Articles in this series:
Series: The History of Epidemics
01. The History of Epidemics in Ethiopia
Unidentified Epidemics in Medieval Times
Ethiopia has suffered over the centuries from innumerable epidemics, primarily of smallpox, cholera, typhus, dysentery, and influenza. The precise character of the earliest outbreaks cannot, however, be established, for the records of the time, many of which relate miracles alleged to have occurred in such times of distress, do not mention diseases by name, nor do they provide sufficient detail to allow identification. Many of the unidentified “pestilences” of the past, to judge from the evidence available, were nevertheless quite as serious as later outbreaks which can be medically diagnosed. Several, as we shall see, followed in the wake of famine, and in some cases led to flight, or migration, from the more affected areas.
The Ninth Century
The first two “pestilences” (i.e. epidemics) on record, both of them in the “Mashafa Senkesar”, or Ethiopian Synaxarium, both came in the wake of famine. The first is mentioned in the section to be read on the 23rd day of the month of Teqemt (i.e. in October), which recalls the life of Abba Joseph, the fifty-second Patriarch of Alexandria, who held office from 831 to 849 AD. The story is told that Abba Yohannes, the Coptic Abun (or head) of the Ethiopian church, was at that time expelled from Ethiopia, and returned to Egypt. His expulsion so angered the Lord, it is claimed, that it resulted in a famine and plague which caused the then Emperor to write a terrified letter to the Patriarch. This epistle stated that because certain people had gone astray, “great tribulation” had “come upon our land, and all our men are dying of the plague, and our beasts and cattle have perished, and God hath restrained the heavens so that they cannot rain upon our land.”
On receiving this message the Patriarch is said to have appointed “brave men” to return with Abba Yohannes to Ethiopia, whereupon, the Synaxarium claimed, “the plague ceased, and rain fell from heaven.”
The Twelfth or Thirteenth Century
The second epidemic, which seems to have occurred three centuries later, is mentioned in the passage of the Synaxarium for the tenth of Miyazya (i.e., in April). It commemorates the life of Saint Gabriel, the seventieth patriarch of Alexandria, who held office from 1131 to 1145 AD. The text states that the Ethiopian Emperor wished to appoint additional bishops, but that the ruler of Egypt opposed this on the ground that it would make the Ethiopians “wax bold.” He therefore, ordered the Patriarch to “send a letter and curse the King of Ethiopia.” The prelate complied, and, the Synaxarium adds:
“When that letter reached the King of Ethiopia .., famine and plague broke out in the land, and the rain would not fall on the fields, and great tribulation came upon the people.”
The Emperor thereupon “turned to God and repented,” after which the Almighty “removed His anger; and the rain descended upon them, and God removed the famine and the plague and the people rejoiced with great joy.”
Reference to another early epidemic is found in a Harari Arabic manuscript recording that a major pestilence struck the Harar area in AH 660 (i.e.. 1261-1262 AD). This was the first such event that can be dated with any certainty.
Early Hagiographical Accounts: Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries
Epidemics figure extensively in several hagiographical accounts of early times, i.e. Lives of Saints. Most biographies of St. Takla Haymanot, a holy man thought to have lived in Shawa in the twelfth or thirteenth century, thus claim that when he grew old he was forewarned of his coming demise. According to one such account, the Lord spoke to him, saying, “Thou hath finished thy contending, and there is nothing left for thee except to die. And behold, thou shalt die through the pain of pestilence, an evil death, and I will reckon it as if thou hadst been crucified, and will regard it as the blood of the martyrs who were before thee. And not thyself only, but also thy sons who shall die through sickness of pestilence …I will number with the martyrs.”
“The Holy Man Informed His Followers”
The holy man, it is said, informed his followers of his impending death, and “on the same day the sickness of pestilence came to them, and it seized those monks whose names he had declared.” Though the community was apparently small, consisting perhaps of only a few dozen, no less than fourteen men are said to have perished. The text presents the pestilence in personalized terms. Mention is thus made of an “army of the pestilence,” with whose leaders the Saint supposedly conversed.
