A Period of Conflict (C. 700 – 1200 A.D)


Professor Taddese Tamerat

The rise of Islam and its impact on Ethiopia

The period following the rise and the rapid expansion of Islam in the near and the Middle East was a very critical one for the Christian kingdom of Axum. The whole civilization and culture of Axum, as well as its economic life, was based on its international maritime connections, Ever since the Ptolemeys had taken a scientific and economic interest in the Red Sea area, Axum had become an integral part of the Hellenic world. Axum held the same position also during the Roman and Byzantine Empires. It was indeed not a mere coincidence that the Church in Axum was established immediately after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of his Byzantine dominions. There seems to be no doubt, now, that there were many individual Ethiopian and foreign Christian’s residing in the Aksumite kingdom, even before the formal establishment of the Church there. But the crucial step taken by Ezana to adopt the new religion and to make it a state Church followed upon a similar imperial decision by Constantine. It was also from the Eastern Mediterranean that the first Christian missionaries come to Axum. Abuna Salama and others such as the Nine Saints came from the Byzantine world, and endowed the Aksumite Church with its earliest characteristics. These regular contacts continued down to the seventh century, and all-important economic, political, and religious developments in the Byzantine world were also reflected in Axum. With the rapid Muslim conquest, however, these historical channels of communication were almost completely cut off. Only with the Alexandrian Church did Christian Ethiopia continue to have precarious contact.

Before the rise of Islam, Axum was an extensive maritime and commercial Empire. In its heyday, it ruled many districts in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea. It controlled the land of the Beja, a people who inhabited northern Eritrea and what northeastern part of the Republic of the Sudan. In the west, the political and military sphere of influence of Axum had already reached the Nile valley by the fourth century A.D. Beyond the River Takazz’e, the district of Semien and probably also the region as far as Lake Tana were within its territorial limits. However, it was in the south, in the predominantly Agew populated areas of Tigrai, Wa’ag, Lasta, Anogot and Amhara where the heritage of Axum struck its deepest roots. When almost completely excluded from the Red Sea trade, and having lost its maritime international orientation, the kingdom of Axum turned towards this Agew interior, and made it the center of a distinctive Christian culture over the centuries.

The rulers of Axum had acquired strong footholds in these central highlands already before the establishment of the Christian Church in the kingdom. They sent numerous expeditions of war and conquest into these areas from where they obtained tribute and a continuous supply of ivory, gold, and slaves. The Aksumite governor of the Agew was responsible for the long-distance caravan route to Sassou-some where near Fazolgi in eastern Sudan –from where Axum obtained much gold. These precious commodities were used for the international trade across the Red Sea in which Aksum was most active.

After their conversion to Christianity the kings of Aksum consolidated their power by establishing churches and military colonies in these central highlands. There are still today a number of churches many of them dug out of the living rock in Tigrai and Lasta-which are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. These churches and military settlements became centers of still further movements of small family groups from the more crowded parts of northern Ethiopia. In this way, the areas as far south as the region of northern Shoa were gradually affected by these slow population movements. Local traditions indicate that already in the tenth and eleventh centuries a number of small isolated Christian families had been established in the districts of Menz, Merhabite, Muger, and Bulga in northern Shoa. The spear head of Aksumite expansion may have even further south and east. This seems to be suggested by the geographical distribution of some of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia-Amharic, Argobba, Harari, Guragi, and Gafat.

All these regions in which the Aksumite were expanding were originally pagan lands, and the people spoke different Cushitic language. We have no historical data to show how these people lived, and how they were socially and politically organized before the advent of Aksumite rule. When the Aksumite conquered them, however, they imposed upon them their own religion, language, and Political organization. It was this Aksumite impact on the Agew and Sidama interior of the Ethiopian region which resulted in the creation of a number of small, predominantly pagan kingdoms of which we have distant echoes in the traditions of early and late mediaeval Ethiopia. Among these, were the political units of the Athagaw (=Agew) mentioned in the inscriptions the Aksumite kings against whom fought long wars of resistance; the Semenoi (that is, the ancient people of Semien) who also fought against, and were conquered by the Aksumite; the pagan kingdom of Gojjam, (also of Agew extraction),which was only integrated into the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia in the fourteenth century; and the legendary kingdom of Damot (probably inhabited by Southern Cushitic or Sidama peoples),which was still very strong between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in the whole region south and south-west of Shoa.

