ETHIOPIAThe kingdom of Aksum: from the 5th century BC

The story of the Queen of Sheba links her with in a legend which echoes historical reality. The Ethiopian national epic, Kebra Nagast (‘Glory of Kings’), records the tradition that and the Queen of Sheba have a son, Menelik, who comes to Ethiopia to found the royal dynasty.

Sheba, now known as Saba, is at the narrow mouth of the Red Sea, only twenty-five miles from the coast of . From about the 10th century BC Sabaeans migrate in increasing numbers across this strait. By perhaps the 5th century they are sufficiently numerous and powerful to establish Ethiopia’s first civilization – the Semitic kingdom of Aksum.

The kingdom of Aksum lasts for a millennium and more. Towards the end of that time, in the 4th century AD, its close links with the Red Sea ports (full of Greek merchants trading with the Roman empire) result in an imported creed which will profoundly influence the rest of Ethiopian . The country becomes Christian.

In a document of 356 there is a mention of Frumentius, the first bishop of Ethiopia. He is consecrated in Alexandria (the beginning of a lasting link between Ethiopia and the Coptic church of Egypt). Tradition says that Frumentius is a young Christian, captured and brought to Aksum, who persuades the king to allow Greeks to build churches in his kingdom.

An island of Christianity: from the 7th century AD

Ethiopia, as a Christian country, is isolated from the 7th century by the emergence of Islam. Egypt is in Muslim hands from AD 642; and gradually, in subsequent centuries, Muslim sultanates become established on the African coast east and south of Ethiopia.

A strong link survives with Christians elsewhere in the Muslim world. The head of the Ethiopian church is appointed by the patriarch of the Coptic church in Egypt, and Ethiopian monks have certain rights (maintained to this day) in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But in military terms the medieval centuries are a long struggle against Muslim incursions from several directions.

The gravest danger is in the 16th century. It derives from the strong Muslim sultanate established at Harar. In 1530 its ruler, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim (known to the Ethiopian Christians as Grañ) moves west with an army of Somalis in a holy war against Ethiopia. By the time of his death, ten years later, the holy places and Christian shrines have been sacked and burnt as far north as Aksum.

Another Muslim threat becomes evident at much the same period. For some years the Ottoman Turks have occupied the Dahlak islands in the Red Sea. In 1557 they move on to the mainland, establishing a garrison at Massawa.

Yet somehow, in the fastnesses of its highland plateau, Christian Ethiopia manages to weather the onslaught of Islam – becoming the only region of northern Africa to survive as a Christian state. (The Christian kingdom of Nubia, lying to the north between Egypt and Ethiopia, succumbs to Islam during the 13th century.)

This period of danger and isolation is the time when the legendary figure of Prester John becomes linked with Ethiopia. As a far-away Christian king, of whom no hard facts are known in the courts and monasteries of Europe, the role of the mysterious Prester John seems tailor-made for the Ethiopian monarch. This ruler even holds an extra trump card. There is mention in his lineage of Solomon.

The dynasty of Solomon: from AD 1270

Various dynasties follow each other on the Ethiopian throne in the unsettled centuries of the early struggle with Islam. Then, in 1270, a warlord by the name of Yekuno Amlak wins power and establishes a royal line which survives until the late 20th century. He provides his descendants with the best possible Ethiopian pedigree, for he claims to be descended from Solomon and the queen of Sheba.

At first this royal line of Solomon exercises little real control over the region now thought of as Ethiopia. The position of the king is more akin to that of a medieval European monarch, presiding at the peak of an unruly feudal pyramid.

There are three major provinces within Ethiopia, in each of which the ruler usually enjoys virtual independence. Each of these regions, moving southwards, is in its turn the centre of the developing realm of Ethiopia.

The north is the area where the first rulers establish themselves, arriving from across the Red Sea. Comprising at times both Eritrea and Tigre, this province contains Aksum, the original centre of Ethiopian civilization. Next is Amhara, in the northern highlands, with Gondar as its capital. Here are to be found the great medieval monasteries of Ethiopia. And this is the home territory of the supposed dynasty of Solomon, helped to power in the 13th century by the support of rich abbots and their feudal vassals.

Further south again, in the central highlands, is the kingdom of Shewa. This is the natural site from which to rule the entire region. Addis Ababa is founded here in 1886 by Menelik II, who is subsequently the first man to establish control over the modern nation of Ethiopia.

When Menelik comes to the throne in 1889 he restores the line of Solomon (recently displaced by a powerful usurper) and he brings back to international prominence Ethiopia’s own brand of Christianity. This has survived not only the assault of Islam but also the attentions of Catholic , determined to put an end to this isolated survival of the monophysite heresy.

Links with Rome: AD 1441-1622

In 1441 some Ethiopian monks travel from Jerusalem to attend the council in Florence which is discussing possible union between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.

The arrival of the Ethiopian monks causes something of a sensation. It begins two centuries of contact in which Rome hopes to bring the Ethiopians into the Catholic fold (the doctrinal problem is that they incline to the monophysite heresy associated with the Coptic church of Egypt). In 1554 Jesuits arrive in Ethiopia – to be joined in 1603 by Pedro Páez, a Spanish missionary of such energy and zeal that he has been called the second apostle of Ethiopia (Frumentius being the first).

Páez learns Amharic, the Ethiopian language, and prepares in it a catechism. He also writes a treatise on the theological errors of the Ethiopian church, armed with which he persuades the king, Susenyos, to abandon his monophysite heresy and to declare that Christ has two natures. But Páez dies in 1622. Ten years later, under strong local pressure, the king reverts to Ethiopia’s traditional version of Christianity.

The departure of the Jesuits is followed by two centuries in which Ethiopia survives once more in precarious isolation – until the second half of the 19th century, when the colonial interest in Africa again involves the kingdom in the affairs of the wider world.

Menelik II: AD 1889

Menelik II is crowned emperor, in 1889, after a time of great turmoil in the region – both internally and outside Ethiopia’s borders.

Three decades of internal upheaval have led to a strengthening of central control, but this has not been achieved by Menelik’s royal dynasty. By the early 19th century his ancestors have become little more than token emperors in a feudal system which has collapsed into anarchy. Order is restored in mid-century by one of the powerful barons, who after defeating his northern rivals proclaims himself emperor in 1855 as Theodore II. In 1856 Theodore marches south against Haile Malakot, king of Shewa and a member of the Solomon dynasty.

Haile Malakot dies during Theodore’s invasion of his territory, whereupon Theodore takes with him as a hostage Malakot’s 11-year-old son, prince Menelik. The boy lives the next twelve years in virtual imprisonment until, on the death of Theodore in 1868, he becomes one of three claimants to the throne. From 1872 he bides his time during the reign of a stronger rival, John IV. He is finally crowned after John dies, in 1889, in battle against a Muslim army invading from the Sudan.

Aggressive followers of the Mahdi in the Sudan are only one of the external dangers facing the new emperor. Equally threatening are the European imperialists now staking out their claims on the Red Sea coast, and in particular the Italians.

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