Equus’ Zara Yacob trail which will take place in a couple of weeks is based on the story of the great 15th eponymous Ethiopian emperor.
But if everybody agrees Zary Yacob was a great king, few know who he actually was.
“Zar’a Ya`qob or Zera Yacob (Ge’ez ዘርአ:ያዕቆብ zar’ā yāʿiqōb” Seed of Jacob,” modern zer’a yā’iqōb) (1399–1468) was nəgusä nägäst (19 or 20 June 1434–1468) of Ethiopia (throne name Kwestantinos I Ge’ez ቈስታንቲኖስ qʷastāntīnōs or Constantine I), and a member of the Solomonic dynasty (…) The British expert on Ethiopia, Edward Ullendorff, stated that Zara Yaqob “was unquestionably the greatest ruler Ethiopia had seen since Ezana, during the heyday of Aksumite power, and none of his successors on the throne – excepted only the emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie – can be compared to him.” ”
So that Zara Yacob was a great king, who spent most of his early years in seclusion on Amba Gishen, everybody agrees. He unified his kingdom, defeated his foes and wrote books – at least three.
He was also a complex man, who once famously gave over the administration of the land to his daughters because he said he couldn’t trust anyone else. The king was so beset by demons at the end of his life that he passed an edict that all the inhabitants of his kingdom should be tattooed with the words ‘I renounce Satan…”
He was also, incredibly, the first in Ethiopia – and on the Africa continent! – to set aside a protected forested area – in Menagesha Suba – not only stating it should no longer be logged, but bringing seedlings from the Wof Washa Forest, near Ancobar, to replenish it. This is an indigenous story of the protection of indigenous forests and species – and one that happened in the 15th century.
Equus chose the good king’s name for his importance in Ethiopian history – there is not an Ethiopian who doesn’t know he was ‘great’ – and also for this seminal act of conservation in Ethiopian and on the African continent. The truth be told, there is no mention of this act in his chronicle – Richard Pankhurst tells me the story can be found in contemporary writings - which I have yet to see, but am looking for.
True or not, the story rings true to all who hear it – and that’s what counts here. Seminal – whether it actually took place or not – Zara Yacob’s act of conservation was: a seed of conservation planted in the minds of Ethiopians.
The picture you can see above is of course not a true likeness of the king, but an imagined one, taken from the character that purports to be the Ethiopian king in Civilisation IV, the popular video civilisation building game. That such a video chooses Zara Yacob to portray the great Axum civilisation again shows how his name has resonated down the centuries.
We shouldn’t forget either that the next in line to the Solomonic throne is also called Zara Yacob, a sure sign of the aura that surrounds the name… Zara Yacob has been Head of the Imperial House of Ethiopia since 17 February 1997 and is currently recognized as such by the Crown Council of Ethiopia. Zara Yabob was named Heir Apparent by his father Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, when the Crown Prince assumed the title of Emperor-in-Exile in April 1989.
And then there is Zara Yacob the philosopher, who penned works compared by enthusiastic followers to Descartes’ Discours de la methode in (1637) and is said to have placed personal reasoning above following laid down laws, and to have been outlawed by Emperor Susneyos for this free thinking. For others, this Zara Yacob did not even exist and would be the invention of a 19th century Italian Catholic priest! If you would like to hear more about Zara Yacob the philospher, whose traits seem as uncertain as the contours of the character of Civilisation IV are bold, you can read some more of his work on “the internet’s foremost (alright, only) blog devoted to Ethiopian philosophy…” (to quote the blogger’s own words, who unsurprisingly goes by the moniker Zara Yacob).
If the face of the great emperor is unknown, his legendary deeds, like the tattoos he made law on the face of his own people , have lived on and are indelibly stamped on the imagination of Ethiopia.
That is why we chose Zara Yacob as our as our new trek route name. His deeds – part legendary though they may be, are seminal to Ethiopia’s sense of identity, and his preservation of the environment is historical. Of course, the great grassy plains of northern Shoa are a bonus for any horse rider too.