The Lion of Zion, Part 2: Rastas and Revolutionaries

To read the first part of The Lion of Zion, click here.

We left Ethiopia on the verge of what historians call the Late Modern Period, which is somewhere in the late 1700s (because when you’ve been studying Egyptian tributaries or Inca agriculture for half your life you kind of lose perspective of what “recent” is). Perhaps it would be better to call it the Recognisable Age, because so many of the things our lives are based on – empirical science and automatic machinery, global diplomacy, mass politics and ideology- originated around then. They’re easy to take for granted but either didn’t exist or wouldn’t have been the same at all in an age of manpower and mercantilism and the divine right of monarchs. While it’s usually seen as a European thing, the Modern Age would have repercussions all over the world. In Ethiopia it would bring famines and boons, conquests and tragedies, bandit emperors and a son of God. It would begin in earnest, as many great sagas do, with a clash of kings.

I'm sorry, Tewodros II can't hear you over all the swag he has.

I’m sorry, Tewodros II can’t hear you over all the swag he has.

Sparked by a debatable line of succession – which coincidentally coincided with poor harvests, religious intolerance and a weak administration – the Ethiopian Age of Princes can be seen in the same light as the Time of Troubles in Russia a century earlier. Local nobles declared themselves Kings, Princes and Emirs in a battle royale for the…well, for the royalty, and the people of the country suffered massively. Muslim fought Christian, North fought South, and roving groups of bandits called Shifta fought freaking everyone. The Beta Israel even came out on top for a time, recreating their ancient Kingdom of Semien. It makes sense, in a conflict of local power, that the winners should be the ones who brought with them modernised, centralised structure. What makes less sense is that the winner would actually be one of the bandits. But Emperor Tewodros II was just that, a former Shifta and royal heir who – if you believe royal accounts – was basically Ethiopia’s Robin Hood figure before his systematic conquest of the petty states to restore order to the country in 1855. He was also, as it turns out, a sneaky moderniser – he asked for British weaponry and skills so he could “protect Christian interests on the borders of Victoria’s empire” and tried to separate the church from the state – and an impulsive badass – he filled his court with live Ethiopian Lions, a tradition that would last right up until the 1970s. But he was a new sort of Ethiopian leader, and like the new kind of Ethiopia he was far from stable. In his diplomacy with the British Empire, hindered already by Ethiopia’s unique alphabet and Britain’s obstinate refusal to ever learn anyone else’s language, he offended Queen Victoria’s aides, who decided to invade. Not wanting to be the Emperor who unified and destroyed Ethiopia in a single lifetime, Tewodros shot himself in his castle in 1868.

Ethiopia’s golden ticket of diplomacy worked worse in a secular, modern world – the “Prester John” card had failed, and protecting the Ethiopian Christians seemed less valuable to the Great Powers once they had become great enough to cross its mountains without habitually dropping dead. Ethiopia survived the British invasion only by installing a pro-British Emperor, who ironically had been given all the British supplies Tewodros had requested as payment, and life went on precariously. The rest of Ethiopia’s 19th century was spent expanding – expanding its army, expanding is borders, expanding its population. But it could only expand where there was space for it to do so, and the eyes of secular powers were still fixed on the now quite populous country. But one group of Westerners approached Ethiopia in a new light, and a unique light. Let’s give a warm, Holistic History welcome to Jamaica – and the movement who found God incarnate in Ethiopia.

Groundation Day: one hog away from a Bill Murray movie.

Groundation Day: Not to be confused with movies about Bill Murray’s repetitive life.

Ethiopia came under the control of Prince Tafari, later crowned as Halie Selassie, in 1916. Many saw him as another good Ethiopian diplomat – he had spoken out against the use of chemical weapons and for African independence at the League of Nations, and had become one of the most famous Africans in the world. But a literal reading of Bible verse had led some Jamaican Christians to believe he was something more. They believed he was nothing less than God in human form, and that Ethiopia was the “Zion” or holy land to the “Babylon” of the Western world. Combining Afrocentric philosophy, egalitarianism and the imperial colours of Ethiopia – red, yellow and green – they formed a religious movement which they named after the Prince which, in Amharic, made it “Ras Tafari”. Even more interesting is that Halie Selassie never accepted his role as God: he negotiated with Rastafari leaders, even offering them land to settle in Ethiopia, but remained a strict Coptic Christian his entire life. He visited Jamaica, an event still known as Groundation Day, but refused to speak to the crowd until the “cloud of ganja smoke” drifted away. Ras Tafari, the god who didn’t want to be, would spread his message of peace to a whole movement. But his mortal life was just as interesting.

