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Gondär’s evolution to becoming the empire’s capital went hand in hand with the con- struction of pompous castles by members of the Gondärine royal family, supported by foreign builders. However, foreign presence left its marks not only in the capital’s archi- tecture, but also in the Jesuit missionary reports of the time. As the history was written mostly from the Portuguese point of view—and was thus affected by their inability to make clear distinctions between nationalities—it is difficult to ascertain the dimension of foreign involvement in the empire’s development. Furthermore, Ethiopian written sources also rather rarely mention the presence of färänǧ, and still less often distinguish them according to their provenance. As ‘history’ is usually written by the majority or victorious group this contribution challenges the written reports, confronting them with oral traditions.
Supplement to AethiopicA
International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies
Oral Traditions in Ethiopian Studies
Edited by
Alexander Meckelburg, Sophia Dege-Müller,
Dirk Bustorf
Harrassowitz Verlag
This volume offers an extended collection of essays, some of which were
first presented at a panel on Oral Traditions in Ethiopian Studies held at
the 18th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies in Dǝrre Dawa in
September 2012. The panel asked to investigate the suggestion that, in the
history of Ethiopian studies, reflection on the methodology of orality did
not receive the attention it deserves, given its importance in many fields
of research. Still the core matter of this Supplement to AethiopicA is to
follow up on how Ethiopian studies deal with oral texts as historical and
(in the widest sense of the word) ethnographic sources. The editors and
authors question the methods and styles used in the study of oral sources,
and provide methodological, theoretical, and empirical insights into the
work with orality in Ethiopian studies. Thirteen field cases and an in-
troduction investigate, among others, the history of orality research, the
interplay of written and oral evidence, methods of working in purely oral
societies, and explore genres of oral traditions and orality in Ethiopia.
Oral Traditions in Ethiopian Studies
Supplement to Aethiopica.
International Journal of Ethiopian
and Eritrean Studies
Edited in the Asien-Afrika-Institut
Hiob Ludolf Zentrum für Äthiopistik
Abteilung für Afrikanistik und Äthiopistik
der Universität Hamburg
Series Editor: Alessandro Bausi
in cooperation with Bairu Tafla, Ulrich Braukämper,
Ludwig Gerhardt, and Hilke Meyer-Bahlburg
Harrassowitz Verlag · Wiesbaden
Oral Traditions in Ethiopian Studies
Edited by
Alexander Meckelburg, Sophia Dege-Müller,
Dirk Bustorf
Harrassowitz Verlag · Wiesbaden
Veröffentlicht mit Unterstützung der Hamburgischen Wissenschaftlichen Stiftung.
© Otto Harrassowitz GmbH & Co. KG, Wiesbaden 2018
This book, including all of its parts, is protected by copyright.
Any use beyond the limits of copyright law without the permission of the publisher is forbidden and
subject to penalty. This applies particularly to reproductions, translations, microfilms and storage
and processing in electronic systems.
On the front cover (left to right): blessing for peace (Abore, 2007; photo courtesy of E. C. Gabbert),
Fasil Gǝmb (drawing with pen and watercolour, Gondär, April 1999; courtesy of M. J. Ramos); note
taking during interview with Opuo elders (Wanke, Itang wäräda, Gambella, October 2006; photo
courtesy of A. Meckelburg); peace workshop’s ritual slaughtering and final blessings (Abore, 2007;
photo courtesy of E. C. Gabbert).
On the spine: Bible students in Wǝro Maryam (Wǝro Maryam, Tǝgray, September 2005; photo
courtesy of A. Meckelburg).
On the back cover (left to right): Gwama men members of a work party drinking local beer (Lake
qäbälä, Mao-Komo special wäräda, September 2011; photo courtesy of A. Meckelburg); Kara elders
debating the merits of irrigation (Dus, Hamär wäräda, SNNPR, October 2006; photo courtesy of F.
Girke); the ethnographer immersed in the debates of the Nyinyankot age set (Dus, Hamär wäräda,
November 2004; photo courtesy of F. Girke); Sceriffa ʿAlawiyya among Muslim leaders (Piola Case-
lli Archive in Rome, around 1930; photo courtesy of S. Bruzzi).
Printing and binding by Memminger MedienCentrum Druckerei und Verlags-AG.
Printed on permanent/durable paper.
Typesetting and copy editing: xxxx
Printed in Germany
ISSN xxx
ISBN xxxx
Oral Traditions in Ethiopian Studies
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments ........................................................................................... v
Oral Traditions in Ethiopian Studies ................................................................. 1
MANUEL JOÃO RAMOS, Castle Building in
SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia) ......................................................... 25
ANAÏS WION, Memory and Oblivion in the History
of Gonǧ Monastery (16701750):
The Paradoxes of Qǝbat Historiography .......................................................... 43
HANNA RUBINKOWSKAANIOŁ, Between Oral and Written Tradition:
A Vision of the State during the Times of aylä Śǝllase I ........................ 65
ÉLOI FICQUET, The Life and Deeds of Ras Wädaǧe,
Lord of Amhara from c.1720 to 1760: Edition of an Oral Account
Recorded by Arnauld dAbbadie in the 1840s ................................................. 81
SILVIA BRUZZI, Gendering Italian ProIslamic Policy
in Ethiopia (19361941) through the Prism of Oral and Visual Sources .... 117
DIRK BUSTORF, Religious Identity Claims and Historical Consciousness
in Myths of Origin among the Gurage, Ethiopia ............................................ 139
FESSEHA BERHE, The Dobʾa in Light of Oral Traditions
from Eastern and Southern Tǝgray .................................................................... 163
CHIKAGE OBASMIDT, Poetry and Oral Historiography:
An Analysis of the Boorana Oral Chronicle in Southern Ethiopia ............. 185
ANDREAS WETTER, The Origin of Two Argobba Villages
in SouthEastern Wällo: The Tradition of Abbayye Kulubas
and Abbayye Fäqi Amäd .................................................................................. 213
ECHI CHRISTINA GABBERT, Journey in Translation or
Translating Silences: Reflections on the Documentation
and Interpretation of Oral Sources ..................................................................... 243
FELIX GIRKE, The Triangle of Orality: On Language, Culture,
and Fieldwork in South Omo ............................................................................. 267
Table of Contents
MEZGEBU BELAY, Feuding and the Myth of Masculinity
as Expressed through the Traditional Verbal Arts
in Eastern Goǧǧam, Amhara Region ................................................................ 293
BAYLEYEGN TASEW, The Mythically Modelled
HumanEnvironment Tradition
of the Maǧaŋgir Society, SouthWestern Ethiopia .......................................... 307
List of Contributors .................................................................................... 327
Index ............................................................................................................ 331
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
Gondär’s evolution to becoming the empire’s capital went hand in hand with the con-
struction of pompous castles by members of the Gondärine royal family, supported by
foreign builders. However, foreign presence left its marks not only in the capital’s archi-
tecture, but also in the Jesuit missionary reports of the time. As the history was written
mostly from the Portuguese point of viewand was thus affected by their inability to
make clear distinctions between nationalitiesit is difficult to ascertain the dimension of
foreign involvement in the empire’s development. Furthermore, Ethiopian written
sources also rather rarely mention the presence of färänǧ, and still less often distinguish
them according to their provenance. As ‘history’ is usually written by the majority or
victorious group this contribution challenges the written reports, confronting them with
oral traditions.
