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September 3, 2016

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Imperial Exile: Emperor Haile Selassie in Britain 1936-40

May 9, 2016



Emperor Haile Selassie spent the period between 1936 and 1941 as an exile in the English city of Bath.  Fairfield House, his place of refuge there, was a respectable accommodation but one that paled by comparison to his Imperial Genete Leul Palace – then occupied by Fascist adversaries. 



Haile Selassie in Exile – oil and tempera on panel by Francis Broomfield, 1987


Reviewed by Bruce Strachan

In his Imperial Exile Author Keith Bowers revisits the trials and tribulations of Emperor Haile Selassie’s nearly five years of exile in Bath. A townsman of Bath himself, Bowers has also spent considerable time as a resident of Addis Ababa, and surely it is from this unique familiarity with both cities that the author derives his exceptional insights.



Picture postcard of the Circus in Bath circa 1930


What interests the author foremost about the Emperor’s saga is, as he puts it, the “human condition of being in exile.” And indeed, such experience has been, in its variety of manifestations, long a subject of universal contemplation. 

Haile Selassie’s exile unfolded during an era that saw the particularly ugly emergence of Fascism and Naziism in Europe. And as lovely and hospitable though the city of Bath was and indeed remains, it’s hard to imagine that these years could have been anything less than distressing. Nevertheless these were years during which the African monarch somehow managed to remain productive and to keep up a positive outward appearance.

While addressing this very personal human dimension Bowers also provides indispensable external context such as the 1933 rise of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party, which petrified British leadership into adopting a paraplegic foreign policy of appeasement – this at the untold sacrifice of allies deemed expendable. Ethiopia was first betrayed in a sequence of diplomatic missteps that will forever haunt Europe, and against which the Emperor’s titanic struggle cannot otherwise be appreciated.


“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.” 

– Ovid, Poems of Exile


1930’s Italy, the author points out, was still smarting over its Adwa defeat thirty-five years earlier at the hands of Menelik II  (see: ). Nationalism found a host in this humiliation, which in part led to the election of Benito Mussolini, for whom large jubilant crowds gathered on the streets of Rome when in 1935 he announced Italy’s second invasion of Ethiopia. Although inwardly uncomfortable with the development, other major European powers were reluctant to publicly condemn it, for to do so would’ve been blatantly hypocritical given the extent to which those very same nations were themselves engaged in colonial exploitation.

These were nothing short of diabolical times. Scientifically unfounded and twisted half-baked concepts of Aryan superiority were galvanising among Hitler’s supportive masses. Likewise Italians widely believed that Ethiopians needed to be rescued from what was then thought of as ‘less advanced’ civilisation. “Colonisation,” Mussolini argued, was a “force for good, because Europeans were capable of introducing more competent administrations, abolishing the slave trade (then still legal in Ethiopia), and building modern infrastructure.” Use of such moral rationalisation as pretext for colonisation of course can only be seen as deceitful  rhetoric.


“Men in exile feed on dreams.” 
– Aeschylus


Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia was no minor effort – over one hundred thousand Italian as well as enlisted Eritrean and Somali soldiers, known as Askaris, participated. These invaders were equipped moreover with state-of-the-art aircraft and weaponry whereas Ethiopia’s defenders fought, by contrast, with far less training and relatively outdated arms.

The Emperor likened Ethiopia’s lopsided odds, to those of Biblical David when confronted by Goliath. Working closely with his trusted Commander Ras Kassa, he nevertheless led the effort from the front as attested to by a grainy black and white photo in which he appears to be manning a light anti-aircraft weapon.  And while his elegant attire and tranquil composure suggests that this particular snap might not have been taken during the very heat of battle, Bowers does report that on at least one occasion, when a squadron of invading Italian bombers suddenly did appear the Emperor “gunned them down with terrific effect.”


The Emperor inspecting a weapon during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War


Not to detract, but measure of myth building is of course no stranger to  war-time propaganda when heroic role-models are most crucial. Nevertheless even biblical Goliath might’ve sympathised when the invaders did the utterly unthinkable. Although not officially acknowledged by Italy until five decades later, chemical weapons were sprayed upon Ethiopian civilians both directly as well as indirectly – the later by strategically poisoning rivers, lakes, fields and streams, thus rendering the environment incapable of sustaining life. Adding insult to this injury the dictator’s son Vittorio, a fighter pilot in the theatre, perversely characterised his own participation assporting fun.”

It’s impossible to assess the total combined human and environmental impact of these atrocities, from which even the Emperor himself did not escape a degree of tissue damage. In any event, by April of 1936 the Fascist forces had managed, through use of such villainous method, to encircle the capitol of Addis Ababa.

An emergency council was hastily convened therefore, during which it was determined that Ethiopia’s best strategy was for the Emperor to depart at once and to commence lobbying efforts from abroad. Herewith Ethiopia largely put it’s faith in the League of Nations where, as a member it trusted a coalition of international support could be forged to bring about a diplomatic solution.



The Emperor transiting through Gibraltar


A few days later the royal family, along with their extensive imperial entourage, departed by train for the Red Sea port of Djibouti. From there they boarded the British HMS Enterprise bound for Jerusalem, where wife and children remained as the Emperor then transferred to a civilian ship bound for Great Britain.

Entry into Britain was marked by delicate diplomacy. While on one hand large, enthusiastic crowds gathered to greet the Emperor, he was otherwise officially snubbed by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin – consequence of Baldwin’s extreme caution not to ruffle Hitler’s feathers. So awkward was this appeasement that at times it produced scenes resembling episodes from a television sit-com. In one such scene Baldwin actually dove beneath a table a’la mode John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, to hide from the  Emperor who’d just happened to turn up in Parliament. Reality can indeed sometimes be even more strange than fiction.

The Emperor did however enjoy the advocacy of former PM David Lloyd-George who famously chastised both Baldwin and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden as “cowards, poltroons and jellyfish.” The English public also by and large showed sympathy and support for the exiled emperor. This would surely have been a welcome moral booster.


Bust of the Emperor by English artist Jacob Epstein

In June of 1936 the Emperor travelled to Geneva to condemn the injustice befalling his nation before the League of Nations. Jeering members of the Italian press corps however were bent on disrupting the appeal by blowing whistles provided by Mussolini’s son-in-law foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano. After the hecklers were expunged the Emperor, who’d managed to maintain his composure throughout, articulated his nation’s cause not in French – the League’s official tongue, but in his native Amharic. 

It was a distinguished oration, but one that fell upon ears tone-deafened by the resounding fear of Hitler and Mussolini. Frustrated with his fellow League members’ lack of support the Emperor famously concluded his appeal with the parting admonishment, “Today it is us, but tomorrow it will be you (paraphrase).”

According to the League’s own charter, Ethiopia had been explicitly violated. Sovereignty for the sole African member state however was not deemed a high enough priority when compared to the emerging threat of a Hitler-Mussolini alliance. The timing therefore couldn’t have been more unsympathetic. Only the United Stated and Russia voted to condemn the invasion.

The international platform of the League had been the Emperor’s best bet. Clearly however the impending diplomatic challenge would require more time. Adaptions would therefore have to be made in order to adjust to the longer term reality. And with prolonged exile now a certainty Haile Selassie began to search for a suitable home within which to settle his family, and from which to conduct diplomatic operations.


Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room. 
– Mahmoud Darwish


His friend, the Duke of Connaught suggested the Emperor might consider setting down stakes in the small western city of Bath – renowned the Duke waxed lyrically, for its “quietness and good manners.” Moreover Bath was celebrated for having hot springs believed to possess medicinal properties – feature that particularly appealed to the emperor who’d long enjoyed Addis Ababa’s similarly warm volcanic baths. There was an irony to this choice however, which Bowers is quick to point out. The Emperor had just fled the outrage of Italian colonial occupation in Ethiopia, only to then find himself drawn to an European city much admired for – of all things, a glorious Roman colonial past. Selassie’s incidentally, wasn’t the first crowned head drawn to Bath’s legacy. Both Louis XVIII and Napoleon III also took refuge in the former Roman city during their respective exiles.


Wilfred Thesiger, the Emperor’s faithful friend and staunch supporter in battle

As quaint an anecdote as it is, the author then points out that there are approximately 500 public lion representations of various sorts to be found in and around the city of Bath – suggesting that this might’ve somehow given the Emperor, whose royal symbol was the Lion of Judah, comfort and courage. In order to conduct this inventory Bowers presumably went to great pains to include even lion effigies found on the city’s countless door knockers. One can almost imagine him canvasing the streets, dedicatedly tallying each sighting in a ledger book. Of course architectural ornamentations depicting lions are no rare commodity in most European cities and it’s unimaginable therefore that Bath is particularly exceptional in this respect. Nonetheless the author’s enthusiasm for detail here is charming and likely also reflects a welcomed bit of local pride.

Notable from among other various British individuals who supported the Emperor was the acclaimed writer and explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger’s father had been the Counsil-General at the British Legation in Addis Ababa. He and the Emperor had been acquaintances since childhood. Friendship developed however during the Emperor’s time in England. Ultimately Thesiger participated as a commander within the British-led operation, known as the Gideon Force, to liberate Ethiopia. There according to Bowers he heroically captured 8,000 Italian soldiers at the town of Machine Selam.

Certainly one of the most extraordinary members of the emperor’s inner circle during the exile years was that of naturalised Englishman Dr. Hakim Workneh Eshete – better known perhaps by his adopted Anglo name Dr. Charles Martin. Although criticised for not having better excelled in his role as the Emperor’s Chargé d’affaires in exile Martin – an Ethiopian raised by English guardians, contributed a considerable amount of his own personal assets to Ethiopia’s liberation cause. Ambiguities arising from perhaps imperfect accounting methods within this generosity however ultimately contributed to a straining of his relationship with the Emperor, who was subsequently unable to discern between Martin’s chaitable donations and personal holdings.


“There can be no place of exile within the world since nothing within the world is alien to men.” 

– Seneca

One of the Emperor’s most ardent supporters was the outspoken anti-Fascist activist Sylvia Pankhurst. In 1936 Pankhurst founded a newspaper called the New Times and Ethiopia News, which according to Bowers attained a respectable circulation of 10,000. One of her first interviewees was the Emperor – under who’s spell she promptly fell, describing him afterwards in starry-eyed terms as “the most wonderful person she’d ever met.”

In stark contrast to PM Baldwin, Sylvia Pankhurst’s approach to the Fascist threat was about as appeasing as a Joe Louis left hook. Neither it seems, did she go it easy on her own pals – a penchant perhaps articulated best by playwright George Bernard Shaw who, after their friendship disintegrated, referred to Sylvia’s temperament as a “tempest of virtuous indignation.” Maybe though Sylvia’s agitating nature was precisely that called upon of one daring to stand up against such extreme injustice.



Picture postcard of the Bath Abbey circa 1930


It is not improbable that Sylvia inherited this fortified nature from her mother Emmeline, the iconic suffragette leader. Likewise Sylvia undoubtedly also passed a dram of the trait on down to her son Richard who, although less conspicuously confrontational than preceding generations, continues to be an indefatigable thorn in the side of looters of Ethiopia’s cultural treasures. It was Richard after all who successfully spearheaded the campaign for repatriation of, among other vital artefacts, Ethiopia’s iconic Axum Monument. And surely the Emperor would’ve been spectacularly impressed by, and tremendously grateful for this and the countless other Ethiopian heritage related accomplishments compiled in due time by this wee 9-year-old lad – first encountered by the Emperor by his mother’s side in Bath back in 1936.

The positive impact of Sylvia’s support for Ethiopia can’t be overstated. And gratitude was shown when after the war the Emperor offered her a rather lovely plot in Addis Ababa upon which to establish a home. Sylvia moved there with Richard in 1956. When sadly she passed four years later she was bestowed the unique honour of being interred within a special section of the cemetery of the Holy Trinity Cathedral reserved exclusively for war patriots. At the funeral, which received full state honours, her friend the Emperor declared her an “honorary Ethiopian.” 


“The plant that’s been uprooted has only courage to hold it up.” 

– Marty Rubin


The Emperor hadn’t anticipated exile to last five years, and as he began to face the grim prospect of perhaps never being able to return to his homeland, his patience, morale and not least of all bank balance had begun to wear thin. At a certain point, during Bath’s wintery months, there wasn’t even sufficient personal finance to purchase coal enough to keep the home fires burning. Tragically 4,500 pieces of household cutlery embossed with the Emperor’s royal coat of arms had put up for auction. These fetched £2,527 (about £175,000 in today’s currency). Forced moreover to sell his two automobiles the Emperor started taking trollies in and around Bath – an exercise of forced elbow-rubbing with locals that the Emperor would hopefully have derived at least some sort of Prince And The Pauper pleasure from. Things seemed to hit an all time low however when in April of 1938 he was photographed seated in a public deck chair on Brighton’s West Pier. In this snapshot he’s leaning forward slightly – bundled up against what appear to be inclement elements. In his hands a book is held. But something’s off. The Imperial aura is gone. Replaced it seems by a somewhat unassuming, almost diminished mannerism. This photo was chosen as Imperial Exile’s bookcover shot, and an appropriate choice it is, because it speaks, as the cliche say’s, a thousand words – or should I say a thousand-and-sixteen. For if one looks closely, sixteen capitalised words stencilled upon the chair’s canvas back seem to almost chide: 



Contemplate for a moment the Emperor who’d hitherto perched upon gilded thrones, finding himself reduced to the slouchy public seating of a community boardwalk – being ordered in capitol letters no less not to reposition his seat. Oh, and to enjoy even this most inextravagant of luxuries he would’ve been obliged to dig into his woolly English trousers and shell out a couple of coppers – it was downright Dickensian!



Brighton’s West Pier 1938


Bowers believes that it was his unshakeably deep religious conviction that saw the Emperor through such days. And one evocative example of this piety is of when the Emperor converted an old greenhouse on the Fairfield compound into a chapel. This he did by painting the exteriors of all of the windowpanels white. Surely the gardener must have thought his boss had taken leave of his senses, but in this way the Emperor took an ordinary space and transformed it into the profound and extraordinary. Bowers also points out that on high holy days he would kneel before his household staff to wash their feet. For those of faith the power of this symbolic gospel reenactment, known as maundy, must have been profoundly reaffirming.


