The Zagwe dynasty ruled Ethiopia from approximately 1137 to 1270, when Yekuno Amlak defeated and killed the last Zagwe king in battle. The name of the dynasty is thought to come from the Ge'ez phrase Ze-Agaw, meaning "of Agaw" and refer to the Agaw people. Its best-known king was Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, who is given credit for the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
David Buxton has stated that the area under the direct rule of the Zagwe kings "probably embraced the highlands of modern Eritrea and the whole of Tigrai, extending southwards to Waag, Lasta and Damot (Wallo province) and thence westwards towards Lake Tana (Beghemdir)." Unlike the practice of later rulers of Ethiopia, Taddesse Tamrat argues that under the Zagwe dynasty the order of succession was that of brother succeeding brother as king, based on the Agaw laws of inheritance.
History Around 960, Queen Gudit destroyed the remnants of the Aksumite Empire causing a shift in its temporal power centre that later regrouped more to the south. For 40 years she ruled over those remnants, eventually passing them on to her descendants. According to other Ethiopian traditional accounts, the last of her dynasty was overthrown by Mara Takla Haymanot in 1137. He married a daughter of the last king of Axum, Dil Na'od putting control of Ethiopia in Agaw hands.
The Zagwe period is still shrouded in mystery; even the number of kings in this dynasty is disputed. Some sources (such as the Paris Chronicle, and manuscripts Bruce 88, 91, and 93) give the names of eleven kings who ruled for 354 years; others (among them the book Pedro Páez and Manuel de Almeida saw at Axum) list only five who ruled 143. Paul B. Henze reports the existence of at least one list containing 16 names.
According to Carlo Conti Rossini, the shorter length of this dynasty was the more likely one. He argues that a letter received by the Patriarch of AlexandriaJohn V shortly before 1150 from an unnamed Ethiopian monarch, in which the Patriarch is asked for a new abuna because the current office holder was too old, was from Mara Takla Haymanot, who wanted the abuna replaced because he would not endorse the new dynasty.
The mystery of the Zagwe dynasty is perhaps darkest around its replacement by the revived Solomonic dynasty under Yekuno Amlak. The name of the last Zagwe king is lost -- the surviving chronicles and oral traditions give his name as Za-Ilmaknun, which is clearly a pseudonym (Taddesse Tamrat translates it as "The Unknown, the hidden one"), employed soon after his reign by the victorious Solomonic rulers in an act of damnatio memoriae. Taddesse Tamrat believes that this last ruler was actually Yetbarak. The end of the Zagwe came when Yekuno Amlak, who proclaimed himself the descendant and rightful heir of Dil Na'od, and acting under the guidance of either Saint Tekle Haymanot or Saint Iyasus Mo'a, pursued the last king of the Zagwe and killed him at the church of St. Qirqos in Gaynt on the north side of the Bashilo River.
Mara was born in the province of Lasta, which was his powerbase. Originally a general of Dil Na'od, whose daughter Masoba Warq became his wife, Mara overthrew his father-in-law to found the new dynasty.
There is some disagreement over the exact time when he came to the throne: there are two different traditions for how long the Zagwe dynasty ruled: the more common tradition states that it was for 333 years, while a less common one gives the time as 133 years. The Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini accepted the shorter period, and working back from the accepted date of 1270 for the end of the Zagwe dynasty, claims that this dynasty started around 1137. He supported this theory with the recorded exchange between Patriarch John V of Alexandria and an unnamed king of Ethiopia, who asked for a new abuna because the current one was too old; Conti Rossini argued that the actual reason was that the abuna refused to condone the coup which resulted in Mara Takla Haymanot gaining the throne.