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Religion And Early History Of Amhara History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Numbering about 20 million people, the Amhara is one of the most representative ethnic groups of Ethiopia, reaching the 26-30 percent of the entire population but holding a political and social power greater than that emerging from demographic data. Since the 1990’s of twenty century, Ethiopia is a Federal Parliamentary Republic and Amhara region is one of the 11 federal district, including two urban areas (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). The ethnic division of the country is historically enrooted and Amhara region was previously divided in seven provinces (nineteenth century), while, in the 1990’s were reduced to three: Begemder, Gojjam and Wollo. They speak Amharic, the official and working language of the Ethiopian federal authority, they are Orthodox Christians and culturally closed with Tigrinya, a relevant ethnic group of Ethiopia and Eritrea; the majority is religiously affiliated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Oriental Orthodox Christian Church of Ethiopia, even if the number of members who decided to join others Christian Churches is increasing in the contemporary.

Ethnicity, etymology and tradition.

The overwhelming majority of the old Ethiopian population is still to be classed as Hamitic, the peoples traditionally descended from Noah’s son Ham; in the nineteenth century, European anthropologists supposed that Hamitic populations were probably emigrated from Middle East; in the next century they came to identify the populations of Eastern Africa to Kenya as part of an ethnic Hamitic group of Mediterranean- Caucasian origin, speaking languages of Semitic (as Arab and Hebrew) derivation. Amharic is the second most-spoken Semitic idiom of the world, after Arabic. The origin of the name Amhara is debated; according to some contemporaries linguistics, the word Amhara come from Amari which means agreeable, beautiful, gracious; for some Ethiopian historians this word derive from Himyarites, a Yemenite kingdom arose in the second century b. c. e. and defeated by Abyssinians of Aksum in the sixth c. e.; however, it is also significant to know that the old language of the Amhara people, was Ge’ez, an ancient south Semitic language and the official idiom of the Ethiopian imperial court, in which, Amhara, means free-peoples; Ge’ez remains today only as the main language used in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

It would be wrong to coincide the birth of the old Aksumite reign (first century c. e.) and the ancient Abyssinians populations with Amhara ethnic group of which we have the first historical data only from a closer relationship between geography (Amhara region inside the Ethiopian plateau) and language (Amharic first written sources) in the twelve century. If we wanted to be precise, we should say that Ge’ez was the language (written and oral) of the kingdom of Aksum, but not of Amhara people, who, at that time, could not be accurately identified. We need to wait until twelve and fourteenth centuries c. e. to find religious stories on Christ’s Passion and Christian martyrs, popularized and written not in Ge’ez, but in Amharic. However, the Amhara people could be considered as heirs of the Aksum reign and keepers of the oral and written cultural and religious tradition of the old Ethiopian kingdom and of the mythology linked to Queen Makeda (similar anecdote to that of the Queen of Sheba) and the Jewish king Solomon. The Kebra Nagast or “the Book of the Glory of Kings” of the Abyssinians provides a detailed account of how the Queen was seduced by Solomon to whom, after her return home, she bore a son. When this youth had grown up, he travelled to Jerusalem himself and came back to his own country bringing with him the Ark of the Covenant which he and his companions had stolen from the Temple (Jewish Temple of Jerusalem). He was Menelik I, the founder of the Abyssinian royal house. This legend, belief in which is an article of faith among the Abyssinians, may possibly contain some germ of historical fact. The written culture of the Abyssinians, first in Ge’ez and secondly in Amharic, emerges from the early Christian era, leading to a process of language popularization (Amharic) from the twelfth century.

Religion and Early History of Amhara.

However, it is important to consider historical events that can be certified by solid sources. In the religious sphere, the Amhara have an ancient Christian tradition that has its roots in the history of Aksum, although in this case, it becomes difficult to reconcile Aksum with the ethnic groups of Amhara and Tigrinya. A great emperor of the fourth century, Ezana, left a number of inscriptions of which the first had parallel texts in three languages: Greek, south Arabian and Ge’ez, but, his later inscriptions are in Ge’ez only, which shows how its prestige was increasing, rendering the use of foreign languages superfluous. The same inscription reported the titles of “Lord of Heaven” and “Lord of the Earth” which could be indicate, albeit ambiguously, the king’s conversion to the Christian faith. Ezana’s change is attested by the coins of his reign: the earlier ones bear the crescent and disk (probably, old Abyssinians symbols), the later ones the cross as symbolic of a Christian religion penetration in the Amhara region. Ezana was probably influenced by Athanasius, the Alexandria of Egypt’s archbishop who sent priests and monks as missionaries that probably reached the Aksumite reign. Until 1959, the Ethiopian church depended by the Copt Monophysite (those who believe in the only divine nature of Christ) Church of Egypt.

With the end of the Aksumite reign (VII-X centuries) began a process of regionalization that would clearly provide the emergence of different ethnic groups and geographical areas.

The region now known as Amhara was composed, in the feudal era (after the end of the Aksumite reign, seventh-tenth centuries CE), of several provinces with greater or less autonomy, which included Gondar, Gojjam, Wollo and Shewa.

After the rise of Zagwe line (eleventh -twelve centuries), which was responsible for the construction of the magnificent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, historians speak of the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty, direct descendant of the Aksumite empire which essentially became an Amhara kingdom, restraining importance of Tigray area. The Amhara kings of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries used towns as Debre Berhan and other places in that area as their headquarters.

