Ethiopia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The military history of Ethiopia is closely tied to political and commercial relations of the highland regions to those in the surrounding lowlands.

Political Considerations

The military history of Ethiopia is closely tied to political and commercial relations of the highland regions to those in the surrounding lowlands. It is also tied to the caravan trade in Nubia and to sea-based trade along the Red Sea coast, and thus to the Arabian Peninsula. Related to these geopolitical factors are religious ones: first the fourth century spread of Christianity into areas dominated by animistic and pagan religious practices, and later the seventh century introduction of Islam in the lowlands. The areas to the east, north, and west of the Ethiopian highlands retained a lively Christian religious tradition and came to view themselves as isolated island bastions of Christianity surrounded by a sea of Islam.Ethiopia;ancient and medievalEthiopia;ancient and medieval

The formation of states in the Ethiopian highlands, financed by thriving commerce, dates back to several centuries before the common era. These states were increasingly influenced by Arabs;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia]Arabian culture and later by commercial ties with the Ptolemaic Dynasty subsequent to the Alexandrian imperial period in the late fourth century b.c.e. down to the emergence of the Roman Empire. The interplay of commercial wealth with the growth of numerous political states gave rise to a constant competition between the food-growing regions of the Ethiopian highlands and the commercial settlements along the Red Sea coast. Warfare increased in scale and importance during this period, as competition among local elites for the profits of trade drove them into violent confrontation. By the first century c.e., the powerful state of Aksumite EmpireAksum, centered in the Tigrayan highlands, emerged as the dominant player in the commercial contest, but Aksum acted more as a monitor over a feudal system of trade than as a monolithic state. Aksumite Ethiopians gradually expanded their dominance over the southwestern littoral of the Red Sea, attempting to dominate even the caravan Trade and warfare;Africatrade to the north. They also established a considerable presence on the Arabian side of the Red Sea. Trade with the Roman Empire was considerable, and with the success of Christianity in that empire, it was only a matter of time before Aksumites also began to embrace the Christianity;East AfricaChristian faith in the third and fourth centuries. Tradition maintains that during the fourth century Christianity was more firmly established by the shipwrecked SyrianFrumentiusFrumentiusFrumentius (fl. c. fourth century). Frumentius later became bishop and successfully evangelized much of the Aksumite kingdom, which maintained a largely peaceful domination of Ethiopia and neighboring regions until its displacement from the Arabian coast by Persians in the mid-sixth century. The Aksumite kingdom was further weakened in the seventh and eighth centuries by the spread of Islam;AfricaIslam throughout Arabia, into North Africa, and along the lowland regions of the Eritrean and Somali coasts. The Aksumite Empire, deprived of its links to the Mediterranean and to lucrative trade, could no longer maintain large armies, nor rely on sea-based or caravan trade. In growing isolation from the rest of the world, the Aksumites moved south into the mountainous interior of the Abyssinian highlands, where they dominated Agau-speaking agriculturalists, assimilating much of the local population through intermarriage, culturaltransplantation, and religious conversion. Still, Agau-speaking peoples fought back in peripheral areas that the centralized but by now weakened Aksumite state could not control during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Ethiopia, c. 1500.

The cross-fertilization of Aksum with the Agau produced a new dynasty, the Zagwe EmpireZagwe, whose most celebrated figure was the emperor LalibelaLalibela (Zagwe emperor)Lalibela (r. c. 1185-1225), who was Agau by bloodline but thoroughly assimilated into the Aksumite Christian culture. Lalibela was unable to hold the fractious and feudal empire together, however, and was eventually defeated by the Shewan rebel and Christian leader Yekuno Yekuno AmlakYekuno AmlakAmlak (fl. thirteenth century) after a series of battles that culminated with Lalibela’s death. Yekuno Amlak declared himself emperor and, to bolster his legitimacy, claimed to be a descendant from the line of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba of the Old Testament. He quickly consolidated the existing empire and subdued neighboring Muslim areas. In the early thirteenth century, Emperor Amda Amda TseyonAmda Tseyon (Solomonid emperor)Tseyon (r. 1314-c. 1344) expanded and solidified the SolomonidSolomonid Dynasty Dynasty over the divided feudal system. He established military garrisons throughout the highlands, areas difficult to govern even in the best of times, given their remoteness and inaccessibility. He also encouraged Christian evangelization. The order instituted by Amda Tseyon increased both the economic activity and wealth of the area, as he extracted tribute from his locally appointed administrators and feudal lords. Amda Tseyon attacked Ifat, a Muslim area that had earlier provided tribute. When troubles in the empire called his attention elsewhere, however, the Ifat Ifat MuslimsMuslims responded by declaring a holy war in 1332. Amda Tseyon responded vigorously and with great military brilliance. Against the highly mobile Muslim units, he used his army effectively to isolate and attack the weakest Muslim units, fielding decoy columns to keep the Muslim-federated troops off-balance and always on the defensive. Eventually he thoroughly routed the Muslim forces and substantially expanded the extent of his empire. Subsequent Ethiopian kings built on his success by fostering Christianity as a unifying force in an otherwise feudal economic system. However, not all Muslims in the empire converted, and thus they remained a group susceptible to mobilization when outside Muslim forces intervened.