In 1936, the Country That Couldn’t Be Conquered was occupied by that eternal latecomer to the imperial party, Italy – at the time, calling itself the New Roman Empire under the control of the prime minister and “Duke of Fascism” Benito Mussolini. The invasion would be one of Ethiopia’s bloodiest and most brutal, with both sides using illegal weaponry – the Ethiopians used expanding bullets, the Italians chemical weapons. The fight lasted for the whole of the Second World War, and Halie Selassie – from exile – raised the profile of Ethiopia considerably by denouncing the Italians. By the end of the war, with Italy’s defeat, Selassie’s diplomatic cunning allowed Ethiopia to annex Eritrea, a former Italian colony, and propelled it into being one of Africa’s most influential states, a model for the ambitious leaders of newly forming African nations. But Selassie, like so many of the leaders of post-war Africa, was good and dictatorial in equal measure. He passed the laws of Ethiopia, he took part in the nobles’ intrigue – he passed a law in 1967 which allowed him 75% of the country’s crops should he require it. In many ways, Selassie ran the country just like a pre-modern absolute monarch, right down to the Imperial Pillow-Bearer who carried cushions and bedding wherever he went. The modern world, however, is a world of ideology, and Ethiopia was about to experience one of the 20th century’s most dogmatic and powerful. In the ranks of an unhappy and powerful military, Communism was brewing.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

The Derg presented themselves as loyal servants to the Emperor. A group of army officers and generals, they claimed to be helping Selassie administer his country in his declining years. But one by one, imperial assets seemed to disappear – his shares in industry were taken by the state, his law-making powers transferred to the Derg. In 1975, they declared themselves the true rulers of Ethiopia, imprisoning Selassie in his own palace. Many claim he was killed by suffocation with one of the imperial pillows. The Derg then ran Ethiopia with as iron a fist, and a great deal more extravagance – borrowing money for ridiculous projects and personal gains under the leadership of Mengistu Halie Mariam that it could never sustain. In their attempts to retain power, they were also brutal. They are estimated to have killed between 30,000 and 500,000 people, most notably and first of all the communist Revolutionary Party that had been collecting mass support in secret under Selassie. Mengistu would later be found guilty of genocide, and his entire rule known as The Ethiopian Civil War. A great – and somewhat related – tragedy came in the Ethiopian Famine of 1984. Famine caused by drought is common in subtropical Ethiopia, but during this famine the Derg insisted on a large quota of all the grain grown. They also tried to use it to settle more Amhara Ethiopians – those of the ethnic majority – in the less populated south and, in many cases, simply starve potential rebels from other ethnicities to death. When international aid did arrive – thanks to Live Aid and the work of film-makers like Mohamad Amin, it did in huge amounts – it went too often into the hands of the Derg itself.

There are few absolute bad guys in history. To be honest, the Derg can be seen as an extreme continuation of Amharic Ethiopia’s expansion and conquest from the invader state of Dmt onwards. Tewodros II showed the benefit of the modern world’s centralised power, ideology and structure, the Derg merely showed the other side of the coin. But the Derg years, which lasted until Mengitsu was run out of office by an army composed mostly of Ethiopia’s minorities in 1991, were atrocious in a unique way. The way Ethiopia is seen today is mostly the result of these years. In reality, Ethiopia remains at the same time both unique in Africa and a totally interconnected part of it – it has a somewhat alien religion to some, and a somewhat alien alphabet, even a somewhat alien history, but it’s got the same ancient roots, the same astounding cultural diversity, and faced the same issues of independence and colonial power, albeit in a slightly different way. Ethiopia may seem to defy being put into boxes. But there’s some things that connect all across history, and no country shows it better.

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The Lion of Zion, Part 1: Ethiopia and Idiosyncracy

Ethiopia is a country that defies being put into boxes. It’s seen as one of the poorest countries in Africa, but it has the 12th highest GDP. It’s Christian in the majority, but about as close to Madagascar as Jerusalem, and it’s been that way for longer than Rome itself. It was home to the messiah of a world religion who never believed in the faith built around him, and it continues to contain the only part of Africa to have never belonged to “civilised” colonists from another continent. And despite its unique features, it’s likely the place where all human life originated, which is the kind of bragging right even Ancient Greece would envy. It might seem weird to look at Ethiopia holistically. You can’t generalise its history to the countries around it, you can’t really see themes and connectivity as clearly in a mountain kingdom that even the continent-conquering caliphs and imperialists left alone. But in a way Ethiopia is the best portrait of Africa you can get, not because it conforms, but because it’s so diverse and unusual. It’s so far from the stereotype of Africa as to make the stereotype look ridiculous, and if you start breaking preconceptions like that you can start to see the area less as a continent and more as a collection of states with individual needs, desires and histories. Welcome back to African history. But more specifically, welcome Ethiopia.

myrrh

Ethiopia and the Egyptians: One Frankincense short of a Nativity.

