Emperors of Ethiopia,
ኢትዮጵያ, Abyssinia

Kingdom of Aksum
Menelik I204-179 BC
Legendary son of Solomon & the Queen of Sheba
Auda Amat178-167
Besebazen8 BC-8 AD
Ella Auda102-132
Bese Zarq137-141
Ella Azguagua141-218
Ela Herka218-239
Bese Tzawetza239-240
Ella Sagal240-242
Ella Asfeha I242-256
Ezanas Ic.250 AD
Ella Tzegab256-279
Ella Samara279-282
Ella Aiba282-298
Ella Eskendi298-334
Ella Tzaham I334-343
Ella San343-356
Ella Aiga356-374
Ella Amida I374-404
Ezanas II Bisi Halen325-356
Frumentius first Coptic Bishop of Ethiopia, c.305; stela erected at juncture of Nile & Atbara, 350; Kush overthrown? 355
Ella Abreha356-370
Ella Asfeha356-370
Adhana I374-379
Ameda I386-401
Abreha I401
Ella Shahel I401-402
Gobaz I402-404
Abreha II408-418
Adhana II418-424
Ameda II436-446
Shahel II446-448
Gobaz II463-474
Ella Amida (IV?)475-486
Jacob I486-489
Armah I489-504
Jacob II505-514
Caleb, Ella Asbeha, el-Eshaba514-542
At Roman urging, Ethiopians install a Christian king in Yemen, 523-525
Beta Israel542-550
Gabra Masqal550-564
Wasan Sagad578-591
Armah II, Ella Sahem, Ashama ibn Abjar615-630
traditional King who welcomed Muslim refugees from Mecca
Germa Safar633-648
Baher Ikela677-696
Hezba Seyon696-720
Dedem Almaz775-780
Rema Armah III820-825
Degnajan II885-905
Del Nead905-c.950
Jewish Queen Gudit, or Yodit, sacks Axum, lays waste countryside, c.960
Zagwe Dynasty
Mara Tekle Haimanot916-919?
Jan Seiyoum959-999?
Germa Seiyoum999-1039?
St. Yemrehana Christos1039-1079?
St. Harbe1079-1119?
St. Gebra Maskal Lalibela1119-1159/
Rock Cut Churches, city of Lalibela
St. Na'akuto Le'Ab1159-1207
Harbe II1262-1270
Solomonic Dynasty
Yekuno Amlak, Tasfa Iyasus, or St. Tekle Haimanot1270-1285
Solomon I1285-1294
Bahr Asgad1294-1297
Senfa Asgad1294-1297
Senfa Ared IV1294-1295
Hezba Asgad1295-1296
Qedma Asgad1296-1297
Jin Asgad1297-1298
Saba Asgad1298-1299
Wedem Arad1299-1314
Amda Siyon (Seyoi) I1314-1344
Newaya Krestos1344-1372
Newaya Maryam1372-1382
Dawit (David) I1382-1411
Mission to Venice, 1401; missions to Rome, 1403, 1403
Tewodros (Theodore) I1411-1414
Killed by ʿAdāl Muslims, 1414
Isaac (Yeshaq)1414-1429
Three Ethiopians attested at Council of Constance, receive Safe Passage document from Martin V, 1416-1418; mission to Aragón, 1427-1428; Persian agent executed in Egypt, 1429; killed by ʿAdāl Muslims, 1429
Takla Maryam1430-1433
Monks from Jerusalem attend the Council of Florence, 1441
Sarwe Iyasus1433
Amda Iyasus (Jesus)1433-1434
Zara Yakob (Constantine I)1434-1468
Defeated ʿAdāl Muslims, Battle of Gomit, 1445
Baeda Mariam I1468-1478
Eskender (Alexander), Kwestantinos (Constantine) II1478-1484
Embassy to the Mamlūks to arrange for a new Abuna, two were sent, 1480-1481
Amda Seyon II1494
Killed by ʿAdāl Muslims, 1508
EleniRegent, 1507-1516
Mission to Portugal, 1509-1515; Portuguese Embassy to Ethiopia, 1515-1520
Lebna Dengel,
David II
Defeated by ʿAdāl Muslims, Battle of Shimbra Kure, 1529; Ethiopia overrun & occupied, 1531-1535, Lebna Dengel becomes fugitive
Galawedos, Claudius1540-1559
Portuguese landing, 1541; Portuguese defeated, Battle of Wofla, 1542; Muslims defeated, Battle of Wayna Daga, or Lake Ṭana, Muslim army destroyed, 1543; Jesuits in Ethiopia, 1557-1633, expelled
Sarsa Dengel1564-1597
Za Dengel1603-1604
Susneyos, Sissinios1607-1632
Fasilidas, Basilides1632-1667
Yohannes, John I1667-1682
Iyasu, Jesus I the Great1682-1706
Tekle Haimanot I1706-1708
Na'od II1708,
Tewoflos, Theophilus1708-1711
Yostos. Justus1711-1716
Dawit, David III1716-1721
Walda George1721
Asma George, Bekaffa1721-1730
Iyasu II1730-1755
Iyoas, Joas) 1755-1769
Yohannes II1769
Tekle Haimanot II1769-1777
Salomon, Solomon II1777-1779
Tekle Giorgis,
George I
1779-1784, 1788-1789, 1794-1795, 1795-1796, 1797-1799, 1800, d.1817
Jesus III1784-1788
Ba'eda Maryam I1788
Ba'eda Maryam II1795
Solomon III1796-1797,
Jonah1797-1798, d. 1832
Demetrius1799-1800, 1800-1801, d.1803
Egwala Seyon1801-1818
Joas II1818-1821
Gigar1821-1826, 1826-1830, d.1831
Ba'eda Maryam III1826
Jesus IV1830-1832
Gabra Krestos1832, 1832
Sahla Dengel1832, 1832-1840, 1841-1845, 1845-1850, 1851-1855
Yohannes III1840-1841, 1845, 1850-1851, d.1868
Ali Alula1851-1853
Webe Haile Mariam1853-1855
Theodore II
takes diplomats hostage; British Expedition, defeat & suicide of Tewodros, 1868
Tekle Giorgis II of Zagwe1868-1871
Yohannes IV of Tigre1871-1889
Egyptians defeated, driven out of Eritrea, Battle of Gundet, 1875, Battle of Gura, 1876
Menelik (Menilek) II1868, 1889-1913
Italians defeated, Battle of Adwa, 1896
Etege T'aytu Bet'ulregent, 1910
Ras Tesemmaregent, 1910-1911
Lij Iyasu, Joshua, Jesus Vregent 1912-1913, Emperor 1913-1916, d. 1935
Zawditu Empress 1916-1930
Haile Selassie (Sellassie), Ras Tafari Makonnenregent 1916-1930, Emperor, 1930-1936
Italian Occupation, 1935-1941
Victor Emmanuel
(III, of Italy)
"Emperor of Ethiopia"
Emilio de BonoHigh Commissioner
Pietro Badoglio1935-1936
Rodolfo GrazianiGovernor-General
Amadeus II
Duke of Aosta
1937-1941, surrendered & died in custody, 1942
Haile Selassie
Asfa Wossen, Amha Selassie1974-1975,
Aman Mikael AndomHead of State, 1974
Tafari Benti1974-1977
Mengistu Haile Mariam1977-1987
Meles Zenawi1991-1995
Negasso Gidada1995-2001
Girma Wolde-Giorgis2001-2013
Mulatu Teshome Wirtu 2013-2018
Sahle-Work Zewde2018-present
A significant traditional empire that fits only imperfectly into the system of Empires discussed in the Index to Lists of Rulers is Ethiopia -- Latin Aethiopia (Æthiopia), from Greek Αἰθιοπία, Aithiopía, now Amharic ኢትዮጵያ, ʾĪtyōṗṗyā. This state had few pretentions to universality, but was in the Middle Eastern tradition of universalist titles, since the Ethiopian emperor was styled the Negus Negast, the "King of Kings," as were the Kings of Assyria (Šar Šarim) and the Shāhs of Persia and Iran (Xšayathiya Xšayaθiyanam, شَاهَنْشَاه, Šāhanšāh).

