Amhara Contributions to Ethiopian Civilization

Elias Kifle | April 17th, 1993

By Fikre Tolossa
Ethiopian Review, April 1993

In the March 1993 issue of the ER I wrote about some of the contributions of the Oromo people to Ethiopian civilization. In this article I will attempt to depict a few of the contributions of the Amhara to Ethiopian Civilization. A number of the contributions of the Amhara people to Ethiopian civilization are best represented by the achievements of their monarchs. For this reason, I will first of all briefly state a few of the achievements of the Amhara royalty.

Even though the early settlements of the Amhara are supposed to be Lasta and Saynt, they had already settled in Gagn, Shewa, Maqet, Shadaho, Wadla and Dilanta by the thirteenth century, if not earlier. Later, they populated Gojjam and Gonder. Like the Axumite Ethiopians, they were of Semitic stock, though their language, Amharic, exhibits both Semitic and Cushitic features as a result of their association with Cushitic peoples. Their emperors trace their origin to Axumite emperors who claimed to be the descendants of the Solomonic Dynasty. They also consider Axum, a city in Tigray, their holy city, the center of their religion, church and culture. As a matter of fact, their civilizations is an extension or an offshoot of the Axumite civilization in essence, though it looks different in appearance.

The last Axumite emperor from whom Amhara emperors claimed descent is said to be Dil Ne’ad. According to one version of Amhara history, Dil Ne’ad had fled from Axum to escape to Shewa from his servant Mera Teklehaimanot, who usurped his power to establish the Zagwe Dynasty. Before that, when Dil Ne’ad ascended to the Axumite throne in 910 AD, he had made an effort to restore the Christian religion which was
devastated by the Jewish Queen Yodit (also known as Gudit). To this end, it is believed that he built the Cathedral of Axum Zion and the great monolithic church of Michael Amba in eastern Tigray. With his flight to Shewa, Axum fell; or in other words, it ceased to be the heart of Ethiopian civilization. Since the Amharas claim that Dil Ne’ad was their last emperor who ruled for a while from Axum before fleeing to Shewa, they too, should have been Axumites before they fled to Shewa with their emperor. Later, in central Ethiopia, they coined a new language, Amharic, while they were serving at the court of Zagwe emperors who spoke with them Amharic, in order to tell secrets in it. It was called “Lisane-Negus” (the tongue of kings) because the royalty started to speak it. Had the Amharas not created Amharic, they might have continued to be called Axumites,
or even Tigreans.

After the fall of Axum, the ex-Axumites who became Amharas in Shewa, Lasta, Gojjam and Gonder had numerous emperors. These rulers were soldiers and scholars. Quite a number of them made significant contributions to Ethiopian civilization. According to the Shewan Amhara, one of the descendants of Dil Ne’ad the Axumite who survived in Shewa on exile while the Zagwe Dynasty was ruling Ethiopia, was Yekuno Amlak. It was he who restored the Solomonic Dynasty around 1270 AD. It is believed that Emperor Yekuno Amlak built his capital in Tegulet, Shewa, which also became the center of the future Shewan Amhara aristocrats. The first thing Yekuno Amlak did to consolidate his sovereignty was to bring a Metropolitan from Egypt, in accordance with the tradition of Axumite emperors. Yekuno Amlak is best remembered for bettering Ethiopian administration and for enhancing religion and culture, by following in the foot-steps of Emperor Lalibela the Great. He thus constructed monolithic churches at Lasta. It suffices to mention here the superb work of art, the rectangular Genet Mariam church which is a great attraction to this day. In addition, he established once again, the territorial unity of Ethiopia.

Amde-Tsion (1314-1344) was a great Amhara emperor. It was Amde-Tsion who first attempted to provide a sort of constitution defining the responsibilities of the emperor and the hierarchy of the Ethiopian Royal Charter, which evolved later as Serate Mengist. He promoted scholarship during his reign. His scholars revised the Axumite translations of the Scriptures and for the first time transcribed in Geez various texts for rites and liturgies. He encouraged the clergy to compose hymnals. He established libraries and filled them with precious apocryphal works such as The History of Adam, legends of apostles, rare manuscripts, miniatures with such artistic qualities whose impact lasted upto the 16th century. He also founded on the islands of Lake Tana the monasteries of Gelila-Zekarias and Kevra’an. He supported the monastery of Debre-Damo in Tigray thus making it the center of great scholastic achievement in the whole of Ethiopia. Amde-Tsion became so popular for his deeds that his subjects composed songs praising his name.