Introduction: Between the Interstices of Hegemonic Discourse
In the late 1940s, Mr Armando Aguiar, a Portuguese journalist, toured Afri-
ca and Asia sending home reports testifying to extant memories of the real
or imagined lusophone presence in those parts during the socalled Age of
Discovery. These reports, dedicated to the architectural and cultural herit-
age that resulted from centuries’ old interactions between Portuguese over-
seas merchants, military and ecclesiastical groupings, were regularly pub-
lished in the newspaper Diário de Notícias, in the mid1950s, catering to the
official nationalistic discourse, enhancing the relevance of past deeds of the
Portuguese in the world.
In 1949, Aguiar arrived in Addis Abäba, the capital of Ethiopia, and
made contact with a small group of Indiansmerchants, teachers, and med-
ical professionalswho had recently migrated to that country from the
Portuguese possessions of Goa and Diu, attracted by King Ḫaylä Śǝllase’s
(rather feeble) modernizing and developing efforts. In an emotional speech
at a dinner in honour of the Portuguese journalist, the Goan medical doctor
José Alfredo Antão, in the name of the community, appealed for Mr
Aguiar’s help in publicizing the historical ties between the two countries
and in interesting the Portuguese authorities in the prospect of further mi-
gration from the Estado da Índia to Ethiopia. Mr Antão argued that integra-
Manuel João Ramos
tion would be facilitated by the country’s millennial adherence to the Chris-
tian faith.
Mr Aguiar duly accepted this task and went on to report on the ancient
LusoEthiopian ties and on the good disposition of Ethiopians toward the
Portuguese, in his column of the Diário de Notícias and later in a report on
the Goan diaspora in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In this report,
he pressed the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs to consider the possi-
bility of inducing migration from the Portugueseruled Indian possessions
to Ethiopia.1 This project found ready listeners in the Portuguese central
administration, which, given the winds of independence in the postwar
world, had begun to revisit its options on the state of the country’s relations
with its African colonies, and was searching for political alliances that could
help sustain the survival of its ‘overseas empire’.
At about the same period, the noted Ethiopian historian Täklä Ṣadǝq
Mäkwǝriya, then holding a post in his country’s embassy in Paris, published
a book on Ethiopia’s premodern history. In the section dedicated to the
sixteenth century’s political and religious tensions that imperilled the Abys-
sinian Christian sovereigns’ rule, it enhanced the importance of the Portu-
guese military expedition headed by Cristóvão da Gama, Vasco da Gama’s
youngest son, which had landed in Ethiopia to fight the invading Adʿali
armies led by Imām Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm alĠāzī, who, had declared a ǧihād
against the Christian kingdom of the Ethiopian highlands.
This brief PortugueseEthiopian diplomatic relationship that lasted from
1954 to 1963 was ideologically framedon the side of the Lisbon govern-
ment at leastby an overly selective reading of historical evidence concern-
ing the interactions between Portuguese, Indians, and Ethiopians in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Goa viceroyalty had played
a prominent role in controlling political, religious, and economic routes and
territories in Asia and East Africa.
The rhetorical confusion between the sociological categories of the Por-
tuguese and the Indians, and the latter’s subordination to the former, fea-
tured prominently in Mr Antão’s speech in 1949, where he identified the
Goan community as ‘Portuguese’. This is not surprising, given the conse-
quences of Portuguese domination over a few tracts of Indian western
coastal territory since the early sixteenth century, as well as the effect of the
Portuguese dictatorial regime’s propaganda that relied on the antiquity of
the Portuguese overseas presence to legitimize the assimilation of its coloni-
al subjects to the hegemonic category of the Portuguese’.
1 Lisbon, Ministério dos Negócios Estrangeiros, Arquivo Diplomático, documentos
desclassificados, AAA.M.736 (1956).
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
Such hegemonic subordination echoes the authoritative writings of the
Jesuit missionaries who landed in Ethiopia in 1550, in the wake of the Por-
tuguese military intervention of the 1540s, with the project of converting
the Ethiopian Orthodox rulers and population to Catholicism. Even if indi-
vidual Indians or the collective category of ‘Banyans’ are sporadically men-
tioned in their letters and books, the diplomatic and religious affairs of the
foreign presence in Ethiopia was basically seen as a Portuguese enterprise.