“Exile is a dream of glorious return.”

– Salman Rushdie


In 1938 the Emperor again took his nation’s message to the League of Nations. This return performance however was a far cry from the confident, stirring and defiant one preceded two years earlier. This time the Emperor pleaded, not in his proud Amharic language but instead in French, the more palliating tongue of Western diplomacy. Not long into the oration, overwhelmed by despair, the Emperor found that he lacked strength to continue. A solemn hush swept through the chamber. It was a moment of reflection – not only upon the Emperor’s plight, but upon the League’s own nonfulfillment, so graphically exposed therein.

Darker days still were yet to come. In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland in a flagrant treaty violation that revealed the naivety of Britain’s appeasement strategy – a foreign policy carried forth by Baldwin’s successor Neville Chamberlain, who in the aftermath of which also resigned. New Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn’t waste time however in making up for his predecessors’ years of unassertiveness. By June of 1940 Churchill assembled a band of liberators to be led by General Orde Wingate, composed largely of soldiers from the Sudan Defence Force. Known as the Gideon Force, and with the Emperor’s prominent participation, these troops would penetrate Ethiopia from across the Sudanese border. At long last exile was over. And needless to say the Lion of Judah would have been thrilled to have his feet back on home soil.


Emperor Haile Selassie during his exile in Bath


Keith Bowers’ Imperial Exile is a sympathetic account of the Emperor’s five exile years. The Emperor’s mission was an all-or-nothing, high-stakes gamble in which there were innumerable dark days. Courageously however, he never gave up, and ultimately he did achieve the goal of liberation. It’s hard therefore not to look back upon this episode in the Emperor’s life as anything less than heroic.


Un Train en Afrique

April 20, 2016


Who’s not stirred by the locomotives of yore – those coal ingesting, vapour-bellowing iron-stallions, galloping along a pair of iron rails, morphing the world’s landscapes into one?



Likewise how can one not but be taken by a book that chronicles the infancy of the first railway in the Horn of Africa? 


by Bruce Strachan


I think I can – I think I can – I think I can . . . ”(1)


From inception of the Djibouti/Addis Railway however, not all parties shared the same enthusiasm. The Emperor Menelik II was himself reluctant when in 1892 his respected Swiss advisor Alfred Ilg advanced the idea. Ilg’s proposal you see, outlined that the project be financed by European investors, whose large stake in such a major Ethiopian infrastructure project raised legitimate local concerns.


Postcard: Water tanks being filled in Djibouti


With approval eventually granted however, a head-on collision between Industrial Age Europe and traditional cultures of the Horn became inevitable. The book’s photos – quite often in the form of picture postcards,  illustrate this juxtaposition beautifully.

Over the course of implementation moreover, Menelik became uneasy with what he perceived as the French Government’s increasing assertiveness. Public anti-railroad demonstrations ensued. 

Unease was understandable when considering that this transformative project was initiated and headquartered not in Ethiopia, but in far away Paris.


Postcard: Harrar Train Station


Interesting parallels might be drawn between the anxieties felt a century ago, and those surrounding the 2015 China Railway Group’s launch of the Addis Ababa light rail line (operated by the Shenzhen Metro Group and financed by the Export-Import Bank of China).

Not unlike today’s largely Chinese-led rail system the previous, chiefly French-driven enterprise offered a critical leap forward for African infrastructure and development. Preserving state predominance however was then, as it is today, a prerequisite. Could foreign shareholders be entrusted to play such a big and crucial partnership role?

Clearly however the Djibouti/Addis Ababa Railway had the potential to transform the nation for the better. Moreover it could also prove highly rewarding as an investment, with the Emperor himself standing to benefit handsomely. Menelik, you see, would personally receive half of all the enterprise’s profits – this without having to invest any of his own capitol(2) – a very sweet deal indeed. Moreover, as an added bonus the French firm agreed to construct a parallel running telegraph line along the route. It was a win, win!


Postcard: Gotha Bridge near Dira Dawa


After all was said and done however, Menelik did not live to see his railway’s completion. Instead it was inaugurated upon completion by his successor the Emperor Haile Selassie – an occasion of much fanfare well documented by the book.


“I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could . . . ”(3)


As with all Development Projects, progress came with a degree of sacrifice. There’s always a trade off. “You can’t,” after all, “make an omelette without breaking a few egg shells.”

Djibouti had been, prior to the railway’s construction, a relatively minor entrepôt, with the storied port of Zeila – situated 100 kilometres to the southeast, having historically been the Gulf of Aden’s principal port.  

Former capitols, such as Ankober and Barara were also serviced by the port of Zeila, which thrived for many centuries before Addis Ababa’s founding.


Postcard proclaiming: “European Progress in Abyssinia”


Traditionally goods imported through Zeila reached Addis Ababa via a six week camel and mule trek. At the outset of the 20th Century however such an arrangement was no longer economically acceptable – particularly as efficient shipment of goods would be key to European ambitions of increasing the volume of  trade within the region.

Before the construction of the Suez Canal, nearly all goods, and likewise merchant ships destined for Ethiopia originated from points along the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. After the Suez Canal’s completion however, volume of European maritime trade increased many fold. 

un_train_en_afrique_webThe outcome was to exchange the fortunes of the two ports. Djibouti became rich overnight whereas Zeila, just as instantly became obsolete. With this a centuries old way of life vanished.

Hugues Fontaine’s Un Train en Afrique – written in both French and English, is a sumptuous read and to be much admired for it’s rare archival photography. While turning the pages one can almost hear the shriek of a distant locomotive’s whistle. Announcing the arrival of a whole new age. 

Truly trains transport merchandise and travellers from place to place. Moreover they move hearts and souls. 


“Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong . . . ”(4)


* * * 
1) From the Watty Piper classic, The Little Engine That Could.
2) Emperor Menelik granted a 99-year lease to Ilg and associates in return for 50% of the company’s profits in excess of 3,000,000 francs.
3) From the Watty Piper classic, The Little Engine That Could.
4) From the Watty Piper classic, The Little Engine That Could.
Un Train en Afrique
Hardcover. 312 pages, 480 photographs, 100 documents and postal cards.
Photographs and French text by Hughes Fontaine. English translation by Yves-Marie Stranger.
With contributions from Pierre Javelin and Germain Matthieu Lambert, Jacques Trampont, Shiferaw Bekele, Makeda Ketcham, Eloi Ficquet.
Shama Books.
39.90 € TTC France.
An admirer of vintage trains, Bruce Strachan has experienced passage upon a whole variety of models across much of England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Greece, and the Netherlands.
He has also toured parts of Canada and the USA by rail, and in 2005 was invited to fleetingly co-pilot Africa’s fabled Lunatic Line (pictured here), which operates from Kisumu to Mombasa.