Amhara emperors made Ethiopia famous and respected in the eyes of the outside world through diplomacy and by defending the interests of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Nubia. During the reign of Emperor Seyfe-Ared (1344-1372), for instance, Ethiopia was the official protector of the Patriarchy of Alexandria. During the reign of Dawit I (1382-1411), Ethiopia defended the Copts in Sudan. Emperor Dawit established a good relationship with the Hanafite Emir of Egypt, and obtained from Jerusalem a piece of the True Cross (Gemade-Meskel) together with precious paintings among which was the rare Kuer’ata Re’su, the figure of Christ crowned with thorns. Ethiopia is seen with awe to this day for her possession of such rarities.

Dawit I invited craftsmen from Florence to build churches and monasteries such as Debre-Worq in Gojjam. He funded Turkish artisans to introduce to Ethiopia handicrafts, weaponry and tailoring.

Following his example, Emperor Yeshaq (1414-1429), too, employed foreigners to build his nation. An Egyptian by the name of Mameluk, for example, reformed the Ethiopian army and instructed the military in the use of Greek weapons. The contributions of Yesehaq included the construction of churches such as Kosoge and Yeshaq-Debr.

During the reigns of Emperors Dawit I and Yeshak alone, monks translated the Senodos and Didascalia from Arabic. It is believed that, The Fetha Negest (The Judgments of The Kings), which became the standard work on Ecclesiastical and Civil Law in Ethiopia, was translated then. Biographies of Saints (Gedle) such as Abba-Libanos or Gebre-Menfeskedus, Lalibela and Na’akueto Le’ab were also being composed at the same time. Historical writings about the deeds of Emperor Amde-Tsion also appeared. The translation of Snaxarium, (Senksar) into Geez, which was enlarged later by Ethiopians who included the lives of their great saints was also started around this time. Among the literatures of this period the prophetic book, Fukare-Iyesus (The Prophecy of Jesus), inspires awe in Ethiopians to this day.

Zera-Yacob (1434-1468) was perhaps the greatest Amhara emperor. The first step Zera-Yacob took when he came to power was to go to Tigray to pay homage to the abode of his ancestors and to be coronated at Axum, in accordance with their tradition. Shortly after his return from Axum he built a number of churches and monasteries like Metmaq in Tegulet. After that he moved his capital to Debre Berhan. Zera-Yacob was not just an emperor. He was a scholar and a writer. He promoted the open discussion of theological and other issues, and took part in them demonstrating the depth of his knowledge and wit. Among several of the books he wrote are Mesehafe Milad, and Mesehafe Birhan. It was during his reign that Tamere Mariam was translated into Geez. The life history of saints, hymns, books of revelations such as The Book of the Mystery of Heaven and Earth, diverse occult literatures including magical spells and astrological formulas were composed and compiled. The world famous Mesehafe Henok, which survived only in Ethiopia, and Lefefa Sedk, which is comparable to the precious Egyptian Book of the
Dead, were preserved under the care of the Amhara Emperor Zera-Yacob.

As a far-sighted emperor of international diplomacy, Zera-Yacob communicated with the civilized world outside Ethiopia. He corresponded with European leaders such as Alfonso of Aragon for the well-being of his country. Zera-Yacob also spread the good news of the Gospel among his own people in the remotest part of Ethiopia, who worshiped rocks, trees, as well as evil-spirits, and sacrificed to them human beings. His successor, Emperor Be’ede-Mariam (1468-1478) carried on Zera Yacob’s policies.

Emperor Naod (1494-1508), besides defending the territorial integrity of Ethiopia and his religion, wrote verses, hymns and built beautiful churches including Mekane Selassie. His empress, the wise Eleni, constructed the most gorgeous church of Mertula-Maryam, whose style is said to be Italian.

