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Emperor Susenyos the Catholic

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  • The birth of Emperor Susenyos is among the more interesting stories of the monarchs of Ethiopia. His father was Abeto Geram Fasil, son of Abeto Yacob, and grandson of Emperor Libne Dingel. As seen previously in the history of Emperor Libne Dingel, Abeto Yacob his youngest son was hidden by his father in Shewa during the Gragn wars to ensure the continuation of the dynasty in case the rest of the Imperial family were captured and killed by Gragn. Fasil was the son of this same prince Yacob. He was nicknamed Geram, which translates to "confused". It is said that he cultivated an image of being confused and slow, a front to hide that in reality, he was a very shrewd and calculating man. Once people realized that he was far from the simpleton he liked to portray himself as, they began to refer to him as "Geram" Fasil as an ironic nickname. It is said that Abeto Fasil decided to leave Shewa and enter the service of his first cousin Emperor Sertse Dingel. During his service at court, he fell ill with tapeworm and needed treatment with the harsh kosso remedy. Empress Mariam Senna had him brought to her quarters to be nursed, as he was a member of the Imperial family, and delegated the job to a young nobelwoman in her service named Hamelmalawit. The Empress was Hamelmalawit's guardian, and as such, she was responsible for making sure she was brought up in her household in purity and respectability. Young Geram Fasil however seduced the innocent young girl and she became pregnant. When she showed signs of pregnancy, the Empress began to interrogate her as to whether she was with child. Hamelmalawit is said to have replied "Your Majesty, I live guarded in your household, would a man enter here as a flea?" The Empress is said to have replied that time would tell. When it became obvious that Hamelmalawit was indeed with child, the Empress threatened her with a severe flogging unless she revealed what man had dared to violate the Empress Mariam Senna's household. When the fearful girl revealed that it was Geram Fasil, the Empress became truely alarmed. She had once been told by a soothsayer that one born in her household, but not of her house would inherit the throne. The Empress had only born Emperor Sertse Dengel daughters and no sons. She was now faced with a posible future claimant having been concieved under her very nose. Geram Fasil fled before the Empress could have him arrested, and went to Gojjam. The Empress then ordered that Hamelmalawit's belly be massaged with the chaff of Teff grain dipped in water. It was believed that this would cause the baby to be born blind, thus eliminating him from succession to the throne. However, Hamelmalawit was able to send messages to her relatives who were able to rescue her and help her escape to Ginde Beret where she gave birth to her son, who was not blind much to his mother's relief. The child was named Susenyos and given the honorific of Abeto. Once news of the birth of this new prince arrived however, Sertse Dingel insisted that the boy be brought to court and raised as a prince. Empress Mariam Senna, accepted the Emperor's decision and Susenyos was raised at court with the other royal children.

    Upon the death of Emperor Sertse Dingel, a crisis of succession occured. The Emperor did not have any sons with is legal wife, Empress Mariam Senna, only daughters. However, he did have a 7 year old son Yacob by his concubine, Emebet Harego. Empress Mariam Senna together with the husbands of her daughters, Ras Atnasios of Beghemidir and Ras Kifle Wahid of Tigre placed this child on the throne as Emperor Yacob. Ras Atnasios was declaired guardian of the Emperor, and the Empress and Ras Kifle Wahid joined him and the powerful Dejazmatch Ze Silassie on a regency council. Emperor Sertse Dingel's nephew Ze Dingel had been considered the most likely heir since he was fully grown, and had considerable support from the nobility, and Susenyos had been considered the most likely alternative to Ze Dingel. With this coup engineered by the Empress however, both princes were greatly endangered. She knew that she and her sons-in-law could rule as they pleased with a child Emperor, something that they could not hope to do with the grown princes. Abeto Ze Dingel was siezed and imprisoned on an island on lake Tana. He would soon escape and flee to Gojjam where he went into hiding. Abeto Susenyos escaped and fled to the south where he took refuge with the Oromo people. However, Emebet Harego, mother of the Emperor and concubine of the late Sertse Dingel resented the control over affairs that the Empress and her clique had, and is said to have whispered advice in her son's ear over the next few years. Emperor Yacob began to exert himself against the regents. First he announced the elevation of Dejazmatch Ze Silassie to Lord of his home province Enaria, and sent him back to his home province. Although it was announced as an elevation to higher office, it was actually a banishment, and caused panic among the other regents. The regents began whispering that it was not right that such a young boy should be crowned to begin with, and that he was not old enough to be Emperor. They also spread a rumor that the boy had gone insane. Soon both the nobility and the army were in foment, and the Emperor tried to flee to his mother's native Simien, but was captured and taken in chains to Enaria in the custody of Dejazmatch Ze Silassie who was elevated to Ras. Empress Mariam Senna then sent out an aggressive search for Abeto Ze Dingel, found him in Gojjam, and brought him back to court at Danqaz, and had him crowned Emperor Ze Dingel with the additional name of Atnaf Seged. Ze Dingel developed a close relationship with the Catholic Portuguese and Spanish clerics and soldiers who had settled in Ethiopia. He hoped to establish strong ties with the Vatican and with Spain (whose king had inherited the Portuguese throne as well).

