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Series: The History of Epidemics
02. The History of Epidemics in Ethiopia
Epidemics from the Reign of Emperor Zar’a Ya‘qob, to the Rise of Gondar
The reign of Zar’a Ya‘qob nevertheless witnessed a serious epidemic which, to judge from his chronicle, probably occurred between 1454 and 1468. It is recorded that the monarch was then at his newly established capital, Dabra Berhan, when there was “a great pestilence which killed so large a number of people that no one remained to bury the dead.” Zar’a Ya‘qob therefore ordered the construction of a new church, called Beta Qirqos, in the hope that this would cause God to remove the disease from Dabra Berhan, in accordance with the promise that “the plague will not come to the spot where a temple will be built.” The chronicler claimed that his master’s “faith and confidence” was successful, for it “turned away the illness from the enclosure of his palace just as he had hoped.”
“Sticks of Moses”
Zar’a Ya‘qob insisted that the corpses should be properly buried. “When the plague decimated the country,” the chronicle states, he “ordered all the inhabitants to come together to bury the dead.” He told them to assemble for this purpose with sticks and branches, and to sprinkle holy water. These groups of men he termed “Congregations of the Evangelist”, and the branches, he called “Sticks of Moses.”
This epidemic seems to be referred to in other texts of the period. The Acts of Batergela Maryam, one of Zar’a Ya‘qob’s sons, relates that “there arose a murderous plague so great that it was impossible to describe.” The young man, it is said, went at that time into an area affected by the disease, but the Virgin Mary saved him by causing his father to recall him home. Thus, it is claimed, Batergela Maryam was preserved, though two of his brothers fell victim to the disease.
The Good Nun, Krestos Samra
The same epidemic seems also to be mentioned in the Acts of Krestos Samra, a Shawan nun who founded a hermitage on the island of Gwangut in Lake Tana. She is quoted as stating that the plague came upon “all the confines of the world” (i.e. a large stretch of Ethiopia), and remained for three years. “Many people”, it is said, perished, and their houses were “filled with tears and lamentations.” The epidemic is spoken of as a kind of “army”, and the text claims that the holy woman was able to converse with one of its soldiers.
Reference to this same pestilence is likewise found in the Acts of St. Fere Mika’el and St. Zar’a Abreham, who lived in the land of Warab during the reign of Zar’a Ya‘qob. Fere Mika’el, it is said, prayed for “all the people, men, women and children, far and near,” but he, his brother, and two nephews all died of the plague.
“Killed Many People”
Ethiopian preoccupation with such pestilence is apparent in an early fifteenth century manuscript of the Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which tells of three successive epidemics. The last and most serious of them “killed many people, including women and children.” This caused everyone to mourn in anticipation of their own death.
Five Epidemics of the Sixteenth Century
At least five major epidemics are known to have occurred during the sixteenth century.
The first, which was the earliest to be recorded by a European observer, was described by Francisco Alvares, chaplain of the Portuguese diplomatic mission of the 1520s. He recalls that while his party was at the monastery of Dabra Bizan, in May 1520, “the people fell sick, both the Portuguese and our slaves; few or none remained who were not affected, and many were in danger of death.” Patients, in accordance with contemporary medical practice, were “often bled and purged.” Those not so treated were attacked by the disease “with all its force.” Among those who died was Murad, an allegedly Armenian envoy in Ethiopian service, as well as one of the Portuguese servants.
This outbreak may well have been that referred to in the Life of ‘Enbakom, abbot of Dabra Libanos, which mentions an epidemic in which the good man buried no less than 400 monks in one year.
The second recorded pestilence occurred half a century later. It is mentioned in a Harari Arabic manuscript which records that there was a severe famine in AH 975 (i.e. AD. 1567-1568). It was reportedly followed by a plague, in which the renowned ruler of Harar, Amir Nur, perished.
A third epidemic was reported towards the end of the reign of Emperor Sarsa Dengel (1563-1597). His chronicle states that it broke out in the King’s camp and “many men” died. This outbreak, or another of the period, is referred to in the Acts of Batra Maryam, founder of a church at Zage by Lake Tana.