The successors of Emperor Na’od, emperors Lebene-Dengel (1508-1540), and Gelawdewos (1540-1559), were preoccupied with defending their religion, civilization, and territorial integrity from Emir Ahmed-al Ghazi, whom they called “Ahmed Gragn.” The Christian Ethiopian emperors believed and feared that Ahmed Gragn as well as foreign Muslim invaders, including the Turks and the Dervishes, were out not only to expand their territories and convert the Christians to their religion by force, but also to destroy the Christian civilization.

Their fear was not groundless. Ahmed Gragn destroyed all those wonderful churches built over generations which were masterpieces even in the eyes of advanced Europeans, burnt down, precious books, manuscripts, paintings, all sorts of art works and other valuable items which would have been a great treasure for all of humanity including Muslims world-wide. According to the chronicler of Ahmed Gragn, upon seeing the destruction of the splendid church of Mekane- Selassie, which shone with gold, pearl and artistic paintings, Ahmed Gragn himself gasped in admiration: “Is there anywhere in the Byzantine Empire, in India, or in any other land a building such as this, containing such figures and works of art!” When he reached Lalibela, he was spell-bound by the awe-inspiring beauty and splendor of those rock-hewn churches. Luckily, he ordered his soldiers not to destroy them.

Emperor Gelawdewos was not only a warrior king, he was also an architect who built churches such as Tedbabe Mariam, and a writer who wrote, The Confessions of Gelawdewos.

Even though both Lebene-Dengel and Gelawdewos were engaged in tragic wars most of the time, art and literature did not stop from flourishing during their reigns. Etchege Habakkuk’s work, Ankasa Amin, and his translation of Barlam and Yosef, are noteworthy. Numerous Geez chronicles have come down to us which narrate about the reigns of Lebne-Dengel, Gelawdewos and their successor, Emperor Minas .

Minas (1559-1563) fought with Ethiopian Muslims and Turkish expansionists as well. The Turks who began to settle in Tigray in 1557 worried him. They occupied Massawa, Arkiko, and the fortress of Debarwa. They also destroyed and plundered the famous Debre-Damo, mercilessly slaughtering its monks.

Emperor Sertse-Dengel (1563-1597) waged fierce battles against the Turks. Being an emperor who was not detached from his Axumite and Tigray roots, he celebrated his coronation among the monks, priests and the citizens, as well as the daughters of Axum and Shire who glorified him amongst them. In return, he showered them with lavish gifts. He gave to Axum and the churches around its vicinity lands and other valuable things. In the latter part of his life, he built two palaces and a church in Gubae (Enfraz) and at Ayba, in the Wegera region, which later became a part of Gonder. When Sertse-Dengel died in 1597, he had expelled the Turks, expanded Ethiopia and laid the corner-stone for the civilization of Ethiopia at Gonder.

Susenyos (1571-1632) was captured in a battle by the Boren tribe when he was a little boy and lived in Shewa with the Oromo growing up in accordance with their custom and way of life. He was the first Amhara of noble birth who was closely associated with the Oromo both before and after he became an Ethiopian emperor. He filled his court with Oromos and was always surrounded by them. He was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in Axum in 1608. Even though he made several campaigns against foreign aggressors, he was converted to Catholicism as a result of which he shed a lot of blood to crush opposition, until his abdication to his son Fasiledas (1632-1667).

In spite of the distress Susenyos caused to his people because of his conversion to Catholicism, he made significant contributions to Ethiopian civilization. During his reign, Amharic was developed by the Portuguese missionaries. Not only did they preach in it, they also translated some of the Scriptures and wrote theological discourse in it to convert the Orthodox Ethiopians to Catholicism. When the Portuguese painted Jesus and other saints in Churches to attract Ethiopians, the Ethiopian monks developed a unique Ethiopian style of painting to counter the Portuguese. Whether it was by accident or because Susenyos created a conducive atmosphere for them, art, literature and architecture blossomed during his administration. As mentioned above, Ethiopians invented a new style of painting and illumination of books. Regarding literature, numerous works were composed in and translated into Geez, such as Ra’ey (Visions), the Coptic Chronicle, The Book of Hawi, and perhaps The Fetha-Negest. New styles of architecture were introduced. The Church of Gonder Gorgora, and that of Bareay Gemb, the palaces of Guzara at Enfraz, and the ones at Gorgora, were very original.