The fact that this persistent discursive framework is mostly based on
Portuguese diplomatic and religious writings makes it very difficult to as-
sess the nature and extension of a Goan or Gujarati presence in Ethiopia in
that periodjust as its revival in the 1950s hinders the evaluation of precise-
ly who the members of the ‘Portuguese’ community in Ethiopia were.2
Ethiopian written documents are also of little help, since, for that period,
either they vaguely mention the presence of färänǧ in the country,3 and
more rarely of Banyan (vâniyân, Gujarati Jains), or go on to name individu-
al prominent figures such as the Portuguese Catholic patriarch Afonso
Mendes. He is credited with having assisted the conversion of the Ethiopian
king Susǝnyos (r 1606–1632) to the Catholic faith, though he was later ex-
pelled from the country by that ruler’s son, King Fasilädäs (r 1632–1667),
who, it is believed, endeavoured to extirpate Catholic influence in the coun-
try and to promote the return to Orthodoxy.
Oral traditions from northern Ethiopia, the region where foreign Catho-
lic missionaries and military men were active in the sixteenth and early sev-
enteenth centuries, are no more eloquent than the written documents on the
presence of Indians. Almost no direct information is given that might oth-
erwise encourage the investigation of clear material evidence of commercial
interaction between Ethiopia and western Indianamely, the presence of
Indian textiles in church buildings and books, or a yet to be researched ar-
tistic influence on Ethiopian iconographic art.4 Therefore, it may be useful
to investigate oral traditions in search of indirect and implicit indications
regarding such ties.
What Ethiopian oral narrators mean when they refer to the Portuguese’
is, at least today, rather dubious. They seem to have little or no knowledge
of the origin of the foreigners and of the reasons for their arrival in Ethiopia
beyond the clichéd notion that they, being Christian, were somehow sum-
2 The dispersion of the Goan migrants in Africa and the Arabic peninsula following
the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 (and the abdication of Ḫaylä Śǝllase) has not
helped the authors’ tentative efforts at collecting oral testimonies on this community.
3 Färänǧ means both ‘foreign’ and ‘white’, and is used by Ethiopian storytellers to
identify both ‘Europeans’ and ‘Turks’, within this regional legendary tradition.
4 See Chojnacki 2003; Gervers 2004; Henze 2004.
Manuel João Ramos
moned to help the Abyssinian kingship resist the Muslim invasions originat-
ing in the southeastern lowlands. In some of the interviews I conducted in
Amhara and Tǝgray in recent years, it seemed clear that at least a few of the
informants tended to enrich their stories with information directly or indi-
rectly originating from the books of the late Täklä Ṣadǝq Mäkwǝriya. I was
once even presented with a photocopy of an illustration from the first vol-
ume of his Yäʾityoya tarik, where Cristóvão da Gama is depicted tied to a
tree and surrounded by Muslims torturing him.5 This image, which has
even made its way into the naive popular paintings that reached Addis
Abäba’s tourist market in the 1960s and 1970s, was inspired by a reading of
the narrative of the Dos Feitos do Capitão Cristóvão da Gama, by Captain
Miguel de Castanhoso, one of the participants in the 1540s Portuguese ex-
Furthermore, as IndoAmerican researcher Shaalini Ranasinghe has clev-
erly noted in her unpublished PhD thesis The Castle of Emperor Fasilädäs:
Missionaries, Muslims, and Architecture in Gondär, Ethiopia,6 presentday
oral traditions in Gondär have most probably absorbed an interpretation
initially put forward by midnineteenthcentury travellers of Western
origin, in referring to the Portuguese’ as the builders of Fasilädäs’ castle. As
was then common, the notion that African civilizations had the technologi-
cal and inventive ability to master the complex tasks of designing and build-
ing large monumental infrastructures was not accepted. It was then prefera-
ble to attribute such construction either to Middle Eastern or European
This was certainly the case of the enigmatic ruins of the Great Zimba-
bwe. In Ethiopia, Jesuit missionaries have themselves actively forged a leg-
endary view that stresses their own decisive intervention as architects and
builders of stone and mortar Catholic churcheseven though they re-
frained from extending their activity to the royal castles built during the
period when they were most influential in the Abyssinian court.7 As Rana-
singhe reminds us, ‘foreigners’ easily became ‘Portuguese’ and any local oral
memory specifying a different origin was lost forever.
Her subsidiary contention, which seems at times somewhat farfetched,
is that an Indian architect and mason known as Manuel Magro,8 was no
5 Täklä Ṣadǝq Mäkwǝriya 1954/1955, 201.
6 Ranasinghe 2001, 179–181.
7 Boavida et al. 2008, 3638.
8 Manuel Magro is mentioned in Jesuit writings as the introducer of mortar as a bind-
ing element in the church of Gännätä Iyäsus, in Azäzo, a royal camp established by
Susǝnyos in the vicinity of Gondär, which preceded the construction of Fasilädäs’
castle in Gondär by at least fifteen years.