From the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, the greatest threat to Ethiopia proved to be the Islamic peoples of the northern and eastern lowlands and the Oromo Oromo peoplespeoples to the south. Under the reign of Lebna Lebna DengelLebna DengelDengel (fl. sixteenth century), Islamic rebellions were put down, but increasing pressures were placed upon the lowland grazing grounds of both Somali and Oromo peoples to the south and east. The Somalis and Oromos gradually migrated into Muslim upland areas under Lebna Dengel’s control, precipitating constant turmoil in these areas. Muslims eventually responded with the jihad of Muslim leader Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Ghāzī, known as Aḥmad Aḥmad GrāñAḥmad Grāñ[Ahmad Gran]Grāñ (1506-1543), “the left-handed,” who trained a disciplined group of warriors in the art of highly mobile warfare, made more deadly by the introduction of firearms obtained from the Ottoman Turks. Aḥmad Grāñ’s smaller fighting force defeated the larger but disunited armies of Lebna Dengel at the Battle of Shimbra-Kure Shimbra-Kure, Battle of (1529)[Shimbra Kure](1529), opening much of the southern part of the Ethiopian Empire to Islamic rule.

Two ancient Ethiopian warriors spar with each other.

Lebna Dengel died in 1540, still in control of the highland region of his country. His appeal to Portugal;AfricaPortugal eventually paid off, when in 1541, about 400 Portuguese musketeers disembarked and made their way to Abyssinia’s support. With this firepower, Ethiopian forces won their first victory over the forces of Aḥmad Grāñ, who, stung by defeat, turned to the Ottoman Ottoman Empire;in East Africa[East Africa]Turks for additional support, which was granted. With nearly a thousand Turkish mercenaries armed with muskets and cannons, Aḥmad Grāñ defeated the Ethiopian-Portuguese forces in 1542. Subsequently, however, under the emperor Galawdewos (emperor of Ethiopia)Galawdewos (r. 1540-1559) the Ethiopians shifted to hit-and-run warfare, and eventually Aḥmad Grāñ was killed in 1543, thus ending the Islamic threat to Ethiopia. The gradual rise of the largely animistic Oromo peoples along the periphery of the Ethiopian Empire in subsequent years further insulated Ethiopia from direct contact with Islamic forces.

Military Achievement

Throughout the history of Ethiopia, military activity tended in its tactical and technological dimensions to lag behind that of other regions. Although Ethiopia was not known for its military innovation, military leaders of both the Ethiopian state and of rebel groups along its periphery were quick to adopt tactics and methods of warfare suited to their immediate needs. Their tactics were further reinforced by changing economic conditions over time. When the central state was stable and encouraging to economic growth and commerce, more revenues were available to maintain larger armies. Tactics for maintaining control of an expanding state included the garrisoning of soldiers in hinterland regions. The interconnection of military policy with that of religious evangelization was critical to the expansion of his empire during the reign of Amda Tseyon. Appeals by contending forces to external assistance and to the latest weaponry were hallmarks of warfare in the region during the sixteenth century, as each side sought to increase its firepower.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Spears;East Africaspear was the principal traditional weapon of the Ethiopian warrior. For defense, warriors carried shields. Uniforms consisted of full and colorful pants and long-sleeved shirts. Caps and capes of cloth or fur were worn for warmth in the cool of the highland regions. Rebel and Muslim armies in the lowlands also fought with spears and sabers, although their dress was much lighter, befitting the hotter and dryer conditions of the Desert warfaredesert lowlands. Only in the early sixteenth century were firearms and cannon introduced into the warfare of the region, typically with the deployment of mercenary forces familiar with the new technologies. Rebel forces in the lowland regions used camels for transport and cavalry.

Military Organization

Military organization varied significantly throughout Ethiopian history. Feudal and clan warfare marked by temporary and shifting alliances of small militia-like forces were perhaps the most common and persistent manifestations of warfare during most of the period from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries. During periods of expansion of the central state such as those of the Aksum Dynasty from 300 to 500 and the Solomonid Dynasty of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, larger armies were maintained. During periods of central governmental weakness, the various isolated areas broke down along lines of feudal lordship, as did the armies. Under stronger emperors, greater unity of command and control over the military forces were in evidence.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

As in the area of military organization, so in the areas of military doctrine, strategy, and tactics, a great deal of variation is exhibited in Ethiopian military history, and this variation was itself the result of changing circumstances and necessity. For example, when Amda Amda TseyonAmda Tseyon (Solomonid emperor)Tseyon was faced with full rebellion in the predominantly Muslim areas of his country in 1332, he deftly used his military forces in a highly mobile warfare that prevented the rebels from ever mounting a successful counterattack in force. By gradually defeating smaller units apart from any main body of forces, the emperor was able to win victory over otherwise fairly mobile rebel forces. By forswearing a conventional positional strategy and by using superior numbers, Amda Tseyon bested the rebels in their one potential advantage, mobility.