    Rumors spread that the Emperor Ze Digel was a Catholic, and the Coptic Archbishop of the day, Abune Petros issued an edict anathemizing anyone who continued in obedience to the Emperor Ze Dingel. Ras Ze Silassie took advantage of this edict of the Archbishop and rose in rebellion marching north from Enaria. The supporters of the Orthodox Church rallied to his banner while the Catholics marched south from Danqaz with the Emperor. After a bitter battle, Ras Ze Silassie was victorious. It is said he himself aimed for and shot the Emperor Ze Dingel, who fell and was then attacked by swarms of foot soldiers. This horde of regicides then finished the Emperor by removing his fingers to get at his jeweled ring, poked out his eyes, and then had him trampled by a heard of horses. His body was tossed under a tree, and left there for the wild animals to feed on. This was justified by his enemies as the treatment he deserved as a man who had betrayed the Orthodox Church. Some peasants however came and took the Emperor's body and buried it in a church nearby. Ze Silassie then announced, that his long time prisoner, the ex-Emperor Yacob had been restored to his rightful throne. Empress Mariam Senna quietly accepted this turn of events. Abeto Susenyos, along with his Oromo allies in Shewa did not. Susenyos was still considered a rebel ever since he had fled Empress Mariam Senna upon the first enthronement of Yacob. However, having grown up together with Ze Dingel, it is said that Susenyos and Ze Dingel had loved each other as brothers, and Susenyos never directly challenged his right to the throne, staying in quiet exile while his cousin reigned. Now with news of Ze Dingel's brutal death, Susenyos was enraged and fired with the need for vengance. He gathered the forces of the Oromos and Amharas of Shewa and marched into Beghemider. Arriving in Beghemidir, he called the former regent and ruler of Beghemidir, Ras Atnasios, to appear before him and pay homage. The Ras, resentfull of the ascendancy of Ras Ze Silassie obeyed, and submitted to Susenyos. He was followed by numerous nobles and the bulk of the Portuguese and Spanish community in Ethiopia. Abune Petros the Coptic Archbishop and the anti-Catholic party rallied to Emperor Yacob. The Emperor Yacob is said to have offered Susenyos half of Amhara, all of Shewa and Wellega to end his rebellion. Susenyos refused by sending the Emperor a message that said "All of Ethiopia has been given me by God, so I refuse this sort of offer from you." Ras Ze Silassie tried to engage Susenyos in battle, but he failed miserably, his army anahilated. After barely escaping with his life, Ras Ze Silassie sued for peace, and submitted to Susenyos. The forces of Emperor Yacob and Abeto Susenyos then met in battle, probably at Checheho Ber. Susenyos himself is said to have fired the bullet that killed Emperor Yacob. Susenyos must have expected the Emperor's forces to disintegrate upon the death of the Emperor. Instead much to his shock, the fighting intensified. Command was now assumed by none other than the Coptic Archbishop, Abune Petros, who raised his cross in his hand and ordered a new charge. As the battle intensified, a snipper (many say an arab)shot and killed the Archbishop, upon which the army of Emperor Yacob collapsed and fled. Many of the cavalry are said to have riden their horses over a cliff by accident in the dark and plunged to their deaths. Susenyos quickly captured Yacob's son, Abeto Gelawdiwos, and had him strangled to death immediately. The younger son of Yacob, Abeto Tsega Christos fled to Sennar in the Sudan. From there he would make an attempt at launching an attack on Susenyos, which failed several years later. He would flee to Egypt and finaly made his way to the Holy land where he converted to Catholicism. He then moved to Europe, settled in France and died in Paris in 1648, the first exiled Ethiopian Prince to live in Europe. Yacob's younger brothers, Kifle Mariam and Meteko had taken refuge with their maternal uncle, Gedewon, hereditary Prince of the Falashas. Gedewon had promptly rebled against Susenyos and declaired that Abeto Kifle Mariam was the legitimate Emperor as the son of Sertse Dengel and brother of Yacob. Susenyos marched out and defeated the Falshas, capturing both Abeto Kifle Mariam and Abeto Meteko. Both princes were beheaded at Susenyos's order.