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
other than ʿAbdalkarīm. This Gujarati is mentioned in the surviving copy of
the Chronicle of Susǝnyos, and therein loosely identified as a Banyan, who is
credited with having drawn up the king’s residential buildings, along with
an Egyptian charged with producing its woodwork.9 Ranasinghe goes so far
as to note that the Christianized, and Westernized, name of the Gujarati
mason had probably been given by the Jesuit missionaries who contracted
him to go to Ethiopia, and that, after their expulsion from the country, he
stayed on and reassumed his Muslim identity.10 She makes no mention,
though, of the fact that it seems somewhat unlikely that a Banyan, a trader,
would be charged with courtly architectural or building tasks. However, a
surviving icon of the socalled first Gondärine period seems to portray a
reference found in the Chronicle of Susǝnyos to Egyptian and Banyan build-
ers: it shows two Middle Eastern and/or Oriental foreigners involved, not
in the construction of churches for Susǝnyos, but in building his son
Fasilädäs’ castle. They wear Turkishstyle turbans, tunics, vests, and baggy
pants and are depicted in the same way as the Roman soldiers that hammer
nails into Christ’s head, in a wellknown variation of the socalled Kwǝrʿatä
rǝʾǝsu icon.11
Speculative as the Manuel MagroʿAbdalkarīm connection may be, it
evolves around two independent pieces of information (Ethiopian and Jesu-
it) referring to the presence of Gujarati masons, accompanying the Jesuit
mission to Ethiopia. We learn of this period when royal buildings of stone
and mortar began to be erected in the northwestern regions of Gondär and
Goǧǧam mentioned the Chronicle of Susǝnyos and the writings of Father
Manuel de Almeida.12 The PortugueseIndian style used in the construction
of some of the Catholic churches around Lake Ṭana, and specially its deco-
rative elements, may be a further material sign of a relevant Gujarati pres-
ence in northern Ethiopia at the time. In this respect, it is worth mentioning
the noted similarities between the monumental church of Gorgora Nova,
on the shores of Lake Ṭana, and the church of Saint Paul in Diu, western
Gujarat. The rich Gujaratistyle decorations on the walls and columns of
the royal church of Märṭulä Maryam, in eastern Goǧǧam, and the structure
of the royal leisure pavilions built on rectangular water basins in the royal
compounds of Azäzo (Susǝnyos) and of Gondär (Fasilädäs) also evoke such
9 Pereira 1892, 224; Pereira 1900, 290.
10 Ranasinghe 2001, 235.
11 The Kwǝrʿatä rǝʾǝsu icon (‘the striking of his head’) is a local interpretation of the
Ecce Homo motif that can be traced back to a painting of clear mannerist style that
art historians generally accept was probably offered to the Ethiopian king by the Por-
tuguese embassy of 1520. Cf. also Chojnacki 2003, 1619.
12 Almeida 1907, 390; Pereira 1892, 224; Pereira 1900, 290.
Manuel João Ramos
comparisons. Although such material clues seem sufficient to establish a
comparative architectural research programme, this is yet to be carried out.
Although they have not retained any specific information about the iden-
tity of ‘foreign’ builders of royal architectural structures, nevertheless oral
narratives abound in details with respect to the goals and intentions of Ethi-
opian royalty concerning the construction of stone and mortar buildings. A
practice that, having been recorded in Aksumite times some thirteen centu-
ries previously, was subsequently abandoned, along with the implied
knowledge of producing mortar from kaolin stone. What is proposed here
is a brief glance at the ideological framework of these oral traditions, in
order to find an interpretative window on narrative uses of the concept of
‘foreigner’ in northern Ethiopia. It will eventually help us define, even if the
evidence is only circumstantial, what is implied in categories such as ‘the
Portuguese’, ‘the Italians’, ‘the Banyans’, and so on.
Foreigners and Other Marginal Figures in Northern Ethiopian Legends
The ancient gǝbbi of Azäzo,13 founded in the early seventeenth century, lies
on the northern slope of a small hill a few miles from the city of Gondär, in
the northern Amhara region of the Ethiopian highlands. The ruins of the
kings castle compound, the Catholic church of Gännätä Iyäsus (‘Paradise
of Jesus), and the royal pavilion built over a rectangular leisure basin are all
that is left of these buildings today. The extensive destruction of these struc-
tures testifies to the eventful and sometimes tragic history of relations be-
tween the religious and secular powers in Christian Ethiopia. This gǝbbi,
which precedes the foundation of the capital city of Gondär, was estab-
lished during an important turning point in the political, religious, and ar-
chitectural history of the Abyssinian Christian kingdom. Built by order of
King Susǝnyos in the early 1620s, it was, like the one of Dänqäz, 30 km to
the southeast, the stage of dramatic events setting the sovereign and the
newly empowered Catholics against the Orthodox monastic order of Däb
Libanos. Echoing canonical historical views, local oral traditions vividly
narrate episodes of a disastrous civil war that supposedly ended with the
abdication of King Susǝnyos and the ascension to the throne of his son
Fasilädäs, as well as the restoration of the Orthodox faith as the official
creed of Christian Ethiopia. The oral sources contradict the written ones
(though the latter are taken as canonical for the construction of modern
Abyssinian political and religious history). Oral tradition, on the other
hand, claims that the new king did not immediately end the great social
upheaval caused by his fathers public declaration of obedience to the Ro-
13 i.e. the royal compound of the Abyssinian kings.
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
man pontiff and his acceptance of Catholic dogma brought to the country
by a handful of Jesuit missionaries in 1624. Rather, these legendary tales
underline the fact that the first years of Fasilädäs’ reign were marked by the
murder of thousandsof Däbrä Libanosmonks and priests. They had re-
fused to sanction his marriage to an Italian princess named Zelyha who had
been originally sent by the ‘king of Rometo marry Susǝnyos, who was by
then deceased.
One of these oral versions was published in the 1930s by Alberto Pollera,
and I have myself recorded a few other, both in the urban setting of
Gondär/Azäzo and in rural villages, convents, and churches around the city
and Lake Ṭana.14 Stories about Aṣe Fasil (King Fasilädäs) are to this day
told not only by Christian Amhara but also by the few Betä Ǝsraʾel who did
not migrate to Israel, by Gondärine Muslims (a community as old as the
city’s foundation) and by urban and rural Kǝmant.15 Qǝbat believers in and
around Märṭulä Maryam and Däbrä Tabor, in eastern Goǧǧam, also men-
tion Fasilädäs in their repertoire of afä tarik (‘oral history’).
Depending on the storyteller and the location, the number of killed
monks is as high as 9,999 or as low as 7,777; the Roman princess travels to
Ethiopia alone or with a sister (who is also made to marry the lustful King
Fasilädäs, or Fasil); if the story is set in Gondär and not in Azäzo, the seven
rivers that surround the city become red with the monks’ blood, and this
collective sacrifice marks the moment of the foundation of the royal capital.