Ethiopia was its own kind of cultural island universe for centuries, a beleaguered bastion of Christianity in an isolating sea of Islām, a successor, not just to the Middle Eastern traditions through Yemen, but to the original Ethiopia of the Greeks, the sub-Egyptian kingdom of Kush, , which began with the Egyptian 25th Dynasty (751-656 BC), from Piankhy to Tanuatamun, and which, although driven out of Egypt by the Assyrians, flourished at Napata (where pyramids were actually built) and Meroë for many centuries.

Indeed, the highland Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, itself may have brought the kingdom of Meroë to an end, around 355 AD. The term "Abyssinia" itself goes all the way back to Old South Arabian, where we see Ḥbśt or Ḥbšt. This then continues in Arabic as أَلْحَبَش, ʾal-Ḥabaš for the country or أَلْأَحْبَاش, ʾal-ʾAḥbāš, a "broken" (i.e. irregular) plural, for Abyssinians. The country can also be in the feminine, as أَلْحَبَشَة, ʾal-Ḥabašah. While "Abyssinia" is said to be an "exonym," i.e. a name used by others than its inhabitants, it is not clear that another name even existed for the place, before "Ethiopia" was adopted from Greek. Thus, Ḥabaš may in effect be an "endonym," having been brought, with the South Arabian alphabet and other culture, along from Yemen.

The Abyssinian kingdom of Aksum (or Axum) had already existed for some time. It left enduring monuments in the obelisk-like stone stelae, with Stela 3 (at left, and in background photograph) still standing at 67 feet tall, which reproduce the "skyscraper" architecture of ancient Yemen. A few kings of Aksum are barely known from their coins, as is also the case with ancient Yemen.

As Kush came to an end, Abyssinia had recently converted to Christianity, in communion with the Coptic Egyptian Church. It is not hard to see the reign of the Emperor Ezanas II, under whom this all happened, as the real beginning of classic Ethiopian civilization. The torch of Meroë had been passed, but since the Meroë writing has not been deciphered, Ethiopia becomes the first sub-Saharan African civilization fully open, despite all its uncertainties, to the light of history. Indeed, the ancient language of Axum, Ethiopic or Ge'ez, ግዕዝ (Gəʽəz or Gəʽz), is still actively used in the Ethiopian Church.

I was long under the impression that, after centuries of isolation by Islām, Ethiopia only became known to Europeans when the Portuguese arrived in the India Ocean and the Red Sea, after Vasco da Gama's voyage in 1497-1499. But the Portuguese already knew about Ethiopia, and the Ethiopians about them. This started when an Italian, Anthonius Bartoli, wandered into the country in 1398 or 1399. The Ethiopians knew about the "Franks" but were at first suspcious that Bartoli was one, or was even a Christian. Convinced of Bartoli's bona fides, the Emperor David I began to send missions to Latin Europe, first in 1402 to Vence and then in 1403 and 1404 to Rome. This began many contacts during the century.

The Latins, in turn had heard rumors of a mythical Christian kingdom, in India, Asia, or Africa, ruled by the saintly "Prester John," surrounded and isolated by enemies of Christianity. One possible source of this story was the Empire of Black Cathay (the Qara-Khitaï or Western Liao Dynasty) in Central Asia, whose rulers, with names like "David" and "Elias," for a time were Nestorian Christians.

But when Ethiopians began showing up in Italy, they could only have been from the Kingdom of the actual Prester John. This created a bit of a sensation, especially when three Ethiopian monks attended the Council of Constance in 1417. They would be painted, with their images included in one illustration, "The Exaltation of the Cross," from the Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, of 1416. They are distinguished, not just by their color, but by the iron crosses that they habitually carry in hand. The monks and their party traveled around on the safe passage given by Pope Martin V.

The patron of the Heures, Jean Duc de Berry (1360–1416), one of the Valois Dukes who so bedeviled the dynasty, perhaps out of curiosity for these Ethiopians, whom he may actually have met, is supposed to have sent a mission to Ethiopia in 1416. But none of the mission ever returned to France.

Over the years, the Latins often kept referring to Ethiopia as "India" or as ruled by "Prester John," despite the Ethiopians trying to correct them and expressing bewilderment about who this "Prester John" was supposed to be. They never heard of him. When the Portuguese finally got to India, this helped some.

