Battle of Shimbra-Kure Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Muslim leader of Adal, Aḥmad Grāñ, defeated the army of Emperor Lebna Dengel and ended the hegemony of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia over northeast Africa.

Summary of Event

By the end of the fifteenth century, the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia Ethiopia , which had dominated the northeast African political scene for the preceding two centuries, came under increasing pressure from its Muslim vassal territories in the east. Religion;Africa Weakened by dynastic squabbles and internecine warfare, the Christian polity was unable effectively to counter the Muslim insurgency, which continued to spread across the length and breadth of the Horn of Africa. Shimbra-Kure, Battle of (1529)[Shimbra Kure, Battle of (1529)] Aḥmad Grāñ Lebna Dengel Gama, Christóvão da Galawdewos Aḥmad Grāñ Lebna Dengel Gama, Christóvão da Galawdewos

Adal Adal , a Muslim sultanate located farther to the east, out of reach of the Ethiopian army, served as the rallying point for the growing Muslim resistance. Adal’s strategic location allowed it to control the trade routes leading to and from the port of Zeila on the Gulf of Aden. This port served as the single most important outlet for the commerce of the Ethiopian hinterland and the lowland areas of the Horn of Africa. Adal’s proximity to the coastline also allowed it to maintain close relations and to receive support from Arabia and other Muslim powers. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Adal’s resistance was preventing any further Christian expansion toward the east.

The Islamic threat to Ethiopia assumed a new dimension with the rise to power of a gifted leader called Aḥmad Grāñ. Preaching a fiery brand of Islam Islam;Africa , the young and charismatic imam, who had risen through the ranks of the army of Adal, set out to build up a strong power base for an eventual jihad against Christian Ethiopia. Grāñ initiated his spectacular military career by first carrying out a series of campaigns against his fellow Afar and Somali tribesmen to create internal unity and order within the Islamic community. Once pacified, these desert warrior tribes became important sources of manpower for Grāñ’s growing army. The ecological stress aggravated by population pressure in the lowlands appears to have made the Muslim pastoral communities more responsive to Grāñ’s call for a jihad against the rich areas of the Christian highlands.

Grāñ’s consolidation of power over the Horn of Africa coincided with the expansion of Ottoman power in Egypt, the Red Sea, and Yemen. The entry of the Turks into the region provided an additional moral and material boost to Grāñ’s projected jihad. Grāñ’s army was the first in the region to be equipped with firearms. The new weapons and the few hundred Turkish matchlock men he received from the sultan played a role in tilting the balance of power in northeast Africa against the Christian forces.

In 1527, Aḥmad Grāñ officially declared the jihad he had been preparing against the Christian kingdom. He invaded the border provinces of Yifat, Dawaro, Fatagar, Hadiyya, and Bali. The predominantly Muslim inhabitants of these provinces welcomed Grāñ as their liberator. Demoralized Christian garrisons abandoned the frontier defenses, allowing Grāñ’s army to penetrate deep into the core areas of the kingdom. The emperor of Ethiopia, Lebna Dengel, commanded a much larger army than Grāñ’, composed of recruits from all over the empire. However, he was slow to recognize the magnitude of the threat Grāñ posed and made no effort to meet him at the frontier. Instead, Dengel waited to engage Grāñ until he reached Shewa, the center of the empire.

In Shewa, the imperial army and the forces of Adal finally engaged one another in a series of battles. The war’s decisive conflict was fought at Shimbra-Kure on March 7, 1529. Despite losing more than five thousand men, Grāñ’s Muslim forces won a resounding victory. The bulk of the Christian military and political elite was destroyed by the smaller Muslim force. Emperor Lebna Dengel became a fugitive in his own kingdom, taking refuge in various mountain fortresses but fleeing each whenever it seemed he might be discovered. What was left of his army engaged in haphazard guerrilla strikes, but they remained more a nuisance than a threat to Aḥmad Grāñ.