The composite outline of the various stories told in Azäzo and in Gondär
is as follows. After becoming king, Susǝnyos established his court in the
region and ordered that a bath be built (a rectangular basin located in a val-
ley between the hill of Gännätä Iyäsus and that of Täklä Haymanot’s con-
vent). Being both very lustful and very hairy, he would have frequent sexual
intercourse with young women who he then killed so that his shameful
bodily condition would not become publicly known (or, he resorted to
shaving his whole body in that bath, including his bushy pubic hair). He
renounced the Orthodox faith and submitted to the Roman pope, under the
influence of färänǧ missionaries. Subsequently, he ordered the forceful con-
version of his vassals to the Catholic faith. Thereafter, he suffered greatly:
he became afflicted with a skin disease and his tongue swelled to the point
where he could not speak. In this period, a slave girl who was known for
being holy was living in the royal court. When her time came to sleep with
14 Pollera 1936, 7678; Ramos 2000.
15 Kǝmant are a group of Christianized Agäw, who are both linguistically and religious-
ly related to the Betä Ǝsraʾel. They constitute an Agäw farmer population, whose
original theology is a mix of Jewish, Christian and pagan dogmas and Eucharistic
Manuel João Ramos
Susǝnyos, she invoked her low birth as a reason not to see the king’s naked
body, for she guessed that the reason he killed his sexual partners was to
keep his bodily condition secret. Susǝnyos agreed to keep his clothes on
while having intercourse with her. When, afterwards, he was about to order
her death, she said to him that there was no reason for him to kill her since
he had not disclosed his secret. Not only did he spare her life but, bewil-
dered by her ruse, he agreed to take her healing advice, which was to return
to the Orthodox faith and resign in favour of his son Fasil. He died soon
after having abdicated in favour of his son Fasilädäs. His body was buried in
the church of Ṭara Gädam Maryam, but kept resurfacing and poisoning the
soil. Finally, the earth opened and his body was swallowed and pulled di-
rectly into hell. He had arranged to marry the daughter of the Roman king
to seal his submission to the pope. But, when she arrived in Ethiopia (with
her sister), he had already died and his son was now king. Since Fasilädäs
shared the same sexual appetites (and suffered the same hairy condition), he
decided to marry her (and her sister). The monks and däbtäras (Church
laymen) of the Orthodox monastic order of Däbrä Libanos opposed the
king’s marriage to the foreign princess and were slaughtered by the royal
army. As his father, Fasilädäs was cursed by God (the foreign builders of
his castle could not erect it) and finally redeemed by a saintly slave woman
who told him to repent and build either two churches or seven bridges.
Once these were built, angels from heaven completed the castle themselves.
The story is reminiscent of a much older narrative, included in the thir-
teenthcentury book known as the Kǝbrä nägäśt (or Glory of Kings), where
a hyperexogamous union between Makǝdda, the Queen of Sheba, and
Solomon, the biblical king of Israel, sets the scene for the foundation of
early Abyssinian royalty.16 Of particular interest to us here are, on the one
hand, the reference to the färänǧ missionaries and builders and, on the oth-
er, the riddle of the slave saint and the marriage of the Roman princess(es).
It is also worth noting that these pseudohistorical narratives told by
Christian Amhara reveal as much as they conceal. In a metaphorical way,
they contain memories both of the complex political, military or indeed
cultural turmoil that the regionand the whole Abyssinian kingdom
experienced during the period of Susǝnyos and Fasilidäs’ reigns. These
times were framed by the migration to, settlement in, and raiding of the
highlands by hundreds of thousands of Oromo pastoralists, as well as by
the international connections promoted by Ethiopian royalty. One such
involved the intensive correspondence between the Portuguese kings and
16 Boavida and Ramos 2005; Spencer 1979.
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
the Portuguese Indian viceroys; another was with the Emirate of Yemen
that led to the arrival of a Yemenite embassy in Gondär in the 1650s.17
Although the Muslim and Kǝmant versions that I have collected also
make no note of this, nonetheless, they introduce interesting additional and
divergent information about the Christian kingship of the time. As ex-
pected, they tend to emphasize (or even overemphasize) the role of the
Kǝmant in the foundation of Azäzo and/or Gondär, in the construction of
the royal palaces and in the import of Asian textiles. Yet they also give im-
portant hints as to the need to revise the official Orthodox historiography
that tends to overlook these communities’ contribution to the birth and
development of the city, and to silence the complexities of the theological
rivalries between the adepts of different religious parties. The Täwaḥǝdo or
‘Unionists’, the Qǝbat or ‘Unctionists’, the ägga or ‘Gracists’, among oth-
ers, were all vying for royal favour in the Gondärine court of seven-
teenth/eighteenthcentury Ethiopia.
The stories regarding Aṣe Susǝnyos and Aṣe Fasilädäs in the region north
of Gondär are complemented by a series of otherstold in eastern
Goǧǧam, in the southern part of the Amhara regionthat give further de-
tails about the running conflict between royal power and Orthodox reli-
gious authorities. Both these oral stories and the surviving written docu-
ments of that time suggest Fasilädäs’ (and subsequent kings’) somewhat
embarrassing association with the followers of the Qǝbat creed. This hither-
to heretical doctrine within Ethiopian Orthodoxy is almost extinct today,
except in a few rural eastern Goǧǧam communities (namely in Ǝnǝbse dis-
Reminiscences of the improbable marriage between an Ethiopian ruler
and the daughter(s) of the ‘Roman king’ and of their descendants seem to
have been retained in popular oral narratives. They are hardly conform to
the Orthodox historiographical canon that has long tended to suppress any
documentary evidence of internal dissension within the Christian communi-
ty and to overstress the foreign missionaries’ responsibility in destabilizing
the kingdom. Nor is the marriage confirmed by any documentary evidence.