Ethiopia has been inhabited by humans since “inhabited by humans” meant “there are some tall, hairy monkeys here and when they’re not getting eaten by sabre tooth cats they’re actually pretty good at making tools”. The first records of civilisation there come much later, but considering that they were Ancient Egypt’s main source of myrrh and gold we can safely say that there’s been some kind of recognisable state there for  about 5,400 years. Originally occupying both sides of the Red Sea, what the Ancient Egyptians called Punt or Pwenet was a bountiful land of mountains, mummies and monkeys, but history about it kind of goes dark again when the Egyptians literally forgot that it was a real place (which seems ridiculous, but ask someone if Timbuktu is real and that suddenly gets more believable). In around 700BC, Ethiopia was rediscovered intact by settlers from what is now Yemen, who brought with them their kings, their genes and their alphabet to create the land of D’mt – incidentally, the genes and unique South Arabic alphabet remain in Ethiopia to this day, both long dead in their home country. At some indeterminate point later came the Beta Israel, a distinct ethnic group of black Jews who were either converted ethnic Ethiopians or southbound exiles from Jerusalem, who would become one of Ethiopia’s most interesting and unexpected minorities. But the first real records come from the Kingdom of Axum, a successor state of D’mt from around the turn of the first century AD. Axum, where D’mt created Ethiopian language and ethnicity, would create two of the most important traditions of Ethiopian history – Christianity, and diplomatically kicking ass.

prester

Prester John, like Jesus, evidently acquired the ability to turn from a Middle Eastern man into a white beardy guy to please Europeans.

Axum, truly the hipster of nations, was Christian before it was cool. It was one of the first Christian nations in the world, probably adopting it as a state religion before even the Roman Empire did (which, as we all know, they did in AD391). This early Christianity led to some interesting situations further down the line – including a rather ironic song that asks if Ethiopians even know it’s Christmas time, because they sure as hell knew before Bob Geldof’s ancestors did – and was probably the source of medieval European rumours about the Kingdom of Prester John, a mythical Christian utopia in the east surrounded by Muslim lands. It also led to an uneasy alliance with the Roman Empire, who bordered Ethiopia after they aggressively expanded towards each other. You can perhaps see why they got along. So diplomacy saved Ethiopia for not the last time, and brought the country back in touch with the Middle East via…well, via the via, because that’s literally the Roman word for road. In an ironic inversion of the D’mt invasion some 400 years earlier, the Ethiopians even teamed up with Rome to take over Yemen in the AD 600s, all the while growing as a regional power. But that power came at a cost, and Axum’s growth was threatened by its declining fertility and the slow advance of the Sahara desert. Axum couldn’t feed its population, couldn’t plant trees to match its deforestation, couldn’t survive the plagues that its burgeoning trade with the north brought it. Axum, again the hipster of nations, was destroyed by its declining environment 1,200 years before we began to worry that it could happen to us.

What replaced Axum was a series of monarchies and tribal divisions. Groups like the Beta Israel built their own towns and nations in the North, newly converted Muslims did the same in the East while the remaining Christians settled in the central highlands. But as the remnants of a now shattered Roman Empire in Africa and the Middle East were being eaten by the Islamic Caliphates, Ethiopia still managed to pull a legendary trick of diplomacy: because they had sheltered early Muslim refugees and promised to pose no threat to the Caliphate, the Prophet Muhammad specifically declared that attacking Ethiopia was against Islam. Ethiopia, where their old trading partners Egypt and Eastern Rome had fallen, remained unconquered throughout the Dark Ages.

What is remarkable was that that truce lasted, with one Ottoman-shaped exception, for the next millennium.

church ethiopia

When they’re not being churches, the carvings at Lalibela make for great helipads.

And so Ethiopia bumbled along peacefully for most of its existence. Under a new and unification-minded set of kings who traced their ancestry to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (to be fair, all you have to do to claim ancestry from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is 1: Be a King and 2: Say so) they built ridiculous underground rock churches, traded with the emerging powers of the time, even survived another threat to their independence in the 1500s – that is, the Ottoman-shaped exception – by enlisting the help of the Portuguese, who believed themselves to have found the real-life Kingdom of Prester John and were no doubt looking for all the Fountains of Eternal Youth and nubile white maidens that had been added to the legend over time. Even during the peak of colonisation, Ethiopia managed to retain its independence, but this time by being not particularly worth it – all rumours of Prester John dispelled, and without as much manpower and natural resources as, say, the Zimbabwe, but with a more modern army and mountains that could kick the shit out of a European soldier, the cost would have been greater than the prize. But Ethiopia’s years of peace would dry up as Axum’s farms had a millennium earlier. The modern age was blooming, and with it, modern threats. Solomon’s descendants still ruled. And they would go out with a bang.