Dawit I

Dawit I
Reign 1382 – 6 October 1413
Predecessor Newaya Maryam
Successor Tewodros I
Dynasty Zagwe dynasty
Father Newaya Krestos

Dawit I[1] (Ge'ez ዳዊት dāwīt, "David") was Emperor (nəgusä nägäst) (1382 – 6 October 1413) of Ethiopia, and a member of the Solomonic dynasty. He was the younger son of Newaya Krestos.


Taddesse Tamrat discusses a tradition that early in his reign, Dawit campaigned against Egypt, reaching as far north as Aswan. In response, the Emir forced the Patriarch of Alexandria, Matthew I, to send a deputation to Dawit to persuade him to retire back to his kingdom. Taddesse concludes, "There seems to be little or no doubt that, on the eve of the advent of the Burji dynasty of Mamluk Egypt, King Dawit had in fact led his troops beyond the northern frontiers of his kingdom, and created much havoc among the Muslim inhabitants of the area who had been within the sphere of influence of Egypt since the thirteenth century."[2] The Emperor apparently had a much friendlier relationship with the Sultan's successor, for according to the medieval historian al-Maqrizi, Dawit sent 22 camels laden with gifts to Berkuk, the first Sultan of the Burji dynasty.[3]

He confronted the problem of raids from the Muslim kingdoms on his eastern border with numerous counterattacks on those kingdoms. According to al-Maqrizi, in 1403 Emperor Dawit pursued the Sultan of Adal, Sa'ad ad-Din II, to Zeila, where he killed Sa'ad ad-Din and sacked the city. However, another contemporary source dates the death of Sa'ad ad-Din to 1415, and gives the credit to Emperor Yeshaq.[4]

Dawit sent an embassy to Europe, which had reached Venice by 23 June 1402, requesting that a number of artisans be sent to his domain. Carlo Conti Rossini assembled the surviving documents concerning this visit in 1927, which record that five artisans departed with the Ethiopian envoy that August, but not if they arrived in Ethiopia. However, Marilyn E. Heldman found evidence of a "silver-gilt chalice" made in Venice, which, if it was the one Francisco Álvares described as seeing in Ethiopia, did reach Dawit.[5] Another possible sign of their arrival is an itinerary of a journey from Venice by Rhodes, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Cairo and Axum to the court of Preste John in Shewa. which O. G. S. Crawford dates to Dawit's reign. Crawford considers this document the "first unambiguous account of Abyssinian geography which has survived; it certainly refers to the journey of a European, and the route followed can be identified pretty accurately."[6]

A noted horseman, Dawit was killed when he was kicked in the head by one of his horses. His body was interred in the monastery of St. Stephen on Daga Island in Lake Tana.[7]

Other events

The Emperor Dawit was an enthusiastic Christian. He dealt with a revolt of the Beta Israel in Tigray, and encouraged missionary work in Gojjam. According to E. A. Wallis Budge, during Dawit's reign, a piece of the True Cross arrived in Ethiopia.[8] He also made endowments to the Ethiopian Church: three charters survive of grants he made of lands in Wolqayt, Serae, Adiyabo, Shire, Addi Arkay, northern Semien, the Gar'alta, Manbarta, and Karnesem which lies north of present-day Asmara.[9]

During Dawit's time atop the throne, two surviving examples of illustrated manuscripts were produced. One is a translation of the Miracles of Mary, which had been written in Arabic, done at the command of Emperor Dawit. This is the oldest surviving illustrated book commissioned by an Ethiopian Emperor.[10] The other, described as "one of the most beautiful illustrated books of the period", is a copy of the gospels, which is now preserved at the monastery of Saint Gabriel on Kebran Island in southern Lake Tana.[11]


  1. In Ethiopian sources he is referred to as Dawit II (and all subsequent Dawits are numerated accordingly), as Dawit I is used to refer only to King David of Judah.
  2. Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 255
  3. E. A. Wallis Budge, A History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia, 1928 (Oosterhout, the Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1970), p. 301.
  4. J. Spencer Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege for the University Press, 1952), p. 74 and note explains the discrepancy in the sources; some historians pick one of the two possible dates (e.g. Paul Henze selects 1403 in Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia [New York: Palgrave, 2000], p. 67) without even mentioning the problem.)
  5. Heldman, "A Chalice from Venice for Emperor Dāwit of Ethiopia", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 53 (1990), pp. 442-445
  6. O. G. S. Crawford, "Some Medieval Theories about the Nile", Geographical Journal, 114 (1949), p. 8
  7. So R. E. Cheesman ("Lake Tana and its Islands", Geographical Journal, 85 [1935], p. 496), who visited Daga and was shown his casket, and Wallis Budge (History, p. 301). James Bruce states Dawit was buried on Dek Island (Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile [1805 edition], vol. 3, p. 96); Bruce must have confused the two islands, which is easy to do.
  8. Budge, History, p. 300.
  9. G.W.B. Huntingford, The Historical Geography of Ethiopia (London: The British Academy, 1989), p. 82
  10. Jacques Mercier, "Ethiopian Art History" in Ethiopian Art: The Walters Museum (London: Third Millennium, 2001), p. 51.
  11. Mercier, "Art History", p. 53.
Preceded by
Newaya Maryam
Emperor of Ethiopia Succeeded by
Tewodros I
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