A mission to Aragón in 1427 ran into difficulties on the way home. A separate return mission sent by the King of Aragón, Alfonso V, seems to have failed when all its principals died on the way. The returning Ethiopian mission ran into trouble in Egypt, when their guide and agent, the Persian merchant Nūr ad-Dīn ʿAlī at-Tabrīzī, was arrested by the Mamlūks and executed for running weapons to Ethiopia and, apparently, for just being too friendly with the Christians. This may be have been the result of personal disputes, for the Ethiopians were unmolested and their merchandise retrurned to them; although whether they successfully made it back home with everything is unknown.

In 1430, five Ethiopians arrived in Spain to go on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Alfonso V had to advise them that there was a war going on with Castile (1429-1430) and that the route was presently too dangerous for them.

The missions in the 15th Century were mainly for religious purposes -- David himself wanted a piece of the True Cross -- but when the Portuguese arrived in East Africa, this came at a critical moment. Portuguese influence stimulated and aided Ethiopia when it was under serious threat from the triumphant Ottoman Empire, whose control extended all the way to Yemen and whose powerful influence crossed the Strait to Africa.

This had begun, ironically, with the Portuguese being threatened by Mamlūk Egypt, which kept a fleet at Aden and defeated the Portuguese at the Battle of Chaul in 1508, near Bombay on the coast of India. The Portuguese thus wanted Ethiopian help. However, soon the Mamlūks were conquered by the Ottomans, and this became more of a threat to Ethiopia than to Portugal. The Regent, Empress Dowager Eleni, sent a mission to Portugal in 1509, under the first circumstances. After various misadventures, the Portuguese returned in 1520, by way of India, with a full ambassadorial party, the first such European embassy in Ethiopia. By then, the Ottomans were in Egypt.

Portuguese firearms and even 400 soldiers were delivered after an appeal for help by the Emperor Lebna Dengel in 1535. The defense of Ethiopia had collapsed against the invasion of the Imām of Harar, or Sulṭān of ʿAdāl, عَدَال,ʾAḥmad ibn ʾIbrāhīm al-Ghāzī, supported by the Ottomans. The peripatetic Court of the Emperor had become almost a government in exile, as the Muslims ravaged the nation, looting and destroying churches and monasteries.

After some severe setbacks, the Portuguese relief force enabled the Emperor Galawedos to defeat the Muslims. The Imām was killed in a great battle at Lake Ṭana in 1543. The ʿAdāl occupation of Ethiopia disintegrated, as did its original state.

As it happened, the Ottomans never developed a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, despite appeals for help from as far away as Indonesia. Thus, the pressure on both Ethiopia and Portugal faded away. Many of the Protuguese soldiers actually stayed in Ethiopia and intermarried with the Ethiopians.

The Portuguese presence in Ethiopia included attempts to convert the country to Roman Catholicism, and for a time there were rival Metropolitans of Ethiopia. Portuguese influence, however, was ultimately rejected, since Ethiopia was religiously Coptic and Monophysite, not Roman Catholic; and the Catholic challenge stimulated a literary and theological response.

There had already been a meeting of the Ethiopian church and Catholicism, when four monks from Jerusalem attended the Council of Florence in 1441. It was explained that the monks had no authority to negotiate doctrine or commit the Ethiopian Church to anything; but, for a while, the Popes were under the impression that Ethiopia would accept Catholic doctrine and supremacy. But this has no impact on Ethiopia at the time.

The diplomatic activities of Ethiopia in the 15th Century are examined by Verena Krebs in Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe [Palgrave Maxmillan, 2021]. Krebs is a professor at the Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany, and has PhD's from both the University of Konstaz in Germany and Mekelle University, in Ethiopia itself.

Of passing interest are features of Krebs' book that reflect the pecularities of present academic culture, with its Marxist preoccupation with "colonialism," etc. Thus, a particular emphasis in the book is to correct the impression of previous scholarship that Ethiopian diplomatic missions in the 15th Century included solicitations for "technological" and military assistance. This seems to have been wrong. The Emperors of Ethiopia were looking for things that would contribute to their projects of religious architecture: The construction, decorating, and fitting out churches and monasteries. As such, they were seeking religious artifacts, decorations, and vestments, as well as skilled workers who could do painting, building, and the production of needful items for the buildings, including carpets and draperies.

The errors of previous scholarship Krebs consistently attributes to "colonialism," without much explanation for how that works. Instead, Krebs must admit that the invasions of Ethiopia in the 16th century called for actual appeals for military aid from the Portuguese. Considering Ethiopia's situation, earlier scholars could not avoid the sense that Ethiopian diplomacy had always been sensible of the country's danger and had always solicited military aid. The Ethiopians, however, seem to have usually been confident enough in their military power that it took serious defeats to raise the alarm. In hindsight, they might indeed have started earlier. However, there really was no practical way for European states to deliver such aid to Ethiopia until the Portuguese had arrived in the Indian Ocean. Then it was just in the nick of time.

Thus, Krebs performs a valuable service in correcting the impression promoted by the earlier scholarship. And eventually she admitted that it wasn't all "colonialism":

It must be said that the above ideas floated by twentieth-century scholars were not drawn entirely from thin air or based entirely on inadvertent holdovers from colonial belief. [p.212]

The idea of "colonial belief," to the extent that we ever get its content explained, sometimes seems based on confused ideas about economic development. Thus, Krebs refers to "an allegedly technologically superior Europe" [p.189], or "an underlying Eurocentric narrative of Latin Christian artistic and technological superiority, rooted in the colonialist history of the field" [p.188]. However, there can be little doubt that Europe, at the time, would have been technologically superior to an isolated country in Africa. That the Portuguese circumnavigated Africa and arrived in the Red Sea with advanced weaponry would only be one indication of that. Only China could have matched such an achievement, as Admiral Hé had recently led Chinese fleets into the same waters. But the Chinese surrendered their own superiority and swiftly fell behind Europe.

