A Historical Explanation as to Why Members & Supporters of the TPLF
By Fikre Tolossa
In these days of ethnic madness, many Ethiopians consider Tigreans to be self-centered, and even tribalistic. "Where is the
Tigrean sense of Ethiopian nationalism?" they ask. If they are not Ethiopians, who is? I hesitate to make such a gross
generalization about all Tigreans since I haven't been in Tigray lately to survey their true feelings towards Ethiopia. I would
hate to speculate about their national integrity. However, from what I have seen, read and heard about the members and
supporters of the TPLF who live outside Tigray in the rest of Ethiopia and in the West, I have come to realize that they
display a terrific ethnocentric behavior.
The supporters of the TPLF and those Tigreans now in power in Ethiopia, including Ato Meles Zenawi, have implied time
and again that they are Tigreans, first and foremost, and then Ethiopians. In other words, they have suggested that their
Ethiopianess comes second to their Tigreaness. Contrary to this, many Amharas, for instance, consider themselves
Ethiopians, first and foremost, and then Amahras, thus demonstrating their great feelings of Ethiopian nationalism and
Running briefly through the pages of Ethiopian history, let us analyze why the members and supporters of TPLF incline to be
more ethnocentric and less nationalistic than the Amharas.
There are two reasons why the Amhara in general appear to be more nationalistic than the Tigreans. First, the Amharas are
more heterogenious compared with the Tigreans because of their geographical locations and the fact that they have
intermingled with non-Amhara peoples such as the Oromo. Second, they have had access to state power for the past 700
years, and because of that they had to bear the responsibility of playing a leading role in
preserving the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church and the territorial integrity of Ethiopia during those years. The opposite holds true for Tigreans during the past 700
years except the second half of the last Century (1872-89) when a Tigrean emperor, Atse Yohannes IV, ruled Ethiopia.
Let us briefly examine the backgrounds of the members of the TPLF and their Tigrean supporters by having a glimpse of the
history of the Tigre, and compare it with that of the Amhara. Of course, when we say let us examine the history of the Tigre
or even that of the Amhara, we, in reality, mean to say, the history of the ruling classes of both peoples, since these classes
were the ones which decided the fate of the two peoples and the course their history took for the past 3000 years. The
most important leaders of the TPLF who are now deciding the course which Ethiopian history
is taking are from the Tigray ruling class whose fathers and grand fathers, as well as some of their family members, bore feudal titles ranging from
Kegnazmatch to Dedjazmatch. And as such, the major cause of their hostility towards the Amhara is nothing but sheer
power struggle, for they consider the Amhara to be their political rival. The common people of Tigray and even the masses
of the TPLF fighters have nothing to do with this hostility.
The history of Tigray has its roots deep down in the Aksumite Civilization and beyond. It is impossible to talk of the history
of Tigray without tracing it back to the Aksumite and the pre-Aksumite civilizations.
The history of Aksum has been documented in monuments, coins, artifacts, paintings, inscriptions, books and oral literature.
According to these sources, the regions known today as Tigray and Eritrea and even beyond them, were identified as Pount
about 5000 years ago. The people of Pount traded with the ancient Egyptians in spices, myrrh, incense, ivory, gold and
other minerals, medicinal herbs, hides and various kind of woods, as well as domestic and wild animals.
History has recorded the existence of a strong state in North East Ethiopia between 500 and 100 B.C. preceding the
Aksumite civilization. It was identified as the Empire of Daamatt. The people of Daamatt had their own unique alphabet and
were architects and sculptors. Some of their statues and monuments have survived to our day. One of their famous statues,
a lady sitting on a chair, was discovered in Tigray. Though it is 2500 years old, it is still intact. One of their leaders, King
Lemene, in one of his inscriptions which has reached our age, states that he was the king of the Daamatt, Saba, Aberra, and
the red and the black. The Daamatt Empire had commercial, cultural, religious and linguistic relationships with Arabia across
the Red Sea.
Aksumite leaders who ruled in the early Christian era followed in the footsteps of their Daamatt predecessors and continued
to expand the Empire. Among the powerful kings of Aksum in the Christian Era was Zoscales. According to a book
entitled, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written by a Greek traveller in the Second Century A.D., a young and wise
leader by the name of Zoscales was ruling Aksum when he visited that magnificent City. Zoscales spoke Greek and
controlled the international commercial transactions which took place in his seaport of Adulis. Zoscales had a close
relationship with the then powerful states such as Egypt, Greece and Rome. He extended his territory as far as near Port
Sudan and the Aden Peninsula. Aksum attained international respect and recognition during the reign of Zoscales.
The successors of Zoscales colonized Arabia and stretched out as far as Nubia and Egypt. However, within Ethiopia itself,
they went southward and occupied only a few territories such as the ones inhabited by the Agew, Agame and Gambela
peoples. The colonization of Arabia enabled Aksum to compete in international commerce with the superpowers of the day,
such as the Turks, Romans, Greeks and Persians.
The towering figure among Aksumite emperors in the 4th Century A.D. was Ezana. In fact, he is one of the greatest
Aksumite emperors. He was himself converted to Christianity first, and then made Christianity the official religion of his
Empire, even though Christianity had been practised by Aksumites since the First Century A.D. By so doing, he laid the
corner-stone for the development of Ethiopian Christian inspired theology, literature, arts, culture, architecture, history, law
and music. Ezana loved to record history. He documented his valor and the affairs of his days and the history of his time on
coins and in three languages: Greek, Sabean and Geez. He established a close relationship with the Coptic Church of
Alexandria and enabled Ethiopia to obtain patriarchs from there up until the last century for about 1500 years. He expanded
the territory of his empire beyond the Red Sea, and to some extent, within inland Ethiopia. The Geez alphabet and literature
began to achieve a new dimension during his reign.
Aksum continued to be a profoundly Christian city even after the death of Ezana, so that it attracted foreign missionaries to
come and convert the "pagans" outside Aksum. Towards the end of the Fifth Century, a group of nine saints from the
different parts of the then Roman Empire including Constantinople, Antioch, Rome and Asia Minor headed for Aksum.
