post Exceptional Axum

May 11th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 10:55

Something Exceptional in Ethiopia

Stuart Munro-Hay (c) 1998
1906 Excavation Plan of Axum (Ethiopia)

Dictionaries or atlases of the ancient world, or exhibitions in the great museums, barely mention Aksum. The British Museum exhibits a coin, a few pots and beads; nothing in the bookshop informs further. Ethiopia, often in the news for political, social and economic events, is little known for its splendid past, when the north (Tigray and Eritrea) was ruled by the kings of Aksum. Britannia was only the most distant Roman province then, when Aksum, with its capital over a mile above sea level on the ‘roof of Africa’, was listed by the Persian prophet Mani as the third kingdom of the world, with Rome, Persia and China. Later a Byzantine diplomat described his audience with Kaleb of Aksum, conqueror of the Jewish king of Yemen. The embassy proposed that Aksum join the silk trade, buying from Indian merchants to exclude Rome’s inveterate enemy, Persia. The ambassador witnessed King Kaleb’s arrival, standing high on a dais bound with golden leaves, set on a wheeled platform drawn by four elephants. From his gold and linen headdress fluttered golden streamers. His collar, armlets, and many bracelets and rings were of gold. His kilt was also gold on linen, his chest covered with straps embroidered with pearls. He held a gilded shield and lances. Around him musicians played flutes and his nobles formed an armed guard.

Around 500BC or perhaps even a little earlier we begin to get hints of something exceptional in Ethiopia. Inscriptions written in the language of Saba in Yemen appear on the Ethiopian plateau. With them were found stone altars, elegant limestone female statues dressed in pleated robes, canopied thrones decorated with carved ibex, and those lesser ’small finds’ that allow the archaeologist to piece together the unknown past. At Yeha near Aksum a fine masonry temple, still almost intact, was built.

The inscriptions reveal the creators of all this—Sabaeans, perhaps a trading community from overseas, associated with Ethiopians who employed the same script as these overseas trading partners. The kingdom they established, called Dia`mat, mysteriously disappeared by perhaps the 3rd century BC. It gave birth in an indirect way to what may be called, after Egypt and Meroe in the Sudan, the greatest of all Africa’s civilisations: the kingdom of Aksum.

Text copyright Stuart Munro-Hay 1998


post Ethiopia’s Japanizers

April 28th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 22:16

Lij Araya Abeba & Co. in Japan circa 1934

Front row, right to left: Lij Araya Abeba, His Excellency Heruy, Lij Tafari, and the interpreter, Daba Birru. On the back row are Mr. and Mrs. Sumioka. Picture taken from Heruy’s Dai Nihon.

In the Selected Annual Proceedings of the Florida Conference of Historians for 2004, a fascinating paper was presented by Professor J. Calvitt Clarke III. Titled “Seeking A Model For Modernization: Ethiopia’s Japanizer’s” it is a window into an almost forgotten Ethiopia.

The story begins after the 1896 victory over Italy at Adwa in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. If you don’t know much about this battle Professor Donald Levine outlines its historical significance in his article “The Battle of Adwa as a “Historic” Event”. Ethiopian Filmmaker Haile Gerima made an exceptional documentary about the battle; “Adwa: An African Victory” in 2000.

Some excerpts from Professor Clarke on the Japanizers

In the early twentieth century, these foreign-educated Ethiopians (the Japanizers) generally sought positions at court, and many of them refused to share the complacency of their countrymen after Ethiopia’s military victory over Italy at Adwa in 1896.

The term (Japanizers) highlighted the impact of Japan’s Meiji transformation on Ethiopia’s intellectuals. Japan’s dramatic metamorphosis by the end of the nineteenth century from a feudal society—like Ethiopia’s—into an industrial power attracted them. For these young, educated Ethiopians, Japanization was a means to an end—to solve the problem of underdevelopment. Japan’s rapid modernization, after all, had guaranteed its peace, prosperity, and independence, while Ethiopia’s continued backwardness threatened its very survival.

Blattengeta Heruy Welde Sellase (1878-1939)
Perhaps the most influential of the Japanizers in Ethiopia was Heruy Welde Sellassie.