Thus, we might detect in Krebs an ideology that the very idea of European civilization being "superior" or "advanced" in any way is a "colonialist" delusion. But the delusion is more to fail to recognize the disadvantages of a place like Ethiopia, not just in relation to Latin Europe, but in relation to the Ottoman Empire, whose support enabled local Muslims to overcome the strength with which Ethiopia had always defended itself.

Considering that Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world, as we will see below, it is not much of a leap to suspect that Renaissance Europe was already on the commercial path that led to greater wealth in the West. The "Progressives" who like the idea, no better than Cargo Cult economics, that Western wealth has all been "stolen," have the ruination of one economy after another, from Russia to Cuba to Venezuela, to show for their ideology. Krebs herself displays an inclination to substitute such ideology for obvious truths about Ethiopia's mediaeval economic condition.

Fortunately, as history caught up to Ethiopia, the Portuguese were there to help out. On the other hand, the brief Muslim occupation of Ethiopia resulted in the destruction of much of the architecture and art that many Emperors had spend the previous century creating. An awkward question, never considered by Krebs, is why subsequent Emperors were unwilling or unable to restore what had been destroyed. Much of the great beauty we hear about, whose creation involved such help as had previously been solicited from Europe, has simply lain in ruins ever since. Why could the damage not have been made good? We might wonder if Ethiopia had simply already exhausted her wealth.

Ethiopia was finally only conquered, briefly, between 1936 and 1941, by Italy, not, significantly, in the 19th century "scramble for Africa," but in the age of totalitarian conquest in the 1930's. This was Mussolini's revenge for what had happened in the 19th century:  That was the Emperor Menelik II's extraordinary defeat of an Italian army in 1896. Ranking with the later defeat of Russia by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War as one of the great setbacks of European imperialism, the Battle of Adwa is often misrepresented as an army of Africans with spears somehow beating the Italians. This overlooks a number of facts:

  1. Ethiopia may have been backward, but it was a vastly more sophisticated state than anything else in sub-Saharan Africa. Menelik was able to mobilize an army of 100,000 men. As it happened, the Italian force, largely Eritreans trained by Italy, was only 35,000.

  2. This army was equipped with modern weapons thanks to Ethiopia's relationship with France. The Italians seem to have been unaware, out of a not uncommon European arrogance at the time, that the Ethiopians could put so many men in the field, or that they could be so well equipped.

  3. The Italians made one final miscalculation. They unfortunately scheduled an early morning surprise attack on the Ethiopian force for a Sunday, not realizing that Coptic Mass was held at 4 AM!

Fully awake and informed, Menelik attacked first, at 5:30 AM, and killed, wounded, or captured fully 70% of the Italian army. This preserved Ethiopia from foreign conquest until, in the 1930's, the confused Allies of World War I determined to appease Fascism rather than oppose it.

In the face of Italian aggression, France abandoned its diplomatic and material support of Ethiopia. France and Britain decided that an arms embargo on "all belligerents" was the moral response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia; and the Italians, who of course made their own arms, actually used poison gas against Ethiopian forces. Thus, Ethiopia fell to Mussolini, not because it was backward, like the Congo (although it was pretty backward relative to Italy), but because it was abandoned, like Czechoslovakia.

After Italy entered World War II, however, the liberation of Ethiopia was set in motion, and the Italians, who had committed many atrocities against the constant resistance of the Ethiopian people during the occupation, were easily defeated by the British in 1941, but with some resistance continuing until 1943.

The list of Emperors and Primates of Ethiopia is largely based on Bruce R. Gordon's Regnal Chronologies, with some modification based on lists at Wikipedia. Some alternative dates and Ethiopian readings of names are gleaned from A History of Ethiopia, by Harold G. Marcus [University of California Press, 1994], from Ancient Ethiopia, by David W. Phillipson [British Museum Press, 1998], and from a History of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church website.

The photographs of Aksum Stela 3 are from Phillipson. With so many uncertainties in the chronology, very different lists of Emperors, with different dates, may be seen. Gordon gave no less than three lists on his webpage, and one is left with the impession that these may actually reflect different lineages at different locations. I have mixed the lists, beginning with the traditional one that starts with Menelik I but then shifting away when that list doesn't feature Ezanas II.

Lists exist that trace the genealogy of the Emperors all the way back to Adam and Eve, with a span of 6500 years. Many pious people take this sort of thing seriously, and one correspondent has objected to the characterization of Menelik I as "legendary." However, Adam and Eve are not historical persons and much of Ethiopian history even since Ezanas II is not well attested or dated. Even with Melelik I, traditional dates, e.g. 204-179 BC, are far too late for him to have been a son of King Solomon, who now is dated to 970-931 BC.

Ethiopia is certainly interesting and important enough without giving credence to pious or nationalistic exaggerations. The uncertainties and gaps are as great with the Primates as with many of the Emperors of Ethiopia. On the other hand, I don't think that reinforcing Ethiopian Christian piety is a bad thing. The country is still surrounded by the often hostile forces of ʾIslām, and the Western apologetic for Islāmic extremism conveniently overlooks attacks on Christians, which are not unusual in, say, Pakistan, but are now not unheard of in America. The Ethiopian claim to hold the Ark of the Covenant, if nothing else, attracts the attention of people who otherwise might ignore Ethiopian Christianity.

One curious feature about Ethiopia in the 20th Century is that, although its national religion remained confined to its homeland and to expatriot communities, the existence of the Empire, at a time when only one other black state in Africa was independent, inspired relgious developments elsewhere. In distant Jamaica a movement began that exalted Ethiopia to heavenly and the Emperor of the time, Haile Selassie, to divine status.

This movement came to be known as Ras Tafarianism, after Haile Selassie's pre-Imperial name and title (Ras). A long, ropy hairdo, "dreadlocks," and marijuana (ganja) smoking became associated with the movement, which seemed threatening to many, with little back-to-Africa or self-improvement overtones, but a great deal of what seemed at the time threatening behavior and rhetoric. The "dreadlocks" actually look much like the way Ethiopian mendicant monks may wear their hair. The monks, however, do not smoke ganja.

Late in his life, Haile Selassie actually visited Jamaica. He had previously not heard of this movement and was exceedingly puzzled, if not unsettled, by it, as a man might be whose name means "Faith in the Trinity" -- though a correspondent has disputed this, saying that the Emperor was actually invited to Jamaica by visiting Rastafarians and knew about them. Be that as it may, he cannot have endorsed the heretical tenets and practices of such a faith.