Still, it is widely accepted in this part of the country that Fasilädäs and
‘Zelyha’ conceived a daughter, whom they named Säblä Wängel, frequently
associated with the construction of religious settlements in Goǧǧam and
alluding to the promotion of the Qǝbat sectarian movement.18
17 Donzel 1986, 149151.
18 The Qǝbat doctrine, developed in Goǧǧam among Ewosṭatean convents (followers of
the dictum of Saint Ewosṭatewos), had been a rival force to that of the Order of
Däbrä Libanos since the fifteenth century. There are some indications that Qǝbat
may be related to the presence of Western Catholicism in the Ethiopian highlands in
Manuel João Ramos
The stories regarding the slave girl and the Roman princess are but two
small parts in an interwoven network of legendary stories dealing with roy-
al legitimacy, religious identity, and dynastic change in seventeenthcentury
Christian Ethiopia, where the often tense relations between the kings and
the Church are under scrutiny. Zelyha belongs to a gallery of complemen-
tary marginal figures (either foreign or indigenous) who occasionally get
close to royal power; these include Portuguese, Indian and/or Egyptian
castle builders, foreign ecclesiastics, giant snakes, slave women, and holy
men (Christian and/or Muslim). The message that the episode of the mar-
riage between Fasil and Zelyha seems to convey cannot be properly under-
stood without comparison with stories concerning these other peculiar fig-
ures. These characters are largely of two kinds: marginal demonical figures
that induce or express the fall from graceof the king (stressing his evil
side); and saintly characters whose presence and action are instrumental in
the king’s redemption (or its attempt).
From the early sixteenth century to the midseventeenth century Ethio-
pian Orthodox Christianity was directly confronted with European Cathol-
icism. Western travellers, warriors, and missionaries entered the Christian
Abyssinian royal court with a highly ideological project. We can trace this
back to the crusading disposition of the Portuguese kingship,19 and to the
extraordinary attention this country received in Ignatius of Loyola’s (the
founder of the Society of Jesus) letters detailing the order’s missionary
plans.20 This endeavour was rooted in a loose identification of the Ethiopian
sovereign with the legendary priestly king known in medieval Europe as
Prester John of the Indies.
The Portuguese accounts21 offer us an alternative model which, when
confronted with cultural and religious differences, includes both the disen-
chantment, and the effort to see Christian Ethiopian political administrative
and religious structures as conforming to the ‘lost’ model of Prester John.
This is especially visible in the second Jesuit mission which was the back-
the early years of the seventeenth century, see Bartnicki and MantelNiećko 1978;
Getatchew Haile 1986; Getatchew Haile 1990; Wion 2004, 2224. Most discussions
(where the Jesuits confronted representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodoxy) centred
around the Christological theme, and the definition of the relation between the Son’s
humanity and divinity. Dogmatic differences between Qǝbat and Täwaḥǝdo may be
viewed as having been distilled from such discussions, since what opposed (and op-
poses) them was precisely the consideration of how Jesus’ humanity and divinity
came to be united.
19 Subrahmanyam 1997, 258.
20 Pennec 2003.
21 Rodrigo de Lima’s embassy (15201526), Cristóvão da Gama’s expedition (1540
1543), and the two Jesuit missions (15551590, 16031634).
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
ground to the conversion of Susǝnyos, the nomination of a Catholic patri-
arch for Ethiopia, and the Catholic influence on Ethiopian architecture,
religious art, and on the political reforms of the kingdom attempted in the
first decade of the seventeenth century. The final texts of the mission return,
with a vengeance, to the disenchantment mode, where barbarism, heresy,
and diabolism become the driving descriptors of the country (in particular,
in Manuel de Almeida, Afonso Mendes, and Jerónimo Lobo).22
It is most interesting that the written Ethiopian documentation for this
period has been either manipulated, suppressed, or iswhen keptvery
combative in defence of the Orthodox point of view. This is particularly so
for the reign of King Fasilädäs, heir of the ‘Catholic’ king Susǝnyos, who is
generally considered the restorer of the Orthodox faith and founder of the
city of Gondär (that progressively became the royal residence, until the
midnineteenth century); however an important written record is missing:
the extended chronicle of the king.23 Nevertheless, later kings’ chronicles
present relevant data that help interpret Gondär’s early period, and a few
versions of abridged chronicles are also known (based on nkǝssar, i.e.
calendars for the commemoration of saints); furthermore, contemporary
texts such as the Gädlä Wälättä eṭros or the records of the Qǝbat synod of
1658 in Aringo, Goǧǧam, promoted by Fasilädäs himself, are important aids
to the study of Gondär’s foundation.
A number of oral versions of Fasilädäs’s life do exist, but they hardly
conform to the historiographical versions taken as canonical for the con-
struction of modern Abyssinian political and religious history. One was
published in the 1930s by Alberto Pollera.24 Furthermore, I myself have
recorded a few more both in the urban setting of Gondär/Azäzo and in
rural villages, convents, and churches around the city and Lake Ṭana.25
The oral traditions collected in Gondär and its vicinity, in Goǧǧam and
in northern Tǝgray, offer a number of examples of the construction of a
‘foreign’ topos, connected either with opposing Christian identities (Catho-
lic vs Orthodox, Täwaḥǝdo vs Qǝbat) or with technological competence
(military or architectural). It must be stressed that these oral traditions are
not unconnected to the written. Often, the storytellers, keepers of oral tra-
ditions (especially priests and church laymen), switch between oral reinter-
pretation of written sources, oral reproduction of written transcriptions of
oral legends, autonomous oral accounts, as well as outright separation be-
tween oral and written forms of legitimizing traditional narratives.
22 See Ramos 2006, 125127.
23 Kropp 1984.
24 Pollera 1936, 7678.
25 See Ramos 2000.
Manuel João Ramos
Examples of the foreign topos in northern Ethiopian legendary tradition
are either relevant historical figures, found in more or less detailed written
prosopographies (Cristóvão da Gama vs Aḥmad b. Ibrāhīm alĠāzī, Afon-
so Mendes with Susǝnyos vs Fasilädäs), or they are collective entities (the
‘Portuguese’ soldiers, the ‘Portuguese’ builders of the Gondärine castles). In
such contexts, it is relevant to understand the use of the foreign topos in the
oral narratives concerned with dynastic change and national identity. The
färänǧ mentioned in northern Ethiopian legendary traditions are figures of
symbolic marginality, be it the ‘Portuguese’, ‘Turkish’, or ‘Indian’ castle
builders, the ‘Roman’ princesses or the ‘Armenian’ priests. They have a
specific symbolic function on a narrative chessboard that includes figures
such as the Muslim Adʿali, the Oromo pastoralists, the saintly female nuns,
the southern slaves, the däbtära sages, the Muslim šayḫ and the baḥtawi
(hermits). In this setting, the Portuguese’, endowed with the power to sup-
port the royal Christian institution, but also harbingers of political and reli-
gious dissent, are seen as creditors of a mirrored Christian identity.