In 1932 after an official visit to Japan, he published Mahidere Birhan: Hagre Japan [The Document of Japan]…Of the Japanizers, he most elaborately compared Ethiopia and Japan. Both had been ruled by long and uninterrupted founding dynasties: Hirohito was the 124th monarch of the Jimu dynasty while Hayle Sellase was the 126th ruler of the Solomonic dynasty. He compared Emperor Menilek to the Meiji. In the entire world, only Ethiopia and Japan had preserved that long the title of “emperor” to designate the chief of state.

Both countries had experienced roving capitals in their histories. He compared the Tokugawa Shogunate to the Zamana Masafent: the only difference was that while the overlordship of the Yajju lords had been confined to Bagemder, while the Tokugawa exercised authority over all of Japan. The manners of the two peoples were similar. Heruy went on to conclude that, despite these similarities, the two countries had long lived in mutual ignorance of one another—much as do the two eyes of one person. Just as a mirror helps one eye to see the other, so too his visit to Japan had brought mutual awareness between the two countries.

Bajerond Takle-Hawaryat Takla-Maryam
and the Constitution of 1931
Ethiopia’s Constitution of 1931, modeled on Japan’s Meiji Constitution of 1889, best illustrates Ethiopia’s desire to follow in Japan’s progressive footsteps.

With only a couple of exceptions, when comparing the 1889 Japanese constitution and the 1931 Ethiopian constitution, even the chapter divisions were identical, and in both cases, the guarantees of civil liberties were constrained by nullifiers such as, “within the limits provided for by the law” or “except in cases provided for in the law.”

Araya Abeba
A figure of underestimated importance in the Japanizer movement was Araya Abeba, a member of Hayle Sellase’s family. If he is remembered at all today, it is for his proposed marriage with a Japanese, Kuroda Masako, a subject of great mirth and greater fear among many European observers. A handsome young man in the 1930s, in truth he played an important part in Ethiopia’s relations with Japan, and he gives every appearance of being groomed for greater things until the Italo-Ethiopian War intervened.

By the first half of the 1930s, Japan and Ethiopia were drawing closer together to the acute concern of all of Africa’s colonial powers, most especially Italy.

Teferi Makonnen (Haile Sellassie) (1892-1975))
The crucial force behind Ethiopia’s desire to use Japan as a model was the emperor himself. His father, Ras Makonnen, had studied foreign military literature, and Russia’s defeat by the Japanese Navy at Tsushima in 1905—following as it did in Ethiopia’s footsteps by defeating a European power—surely electrified him. By 1906 when Ras Makonnen died, the thirteen year-old Teferi apparently had already developed a mental blueprint for his goal. An essential part of it was to draw upon the Japanese model, that other empire, which had proved that a non-European nation could embrace modern civilization and stand culturally and technically on par with European countries.

Professor Clarke goes into great detail about Ethiopian history and her relations with the United States and the European imperialist powers of the time. The many historical convergences and divergences with Japan are also detailed. It all makes for fascinating reading but we are delighted that this alliance did not pan out. Contemplating an Ethiopia morally bankrupted by such an alliance in the Second World War is simply too bloody awful to imagine. We have to make moral judgements about alternative history as much as we have to do about history.

The time for close relations with Japan and for learning lessons is right now.



post Kebra Negast

March 20th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 23:59

Samuel Malher, a religious scholar from Strasbourg who has written the first unabridged French translation of the Kebra Negast, a sacred Ethiopian text. by Jennifer Brea


The Kebra Negast, or the Glory of Kings, is considered sacred not only by Orthodox Ethiopian Christians, who comprise 65% of the country’s population, but many Jamaican Rastafarians who believe it predicts the last Ethiopian King was God incarnate. It documents the lineage of the Ethiopian monarchs, who are said to descend directly from Menelik, son of the Israelite King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen Makeda, otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba. It also tells the story of how the Ark of the Covenant was taken from Israel to Ethiopia, and how the Ethiopians became God’s new chosen people.

In the interview, Malher explains how he first became interested in Ethiopian Christianity in 1998, while studying theology at the University of Strasbourg.