The movement came to international attention mainly through the success of the splendid Reggae music in the 1970's, when musicians like the late Bob Marley (sporting dreadlocks) and Jimmy Cliff found success and celebrity all over the world. I saw Toots and the Maytals at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas.

As a result of Haile Selassie's visit and local contact with Ethiopia, Ethiopian Coptic churches did open in Jamaica and the West Indies, attracting converts and Rastafarians who either understood that Haile Selassie was not God in Ethiopian Christianity, were disillusioned, or who determined to join the historic Church whatever its teaching.

Rastafarians who have moved to Ethiopia are not always viewed favorably by the locals. Their culture, of course, would be entirely alien to Ethiopians, and, originating in the Western African slave trade, they themselves might not even look that much like Ethiopians.

If Ras Tafarianism might have seemed confused to Ethiopians, the popularity of ʾIslām among black nationalists in the United States and elsewhere must be positively galling. While Ethiopia had preserved its independence and Christian religion for centuries against ʾIslām, constantly enduring the depredations of Arab slavers, many, or most, of whose male victims were castrated, many foreign blacks now blame and reject Christianity for the Atlantic slave trade which took their ancestors to the New World.

Bill Clinton's attempt on a trip to Africa to even apologize for the slave trade was actually rebuked by the President of Uganda, who said that the African chiefs who sold their people to the slavers were really the ones at fault (and still at fault, since it turns out that the West African slave trade still exists, at least in children). The television series Roots [1977] showed white slavers raiding into the interior of Africa. That never happened. The weather and diseases of Africa there were deadly to Europeans, and local rulers wanted all the business for themselves. Indeed, the Atlantic slave trade simply meant that native West African slavers sold their wares south to the coast rather than north to the trans-Saharan trade, which had already been going on for centuries, probably exacting as great a human toll as the Atlantic trade and noticeably leaving few suriviving blacks, of all those imported, in the Middle East.

Although himself a political radical of a harsh, Marxist sort, it is noteworthy that Princeton/Harvard professor Cornell West (advisor of Democrat Presidential hopeful Bill Bradley in the 2000 campaign and now an independent candidate himself for 2024) retains his own Christianity, was (briefly) married to an Ethiopian woman, and avoids the pro-Islāmic idealizations (and anti-Semitism) of many other American black radicals. Ethiopia and her religion thus receive some respect from a source that, in general, one might have expected to be relatively unaware of the country and relatively hostile to the religion.

The isolation of Ethiopia, which for so long protected and preserved its civilization and religion in the Abyssinian mountain fastness, also served to keep it, as with many areas in Africa, out of the mainstream of international economic development. It has long been one of the poorest countries in the world. As of 2008, Ethiopia still had the third lowest annual GDP per capita in the world, only $140 [The Economist Pocket World in Figures 2008, p.28]. This meant that the average Ethiopian, 80% of whom were engaged in subsistence agriculture, was living on only 38¢ per day. With prices adjusted for Purchasing Power Party (PPP), the picture improves, with Ethiopia rising to only the 14th poorest; but this is still with only 2.4% of of the per capita GDP of the United States [p.29].

At the same time, the Ethiopian economy has been growing rapidly, at as much as 10% per year; and in PPP the per capita GNP may now be up to $1000 or $1500. But this is a lot of ground to make up. One advantage the country has now is its relative remove from the turmoil of Islamic countries, which, with the majesty of the land and the splendor of its monuments, should make the country relatively attractive both for tourism and for investment.

At the same time, the population of Ethiopia is the second largest in Africa, after Nigeria, and the twelfth largest in the world, hard on the heels of Japan. We can hope this represents a lot of human capital, but Ethiopia itself is not free from political turmoil and regional conflicts, so it is not clear if it can sustain its growth rate. We can hope.

One irony of Ethiopia's isolation and poverty is that it has contributed to world culture one of the principal, indeed signature, products of modernity:  coffee. The legend is that in the 9th-century a goatherder named Kaldi noticed that his goats became excited after eating the beans of the Coffea arabica plant. This account, however, is not attested before 1671; and no evidence appears to exist for coffee drinking until the 15th century in Yemen, whence the beans had been brought from Ethiopia. We know that coffee was in Mecca in 1511, because an attempt was made to ban it, as an intoxicant. That didn't last long, and the drink spread throughout the Ottoman Empire.

We get the name of the substance from Yemen, , qahwah. This is of uncertain etymology, and may be of African or purely Arabic origin. As the Arabic "w" becomes a "v" in Turkish (to modern kahve), and the syllable final "h's" become silent, the pronunciation begins to approach what is familiar in European languages, such as caffè in Italian or "coffee" in English. From Yemen, ground coffee and then beans were exported (initially smuggled) to India, Turkey, and finally Europe. The first reference in English to coffee is from 1598. In 1610, the poet George Sanys said that coffee was "blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it"; but then the oldest coffee house in London was established in 1654. In 1657, Court historian James Howell said that morning coffee made workers "play the good-fellows."

Coffee represented the first non-alcoholic processed beverage intoduced in English culture. Since coffee (like tea, introduced later) involved boiling water, this was also the first non-alcoholic beverage that involved the regular consumption of sterilized water. When people, including Prince Albert, were still dying of water-born diseases in the mid-19th century, a preference for coffee or tea was salutary. This was missed by Benjamin Franklin, who told his co-workers to drink water rather than alcohol when he was a young man in London. This was because the ale they otherwise drank might render them, as Howell had said, "unfit for business." But Franklin did not realize the danger he faced, and was recommending, from unboiled water.

The best coffees are still grown in tropical highlands that mimic the climate of Ethiopia and Yemen, namely places like Indonesia, Hispaniola, Columbia, Hawaii, etc. This is therefore an area where Ethiopia can devote effort in its economic development, with the chance to advance its claim as the original coffee producer and to cultivate and market the best coffees that can be made.