The beginnings of the Zagwe’ Dynasty
One of these political units, the kingdom of Bugna in Lasta, later emerged in the twelfth century as the most dominant single power in the region, and took control of the inland Empire that was once ruled by Aksum. The new rulers are collectively known as the Zagwe Dynasty in Ethiopian history and the y ruled the world of the Christian kingdom until the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The power of Aksum had declined, and her commercial supremacy in the Red Sea area had been taken first by the Persians and later by the huge Muslim Empire which dominated the whole of the near and Middle East and Northern Africa. The descendants of the ancient rulers of Aksum thus lost their Red Sea ports and much of the semi- desert coastal strip, and they seem to have concentrated their attention on their inland provinces south of Aksum. Even Aksum was apparently abandoned as a political center by the ninth century, and the center of gravity of the Christian kingdom moved to the region of southern Tigrai and what is today northern Wollo.

For about three centuries this area remained the center of the kingdom, which revived, once again, with a new identity as a land-locked Christian Empire. It entered a new period of conquest and expansion, and, according to an Arab historian of the tenth century, its political sphere of influence reached the region of Harar and Zeila. The same historian tells us, however, that in the middle of the same century the kingdom had suffered a number of military reverses, and the southern part of its territory was conquered by an apparently pagan queen, the queen of the Banu al-Hamuiyya, who had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Muslim kingdom of Yemen. The new political situation seems to have brought about a period of decline and internal conflict in the Christian kingdom. But the kingdom held on in the northern part of its territories unit the new Zagwe rulers took over in the middle of the twelfth century as we have mentioned earlier.

The term “Zagwe dynasty” means the dynasty of the Agew. As already stated above its rulers came from the district of Bugna, in Lasta. Their homeland was apparently one of the most important strongholds of the Agew people in their centuries-old relations with the Semitized Agew kingdom of Aksum. It was probably here that the armies of ancient Aksum were confronted with very strong movements of resistance when they were expanding southwards. It was also probably here that the Aksumite governor of the Agew had his headquarters from where he protected the long-distance gold trade of Aksum in the sixth century. All the dialectical groups of the Agew peoples consider this region as the land of their ancestors, and as a point of dispersal in their traditions of population movements. It was therefore not accidental that the Agew dynasty of Christian Ethiopia should emerge from precisely the same area.

The Agew people of Wa’ag and Lasta had already been within the Aksumite kingdom since the early centuries of the Christian era. It has already been said above that many churches in this area are attributed to the early Christian kings of Aksum. It was also in southern Tigrai and in Angot (northern Wollo), just next door to Wa’ag and Lasta, that the Christian kingdom had its political center for three centuries after the decline and fall of Aksum. The Agew peoples of these areas had therefore been profoundly acculturized by the Aksumite kingdom, and they had even adopted Christianity as their religion. The Agew kings of the Zagawe dynasty were therefore completely Christian from the start. They had, however, successfully resisted complete assimilation, particularly in a linguistic sense. Thus, although it is certain that they used Ge’ez as the language of their church services; they apparently continued to use their Agew mother tongue for their daily needs. Signs of this bi-linguality are clearly seen in some of the land charters given by the Zagwe kings in Ge’ez. In the major aspects of their rule, however, the Zagwe kings continued the cultural and political legacy of Aksum.

The capital of the Zagwe kings was at Adefa, at the present site of the town of Lalibela. From here they continued the Aksumite imperial tradition of conquest and Christian expansion here at Adefa they received and entertained many delegations from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and probably also from the Muslim rulers of Egypt. Kings Yimrha and Lalibela, the greatest kings of the Zagwe dynasty, had many such contacts with the eastern Mediterranean region and particularly with Egypt. The traditions about the building of the beautiful churches of Yimrahanne Kristos and the Lalibela group of rock-hewn churches are dominated by allusions to such international contacts. The characteristic aspects of the building of these religious monuments are essentially loyal, however, to the best traditions of Aksumite architectural art. Thus, although it can be surmised that the Zagwe kings may have used artisans from the eastern Mediterranean countries, the conception of the building was clearly indigenous and no doubt derived from the Aksumite heritage of the Zagwe dynasty. Translations of many religious works from Arabic into Ge’ez are also said to date from this period. Despite later traditions to the contrary, therefore, the living achievements of the Zagwe dynasty clearly show that the period was one of cultural and literary revival in the Christian kingdom.

The ‘Solomonic” Dynasty
This dynasty was overthrown by Yikunno-Amlak, an Amhara warrior of the central province of what is now Wollo, which constituted the southern part of the Zagwe kingdom. Besides Yikunno-Amlak’s successful revolt against the Zagwe, a number of crucial historical factors brought about this drastic political change in the Christian kingdom.