One of his professors, an African, noted that African Christianity was often imported by Western missionaries, but questioned if that was true for all of Africa.

I realized that Ethiopia, where Christianity had already arrived by the third century, deviated a bit from the rule, Malher says.

Malher decided to go to Ethiopia to learn about the Queen of Sheba, the Ark, and a dynasty of emperors who ruled Ethiopia from the 13th century until 1974, all deriving legitimacy from their professed Solomonic lineage. He found an Ethiopia that was “deeply religious as it was proud of its history, always independent. A unique history still visible in its grand cities.”

Makeda, Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant
Makeda means “the beautiful” in Ethiopian. When she first heard about the wisdom of Solomon, she could not [wait to meet him]. She set out with her caravan, bringing along many precious stones, incense, things to bring to honor King Solomon, who already had a great reputation in the region. The meeting was to take place in the palace as soon as she arrived. But she also had time to see the country, the Gaza Strip, for example; different places are mentioned in the Kebra Negast, and one can find these places, it’s true.

This famous queen met King Solomon and gave him a descendant.

What is astonishing is that this queen did not stay afterwards with someone who could have been a consort, a husband or a life partner. She returned to her own people in the Kingdom of Sheba, whose location is very difficult to locate. It was probably smaller than present-day Ethiopia, and without a doubt was concentrated in, was limited to the high plateau of Abyssinia, north of Ethiopia.

The Political Origins of the Kebra Negast
Malher explains that the Kebra Negast was likely written sometime between 1200 and 1270, when two dynasties were vying for power in Ethiopia:

…it was a time when two dynasties were competing for power, one the dynasty of King Solomon, and the other the dynasty of Agrées. There were two peoples claiming power in Ethiopia. And so there is in the Kebra Negast the famous Isaac the poor who is of the Salomonic dynasty side and who would have compiled the Kebra Negast not only from biblical quotes but also from oral traditions, and he wrote them down undoubtedly first in Arabic, then in Coptic, before being able to translate and publish them openly in Ge’ez.

The Kebra Negast established the Solomonic dynasty’s divine origins, and thus their right to rule over Ethiopia:

It is a model [where] power is transmitted with a blessing, with the idea of selection, and that is very important. Many countries have had this tradition, up until the moment they arrived at the idea of democracy, and the idea of monarchy was, little by little, pushed aside.

And also to repel foreign invaders:

The Kebra Negast is really known in Ethiopia; it was emperors’ primary book for administrating their country but also for wocomparing themselves to other countries. By calling themselves descendants of King Solomon, by attaching themselves to noble origins, [Ethiopians] had something with which to confront those countries that perhaps wanted to invade Ethiopian territory.

The Ark of the Covenant, the Chosen People
Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and the rule of its Kings were supported not only by their claims of Solomonic ancestry, but by their possession of what they believe is the Ark of the Covenant, built by Moses in the Old Testament to house God’s Ten Commandments, and brought to Ethiopia by Queen Makeda and Solomon’s son, Menelik–without Solomon’s knowledge.


The Kebra Negast is a collection of writings which describe the history of the patriarchs, and the queen, but also story of the Ark of the Covenant, which is currently sitting in a church in northern Ethiopia, and the prophecies surrounding the selection of the Israeli people [as the chosen people] which would then be transfered to the Ethiopians with the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Exodus and in the Book of Kings, where Moses was commanded to fashion a box from Acacia wood and cover it in gold. The two tablets on which the ten commandments were inscribed would be placed iside. This Ark also interested the Ethiopian people because it represented God’s presence among the people. Wherever the Ark was would be sanctified…It represents the presence of God and the selection of the people of Israel, because the Ark had a great power, it freed itself almost on its own from the will of the Israelites to accompany the Ethiopian people on their voyage.

And today you find a reproduction of the Ark in each church and copies which represent the ten commandments. It’s a little like how the Host represents the Body of Christ.
Today, the Ark of the Covenant has become something of an object of curiosity among journalists and scientists, but at the same time it is protected by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which preserves it in the famous cathedral of Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.