Emperor Fasiledas (1632-67), the main builder of Gonder banished the Jesuits and restored Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia. Not only that, but also to secure his restoration, he blocked all the sea routes to Ethiopia to prevent any Catholic Europeans from entering Ethiopia. Emperor Fasiledas, however, is best remembered in Ethiopia for building in Gonder the palace bearing his name. This palace, with its huge swimming pool amidst a garden and a pavilion rising out of the water, which has partly survived to this day, is a great architectural contribution to Ethiopian and African civilization.

Fasiledas’ son, Tsadiku Yohannes (1667-82) was perhaps the most pious Amhara ruler. To the buildings which his father had constructed, he added at least two, one for himself and another for the royal library. It was he who founded the church of St. Anthony with its magnificent paintings. He was, most of all, reputed for allowing theologians and scholars to discourse openly in his presence and for encouraging them to meditate on the holy scriptures on secluded islands by providing their provision.

Iyasu the Great (1682-1706) was the last significant Amhara emperor who ruled Ethiopia. He too built palaces, churches and monasteries of great spiritual and artistic values. In Gonder he constructed the sanctuary of Debre-Berhan, decorated with precious paintings. He rectified The Fetha-Negest and the laws by which Ethiopia was ruled. He established good relationship for Ethiopia with Europeans such as the Dutch and the French.

Among the Amhara royalties at Gonder, three important figures who made significant contributions to Ethiopian civilization after the death of Iyasu the Great, and before Ethiopia was divided into dukedoms, were Emperor Bakaffa (1721-30), his wife the beautiful Empress Mentwab, and their son Emperor Iyasu II. These three struggled to develop Ethiopia, safeguard their religion and the territorial integrity of their country, in addition to building palaces, churches and other fabulous edifices.

Emperor Tewodros II (1856-68) arose and eliminated the dukedoms. Tewodros was neither an Amhara nor a member of the Solomonic Dynasty. He was Quaran who assimilated the Amhara culture and spoke Amharic. He ascended to the throne by the might of his gun. Even though he burnt churches, cities and peoples who stood on his way, and though he committed many other atrocities, he is credited for trying to restore the Ethiopian empire and modernize it. Without the cornerstone which he laid to unite Ethiopia, the Tigrean Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-89), and the Shewan Amhara Emperor Menelik II (1889- 19130, perhaps would not have united Ethiopia easily.

Nevertheless, Menelik II, who belonged to the Amhara royalty of the Solomonic Dynasty that was left in Shewa when the seat of the monarchy was moved to Gonder in the 17 century, achieved with extraordinary wit, humanism, diplomacy and military strategy what both Tewodros and Yohannes failed to achieve by sheer use of force. Besides winning the Battle of Adwa in 1896 and keeping the independence of Ethiopia, he strove to build a nation. The end result of his efforts was a unified, peaceful and expanded empire with a fine infrastructure for the modernization of Ethiopia.

Emperor Haile Selassie I (1892-1974) himself followed in the footsteps of Menelik in order to modernize Ethiopia. He made contributions in the fields of education, government administration, military, means of transportation, telecommunications, industry and administration.

So far, we were made aware of only the contributions of Amhara nobles to Ethiopian civilization. How about the Amhara common folks? Their contributions to Ethiopia civilization, too, are tremendous.

Among the Amhara common folks were a number of saints, philosophers, poets, scholars, writers, painters, singers, and patriots. Ethiopian gedles are filled with the stories of great saints including those of Amhara descent. Towering among the Amhara saints is the 13 century monk, Abune Tekle-Haimanot, who was born in Bulga, Shewa. He is the
only Ethiopian saint to be canonized by the Coptic Church. Abune Tekle-Haimanot was an important figure in Ethiopian history for two reasons. The first is his contribution to the spiritual life of Ethiopia. The second, the key role he played in restoring the Solomonic Dynasty without bloodshed.

According to Gedle Tekle-Haimanot and Gedle Iyasu Mo’a, Abune Tekle- Haimanot and perhaps another Amhara saint by the name of Yesus Mo’a mediated the peaceful transition of power from the last Zagwe emperor, Yitbarke to Yekuno Amlak, the descendant of Dil Ne’ad, the last Axumite emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty. For this, Yekuno Amlak appointed Tekle-Haimanot as the temporary head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and gave 1/3 of the royal lands to the Church. Yekuno Amlak appointed Iyesus Mo’a, who was also his teacher in his youth, as his Aqabe Se’at.