Ever since the rise of Islam at Mecca, in the 7th century, the Aksumite had been losing their ancient ports and islands to the increasingly, dominant Muslim merchants of the red Sea. From these marker stations on the seaboard, the Muslim merchants operated in the Christian highlands throughout the early mediaeval period. They gradually made a number of local converts to Islam, mainly in the major market villages and along the caravan routes. The right of public worship and free trade of these local Muslim converts was strongly championed by Muslim rulers of Egypt who could always put pressure on the Christian Ethiopian kings through the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Until the tenth century it is very clear that these local Muslims were few in number, and their activities in the Ethiopian region were purely commercial in character. After the tenth century, however, their number began to grow and many Muslim settlements were established. These erstwhile commercial Muslim settlements gradually assumed much political significance. This historical development was particularly true of the hinterland of the port of Zeila which was becoming the most important commercial outlet for the Ethiopian region. By the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries a number of small Muslim sultanates were established along the trade routes from Zeila to Ethiopian interior. The most important among these were the sultanates of Shoa, Ifat, Dawaro, and Bali. Since all these Muslim states were situated to the south and southwest of the central Ethiopian highlands, the Zagwe kingdom was growing more and more isolated and was receiving no benefits from the commercial exploitation of the rich regions of southern Ethiopia. The province of Amhara lay between the seat of Zagwe power in Lasta and these rich areas, and, when Yikunno-Amlak raised his banner of revolt in Amhara, the isolation of the Zagwe rulers became complete.

The dynasty founded by Yikunno-Amlak in 1270 is called the “Solomonic” dynasty. This appellation is a result of an historical process that seems to have started in the early mediaeval period. After the decline of Aksum, the Christian kingdom was surrounded by Muslim and pagan neighbors and was isolated from the rest the Christian world except the Alexandrian Church. During all this period the most important religious book in the possession of the Ethiopians was the Holy Bible which they took much inspiration. Taking accounts probably of the similar beleaguered circumstances, the Ethiopians began to identify themselves with Israel, and to deliberately imitate and adopt many of the institutions of the Old Testament. The most important expression of this attitude is the gradual identification of the Ethiopian ruling house with the family of king Solomon of Israel. This tradition is embodied in the Kebre Negest, compiled in the thirteenth century, which tells the Ethiopic version of the legend of the Queen Sheba. The Solomonic tradition was particularly important after Yikunno-Amlak founded his dynasty. All his descendants adopted the name of the “House of Israel”, and no one who did not belong to this house could accede to the throne in the whole of the late mediaeval period. All the male descendants of Yikunno-Amlak, expect the reigning monarch and his miner sons, were kept under heavy guard on the inaccessible mountain top of Gishen. When a king died, it was form among the detained princes on Mount Gishen that his successor was chosen. This ingenious device gave a high degree of political stability to the mediaeval Christian kingdom, a stability which was essential in that period of intensive struggle with the numerous Muslim sultanates that had been established in the south and the south-eastern part of the Ethiopian region.

Yikunno-Amlak’s grandson, king Amde-Seyon (1314-44), dealt effectively with these Muslim king lets in the area. His quarrel with them was not merely religious. He wishes to control their commercial activities by conquering the areas through which the trade routes passed, and break the age-old isolation of his kingdom. In a series of long wars he conquered Ifat, Dawaro, Bali, Hadya, and the pagan regions to the west and southwest of these centers of Muslim trade. From this time on Christian kingdom maintained its dominant position until the sixteenth century.

Just as in the preceding period of the Zagwe dynasty, the major aspects of the social, cultural, and military organization of the mediaeval Christian kingdom were a direct replica of the Aksumite kingdom. The “Solomonic” kings of mediaeval Ethiopia maintained the imperial traditions of ancient Aksum which remained their cultural and religious centre to the end of the period. Unlike the kings of Aksum, however, they did not build fixed urban centers or capital cities. They administered their huge unwieldy Empire from a series of peripatetic royal camps which nevertheless had the same functions as permanent towns or cities. This arrangement increased the mobility of the royal court, and the effectiveness of the Christian army against local revolts. In a vast empire with numerous big rivers, great mountains and spectacular valleys, without roads and bridges, the task of maintaining sufficient control over their heterogeneous subjects would have otherwise been impossible for the mediaeval kings of Ethiopia.

Monasticism and the Expansion of the Church

It was within this historical milieu that the Church was making its impact felt in the Ethiopian interior. It has been mentioned in the second section above that the nine saints had instituted the earliest monasteries in the Aksumite kingdom. It is apparent that, together with monasteries other monastic communities later established in Tigre and Lasta, these ancient monasteries continued to be the cultural continued to provide educational facilities for the whole of the Ethiopian Christian leaders in mediaeval Amhara and northern Shoa, it is very clear that any ambitious young man had to travel all the way to northern Ethiopia to obtain any serious religious and literary training. When they returned to their native districts, some of these men opened small schools where they taught some of the local children how to read and write. But until the middle of the thirteenth century, it seems that none of these small local schools in the south attained any particular significance beyond providing very elementary educational service for a handful of local children.