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AKSUMITE AMBITION and the Advent of a New Creed in Arabia Felix

December 16, 2015





Wells_egyptian_ship_red_seaAKSUMITE AMBITION


In his Throne of Adulis; Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam, Glen W. Bowersock attempts to bring new insights to the mid-6th century Christian Aksumite kingdom’s subjugation of the Jewish South-Arabian kingdom of Himyar

Moreover Bowersock attempts to demonstrate how this hawkish era impacted upon the Islamic religion and ideology that was soon to flourish in the region


by Bruce Strachan


Saint-Elesbaan-Having-Slaughtered-Evil Unknown Portuguese artist

fig. 2


In this, the most recent offering from the Oxford University Press’ Emblems of Antiquity series, Glen W Bowersock cites two stone inscriptions as primary documentary exhibits upon which to base his far-reaching analysis.

Both of these inscriptions, although created centuries apart, derive from the same Aksumite Red Sea port of Adulis. The more senior being a 3rd century BCE basalt stele, engraved with an Ancient Greek text that lists the triumphal exploits of Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy III, and the latter, known as the Monumentum Adulitanum, recording the conquests of an ambitious Aksumite King (possibly Sembrouthes), dating from the first century. Unlike the stele however, this second inscription was carved into a ceremonial marble throne, after which Bowersock’s book is duly titled.(1)


fig. 3


The whereabouts of these two objects is no longer known. That they might have been buried over time by natural environmental shifts, or resourced as building materials by one of the locality’s ensuing inhabitants is not improbable. Consequently our knowledge of them comes, not from the actual objects themselves but instead from a copy fastidiously produced by a sixth century seafaring merchant and geographer from Alexandria, known posthumously as Cosmas Indicopleustes. 

Indicopleustes, who’s ship made landfall in Adulis sometime around 525 CE, was commissioned by an unidentified sixth century Aksumite king (possibly Kaleb) to assist in the translation of the two texts into Ge‘ez – the Semitic language of the Aksumites and ancient root of the Amharic language spoken widely today throughout present day Ethiopia. Indicopleustes also published a copy of this transcription within an essay called Christian Topography, through which the inscriptions’ contents have been preserved down through the ages.

Min of the Desert

fig. 4

Although dated centuries apart both objects were situated in juxtaposition during Indicopleustes’ day. This proximity, explains Bowersock, in addition to the kindred theme of triumphal conquest occurring in both texts, caused the Alexandrian and his contemporaries to mistakenly assume that the inscriptions were one single statement. We know now however, that while the basalt stele’s inscription was written in the Coine Greek of 3rd century BCE, the throne’s text was inscribed in a form of Ancient Greek more characteristic of the Imperial Roman-era. No attempt is made to explain why a man of letters such as Indicopleustes was unable to detect this presumably evident discrepancy – particularly given that Bowersock goes on to state that the throne’s document is “altogether unlike the Ptolemiac” specimen.


fig. 5

Although not of concern to Bowersock – and understandably so given the book’s objective, it is nevertheless fascinating to also reflect for a moment on the brutal nature of conquest so proudly commemorated upon the throne:

“I waged war,” the Aksumite king proclaims, “ . . . [and afterwards] I chose for myself the young men, women, boys, girls, and all property [of the vanquished].” 

While not exactly behaviour that Human Rights Watch would applaud today, it does however very much conform to the ancient world’s rules of engagement.

The inscription also offers insight into how Roman-era Aksumite spiritual beliefs largely adhered to those of the era’s prevailing powers. After his string of victories for instance, the king undertook what appears to have been a pilgrimage to Adulis where he proceeded to make sacrifices to the Greek gods Zeus, Ares and Poseidon.(2)

The throne’s Aksumite king also claimed to have been offspring of the war-god Ares, unto whom gratitude was expressed for having brought under his sway “all the peoples who are adjacent to [his] lands on the east and as far as the Land of Incense (possibly today’s Djibouti and or Somalia), and to the west as far as the places of Ethiopia and Sasou.”

At this point some readers might be wondering, but why would an Aksumite king have referred to Ethiopia as a foreign entity? Moreover the throne’s text furthermore mentions that Ethiopia was situated to the west of Aksumite territory – clearly highlighting a geographical distinction between the two nations.

Thankfully Bowersock takes a stab at clarifying this apparent contradiction, by explaining that in the ‘Herodotean tradition’ the word ‘Ethiopia’ referred not to Axum but to Nubia. And that therefore when the throne’s text refers to Axum having conquered the foreign land of ‘Ethiopia,’ it is in essence referring to Aksumite triumph over Nubian territory.

The Throne’s inscription also mentions other ancient places that we are able to identify today with a high degree of certainty. Aua for instance, likely represents present day Adwa. And a seemingly outlandish reference to the “Samene people,” who according to the text, “live beyond the Nile in inaccessible and snowy mountains” is quite clearly a reference to the inhabitants of the Simien mountain range – the only place within reasonable proximity of Axum that has elevations so high that snow does occasionally fall.

The transcription of these texts came during a particularly turbulent period in South Arabian history. Members of Himyar’s longstanding Christian community were being brutally persecuted by an Arabian-Jewish King named Yusuf, culminating in the 523 massacre of Christians in the ancient Arabian city of Najran.

fig. 6

Upholding this conflict were the simultaneous expansions into the Red Sea region by the Christian Byzantine and Pagan Sasanian-Persian Empires, which were competing to increase their stakes in the lucrative silk trade. To this end control of the strategic Red Sea and Gulf of Aiden was vital. Proxy war between the Byzantine backed Aksumites and the Persian backed South Arabians therefore became inevitable.

While coming to the rescue of fellow Christians might have been a sufficiently compelling motive for Axum’s 525 invasion, it is plausible that seizing control of maritime trade was the ultimate objective. The prelude-to-war timing of the Adulis throne’s translation might therefore have been in order to make use of it for war propaganda – this as it gloriously attested to a historical precedent of Aksumite dominion over South Arabia.

Alternate Axum 399

fig. 8

With well over 100,000 men, victory came swift to Axum’s Byzantine backed military. The subsequent Aksumite occupation of Himyar however lasted less than a century, during which competing interests pitted Jews, Christians and Pagans against one other.

In an effort to promote cooperation the Aksumite king Abraha hosted a summit in Marib in 547. When diplomatic attempts failed however turbulence and insecurity gradually increased. Eventually the Byzantine and Persian empires began to disengage with the region, creating a power vacuum that in turn led to increased local power struggles – opportune conditions, Bowersock asserts, for the rise of an individual named Muhammad, keen introduce his new religion, and by 620CE Islamic domination of the region was effectively achieved.

Bowersock has enhanced perceptions of ancient Axum and informed on the fascinating role it played within the wider ancient world. His assertion that Islam was to some degree influenced by the failed state conditions of post-Aksumite era Himyar is also quite intriguing. 