Emperor Ella Amida II, who was the grandfather of Caleb, was delighted to have them around. The people of Aksum, too,
welcomed them. The nine saints went, boldly risking their lives, into the remotest parts of the Aksumite Empire and fought
against "paganism" by preaching the Gospel. Their spiritual activity is supposed to have lasted through the reigns of four
emperors, such as Ella-Amida, Tazena, Caleb and even through that of Atse Gebre Meskal. Besides evangelizing Ethiopia,
the nine saints were also engaged in the development of theology and in literary activities such as the completion of the
translation of the Holy Bible into Geez which had started in the early 5th century A.D. The life history of the nine monks
(Gedle) written by Ethiopian biographers by itself became a source of Ethiopian literature. Moreover, the canonization of
the nine monks as saints by the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church has deeply affected the spiritual life of all Christian Tigreans
and other Ethiopians to this day, since these saints are commemorated in Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia every October,
June, March, November, December and January.
Kaleb, the son of Ezana, expanded and consolidated his father's empire in both Arabia and Ethiopia. In addition, he
extended his own territory upto Yemen. He made an expedition to Southern Arabia to subdue a rebellious prince and to
restore his colony, besides rebuilding churches and towns. Later, an Aksumite soldier by the name of Abreha became the
king of Arabia including Yemen, after murdering the new appointee of the Aksumite Emperor. The Emperor forgave him
and approved of his kingship. Abreha colonized almost all of Arabia on behalf of his Emperor, built his capital at San'a,
constructed marvellous churches, expanded commerce and attempted to invade Mecca and destroy its Ka'ba to stop the
people from worshipping idoles before the rise of the Prophet Mohammed. After Abreha's death, his son failed to rule
Arabia as effectively as his father. Eventually, assisted by the Persians, who were Ethiopia's commercial rivals, the
indigenous Arabs were able to free themselves from the domination of the Aksumites.
Kaleb's son, Gebre-Meskel (534-548) A.D., was as great a leader as his pious father. He held his father's territory tightly
as soon as he ascended to the throne. Moreover, he devoted his time to supporting and building churches such as the
Debre-Damo and St. Mary of Zion. He is also supposed to have supervised the construction of the Zur Amba Church in
Gaynt, Begemedir. He befriended with St. Yared, the greatest poet-composer of Ethiopia, and appointed him to be his
"minister of culture." The respect and support of a great emperor as Gebre-Meskel helped Yared to compose such great
lyrics, hymns and melodies that still thrill the souls of Ethiopians of the Tewahedo denomination. His verses became a model
for Geez poetry. Yared and Gebre-Meskel introduced the celebration of Hosanna in imitation of Jesus' return to Jerusalem
riding a donkey. The tradition is still observed in Northern Ethiopia. It was Gebre-Meskel who initiated the crowning of an
Emperor in a church. It seems that Gebre-Meskel's contribution to Aksumite Civilization is more of spiritual than material.
In spite of the fact that Aksum lost Arabia at the end of the 6th Century, its influence on its former colony was remarkable.
Those Ethiopians who survived in Arabia continued to participate in the military, political and cultural activities of Mecca.
Their impact upon navigation was particularly significant. Many of the Arabic vocabularies which had to do with ships and
navigation were of Geez origin. On top of that, Aksum continued to dominate the religious life of Arabia in the early 7th
Century when the Prophet Muhammed was yet a young man in Mecca. He had the opportunity to hear both the Torah and
the Gospel read aloud and discussed in public by the Ethiopian priests with whom he was a friend. Their impact on him has
been evidenced by his knowledge of the Bible and his use of numerous Geez vocabularies in the Koran. His connection
with Ethiopia, however, was deeper than that. His nurse when he was a baby was an Ethiopian lady. It was to Ethiopia he
sent his followers and relatives to find safe-haven with the Aksumite Emperor when they were persecuted in Arabia at a
time when Islam was at its infancy. A significant number of Ethiopians was present among the Prophet's soldiers and
In addition to Arabia, the Aksumites went as far as Nubia (Sudan) to help the Christian churches there in many ways until
the rise of Islam. In the long run, the rise of Islam proved to be an obstacle to Aksum's spiritual and material progress.
Aksum was cut off from Arabia and Christian Europe so that its cultural, spiritual, economic and political developments
were thwarted for nearly a thousand years when "the Ethiopians slept forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten,"
as Edward Gibbon put it rightly.
In the 10th Century, the advent of Islam, the lack of a patriarch from Alexandria without which the Ethiopian Emperor and
Church were powerless, and the rise to power of a female Jewish (Felasha) warrior named Yodit (Gudit), caused the
downfall of the Aksumite Empire. Yodit destroyed many monuments, castles and churches including the illustrious cathedral
of Aksum, St. Mary of Zion. She burned countless books of immense value. She persecuted Del Ne'ad, the last Aksumite
Emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty and reigned over Aksum for 40 years. When she died, Dil Ne'ad, who had been in
exile in Menz, Shewa, restored his Dynasty. He was overthrown again probably around 1030 A.D. by his Agew servant
Mera Tekle-Haimanot who claimed connection with the Solomonic Dynasty and established the Zagwe Dynasty.
With the ascension to the throne of Mera Tekle-Haimanot, the link of the chain of the Solomonic Dynasty was broken. The
capital city, Aksum, was also replaced by Lasta in Wello, thus moving away the spiritual, political, economic and cultural
nerve center of the Aksumites. This way the glorious Aksum lost its significance as one of the cradles of Ethiopian
civilization. After the decline of Aksum up until 1974 for about 1100 years, Tigray was first ruled by the Agew, later by the
Amhara, Oromo and a few Tigre governor generals who were appointed by the Amhara emperors excluding the time
(seventeen years) when the Tigrean Emperor Yohannes IV reigned over the entire Ethiopia.
The Agew are one of the indigenous inhabitants of Ethiopia. They were there and even took part when the Aksumite
Civilization was in the making. However, they never had a chance to rule Ethiopia directly until about the 11th Century
when they established the Zagwe Dynasty. The greatest leader among them was Emperor Lalibela. It was during his reign
that the Amhara started to play a leading role in Ethiopian history. To seize power, when Lalibela waged war against his
brother Harbe' who was supported by the majority of the Agew, the Amhara fought along Lalibela's side. As a reward for
this service, he distanced himself from the Agew and promoted the Amhara to high ranks in his government. As the high
ranking officials and soldiers of Lalibela's government, the Amhara became prominent in Wadla & Delanta, Begemedir,
Saint and Weleka. From this time on, the Amhara appeared in the scene to play a vital role in Ethiopian history for more
than seven hundred years.
