From the mid-fifteenth through the mid-seventeenth century, Christian Ethiopians were confronted by the aggressiveness of the Muslim states, the far-reaching migrations of the Oromo, and the efforts of the Portuguese--who had been summoned to aid in the fight against the forces of Islam--to convert them from Monophysite Christianity to Roman Catholicism. The effects of the Muslim and Oromo activities and of the civil strife engendered by the Portuguese left the empire much weakened by the mid-seventeenth century. One result was the emergence of regional lords essentially independent of the throne, although in principle subject to it.
Seventeenth-century Portuguese church beside Lake Tana. Courtesy United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Roger Ferra)
Beginning in the thirteenth century, one of the chief problems confronting the Christian kingdom, then ruled by the Amhara, was the threat of Muslim encirclement. By that time, a variety of peoples east and south of the highlands had embraced Islam, and some had established powerful sultanates (or shaykhdoms). One of these was the sultanate of Ifat in the northeastern Shewan foothills, and another was centered in the Islamic city of Harer farther east. In the lowlands along the Red Sea were two other important Muslim peoples--the Afar and the Somali. As mentioned previously, Ifat posed a major threat to the Christian kingdom, but it was finally defeated by Amda Siyon in the mid-fourteenth century after a protracted struggle. During this conflict, Ifat was supported by other sultanates and by Muslim pastoralists, but for the most part, the Islamicized peoples inhabited small, independent states and were divided by differences in language and culture. Many of them spoke Cushitic languages, unlike the Semitic speakers of Harer. Some were sedentary cultivators and traders, while others were pastoralists. Consequently, unity beyond a single campaign or even the coordination of military activities was difficult to sustain.
Their tendency toward disunity notwithstanding, the Muslim forces continued to pose intermittent threats to the Christian kingdom. By the late fourteenth century, descendants of the ruling family of Ifat had moved east to the area around Harer and had reinvigorated the old Muslim sultanate of Adal, which became the most powerful Muslim entity in the Horn of Africa. Adal came to control the important trading routes from the highlands to the port of Zeila, thus posing a threat to Ethiopia's commerce and, when able, to christian control of the highlands.
Although the Christian state was unable to impose its rule over the Muslim states to the east, it was strong enough to resist Muslim incursions through the fourteenth century and most of the fifteenth. As the long reign of Zara Yakob came to an end, however, the kingdom again experienced succession problems. It was the monarchs' practice to marry several wives, and each sought to forward the cause of her sons in the struggle for the throne. In those cases where the sons of the deceased king were too young to take office, there could also be conflict within the council of advisers at court. In a polity that had been held together primarily by a strong warrior king, one or more generations of dynastic conflict could lead to serious internal and external problems. Only the persistence of internal conflicts among Muslims generally and within the sultanate of Adal in particular prevented a Muslim onslaught. Through the first quarter of the sixteenth century, relations between Christian and Muslim powers took the form of raids and counterraids. Each side sought to claim as many slaves and as much booty as possible, but neither side attempted to bring the other firmly under its rule.
By the second decade of the sixteenth century, however, a young soldier in the Adali army, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi, had begun to acquire a strong following by virtue of his military successes and in time became the de facto leader of Adal. Concurrently, he acquired the status of a religious leader. Ahmad, who came to be called Grañ (the "Lefthanded") by his Christian enemies, rallied the ethnically diverse Muslims, including many Afar and Somali, in a jihad intended to break Christian power. In 1525 Grañ led his first expedition against a Christian army and over the next two or three years continued to attack Ethiopian territory, burning churches, taking prisoners, and collecting booty. At the Battle of Shimbra Kure in 1529, according to historian Taddesse Tamrat, "Imam Ahmad broke the backbone of Christian resistance against his offensives." The emperor, Lebna Dengel (reigned 1508-40), was unable to organize an effective defense, and in the early 1530s Grañ 's armies penetrated the heartland of the Ethiopian state--northern Shewa, Amhara, and Tigray, devastating the countryside and thereafter putting much of what had been the Christian kingdom under the rule of Muslim governors.
It was not until 1543 that the emperor Galawdewos (reigned 1540-49), joining with a small number of Portuguese soldiers requested earlier by Lebna Dengel, defeated the Muslim forces and killed Grañ . The death of the charismatic Grañ destroyed the unity of the Muslim forces that had been created by their leader's successes, skill, and reputation as a warrior and religious figure. Christian armies slowly pushed the Muslims back and regained control of the highlands. Ethiopians had suffered extraordinary material and moral losses during the struggle against Grañ , and it would be decades or even centuries before they would recover fully. The memory of the bitter war against Grañ remains vivid even today.
