Changing Images of Ethiopia from the Outside World
By Richard Pankhurst (Excerpt from the Introduction of ‘Bless Ethiopia’)
Ethiopia is situated in lofty, historically inaccessible mountains, many located between the Blue Nile and the Red Sea. The country, today a multi-ethnic state, was the site of an ancient and largely Christian kingdom, whose mysteries have attracted immense fascination from the outside world.
To the ancient Egyptians, the regions presented two separate important images. The first was the interior, the source of the great River Nile, to whose water and silt the Egyptians owed their existence. The other image was of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coast of Africa, which they termed the Land of Punt – God’s Land – whence the Pharaohs obtained incense for their religious rites. This territory was so important that Pharaohs dispatched expeditions there for over two millennia. The most important was that of Queen Hatshepsut (1501 – 1479 BC), recorded in stone inscriptions in her temple at Thebes.
To the ancient Greeks who gave Ethiopia its name – the Land of Burnt Faces – it seemed a far-off country. In the ninth century BC, Herodotus declared that it lay at the ‘ends of the earth’. In the fifth century, Homer called the place the abode of ‘blameless Ethiopians’, in communion with their gods. In the fourth century BC, the Ptolemies dispatched expeditions along the Red Sea coast in search of elephants, for service in war, thereby reviving Graeco-Egyptian interest in the region.
The minting of coins by the ancient Aksumites during the third century AD, in what is now northern Ethiopia, and the coming of Christianity a century later, introduced the country to the Eastern Roman Empire. This led to correspondence with the Roman Emperor Constantius. The Aksumite conquest, in the early sixth century under King Kaleb, of part of South Arabia further augmented the country’s prestige as the most important power between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia.
To the Arabs in the seventh century, Ethiopia, or Habash, as they named it, was a benevolent country, as to the ancient Greeks. The Prophet Muhammad called it a ‘land of righteousness’, where ‘no one was wronged’. He was not unfamiliar with the country, for his grandfather Abdal Muttalib, who had brought him up, had travelled there on business, while his nanny Baraka was an Ethiopian.
When the Prophet’s first disciples were persecuted in Arabia, Muhammad urged them to flee to Habash. Arab envoys came with costly presents to ask the Askumite ruler to return them. He refused, declaring, ‘Even if you were to offer me a mountain of gold, I would not return these people’. Those thus protected included Muhammad’s daughter Rokeya, and two women, Umm Habibah and Umm Salma, who he later married. Muhammad subsequently prayed for the monarch’s soul, and exempted the country from the Jihad, or Holy War.
To those in Europe and elsewhere, Ethiopia – also called Abyssinia – was an illustrious realm mentioned in the Bible. Moses had an Ethiopian wife, and her country was mentioned in Psalms 68:31, which prophesied: ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands to God’. There were however, other apparent Biblical allusions. The country was probably the Land of Ophir, whither King Hiram of Tyre had sent for gold, which King Solomon used in building his temple. Ethiopia was moreover apparently the home of the Queen of the South, known in Ethiopia as Mekeda, or Queen of Sheba. The Bible asserted that she had travelled to Jerusalem to learn Solomon’s wisdom, but Ethiopian tradition, as we shall see, went further. It claimed that she gave birth to a son by Solomon, who later went to Jerusalem, and returned with the Ark of the Covenant. This, according to Ethiopian tradition, is supposedly still in the country, at Aksum.
Ethiopia was known to the 14th and 15th century Western Christendom as the mysterious Land of Prester John. The only Christian realm outside the European continent, it was regarded by Europeans, in the era of the Crusades, as a potential ally against the Saracens. It was reportedly ruled by a Priest King, who wanted to drive Islam from the Holy Land. To him King Henry IV of England wrote a warm letter, in 1400, addressed to the ‘King of Abyssinia, Prester John’. Awareness of medieval Ethiopia was also generated by the arrival of Ethiopian pilgrims in Jerusalem, Rome and Venice. Their presence contributed immensely to European knowledge of their country, and to Italian cartography thereof.
Ethiopia was later familiar, in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits. Their founder, Ignatius Loyola, hoped to visit the country as a missionary, to wean it from its Orthodox Christian faith. He was unable to reach Africa, but several of his disciples did. The memoirs of one of them, Jeronimo Lobo, were later translated, into English in 1732, by Samuel Johnson, the British Lexicographer. It inspired him to write his allegory Rasselas: Prince of Abyssinia.
Many others, in Europe and elsewhere, subsequently learnt of the country through the writings of European travelers. They included James Bruce, the 18th century Scottish explored, author of the first major account of the then new city of Gondar. No less notable was the British Orientalist Richard Burton, translator of the Thousands and One Nights, who wrote a description, in the mid-19th century, of the Muslim walled city of Harar. Later it became the residence of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
There were other European foci of interest, notably among Russians. Ethiopia was the believed birth-place of Ibrahim Hannibal, slave of Peter the Great, and great-grandfather of poet Alexander Pushkin. Russian contacts went further, for the actor Peter Ustinov had an Ethiopian great-grandmother. The arrival of Ethiopian slaves also enhanced the international awareness of Ethiopia. Many went to India, where their descendants, called Hapshis, founded ruling dynasties, while in Germany, a beautiful slave-girl, Mahbuba, was involved in a tragic romance with a 19th century nobleman, Prince Pueckler-Muskau.