Perhaps Bowersock’s characterisation of early inter-faith relations could have been enhanced by mentioning the Aksumite kingdom’s notable acceptance, and indeed protection, of early Muslim asylum seekers. In what is regarded as the First Hijra, these refugees included Muhammad’s own daughter Ruqayya, and prompted him to command his followers to “leave the Abyssinians in Peace.” Clearly such an example of cooperation flies in the face of Bowersock’s Christian zeal characterisation,(3) nevertheless by failing to point out that not all early interactions were hostile the author’s rendering is incomplete.

a a a a Cosmas Indicopleustes

fig. 9

The 3rd century BCE Ptolemaic stele is also of lesser aid to Bowersock’s conclusion. But it is nevertheless fascinating and worthy of greater attention. He mentions that this stele had been carved from a type of basalt particular to that quarried locally – advocating thereby the high unlikelihood of its having been imported. But that only makes the object all the more intriguing to this reader. Might we, I wonder, be able to relate Ptolemaic engagement with the area to earlier Egyptian encounters such as Hatshepsut’s Red Sea expeditions to the Land of Punt? Questions such as this deserve exploration. Particularly as the unvocalised spelling of Punt (P’NT) is quite remarkably similar to that of D’MT – the civilisation which proceeded Axum.

Perhaps the greatest value of this work is that Bowersock’s perspective is not from within the Ethiopian studies camp. Rather he’s an outsider, looking in with the viewpoint of an Ancient Arabian studies scholar. Consequently he approaches Axum from an other side of the Red Sea if you will, and this can be quite refreshing. The down side of this however is that he’s libel to commit certain gaffes, such as misspelling the word Aksumite as ‘Axumite,’ which he does no less than 22 times.

* * * 

(1) Excavations have shown that marble imported from the Greek Island of Proconnesus was used extensively in Adulis. In Indicopleustes’ opinion however the marble used in the Adulis throne was not of Proconnesian origin.

(2) Although the throne has been dated to the Imperial Roman era Greek names for the gods are nevertheless used.

(3) Prologue (Pg. 5).

* * * 

fig. 1) Egyptian ship on the Red Sea, about 1250 B.C. (From Torr’s “Ancient Ships”) Illustrator unknown.

fig. 2) Painting of Saint Elesbaan (King Kaleb of Axum) Slaughtering Evil by an unknown Portuguese artist. 

fig. 3) Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy III

fig. 4) Reconstruction of Egyptian Red Sea vessel.

fig. 5) Illustration of Kaleb (c.520), King of Axum – also known as St. Elesbaan for his protection of the Christians.

fig. 6) St. Arethas the Martyr.

fig. 7) Map of Roman, Persian and Aksumite Empires.

fig. 8) Plate from Cosmas Indicopleustes’ Christian Topography.





August 31, 2015


As a bestselling author and recipient of Germany’s most prestigious literary awards Asfa-Wossen Asserate’s writing credentials are not in question. Moreover, having been born into Ethiopia’s Imperial Household – a prince no less, Asserate is beneficiary of having been placed within the enclosed, innermost sanctuary of his current subject – Emperor Haile Selassie I. 


by Bassano, vintage print, circa 1930

King of Kings, Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia



Such a tightly-knit hereditary relationship, it could well be reasoned, would automatically render a biographer’s objectivity compromised. Having said that however, in his King of Kings, Asserate does not dissatisfy in his offering of insightful, critical and useful analysis.





by Atsede Woldemikael & Bruce Strachan



KING OF KINGS by Asfa-Wossen Asserate

Biographer-cum-royal fly on the wall Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate recalls many interesting moments from his unique childhood. One particularly rapid series of twists and turns that occurred in December of 1960 however stands out as especially memorable – this when a group of four conspirators, including the commander of the Emperor’s own Imperial Bodyguards attempted a coup d’état.

Asserate, who was all of twelve as events transpired, recalls not so much the episode’s anxiety – as might an adult, but rather the sheer childhood thrill of it all. His great uncle the Emperor was out of the country at the time on a state visit to Brazil – an absence taken advantage of by insurgents when seizing several ministers hostage, through the leverage of whom they were then able to systematically gain control of the central bank, the state radio service, and the Ministry of Finance.

Moreover, under these highly compromised circumstances the plotters were also able to coerce the Emperor’s first born son, the Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen – 44-years-old at the time, to publicly assume a puppet-like leadership role within their movement.

With swift and decisive actions from the Emperor’s still loyal regular Army and Air Force however the rebellion was duly crushed. But not before the Crown Prince, then under duress of detainment, had been prodded into making a very public radio address, within which he denounced his father’s policies, declared himself Ethiopia’s new Emperor, and announced the forthcoming of a series of radical reforms.


Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen

After reading King of Kings Anthony Mockler, author of Haile Selassie’s War, commented that Asserate’s narrative had, “. . . more reversals of fortune than the Plantagenets.” And I must confess that I too arrived at the very same comparison. For the Crown Prince, whose political outlook had long been regarded as more progressive than his dad’s, had then played an active role, albeit involuntarily, in his father’s overthrow – a Plantagenet twist indeed. But wait a minute – it wasn’t over. Yet more drama was still to unfold!

Throngs of ululating supporters, the biographer recalls, enthusiastic to welcome the Emperor back, converged upon Addis Ababa’s Old Airport. And it was before this Cecil B. DeMille backdrop that the Emperor emerged Phoenix-like from his aircraft, with errant son Prince Wossen pleading demonstratively before him for forgiveness. Dad didn’t fail to rise to the charged occasion. “We all would have been very proud of you,” He uttered to the lad in a most stiff-upper-lipped manner, “at your funeral.”

A more pithy line couldn’t have been scripted, and it’s precisely with insider details such as this that the biographer is able to splendidly inform historians and general readers alike about the human character within the majestic and sometimes enigmatic personage of Haile Selassie.

As the last of Ethiopia’s Solomonic rulers, the icon of Haile Selassie remains as powerful today as it was during his reign. For pan-Africanists his legacy is no less than that of founding father – proponent of African unity – defender of African independence. Unto the Rastafarian community moreover he was the Messiah – postulation for which he was sometimes reviled for for not having more decisively dispelled. For countless others Haile Selassie was an allegory of Africa itself – the little guy who nevertheless towered morally over the world’s so-called giants – David outnumbered by Goliaths.


Born in a simple hut in Ejersa Gora 1892, Haile Selassie I was originally named Lij Tafari Makonnen.

According to adherents Haile Selassie descended directly from a bond between Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (the Queen of Sheba is chronicled within the Kebra Negust* as Makeda, and is often popularly portrayed as an Aksumite – this despite the Aksumite Kingdom’s inception having been preceded by King Solomon’s era by no less than a millennium).

His father, Ras Makonnen (1852-1906) was Emperor Menelik II’s top diplomat. Although a man of western-leanings he’d been severely duped by his Italian hosts and counterparts when signing an Italian translation draft of a treaty between the two nations. Known as the Treaty of Wuchale, his negotiating team hadn’t given the document’s Italian version sufficient scrutiny, thus allowing for a linguistic discrepancy that technically signed away Ethiopia’s sovereignty, and paved a direct path for the First Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-1896).

Likewise Haile Selassie too was subject to betrayal by his trusted fellow European contemporaries when in 1936 Mussolini revived the notion of Empire and, with liberal use of chemical weapons, invaded.

Although the USA and Soviet Union voted in support of Ethiopia’s sovereignty, the Emperor’s impassioned 1936 League of Nations speech failed to persuade other key member states to condemn the invasion.

Fatefully, Great Britain and France’s decision to appease Hitler, and to join Germany in not voting to condemn Mussolini’s invasion proved a momentous foreign policy miscalculation – one with disastrous consequences, not only for Ethiopians but likewise for Europeans, who soon found themselves overrun by Hitler’s terror.

