Ethiopian Dynastic Marriage and the Bétä Esra'él

  • Richard Pankhurst
Keywords: History, Monarchy, Marriage, Diplomacy, Bete Israel, Christianity, Gondar, Falasha,



Significant contacts between the Ethiopian State and the Bétä Esraʾél began in the late sixteenth century with the move of the imperial capital to the Lake Ṭana area, which was relatively near to Fälaša settlements in or around the Sämén mountains.

At about this time Ḥarägo, an apparently high-born Fälaša woman, supposedly the sister of Gedéwon, the Bétä Esraʾél ruler of Sämén, and reportedly a recent convert to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, became the consort, or as the Jesuits preferred to say a “concubine” of the redoubtable Emperor Särṣä Dengel. She bore him four sons. One, Zä-Maryam, was chosen as heir to the throne, but died before he could succeed. The second, Yaʿqob, actually ascended the imperial throne, but was too young to make any significant achievement. Two others, Keflä Maryam, and Mätäko, threw in their lot with their kinsman Gedéwon, and thus played a notable role in imperial and/or Fälaša local politics.

There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Ethiopian Christians regarded Ḥarägo, or her children, as in any way different from the rest of the royal family, or that they were in any way discriminated against on account of their non-Christian, or Bétä Esraʾél, origin.

The idea of a dynastic alliance with the Bétä Esraʾél was subsequently revived by Emperor Susneyos’s rebel brother Ras Yämanä Krestos. He proposed giving his daughter, the Emperor’s niece, to the Sämén ruler Gedéwon’s son and heir Walay. Ras Yämanä Krestos’ rebellion was, however, crushed, after which Susneyos exiled his brother to Gojjam, and forbade the proposed Bétä Esraʾél dynastic alliance. As a Roman Catholic, seeking military support from the Portuguese, and an adherent of the Jesuits, who wished to cleanse Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity of “Judaic” elements, he would moreover have been predisposed against playing the Fälaša card.

The subsequent decline of Bétä Esraʾél power, the disappearance of the Fälaša ruling dynasty, and the growing importance of fire-arms, which the Fälaša lacked, created a new strategic and political climate in which dynastic alliances between the Ethiopian monarchy and the Bétä Esraʾél no longer had any place.

Published online
How to Cite
Pankhurst, R. 1998. Ethiopian Dynastic Marriage and the Bétä Esra’él Aethiopica 1 (1998) 50-63. DOI: