Is Ethiopia a conservative country?


Wolbert G.C. Smidt

To person

is a postdoc at the Department of Oriental Studies at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and is associated as a professor for ethnohistory at Mekelle University, Ethiopia. [email protected]

Anyone who wants to write a history of Ethiopia cannot avoid noting that Ethiopia is actually not a Country, but about many countries - even if in different epochs unity was created again and again in new ways. Each period of rule left behind new historical narratives, each claiming an absolute truth and sometimes violently contradicting each other. One can say: It depends on the respective region, sometimes only on the social subgroup, which version of the overall history of Ethiopia is considered "true" - for example, members of the Amharic-speaking city population in Addis Ababa, young residents of a small town in the state Oromiyaa (Oromia), Muslim Afar nomads or Christian Orthodox farmers in Tigray. In addition, most of these groups are unaware that there are other historical narratives that differ in essential points. Often times, when this becomes known to individuals, the reaction is a mixture of outrage and amazement.

How high the waves can sometimes hit in the Ethiopian history discourse is shown by an incident from February 2020, when teachers in Addis Ababa discussed the final refinements to the new university curriculum for the introductory courses in history: The discussion escalated and was extended until it was broken off after ten days at a final contentious point about the expansion wars of the 19th century. The question will now be referred to the Prime Minister for decision. [1]

Furthermore, it should be noted that the present-day territory of Ethiopia was historically merged from different countries in a relatively recent period. This happened through the sometimes extremely bloody expansion campaigns of Emperor Menelik II (1844–1913), King of Shewa, around the time when the German Empire was also founded. While members of the Central Ethiopian peoples in particular regard this expansion as "reunification", it is remembered very differently in other regions. In fact, several flourishing states perished in fierce battles, and the consequences of land seizures and exchanges of elites still affect politics and society today. [2] The view of many Central Ethiopian groups that Ethiopia in its current borders is a country given by God and has existed since antiquity is not shared, especially in traditional areas such as South Oromiyaa, the Omo Lowlands and Afar - for many there, Ethiopia is up to today a "distant land". Some local politicians have recently discovered advantages that suddenly "make them Ethiopians"; but only a few kilometers further on, other politicians declare that their country was "never Ethiopian" - with which they deliberately overlook the past 130 years.

If you want to write about the history of Ethiopia in this situation, you have to admit your partial failure right from the start. Because there are so many important and complex historical experiences of different regions and groups side by side that it can hardly be adequately reported in a short time. In addition, after some source work, almost every popular storytelling turns out to be unsustainable, but rather as a reflection of the socio-political interests of certain sub-groups. And yet the stories are never simply falsified, but rather full of valuable insights. In this respect, a closer look at the local regional and cultural history is particularly worthwhile, as it shows how rich the country is in traditions and historical experiences. [3]

Ethiopia's role in history

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world; At the same time, it is the country in which persecuted followers of the Prophet Mohammed were able to found the first Islamic community to live in peace. For centuries there was a special local form of Judaism as well as other local religions such as the Waqiffaa religion of the Oromo. These religions are each the result and carrier of international contacts, for example to India and Europe. The heyday always had to do with trade and the exchange of knowledge along the waterways and coasts. Since ancient times, Ethiopia has not been understood without the influences of the great cultures of the Arabian Peninsula, and it was also shaped at different times by exchanges with the eastern Mediterranean, from ancient Israel to the Eastern Roman Empire, but also along ancient routes into the interior of Africa .

On the one hand, Ethiopia can be understood as an African empire, with trade routes to the southwest and west of the continent, and on the other hand as a hub of great cultural exchange across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Culturally and historically, Ethiopia belongs to the realm of the great history of the cultures of the Mediterranean and the oldest Semitic cultures from Israel to the Kingdom of Saba ’. At the same time it is, as its Christian elites traditionally define themselves, "the second Israel", according to historical tradition it is supposed to be a founding of the son of King Solomon.

In the sense of the dominant tradition, the densely populated Abyssinian highlands, which have been shaped by agriculture for four millennia, are the heartland of Ethiopia. Thanks to the fertile plateaus, the moderate high-altitude climate and water-rich rainy seasons, complex farming cultures were able to form here early on, which through trade and migration have always remained in close contact with herders and lowland nomads. The inhabitants of the highlands speak Ethiosemitic and Cushitic languages ​​and mostly call themselves Habescha, from which the European term "Abyssinian" (formerly "Habessinier") is derived. Since they made up the most important political and military elites in the region in the past centuries, the name "Abyssinia" was common in Europe for the state until the 20th century. [4] However, the name of the state has been called Ethiopia in local spelling since the Middle Ages Ityop’ya.

Due to the military expansion under Emperor Menelik II and international treaties with neighboring colonial powers, the Ethiopian territory was greatly expanded in the 19th century: In the east, the vast Afar and Somali plains with their centuries-old independent sultanates and clan elders were added In the south newer Oromo states and old, quasi-democratic models ruled elders "republics", in the south-west a large number of peoples who were organized as small nomadic or peasant groups or as large hierarchical kingdoms, such as the Kafa Empire.

Founding myth: Queen of Sheba

Every book on the history of Ethiopia focuses on the tradition of the Abyssinian heartland. In order to understand Ethiopia, however, it is important to present not only periods established by research, but also popular founding myths. As a state community, Ethiopia is, probably more than other countries, almost defined by its mythical origin. This often justifies local political discourses about an "Ethiopian special path", the superiority of Ethiopian culture and Ethiopia's special closeness to God. These may be extreme phenomena, but a sense of peculiarity permeates almost every conversation about the origins and "the culture of Ethiopia", even when in reality it is a land of many, very different cultures.

So first the myth: The Bible mentions in just a few words the mysterious visit of the Queen of Sheba to the Israeli King Solomon, which traditionally dates back to around 1000 BC. Is dated. The highly developed Kingdom of Saba ’, located in what is now Yemen, is well known for extensive inscriptions by Sabaean kings and a developed art of stone carving and architecture from that era. There is no queen there, however, and according to Ethiopian tradition the story takes place in Ethiopia. According to the story "Kibre Negest" ("The Glory of the Kings"), written at the end of the 13th century, the Queen of Sheba traveled to Salomon in Jerusalem, having heard of his wisdom, and returned pregnant to her kingdom in what is now northern Ethiopia. Her son, called Ibn al-Hakim ("The Son of the Wise") or Ibne / Beyne Ilhakim in older sources, was the founder of the Ethiopian dynasty. After research by the philologists, numerous manuscript copies resulted in the form of the name Beynelik / Menyilik / Menelik. According to legend, Menelik stole the Ark of the Covenant when he visited his father and was accompanied by all the firstborn sons of the elders of Israel on his return to Ethiopia, making Ethiopia the "second Zion". Since then, so the story goes, the Ark of the Covenant has been kept in the Zion Church in Aksum. To this Isra’elawiyan Many of the old families in the Ethiopian highlands can be traced back to this day.

Oral tradition, which is still alive especially in conservative farming societies in Tigray, this story is omnipresent and as a rule only a section of a cycle of legends comprising many parts. In this, local, pre-Christian beliefs are interwoven with stories from ancient Greece, which impressively demonstrates the intense connection to the Mediterranean area. These include in particular the legends about Alexander the Great and his Pegasus horse as well as stories about the withered paradise tree. Particularly noteworthy is the early Ethiopian snake myth, according to which the country was initially ruled by a giant snake. In all of Tigray there are particularly medicinal springs that have to do with snakes and this myth. In the written tradition of the Ethiopian Church, these legends were often Christianized, for example by associating earlier pagan places with the dragon slayer St. George or a saint conjuring up snakes. In the local storytelling, however, the knowledge and thinking of very old societies still shines through.

The ancient empires Di`amat and Aksum

But what about the historicity of the story of the Queen of Sheba? As I said, in the entire tradition of the kingdom of Sheba there is not a single queen. The society there was decidedly patriarchal. In northern Ethiopia it was partly different. There was a political community there called Dicamat, which consisted of several groups, including the Sabeans. Obviously this is remembered in Ethiopian tradition as "the kingdom of Saba" - even if it was, so to speak, a "second Saba". In inscriptions of kings "of the Sabeans and natives" are reported, which mostly refer not only to their fathers, the kings, but also to their mothers, the "royal companions" (the exact translation is still under discussion). [5] There is a remarkable dominance of political women here, as is also known from other African regions. The tradition of the Queen of Sheba has apparently preserved precisely this memory of the central role of women in the system of rule of the Ethiopian Sabaeans.

The Dicamat can only be grasped over a few centuries, most clearly from the 8th to 6th centuries BC. After a "dark period", which was marked by changed cults in half-forgotten and partially destroyed Sabaean temples, the soon important empire of the Aksumites and Habashat (as it is called in its own inscriptions) rose, with the capital Aksum, which has since been considered a spiritual one Central Ethiopia applies. This empire, whose rulers called themselves "kings of kings", extended at times to northern Sudan and across the Red Sea into Yemen, that is, into the core area of ​​old Saba ’. Its elites saw themselves as heirs to the old kingdom of Saba ’and included the country in the royal statute, although it was mostly not controlled by Aksum. Aksum traded across the Indian Ocean, with the Arab world, Egypt and Byzantium - ivory, gold and frankincense were particularly important products. The slave trade also flourished. In return, Aksum received large numbers of amphorae with wine and oil, the mass export products of Rome at the time, as well as luxury products such as fine Roman glasses for cosmetics and probably also silver. An anonymous source from the 6th century suggests that Greek-speaking advisers were hired at times.

Aksum's connections extended far beyond the immediate neighbors, as shown by several Chinese sources that report from the late Aksum. [6] Aksum was the only African empire to develop its own coinage, through which we are very well informed about the names of the most important Aksumite rulers and the main features of their ideas about rule. Particularly noteworthy is the Ge’ez script, which goes back to the earlier Sabaean consonant script, but has further developed it and adapted it to the Ethiosemitic languages. It is still in use today in Ethiopian everyday life, with further developments. The prosperity of Aksum was accompanied by an upswing in international trade routes that linked extensive waterways and the caravan routes of inner Africa.

Another event with world-historical implications is directly connected with Aksum: the founding of Islam. The Prophet Mohammed came from an important merchant family who traded closely with Aksum, his wet nurse came from Ethiopia, as did his first muezzin, Bilal. Philological research shows the influence of Ge'ez, also the late antique Christian scriptural tradition, on the Koran itself. The Aksumite king Ille-Tseham (called al-As'hama in Arabic tradition) took in the first followers of Muhammad around 615, including also family members, as they were persecuted in Mecca. According to local tradition, they founded the first Muslim settlement in Negash in East Tigray, which is still considered a holy place of Islam today.

Even if Ethiopia today differs considerably from ancient Aksum in terms of shape, languages ​​and population - the empire had its center only in northern Ethiopia and along the trade routes to the sea in neighboring Central Eritrea - the ancient history of the region forms the basis for the Founding myths of today's state.

Middle Ages: flowering and conquering by Adal

When there was a radical reorganization of trade routes on the Arabian Peninsula and along the Red Sea in the early Middle Ages and trade was increasingly taken over by Muslim Arabs, the Aksumite empire lost a lot of its importance. Around this time also the gradual self-identification of the Christian Ethiopian rulers with the "Ethiopia" often mentioned in the Bible (Ityop’ya), an originally Greek name for the ancient empires of Sudan as the "land of scorched faces". With this self-designation, Ethiopia has now succeeded in directly connecting its own traditions to the traditions of the Bible. The Davidic descent of the ruling dynasty of the "Solomonids" postulated in the "Kibre Negest" was associated with a high level of prestige: They were now direct relatives of Jesus Christ.

Despite the shifts in power in the Arab world, Ethiopia retained close ties with Jerusalem, where its pilgrims had their own monastery in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from the Middle Ages onwards. At the same time, a rich theological tradition of its own flourished, producing original works in Ge’ez. Even if Amharic became the language of the people as a language of the king, Ge'ez remained the language of the church. Something like an early church higher education system arose in which theology, historiography and law were taught. The leading universities and scriptorias of Gonder emerged from this by the 18th century. In addition, important manuscript collections were created, which include medieval royal chronicles, which are unique in African comparison. Ethiopia can therefore also be regarded as the place of activity of the oldest traditional universities in the world, comparable to those in Cairo and Timbuktu.