With his famous off the cuff remark, “It is us today, and it will be you tomorrow,” Haile Selassie seemed to have been the only one with the foresight to envisage the impending savagery that the League was enabling. Moreover European betrayal likely caused him to recalculate his pro-western proclivities, and as Chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity he dedicated much of the rest of his life’s efforts to the strengthening of pan-Africanist initiatives.


Emperor Haile Selassie I was removed from the Jubilee Palace in September of 1974 by the Derg.

In the King of Kings, Asfa-Wossen Asserate is the preverbal fly on the wall. But he wasn’t just any fly, and it wasn’t just any wall. These were palace walls and Asserate was a prince. His memories therefore leave us with a greater critical understanding of his great uncle – 20th century figure of immense historical consequence, and person within the personage of the King of Kings.

* The kəbrä nägäśt, or The Glory of the Kings, is a 14th-century account of the origins of the Solomonic line.

* * * 

A member of the Ethiopian royalty, Le’ul (Prince) Dr Asfa-Wossen Asserate is the great nephew of the last Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I, great-grandson of the Empress Menen. He received his PhD from the University of Frankfurt and is currently a political analyst and a consultant on African Affairs.

Publication Date: Nov. 2015
RRP: £20
420 pp
ISBN: 9781910376140



Ethiopia Engraved; Pankhurst, Ingrams

August 31, 2015



fig. 1

Any book intended not only as a valuable and scholarly source but also as a visual feast is expected to be attractively packaged, and this volume is no exception to the rule. The front cover does full justice to the stunning contents that follow, treating us to an evocative full-colour engraving of a scene of northern Ethiopia recorded by the early 19th-century British traveller Henry Salt, graced by exquisitely printed representations of African Paradise Fly Catcher birds originally published by Pierre Ferret and Joseph Galinier in 1847. Full marks to Shama for this splendid presentation.

P1170236As the world’s most prolific writer on Ethiopia, and founder-director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Richard Pankhurst needs no introduction, and in Ethiopia Engraved he brings to bear the unique combination of scholarly accuracy and popular appeal that has characterized his oeuvre since his debut in Ethiopian studies in 1956. Following fascinating articles of extraordinary breadth and depth in Ethiopia Observer, the 1960s saw, among other publications, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia from Early Times to 1800, which together with Economic History of Ethiopia 1800-1935 constitute for many Ethiopianists his magnum opus. For decades this pair of volumes has served as a stalwart ‘Enquire within upon everything’ sitting on the desk of every scholar of Ethiopian studies, surpassed now perhaps only by Professor Siegbert Uhlig’s multi-volume Encyclopaedia Aethiopica – to which, nonetheless, Pankhurst has been a major contributor. Leila Ingrams is also a master in her field. A researcher, writer and exhibition curator specialising in Yemen, one of her outstanding works is Yemen Engraved (2006), followed by her co-editing of the 16-volume Records of Yemen (2013).


fig. 2

While the colourful covers and dust-jacket cannot be faulted, the contents of Ethiopia Engraved are still reproduced entirely in black-and-white. Considering that many of the engravings are not only interesting records of the scenes encountered but are also stunning works of art in their own right, and given the improvements in technology since 1988, one cannot help wishing that Shama had shown us some of the other engravings in the colours in which they were published at the time, without making the production prohibitively expensive.
The retention of the late Professor Taddesse Tamrat’s original Preface to Ethiopia Engraved together with the 1988 Introduction and Acknowledgements, alongside Professor Shiferaw Bekele’s new Preface and the current Acknowledgements and Introduction, reflects the meticulousness we have come to expect of the authors and publisher involved. As Shiferaw points out in his insightful comments on the new edition, although early engravings often depict mythical mediaeval Ethiopia, many of those presented contain valuable historical data on Ethiopian history, culture and the biophysical environment. Although Taddesse mentioned the significance for scholars of this form of historical documentation, in 1988 the potential for using contemporary illustrations as primary and valuable historical sources was not the subject of study and debate to the extent that it is today. Given the lively dialogue currently underway on the use and interpretation of photographs as sources for 20th-century Ethiopian history, the new edition of Ethiopia Engraved is a timely offering for those interested in images as more than just decorations to accompany text. For that reason it would have been useful to learn more about the process of producing the engravings presented, and the extent to which the engravers might have modified the original images to make them more attractive or interesting to contemporary audiences.

a a a stele

fig. 3

Clearly much more than just a coffee-table book, the Introduction contains a useful summary of Ethiopian history incorporating information on the foreign travellers during each period whose drawings, paintings, and in some cases photographs, led to the engravings from which those appearing in Ethiopia Engraved have been selected. However, a volume designed for both casual readers as well as serious scholars can rarely satisfy everybody. The lay reader may find some of the cataloguing and references confusing, and scholars might take issue with some of the text. The summaries that introduce some of the chapters do a generally good job of contextualising the illustrations that follow, by highlighting interesting aspects of the topic being presented. However, some oddities of the 1988 version remain. The confusion over the entry in the list of Contents for the surprisingly small section on Eritrea has now been addressed, but the presence of a whole page of text to introduce a mere six illustrations on Eritrea followed by no text at all to introduce the illustrations on the 62 pages that follow, covering an fascinating array of topics from Scenery in the Northern Highlands to Thermal Springs and Leprosy, is still with us. Being necessarily brief, these chapter-introductions are not expected to be comprehensive or to contain in-depth analysis; neither can they be expected to be perfectly balanced. Nonetheless the coffee-table aspect of the book might have tempted the authors to present an unduly rosy picture of life in 19th-century Ethiopia. The lengthy extract from the almost hagiographical description by the British envoy Walter Plowden of Emperor Téwedros in his prime thus leaves no room to mention that sovereign’s subsequent destruction of much of the city of Gondar, his merciless slaughter of its clergy and the looting of its churches. And it is silent on the Emperor’s tragic decline into apparent insanity, the atrocities that accompanied it, and the eventual rejection of his rule by many of his subjects that prompted his ill-fated retreat to a mountain fortress – many of which episodes are recorded in engravings of the period. Clearly a labour of love, it is surprising that a work of such thorough scholarship does not have an index. (Curiously, Ingram’s Yemen Engraved suffers from the same shortcoming.) The only way to find an engraving covering a specific topic is to search through the chapter headings that group the illustrations into a series of somewhat arbitrary clusters. Some chapters are focused on towns or specific geographic areas, while others dwell on important persons, or topics such as Clothing and Hairstyles, and Wildlife. In the process some important subjects are overlooked.