According to Aleka Desta Tekle-Wold, the word Amara or Amhara means people who are free. According to Aleka Taye
and Aleka Asme-Giorgis, the Amhara are the descendants of Ethyiopis, one of the settlers of North East Africa, whose
name probably Ethiopia bears. Unlike the Tigre, there was no one particular place or defined territory in which the Amhara
lived. Nevertheless, it was observed that by the 13th Century, they had settled in Gonder, Gojam, Shewa, Wadla &
Delanta, Lasta, Saynt, Meket and Shadaho. The Amhara were as much Christian as the Tigre. Gradually, the word Amhara
and Christian became so synonymous that when a non-Amhara was converted to Christianity, it was said of him that he
became an Amhara. It has been reported that Emperor Lalibela used the technical know-how of the Amhara to build one of
the wonders of the world, the rock-hewn churches of Roha.
The Amhara probably spoke Geez before they created Amharic during the reign of Lalibela out of a mixture of Tigrigna,
Arabic and Hebrew, in order to convey across a secret message. Later, when the Amhara mixed with the Oromo, Amharic
enriched itself with Oromo syntax, vocabularies and idiomatic expressions. For this reason and as a result of the subtlety of
the Amharic language, Aleka Asme-Giorgis asserts that even the Amhara of Gonder and Gojam, let alone of Shewa, would
not communicate easily with each other. Gradually, during the reign of Yekuno Amlak, Amharic spread like wild-fire and
non-Amhara peoples all over Ethiopia began to speak it. Consequently, they were considered to be Amhara, even as the
non-Amhara converts to Christianity were seen as Amhara.
Despite the fact that Emperor Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty raised the Amhara to higher ranks and inspite of the fact that
he granted them land and tenants, their hearts were yearning for the restoration of the Solomonic Dynasty. This they were
able to realize through the help of a famous Amhara monk, Aba Tekle-Haimanot of Bulga, who plotted against Ne'akuto
Le'ab, the last Zagwe Emperor, partly because of the promise which the claimant of the Solomonic Dynasty, Yekuno
Amlak, made to him to grant the church a third of his Empire if he would help him to dethrone Ne'akuto Le'ab. (Ironically,
Yekuno Amlak was in the service of Ne'akuto Le'ab, the last Zagwe Emperor, even as Mera Tekle-Haimanot was in the
service of Dil Ne'ad, the last Emperor of the so-called Solomonic Dynasty whom he had managed to overthrow).
Moreover, the Patriarch, representing the Church would sit next to the Emperor's throne at public ceremonies and the
Akabe Se'at would control the affairs of the Church in relation to the State. In other words, the Church would have an
immense wealth and power in the land. As a result, Christianity, the Emperor and the motherland became synonymous for
the Amhara upon Yekuno Amlak's ascension to the throne. This interrelationship lasted up until 1974 when the Derg
separated State and Church after the overthrow of Emperor Haile-Selassie I, who claimed to be the descendant of Yekuno
Abune Tekle-Haimanot, supported by the Ethiopian clergy including Aba Iyesus Moa of the Haik Monastery, Aba
Yohannes of Debre Damo, and even the Nebure'ed of Aksum as well as the Patriarch of Ethiopia, Abune Kerlos,
convinced the pious and God-fearing last Emperor of the Zagwe Dynasty who revered Abune Tekle-Haimanot immensely,
that his dynasty was illegal, that he should hand over power without bloodshed to Yekuno
Amlak, the "rightful" heir to the throne. After a series of negotiations Ne'akuto Le'ab, whom you can consider either naive or a great man of God, agreed to
let Yekuno Amlak sit in the Ethiopian throne upon his death providing the descendants of the Zagwe Dynasty are given due
respect and homage as long as the descendants of the Solomonic Dynasty reigned. This way the Amhara throned an
Emperor of their choice claiming that he was one of the descendants of the last Aksumite Emperor, Del Ne'ad.
In reality, however, three hundred years had elapsed ever since Del Ne'ad was overthrown. Therefore, the integrity of the
lineage was debatable. To legitimize Yekuno Amlak's Solomonic lineage, he and the Amhara had the Kebre-Negest
composed. The Kebre-Negest narrates how, about 1000 B.C., Queen Maqda of Ethiopia traveled to Jerusalem to hear
the wisdom of King Solomon by whom she was impregnated to give birth to a son, Menelik, who became the first
Ethiopian Emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty. Numerous Aksumite emperors claimed descent from him. Among the
Amhara, Haile Selassie claimed to be the 225th Emperor of this Dynasty. The whole story of King Solomon and Queen
Maqda is a legend. If he had indeed impregnated her, since King Solomon, who was the greatest womanizer of all time with
over 900 concubines, without counting his wives, the fact that he impregnated a dignified
Ethiopian Queen who was his guest was not something to be proud of. However, because of the greatness of Solomon and because of Ethiopia's
attachment to Judaism and Christianity, the legend was accepted positively. Consequently, it helped Yekuno Amlak and his
descendants to rule Ethiopia for 700 years.
Yekuno Amlak is supposed to be the 9th descendant of Del Ne'ad the Tigrean. If this was true, then the Amhara who had
no ethnic relationship with him contrary to the Tigreans, used Yekuno Amlak by whom they were used mutually to seize
power. If Yekuno Amlak was indeed the descendant of the last Aksumite Emperor, and as such a Tigrean, then all those
emperors who succeeded him and reigned in Gonder and Shoa including Fasiledes, Menelik and Haile Selassie, were all of
Tigrean and not of Amhara descent. In that case, the allegation that it was Amhara emperors who sat upon the Ethiopian
throne for the past 700 years has no foundation. In the final analysis, it
doesn't matter whether Yekuno Amlak and his descendants were Tigreans or Amharas who usurped the Solomonic Dynasty like the Zagwe emperors. The fact is that they
ruled Ethiopia for 700 years supported by the Amhara and the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church. This Church, though Aksumite
in origin, empowered itself during the Shoan era, and became for the Amhara the foundation of their monarchy, history, arts,
and culture and the source of their inspiration and courage. The Amhara thought that if their Church was threatened their
livelihood was at stake. The Tewahedo Church indeed enabled the Amhara, at least nominally, to have an access to the
power which the Tigreans had lost about 1100 years ago.
