Key dimensions in Abyssinia-Ottoman relations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a critical review of literatures.

Author:Miftah, Mukerrem

The research interests of the author includes: ethnic and religious identities in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa; Turkey-Ottoman and Africa relations; and civilization-religion discourses. This paper is a revised and expanded version of a paper presented at the "International Symposium on Afro-Turkish Relations: Prospects for the Future", in Khartoum, Sudan (October, 27-28, 2015).


In the middle of the 16th century, an unprecedented development threatens one of the ancient kingdoms in the world, the Abyssinian Christian Kingdom. Thousands of years-old traditional establishment, religious, cultural and political, was tested by the unwavering rise of various Islamic sultanates in-and-around Abyssinia. The most aggressive move, however, came from the Sultanate of Adal. Under the leadership of Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi, the Adal sultanate by organizing the already resentful Islamic sultanates in-and-around Abyssinia, made the first of its kind move that had devastated the Christian establishment in Abyssinia.

Consequently, the war that broke out had more fundamental implications than simply a civil or internal friction between groups in a country but, equally, international. In fact, each of these sides has had a direct strategic and military support from foreign powers. The Christian kingdom was supported by the Portuguese and the Islamic Sultanates under Imam Ahmed by the Ottoman Empire.

The overall academic discourses in the area, however, view the encounter in a narrative that localizes the Christian Kingdom and Portuguese actions, on the one hand, and externalizing Imam Ahmed and the Ottoman Empire's moves on the other. The Christian rulers in Abyssinia and their Portuguese supporters have been portrayed to defend the 'local-indigenous' Christian nation from the aggressive 'foreign' Muslims and their Ottoman accompanies (see, for instance, Ephraim 1968; Tadesse 1972; Shenk 1993). Firstly, therefore, the paper questions this binary opposition. Second, the paper argues that the sixteenth-century outburst of frictions between Muslims and Christian rulers in Abyssinia and the later involvement of Portuguese and Ottomans in Abyssinia was primarily the result of a sore and unhealthy form of relationship between Muslims and Christian rulers in the past centuries in the country.

Thirdly, contrary to the conventional view that Ottomans supported Imam Ahmed in the war against the Christian kingdom, especially during the 1920s and 1930s (see, for instance, Trimingham 1952; Ephraim 1968; Tadesse 1972; Shenk 1993; Erlich 1994), the paper rather argues that Imam Ahmed came out victorious primarily by mobilizing local resources and soldiers without any support rendered from the Ottoman Empire's side. The support of Ottoman Empire came after the 1530s and without any practical significance, not even able to save the life of Imam Ahmed himself in 1540s. However, Ottoman Empire's involvement in Abyssinia takes different shape after they came to replace the Mamluks' administration in Yemen around 1538.

Accordingly, the first part of this article retrospectively traces the genesis of the sixteenth-century encounter in Abyssinia. Here, I argue that without the necessary appraisal of the initial encounter between Muslims and Christians in the 7th century Abyssinia, any reflection on war and frictions in the later periods, including in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, would be very inadequate. In doing so, the article attempts to show some degree of continuity from earlier periods to the seventeenth century. The second part, apart from assessing the involvement of the Ottoman Empire in the post 1530s Abyssinia, examines the nature of encounter among the Ottoman Empire, Muslim Abyssinians, and the Christian Abyssinian rulers in the subsequent periods, especially in the first half of the seventeenth century. To this end, the article closely engages mainly secondary literatures in the field. However, in an effort to support the principal arguments of the article, some primary classical texts, written in Arabic, Turkish and English, of travel accounts, books and other publications pertaining to Ottoman-Africa relations in general and Ottoman-Abyssinia relations, in particular, are employed.

The First Encounter: Islam and Christianity in Abyssinia

Abyssinia is one of the first nations to accept Christianity in the world in the first AD (1). Abyssinia was not only the pioneer in accepting Christianity as a national-official religion but also "have been longer [older] Christians than most of the nations of Europe" (Crawford 1868, 307).This undeniably rendered Ethiopia with the opportunity to encounter many civilizations, especially the organized Christianity of Egypt and the Christian Byzantine empire (O'Leary 1936). This religious-based relation was later developed into political spheres, especially with the then superpower, the Byzantine Empire in the early six century. The existing religious-based relation was scaled up when the Byzantine Empire based in "Constantinople drew Aksumite Kings into the political and economic strategy of the East, which involved around Byzantine-Persia rivalry" (Erlich 1994, 4). This was mainly because South Arabia was then a bone of contention between the Persians and Byzantine Empires for quite some time. These empires had competed to take political, economic and religious precedence over the area. This was also accompanied by frequent wars between them.

Justinian, Byzantine emperor wrote to Timothy III, Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt to involve Abyssinians in the war to control South Arabia. The Abyssinian and Byzantine Empire's solders together invaded and conquered South Arabia, and Christianity became state sponsored religion throughout the region. It should be noted, however, that this conquest had more of economic and political goals than religious (See, for instance, Bruce 1813, 427). This is the period in which Abraha, Abyssinian emperor's regent in Yemen, came to destroy Ka'ba of Pre-Islamic Arabia in 570 AD although the Persians eventually came and evicted both the Abyssinians and Byzantines from South Arabia in 590 AD (Erlich 1994).

The introduction of Christianity and the subsequent interaction the Abyssinian kingdom had with other Christian powers such as the Byzantine Empire created what can be called a formative moment for Abyssinian Christian identity construction. The process of identity construction was on the way, firstly, through closely aligning with the Christian world and, secondly, by distinguishing oneself from, and going against, non-Christian peoples in-and-around Abyssinia (2). In addition to these, various diplomatic exchanges with like-minded nations and visits to-and-from Europe or Christian world such as Italy, Portugal and Greece had played significant roles.

While the Abyssinian Christian identity was taking roots in the late fifth and early sixth century, another development from the other side of the red sea introduces a new episode in the making of Abyssinian history and identity. This was the emergence of Islam in Mecca and its subsequent introduction to Abyssinia. While this was happening, the Abyssinian Aksumite Christian kingdom was losing its strength and started declining (3). Among other things, two major factors played significant roles. For one thing, the human and material costs the kingdom had incurred in the South Arabian campaigns must have been unbearable (Henze 2004).

Second, following Persian Empire's defeat of Abyssinian kingdom and Byzantine Empire in 590 AD4, the Abyssinian kingdom lost its conquest in Yemen and the subsequent dominance in the red sea trade which had "turned Ethiopia into a red sea empire" (Erlich 1994). Nevertheless, the first Hijriya to Abyssinia in 622 AD marked the first synthesis of civilizational encounter in the Abyssinian history. In fact, Abyssinia was the first nation in the world to experience the encounter of Islam and Christianity, in their early conceptions, which often times associated with Eastern and Western civilizations. This moment also played a significant role in later encounters of civilizations, especially the sixteenth-century encounter of Portuguese, Ottoman Empire, indigenous Islamic...

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