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Gelawdewos (Ge'ez ገላውዴዎስ galāwdēwōs, modern gelāwdēwōs, "Claudius"; 1521/1522 - March 23, 1559) was Emperor (throne name Asnaf Sagad I (Ge'ez አጽናፍ ሰገድ aṣnāf sagad, modern āṣnāf seged, "to whom the horizon bows" or "the remotest regions submit [to him]"; September 3, 1540 - March 23, 1559) of Ethiopia, and a member of the Solomonic dynasty. He was a younger son of Dawit II by Sabla Wengel.[1]


His reign was dominated by the struggle with Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi during the Abyssinian-Adal War, until Ahmad's defeat and death in the Battle of Wayna Daga on February 21, 1543. Gelawdewos devoted time and energy to rallying his people against Ahmad, a determination his chronicler credits prevented Ahmad's forcible conversions from being permanent. With Ahmad's death, Gelawdewos was not only able to eject the leaderless Muslim forces from the Ethiopian highlands, but also from the lowlands to the east which included Dawaro and Bale.[2] He also turned his attention to the numerous Ethiopians who had crossed over to the Imam's side, either to further themselves or out of self-preservation. While some presented themselves to Gelawdewos expecting to be pardoned only to be executed, to many others he granted his safe-conduct, according to Miguel de Castanhoso, "for there were so many [who had joined Imam Ahmad] that had he ordered all to be killed, he would have remained alone."[3]

However, while campaigning against the Agaw in Gojjam (1548), Nur ibn Mujahid once again invaded Ethiopia. Gelawedewos's vassal Fanu'el succeeded in repulsing them, but the Emperor followed up with a further attack into Muslim territory, plundering the countryside for six months. At one point he captured Harar, where Sultan Barakat ibn Umar Din of Adal was killed, the last member of the Walasma dynasty.[4]

According to a Harari chronicle, Gelawdewos was killed in battle. "Early in the engagement Galawdéwos was hit by a bullet, but continued to fight until surrounded by a score of Harari cavalry, who struck him fatally to the ground with their spears," according to Pankhurst. Emir Nur had the Emperor's head sent to the country of Sa'ad ad-Din, then rode off to plunder Ethiopian territory before returning home.[5] The explorer Richard F. Burton tells a slightly different account, adding that Gelawedewos had been supervising the restoration of Debre Werq when he received a message from Emir Nur challenging him to combat. When the Emperor met the Emir, a priest warned that the angel Gabriel had told him Gelawdewos would needlessly risk his life—which caused most of the Ethiopian army to flee.[6]

According to G. W. B. Huntingford, Gelawdewos' body was buried at Tadbaba Maryam and his head, which was brought back to Ethiopia by some traders, was buried in Ensaqya (modern Antsokiya), in the tomb of St. Gelawdewos.[7]

Foreign relations

The first problem of foreign relations Gelawdewos had to deal with following his victory at Wayna Daga was João Bermudes, a Portuguese priest whom his father had sent abroad as his ambassador to secure help from Portugal. Bermudes had represented himself in Europe as the properly appointed Patriarch of Ethiopia (or Abuna), and once he returned to Ethiopia, he claimed he had been appointed by Pope Paul III as Patriarch of Alexandria. A surviving letter dated 13 March 1546 from King John III to Emperor Gelawdewos, translated by Whiteway, is a response to a lost letter wherein the Ethiopian ruler asked, in essence, "Who is this João Bermudes fellow? And why does he behave so irresponsibly?" King John's answer was frank:

As to what João Bermudes has done there, whom the King your father sent to me as his Ambassador, I disapprove greatly, for they are things very contrary to the service of Our Lord, and by reason of them it is clear that he cannot be given any help or assistance, nor do I know more of him than that he is a mere priest. Of the powers which he says the Holy Father granted him I know nothing; from the letters of His Holiness you will learn better what has passed in the matter; although for this he merits very severe punishment, it appears to me that you should not inflict it, except in such a way that, his life being saved, he may be punished according to his errors.[8]

According to Bermudes own account of his time in Ethiopia, early in the reign of Gelawdewos he was banished to Gafat, south of the Abay River, the first of several exiles that ended when Bermudes left Ethiopia. This banishment probably followed Gelawdewos' receipt of King John's letter.

In the same letter, King John promised to send priests more worthy than Bermudes, and during his reign two different groups of Jesuit missionaries arrived in Ethiopia. The first arrived 7 February 1555 to determine the state of the country and whether the Ethiopians would properly receive a Patriarch anointed by the Catholic church. Gelawdewos received them, but gave them no overt encouragement.[9] The second landed in March 1557, and was headed by André de Oviedo who had been made titular Bishop of Nice, who received them just before leaving to campaign against Nur ibn Mujahid but did not make any promises.[10] In response to their arguments, Gelawdewos wrote his Confession, which defended the Miaphysite doctrine of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. According to Richard Pankhurst, Gelawdewos' Confession helped his fellow Ethiopian Christians to remain "steadfast in their adherence to Sabbath observance, circumcision, and the prohibition against pork and other 'unclean' foods."[11]

Ethiopia's access to the outside world was severely crippled during his reign in 1557, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Massawa. From that point forward, dignitaries and missionaries to Ethiopia had to travel in disguise to avoid Muslim authorities. This also allowed the Ottomans to block the Ethiopians from importing firearms.


  1. Remedius Prutky states that Gelawdewos had a son, Na'od; this son is not mentioned in his Royal Chronicle. J.H. Arrowsmith-Brown, translator and editor, Prutky's Travels to Ethiopia and Other Countries (London: Hakluyt Society, 1991), p. 112 and note.
  2. Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopian Borderlands (Trenton: Red Sea Press, 1997), pp. 241f.
  3. R.S. Whiteway, editor and translator, The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1441-1543, 1902. (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967), p. 86
  4. Pankhurst, Ethiopian Borderlands, p. 244.
  5. Pankhurst, Ethiopian Borderlands, p. 246.
  6. Richard Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa (New York: Praeger, 1966), pp. 183f
  7. G.W.B. Huntingford, The historical geography of Ethiopia from the first century AD to 1704, (Oxford University Press: 1989), p. 135
  8. Whiteway, The Portuguese Expedition, p. 111
  9. Balthasar Tellez, The Travels of the Jesuits in Ethiopia, 1710 (LaVergue: Kessinger, 2010), pp. 133f
  10. Tellez, Travels, pp. 137-140
  11. Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 95

Further reading

  • Richard K. P. Pankhurst. The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles. Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Preceded by
Dawit II
Emperor of Ethiopia
Succeeded by

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