Ethiopian history later impinged on Europe on several major occasions.
In the heyday of Britain’s world power an Ethiopian monarch, Emperor Tewodros II, had the temerity to arrest a Bristish consul, a Special Envoy of Queen Victoria and several European Protestant missionaries. This act of bravado in 1867 provoked the British to dispatch an expedition to his mountain fortress, Maqdala. There, rather than fall into their hands, Tewodros committed suicide. British troops then burnt his capital, and looted his palace and church. This enriched the British museum with many antiquities, including priceless illustrated manuscripts. Troops carried Tewodros’s young son Alamayahu to Britain, where Queen Victoria befriended him. Unfortunately the boy died while still a youth. He was buried at Windsor Castle.
Less than a decade later another Ethiopian monarch, Emperor Yohannes IV, resisted an invasion by Khedive Ismail of Egypt, whom he defeated in two decisive battles in 1875-76. These were so humiliating that they lit a fuse of Egyptian discontent, leading directly to the Revolution of the Nile.
Later, towards the end of the century, the Italians attempted to establish a Protectorate over Ethiopia through a fraudulent interpretation of a treaty signed a few years previously. Ethiopia’s modernizing monarch, Emperor Menelik II, rejected this claim, and subsequently routed the Italians at the battle of Adwa, in March 1896. The greatest victory of an African over a European army since the time of Hannibal, it created such an excitement in Italy that the government of Francesco Crispi resigned. As a result of the battle, and Menelik’s skill in playing one colonial power off another, Ethiopia survived the European Scramble for Africa. The country emerged as a symbol of African independence for people of African Descent throughout the world. This period also witnessed the opening up of the country to foreign contacts, and the coming of envoys from the principal European powers, the United States and the Ottoman Empire.
Ethiopia subsequently joined the League of Nations in 1923, the first African state to do so. The country later caught some world attention, in November 1930, when its ruler, Emperor Haile Sellassie, was crowned with great ceremony. His coronation was attended by personalities from the principal European countries and Japan. Visitors also included many journalists, among them the young novelist Evelyn Waugh.
The country hit the headlines again in 1935 when attacked by the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, whose declared ambition was to avenge Adwa. The League of Nations branded Fascist Italy as the aggressor, but imposed only ineffectual economic sanctions. The invaders’ use of poison gas and bombing of Red Crosses ambulances attracted world publicity. An attempt by the British and French Governments to appease Italy led to a popular indignation in Britain, where Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare resigned. His successor, Anthony Eden, later also resigned over events in Ethiopia.
Emperor Haile Sellassie, driven from his capital Addis Ababa in 1936, subsequently travelled to Geneva to appeal to the League of Nations in person. The image of the frail monarch standing erect at Geneva to condemn the use of poison gas, while Italian journalists booed and hissed, was a haunting one. Many argued that failure to save Ethiopia resulted in the demise of the League.
Despite determined resistance by the Ethiopian Patriots, the Fascist conquest was recognized by most of the world, except the United States, the Soviet Union and Mexico. However, in June 1940, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. The Patriots as a result, obtained speedy British support. Allied forces assisted by the Patriots and led by the Emperor and a charismatic British general, Orde Wingate, soon liberated the country. Ethiopia, the first country to fall under Axis domination, was thus by a strange coincidence the first to be freed. This allied victory received considerable media attention in Britain and elsewhere.
Ethiopia, a founding member of the United Nations, later embarked on reconstruction and intensified economic development. This in turn created many new images of the country: Addis Ababa becoming the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in 1958, and of the Organization of African Unity in 1963; Ethiopia’s runner, Abebe Bikila, winning Olympic Marathons in Rome in 1960, and Tokyo in 1964; the opening of the country’s first University; American economic assistance, in education, road-building and military preparedness; the Emperor’s many State Visits to international capitals…
Such images later gave way to others, which, as a result of television, became even more intense; the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, the deposed Emperor driven in a Volkswagen from his palace; a Somali invasion; shifting Soviet and American alliances on the Horn of Africa; tragic famines in the 1970’s and 1980’s; the airlift to Israel, of the Falashas, or Beta Esra’el, a remote Ethiopian people, with some similarities with world Jewry; and a ruthless civil war, terminating in the overthrow of the ruling Derg.
Side by side, with such images are the perceptions of gourmets, in North America and elsewhere, of Ethiopian restaurants, serving exotic, tasty, food enlivened by the sweet sounds of Ethiopian minstrels, such as the renowned woman singer Aster Aweke.
Scientists on the other hand, have an entirely different image of Ethiopia. To them, it is the country which gave birth, three million years ago, to our earliest known ancestor, and to an entirely new species, over four million years old, almost equidistant between ape and man. Ethiopia thus enjoyed a unique position in the ascent of humankind.