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Bakaffa was nəgusä nägäst (throne name Asma Sagad, later Masih Sagad Ge'ez መሲህ ሰገድ, "to whom the anointed bows") (May 18, 1721 – September 19, 1730) of Ethiopia, and a member of the Solomonic dynasty. He was a son of Emperor Iyasu I and brother to Emperors Tekle Haymanot I and Dawit III.

Bakaffa spent his childhood confined on Wehni, but during the unrest in the last year of Emperor Yostos' reign he escaped to live with the Oromo; when he was recaptured, part of his nose was cut off as punishment, with the intent of disqualifying him for the throne.[1] Nevertheless, upon the death of his brother Emperor Dawit III, he was selected to succeed him against the wishes of a sizable group backing Welde Giyorgis, the son of Nagala Mammit.

James Bruce describes Bakaffa as faced with the increasing enfeeblement of the Ethiopian Empire as well as growing intrigue and conspiracies. To respond to these challenges, writes Bruce, Bakaffa was "silent, secret, and unfathomable in his designs, surrounded by soldiers who were his own slaves, and by new men of his own creation." In writing his account of this Emperor's reign, Bruce admits that while the Royal Chronicle "exhibited many proofs of the king's severe character and wise administration", yet "his motives seldom escaped from his own impenetrable breast."[2]

His Reign

While his reign was broken by few wars, Donald Levine observes that he "spent his days breaking the power of the feudal lords and strengthening the hand of the monarchy."[3] However, Paul B. Henze believes that "his most valuable contribution to his capital and his country was his second wife, Mentewab ('How Beautiful!')".[4]

Bakaffa also added new buildings to the capital city of Gondar. He and Mentewab built the last new buildings in the Royal Enclosure at the capital.[5] He also devoted much of his rule travelling in disguise around his realm to seek out inequities to correct, acts which, according to Edward Ullendorff, "have long become part of Ethiopian folklore."[6] It is believed that he met Empress Mentewab (his second wife) when he was on one of his frequent trips in disguise, and fell ill while visiting her home province of Qwara. He was put to bed in her father's house and she had nursed him during his illness, and upon his recovery, he had married her.

An enduring tragic mystery is that of the death of his first wife. The Emperor had crowned his previous wife in the palace, and she had proceeded to the banqueting hall to preside over her coronation banquet. After taking part in the meal, she suddenly took ill and died that very night. Rumors of poisoning were rife. His second wife, Mentewab arrived as the new Empress in Gondar to a court that was suspicious and full of intrigue and danger. That she was able to engineer her way to power and influence in such an environment is very impressive, not to mention the dominant role that she would seize upon her husband's death.

However, Bakaffa's reign at the time was not entirely happy. Fearful of the danger of insurrections against him, in 1727 he tested the attitude of his subjects by hiding in his palace for many days, with the result that the nobles and populace were alarmed. The governor of the city put a guard around the Imperial palace, at which point the crafty ruler emerged and rode to the church of Debre Berhan. While the unfortunate governor and several associates were executed the next day, Richard Pankhurst notes the public shared in this disaffection, quoting James Bruce that when rumor of Bakaffa's death circulated, "the joy was so great, so universal, that nobody attempted to conceal it"; and when he revealed that he was actually still alive,

There was no occasion to accuse the guilty. The whole court, and all stangers attending there upon business, fled, and spread a universal terror through the whole streets of Gondar. [...] What this sedition would have ended in, it is hard to know, had it not been for the immediate resolution of the king, who ordered a general pardon and amnesty to be proclaimed at the door of the palace.

Notwithstanding this clemency, Bakaffa later was quoted as remarking that although he loved the inhabitants of Gondar, they only responded with hate.[7]

A marvel of his reign, recorded in his Royal Chronicle,[8] was the construction of a new kind of boat on Lake Tana in 1726 by two foreigners from Egypt, Demetros and Giyorgis, unlike the traditional ones built from reeds.


  1. ^ James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1805 edition), vol. 4 pp. 67f
  2. ^ Bruce, Travels to Discover, vol. 4 pp.75f
  3. ^ Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (Chicago: University Press, 1965), p. 24
  4. ^ Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 104
  5. ^ Levine, Wax and Gold, p.26
  6. ^ Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People, second edition (London: Oxford Press, 1965), p. 81
  7. ^ Richard K.P. Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Towns (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1982), p. 149.
  8. ^ Translated in part by Richard K.P. Pankhurst in The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles (Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press, 1967).
Preceded by
Dawit III
Emperor of Ethiopia Succeeded by
Iyasu II


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