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—Emperor Menelik II, renouncing Italy’s claims to Ethiopia, 1893
Ethiopia—Divine Endurance“Ethiopia has need of no one, she stretches her hand unto God.”
—Emperor Menelik II, renouncing Italy’s claims to Ethiopia, 1893
Dateline: March 1, 1896. An African army wins its most resounding and lasting victory against colonialism. As morning rose to noon that day, Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II defeated an invading Italian army at the Battle of Adwa. In so doing, they prevented the imposition of colonial rule. Adwa became a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression across Africa and its diaspora. Solomon Belachew—an artist renowned for depicting religious scenes—captured the ferocity of battle in the painting above/below through his use of opposing diagonal lines, suggesting action between the two opposing sides, and his depiction of blood-spattered and decapitated Italian soldiers. Consistent with artistic conventions governing Ethiopian religious painting, Belachew depicts the righteous Ethiopians as full-faced figures, while the forces of evil (the Italians, in this case) are shown largely in profile. Because the Battle of Adwa fell on March 1, St. George’s Day, the popular saint is depicted astride a horse and ready for battle as he descends from the sky. Paintings of the Battle of Adwa remain popular diplomatic gifts that the Ethiopian government has presented to visiting dignitaries and foreign diplomats stationed in the country. The message seems clear: “we remain unbowed.”
Hero in History: Emperor Menelik II
“Emiye Menelik [My mother, Menelik]” led Ethiopia into the twentieth century.
- Crowned ruler of the constituent kingdom of Shewa, Menelik claimed descent from the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Outmaneuvering rivals, he received the imperial crown on Nov. 3, 1889.
- Menelik decisively rejected an Italian attempt to establish a protectorate over Ethiopia in 1893, and repelled their military invasion at Adwa in 1896.
- Menelik expanded and consolidated the borders of the Ethiopian state, suppressed the slave trade, established new ministries, built a new imperial capital—Addis Ababa—and introduced a series of new technologies, including the railway, electricity, telephones, automobiles, and indoor plumbing.
“Ethiopia has need of no one, she stretches her hand unto god."—Emperor Menelik II, renouncing Italian claims to the country, in 1893
Christianity is deep into its second millennium as an African religion. Historically home to followers of all three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—Ethiopia’s Coptic Church (c. 331–340 C.E.) nevertheless predates even Rome (380 C.E.) as a state religion. This masterful 17th-century diptych icon is a highly charged devotional work, depicting multiple moments in the life of Jesus and the Holy Family. The artist, working in what is known as the Early Gondarene style, situates these figures in a world of Ethiopian references: Mary spinning thread seated on a three-legged stool, genna (Ethiopian field hockey), the style of the three yellow crowns, the lidded food basket on Salome’s head, and the depiction of the Temple in Jerusalem as a miniature Ethiopian church. Scenes depicted include: (left, from top), the Annunciation and visitation of Elizabeth (L) to Mary (R), Jesus asleep in the manger, boys playing genna, and the Magi delivering a gift to Jesus; (right, from top), Mary entering the Temple, the flight to Egypt with Joseph and Salome, the death of Mary, and Mary’s Assumption into heaven. An object of veneration and devotion, this icon partook in Ethiopia’s long, ongoing history of pious participation in the Christian world.
Heroes in History: The Nine Saints
Abba Aftse, Abba Alef, Abba Aragawi, Abba Garima, Abba Guba, Abba Liqanos, Abba Pantelewon, Abba Sehma, Abba Yem’ata
Immigrants and refugees, they helped to establish Ethiopia as a Christian kingdom.
- Driven out of Byzantine provinces (including Syria, Constantinople, Anatolia, and Rome) following a series of doctrinal conflicts, these missionaries were welcomed by King Ella Amida into the kingdom of Aksum, in northern Ethiopia.
- The Nine Saints established a number of monasteries throughout Aksum, winning converts to the Christian faith broadly. The Garima Gospels, said to have been written by Abba Garima, are now considered to be the world’s oldest extant Christian illuminated manuscripts.
- King Ella Amida’s son and successor, King Ezana, was baptized and established the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the kingdom’s state religion.
This queen’s fame stands the test of time. According to the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings), a 14th-century recounting in Ge’ez of the Ethiopian royal line, Queen Makeda, ruler of the realm, traveled to Jerusalem in the 10th century B.C.E. to witness the fabled wisdom of King Solomon. While there, she bore a son by Solomon. As a young adult, her son Menelik returned to Jerusalem to meet his father. Upon coming home, Menelik founded Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty (through which descent was traced until Emperor Haile Selassie’s abdication in 1974) and is credited with bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. The importance of Queen Makeda to Ethiopia’s history may be inversely proportional to the historically verifiable facts known about her—making her, at least, a true legend in every sense of the word.
Hero in History: Queen of Sheba
This queen’s fame stands the test of time.
- While recorded in many of the sacred texts of the region, basic facts about the life of this remarkable woman remain unresolved.
- Accounts describing the “Queen of the South,” or the Queen of Sheba, may refer to Bilqīs, a queen of the Sabaean kingdom in modern Yemen. In Ethiopia, she is associated with Makeda, ruler of D’mt, a kingdom in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.
- Trading regularly with Israel, the Queen learned of King Solomon’s fabled knowledge, and traveled to Jerusalem to see him for herself.
- While in Israel, she had a son by King Solomon, Menelik, who would return to Jerusalem as a young adult, to meet his father.
- Upon his homecoming to Ethiopia, Menelik is credited not only with founding the Solomonic dynasty (through which descent was traced until Emperor Hallie Selassie’s abdication in 1974) but also with bringing the Ark of the Covenant with him to Ethiopia.