Since Yekuno Amlak was born among the Amhara, even assuming that he was not an Amhara, there is no doubt that he
spoke Amharic as his mother-tongue. As a matter of fact, it was during his reign that Amharic began spreading fast
throughout the Ethiopian Empire. He made Tegulet (Debre-Berhan) in Shoa his Capital city. Nevertheless, he didn't stay
there all the time. He roamed about the empire to consolidate his power and to build his nation, a tradition which almost all
Ethiopian emperors followed.
Contrary to the Aksumite emperors, who made their presence felt mainly in the North and across the Red Sea, Yekuno
Amlak and his descendants expanded South, West and East within Ethiopia. Yekuno Amlak, Amde-Tsion (r. 1314-1344),
Dawit I (r. 138O-1412), Zera Yacob (r. 1434-1468), Be'ede Mariam (r. 1468-1478), Naod (r. 1494-15O8), Lebene
Dengil (r. 15O8-154O), Gelawdewos (r. 154O-1559), Sertse Dengel (r. 1563-1597), Susenyos (r. 16O7-1632),
Fasilidas (r. 1632-1667), Yohannes I (r. 1667-1682), Iyasu I (r. 1682-17O6), Bekaffa (r. 1721-173O), Iyassu II (r.
173O-1755), Iyoas (r. 1755-1769), Menelik II (r.1889-19O9) and Haile Selassie (r.193O-1974), all these emperors
defended the territorial integrity of their country against foreign powers, upheld Christianity strongly and withstood the
forces which used Islam as a pretext to wage war and seize power. They also intermingled with the Oromo and shared with
them blood and culture, after a long fight with them.
The Aksumites, in their heydays, crossed the Red Sea, seized Arabia, colonized it and converted their subjects to
Christianity. In other words, they were the ones who were aggressive. The Amhara, because of the historical time they were
in power, i.e., after the rise of Islam and during the age of imperialism, had to be defensive for the most part. However, it
doesn't mean that they didn't invade and occupy foreign countries. As a matter of fact, they raided Nubia (Sudan) from time
to time. According to his Gedl, Atse Fasil (1632-1667) colonized Nubia and a part of Egypt successfully. Besides trying to
expand Ethiopia's territory, the Amhara played a leading role in defending the territorial integrity of Ethiopia from foreign
The Turks were the first foreign aggressors towards the end of the 16th Century who had an immense ambition to colonize
eastern and northern Ethiopia, control Ethiopia's commerce and communication with the outside world, and impose their
religion upon her. This they attempted to exercise first by using Muslims of Yifat, as well as Somali and Afar Ethiopians.
Gragn Muhammed and his successors were instrumental for the Turks to weaken Christian Ethiopian emperors. The Turks
were then one of the super powers of the day.
Besides occupying the coast of Eritrea and the Red Sea islands of Ethiopia such as Harkiko, they even came as far as
Tigray to wage war against Ethiopia. One of the Amhara emperors who fought the Turks ferociously was Atse Sertse
Dengel. In 1588-89 he mobilized a large army and waged a decisive war against them in Tigray and what is now called
Eritrea. He managed to wipe them out of Eritrea and Tigray liberating Massawa and Debarua. They escaped to the sea and
either hid in the island of Arkiko or fought back with canons mounted on their naval fleets from the Red Sea. Since
Ethiopia's great navy had ceased to exist with the decline of the Aksumite Empire, Sertse Dengel could not pursue them
with ships. As a result, he kept his troops at the coast of the sea for a while and due to scorching sun and lack of provisions,
he retreated inland lest his solders die from dehydration and starvation. The Turks returned and seized the Red Sea coast
including Massawa and Debarua. Later, another emperor, Atse Fasil, realizing the futility of fighting with them, chose
diplomacy and made a pact accepting to live with them. History repeated itself in time of Menelik II. Atse Sertse Dengel's
defeat of the Turks and Atse Fasil's pact with them is amazingly similar to Menelik's defeat of the Italian imperialists 308
years later at the Battle of Adwa. Emperor Menelik, too, had to make a pact with the Italians who were in Eritrea and
return to his Capital lest his soldiers die from drought and starvation if he were to pursue the Italians any further to the sea.
In any case, in 1896 and 1936, the role of leadership in defending Ethiopia twice from European imperialism during the
scramble for Africa and the rise of fascism, was played once again by the Amhara and Amhara emperors, Atse Menelik
and Atse Haile Selassie, who mobilized the various ethnic groups to resist the aggression.
The reason why the Amhara and their emperors played a leading role in defending Ethiopia was not that they loved Ethiopia
more than the Tigreans or other ethnic groups. It was because they happened to rule Ethiopia when her independence was
at stake. The Tigreans and Emperor Yohannes IV, too, had fought the Italian and Mahdist aggressors on several occasions
when the Tigreans once again were ruling Ethiopia albeit briefly. In fact, it was while fighting against the Mahdists that Atse
Yohannes lost his life. The time in which the Tigreans once again ruled Ethiopia after they lost power for about 1100 years
were too short (seventeen years, 1872-89) to create in them a strong feeling of nationalism for the entire Ethiopia.
Moreover, in contrast to the Amhara who went to Tigray several times from southern, central and western Ethiopia to
liberate Tigray including Eritrea from the Turks and Italians, the Tigreans were fighting against the foreign invaders only
within Tigray proper (except Metema where Yohannes IV died to avenge the Mahdists for raiding Gonder) to liberate their
own land. The fact that the Amhara were defending Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia for 700 years helped them to develop a
strong sense of Ethiopian nationalism.