A fourth plague, according to the same text, broke out in Damot, where the holy man and his disciples all fell ill but were cured by his prayers.
A famine, however, later broke out in the same country, allegedly because the people were “wicked”, and did not know the Lord. “Many” are said to have fallen ill as a consequence and were “near to death,” but were saved by Batra Maryam, who called them to prayer, as a result of which his fame spread widely throughout the land.
The Seventeenth Century
Though the medically more detailed records of the seventeenth century provide the first diagnoses of epidemics, several of the outbreaks mentioned in this period remain unidentified.
The first, according to the Ethiopian royal chronicles, occurred in the fifth year of the reign of Emperor Susenyos (i.e., in 1611). This outbreak was so severe that it was called Manan Tita, literally meaning “Who did it leave?” It is said that “many people” died, particularly in Dambeya. One of the chronicles comments that this outbreak was too severe to describe.
An eyewitness account of a somewhat later epidemic was provided by a Jesuit missionary, Aloysius de Azevedo, who reported that in 1616 there was “a great pestilence”. It is said to have been especially severe in Tegray, where it carried off entire villages – although, he claims, that it did not touch any Catholics, thus proving God’s “paternal care” for them a somewhat dubious statement.
This outbreak was followed, a couple of years later, by another epidemic, which is mentioned both in Susneyos’s chronicle and by the Jesuits. The former source states that many people succumbed, including Kantiba Za Giyorgis, the governor of Dambeya, and that the monarch grieved greatly for them. The disease then carried off many nobles at the king’s camp at Gorgora by Lake Tana. The victims included one of the principal church officials, ‘Aqabe Sa’at Abba Egwale, the governor of the coastal province, Bahr Nagash Del Ba Iyasus, and two other prominent courtiers, Dajazmach Kefla Wahed and Abetahun Yolyos. So many people perished that no one could count the dead. Their kinsmen buried them anywhere they could, without looking for any church. The number of bodies was so great that the monarch found it necessary to abandon his camp by the lake and move to higher ground.
A Jesuit Account
Azevedo, whose report confirms much of the above account, observed in October 1618 that the country was suffering from a plague that killed three important personalities, and that the monarch was obliged to transfer his headquarters to the cooler (i.e. healthier) region of Danqaz. Even there mortality was high. The victims included several Portuguese, to whom the Jesuits gave the Sacraments. This was a notable deed, Azevedo claims, as the local clergy were refusing to visit the dying for fear of the disease which “spread and killed like the plague.” In the majority of cases people were not properly interred, but were merely dragged into some cave. Catholics, however, were duly buried with pomp according to the Roman rite. Ever anxious to assert that his co-religionists enjoyed Divine Protection, the missionary declared that when one of the Ethiopian converts died, the latter’s Orthodox brother would claim that he had perished as a result of his conversion. He adds with satisfaction that the unconverted brother, his wife, and several relatives were struck down by the disease a few days later.
Despite such fanciful assertions of Divine Partiality, the account of the monarch’s flight from infection seems well corroborated. This practice, which had occurred on many previous occasions, caused Hiob Ludolf, the renowned German scholar, to comment of the Ethiopians:
“If a Pestilence chances to break out, they leave their Houses and Villages, and retire with their Herds to the Mountains, putting all their Security in flying from the Contagion.
By the time of the founding of Gondar as the imperial capital in 1636 the more important epidemics recorded in the chronicles seem to be identifiable. Several undiagnosed outbreaks are, however, also mentioned. During the latter years of the Seventeenth Century there is thus report of an illness called Labalb, which raged at Gondar and elsewhere in 1683; another known as Fera, which killed many of King Ya‘qob’s soldiers in 1685; an unidentified disease which was particularly acute at Aksum in 1693; and a “very serious plague” called Tanaka, which erupted during the following rainy season.
The early decades of the eighteenth century likewise witnessed at least two unidentified epidemics: a pestilence called Gudru, which struck the country during the rainy season of 1701, and a “fierce” plague. which appeared during the rains of 1709. One last unidentified outbreak, possibly of typhus, which took place in 1772, is mentioned by the Scottish traveler James Bruce who states that it ‘affected the camp of a rebel called Tewodros.