There is a nice recent testimony to Ethiopian coffee, from the chef and restauranteur Wolfgang Puck:

My wife imports Ethiopian beans. After they're roasted and ground, the pour-over coffee drip for 20 minutes into a pot. The result is unbelievable. [The Wall Stree Journal, April 12, 2019, p.M16]

Surely this will start a tremendous demand for Ethiopian coffee.

As it happens, Ethiopia is the world's fifth largest producer of coffee, after Brazil and Columbia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Vietnam may be the surprising presence there, but it is actually the second largest producer in the world.

Primates and
Patriarchs of Ethiopia
Abune Selama I Kesatay Birhan, Abba Sälama Käsaté-Berhan, Frumentiusc.305, 328/346-c.383
Minas4th-5th century
Abreham = Petros?
Abba Afse, of the Nine Sages5th-6th century
Qozmos6th century
Metropolitan See of the Coptic church
Qerellos, Kerlos620's-?
Ya'eqob I9th century
Sälama Zä-'Azéb
Bärtäloméwos10th century
deposed, c.950
Fiqtor11th century
Giyorgis I1090's
Mikael I12th century
Ya'eqob II
Gabra Krestos
Mikael II of Fuwa1206-1209
Giyorgis IIc.1225
St. Tekle Haimanot13th century
Yohannes XIIIc.1300
Yaqob IIIc.1337-1344
Salama II1348-1388
Embassy to the Mamlūks to arrange for a new Abuna, two were sent, 1480-1481
Marqos VIII1481-c.1530
Portuguese presence, rival Metropolitans
John Bermudez, João BermudesCatholic, c.1536-c.1545
Andre de OviedoCatholic, 1557-1577
Marqos VII?c.1565
Krestodolos Ic.1590
Petros VI1599?-1606
Simon1607-1622, d.1624
Afonzo MendesCatholic, 1622-1632
Marqos IX/VIII?c.1635-1672
Krestodolos IIc.1640-1672
Marqos IX1689-?
Abba Mikael1640-1699
Marqos X1694-1716
Krestodolos IIIc.1718-1745
Yohannese XIVc.1747-1770
Yosab III1770-1803
Kyrillos III1816-1829
Selama III1841-1866
Atanasios, Atnatewos II1868-1876
Petros VII1876-1889,
Mattheos X1889-1926
Abuna Kerlos, Kyrllos, Qerellos IV1926-1936, 1945-1950
Italian Occupation, 1936-1941
Abuna Abraham1936-1939
Abuna Yohannis XV1939-1945
Abuna Basilos, Basil1948-1951
Abuna Tewophilos1971-1976,
Abuna Tekle Haimanot1976-1988,
Abuna Merkorios1988-1991,
Abuna Poulos, Paul1992-2012
Abune Mathias, Mattias2013-present

One traditional duty of the Coptic Patriarchs of Alexandria was appointing the Archbishop, Metropolitan, and Primate of Ethiopia, the Abune, Abuna, or Abun (Arabic for "Our Father").

The first such appointee was Frumentius (Abune Selama I Kesatay Birhan), a Syrian who had been living at the Ethiopian court for some time and journeyed to Alexandria in order to ask for a Bishop to be appointed. Traditionally, it is supposed to have been St. Athanasius himself who then appointed Frumentius to the post. However, the known dates of Athanasius (328-373) are a bit late for a traditonal date of Frumentius's trip (c. 305 AD), although all the dating of the period is very uncertain; and we also see a chronology where Frumentius did not journey to Ethiopia until after 316 AD and was not consecrated, by Athanasius, until between 340 and 346, dying around 383.

Given such uncertainties, it is possible that Ethiopia, rather than Armenia, which is often given the credit, was the first officially Christian country in the world. Or it may simply be that Constantine's Rome was, after all, the first Christian country. But Ethiopia, despite its apparent remoteness, is definitely part of the ferment of the times.

The Ethiopian practice of carving churches out of the living volcanic rock produced monuments that are close to unique in the world. There is a fair amount of this done in India, but nothing like it elsewhere in Christendom.

After the advent of Islām, communication between the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria and Ethiopia was unreliable and often interrupted; but in the 12th century, regular appointments were resumed. Also, the See was often vacant at least because of the time necessary to procure an appointment from the Patriarch. I have not indicated these gaps because of their frequency, but they can be inferred once the dating becomes more definite.

It was always an Egyptian Coptic monk who was appointed; and by the 20th century, Ethiopians were beginning to think that maybe it was time for an Ethiopian to be Primate of Ethiopia. Negotiations over this in 1929 still resulted in an Egyptian monk as Archbishop and Primate, the Abuna Kerlos (Kyrllos, Qerellos), but with four Ethiopians concecrated as Bishops. A full transition would be delayed until after World War II.

In the table, Primates appointed under the authority of the Coptic Patriarch are in green. The Abuna Kerlos (Qerellos IV) was deposed by the Italians after he fled to Egypt and denounced the Italian occupation. However, previous to that he had negotiated with the Italians, even in Rome, and many people thought of him as compromised and a collaborator because of this. His successor, appointed by the Italians, Abuna Abraham, was excommunicated by the Coptic Patriarch.

When Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia he was not accompanied by Kerlos, who remained in exile in Egypt, but by Gebre Giyorgis, who would be consecrated Abuna Basilos in 1948. After Kerlos died in 1950, Basilos became the Primate. In 1959 the Ethiopian Church was reestablished as an autocephalous Patriarchate, although still in communion, of course, with Alexandria.

The next problem for the Church was the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. In 1976 the Patriarch was arrested and then executed. The Church was disestablished as the State Religion and, like in the Soviet Union, the government began its propaganda campaign against all religion. A quiet monk, Abba Melaku, was made the new Patriarch, as Abuna Tekle Haimanot, and he ended up resisting the regime as much as he could, with the result that he was well thought of despite his official position. His successor, however, Abuna Merkorios, was deposed once the dictatorship ended in 1991. Unfortunately, this resulted in a schism, with Merkorios founding his own Church in exile, while the new Abuna Poulos (at left) reigned in Ethiopia. With all the political upheaval in the recent history of Ethiopia, it is perhaps surprising that something like this hadn't happened already.