fig. 4

For example the rich architectural heritage around Lake Tana built in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Jesuits and their Mughal-trained masons recruited in Goa is omitted, although the buildings in Gondar that were constructed following the expulsion of the Portuguese clergy are well covered. The absence of an index of the engravings in Ethiopia Engraved is a paradox, given the inclusion at the end of the volume of a little-known but very valuable catalogue indexing virtually all published engravings on Ethiopia, whether they appear in the present volume or not. This remarkable catalogue contains some 3,000 references covering 88 publications between 1540 and 1900, several of them consisting of more than one volume, supplemented by a list of some 500 references to engravings of flora, fauna, etc by scientific name. An immense piece of work, and a boon to anyone interested in the pictorial documentation of Ethiopia, it is a pity that the authors apparently did not feel that their own Ethiopia Engraved justified inclusion as the 89th publication. Thus, for example, if we want to see an engraving of the famous mountain, or amba, of Däbrä Damo, the catalogue tells us that we will find it depicted in an engraving on page 35 of Richard Andrée’s Abessinien, das Alpenland under den Tropen und seine Grenzländer, Volume IV, published in Leipzig in 1869, and that the same subject can also be found depicted in three other equally obscure publications – each meticulously cited. We will not, however, be informed that it also appears on page 23 of the very volume we have in our hands! A few facts escaped the revised text of the new edition. For example, the Aksum obelisk looted by Mussolini in 1937 and subsequently returned to Ethiopia, the re-erection of which the authors hope will take place “one day”, had already been re-erected in 2008, six years before the present publication went to press. Minor typographical errors are to be expected in such a complex work, and are normally of little consequence. But in this case, in which the authors have been at pains to adopt and explain a strict formula in which formats and the use of punctuation such as full stops and commas have specified meanings, minor errors can cause confusion between references, volume numbers, page numbers, etc. Thus it is a pity that in several cases the typesetter has not adhered to the authors’ rules. For example on page 229 in a set of references to engravings in a single publication we see three different formats in use to denote the publication followed by the page number: “Bent.136” (with a full stop), “Bent141” (without a break) and “Bent 138” (with a gap). Presumably intended for scholars, the catalogue utilises the transliteration system of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, which involves extensive use of diacritical markings enabling the knowledgeable reader to identify the original Amharic. On the other hand, the Introduction and the introductory text of each chapter (where applicable) utilise simpler and more popular versions of Ethiopian words and proper names.


fig. 5

Thus, for example, “däbtära” in the catalogue is simplified as “dabtara” in the main text. Once the reader realises the reason for the differences in spelling of the same word, this anomaly would normally be of no particular consequence, were it not for inconsistencies and errors of transliteration or typography that have crept in to add to the confusion. The text is in fact frequently inconsistent in its rejection of diacritical markings; for example the town of “Dabra Tabor” loses its markings, whereas Ras Mika’él retains his. There are also typographical errors in the main text and in some of the captions. For example Ennäwari (or Ennawari without diacritical markings) is written as “Ennawara” (p. 104), and on page 29 the Qené Mahlét (the outer division of an Ethiopian church) appears as “Qené Mahalet”, which is neither the common spelling nor the transliterated version. In the Glossary of Ethiopian Titles, a critical section in such a book, the important title of Ecägé (the administrative Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – a position held by a native Ethiopian, distinct from the titular Head referred to as the Metropolitan, being a Copt from Egypt) has unfortunately been garbled as “most of the monks of Ethiopia”. In the catalogue itself there are errors brought forward from the 1988 version: Däbbäb Ar’aya’s father’s name still appears as “Ar’äya”, and some new ones have been introduced: the name of King Sahlä Sellasé is now listed as “Sähäy” Sellasé, and in the Key to Author Abbreviations the name of the Reverend Albert Isaacs now appears as “Isaaccs”.


fig. 6

Such anomalies that escaped the editor’s eye are nonetheless relatively minor imperfections, given the scope, complexity and overall quality of this magnificent production, the 1988 version of which now sells secondhand on the internet at more than its original price, dealers asking several hundred dollars a piece for new specimens. Shama’s 2014 edition of Ethiopia Engraved, which this time around will be available in Ethiopia for local currency, is thus most welcome and will doubtless rapidly become a classic. An invaluable and beautifully presented compendium of the visual impressions of Ethiopia gained by diligent and observant travellers over a period of more than two centuries, it makes a wonderful gift, and deserves a place in the library – or on the coffee-table – of everyone with either a passing interest in, or a deep passion for, the fascinating land of Ethiopia.


fig. 1: Abba Gorgoreyos.

fig. 2: Emperor Téwodros II.

fig.3: King Ezana’s Stela.

fig. 4: Glimpses of the ancient Aksumite port of Adulis in the sixth century as seen by Cosmas Indicopleustes.

fig. 5: Gelada monkey.

fig, 6: Alfred Ilg.


Ian Campbell the author of the acclaimed Plot to Kill Graziani, Addis Ababa University Press 2011 and The Massacre of Debre Libanos, Addis Ababa University Press, 2014.


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Remembering Donald Levine

April 5, 2015

The Ethiopian Review of Books Is Saddened to Report the Passing of Donald Nathan Levine, Sociologist, Educator, Social Theorist and Ethiopianist DL Born in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1931 Donald Levine and attended the University of Chicago where he earned a BA in 1950, MA in 1954, and PhD in 1957. He also spent a formative year in Germany in 1952–1953 as the University’s first exchange student at the Goethe University of Frankfurt. Levine lived most of his 83 years in Chicago where he earned a doctorate in Sociology and attained the status of Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Chicago.* DL2 As chair of the staff of the Social Sciences, Levine reorganized the yearlong course into its current form as Self, Culture & Society. As founding Master of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division from 1965 to 1968, he introduced programs, including the African Civilization sequence and the Public Policy concentration program, that remain vital to this day. Levine was elected Chair of the Theory Section of the American Sociological Association in 1997, and for two decades served as editor of the University of Chicago Press’s Heritage of Sociology series. Levine serves on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Classical Sociology, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and Theory Culture and Society. DL1 Levine eventually received a Doctor of Letters honoris causa in 2004 from Addis Ababa University, where his citation read: “Ethiopianist, sociological theorist, educator: you have succeeded in all three vocations. Your pioneering work, Wax and Gold, has become an Ethiopian classic. As manifested in its title, yours is an exceptionally imaginative quest to reach an understanding of Amhara society from the internal point of view. The very concept of “Wax and Gold” has taken a life of its own: it figures at once in our understanding of Ethiopia’s pre-modern culture and in our coming to grips with Ethiopia’s reception of modernity. Greater Ethiopia draws attention to the deep fact that Ethiopian life is rooted in multicultural identities, and it also demonstrates the salient bonds that hold them together.” Selected Publications Include:

  • “Ethiopia’s Nationhood Reconsidered.” 2011. Análise Social, vol. XLVI, No. 199: 311–327.
  • “Ethiopia’s Missed Opportunities–1960, 1962, 1974, 1991, 1998, 2005–and Now: II.” 2007.
  • “Japan, Ethiopia, and Jamaica: A Century of Globally Linked Modernizations.” 2006. International Journal of Ethiopian Studies Vol. 2 No. 1.
  • “Reconfiguring the Ethiopian Nation in a Global Era,” 2005. Journal of Ethiopian Studies.
  • Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, revised edition. 2000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Amharic translation: Tiliqua Etyopya. 2001. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.
  • “Ethiopia and Japan in Comparative Civilizational Perspective.” 2001. Passages: Journal of Transnational and Transcultural Studies. Spring.pp
  • =* Biographical data gathered from Wikipedia=*cropped-banner.jpgp

The ERB Portrait Gallery

January 29, 2015

Emperor Téwodros II (1818-1868) – Derivative portrait by Bruce Strachan. Oil and mixed-media on board, 2014.