In the High Middle Ages, Ethiopia had once again reached such a heyday that European ("Frankish") ambassadors in Egypt reported with envy the honor and pomp with which the emperor's ambassadors were received, while they themselves hardly wanted an audience. Egypt had to fear at all times that Ethiopia would exploit its power over the Nile springs - according to ancient tradition, Ethiopia had control over the water of the Nile.

New research shows that Ethiopia successfully sent diplomatic delegations to Europe, particularly in the 15th century, to establish relationships and bring art - especially images of saints - from Europe to Ethiopia.Missions from Europe, on the other hand, were mostly lost: They had much less knowledge about the target region than the Ethiopians. [7] A planned marriage between the Portuguese and Ethiopian rulers failed because of the distance. The particularly powerful Emperor Zer’a Ya’qob (Constantine I, approx. 1399–1468), who considerably expanded his empire with military campaigns and tried to unite it under a unified Christian doctrine, is known as the author of philosophical writings.

From the 16th century, the dynamic of Ethiopian expansion culminated in seemingly endless wars against powerful Muslim neighbors, including the Muslim empire of Yifat under the Walashma’ dynasty and later the great empire of Adal, which roughly encompassed present-day Eastern Ethiopia and Somaliland. After the population had been forced to pay heavy tributes at times, Adal finally fought back. In the Christian historical tale of Ethiopia it is usually said that the rebel "Ahmed Gragn" ("the left") rebelled against the legitimate rulers. In fact, however, it was the head of an independent empire, Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (approx. 1506–1543), who now reversed the dynamics of the wars: he unified the peoples of the region and defeated Ethiopia. During his decade and a half reign, he continued campaigns against Christian rebels and appointed Muslim governors - including former Christian families in Ethiopia. Even the emperor's son Minas, temporarily in Yemen, seems to have become a Muslim. In fact, this was the only phase in the history of the region in which the entire Horn of Africa was united, albeit with constant resistance, especially from remote Christian provinces. Ethiopian lore tried to reinterpret this rule as a rebellion, when in fact it was an international war - the Ottoman allied state of Adal was a significant neighbor, not a vassal. Imam Ahmad, for example, plays a central role in the Somali and Afar folk tradition as an early leader and role model for the formation of states, which in some cases is still unsuccessful.

However, the empire of Adal collapsed after the fugitive Ethiopian ruler managed to request Portuguese arms aid. The Portuguese, who had just penetrated the Indian Ocean under the leadership of Vasco da Gama and in competition with the Ottomans and Arab traders, were extremely interested in a Christian partner in the region. Adal was supported by the Ottomans, but the Portuguese and Ethiopian forces prevailed and the Ethiopian Empire was restored. Large parts of the empire of Zer'a Ya'qob were lost because the great Oromo people, who were already settled in the southern regions of Ethiopia and organized in democratic warriors 'and elders' councils, gradually took over old provinces that have given up Ethiopia had to. In addition, new empires emerged in the south, such as the important Kafa. And in neighboring areas, small independent communities emerged, some with cults based on Christianity, as well as several Oromo kingdoms.

Disintegration and renewed agreement

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the new Ethiopian capital Gonder was built, equipped with castles in the Indo-Portuguese style, which the Scottish traveler James Bruce reported impressively (not without exaggeration). But the central power crumbled. Since the 18th century, powerful princes, most of whom came from dynasties with strong local roots, divided the areas of Ethiopia among themselves. Their principalities and provinces have been shaped by different population groups with their own languages, traditions and legal systems since ancient times. The historiography of the 19th century calls this phase the "time of the princes" (Zemene Mesafint) and shaped the idea that still dominates today that it was shaped by endless wars and court intrigues.

A closer look, however, shows how the central idea of ​​Ethiopian historiography, namely the Christian-inspired ideal of absolute unity under a single strong ruler, falsely influences the understanding of history: In fact, local traditions and historical sources show that at that time there were long times of peace in numerous regions dawn - since the royal armies, which appeared expansively in the annual rhythm, ceased to exist. The now independent kingdom of Shewa, located in the area of ​​today's capital Addis Ababa and north of it, consolidated itself under its own kings. Northern Tigray was also unified under strong local rulers, and further north in Hamasen, in today's Eritrea, a separate dynasty arose, the Ad Deggiyat, who controlled the trade, while the border peoples of the Bilen and Mensa ', also in today's Eritrea, organized themselves socio-politically with their own laws and councils of elders. Only the historical center was marked by violent clashes between different princes, which explains the strong memory of wars in tradition.

The dream of unification remained and motivated numerous princes. The central provinces of Ethiopia, from Hamasen to Shewa, were united in 1855 under the "King of Kings" Tewodros II (Theodoros, approx. 1818 / 20–1868). The agreement must have gone through the entire region like a shock wave: What seemed practically impossible, was possible. First, Tewodros II, who held his greatest competitor, Prince Wube (King "Ubie" in European sources) in captivity, experienced an enormous influx of followers and soldiers. A German emigrant, Eduard Zander, was employed by him to train a standing army that did not exist before. A good third of its land was taken from the church to finance the state. Craftsmen from Germany and Switzerland, who were also Protestant lay missionaries, were settled by the new ruler to build roads, wagons and cannons.

Within a short time, however, the country broke up: Wubes' nephew, Nigus Niguse, declared himself king of Ethiopia with recognition of the French state and soon controlled the entire north, far beyond the dominion of Wubes to Gonder. After several years of war Tewodros was victorious, but in the meantime the kingdom of Shewa had made itself independent again and its young king Menelik II called himself "King of Kings" of Ethiopia. Historiography knows Tewodros as the "unifier" of Ethiopia, but in fact Ethiopia was never involved in so many internal wars until the military dictatorship under Mengistu Haile Mariam (head of state 1977–1991). Tewodros unsuccessfully requested British support and in 1865, frustrated, captured practically all of the country's Europeans. The Anglo-Indian army then marched into Ethiopia in a formidable logistical operation to demonstrate Britain's colonial power. At Easter 1868 Tewodros shot himself, who in the meantime de facto all princes - except that of the distant Hamasen - refused allegiance. [8]

Development towards the modern state

Under the emperors Yohannes IV of Tigray (approx. 1831 / 37-1889) and Menelik II of Shewa a successful consolidation of the country followed. In this context, a note on the feudalism of Ethiopia is important: Contrary to what is suggested in modern discourses, the division into Ethiopian provinces, principalities and free peasant republics with councils of elders could in no way be compared with the modern feudal elites of Europe, who formed strong oligarchies there and developed from The rest of the population largely sealed off in terms of wealth and estate. The feudalism of Ethiopia, developed differently depending on the region, was a federal system in which some of the local ruling houses were more peasant dynasties. Based on extensive social obligation networks, there was a high degree of social permeability, for example in Tigray. A ruler of Ethiopia had to reckon with these regions and was above all a moderator. Yohannes IV recognized the various princes and gave them royal titles - he could only appoint his closest ministers and followers. Through this recognition of local autonomies, he created a moderate form of unity.

A radical upheaval in the Ethiopian state, almost a re-establishment, happened under Emperor Menelik II. The years around 1888/89 were marked by a massive famine and epidemics, in which large parts of the population of the highlands died. The ecologically exhausted and drought-plagued farming country could hardly afford the taxes to the emperor. In order to finance his state, Menelik decided on a historically unique expansion move. In the east, the successor states of Adal were now weak and controlled the trade routes only in coordination with Shewa - Menelik subjugated the emirate of Harar and thus took over direct control.
Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century (& copy mr-kartographie, Gotha 2020)
In the south and south-east there were some successful trading kingdoms of the Oromo, such as Jimmaa, the ecologically highly developed Kafa, whose "god king" controlled wide trade routes, as well as smaller neighboring kingdoms. Menelik maintained close contact with European merchants, including the arms dealer Arthur Rimbaud, the former poet who had escaped from Paris. By selling ivory, Menelik made an immense fortune with which he could acquire unlimited weapons that led to further ivory hunts and supported the expansion campaigns. At the same time he banned the slave trade after negotiations with European countries, but continued it under his own control with Arab countries. In this way he succeeded in tripling the territory of Ethiopia until the 1890s (see map).