The period of the strongest Portuguese presence in Ethiopia also meant that there were attempts by the Portuguese to convert the country to Catholicism. The result was at least three Portuguese Catholic Primates, either, briefly, in undisputed possession of the See or as rivals to Coptic Primates. As the immediate threat of the Turks began to pass, both the help and the interference of the Portuguese could be rejected.

There has long been a presence of the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem. This includes a monastery on the actual roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Ethiopian institution is called the Ethiopian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, but there have never been actual Ethiopian Patriarchs in residence.

Another feature of Ethiopian religion is the claim that the Church possesses the actual Ark of the Covenant, which is kept in a small sanctuary in Axum. The traditional story is that the Queen of Sheba took the true Ark from Jerusalem, leaving behind a replica. Menelik I then transferred the Ark to Abyssinia. Because of the problems of chronology and believability that go with this story, some modern writers have helpfully supplied alternative explanations. Reports of Greek historians of a Jewish community at Elephantine Island (Aswan) in Egypt have led to the suggestion that the Priesthood of Jerusalem sent the Ark to them for safekeeping. But Jewish mercenaries then subsequently left for Kush, taking the Ark with them.

I am not clear what is then supposed to have happened, since the account seems to jump directly to keeping the Ark on an island in Lake Ṭana. But the possession of the Ark by the Kings of Kush is one thing, its sudden appearance in the heart of pre-Christian Abyssinia is something else. I sometimes wonder if there is an awareness of the deep historical, cultural, and political differences between Kushite Ethiopia and Abyssinian Ethiopia. Of course, anyone is free to speculate that the Emperor Ezanas fetched the Ark when he invaded and perhaps overthrew Kush around 355 AD, but this adds no more than another speculative element to an entirely speculative fantasy. Since the Ark in Axum has been been inspected by no outsiders, and in fact is closed to all except its particular guardian, there is no way of knowing if it matches Biblical descriptions of the Ark or if it is composed of materials that can be dated to the appropriate era. It is remarkable that such an object is given as much credit as it has by enthusiastic, or credulous, Europeans.

In its long isolation, Ethiopia produced from the old South Arabian alphabet a unique and beautiful syllabary, which is still used to write modern languages like Amharic. This contributed one rich aspect to the island universe of Ethiopian civilization.

Since there are now "afrocentrist" claims current that the Ethiopic alphabet was not based on the old South Arabian alphabet, it is worth comparing the two in the table at right. Not only are many of the letters obviously identical, but Ethiopic even preserves most of the South Arabian alphabetical order, which is distinct from the one that we find in Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic. Ethiopic also made some of the same slight alterations in the ancient letters as Greek, producing recognizable counterparts to lambda, omicron, and theta.

Why it is thought necessary to take something already splendid and extraordinary and trivialize it with exaggerated claims is sad but not surprising, since it is of a piece with many examples of inflated ethnic (in this case racial) self-importance, as I have noted elsewhere in regard to the the Greeks and India. The splendor of Ethiopia in its history, geography, architecture, and language is little enough known as it is, even as its long struggle against ʾIslām is ignored in the assault of Western secularists against Christianity and the sympathy of the Left for Islamic Fascism. Until the world is even aware of the Ethiopic syllabary, strange claims about it only obscure the struggle for that awareness.

Some other features of the book by Verena Krebs are worthy of note. One is that we get a full use of diacritics for the languages here. This is contrary to the attitude we have seen that specialists aleady know this stuff and that a general audience doesn't care, or hasn't the wit, to appreciate it. Truth be told, there just aren't going to be that many specialists in Ethiopian languages to even know what we are looking at. This is not like Arabic or Sanskrit, where a few macrons and underdots are not going to confuse things very much. Instead, Krebs gives us transcriptions that can be quite bewildering.

Thus, we have the Emperor "Ǝskəndər," not unlike the "Eskender" I use above, where all the "e's" are an indefinite vowel, the "schwa." What Krebs doesn't tell us, is that this is the Ethiopic version of the familiar name "Alexander." Similarly, we get "Yəsḥaq," which Krebs doesn't tell us is the Ethiopic version of "Isaac." This sort of thing is not helpful.

But then even "Ǝskəndər" isn't that much a challenge compared to something like "əč̣č̣ägə," እጨግ, which is glossed as the "Title of the administrative head of the Ethiopian Church, second highest cleric of the Ethiopian church after the metropolian or abun" [p.268]. A word like this, dense with obscure diacritics, calls out for a pronunciation guide, in a preface or on a dedicated page. But we don't get one, anymore than we get a list of the Ethiopian Emperors, at least from this era, perhaps with equivalent names, which would have been helpful.

As it happens, č̣ is not on the chart above for the Ethiopic syllabary. This has been added for use in daughter languages, like Amharic, and the basic form of the letter is , which we do not see in the chart. The International Pronunciation Alphabet (IPA) pronunciation is /tʃʼ/, which is pretty much the "ch" in English. I also might note that doubled ("germinated") consonants in Ethiopic and Amharic are not indicated in the notation. You just must know the word. Also, syllables with a schwa may instead have no vowel ("zero grade"), where you also must just know the word. We see both effects in the name "Ethiopia" in Amharic: ኢትዮጵያ, ʾĪ·t·yō·ṗṗ·yā, where we see two characters with no vowel and one (one of the same ones) with a doubled consonant.

Lacking a pronunciation guide, I might note that the contrast that Krebs uses between ä/a corrsponds to the contrast a/ā in the table given above. This is a little confusing in its own right, since ä is not pronounced as it would be in German, as one might wonder. Instead, ä is /æ/ in the IPA, which is like the "a" in English "bad." At the same time, a in Krebs actually is a long a, IPA /a:/, which we might have thought from the previous usage with a macron, ā. The decision at some point of scholars to use ä would seem to be poorly motivated, as though we are being tempted to use the German pronunciation.

The schwa, /ə/, which is an indefinite vowel common in English, French, and German is simply written "e" in the table above. There is an IPA capital letter version of this, but that is not what Krebs uses. She uses, as we have just seen, a capital reversed letter "e," i.e. Ǝ. This is not, as far I can tell, an IPA symbol, although it is a nice touch. Nevertheless, it is the kind of thing that should be explained in a pronunciation guide.

