Kingdom of Semien

The Kingdom of Semien (Hebrew: ממלכת סאמיאן), sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Beta Israel (Hebrew: ממלכת ביתא ישראל), was an ancient kingdom of the Beta Israel centered in the northwestern part of the Ethiopian kingdom of Ethiopian Empire that came to an end in 1627 during the reign of emperor Susenyos I.

There is a disagreement regarding the exact time of the establishment of the kingdom; it was preceded by a number of regions which were in Jewish rule in the north-west part of Ethiopia. The Jewish-Ethiopian tradition dates the establishment of the Kingdom of Semien to the fourth century, right after the kingdom of Axum turned to Christianity during the reign of Ezana of Axum.[1][2]


The Gideons Dynasty
a dynasty of Ethiopian kings and privileged descendants of Zadok who was a high priest during the reign of King David and king Solomon. According to the tradition of the Beta Israel community, Zadok's son Azariah was sent to Ethiopia together with Menelik.

The kingdom's name

According to the Beta Israel tradition, during its time the kingdom was called the "Kingdom of the Gideons", after the name of the Jewish kings dynasty that ruled it. A document from the 10th century by an Arab historian states that the name of the kingdom which took over the empire of Aksum after the revolt of Queen Judith is "ha-Dani". This document validates the documents of Eldad ha-Dani, who mentioned that the Tribe of Dan exiled voluntarily and established an independent kingdom. Between the 15th century and the early 17th century the Ethiopian Empire referred to the kingdom as "Falasha". This name was later on popularized and also appears in Jewish writings from that period. The 16th century geographer Livio Sanuto referred to the kingdom as "Land of the Jews" ("Judaeorum Terra") in his "Tabula X" map published in 1588. Leo Africanus also referred to the kingdom of Beta Israel as "Land of the Jews" ("terra de' Giudei").

Another name which was very common in the 16th and 17th centuries was the "Kingdom of Semien" – given to the kingdom after the area which it dominated after it lost control over the regions of Dembiya and Wegera.


Establishment of the kingdom

Coins with the image of Emperor Ezana

According to the Beta Israel tradition, the Jewish kingdom of Beta Israel was initially established after Ezana was crowned as the Emperor of Axum (in 325 CE). Ezana, who was educated in his childhood by the missioner Frumentius, declared Christianity as the religion of the Ethiopian empire after he was crowned. The inhabitants who practiced Judaism and refused to convert to Christianity began revolting – this group was referred to as "Beta Israel" by the emperor. The Beta Israel kingdom was eventually established after a civil war between the Jewish population and the Christian population.[3] The Jewish rebels wanted to distinguish themselves from the people who practiced Christianity and therefore during that civil war the Jewish community began to migrate out of the Empire towards the Semien Mountains region and the province of Dembiya – regions located north of Lake Tana and south of the Tekezé River – at that time this region was not an integral part of the Axum Empire and as a result, the Jews began to establish their kingdom in that region, crowned the first king, Phineas, a descendant of the Jewish High Priest Zadok, and started a period of territorial expansion eastward and southward.

"Judith's Field": an area full of ruins of destroyed buildings which according to tradition were ruined by the forces of Queen Judith.

During the mid 9th century the empire of Aksum began a new expansion which led to an armed conflict between the Empire forces and the Beta Israel forces. The Beta Israel kingdom under King Gideon the fourth managed to defeat the Axum forces. Nevertheless, during the battle king Gideon was killed. As a result, Gideon's daughter Judith (Gudit) inherited the kingdom from her father and took command. Judith's first challenge was to stop any future invasions to the kingdom by the Christian Aksumite Empire. As a result, Judith formed an alliance with the Agaw – this way a military alliance was formed between those who opposed the expansion of the Christian Aksumite Empire.

Around 960, the large tribal confederation led by Queen Judith, which included both forces of the Agaw tribes and the Beta Israel forces, invaded the capital of Axum and conquered and destroyed the city of Axum (including many churches and monasteries which were burned and destroyed) and imposed the Jewish rule over Axum.[4] [5] In addition, the Axumite throne was snatched and the forces of Queen Judith sacked and burned the Debre Damo monastery which at the time was a treasury and a prison for the male relatives of the emperor of Ethiopia, killing all of the potential heirs of the emperor.

After the fall of the Axum Empire, Queen Judith crowned herself as the empress and appointed governors in the provinces which were conquered. Queen Judith ruled over the territory she conquered for around 40 years, establishing trade relations with the neighboring countries [6] and eventually passing the throne on to her descendants.

The Golden Age of the Beta Israel kingdom took place, according to the Ethiopian tradition, between the years 858–1270, in which the Jewish kingdom flourished. During that period the world Jewry heard for the first time the stories of Eldad ha-Dani who apparently visited the kingdom. Marco Polo and Benjamin of Tudela also mention an independent Ethiopian Jewish kingdom in the writings from that period. This period ends with the rise of the Christian Solomonic dynasty.