Ethiopia now also entered the modern age defined by Europe as an independent state. Several European powers such as France, England and Italy had set up small stations along the African coasts to supply their international shipping. Italy, which had only recently become a united state, looked for colonies and gradually penetrated the hinterland from the Eritrean coastal station of Assab. In 1889 the Italians signed a friendship treaty with Menelik II and since then have claimed - on the basis of a mistranslated treaty - that Ethiopia is an Italian protectorate. In addition to today's Eritrea, which was declared an Italian colony in 1890, Italy also controlled part of the Ethiopian principality of Tigray in 1895. Menelik held still for a long time, thus seducing the Italians into a deceptive optimism, while at the same time preparing himself militarily with his allies. At the beginning of March 1896 the situation was favorable for an attack: local spies had made themselves available as knowledgeable guides and led the Italian troops into various impassable valleys around Adwa. With great losses, Menelik and the Ethiopian princes succeeded in largely destroying the Italian army. The "Battle of Adwa" is considered a world historical event: for the first time a European army was decisively defeated by an African army. Soon after, in 1896, a peace treaty was signed, Ethiopia was recognized as a sovereign state, and diplomatic embassies from almost every country in Europe established their embassies. In 1923, Ethiopia was the only African country to become a member of the League of Nations.

Since then, Ethiopia, despite major upheavals in World War II and painful regime changes, has been the country in Africa with the largest number of international embassies and Addis Ababa has been the seat of several international organizations - including the African Union since 1962, which makes it the "capital of Africa". Emperor Haile Selassie I, who ruled from 1916 to 1974 (initially as regent under the name Ras Teferi until 1930), was a gifted international diplomat. [9] It only had to give way for a five-year period: Mussolini's armies attacked Ethiopia in 1935 in order to realize their colonial dream, and conquered the country using massive amounts of poison gas. The historian Aram Mattioli calls this war, which went hand in hand with the breach of all international rules, an "experimental field of violence" that ushered in World War II in practice and in theory. [10] In this war models of total war were tried out, which Hitler later used in his wars of expansion. However, in 1941 Ethiopia was also the first country to be liberated by the Allies during World War II.

Outlook: contrasts and contradictions

Another aspect of the anti-colonial battle of Adwa should be mentioned at this point: It was precisely the massive expansion to the south and the use of the new resources that made the victory possible. This aspect is only reluctantly associated with the battle today, but in the interests of a new historiography that includes all regions of Ethiopia, it should not be swept under the carpet that the military triumph also cemented a new, in parts of its structures imperial state.

In this context, the numerous public discussions that took place in the early 2000s about the standard work "A History of Modern Ethiopia" are also interesting. [11] The author, Bahru Zewde, is one of the country's foremost historians, and his book, based on extensive knowledge of the sources, offers a consistent storytelling with an emphasis on the Amharic-dominated Ethiopian state. It was precisely this that generated resentment, especially among members of the Oromo, who make up just over a third of the Ethiopian population. The only justified criticism, however, was rarely formulated: the problem is not factual errors, the problem is the choice of topics.

This can be demonstrated with a simple example. The kingdom of Kafa, known in older European literature as the "Empire of Kaffa" or the "Kingdom of the God-Kings", which had a hierarchical civil service and priesthood, its own complex religion and sophisticated ecological regulations, disappeared with the expansion of Emperor Menelik II . von Shewa in the 1880s not just like that, but offered massive resistance for about three years against an increasingly massive soldierka. The result was a partial ecological collapse and the widespread extermination of the political and religious elites, which were quickly replaced by central Ethiopian elites, as well as the death of a significant part of the rural population. In the aforementioned book, however, Kafa, which was one of the most fascinating ancient African empires, appears on only half a page. The reason is that Bahru only documents the Ethiopian state history in his book and ignores the numerous alternative regional histories that continue to shape Ethiopian history. How powerful they are to this day can also be seen in various ethnic rebel groups, some of which for historical reasons do not identify with the Ethiopian state.

It is obvious that a new historiography of Ethiopia that is not exclusively oriented towards rulers is necessary and socio-politically relevant. The discussions about the question of how the various peoples and ethnic groups as well as the various earlier states in the area of ​​today's Ethiopia can be better integrated into historiography by taking into account new local traditions are still at the very beginning.