In about 1248, however, a young monk, Iyasus-Mo’a (c.1211-1292) came to Lake Hayq and opened a small monastic school at the island church of St. Stephen. Iyasus-Mo’a was born in Dahna, a small district of Lasta bordering on the River Takazze. While still a young boy, he abandoned his home district, traveled to northern Tigre, and joined the famous monastery of Debra Damo. There, he studied for many years under the abbot, Abba Yohanni, who later conferred on him the monastic habits. Iyasus-Mo’a had been a very serious student, and he had particularly distinguished himself as an outstanding calligraphist.

He apparently copied many books while at Debra Damo, and he is renowned for having left a large collection of manuscripts when he died at Hayq in 1292. The school he opened at Hayq becomes very famous as the first center of higher Christian education south of Lasta. Many young men from the surrounding Christian communities joined his school. According to the hagiographic tradition about his life, one of his pupil was the founder of the “Solomonic” dynasty, King Yikunno-Amlak (1270-1285), and there are more reliable indications that the island monastery of Lake Hayq continued to be one of the most important cultural centers of the “Solomonic” kings until the advent of Ahmad Gragn in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Many of Iyasus-Mo’a’s pupils later acquired considerable fame as monastic leaders of the Ethiopian Church. Abba Hiruta-Amlak is believed to have been the founder of the important island monastery of Daga Estifanos on Lake Tana. Many others are said to have founded similar monastic communities in mediaeval Amhara and central Begemdir. One of the most outstanding pupils of Iyasus-Mo’a was Abba Takel-Haymanot of Shoa (d.1313). He apparently joined Iyasua-Mo’a’s school as a middle-aged man with many years of clerical service in Shoa behind him. He spent some nine years with Iyasus-Mo’a who gave him his first serious Christian education. After having been invested with the monastic habits by Iyasus-Mo’a, Takel-Haymanot decided to visit the ancient monastic centers in northern Ethiopia. He went to Debra-Damo and other places in Tigre where he remained for over ten years. In the meantime, he undertook further religious and monastic training and he apparently gained a much deeper insight into the history and ecclesiastical traditions of Ethiopia. He returned to Hayq with many followers after his long sojourn in Tigre. Iyasus-Mo’a now advised him to go back to his native district of Shoa and start a new monastery of Debra Libanos which has become one of the most important religious centers of Christian Ethiopia.

Similar monastic leaders were emerging during the same period in northern Ethiopia, and they established other cultural centres. Abba Ewostatewos (d.1352) deserves particular mention. He was apparently born in Gar’alta, in central Tigre and he studied under his own uncle, Abba Daniel, who was the abbot of Debra Mariam there. He then left Gar’alta and began teaching in Sara’s, in what is today the province of Eritrea. There he was joined by many students who later founded their own monastic centers in the area. Ewostatewos himself was persecuted by his colleagues in the Ethiopian church for insisting on the Biblical custom of the observance of the Sabbath, and he left his country for Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, and Armenia where he died after fourteen years of self-exile. He was accompanied by some of his pupils on his foreign travels, and some of them managed to return to Ethiopia after his death. Together with their colleagues who had remained in northern Ethiopia, these followers of Ewostatewos effectively organized themselves and they become one of the two monastic houses of the Ethiopian Church. (The other is the House of Takla-Haymanot of Shoa) important cultural and educational centers like Debra Mariam of Qohain, and Dabra Bizan (on the eastern edge of the Hamasen plateau) were later founded by the followers of Abba Ewostatewos. Thus, by the fifteenth century, numerous monastic centers had been established at a number of crucial points from northern Hamasen to Lake Zuway in the south, from the eastern edge of the Ethiopian plateau to beyond Lake Tana in the west. And, just like the ancient center founded by the nine Saints, the new monastic communities provided the only educational facilities available in the Christian highlands.

Development of Christian literature
Each monastic community ran a number of schools depending on its size and its resources. A senior member of the community, specially noted for his learning and for his exemplary character, was given charge of each of these schools. The monasteries of Ethiopia vied among themselves for attracting well-known teachers, and the fame and prestige of a monastery largely depended on the quality of the teachers it employed. The courses given by each school were of course mainly religious and they depended on the level of the school.