    Susenyos was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia at Keranio(Calvary) Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World) in Gojjam with the additional name of Siltan Seged around 1507. Almost immediately, the new Emperor had a huge public relations problem. He was widely regarded as responsible for the death of the Archbishop Abune Petros. In an attempt to win over some of his opponents, the Emperor sent messages to the Dowager Empress Mariam Senna, asking for forgiveness for any wrongs he might have commited against her. She is said to have replied "Did you not grow up in my house just as Ze Dingel and Yacob grew up in my house? Of course I forgive you, but only if you promise to leave the nobles of Yacob in peace with their properties and their titles, and if you promise to bury me at the Monastery of Mahdere Mariam which I have built, upon my death." Emperero Susenyos agreed to do as she asked. Emperor Yacob's loyalists then submitted to Susenyos. The Emperor then had the long neglected bones of his beloved cousin, Emperor Ze Dingel brought in state to the island monastery of Daga Estifanos on lake Tana and buried him with great pomp. Although this won the Emperor new friends, and he was reconciled with the Dowager Empress, it did not change the fact that the clergy and most of the country regarded Susenyos as the murderer of the Archbishop, a crime unequaled in the history of the Christian Empire in their eyes. To strengthen his hold on the heart of the Empire, the new Emperor summoned many prominent Oromo allies from Shewa and elsewhere to come and settle in Gojjam, Beghemidir and Amhara, granting them estates and property, granting them titles and access to his court and the halls of power. Most shocking to the court and the clergy was his granting to his new Oromo friends, lands that had previously been granted to the Monastery of Debre Semaitat (House of Martyrs) by Emperor Gelawdiwos, and to Mahidere Mariam Monastery by Empress Silus Haila.

    The Emperor became increasingly close to the Spanish and Portuguese clerics and missionaries at his court. He granted them land to build a church in Dembia. From the established Catholic monastery at Fremona, he summoned the renouned Portuguese priest, Father Pero Paez, and had him settle at the new Imperial Palace that was established at Danqaz. The Emperor even took Paez and a delegation of the Catholic clergy with him to Axum when he went for his formal coronation as Emperor. Paez was a Jesuit priest, and the members of the Society of Jesus were very active in seeking converts among the highest nobility and the Imperial family itself. Because of Paez's closeness to the Emperor, the Jesuits now enjoyed a level of access and influence at court that was causing pause to the Orthodox clergy. As the King of Spain had succeeded to the Portuguese throne as well, the Emperor of Ethiopia now decided to send a letter of freindship to King Phillip III and to Pope Paul V. The letters were sent in the care of none other than the Emperor's good friend, the Roman Catholic Father Pero Paez. The letter asked for additional military aide, and may have also stated a wish for closer ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

    Emperor Susenyos gives an Imperial reception to the Papal Legate, Archbishop Alfonso Mendez.
    During period, a man said to be named Amdo, arrived at the Monastery of Debre Bizen (in modern day Eritrea), his face covered in bandages, claiming to have been severly wounded in the face during a great battle. When the monks continued to quiz him, he announced that he was in fact the Emperor Yacob, who had been wounded in battle against Susenyos, but who had been miraculously saved and brought to Debre Bizen by the protection of the Lord. Soon news of this man who claimed to be Emperor Yacob spread like wildfire across the north, and a rebellios army was raised in Simein on his behalf. Susenyos' brother Sahle Christos, who was governing Tigrai crushed the rebellion and imprisoned the "false Yacob". The claimant however escaped and fled to Hamasein to raise yet another rebellion when the Emperor and his brother had marched south to fight an Oromo uprising. Having looted the district of Shire, he was attacked and killed by those left by Sahle Christos to protect Tigrai. The false Yacob was then revealed to have actually been an adventurer from Egypt. Then a new threat came in the person of Ras Ze Selassie. The Ras had been a regent, and a man who had come close to seizing full power at times. It is said the only thing keeping him from seizing the throne itself was his lack of royal blood. Ras Ze Selassie was overheard during a drinking binge to say "Just as I have brought Yacob and Ze Dingel down from the throne, so shall I bring Susenyos down!" This comment earned him immediate arrest and imprisonment on Amba Urey. Ras Ze Selassie escaped and led a marauding band of rebles in Gojjam for a few months. However, he was assasinated by a band of Oromo tribes men loyal to the Emperor, and his head was cut off and presented by them to Susenyos. This was not the end of the rebellions against Susenyos. Shortly after his formal coronation at Axum, the Emperor took ill. Rumors began to spread that Susenyos was dead. Therefore, the governor of Wegera, Melke Tsedek, anounced that he was raising the flag of rebellion on behalf of Abeto Arzon, a grandson of Emperor Minas, whom he proclaimed Emperor. After several intial successes, Melke Tsedek and Arzon were defeated by Susenyos' brother Ras Yemane Christos and were both executed. Behind all these rebellions, Emperor Susenyos and his supporters saw the hands of the Orthodox Church heirarchy, and determined to break the power of the Orthodox clergy once and for all. He suspected the Orthodox clergy in engaging in a whispering campaign against him and giving support and comfort first to Ras Ze Selassie, and then to Melke Tsedek of Wegera and the pretender to the throne, Abeto Arzon. He even suspected them of possibly causing his brief illness through poisoning.

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