I think that it’s really a question of faith. When an Ethiopian priest response: “If you want to prove that the Ark isn’t there, then go ahead.” And the journalist inverts the question, asking, “Is the Ark is really there? Whether it is there, is for you to prove. Whether it is not there is for you to prove!”

Kebra Negast and the Bible
Like most non-canonical texts, the Kebra Negast was not included in the Bible and some translations were even destroyed by the Church.

It’s the story of the Apocryphas. The Church has always had a priority to keep a collection of texts which is called the Bible. There are many apocryphas which were in effect cast aside, which were already ignored by many followers and were not very correct in terms of what the Church wanted to say. There were writings concerning the life of Jesus, the life of a prophet, the life of a patriarch, that should the human side of these men and women, and the Church wanted first of all to pass on the message of God, of justice…There were certain reasons not to use these texts.

However, the Kebra Negast relies strongly on certain Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, according to Malher:

The later chapters of the Kebra Negast…talk a lot about Christ, of the New Testament of the Bible, but also a lot of the old…the Ethiopians took important versus from the Old Testament, such as those of the prophets Jeremiah, Zachariah or Hosea…which are not widely read…

The Kebra Negast blends together the stories of the major Israeli patriarchs into one, great patriarch and incorporates Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah which, “will come, build his house, and save his people.” Malher says these are words of forgiveness for all people, but that according to its own tradition, “Ethiopia is the chosen country, the favored country. For the other peoples, there is an idea of pardon, of reconciliation. I think that it is very important for the people of Africa, for people around the world to be able to read these promises, these prophecies.”

Malher also says that the Queen of Sheba’s story is told in the Koran, but there she is responsible for Solomon’s downfall, for tainting his behavior. The Bible on the other hand emphasizes the queen’s decision to submit to the God of King Solomon and bring the religion of the Israelites back to her own country.

On Rastafari Beliefs
Roots and Culture also asks Malher about Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, whom Rastafarians consider an incarnation of God. Malher disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the divine blessing described in the Kebra Negast extends to all of Ethiopia’s kings, not one in particular.


The Kebra Negast stops after 117 chapters of praise and glory, it stops with Christ.These are prophets, kings, entities but nothing is mentioned about the last emperor, Haile Selassie.To put it simply, the blessing accorded to Ethiopia and the various kings, without having known the God of Israel before, they suddenly turn to him at the moment that Sheba and Solomon meet.
Nothing predisposed them to submit to this God.
They took the path that gave them this blessing. That’s what it says at the end of the Kebra Negast. It was Haile Selassie who relied on this relied on this text to legitimize his descendents, his ancestors; and so he has a legitimate power.

I met Rastas in Ethiopia, at Shahamenie. We talked, and we agreed on many things.
Sometimes it’s also a prejudice, divine election, I think that every person is blessed, every person can be chosen, Emperior Haile Selassie is not the only chosen one.
This blessing extends to all the Rasta; each is considered by the Almighty God, who looked upon Ethiopia.

Why Translations Are Important
The last French translation of the Kebra Negast was published in 1915, and included just ten chapters detailing only “the most romantic elements of the encounter with the Queen of Sheeba.” His translation from Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, is unabridged.

Malher says this translation is very important, particularly now that other forms of Christianity have taken root in Ethiopia.

Among the 65% [who are] Christians there are naturally also churches which are very recently arrived: the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, and a Church from an American community, which implant themselves in Ethiopia. There are many concessions, different communities…

…Many religions develop or take an important place in the lives of the Ethiopian people. It’s important to be able to have a dialog.

As many religions have books, the Bible is translated into many language, Ethiopia is uniqu ein having the Kebra Negast, a millennial text which deserves to be known by foreigners, by those who visit Ethiopia, to dive into the culture a little bit and into Ethiopian literature. By translating the Kebra Negast into French we are already taking a great step in that respect…


Photographs: Kebra Negast by Samuel Malher; the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia, which houses the Ark of the Covenant (Wikipedia); and Haile Selassie I, the last King of Kings of Ethiopia (Library of Congress)

source: globalvoicesonline

post Alfred Ilg

February 5th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 12:16

Foreign Involvement in Ethiopia’s Progress
By Richard Pankhurst

Alfred Ilg was a Swiss craftsman, who emerged as Emperor Menilek’s principal diplomatic adviser, and ranks as one of the most important Europeans in Ethiopian modern history.