In the mid-sixteenth century, its political and military organization already weakened by the Muslim assault, the Christian kingdom began to be pressured on the south and southeast by movements of the Oromo (called Galla by the Amhara). These migrations also affected the Sidama, Muslim pastoralists in the lowlands, and Adal. At this time, the Oromo, settled in far southern Ethiopia, were an egalitarian pastoral people divided into a number of competing segments or groups but sharing a type of age-set system (see Glossary) of social organization called the gada system (see Glossary), which was ideally suited for warfare. Their predilection toward warfare, apparently combined with an expanding population of both people and cattle, led to a long-term predatory expansion at the expense of their neighbors after about 1550. Unlike the highland Christians or on occasion the lowland Muslims, the Oromo were not concerned with establishing an empire or imposing a religious system. In a series of massive but uncoordinated movements during the second half of the sixteenth century, they penetrated much of the southern and northern highlands as well as the lowlands to the east, affecting Christians and Muslims equally.
These migrations also profoundly affected the Oromo. Disunited in the extreme, they attacked and raided each other as readily as neighboring peoples in their quest for new land and pastures. As they moved farther from their homeland and encountered new physical and human environments, entire segments of the Oromo population adapted by changing their mode of economic life, their political and social organization, and their religious adherence. Many mixed with the Amhara (particularly in Shewa), became Christians, and eventually obtained a share in governing the kingdom. In some cases, royal family members came from the union of Amhara and Oromo elements. In other cases, Oromo, without losing their identity, became part of the nobility. But no matter how much they changed, Oromo groups generally retained their language and sense of local identity. So differentiated and dispersed had they become, however, that few foreign observers recognized the Oromo as a distinct people until the twentieth century.
In a more immediate sense, the Oromo migration resulted in a weakening of both Christian and Muslim power and drove a wedge between the two faiths along the eastern edge of the highlands. In the Christian kingdom, Oromo groups infiltrated large areas in the east and south, with large numbers settling in Shewa and adjacent parts of the central highlands. Others penetrated as far north as eastern Tigray. The effect of the Oromo migrations was to leave the Ethiopian state fragmented and much reduced in size, with an alien population in its midst. Thereafter, the Oromo played a major role in the internal dynamics of Ethiopia, both assimilating and being assimilated as they were slowly incorporated into the Christian kingdom. In the south, the Sidama fiercely resisted the Oromo, but, as in the central and northern highlands, they were compelled to yield at least some territory. In the east, the Oromo swept up to and even beyond Harer, dealing a devastating blow to what remained of Adal and contributing in a major way to its decline.
Egyptian Muslims had destroyed the neighboring Nile River valley's Christian states in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Tenuous relations with Christians in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire continued via the Coptic Church in Egypt. The Coptic patriarchs in Alexandria were responsible for the assignment of Ethiopian patriarchs--a church policy that Egypt's Muslim rulers occasionally tried to use to their advantage. For centuries after the Muslim conquests of the early medieval period, this link with the Eastern churches constituted practically all of Ethiopia's administrative connection with the larger Christian world.
A more direct if less formal contact with the outside Christian world was maintained through the Ethiopian Monophysite community in Jerusalem and the visits of Ethiopian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Ethiopian monks from the Jerusalem community attended the Council of Florence in 1441 at the invitation of the pope, who was seeking to reunite the Eastern and Western churches. Westerners learned about Ethiopia through the monks and pilgrims and became attracted to it for two main reasons. First, many believed Ethiopia was the long-sought land of the legendary Christian priest-king of the East, Prester John. Second, the West viewed Ethiopia as a potentially valuable ally in its struggle against Islamic forces that continued to threaten southern Europe until the Turkish defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
Portugal, the first European power to circumnavigate Africa and enter the Indian Ocean, displayed initial interest in this potential ally by sending a representative to Ethiopia in 1493. The Ethiopians, in turn, sent an envoy to Portugal in 1509 to request a coordinated attack on the Muslims. Europe received its first written accounts of the country from Father Francisco Alvarez, a Franciscan who accompanied a Portuguese diplomatic expedition to Ethiopia in the 1520s. His book, The Prester John of the Indies, stirred further European interest and proved a valuable source for future historians. The first Portuguese forces responded to a request for aid in 1541, although by that time the Portuguese were concerned primarily with strengthening their hegemony over the Indian Ocean trade routes and with converting the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, joining the forces of the Christian kingdom, the Portuguese succeeded eventually in helping to defeat and kill Grañ .
Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in 1554. Efforts to induce the Ethiopians to reject their Monophysite beliefs and accept Rome's supremacy continued for nearly a century and engendered bitterness as pro- and anti-Catholic parties maneuvered for control of the state. At least two emperors in this period allegedly converted to Roman Catholicism. The second of these, Susenyos (reigned 1607- 32), after a particularly fierce battle between adherents of the two faiths, abdicated in 1632 in favor of his son, Fasiladas (reigned 1632-67), to spare the country further bloodshed. The expulsion of the Jesuits and all Roman Catholic missionaries followed. This religious controversy left a legacy of deep hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans that continued into the twentieth century. It also contributed to the isolation that followed for the next 200 years.
The castle of Emperor Yohannis I (1667-82) in Gonder. Courtsey United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (G.S. Wade)
Emperor Fasiladas kept out the disruptive influences of the foreign Christians, dealt with sporadic Muslim incursions, and in general sought to reassert central authority and to reinvigorate the Solomonic monarchy and the Orthodox Church. He revived the practice of confining royal family members on a remote mountaintop to lessen challenges to his rule and distinguished himself by reconstructing the cathedral at Aksum (destroyed by Grañ ) and by establishing his camp at Gonder--a locale that gradually developed into a permanent capital and that became the cultural and political center of Ethiopia during the Gonder period.
Although the Gonder period produced a flowering of architecture and art that lasted more than a century, Gonder monarchs never regained full control over the wealth and manpower that the nobility had usurped during the long wars against Grañ and then the Oromo. Many nobles, commanding the loyalty of their home districts, had become virtually independent, especially those on the periphery of the kingdom. Moreover, during Fasiladas's reign and that of his son Yohannis I (reigned 1667-82), there were substantial differences between the two monastic orders of the Orthodox Church concerning the proper response to the Jesuit challenge to Monophysite doctrine on the nature of Christ. The positions of the two orders were often linked to regional opposition to the emperor, and neither Fasiladas nor Yohannis was able to settle the issue without alienating important components of the church.
Iyasu I (reigned 1682-1706) was a celebrated military leader who excelled at the most basic requirement of the warrior-king. He campaigned constantly in districts on the south and southeast of the kingdom and personally led expeditions to Shewa and beyond, areas from which royal armies had long been absent. Iyasu also attempted to mediate the doctrinal quarrel in the church, but a solution eluded him. He sponsored the construction of several churches, among them Debre Birhan Selassie, one of the most beautiful and famous of the churches in Gonder.
Iyasu's reign also saw the Oromo begin to play a role in the affairs of the kingdom, especially in the military sense. Iyasu co-opted some of the Oromo groups by enlisting them into his army and by converting them to Christianity. He came gradually to rely almost entirely upon Oromo units and led them in repeated campaigns against their countrymen who had not yet been incorporated into the Amhara-Tigray state. Successive Gonder kings, particularly Iyasu II (reigned 1730-55), likewise relied upon Oromo military units to help counter challenges to their authority from the traditional nobility and for purposes of campaigning in far- flung Oromo territory. By the late eighteenth century, the Oromo were playing an important role in political affairs as well. At times during the first half of the nineteenth century, Oromo was the primary language at court, and Oromo leaders came to number among the highest nobility of the kingdom.
During the reign of Iyoas (reigned 1755-69), son of Iyasu II, the most important political figure was Ras Mikael Sehul, a good example of a great noble who made himself the power behind the throne. Mikael's base was the province of Tigray, which by now enjoyed a large measure of autonomy and from which Mikael raised up large armies with which he dominated the Gonder scene. In 1769 he demonstrated his power by ordering the murder of two kings (Iyoas and Yohannis II) and by placing Tekla Haimanot II (son of Yohannis II) on the throne, a weak ruler who did Mikael's bidding. Mikael continued in command until the early 1770s, when a coalition of his opponents compelled him to retire to Tigray, where he eventually died of old age.
Mikael's brazen murder of two kings and his undisguised role as kingmaker in Gonder signaled the beginning of what Ethiopians have long termed the Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes), a time when Gonder kings were reduced to ceremonial figureheads while their military functions and real power lay with powerful nobles. During this time, traditionally dating from 1769 to 1855, the kingdom no longer existed as a united entity capable of concerted political and military activity. Various principalities were ruled by autonomous nobles, and warfare was constant.
The five-volume work Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile by James Bruce, the Scottish traveler who lived in Ethiopia from 1769 to 1772, describes some of the bloody conflicts and personal rivalries that consumed the kingdom. During the most confused period, around 1800, there were as many as six rival emperors. Provincial warlords were masters of the territories they controlled but were subject to raids from other provinces. Peasants often left the land to become soldiers or brigands. In this period, too, Oromo nobles, often nominally Christian and in a few cases Muslim, were among those who struggled for hegemony over the highlands. The church, still riven by theological controversy, contributed to the disunity that was the hallmark of the Zemene Mesafint.
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