In the wake of his victory at Shimbra-Kure, Aḥmad Grāñ pushed inexorably toward the densely populated Christian provinces of Amhara and Lasta, reaching as far north as Tigray. Whole regions of the empire were laid waste, and much of the intellectual and artistic heritage of the land was destroyed. Thousands of ancient churches and monasteries, including the Cathedral of Axum, the rock churches of Lalibela, and the famous monastery of Debre Libanos, were burnt, together with invaluable illuminated manuscripts and art objects.

Despite his spectacular military victories, however, Grāñ was unable to stamp out Christian resistance completely. With thinly spread out forces and overstretched supply lines, Grāñ found it increasingly difficult to consolidate his control over the rugged terrain of the Ethiopian plateau.

The arrival, in 1541, of some four hundred Portuguese musketeers, sent in response to Lebna Dengel’s appeal to Christian Europe, galvanized the resistance against the Muslim occupation. About half of this small Portuguese force were killed, together with their commander, Christóvão da Gama (son of the famous explorer Vasco da Gama), during their first engagement with Grāñ. However, the remaining troops managed to join forces with Emperor Galawdewos, who had succeeded Lebna Dengel upon the latter’s death in 1540. Galawedos was already rallying his Christian subjects to revive the struggle against the Muslim occupation when the Portuguese arrived. The newly energized Christian force under Galawdewos fought and killed Grāñ at the Battle of Woina Dega Woina Dega, Battle of (1543) on February 22, 1543. The Muslim army disintegrated following the death of the imam.

The Muslim explosion into the Christian kingdom in the sixteenth century was a major turning point in the history of northeast Africa. The destruction that accompanied the conquests of Aḥmad Grāñ left Ethiopia in disarray. The rich material and spiritual culture achieved by medieval Ethiopia, and the mighty political and military power built by a succession of able Solomonic leaders, were almost completely destroyed. The Muslim side did not fare any better. The wars they waged on the Christian kingdom and their subsequent defeat left them politically weakened and severely depopulated. By the end of the Christian-Muslim conflict, both sides were exhausted and possessed few resources with which to defend their respective territories from the new intruders who exploited the political and military vacuum to overrun the fertile Christian and Muslim regions. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Kingdom of Adal was reduced to the single walled city of Harar, and the once mighty Ethiopian empire had shrunk to a few provinces in the northern highland.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crummey, Donald. Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia, from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, 2000. A political and social history of Ethiopia, with helpful discussion on the economic basis of political domination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A readable general work that is especially useful in tracing the history of the Christian kingdom’s expansion southward during medieval times under the leadership of the Solomonic rulers. It also includes interesting information on daily life, art, architecture, religion, culture, and customs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Harold. History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A general survey of Ethiopian history from ancient times to the present.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shihab ad-Din Ahmad bin Abd al-Qader bin Salem bin Utman. Futuh al-Habasha/The Conquest of Abyssinia. Translated by Paul Lester Stenhouse. Hollywood, Calif.: Tsehai, 2003. An invaluable account of the sixteenth century jihad in Ethiopia by a Yemeni author who witnessed several of the battles he describes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tadesse Tamrat. Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1972. An authoritative work on the history of medieval Ethiopia, especially useful for understanding the background to the decline of the Solomonic Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tadesse Tamrat. “The Horn of Africa: The Solomonids in Ethiopia and the States of the Horn of Africa.” In Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Vol. 4 in General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. A succinct account of the political conditions in the Horn of Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trimingham, J. S. Islam in Ethiopia. New York: Clarendon Press, 1952. A valuable work on the history of Muslim-Christian interaction in Ethiopia.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

c. 1464-1591: Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

May, 1485-Apr. 13, 1517: Mamlūk-Ottoman Wars

1491-1545: Christianity Is Established in the Kingdom of Kongo

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

1510-1578: Saՙdī Sharifs Come to Power in Morocco

1525-1600: Ottoman-Ruled Egypt Sends Expeditions South and East

1527-1543: Ethiopia’s Early Solomonic Period Ends

1529-1574: North Africa Recognizes Ottoman Suzerainty

1591: Fall of the Songhai Empire

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