A. Ilg travelled to Ethiopia with Three Compatriots.

In the meantime we can say that Ilg was born in Frauenfeld, north-east of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1854, and studied at the local Zurich Polytechnic. Later, in 1878, he set forth for Ethiopia, in the company of two of his compatriots, by name Appenzeller and Zimmermann. They came at the request of Menilek, then King of Shawa, who had asked a Swiss trader at the port of Aden to find him some European craftsmen able to act as engineers and train Ethiopian workers.

On his arrival in Shawa, Ilg, we are told, was asked by Menilek to make him a pair of shoes. The young Swiss dutifully complied with this request, and Menilek was enchanted with the visitor’s handiwork.

Emperor Menelik II, photographed by Alfred Ilg in 1880

Menilek, who doubtless recalled
how his predecessor and sometime master Emperor Tewodros had persuaded European missionaries to cast him cannons and mortars, then asked Ilg to make him a rifle. The Swiss, like the above mentioned missionaries, protested his ignorance of gun-making, and declared that an imported weapon would be much superior to anything he could himself produce.

Like Tewodros
Like Tewodros before him, Menilek, however, insisted. He declared that he wanted to see what Ilg could do. The latter accordingly did as he was asked, and duly made a passable rifle. This greatly pleased the monarch, who ordered it to be given an honoured place in his armoury. Ilg had thus gained Menilek’s good-will, and was never to lose it!

Emperor Tewodros

He was therupon appointed a craftsman, attached to Menilek’s staff, and was granted a monthly salary, payable in Maria Theresa thalers, of seven or eight pounds Sterling per month. He was soon engaged in all sorts of work for Menilek.

Bridge-building: One of Ilg’s first achievements was building a modern bridge over the Awash River, in 1887. Describing this work, he writes to a friend: A few weeks ago I completed the first bridge… It spans the river Awash. The beams had to be carried 15 kilometres on human shoulders. For the bridge-heads I had to square up the stones on the spot. I even had to burn charcoal in order to forge the nails, rivets, screws and bolts required. Add to this the tropical sun with all its dangers, heavy rains with resultant dysentery, intermittent fever, cyclones which almost pulled out my beard and carried the tent in all directions. At night the hyenas almost stole our leather pillows from under our heads; jackals and other rabble plundered the kitchen and obliged me to obtain respect with strychnine”. A few years later Ilg erected a palace for the monarch at his then capital, Entoto, situated, as most readers know in the mountains above present-day Addis Ababa.

Piped Water: Later again, in 1894, Ilg installed the water installations for the Emperor’s palace at Addis Ababa. This created something of a sensation, as the water, obtained from a spring in high Entoto, had to flow down to the Addis Ababa plain beneath it, and then make its way up again to the Palace compound, which was located on a smallish hill. People in the capital had never seen anything like this, and could not believe that water could ever, under any circumstances, flow upward. Menilek, however, was a great believer in innovation, and insisted that Ilg should proceed with his project, if only to see whether it would work. When the great day for inauguration arrived, the tap was turned on - but nothing happened. A European “friend” had secretly stuffed cotton into the pipe, as Ilg later discovered. This obstruction was duly removed, after which Ilg - and his project - were widely acclaimed. At least two Amharic poems were composed in honour of the event.

One declared:
“We have seen wonders in Addis Ababa.
Water worships Emperor Menilek.
O Danyew [i.e. Menilek] what more wisdom will you bring?
You already make water soar in the air!”

And the other ran as follows:
“King Abba Danyew, how great is he becoming!
He makes the water rise into the air through a window.
While the dirty can be washed, and the thirsty drink.
See what wonders have already come in our times.
No wonder that some day he will even outdo the Ferenje {i.e. Europeans].”