A homology between the ‘Portuguese’ castle builders (ineffective, in the
case of Gondär’s Fasilädäs castle) and the Ethiopian royalty (Susǝnyos,
Fasilädäs, and even the emir of Harär) who were involved in the promotion
of problematic hyperexogamic marriages (with ‘Roman’ or ‘Portuguese’
women) should be highlighted here. This feature is found in accounts relat-
ing to the establishment of royal compoundsthe cycle of the socalled Go
prophecy, a possibly ex post facto pseudoprophetic account that points to a
millenarian streak in Abyssinian royal ideology and that revolves around
the triple key of the king, the saint, and the castle. It is also found in those
stories referring to hyperexogamic unions (rooted in the Kǝbrä nägäśt
model, problematic sexual interactions between geographically and ethnical-
ly distant kingship figures) that led to bloody clashes between royalty and
the Orthodox clergy. It also has a place in versions of stories relating to
royal lust (the stories of the hairy kings who killed the slave women they
slept with). Here the participation of the foreigner as mediator generally
precedes the appearance of complementary key figures of symbolic and
social marginalitythe holy man, generally an ‘ascetic monk’ or baḥtawi,
and the saintly slave woman or baryawho are able to reverse a negative
situation (be it the problems in building the king’s castle, or his unholy sex-
ual and exogamic appetites), and restore the due order, in which religious
obedience to the Orthodox faith precedes and conditions royal power.26
The stress given to ephemeral but potent conjunctions between kingship
and marginality (ethnic, religious, and social) in the context of dynastic
26 For a detailed reading of the Ethiopian oral accounts that develop these motifs, see
Ramos 2010, 145147.
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
change is essential to understanding the disparate flow of legendary ac-
counts that make up many of the oral interpretations of historical events in
northern Ethiopia. The foreign topos in Ethiopian oral tradition is then to
be interpreted in its rhetorical functionality within a larger narrative frame-
work, where marginal figures become key interlocutors of a number of
kings that show marks of statutory ambiguity (holders of mystical and dia-
bolical powers, abusive tyrants, etc.).
Conclusion: Narrative Meaning and Selective Deletion
Oral traditions do not necessarily tell historical truths and, in this, they are
very much like written accounts. They may offer hints to reinterpret and
contextualize past events, and they should, like archaeological findings, be
valued as relevant testimonies especially where written data tend to be ei-
ther lacking, contested, or excessively stereotyped. But their most remarka-
ble quality is the way in which they condition crucial moments in history,
accommodating them to the general laws of collective representation which
bridge the past, the present, and the future of societies and communities. In
the case of northern Ethiopian oral histories, the implications they share
with written literature only make them more, not less, important, in as
much as they give us the possibility of transcending our own ideological
limitations, so eager to impose dichotomous grids on the ‘oral’ and the
‘written’. By recognizing the relevance of local afä tarik, we become more
aware of the coda that underlies all historic discourse.
When referring to the Portuguese’, Ethiopian storytellers are not preoc-
cupied with identifying historical figures that may have had a life beyond
the limited scope of their local historical knowledge. As a social category
within a legendary framework, their meaning is to be found in the juxtapo-
sition of a myriad of local characters. If indeed the castle builders were Indi-
ans and not Portuguese, the historical subtleties of their differentiation did
not have an enduring impact on local memories.
What, then, about the Indian presence in Ethiopia? Scattered records
stating that Banyan merchants were active in the Red Sea and in Eritrean
coastal towns even before the Portuguese arrived in the region do exist.27
The traders would reach the ports of Zaylaʿ (in presentday Somaliland) and
Massawa (in Eritrea) with textiles that they traded against goods brought
from the Ethiopian highlands via the ʿAfar caravan routes. Textiles of clear
Gujarati style can still be found in sixteenth/seventeenthcentury ecclesias-
tical book binding. They were also frequently used as covers for the iconos-
tasis icon paintings that surround the cylindrical or cubic church mäqdäs
27 Alpers 2009; Keswani 1980; Pankhurst 1974.
Manuel João Ramos
encompassing the ‘holiest of holies’, as the central point of Ethiopian circu-
lar churches is known. The main evidence of the importance of this trade,
though, is the one found in Ethiopian Orthodox iconographic art, which
underwent great stylistic and conceptual changes in the wake of the ‘Jesuit
period’ at court: both the robes of sacred figures (Mary, Jesus, the saints,
etc.) and the geometrical and floral decorations in the background point to
the great relevance of imported textiles as fashionable items praised by the
Ethiopian kings and their courtiers. This trade did not stop with the expul-
sion of the Jesuits, but, as the presence of painted imitations of Dutch style
ceramic tiles in many churches of the seventeentheighteenth centuries
show, it found new competitors in the Dutch East India Company.28
During the one hundred or so years of direct contact between Portu-
guese India and the Ethiopian kingdom, the Gujarati merchant network was
an important linking factor, as Banyans acted as transporters of people and
goods, and as couriers of diplomatic and ecclesiastic correspondence to and
from the Abyssinian highlands. Their privileged position in Diu derived
from an agreement with the fortress commander allowing them free passage
through Portuguese dominated waters to reach Muslim ports in the Indian
Ocean and Red Sea.29 Hard as it was for Jesuit missionaries to make the
dangerous journey from Goa or Diu to the Ethiopian highlands through the
enduring Muslim blockade, they nevertheless made use of this network.
Frequently escorted by Indian merchants or servicemen originating from
the Goa province or from Gujarati coastal areas (especially from Diu), they
would reach Ethiopia under disguise, masquerading as Armenian merchants
in Gujarati vessels heading to the Red Sea ports. Through its mostly unre-
corded activities, the Gujarati trading network soon became the logistical
platform for the establishment of the fragile and overstretched Jesuit mis-
sion in Ethiopia, and it was through them that communications between the
Ethiopian court and Portuguese authorities in India (and the Jesuit provin-
cial) were enabled throughout the second half of the sixteenth century and
the first thirty years of the next century, until the expulsion of the mission-
aries from that country in 1634.