Another biography of Takla Haymanot declares that when a “terrible epidemic” decimated the monks. The text claims that a frightful demon came from the disease after which the holy man turned to her, saying, “God will uproot you,” at which she turned pale, and died. The plague, we are told, “lasted a long while, and many of the monks passed from life to death.”
Such tales, preserved in the biography of one of the principal saints of the Ethiopian church, had their counterparts in many later writings.
The Reign of Amda Seyon
The Acts of St. Anorewos, a monk believed to have lived during the time of Emperor ‘Amda Seyon (1314-1344), tells for example of several epidemics. On one occasion, allegedly as a divine punishment on the King, white flies appeared, biting horses and men, as a result of which many animals and people died. A later pestilence is said to have been called forth by Anorewos as a punishment for a witch called Budi, but was derived possibly from somthing like influenza) reportedly affected the Saint himself in the throat, but was cured by the will of God. There is also mention of a fourth plague in which “many people” perished, while the rest fled. Only one of the holy man’s disciples is said to have remained in the area.
Another fourteenth-century outbreak of disease is described in the Acts of Abuna Aron, who lived in Dabra Darit in Bagemder during the reign of Emperor Sayfa Ared (1344-1372). A plague, we are told, “moved down the whole of Ethiopia,” and was so serious that one thousand of Aron’s disciples succumbed and his church was filled with corpses. The men and women who survived closed their houses and fled. Even after the saint’s own death, it was reported to the subsequent Abun, Abba Salama, that the bodies of the dead were piled on the grave of Aron, and that the church was so filled with corpses that it was impossible to set foot inside it. Thereupon the Abun ordered the old church closed and a new place of worship built to hold Aron’s remains.
The pestilence referred to above may well have been one mentioned in the Acts of Filipos, a monk who lived at Dabra Libanos during the reigns of both Amda Seyon and Sayfa Ared. This text states that fifty-three monks died, besides an unspecified number of women and children.
The Good Nun Zena Maryam
This same epidemic may also be that referred to in the Acts of Zena Maryam, a nun of Enfraz near Lake Tana, who lived in the second half of the fourteenth century. An outbreak, from which her mother died, is said to have occurred during her childhood. Her family, weeping bitter tears, buried her, whereupon “all the servants and neighbours fled from fear of the plague.” Zena Maryam then left home with her brothers and found refuge in a cave. She cut down branches, and built a fence as a defence against wild animals. She prayed to the Holy Trinity not to desert them, but the plague struck down one of her elder brothers. He was eaten alive by wild animals and his sister found, and buried, his remains. One by one all her brothers are said to have perished. Zena Maryam alone was spared, it is claimed, by the clemency of the Lord.
The magnitude of one of the plagues of this obscure period is apparent from the Acts of Yohannes, a monk of Dabra Bizan who lived from 1369 to 1448. This account relates that a famine, supposedly caused by the wickedness of the monks, was followed by an epidemic that had been foreseen by Yohannes in a revelation. All the monks suffered and many old people and children died, but the holy man comforted the survivors by reminding them of the trials and tribulations of Biblical times.
The importance attached to such calamities is likewise seen in the Acts of Marqorewos, a fifteenth century monk of Tegray, whose followers supposedly did not forget his precepts “even in time of epidemics.”
The Early Fifteenth Century: Emperor Zar;a Yaqob
The epidemics of the fifteenth century, though still largely impossible to diagnose, are on the whole better documented than those of earlier times.
Two of the earliest outbreaks of this period can be dated with some certainty. The first was reported by the Arab historian Maqrisi to have occurred in AH 839 (i.e. AD 1435-1436), a year or so after the accession of Emperor Zara Yaqob (1434-1468), and was described as “a pestilence ranging far and wide destroying the inhabitants of Abyssinia. The Hati (i.e. Emperor) fell victim to it, and so many people that the whole country is said to be “depopulated.” The ruler referred to was probably not Zara Yaqob, who lived on for over thirty years, but rather one of his immediate predecessors, Endreyas, Takla Maryam, Sarwe Iyasus, or Amda Iyasus, all of whom had unually short reigns, together totalling only four years.