The Railway Project: Menilek himself was so pleased with his Swiss technician’s success that he granted Ilg a concession, on 9 March 1894, to build and operate a railway line from the French Somaliland port of Jibuti via his capital (Entoto) to the White Nile, on the western borders of the realm. The railway project faced almost insuperable difficulties, technical, financial, political, and diplomatic, but Ilg eventually succeeded in establishing a railway company, which constructed the line from Jibuti to the then new town of Dire Dawa (reached in 1902), after which a successor company continued the line to Addis Ababa. The latter town had by then replaced Entoto as Ethiopia’s capital. The projected line of the Nile was, however, never built: why don’t we build it now?

The Addis Ababa Palace: Ilg also helped in the construction of Menilek’s main palace at Addis Ababa, which was begun in 1897. Testimony of his involvement is provided by a contemporary British traveller, Mrs Pease, who reported seeing “many signs of Swiss work”, including paintings of a Swiss lake, and William Tell’s chapel.

Expeditions: Ilg accompanied Menilek on several of his expeditions, including one to Tegray, in 1889-90, and another to Lake Zway, in 1893. He also attempted, though without success, in 1887, to purchase bullet-making machinery, and equipment for a mint. He likewise travelled to Rome, in 1891, where he met members of the Italian Cabinet, and then, after a second visit in 1894, warned Menilek of Italian ambitions to annex Ethiopia.

Diplomacy: After Menilek’s historic defeat of the invader, at the battle of Adwa in 1896, there was a great expansion of Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and the outside world. Menilek appointed Ilg as a Chancellor of State, and gave him the exalted title of Bitwoded, or Beloved. He was made responsible for Ethiopia’s foreign relations. His duties were to interview foreign diplomats arriving in the country, and to conduct correspondence with foreign Powers, and envoys, on Menilek’s behalf. Ilg was linguistically well equipped for this work, as he was able to write in German, French, Italian, and English - and also in Amharic. He corresponded, over the years, with several important Ethiopians. Besides Emperor Menilek and his consort Empress Taytu, these included Negus Takla Haymanot, the king of Gojjam; Ras Makonnen, Menilek’s governor of Harar; Abba Jifar, the semi-autonomous ruler of Jimma; and Abuna Matewos, the Coptic head of the Ethiopian Church. Ilg also exchanged letters with such prominent Ethiopian personalities as Ras Gobena Dachi, Dajazmach Mashasha Workie, and the renowned interpreter Ato Yosef Negusie. Ilg, in his diplomatic capacity, played a prominent part in the negotiations with the Italians, leading up to the post-Adwa Peace Treaty, of 26 October 1896 (in which Italy recognised Ethiopia’s full independence), as well as with the subsequent treaties with Britain and France, signed on 14 and 20 March 1897 respectively. And subsequent agreements with other Powers, including Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

Trusted: Though a foreigner Ilg was well trusted by Menilek, who was of course fully aware that Switzerland was a small neutral, and land-locked, country without colonial ambitions. An essentially safe country to do business with! Ilg served Menilek, with loyalty and devotion, for twenty years, but retired from the Emperor’s service in 1906, just when the monarch’s health was beginning to fail. After he left Addis Ababa his house, situated near the Emperor’s palace, was for a time used to accommodate Ethiopia’s first modern school, the Menilek II School, which was founded in 1908, but soon afterwards removed to its present site at Arat Kilo.

Ilg meanwhile returned to his native Zurich, where he lived on until 1916. He died that year of a heart attack on 7 January: Ethiopian Christmas Day.

post Jesuits in Ethiopia

January 22nd, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 21:20

The Jesuits in 16/17th-Century Ethiopia

The Christian kingdom that controlled the Ethiopian high plateau suffered a series of very deep political, economic, military and religious crises in the period between the late 15th century and the expulsion of the Jesuit missionaries in 1633. The Somali and Afari armies led by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, called the Gragñ (or “left-handed”) seriously threatened the very existence of the Christian state from 1529 to 1543, when they were finally defeated by the Abyssinians with the help of a small Portuguese expeditionary force sent from Goa, India. Subsequently, parties of Borana and Barentuma Oromo pastoralists began raiding deeper and deeper into Abyssinian territory and, by the end of the 16th century, many had settled in Gojam and Shoa and had become the main adversaries of royal power in Abyssinia.

The Ethiopian king meets the Catholic patriarch Afonso Mendes.