Abune Petros was another great Amhara saint who was also a scholar of ancient Ethiopia. The descendant of Abune Tekle-haimanot, Abune Petros. During the invasion of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy, the Italians executed him in public on July 22, 1928 (EC) in Addis Abeba for refusing to collaborate with them.

Wolde Hiwot was a great Amhara philospher who lived in Shewa in the 17th Century. He was a disciple of Zera-Yacob the Axumite, the greatest Ethiopian philosopher. Wolde Hiwot was a rationalist who advocated critical thinking about one hundred fifty years
earlier than European rationalists.

The perfection of the art of composing poetry known as qine is a major contribution of the Amhara. There is a debate on who started qine. Some scholars attribute qine to the Axumite Saint Yared who lived in the Sixth Century AD. Others contend that it had existed before St. Yared. There are those who say that the Amharas innovated it in the 16th Century. I think that it was St. Yared who created qine. However, the Amhara developed it. If St. Yared laid the corner-stone of qine, the Amhara invented sem’ena worq, which is a subtle form of qine.

Gonder and Gojjam were the centers of Ethiopian universities, including the schools of qine, music, philosophy, theology, painting, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, history and occult, to mention just a few. Ethiopians from Tigre and Shewa went as far as Gonder and Gojjam to study in the great colleges where the masters, the seasoned professors, shared their wisdom with them. It took a student over thirty years to graduate with a degree from one of these colleges majoring in just one discipline. Some of the genius masters, however, graduated majoring in three to four fields, which was extremely difficult thing to do. Most notable among the Amhara geniuses are Arat-Ayna Goshu (the four-eyed Goshu), who was called so because he was a master in four
fields, Memher Tselalo Wolde-Mariam, Memher Sewagegnhu, Memher Akale Wold (who was a friend of Emperor Tewodros and highly regarded by him), Aleka Heruy and Memher Engeda Wolde-Mariam.

Ethiopian universities were not open only to male professors as it used to be in Europe. They have appointed women as professors for centuries. Among some of the known names of female Amhara professors in recent history were Weyzero Meselech, Weyzero Abeba, Weyzero Haimet, Emahoi Lekidelu and Emahoi Gelanesh. The last one, Emahoy Gelanesh, was the daughter of a master, Merigeta Hadis from Gojjam. The fact that she was blind did not prevent her from replacing her father after his death.

Sem’ena worq is purely an Amhara phenomenon. It is a testimony to the richness of the Amharic language as evidenced by the double meaning of almost every word, and to the poetic genius of the Amhara people. Qine and Sem’ena worq, a division of qene, are the highest forms of poetic expression. It is ambiguous, and at the same time plain. It suggests one thing, and at the same time myriads of things. Its power lies in its ambiguity. It is like a hearth which looks cold and dead, but has red, hot embers hidden underneath its ashes. Europeans attempted to attain this sort of poetry in the form of symbolism and surrealism as late as the 19 Century, whereas the Amhara of Ethiopia were well-versed in it for hundreds of years.

Three of the greatest Amhara poets who excelled in qine were Yohannes Geblawi, Tewaney and Kifle-Yohannes, who lived in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively.

Qine, particularly sem’ena worq, was not limited to intellectuals. Laymen, emperors and empresses too, created it impromptu to express their feelings.

Every Amharic song fits in to one of the four scales known as Tizeta, Anchihoye, Ambassel and Bati. Each scale or tuning system produces its own melody which is different from the other three. Tizeta and Anchihoye bear the names of songs, whereas, Ambassel and Bati are the names of songs and places simultaneously. Judging by these last names of places and by the contents of the Amharic songs which refer to Wello, I believe the four scales of Ethiopian music played by Kirar and Masinqo were invented by the Wello Amhara.

In my opinion, the people of Wello are the most artistic people in Ethiopia. The Amhara of Wello are so artistic-hearted that almost every leading azmari (bard, minstrel) including Assefa Abate, Shishig Chekol, Etagegnhu Haile, and probably Bahiru Kengne, were from Wello.