 . .

October 9, 2014


The Massacre of Debre Libanos

Reviewed by Bruce Strachan

canaldesuezThe 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, as Mr. Campbell points out, would have epic consequences. No longer would European merchant or naval vessels be forced to circumnavigate the African continent in order to access the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. As a result Germany, England, France and Italy staked claim to and subdivided much of East Africa and the Horn.

Ethiopia, when attempts to grab it were repelled during the First Italo-Abyssinian War (1895–1896), demonstrated exceptional capacity to preserve sovereignty under the inspired leadership of Menelik II. Four decades later however when Benito Mussolini rose to power a renewed nationalistic spirit swept across much of Italy, and with it a hankering to resume unfinished colonial initiatives from the past.


fig. 2

Italy consequently caused much alarm in 1934 by unlawfully establishing a garrison about 150 kilometres inside of Ethiopia’s borders at the oasis of Welwel. When the inevitable confrontation arose, it then brazenly undertook to portray itself as the aggressed – actually demanding reparations from Ethiopia for what had plainly been its own belligerence.

Although Italy’s actions were a preposterous violation of the League of Nations’ charter, the Machiavellian strategy of bullying and twisting truth actually proved effective when, in spectacular demonstration of that institution’s ineffectiveness, key members France and Great Britain essentially voted not to confront. Fear, and the wobbly foreign policy it produced, directed that if Mussolini was not handled with kid gloves he might retaliate by forming an alliance with the dreaded Adolph Hitler. ‘Appeasement’ Campbell explains, was therefore the ‘order of the day.’


fig. 3

Emperor Haile Selassie had a number of loyal and influential supporters in France and Britain – many of whom, it should be noted, vociferously objected to their governments’ stance, and the Emperor must therefore have felt most utterly betrayed on that historic and heavy June 1936 day when he admonished his fellow League delegates in Geneva. “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow!”

Meanwhile diplomatic foot dragging had the additional effect of giving Italy more time to beef up its military presence along Ethiopian borders, and in 1935 it launched an all out invasion, which with superior weaponry and an arsenal of chemical weapons, crushed Ethiopia in a few short months.


fig. 4

Nicknamed the Bucher of Tripoli, for his brutal earlier overseeing of Libyan concentration camps, General Rodolfo Graziani was appointed Viceroy of what, between the years 1936 and 1941, would then be known as Italian East Africa. An extreme hardliner who, in Campbell’s estimation, likely suffered from some degree of paranoia, Graziani was also noted to have held a low personal opinion of the people over whom he’d come to lord. Nevertheless, as Viceroy he was expected to perform occasional ceremonial tasks, and during one such public event in 1937 two members of the resistance made an attempt on his life.

Ethiopians remember the incident by its date 12 Yekatit – Orthodox calendar equivalent of the 19th of February. Incredibly, given that ten grenades were thrown, and that over three hundred individual shards of shrapnel were thrust into his body, the Viceroy managed to survive. Having lapsed into a coma however a subordinate named Guido Cortese took command and directly ordered the militia to rampage through the streets of Addis Ababa for three days, indiscriminately killing innocent Ethiopians and destroying their property at will. Unspeakable slaughter and destruction marked the ensuing seventy-two hours, which would come to be known as The Massacre of Addis Ababa – subject incidentally of Campbell’s next book, in which he likewise spares no unpleasant detail.


fig. 5

When Graziani regained consciousness several weeks later it was explained to him that his two would-be assassins had evaded capture and briefly gone into hiding at the Debre Libanos Monastery – roughly 100 kilometres north of Addis Ababa, before fleeing further afield. Despite his own investigation’s less than incriminating findings, Graziani nevertheless promptly jumped to the conclusion that Debre Libanos’ monks must therefore have been involved in the plot’s preparation. And in a response that was frenzied, ruthless and merciless, he ordered the monastery’s entire congregation put to death.

The sinister plan was implemented on the 20th of May – one of the monastery’s holiest days, commemorating the revered Saint Tekle Haymanot. Highest attendance could therefore be assuredresulting in, Graziani knew, maximum carnage. The unwitting faithful were corralled into the church, detained and then truck-loaded off to remote locations where they were systematically slaughtered by firing squads.


fig. 6

In his quest to obtain first hand testimonies Campbell made considerable effort to track down and interview surviving eyewitnesses – the result of which has produced some extraordinary interviews and enabled him to methodically calculate that perhaps as many as 2,200 nuns, monks, deacons and other congregants  may have been put to death during the Debre Libanos massacre – a number five times higher than that officially recorded by the Fascists.

It is not unusual for independent historians and official chroniclers to diverge over statistics arising out of conflict – particularly when the circumstances are as contentious as a crime against humanity, which the massacre of Debre Libanos most unquestionably was. Historians, educators and scholars will no doubt welcome the debate, destined to be created by Campbell’s adjusted figures – not for the sake of shaming the guilty, but purely as a matter of getting the record straight, which of course is the goal of the sincere historian.


fig. 7

Statistics however tell only part of a story. Of greater service perhaps is that testimonies in Campbell’s book bring some consolation and dignity to the massacre’s victims. Testimony for example, such as that from Mulatwa Yirgu now in her eighties, who remembered as a child watching in horror as monks were truck-loaded to one execution site before being led to a long shallow trench at the edge of which they were ordered to kneel. But as the firing squad took their positions and raised their rifles Mulatwa recalled that the doomed monks did something quite unexpected – they spontaneously burst into a defiant chorus of ululation – Ethiopian expression of jubilation that demonstrated their extraordinary moral superiority up until the very end.

With attestation such as this Campbell has returned a voice to the voiceless and The Massacre of Debre Libanos is therefore not only a crucial document of record, but also an extraordinary human tribute.

Meanwhile in Europe the appeasement approach to foreign policy proved ineffective, and in 1940 Mussolini and Hitler united to declare war on France and Great Britain – dreadfully fulfilling Emperor Haile Selassie’s us today, you tomorrow prediction.

Complementing his The Plot To Kill Graziani – released in 2010, this most recent volume is likewise an indictment against the impiety of Fascism, the cruelty of war, and the pomposity of colonialism.


The Massacre of Debre Libanos

By Ian Campbell

Addis Ababa University Press, 2014

534 Pages


fig. 1: Suez Canal. Photo by C Hormann 2007.

fig. 2: Benito Mussolini. Photographer Unknown.

fig. 3: Emperor Haile Selassie Addressing League of Nations delegates in Geneva.  Photographer Unknown.

fig. 4: May 1936 headlines: History Announced By Mussolini – War Is Over – Ethiopia is Italian

fig. 5: Rodolpho Graziani. Photographer Unknown.

fig. 6: Witness Debtera Zelege returns to massacre location at Fincha Wenz. Photo Ian Campbell 1994.

fig. 7: Debre Libanos Monastery. Photo by B. Strachan 2010

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ERB Photo Gallery

September 27, 2014
Billboard near Debre Zeit.   Photo by B Strachan

Billboard near Debre Zeit. Photo by B Strachan