One of the legends told in Gondär by elders of the Muslim community
that is as old as the foundation of the city itself, refers to the presence of a
šayḫ called Abdäl Bašik.30 The story states that King Fasilädäs asked ‘the
Portuguese’ to build his castle in Gondär. They agreed but confessed that
they had not taken the necessary tools ‘from their country’. The king ad-
dressed three däbtäras, who respectively promised to bring the ‘Portuguese’
28 BoscTiesse 2002.
29 Varadarajan 1989.
30 Ramos 2010, 214–215.
Castle Building in SeventeenthCentury Gondär (Ethiopia)
tools within a week, a day and an hour. The Muslim šayḫ happened to
overhear the conversation and stepped in to summon the tools to the king’s
presence within the blinking of an eye. Subsequently, the king’s castle could
be built.
The narrative function of the holy šayḫ in this Muslim story is obviously
akin to that of the holy slave woman in the Christian legends. But his origin
is a source of controversy: some say that he was from Wällo, a region to the
southeast of Gondär, others that he was a Yemeni. It would be too specula-
tive to identify him with ʿAbdalkarīm, and, in effect, such identification
seems pointless. What matters is that Gondärine Muslims to this day stress
the mediating capacity of a Muslim outsider in the building of the king’s
castle, in much the same way as the Christian Amhara invoke the redeeming
powers of the saintly slave, either to redress the king’s curse (in the case of
Susǝnyos) or to build the castle (in the case of Fasilädäs). Fasilädäs, say the
Christian versions, was guided by the saint to tackle the inefficacy of the
‘Portuguese’ builders who couldn’t finish the castle, ultimately because of
the king’s impure marriage to the Roman princess. The Muslims, who never
mention the slave saint in their versions, endow the ‘foreign’ šayḫ with an
equivalent redeeming powers, redressing the failures of the ‘Portuguese’
Oral traditions from Gondär do not confirm that there was ever a (Mus-
lim of Banyan) Gujarati mason, trader, or holy man active in northern Ethi-
opia at the time of the foundation of Gondär, in the wake of the expulsion
of the Portuguese’ (i.e. the Jesuit missionaries), as Ranasinghe proposes.
But, when seen alongside the albeit solitary and somewhat incongruous
reference to a ‘Banyan mason’ in Susǝnyos’ chronicle and, together with the
material remains (pictorial, architectural, and decorative), they offer indirect
testimony that the Portuguese’ (i.e. färänǧ, or Westerners) were not the
only foreigners who had influence at the Ethiopian royal court in the first
half of the seventeenth century. The fact that an Abdäl Bašik is remembered
by the Muslim minority but not by the Orthodox Christian majority is a
clear sign of the workings of deletion as a major factor in the construction
of any hegemonic discourse (be it Ethiopian or Portuguese). In the present
state of affairs, though, it would be too bold to assert with any certainty
that a Gujarati did intervene in building Fasilädäs’ imposing castle in
Gondär. But this is a path worth treading in future research on the historic
international connexions of Ethiopian royalty.
Manuel João Ramos
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The analysis of contemporary popular paintings shows that the medieval Ethiopian legend of the sexual union of Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, and Solomon, the Israeli king, and the birth of their son Menelik, the mythical ancestor of Ethiopia's Solomonic dynasty, is transformed in the late 19th century during Menelik II's expansion to the South, giving rise to a new national identity.
The Ethiopian monastery of Qoma Fasilädäs (Bägemdér) keeps a rather unusual high number of archival documents testifying of its foundation in the first half of the 17th C. by the queen Wäld Sä'ala : three waqf in Arabic, two gult and a foundation charter in Ge'ez. Examining this documentation, this article traces back the opposition of the queen against her husband, the catholic king Susneyos, and against their eldest son, king Fasilädäs (1632-67). The monastery and lands of Qoma have been the head quarter of a political and religious network lead by the queen, her son Galäwdéwos and the Coptic metropolitan Marqos. They lose the battle but still, their voices can be heard through the subtle language of legal documents and forgery.
Thesis (Ph. D.)--Columbia University, 2001. Includes bibliographical references (leaves 404-422). Photocopy. Includes abstract. Softcover.
A Yemenite Embassy to Ethiopia 1647-1694. Al­Haymi's Sirat al­Habasha
  • E Donzel
  • Van
Donzel, E. van 1986. A Yemenite Embassy to Ethiopia 1647-1694. Al­Haymi's Sirat al­Habasha (Stuttgard: Steiner, 1986).
The Portuguese Import of Luxury Textiles to Ethiopia in the 16 th and 17 th Centuries and their Subsequent Artistic Influence
  • M Gervers
Gervers, M. 2004. 'The Portuguese Import of Luxury Textiles to Ethiopia in the 16 th and 17 th Centuries and their Subsequent Artistic Influence', in M. J. Ramos and I. Boavida, eds, The Foreign and the Indigenous in Ethiopian Art. On Portuguese-Ethiopian Contacts in the Sixteenth-Seventeenth Centuries (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers, 2004), 121-134.
Material for the Study of the Theology of Qebat
  • Getatchew Haile
Getatchew Haile 1986. 'Material for the Study of the Theology of Qebat', in G. Goldenberg, ed., Ethiopian Studies: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Tel Aviv, 14-17 April 1980 (Rotterdam-Boston, MS: A. A. Balkema, 1986), 205-250.
Imported Textiles in Ethiopian Traditions
  • M Henze
Henze, M. 2004. 'Imported Textiles in Ethiopian Traditions', in M. J. Ramos and I. Boavida, eds, The Foreign and the Indigenous in Ethiopian Art. On Portuguese-Ethiopian Contacts in the Sixteenth-Seventeenth Centuries (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers, 2004), 128-135.