Ethiopia’s Great Historical Figures

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King Ezana

Ezana was a prominent ruler of the Kingdom of Axum in the 4th century A.D. He was born with the name Abreha and had a twin brother named Asbeha. After their father Ella Amida died when they were quite young, the boys’ mother Sawya (Sophya) served as queen regent until the boys were old enough to rule. During his reign, their father had taken two shipwrecked Syrian Christians under their wing. These Christians, Aedesius and Frumentius, now tutored young Abreha and Asbeha as they grew up. …

Amda Seyon

Amda Seyon emerged from murky origins and an undertain ancestry to become the most powerful emperor of the early Solomonic dynasty. Through his military campaigns, he came to dominate the Horn of Africa in the 14th century. Seyon prepared for his conquests by revolutionizing the imperial army shortly after he came to power. He organized it into specialized regiments, each of which was led by an elite commander who was close to Royal Court and answered directly to the Emperor. …

Zara Yaqob

The 15th-century king of the Solomonic dynasty left a starkly different legacy than his recent predecessor Amda Seyon I. Zara Yaqob was an embarrassment on the battlefield. For example, his campaigns against the Falasha, a Jewish community in Ethiopia, and the Agaw, an ethnic group in northern Ethiopia, ended in humbling defeats.

Luckily, Yaqob had other redeeming qualities: he was a gifted religious reformer and an innovative statesman. How did he acquire these talents? …

Mentewab

Born in the Qwara province west of Lake Tana and thought to have a Portuguese ancestor, Mentewab rose from these origins to become one of the most powerful women in Ethiopian history. She became the second wife of Emperor Bakaffa in 1722 and, outliving him, was crowned Empress and co-ruler with their son Iyasu. From the seat of government in Gondar, Mentewab wielded considerable influence in all corners of the empire. Her power is made clear in the opulent additions to the Royal Enclosure at Gondar built under her direction: her own castle, a lavish banqueting hall, and, in the mountains outside the city at a site called Qusquam, a church to the Virgin Mary. …

Fasilides

A powerful emperor of the Solomonic dynasty who ruled in the 17th century, Fasilides took the throne name ‘Alam Sagad, meaning “he to whom the world bows.” The Ethiopian Orthodox Church throve during Fasilides’ reign. He restored its official status as the state religion and legitimated its status by rekindling connections with the high priests of the Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt. Catholics and Jesuits didn’t fare as well under Fasil’s rule: he burned Catholic writings and banished missionaries of both sects.

Tewodros II

Téwodros II

Born with the name Kassa Hailu, Tewodros II took a throne name equivalent to the English name Theodore. He was one of Ethiopia’s most notable emperors, being revered by modern Ethiopians as the first modern leader and the man who unified the various kingdoms into one empire.

Tewodros had a vision of a powerful, centralized monarchy and pursued that vision single-mindedly throughout his reign. He started by attempting to replace the old, stale feudal hierarchy with a sleeker, more meritocratic bureaucracy. …

Queen of Sheba

Queen of Sheba

The story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon appears in the Bible, the Qur’ran, and other sacred and ancient books. There are different versions of it in Coptic, Kenyan, and Persian legends and the narrative may have originated in Jewish tradition. The fullest account, however, appears in the Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of the Kings”), a text written in Ge’ez, the language of the Axumite Kingdom. The Kebra Nagast is a national saga of Ethiopia that narrates the origins of the Solomonic line of emperors. …

Ras Alula

Ras Alula

Alula Abba Nega, born to peasant parents in the northern region of Tigray, rose to become one of Ethiopia’s most renowned generals and politicians and a great national hero. As a child, Alula showed his promise in this anecdote: one day, Alula and his group of friends came across a group of people on the road. He barred their way and demanded to know where they were going. These people were simply going to a wedding ceremony, but they replied, “We’re going to the castle of Ras Alula,” poking fun at the ambitious youngster. …

King Lalibela

Gebre Mesqel Lalibela was a great king of the Zagwe dynasty whose reign lasted forty years, spanning the end of the 12th century and the opening decades of the 13th. According the a well-known fable, a swarm of bees surrounded the infant Lalibela at his birth, a sign which his mother took to be a portent of his long and prosperous reign as king. Indeed, his reign was fruitful, and the name Lalibela means “the bees obey him.”

Lalibela’s greatest achievement undoubtedly lies in the elveven monolithic churches he constructed in his new capital city. …

Menelik II

Menelik II

Menelik II, even more than Tewodros II, was Ethiopia’s great modernizer and unifier. He was born in the kingdom of Shewa in central Ethiopia and eventually became king of that region. Before long, though, then-emperor Tewodros II conquered Shewa and imprisoned Menelik in his mountain stronghold at Magdala. With the help of some close allies, however, Menelik engineered a daring escape from Magdala on the night of July 1, 1865 and returned to Shewa, where he defeated a usurper and recovered his kingship. …

Haile Selassie

Haile Selassie

Haile Selassie led Ethiopia through the twentieth century, becoming the most iconic leader the country has ever known in the course of his career. Selassie’s story is rich and spans many years, but one episode in particular shows the drama, derring-do, and dedication to his country in which his life abounded.

In the 1930s, the new Italian regime under Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia a second time, vowing to avenge the defeat at Adwa some forty years before. …


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