Before the rise of Islam, the Afar and the Somali peoples were first under the sovereignty of
the Aksumites, and later under those of the Zagwe emperors to whom they paid tribute. With the rise of Islam, however, Aksum began to decline and
these Ethiopians were converted to Islam. Later, during the reign of Yekuno Amlak and his descendants, supported by the
Arabs and the Turks, they rebelled against their Christian sovereigns who ruled them from Shoa. They defied their authority
and waged Jihad wars against Shoan emperors such as Amde-Tsion, Seife-Ar'ed, Dawit, Zere-Yacob, Be'de-Mariam,
Lebene-Dengel and Gelawdewos. Though there were other Ethiopian Muslim leaders (for instance, the Sultans of Yifat
such as Sabredin, Kadi Selehi, Hakadin and Se'adadin) who had waged unsuccessful Islamic wars against the Shoan
emperors, Ahmed Gragn, who was based in Harer, was able to defeat them and rule a good part of Ethiopia for about 16
years, until he was killed by a Portuguese soldier in a battle in 1543. Ahmed Gragn's nephew, Nur Ahmed, avenged his
uncle later by killing Emperor Gelawdewos in 1560. After that, the Amhara emperors didn't resume fighting against their
Afari and Somali countrymen until 1577 when Sultan Mohamed IV rose against Emperor Sertse-Dengel in a battle at the
Wabi Shebele region. He lost this battle and his life. To temper the aggression of the Afar, the Shoan Emperors sought
marriage with the daughters of the Afar chieftains. This strategy helped them to some extent.
In 1887, Emperor Menelik II established a total dominion over Harer and ended the emirate and sultanate once and for all.
The fact that the Amhara were ruling Ethiopia until the rise of Emperor Yohannes IV, who empowered the Tigreans once
again, made them historically responsible to defend Ethiopia and to play a leading role in her expansion and unity. This
situation stirred in them a strong national feeling as well as unbreakable bond to and an identity with Ethiopia for whose sake
they shed their blood willingly.
Whereas the expansion of the Aksumites within Ethiopia was very limited, the Amhara, basing themselves in Gonder and
Shoa, stretched to the peripheries in their nation-building endeavor in which they succeeded to bring together Ethiopia under
their sovereignty, so that when the Derg collapsed in 1991, the TPLF and EPLF were able to inherit the present large
territory of Ethiopia including Eritrea. Of course, there were two non-Amhara emperors who have also contributed to the
expansion and unity of Ethiopia, namely, Atse Tewodros of Quara and Atse Yohannes of Tigre. Even though these
emperors were not Amhara, they followed in the footsteps of Amhara emperors linking themselves to the Solomonic
Dynasty and maintaining the status quo which the Amhara had established.
The Amhara were not lucky enough to live in peace. Shortly after the Islamic wars were over, they engaged in a war with
their other countrymen, the Oromo, who had started expanding into their territories in the 1520s when the Amhara were
busy with their Muslim brothers. Compared with the Tigre, the Amhara lived in the most fertile regions of Ethiopia. Initially,
the different Oromo tribes fought the Amhara wherever they happened to be, looking for ideal grazing lands for their cattle.
Tigray being arid, the Oromo were not interested in it. So, they looked at it from afar and ignored it. After the Amhara
moved their capital city from Shoa to Gonder in order to be less accessible to the Muslim invaders, the Oromo had
engaged in many battles with the Amhara in Gonder and Gojam. In one of such battles, a little "Amhara" prince by the name
of Susenyos was captured by the Oromo and was adopted by one of them. He learned the Oromo language and grew up in
accordance with the Oromo culture. After he lived six years with them, he reunited with his royal family in Gonder. Upon
the death of his father his power rivals chased him out of Gonder. He found refuge among his former Oromo friends and
persuaded them to follow him claiming that he was their king. Indeed, they accepted him as their leader and fought for him
in Shoa and other parts of central Ethiopia where he emerged victorious. Gradually, he marched with them to Gonder and
seized power and became emperor. He filled the court with his Oromo friends and soldiers and spent most of his leisure
time with them ignoring the Amhara. He appointed them to higher posts in his empire. Whenever the Amhara of Gojam and
Gonder rebelled against him, he sent the ferocious Oromo fighters whom he allowed to rule over the rebellious Amhara as
governors and landlords. This way the Oromo rooted themselves in Amhara territories consolidating their power and
exerting their influence upon the Amhara. Their presence and influence were felt more in Gonder when Emperor Iyasu II
married an Oromo lady by the name of Wabi and begot Iyoas. Later, Wabi appointed her Oromo brothers and relatives to
higher positions in the empire, and her son, Emperor Iyoas, favored them more than the Gonder Amhara. Elsewhere in
Shoa, Wello, Meket and Shadaho, the Amhara got tired of fighting with
the Oromo and intermingled with them through marriage and Oromo adoption systems known as Mogassa and Gudifecha.
Eventually, the Amhara and the Oromo, besides mixing blood, influenced each other's language, religion, culture, arts and
crafts, warfare and horsemanship to mention just a few. This mixing of blood and culture resulted in creating great
emperors, kings and empresses of Oromo descent such as Iyoas, Tekle-Haimanot of Gojam, Menelik II, Haile Selassie I,
Itege Tewabech, Itege Taitu Betul and Itege Mennen, even without mentioning the myriads of Oromo princes, Rasses and
Dedjazmatches. This phenomenon coupled with the fact that the Amhara were more or less dispersed all over the length
and breadth of Ethiopia, expanded their world-outlook and sense of belonging to the entire Ethiopia. Instead of being
locked within their own ethnic shell, they broke out of it and achieved universality. Instead of feeling being only Amhara,
they considered themselves, first and foremost, Ethiopians. Further more, the fact that the Amhara were dispersed in
different provinces mixed with various ethnic groups by whose languages, religions, culture and psychological makeups they
were influenced, each Amhara group, depending on its location, evolved as a unique entity with its own characteristic
features, which to a degree distinguish it from the others. In other words, it lacked homogeneity to be so ethnic-minded.