Another legacy of the Amhara in the field of music is the begena (harp) with its divine poems whose impact compels human beings to be mellow and spiritual. The Amhara play the begena during lent to praise God, meditate upon life and death, and to strengthen the faith of their fellow Christians. The begena culture is one of the qualities which makes Ethiopia a unique Biblical country, reminding the visitor of King David and his harp.

The wedding ceremony of the Amhara with its melancholic songs, the poems of the maidens who tease the groom and his bestmen, and the whole marriage celebration which is reminiscent of an old tradition, makes Ethiopia colorful and exotic to
the outside observer.

Amhara clergymen have created the bulk of those paintings and books about which Ethiopia boasts and cherishes as her artistic treasures. Mixing paints from leaves and different stones, they told stories of angels, saints, queens, emperors, historical events and the mundane life of the peoples of Ethiopia. Not only that, but they tanned hides, made parchments, bounded and wrote books, taking the pain of illuminating them with loving tenderness. They also translated foreign literatures of value and passed them on to us. These books and paintings are scarce items which museums world-wide treasure dearly considering them to be a great human achievement.

Two more remarkable contributions of Amhara to Ethiopian civilization are the Amharic language and literature. Whether Amharic spread among the non-Amhara peoples of Ethiopia as a natural course of things or by means of coercion, the outcome is positive. All Ethiopians whose native tongue is not amharic, now have one more language at their disposal and to their advantage. They can communicate with their fellow Ethiopians without an interpreter. Moreover, they can also read novels, poetry, history, science, philosophy and a plenty of other books which deal with different fields of knowledge. They can listen to and read world news in this language. Amharic has been a key which opens the doors of plenty of information and knowledge areas to all Ethiopians who are fortunate enough to know it. Praise is due to Afework Gebre-Yesus, Belaten-Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie, Bitwoded Mekonnen Endalkachew, Kebede Mikael, Hadis Alemayehu, Mengistu Lemma, Abe Gubegna, Birhanu Zeryehun, Mahteme-Selassie Wold-Meskel, Aleka Zeneb, Aleka Taye, Alemayehu Moges, Tekle-Tsadik Mekuria, Tsehafe-Tezaz Gebre-Selassie, Aleka Atseme-Giorgis, Belata Merse-Hazen Wolde-Kirkos, the sayings attributed to Aleka Gebre Hanna and the host of other writers who wrote in Amharic.

If the Amhara scholars contributed a written literature to Ethiopian civilization, the laymen have provided Ethiopia with oral literature. The common Amhara folks conveyed across the wisdom of their ancestors and their own interpretation of life through folklore including proverbs, sayings and folktales. The oral literatures of the Amhara summed up the gist of their experiences and observations of life with a few stunning words or sentences, so that we can learn a lesson or two which help us to live better.

Pertaining to dance, the Amhara of Wello, Gonder and Gojjam have enriched Ethiopian choreography by adding their famous shoulder-dance (iskesta) to the number of other Ethiopian dances.

The contributions of the Amhara in the art of cooking and brewery should not be overlooked. Among the old nations of the world, Indian and Chinese food are supposed to be two of the best. Compared with the variety of rich Amhara dishes, however, they are insignificant. No honest person can deny that the Amhara are great experts in cooking and brewery.

Last, but of course not least, the most important contribution of the Amhara to Ethiopian civilization and to the survival of that civilization, is their struggle to safeguard the independence of Ethiopia and to protect her territorial integrity from foreign aggressors. Whenever Ethiopia was at stake, the Amhara were ready to sacrifice themselves. Poor or rich, they gave up everything else including their families and faced their enemies bravely to shed their blood for their country together with other Ethiopians who also loved their motherland. Bare-footed, with tattered clothes and empty stomach, especially the Amhara peasants defended Ethiopia always. Yet, their lives have not been any better than the lives of other Ethiopian peasants. Inspite of this, they have been attacked unjustly lately being confused with the defunct Amhara ruling elite.

The Amhara of Ethiopia, both nobles and commons, have indeed contributed immensely to Ethiopian civilization. To deny this is to be blind to facts.
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Fikre Tolossa, Ph.D., is Assistant Dean of Faculty at Columbia Pacific University in San Rafael, CA. He is also Associate Editor of ER.