Tewodros of Ethiopia

The history department of Haile Sellassie I University published some excellent works, unfortunately many of these books are difficult to find. I came across "King of Kings: Tewodros of Ethiopia" (1966) by Sven Rubenson not too long ago. The book is short, but a treasure trove of insight as well as direction to unconventional sources – ones largely lost in the age when we expect everything to be Google-able.

Who was Tewodros? Sven writes: "In Tewodros II, Ethiopia received a ruler of a kind very different from any that she had known for many years or even generations. In more than one sense of the word he was a revolutionary. In more than one field of life of his nation he was an innovator of no mean proportions. The last of the mesafint, he was also the first in the line of Emperors to create modern Ethiopia" (p. 46). In another passage: "Tewodros was a man of tremendous power and great promise. He appeared to be the unifier of all Ethiopia. With most of its armed men in the ranks of his armies and a reputation of being invincible, he had more military power at his disposal than any Ethiopian ruler possessed for several generations. His keen and open mind, his boundless energy and his extraordinary sense of destiny and deep faith in his calling to restore the greatness of Ethiopia combined to make him one of the most remarkable men Ethiopia has produced." (p. 66)

The book goes into great detail about his family and early life. In so doing, there are glimpses into the political sphere, and thus the book is not only for those looking to learn about Tewodros II. For example: "According to the Kibre Negest it was the House of David and the House of David only that should rule Ethiopia. Tewodros' only possibility to make himself a legitimate Emperor would have been to make a bold claim, whether founded or unfounded, that he was a descendant of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In fact Tewodros did not did this at the time of his coronation nor did he appropriate the title of Ase for himself. Tewodros' contemporaries called him Nigus Tewodros. His own secretary Zeneb does not refer to him as Ase once. This title is throughout Zeneb's chronicle reserved for members of the old Imperial family. Instead Zeneb speaks of Tewodros as the man whom God had chosen to carry out his own plans." (p. 48)

Also, regarding the role of international actors in what we might call 'regime change' today: "Thus the fall of Meqdela by foreign guns and the death of Tewodros by his own hand coincided. But it would be a mistake to believe that the second was really caused by the first. As some foreigners had played a role when Tewodros set his goals for a modern Ethiopian state, so they played their part in his downfall by causing unnecessary misunderstandings, frustrations, and rash actions, which Tewodros himself no doubt regretted. But in neither case was it the major role." (p. 89)

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