Particularly the Shoan Amhara which both the TPLF and EPLF resent extremely, formed an independent state with its own
unique political, economic, cultural and social system unlike that of the Gonder and Gojam Amhara, when they refused to
pay tribute to the Gonder Amhara in 1738. Atse Iyasu Adiam-Seged, who was then the Emperor of Ethiopia, sent his army
to subdue the Shoan Amhara, who, led by Mered Azmatch Abiye, won the battle, thus cutting off Shoa from Gonder for
about 125 years until Emperor Tewodros II captured young Menelik upon the death of his father King Haile-Melekot in
1863. This lack of homogeneity among the Amhara turned out to be a positive factor which helped them to evolve as
Ethiopians first and foremost, and as such, to develop a strong feeling of a "wider nationalism" as opposed to narrow
That was not the case with the Tigreans. Since the Tigreans, compared with the Amhara, were confined to their own
province without mixing with the Oromo or other ethnic groups, which would imprint a lasting impact upon them for the past
1100 years, kept themselves homogenous. For this reason, their language (inspite of the fact that many of them spoke
Amharic), religion, culture, psychological makeup and geographical territory (except Eritrea's separation from it), remained
predominantly the same as they were for hundreds of years. This fact made the leaders of the TPLF so ethnocentric that
their most articulate members such as Meles Zenawi and his associates declared that they were Tigreans first and foremost.
Hence, their lack of Ethiopian nationalism. Hence their opting to wage ethnic war against Mengistu Haile-Mariam's regime,
whereas the great majority of the Amhara youth chose to fight for all Ethiopian oppressed masses irrespective of their ethnic
After the fall of Aksum, Tigre was ruled first by the Agew, later by the Amhara and Oromo emperors, regents,
Dedjazmatches, Rasses or by Tigrean chieftains appointed by them. The Tigrean ruling class submitted to the Amhara
emperors or the enderasses of Ethiopia (regents) whether they were Oromo or Amhara, and expressed their allegiance to
them whenever they (the Tigreans) were weaker. On the other hand, when they felt that they were strong enough or
oppressed too much, they defied their authority, refused to pay tribute and even fought them. One typical example of such
Tigre warlords was Ras Se'ul Mikael. In 1745, when he felt that he was powerful militarily, he rebelled against Emperor
Iyasu Birhan Seged, but when he realized that he couldn't withstand him, he submitted to him. Around 1805 Ras
Wolde-Selassie rebelled against the Oromo Regent of Ethiopia, Ras Gugssa. After his death, Dedjazmatch Sabagadis
defied the Authority of his son, the Regent Ras Mariye. After the death of Ras Mariye, his brother, Dedjazmatch Dori
became the Regent of Ethiopia. Dedjazmatch Sabagadis' son, Dedjazmatch Kahssaye, refused to submit to Dedjazmatch
Woube who was appointed by Dedjazmatch Dori.
After the death of Atse Yohannes IV, Ras Mengesha, who claimed the throne,
supported by Ras Alula and Ras Hagos, did not express his allegiance to Menelik and submit to him in the beginning. It took Menelik a long time to reconcile with both
Ras Mengesha and Ras Alula of Tigre.
In the days gone by, in the regions known as Tigray and Tigre, located on both sides of the Mereb River, the ruling classes
used to fight each other for the sake of territories and power. For example, the ruling family of Shum Agame Woldu, the
father of Dedjazmatch Sabagadis from Agame, the family of Shum Tenben Mircha, the father of Atse Yohannes IV from
Tenben, the family of Ras Wolde-Selassie from Enderta and the family of Kentiba Tesfa and Zeray, Dedjazmatch
Wolde-Mikael and Dedjazmatch Hailu from Hamassien, were bitter enemies who battled often for the acquisition of land
and power. Nevertheless, they were all united in their opposition against and their feelings of resentment towards the
Amhara, even though this or that group may have appeared to be preferred by the Amhara or seemed to favor and
collaborate with the Amhara.
In the 20th Century, the Tigre ruling class persuaded by the British, stirred the peasants to rise (the Woyane Uprising)
against the Shoan Amhara and Emperor Haile Selassie, after the liberation of Ethiopia from fascist Italy in 1943-44. A
special force led by Ras Abebe Aregay suppressed the uprising. Taking the place of the Italians, the British had a scheme to
rule both Tigray and Eritrea as one entity of Tigre-Tigrigna. To this end, they attempted to use Atse Yohannes' close
relatives such as Ras Seyum and Dedjazmatch Haile-Selassie Gugssa who had already been appointed as the Governor
General of Tigre by the Italian fascists. Ras Seyum accepted the British offer to be the Governor General of Tigre, and then
changed his mind when he found out that Emperor Haile-Selassie had arrived in Ethiopia from exile. The British replaced
Ras Seyum with the opportunist banda Dedjazmatch Haile-Selassie Gugssa whom they promoted to Ras. The Emperor
had to put immense pressure on the British government to assert his sovereignty. Despite Ras Seyum's expression of his
allegiance to Emperor Haile-Selassie, the latter was at times suspicious of the former, remembering his initial collaboration
with the British. Even the young Ras Mengesha Seyum, who was then only 16 years old was implicated with being a part of
the Woyane Uprising and brought to trial in Addis Abeba.
Evidently, the leaders of the TPLF sympathize with the Woyane Uprising and regret its failure since they have named their
organization the Woyane Harenet Tigray. Some of the important leaders of the TPLF such as Meles Zenawi and Hayelom
Araya (TPLF's militia leader who was posthumously promoted to general), to mention only the two as an example, were
from the Tigre ruling class. Ato Meles's grandfather and Ato Hayelom's father were Dedjazmatchs. Usually, the son of a
warlord had a chance to inherit the title of his father if he was favored by the Emperor of Ethiopia. Ato Zenawi, the father of
Meles, did not either serve fully under Emperor Haile Selassie, or if he did, obviously was not favored by the Shoan
Emperor, since he didn't confer upon him his father's or any title for that matter. It is not surprising then if he disliked the
Emperor Haile-Selassie, in particular, and the Amhara ruling class in general, and if he passed on this sentiment to his son.
Tigrean leaders and warlords who disdained the Amhara ruling class, in particular, and the Amhara, in general, are likely to
influence their children including some of the important leaders of the TPLF with their negative attitude towards this class
and ethnic group. Therefore, the hatred towards the Amhara by some of the TPLF leaders is primarily subjective and
vindictive. The feelings of the leaders of the TPLF towards the Ethiopian feudal system and its officials was the same as that
of the progressive Amhara youth. However, their resentment of the Amhara ruling class, in particular, and that of the
Amhara, in general, originates mainly from the influence of their families.