However, the times were constantly disturbed (by enemy’s incursions) and each king kept moving from one royal camp to another as he roamed the country to bring dissident provinces under control or repel attacks from outside. Comparative stability existed only in the great monastic centres which, as in medieval Europe, were the permanent guardians of the country’s cultural heritage. During the fifteenth century the Amhara kingdom started to suffer incursions form various Muslims states of east and south coast of the Horn of Africa. These emirates with south plateau reigns of Arussi and Bale were a perennial menace and their forces made a habit of attacking during the months of the long Lenten fast when Christians were weakened by abstinence (The Ethiopians are still popular today for their long months of fasting, so that a corporation like McDonald has decided that would not be worth investing in this country).

Nevertheless, under Zar’a Yaqob (1434-1468), the Amhara emperor was able to enlarge the reign’s domains at the expense of both Muslims and animist areas of the south. During the sixteenth century, two episodes would deeply modify the regions under Amharas control: the Muslim invasions of the Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, and the Portuguese alliance. In 1528, a renewed union of the Islamic emirates of the coast, under the command of Imam Ahmad (Gragn, the left-handed), launched an invasion from the region of Harar. The invaders enjoyed the powerful backing of the Ottoman Turks, who were concerned at that time to extend their influence in Arabia and along the coasts of the Red Sea.

At the beginning of the same epoch, the Portuguese, passing the Cape of Good Hope, discovered a new way to reach the Indies and reaching the Horn of Africa signed a trade and military agreement with the Christian kingdom of Amhara. The Abyssinians indeed received material and moral support against Ahmad the Gragn by a Portuguese force under Christopher da Gama, who landed in 1541. In 1542, the Amhara kingdom, under emperor Galawdewos, prevailed and Ahmad was killed, in 1542, near Lake Tana. During the sixteenth and seventeenth ages the region was invaded by nomad Gallas, a Negroid tribe coming from southern Ethiopia or Kenya; during the same decades the Jesuit catholic order, arrived with the Portuguese, tried to push the Amhara monarchy to reconcile with Rome; Jesuits failed and was asked them to leave the country. Under kings Susenoys and Fasilidas (seventeenth century), the reign returned to have a fixed capital, Gondar, near Tana Lake in Amhara-land. During the eighteenth century the monarchy returned to be decentralized and under political and military control of provincial governors.

Contemporary history of Amhara.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the supreme power was still divided between the main authorities of the Gondar kingdom: the Ras (local chief) of Begemeder, the Ras of Tigré and the Negus (king) of Shoa (the region where today is Addis Ababa). Through a clever game of alliances, Tewodros (1855-1868) became, after more than one century of anarchy, the new emperor of Ethiopia being able to reunify the country and reform the church. The reign of Tewodros was also affected by the first British colonial campaign in the region, the emperor forces were defeated at Aroghee, in 1868, and he decided to commit suicide rather than surrender.

Yohannes IV (1872-1889) guided the Ethiopian armies against the Egyptians- Ottoman Turks when they occupied the port of Massawa in 1875, the two armies met at Gundat (also called Guda-gude) on the morning of November 16, 1875. The Egyptians were tricked into marching into a narrow and steep valley and were wiped out by Ethiopian gunners surrounding the valley from the neighbouring mountains. Virtually the entire Egyptian force, along with its many officers of European and North American background, were killed. Menelik II (1889-1913), was the great winner of Adwa battle against the Italians who, starting from the 1870’s of the XIX century, had occupied Eritrea and was searching to conquer the Ethiopian plateau. This emperor discovered the plain of Addis Ababa (beautiful flower in Amharic) and in 1889 decided to build there the new capital of the country. The Amharas, still remaining the intelligentsia ethnic group and the Ethiopia’s ruling elite, had to acknowledge, even for strategic reasons, that the new capital of the kingdom would have been in the Shoa region and no longer in their own land. Ras Tafari Makonnen or Haile Selassie I (1930-1974), the last emperor of Ethiopia, tried in every way to defend the monarchy from the attack of Italian fascism, returning just after the end of World War II as ruler of the country. However, his inability of reform the state during the Cold War, would take him to suffer a coup, by the armed forces, guided by the communist Mengistu Haile Mariam.

With the death of Haile Selassie I ended the political ethnic role of the Amharas as chief of the Ethiopian society, however, still today, the economic and cultural intelligentsia of this country is Amhara. Amharas are the majority of the students of Addis Ababa University (the most important university of the country); Amharas are the main economic companies of the countries, even if in the last ten years, Chinese and Arabs are increasing investments within building constractors and primary resources companies.

The Amhara can be considered in the sense of being a combined stock, an over-ethnically conscious Ethiopian group serving as the pot in which all the other ethnic groups are supposed to melt. The culture background of Amhara is probably Mediterranean as African, Semitic as monotheist. The language, Amharic, serves as the focal point of this melting process although it is difficult to conceive of a language without the existence of a corresponding distinct ethnic group speaking it as a mother tongue. The Amhara geographical region, with Tigray, was called in the ancient time Abyssinia, however, Abyssinians are today Amharas and Tigrinyas. The basic principle of those, who affirm the existence of the Amhara as a distinct ethnic group, therefore, is that the Amhara should be dislodged from the position of supremacy and each ethnic group should be freed from Amhara domination to have equal status with everybody else. This ethnic group is symbolic of a nation, almost never won, by the colonial power and able to produce a written-literature in Amharic which dates back to, at least, the thirteenth century. These qualities have naturally fortified the conscience of the Amhara showing them as atypical in sub-Saharan Africa.

Marco Demichelis


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