The Portuguese military collaboration with the Christian Ethiopians served their own strategic interests in their regional rivalry with the Ottoman Turks for control of the trade routes in the Red Sea and the north-western sector of the Indian Ocean. But the Portuguese rulers, together with the Pope in Rome and the head of the Company of Jesus, had the additional intention of establishing a mission in Ethiopia to encourage the population to switch from their Orthodox faith to Catholicism – an intention that made sense in the light of the Counter-Reformation concerns in Southern Europe.

A Jesuit mission led by Father Andrés de Oviedo first entered the country in 1557, only to find that the conversion project was too utopian. They began visiting the royal court, where they participated in a number of theological discussions with the Orthodox clergy. But they were eventually persecuted and expelled to Tigray where, in May Gwagwa, they preached and gave support to the Portuguese community that had stayed in Ethiopia in the wake of the Gragñ wars. As the years passed and the Portuguese either dwindled in numbers or converted to Orthodoxy, the mission became almost extinct.

By the end of the century, when Philip II, the Emperor of Spain, inherited the Portuguese royal crown, he decided to revive the Jesuit mission in Ethiopia. A new priest, Father Pedro Páez , was sent from Goa. Once in Ethiopia, he forced his way into the royal court. Other priests joined him and together they gradually gained the favour of the new Ethiopian King Susneyos and, very importantly, converted his brother the Ras Sela Krestos to Catholicism.

In 1621, Susneyos publicly announced his adherence to the Latin faith, a strategy to reinforce his political power and his independence from the influential Orthodox clergy. A consequence of the public conversion of the king was the arrival of a growing number of Jesuit priests intent on rapidly introducing Catholic reforms into Ethiopia. In 1626, the Catholic Patriarch Afonso Mendes imposed a number of changes on the ancestral religious practices of the Ethiopians. Social unrest and civil war followed and Susneyos was forced to resign. His son Fasiladas, who succeeded him, rejected Catholicism upon his accession to the throne and, in 1633, expelled or killed all Jesuit missionaries.


post A History of Ethiopia

January 14th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 00:19

Readers Review on:
A History of Ethiopia
by Harold G. Marcus



A foundation for learning Ethiopian history

I found the book well-written and well-organized according to significant changes in Ethiopia’s development. Economics, as well as politics, ethnology and technology are used to explain events and their significance. One thing that did annoy me is the fact that historic maps are all located together in the back, rather than in the sections in which they are relevent. The use of some of the Ethiopian titles of nobility is also confusing, when European equivalents would have done just as well.

Not a casual read by any means, but a serious student of African history could do much worse than Marcus’ book.


An Excellent Primer on Ethiopian History

That sums it up: this is an excellent place to start your study of Ethiopian history.

Marcus appears to specialize in Ethiopian history (he has written biographies of Emperors Haille Selassie and Menelik, both available from But before reading those you might want to read his History of Ethiopia.

Marcus traces the history of this fascinating but mysterious land back to earliest times, and takes it right up to the fall of Mengistu in 1991. Perhaps someday a revision should be done to add events that took place after that, but right now it is too soon; history is still being made in Ethiopia. Most of the book deals with the period after about 1850, but as I said, if you’re looking for a good general history filled with facts and details, this is it.


The author is biased !

I personally appreciate all writers’ accounts about the African history, especially those about the older civilizations like that of Abyssinia, Aoudal (Adal), Ifat (Yifat), Banadir, Oroma etc. Most of the histories from this region are either written by early travelers, who were apparently subject to their respective contact’s account(s). Likewise some writers are subject to either personal inclination to one group or influenced by local authorities to make their fictitious political claims printed in the history in order to subdue others. We therefore should be very careful about the writer’s tone vis-à-vis historical realities and events. The author falls to the second category trap (personal or Authority influence). For instance, he gives more credit to Amhara actions while undermining all other nationals in Ethiopia. He even reached a stage where he distorted the really of geographical history maps. Look the maps at the end of book. It is typical dreams of all Abyssinian emperors’ ambitions. History is history no body can rewrite but can be corrected when grave distortions like those presented in this book are circulated. The writer is a good writer in literature wise but his story is biased!


Link to buy this book

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