There are a few more reasons behind why Tigrean elites resent the Shoan Amhara, and all Amhara, in general. These
Tigreans have a contradictory relationship with the history of Tigray. Even though because of their Marxist orientation they
tend to label the history of Tigray as feudal, in essence, deep down inside, they are proud of Aksum's glorious past. The
fact that Aksum declined, that Tigreans in general lost power, that the capital of Ethiopia moved from Tigray first to Lasta,
then to Shoa and Gonder and back to Shoa, that Tigray is arid, less attended and poverty-stricken pains them deeply. As
mentioned previously, since it was the Shoan Amhara who throned emperors who claimed to be of the Aksumite,
Solomonic Dynasty and ruled Ethiopia including Tigray for the past 700 years with the exception of the time when Ras
Mikael Se'ul as the Enderasse of Ethiopia was governing Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia before the Era of Princess
(Zemene Mesafent) for whose occurrence he himself was partly responsible, and the reign of Atse Yohannes IV
(1872-89) during the last century, they make these Amharas as an scapegoat for the demise of Tigray. That is one reason.
Another reason why they accuse the Amhara is to consolidate their power since they are afraid of the greatness in number
of the Amhara, their seasoned experience for 700 years in warfare, diplomacy, the political arena and bureaucracy. In order
to withstand all of these and survive, the leaders of the TPLF have resorted to demonizing the Amhara to unite against them
the other Ethiopian ethnic groups including the Oromo who are actually related to the Amhara. That was why the TPLF
regime neither protected when innocent Amharas were butchered mercilessly in Harer, Arsi, Shoa and elsewhere, nor cared
to bring the criminals to the court of justice.
With the exception of some individuals, the majority of Tigrean intellectuals have chosen to remain silent about the division
of Ethiopia along ethnic lines and the attack on the Amhara. First of all, because of the historical reasons given above,
ethnicity has always been in their blood regardless of how well they have been educated. Therefore, they feel at home with
the division of Ethiopia along ethnic lines. Moreover, this scheme can weaken for them the Amhara, whom they consider to
be their fiercest rivals. Most important of all, they think that the status quo is in favor of their home province which is
prospering and developing rapidly at the expense of the rest of Ethiopia.
Consequently, they have Yo
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kind of attitude towards the TPLF leader ship. For the
opportunist Tigreans, there is no better time than this to secure power and amass wealth. So, why should they oppose the
present Tigrean government which, in their opinion, is working around the clock to make up what Tigray has lost for the
past 1100 years?
Even though their political system was far from being perfect, the Amhara leaders at least did not so openly campaign to
promote only the interest of their own ethnic group and take total advantage of the fact that they were in power. Striving to
accommodate all, they somehow shared power and wealth with the ruling classes of the other major ethnic groups including
the Oromo and Tigre. The Amhara people were not treated in any special way by the ruling Amhara class. Consequently,
the Amhara of Gonder, Gojam, Wello and Shoa remained as poor and as miserable as the common folks of Tigre, Harer,
Sidamo, Keffa, and the other regions.
Whereas the Amhara, and particularly the Shoan and Wello Amhara, because of the vastness of their territories, their active
engagement in war, politics and commerce, as well as their open-mindedness, easily intermingled and assimilated with
various non-Amhara peoples of Ethiopia, whose ways of life, language and culture they inherited and by whose religion and
tradition they were deeply affected, the Tigreans who lived in Tigray proper, as indicated earlier, were intact and all alone
by themselves with no other non-Tigrean people settling amongst them to influence them linguistically, culturally and
psychologically for at least 1100 years. True, some Tigreans found their way to other provinces such as Gonder, Wello and
even as far as Shoa to seek out their fortune. However, the number of such Tigreans is insignificant in relation to the vast
majority of Tigreans who have never been out of Tigray proper. In our time, though these Tigreans have been exposed to
the life-style, language and culture of their "hosts," many of them remained to be a closed society preferring often to speak
their own language even in the presence of non-Tigrigna speaking friends of theirs, sticking together as much as they could.
Even those who were born and raised away from Tigray and Eritrea portrayed themselves as foreign nationals with their
hearts craving for Tigray and Eritrea where they have never been. Indeed, they were mightily
ethnocentric. That was why they used to support financially and otherwise their own ethnic political organizations such as the TPLF and EPLF. This, of
course, excludes those Tigreans and Eritreans who were broad-minded enough to join non-ethnic Ethiopian political
organizations such as the student movement, the EPRP and Meison. Unfortunately, some of these Tigreans abandoned the
student movement and the EPRP and joined their own ethnic fronts eventually. I know of numerous Tigreans and Eritreans
who were born and raised in Addis Abeba and elsewhere in Ethiopia, who struggled in the Ethiopian student movement
until they joined their own ethnic front. What is more, they waged a war against the EPRP and chased out its members from
Assimba, Tigray, claiming that they were not of the Tigre ethnic group to operate there militarily.
Those who consider themselves Ethiopians first and foremost have responded bitterly to the division of Ethiopia along ethnic
lines; to the way the referendum was conducted in Eritrea; to the fact that Eritrea is still the economic and political burden
on Ethiopia despite her declaration of independence; to the sacking of Amharas from government institutions en mass and
their replacement with Tigreans and Eritreans; to the disbanding of the Ethiopian army; and to the political and economic
domination of Ethiopia by the political organization of a single ethnic group which safeguards only its own interest though it
was supposed to cater to the welfare of the whole of Ethiopia. Even some Ethiopians, who in the beginning welcomed the
TPLF when it seized power from the Derg regime, have now withdrawn their sympathy from and are disappointed with the
TPLF Government. These Ethiopians fear that TPLF's ethnic policy will lead to genocidal conflict like that of Ruwanda,
Somalia and Bosnia and destroy Ethiopia. Ato Meles contends that his policy will stop this from happening. What he
refuses to admit is that there is ethnic-cleansing albeit on small scale going on in Ethiopia, which may transform itself into a
larger scale unless it is checked now. That is not all. This policy has established the political and economic domination of
one ethnic group, namely the Tigre, over the rest.