Wars and collapse

In 1270 the Christian Solomonic dynasty was restored[7] after the crowning of a monarch who claimed descent from the single royal prince who managed to escape Queen Judith's uprising. For the next three centuries the Solomonic Dynasty emperors conducted a long and ongoing series of armed confrontations with the Jewish Kingdom.

In 1329, Emperor Amda Seyon campaigned in the northwest provinces of Semien, Wegera, Tselemt, and Tsegede, in which many had been converting to Judaism and where the Beta Israel had been gaining prominence.[8] He sent troops there to fight people "like Jews" (Ge'ez ከመ:አይሁድ kama ayhūd).[9]

During the reign of Emperor Yeshaq (1414–1429) who invaded the Jewish kingdom, annexed it and began to exert religious pressure. Yeshaq divided the occupied territories of the Jewish kingdom into three provinces which were controlled by commissioners appointed by him. He reduced the Jews' social status below that of Christians[9] and forced the Jews to convert or lose their land. It would be given away as rist, a type of land qualification that rendered it forever inheritable by the recipient and not transferable by the Emperor. Yeshaq decreed, "He who is baptized in the Christian religion may inherit the land of his father, otherwise let him be a Falāsī." This may have been the origin for the term "Falasha" (falāšā, "wanderer," or "landless person").[9]

By 1450 the Jewish kingdom managed to annex back the territories it lost beforehand and began preparing to fight the armies of the emperor. The Beta Israel forces invaded the Ethiopian Empire in 1462 but lost the campaign and many of its military forces were killed. Later on the forces of the Ethiopian emperor invaded the kingdom in the region of Begemder and massacred many of the Jews in that region throughout a period of seven years. Although the area of the kingdom became significantly smaller afterwards, the Jews were able to eventually restore their kingdom.

Between the years 1529 until 1543 the Muslim Adal Sultanate armies with the assistance of forces from the Ottoman Empire invaded and fought the Ethiopian Empire and came close to extinguishing the ancient realm of Ethiopia. During that time period the Jews made a pact with the Ethiopian Empire. The leaders of the Kingdom of Beta Israel changed their alliance during the war and began supporting the Muslim Adal Sultanate armies. The Adal Sultanate armies did not see in favor the Jewish kingdom's change of alliance and continued the fight against them, and later on conquered different regions of the Jewish Kingdom, severely damaged its economy and killed many of its members. As a result, The leaders of the Beta Israel kingdom turned to the Ethiopian empire and their allies the Portuguese and requested their assistance in conquering the kingdom regions back from the Adal Sultanate. The forces of the Ethiopian empire succeeds eventually in conquering the kingdom and frees Ethiopia from Ahmed Gragn. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian empire decided to declare war against the Jewish Kingdom due to the Jewish leaders change of positions during the Ethiopian–Adal War. With the assistance of Portuguese forces from the Order of the Jesuits, the Ethiopian empire under the rule of Emperor Gelawdewos invaded the Jewish kingdom and executed the Jewish king Joram. As a result of this battle, the areas of the kingdom became significantly smaller and included now only the region of the Semien Mountains.

In the 16th century, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz) proclaimed that in terms of halakha (Jewish legal code), the Ethiopian community was certainly Jewish.[10]

After the execution of king Joram, King Radi became the leader of the Beta Israel kingdom. King Radi also fought against the Ethiopian Empire which at that period of time was ruled by Emperor Menas. The forces of the Jewish kingdom managed to conquer the area south of the kingdom and strengthened their defenses in the Semien Mountains. The battles against the forces of emperor Menas were successful as the Ethiopian empire forces were eventually defeated.

The Ras Dashen area which used to be part of the kingdom

During the reign of emperor Sarsa Dengel the Jewish kingdom was invaded and the forces of the Ethiopian empire besieged the kingdom, the Jews survived the siege, but at the end of the siege the King Goshen was executed and many of his soldiers as well as many other Beta Israel members committed mass suicide.

When the Ethiopian empire forces invaded to Semien region they encountered resistance from the new king Gideon VII. The forces of the Ethiopian empire eventually decided to end the blockade and the Jewish kingdom was restored.

During the reign of emperor Susenyos, the Ethiopian empire waged war against the Jewish kingdom and managed to conquer the kingdom and annex it to the Ethiopian empire by 1627.

See also


  1. James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, Vol. I, p. 485
  2. Steven Kaplan, The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia, p. 94
  3. James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, Page 408.
  4. Jamie Stokes, Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East, Vol. I, p. 223
  5. Hannah Adams, The history of the Jews: from the destruction of Jerusalem to the present time, Vol. II, p. 35
  6. Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity, p. 110
  7. Teshome G. Wagaw, For our soul: Ethiopian Jews in Israel, p. 249
  8. Pankhurst, Richard, The Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to the End of the 18th Century (Asmara: Red Sea Press, 1997), p. 79.
  9. 1 2 3 Steven Kaplan, "Betä Əsraʾel", in Siegbert Uhlig, ed., Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A–C (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003), p. 553.
  10. Mitchell Geoffrey Bard, From tragedy to triumph: the politics behind the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, Page 19.

Further reading

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