Similarly, Aḥmad Aḥmad GrāñAḥmad Grāñ[Ahmad Gran]Grāñ, by using hit-and-run tactics, largely crippled Lebna Lebna DengelLebna DengelDengel’s forces during the jihad of 1527 to 1543. The Ethiopian forces, though far superior in number, fought a more conventional and positional war strategy that proved unable to match Aḥmad Grāñ’s highly motivated and carefully trained forces, who were armed with some firearms and under a clear chain of command. Dengel’s forces, though larger, were divided by feudal loyalties, proving no match for Aḥmad Grāñ’s better-trained and better-led army. When Portuguese muskets arrived to tip the balance slightly against Aḥmad Grāñ, he sought further outside support and firepower, regaining the advantage. Under Emperor GalawdewosGalawdewos (emperor of Ethiopia)Galawdewos, Ethiopian forces shifted strategy and, like Amda Tseyon before them, employed hit-and-run tactics, thus turning Aḥmad Grāñ’s own tactics against him. This plan eventually succeeded because Aḥmad Grāñ was fighting on unfamiliar ground, whereas the Ethiopians were defending their own mountainous territories. With this strategy, the Ethiopians caught Aḥmad Grāñ alone with only a small force and were thus able to trap and kill him. Clearly, Ethiopian military figures were capable of assessing the threats and forces they faced and of adapting their strategies and tactics to the demands of changing situations.

Ancient Sources

The history of East Africa is based in several different types of sources: African oral tradition; African, Arabic, and European writings; archaeological artifacts such as the stelae at Aksum and the inscription of King Ezana of Aksum (c. 325 c.e.); and local histories such as a collection of writings in Kiswahili on the history of the East African coast, including the “Kilwa Chronicle” and the “History of Pate.” For the ancient period, oral tradition forms an important source of information–if one that must be approached carefully to filter out bias and in combination with other sources to fill gaps. Local historians transcribed some of these oral histories and offered their own contemporary observations.

Classical accounts of ancient Ethiopia can be found in the third book of HerodotusHerodotus (Greek historian)Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e. ; The History, 1709); De bello Africo (49-45 b.c.e. ; Commentaries of the African War, 1753), attributed to Julius Caesar but possibly by a Roman soldier; various passages of Strabo’s Geōgraphica (c. 7 b.c.e. ; Geography, 1917-1933); book 5 of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia (77 c.e. ; The Historie of the World, 1601; better known as Natural History); the Periplus maris erythraei (first-third centuries c.e. ; The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 1912); and book 1 of Polemon (c. 551 c.e. ; History of the Wars, 1960), by Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea.

A sense of what East Africa and the region that came to be known as Ethiopia were like during the fourteenth century can be gained from reading book 4 of Riḥlah (Ibn Baṭṭūṭah)[Rihlah (Ibn Battutah)] Tuḥfat al-nuẓẓār fi gharaՙib al-amsar wa-ՙajaՙib al-asfar (1357-1358; Travels of Ibn Battuta, 1958-2000, best known as the Riḥlah).Ethiopia;ancient and medieval

Books and Articles
  • Abir, Mordechai. Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes: The Challenge of Islam and the Reunification of the Christian Empire. New York: Praeger, 1968.
  • Adejumobi, Saheed A. The History of Ethiopia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.
  • Greenfield, Richard. Ethiopia: A New Political History. New York: Praeger, 1965.
  • Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • Keys, David. “Medieval Houses of God, or Ancient Fortresses?” Archaeology 57, no. 6 (November/December, 2004): 10.
  • Levine, Donald. Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Nicolle, David. Armies of the Caliphates, 862-1098. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1998.
  • Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopians: A History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001.
  • Phillipson, David W. Ancient Ethiopia: Aksum–Its Antecedents and Successors. London: British Museum Press, 1998.
Films and Other Media
  • Ethiopia: The Kingdom of Judas Lion. Documentary. Ambrose Video, 1998.
  • Explore Ethiopia: Land of Sheba/Sanctuaries of Stone. Documentary. Esicma, 1995.

African Warfare

Armies of Muḥammad and the Caliphate

Armies of the Seljuk Turks

The Ottoman Armies

West African Empires

Categories: History Content