There were mainly four general levels of education in these monastic communities. The first level concentrated on training children how to read. They started with the Ethiopic alphabet, and they were drilled into reading a series of increasingly difficult passages. The question of understanding and comprehension was not important at this stage. It was strictly a “Reading” exercise. After sunset, following the evening prayers and the community dinner time, the children of the “reading School” were taught to memorize and recite a series of increasingly difficult prayers. This “memorization exercise” often went on up to midnight.

The next stage was usually one in which courses in church Music were given at different levels. Since the days of Yared, who is believed to have been divinely inspired to compose the first notes of the distinctively Ethiopian church Music in the Sixty century, a meticulous system of courses was organized in this field. It is apparent that this elaborate program of musical studies was at the height of its development in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. The Dagwa, the collection of hymns traditionally attributed to Yared , was most probably a cumulative product of many centuries. A major aspect of the Ethiopian Church Music in the ritual dance that always accompanies the liturgical chant. Monneret de Villard, a well-known student of Ethiopian Christian art and the history of the Nile Valley, has suggested that the liturgical dance of the Ethiopians may have originated in ancient Egypt. But in its contemporary manifestations a religious musical performance of the Ethiopian priests is strongly reminiscent of the dancing and the rejoicing of the Levites in front of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:2-5). A casual look at the musical instruments used by the priests clearly shows that the Ethiopians have also drawn much inspiration from the Old Testament. The whole atmosphere created during a religious service in Ethiopia evokes the old Biblical scene transmitted in the last chapter of the book of psalms:
Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and Dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the lord cymbals: Praise him upon the high sounding Cymbals.

The third stage of education was usually what can be called the “Poetry School”. It has not been possible to find out the definite origins of this school, nor to ascertain the earliest period of its establishment. But there is no doubt that it had already developed by the fifteenth century, and it constituted one of the advanced level of education in Christian Ethiopia. The most important aim of this school was to increase the level of comprehension of the Church scholar and to make him a master of the Ethiopic Grammar. An essential element of the training here is drilling the student to compose poems of different level. In the evening, the student recited before his master the poems he had composed for the day, and the master commented on the form and the aesthetic qualities of the poems. When the student reached a tolerable degree of excellence the master promoted him to the next level. After all the students had finished reciting their poems, they gathered around the master who composed spontaneously a series of original poems. These were often known for their outstanding qualities in both form and content, qualities which the student vied among themselves to master explained what he meant by the lines of the poem, and this was followed by groups of his students meticulously analyzing with him each of the words of every line to appreciate their grammatical and syntactical place in the poem. This session often went on well beyond midnight every day, and it was the major occasion when the scholars could have the personal guidance of their master. To pass through the eight or nine stages of this “Poetry School” a student often needed more than two years; but if the scholar had the intention of becoming a master himself, he usually spent as many as ten years visiting as many different masters as possible. The “Poetry School” was one of the most prestigious institutions to have gone through, and its inmates could hope for some of the highest positions in both Church and State.

The next and last stage was the mastery of the interpretations of all the canonical books of the Church. The Ethiopian clergy had developed an elaborate system of analytical studies of each of the books of the Old and New Testaments. The Canons of the Church were also studied in the same meticulous fashion with a lot of legal hair-splitting. These studied were so detailed that there was sometimes a special master for each of the Books of the Old and New Testaments, as well as for some of the apocryphal works of the Church.

These were the different stages of education in mediaeval Ethiopia. Although the content of the program was strictly religious, there is no doubt that it solved the essential problem of developing the intellectual faculties of the scholar, and it prepared him for specific roles in the mediaeval Ethiopian community. What is more important is that the graduates of the monastic school system were employed not only in the Church but in all various administrative, judicial, and other department of the State. Nor was it with the limited prospect of leadership in the Church that students went to those schools. Indeed many of the royal princes who later ascended the throne –kings like Dawit (1380 -1412), Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-68), and Na’od (1494-1508) are known to have attended such schools. Zar’a Ya’iqob and Na’od were particularly noted for their considerable scholarship, and they were the authors of a number of important original compositions in the Ethiopic language. Prolific writers such as King Zar’a Ya’iqob and Abba Giyorgis of Gascha were products of the great monastic schools of the fifteenth century. The literary and artistic achievements of mediaeval Ethiopia were indeed outstanding. Many translations from Arabic, and numerous original Ge’ez works date from that period. A short visit to the Museum of the Institute of Ethiopia studies at Haile Sellassie I University also gives some idea of the works of Christian art of those times. The library collections of the numerous island and mainland monasteries throughout Christian Ethiopia, even today, are a living testimony to the splendor of cultural life in mediaeval Ethiopia.

Written by Professor Sergew Hable Sellassie and Professor Tadesse Tamerat
Addis Ababa –December 1970. A publication of the EOTC