petros was made governor of Gojam, with Iyasu’s consent. At the end of June 1681, Yohannes again asserted his interest in the theology when a Church council at Gondar excommunicated Akala Krestos, a follower of Ewostatewos (an Armenian monk who preached heretical doctrines about the nature of Christ). Yohannes’ last public appearance was at this council. He fell ill at Aringo, 11 mi (18 km) west of Dabra Tabor, and was brought to Gondar, where he died on July 19, 1682. He was buried at Sada.

Yohannes had married a daughter of Gabra Masqal of the Madabay, Sabia Wangel, who was to die in 1689. Their eldest son, Yostos, had died on June 11, 1676. Yohannes was therefore succeeded by their second son, who reigned from 1682-1705 as Iyasu I, or Iyasu the Great.

G. W. B. Huntingford


R. Basset, Etudes sur l’histoire d’Ethiopie *(“Studies in Ethiopian History”), Paris, 1882; J. B. Coulbeaux, *Histoire politique et religieuse d’Abyssinie *(“The Political and Religious History of Abyssinia”), Paris, 1929; I. Guidi, *Annales Iohannis I, ‘Iyasu I, et Eakaffa (“Annals ofYohannes I, Iyasu I, and Bakaffa”), Paris, 1905, Louvain, 1955.


This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography *(in 20 Volumes). *Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana. Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1977. All rights reserved.