I am not of the opinion that the TPLF deliberately designed its ethnic policy to annihilate Ethiopia totally. It organized itself
ethnically to overthrow the Derg. Mobilizing some of the people of Tigray by exploiting their hatred for the Derg, it liberated
Tigray. In the same way, it marched to Addis Abeba exploiting the hatred for the Derg by the rest of the Ethiopian people
including the Amhara and the military which refused to continue the fighting. Instead of dragging Ethiopia back to an
outdated form of social order after she had already achieved statehood as a result of 1000 years of struggle by visionary
Ethiopian leaders, it would have been correct to only implement a policy which will secure Ethiopian unity based on equality
and regional autonomy.
As things now stand, it is unlikely that the TPLF will destroy Ethiopia and return to Tigray, as numerous Ethiopians fear. The
TPLF will lose its economic resource if Ethiopia is eliminated totally. It keeps Ethiopia in such a way that she is neither
united to resist the TPLF nor totally fragmented to be controlled by it. That is why it suppresses any ethnic movement which
seeks complete independence from its grip, though on paper, it grants such rights. In the long run, however, I don't think it
can continue to play this game effectively. The people of Ethiopia, whose level of consciousness is rising every minute, will
definitely challenge it.
The reason given by Ato Meles Zenawi for the current economic, industrial, educational and cultural boom in Tigray and the
absence of these elsewhere in Ethiopia is that the Tigreans are working harder under a peaceful circumstance, whereas the
other ethnic groups of Ethiopia are fighting each other instead of using their energy in constructing their respective killils.
What Ato Meles has lost sight of is the fact that it is his administration which has created such a hostile atmosphere which
encourages ethnic clashes. On top of that, the TPLF doesn't allocate as much funds to the other regions as it does to Tigray.
Ato Meles's assertion that Tigray is not the most favored killil of his government is far from the truth. There is no doubt
that, under the pretext of reconstructing war-torn Tigray, the TPLF is pumping into the region money donated and
borrowed in Ethiopia's name. I have no objection if Tigray makes economic, educational and cultural progress as long as
the downtrodden people of Tigray can benefit from it. In fact, I will be delighted about it as I deem the downtrodden
Tigreans as my own people. Nevertheless, I want to see the same progress in Gojam, Gonder, Illubabur, Keffa, Bale,
Sidamo Harer, and the other regions of Ethiopia. As long as these forgotten Ethiopian provinces do not get the same
attention as Tigray, then the TPLF is indeed out there to plunder Ethiopia. I don't think Ethiopians will tolerate this sort of
injustice for a long time.
Will the people of Tigray get anything out of TPLF's undertakings? I doubt that they will. Since almost all of the industries
are owned by a few TPLF officials and supporters, it is this group of the "new rich" which will have the lions share of it, and
not the Tigray people.
Some enraged Ethiopians accuse all the peoples of Tigray to be the supporters and collaborators of the TPLF. They also
assume that since the TPLF had an army of about 100,000 Tigreans, by proportion, all Tigreans must be its supporters.
The Derg too, had about 500,000 soldiers and militiamen. Does it mean that the Derg was supported by all Ethiopians just
because it had a large army? Of course not! It was the Derg itself which created all the forces which united against it. When
the EPRP was waging guerrilla warfare against the Derg in Assimba, Tigray, before the formation of the TPLF, or when it
was yet in its infancy, many Tigre peasants embraced the EPRP. After the EPRP was forced to leave Assimba due to
TPLF pressure, however, the people had no choice but to side with the TPLF since it was the only group operating in
Tigray against the tyranny of the Derg. That was it. The only way any government can gain the total support of its people is
by winning their hearts. Even if the people of Tigray were to profit from all the projects launched by the TPLF, it wouldn't
be that easy for the TPLF to win their hearts by buying them out with material luxuries. Individuals who have travelled to
Tigray and Addis Abeba witness that there is more freedom in Addis Abeba than in Tigray. How could then the TPLF win
the hearts and total support of the Tigray people as some of us think?
For any political entity to succeed in Tigray without resorting to violence, it should base its philosophy and cultural policy on
the historical, traditional and spiritual foundation of the Tigray people. This holds true to the TPLF and even to Tigrean
Alliance for National Democracy (TAND), which is opposed to government of Meles Zenawi; for neither of these political
organizations could deeply root itself and last long without taking into consideration the cherished values of the Tigray
So far, I attempted to explain why the members of the TPLF and its Tigrean supporters are ethnocentric. Pertaining the
Tigre people who now live in Tigray, as I pointed out in the beginning, one cannot know for sure their exact feelings
towards the TPLF and the rest of Ethiopia, since they haven't yet been granted the opportunity to articulate their true
feelings. Theoretically speaking, however, most of them can't be the supporters of the TPLF, since the TPLF doesn't have
much regard for their religion, history and culture which it negates as being feudal and backward, regardless of the fact that
it is working round the clock to industrialize Tigray.
Upto the present time, the Amhara have voiced their sad condition through the All Amhara People's Organization. This
Organization was necessary in the beginning in exposing the atrocities committed against the Amhara. Now, however, in the
best tradition of the Amhara, it should transform qualitatively and call itself, All Ethiopian People's Organization, and
champion Ethiopian nationalism and unity by uniting with all Ethiopian ethnic groups including the Tigre, which genuinely
believe in Ethiopian unity based on equality. By so doing, it will win the support of the other ethnic groups to protect its
members more effectively and to realize Ethiopian unity based on equality and mutual respect, for whose attainment the
Amhara have shed their blood the past 700 years. Otherwise, it will contribute indirectly to the ethnic division of Ethiopia
against which it has struggled up to now.
Fikre Tolossa, Ph.D., is Associate Editor of ER.
The above article by Dr. Fikre was published in the January-February 1997 issue of
© Ethiopian Review/Fikre Tolossa 1997
Note by Aberra Molla: The few Amharic words which were typed using GeezEdit in PageMaker have been replaced
by the standard (EthioWord) Ethiopic characters.
Last Updated July 29, 1997