This issue intersects with another one, which is the title of the ruler of Ethiopia. Krebs cannot bring herself to call these rulers "Emperors," which is what they have always been in public discourse. We get no discussion of this, but one tangential reference to the nature of the Ethiopian domain:

In another context, and if that word were not so heavily loaded, one might call their domain an empire. [p.190]

What we might like to know is why the word, and presumably the corresponding "Emperor," is "so heavily loaded." "Loaded" with what? We don't know.

Perhaps we can guess. One might easily say that it is part of "colonialism" to credit "Oriental" rulers, perhaps patronizingly, with the title "emperor." This got applied to Ethiopia, Persia, China, Japan, and sometimes Mexico or Peru. The implication of the passage where we get the comment by Krebs is that it is tempting to call Ethiopia an "Empire" because it includes conquests of people who are not Ethiopian, or even Christian.

That would fit in with the definition and principles that come out in the silly arguments over whether the Emperors of Japan, even now, should be called "Emperors" by scholars. Thus, many specialists like the idea that an "empire" always involves the conquest and rule of alien, subject peoples. This seems to fit for the classic picture of the Roman or Chinese Empires, but it doesn't really fit for Japan or even for the Mediaeval Holy Roman or Byzantine Empires. Scholars should be sensible of those difficulties, and not just decide that Japan isn't an "empire," despite the Japanese themselves using the word, and despite the Germans and Byzantines using the Latin word imperium itself. A little nation state like Japan just isn't really an "empire."

What the self-referential and tail-chasing specialists overlook, as I discuss on the Japan page, is the ideology that goes with the use of Imperator in the West and, especially, the Chinese theory of the 皇帝 (Huángdì, "August God"), in China and her cultural heirs, like Japan. And that, most importantly, is universal authority, by which the Roman or Chinese Emperor properly has the authority, called the 天命, Tiānmìng, the "Mandate of Heaven" in China, to rule the whole world, all 天下, Tiānxià, "Under Heaven," for which the Roman equivalent is the Stoic κοσμόπολις, the "world state," of which the Emperor is the κοσμοκράτωρ, Cosmocrator, the "World Ruler." We also get this in India, with the Buddhist theory of the Cakravartin, चक्रवर्तिन्, the "Wheel Turning" monarch, who rules the world. We see the Chinese and Indian ideology come together in the presentation of the Sui Dynasty.

As it happens, Verena Krebs informs us of the Ethiopian ideology that would motivate the appropriate application of "Emperor" to to its ruler:

Through their foundational myth, the Kəbrä nägäśt [ክብረ ነገሥት, Glory of the Kings], Solomonic rulers actively propagated themselves as not just the rulers of Christian Ethiopia, but also as first among all kings of the earth. Israelite kings David and Solomon served as archetypes of wise kingship for numerous rulers within medieval Europe. The nägäśt, however, claimed literal and spiritual descent from these biblical kings through Mənilək I, Solomon's oldest son sired upon the Queen of Sheba. [p.215]

Thus, the Ethiopian Kings, ነገሥት, nägäśt (singular, ንጉሥ, nəguś), rank above all other kings, and so rate, as much as anyone, being called "Emperors," as they came to call themselves. They even began using, as I noted above, the expression ንጉሠ ነገሥት, nəguśä nägäśt, "King of Kings," which was the Mesopotamian equivalent of "emperor" before the Roman title existed. Wikipedia says that "Emperor" is an "imprecise" translation; but, of course, this reflects the muddle that attends scholarly confusion about the ideology behind imperial titles. Instead, the Emperors of Ethiopia solicit materials and workmen from Europe to build their churches just as King Solomon solicited the same kinds of help from King Hiram of Tyre in order to build his great Temple.

What is an Empire?

A peculiarity of usage in Krebs is that she cannot give the name of an Ethiopian ruler without prefacing it with ʿaṣe, ዐፄ, glossed as, "Term of address for Ethiopian rulers, often followed directly by the name, roughly translated to 'Majesty'" [p.268; I have added the equivalent of the Arabic ʿayn, which is what is written in Ethiopic]. It is not clear why she thinks this must be employed constantly, unless it is just to remind us, in case we have forgotten, who the rulers are that she has been talking about. The exercise does seem gratuitous.

We might note that the Ethiopian letter is not transcribed ṣe in the table above, but as ḍe. This is because of changes in pronunciation, by which is assimilated to . Indeed, it seems to be more complicated than that. The Wikipedia page on Ethiopic writing uses ṣ́ instead of . Even more interesting, it gives the IPA rendering of this as /tɬʼ/, corresponding to the as /tsʼ/ -- which is what we see sometimes as a atse transcription of ዐፄ. To this we can add the glosses of the other two letters "s" in the system, namely s and ś, which are given as IPA /s/ and /ɬʼ/, respectively. The apostrophes we see here all indicate aspiration. This gives us about 4 "s's" in Ethiopic, which is not surprising, since there are 4 in Hebrew (s ס, ṣ צ, ś שׂ, & š שׁ) and 3 in Arabic (s س, ṣ ص, & š ش).

The most intriguing sound, however, is /ɬ/ (written with a "belted l"), which gets defined as a "voiceless alveolar lateral fricative." This doesn't tell us much, until we find out that this is the sound written "ll" in Welsh, which we also find in many places in Navajo phonology, which also has the tɬʼ phoneme. Welsh, however, is probably more famous. With ɬ, the tongue is in the position for an "l," and then one tries to say the English "th" of "thin."

This intrigues me. If we guess that corresponds to Arabic, ص (ṣād), and to Arabic ض (ḍād), this reminds me of an argument I saw once that ض was pronounced /ɬ/. Since I also see arguments now that ɬ also occurred early in Hebrew, I would expect it should occur, at least somewhere, in Arabic.

We also might note that the base form of the letter , which is the same sound as the Arabic ʿayn, and looks like the English letter "O," actually is the letter "O," inherited unchanged from Phoenician, Greek, and Latin, as Ethiopic has inherited it from Phoenican and Old South Arabian. Where it has changed is in Hebrew, becoming ע, ʿayin, and Arabic ع, ʿayn.

Kings of Kush (Ethiopia), XXV Dynasty of Egypt

Coptic Patriarchs of Alexandria

Philosophy of Science, Linguistics

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved