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Series: Dr Pankhurst
Debre Tabor Part One
Debre Tabor was effectively the capital of Ethiopia during a turbulent period in the 19th Century.
There is not much evidence in the town today of this prestigious past. Unlike Gondar which preceded it, or Addis Ababa which followed (after an interval), Debre Tabor has no surviving castles or palaces. It does have two large churches, one of which is quite remarkable, but the fact remains that there is little evidence of past greatness in the town.
The important period of Debre Tabor’s history is framed by two Gugsa’s. The first, “Big Gugsa” in the parlance of the townsfolk, was the local noble and a dominant figure in the Ethiopia of his day from about 1803-25. The latter, “Little Gugsa” was the husband of Zewditu, the daughter of Emperor Menelik II, who was killed in a battle in 1930 as part of Haile Selassie’s capture of the throne of Ethiopia.
The high water mark of Debre Tabor’s history was in between these two Gugsa’s, during the reigns of Emperor Tewodros II (1855-68) and the early part of Emperor Johannes IV (1872-1889).
After the glory days of Gondar in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Ethiopian monarchy had fallen into eclipse. The reigning emperors continued to base themselves at Gondar, but exercised very little power or influence. Regional Nobles, or Ras’s, dominated the country, and some occasionally gained sufficient power to dominate the other Ras’s. The period preceding the reunification of Ethiopia under Emperor Tewodros in 1855 was therefore a period of some chaos, referred to as the “Zemana Mesafent”, or reign of princes'(around 1769-1855). With no central authority, the various princes’ or Ras’ fought for pre-eminence amongst themselves, and Ethiopia was a divided and vulnerable nation. (For a fuller account of this period and the succeeding monarchs, see A History of Modern Ethiopia by Bahru Zewdu).
‘Big Gugsa’, or more accurately Ras Gugsa Mursa, was the figure who emerged as the most powerful during this interregnum. He established Debre Tabor as his capital as the most powerful Ras during the Yajju dynasty, moving the seat of power from Gondar. From the time of his ascendancy in 1803 until the rise of Menelik II as the new emperor in 1889, Debre Tabor was the capital of Ethiopia. However, during the latter years of the reign of Johannes IV the seat of power was effectively removed from Debre Tabor to his magnificent new castle in Mekelle.
Debre Tabor could realistically be dubbed the capital of lost causes. Ras Gugsa Mursa was not successful in establishing any central control which survived his death in 1825. Emperor Tewodros II enjoyed a brief period of glory, which ended in rebellion and ousting by an invading force of British, and ‘little Gugsa’ was tricked, defeated and killed by the clever Ras Teferi, who became Emperor Haile Selassie.
The great remaining mark of Ras Gugsa Mursa is the Church of Jesus (Yesus) on one of the hills bordering Debre Tabor. This is a magnificent old stone church, with a wide circular stone wall and a large circular stone church within. When I visited our local informer told me that the church was 677 years old and had been built by ‘big Gugsa’. I’m always a bit confused by the source of these inaccuracies. Clearly the church would be about 177 years old if associated with ‘big Gugsa’. Does the informer not know the dates and genuinely believes the exaggeration? Was the church built on an old foundation which actually dates back a further 500 years? Does the informer know the story, but to impress or fool the inquisitive ferengi he exaggerates? I really don’t know the answer, but I am quite satisfied with the notion that the church as we see it was built with the support of Ras Gugsa Mursa in the early 1800’s.
The wall of the church has one main gate, which has signs of having been rebuilt much more recently than the original stonework. Our informer attributed this to ‘little Gugsa’ which would probably date it at about 75 years ago. The church grounds are marked by a number of fairly large stone burial chambers, an old one associated with ‘big Gugsa’ and a more recent square one of about two stories associated with ‘little Gugsa’.
An interesting aside is that both Gugsa’s were of Oromo stock, as indicated by their Oromo name, despite the overwhelming Amhara population of Debre Tabor and all of Gondar. Despite the history and memory of Oromo domination by Amhara’s in Ethiopia, some Oromo’s, particularly the Yajju dynasty, achieved great political power. Ironically, Debre Tabor was said to have been founded by the Emperor Seife Ara’ad in the 13th century, but rose to prominence when it was used as a base to contain the Oromo incursions which swept into the highlands in the 1600’s and 1700’s.
Other than the Church of Jesus, the only old structure of any significance is another church, St. Mary, which was built with the support of Emperor Tewodros II, completed in the 1860’s. A wonderful engraving of Debra Tabor survives from that period (see Ethiopia Engraved – Pankhurst and Ingrams), which shows the Church of St. Mary as the centre of the capital, with a large wall around it, and the houses and tents of the inhabitants covering the hillside below. The large house of the Emperor is clear in the foreground, but no evidence of its continued existence is to be found today. Houses built from wood and mud don’t last for 130 years, especially if they are on pieces of prime real estate. According to my historian friend and Debra Tabor native Gizaw Zewdu, invaluable historical sites have been mindlessly replaced with ‘modern’ buildings. Even stone structures disappear as building materials. As well, many old structures are built upon, altered and painted so that their original character disappears. Therefore in Debra Tabor, as in many other places, there is a lamentable lack of any physical evidence of past glory.
The church of St. Mary is quite unremarkable except for its association with Emperor Tewodros. As in other things, the energetic Emperor Tewodros was an avid reformer of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. His attempts to change the church ranged from intellectual attacks on the ongoing schism which split the church into three parts at the time of his reign, to his order that much of the church land be redistributed to peasants. The seizure of land, as well as his order that only two priests were necessary for each church and the others (calculated at astounding figures into the hundreds of thousands) should get into the fields and work, were sufficient themselves to turn the church into Tewodros’ enemy. They subsequently encouraged and assisted various rebellions, which paved the way for the successful overthrow of Tewodros by the British in 1868 (although he killed himself rather than be captured).
No doubt Tewodros built the church in order to demonstrate his piousness, which fuelled his desire to reform the church. The view of the church seems to have been that Tewodros must be branded an unbeliever or heretic, and his name was further muddied after his death. When I asked the priest at the Church of St. Mary about the connection with Tewodros he didn’t want to talk about it. Even today acknowledging that Tewodros did something for the church seems to be taboo.
Beneath the church on the hill near the Goha Hotel is a large pile of rocks. So what? The story goes that the rocks were brought from Checheho, a mountainous pass about 80 km East of Debre Tabor. More interesting is how the rocks were brought – which was by soldiers who lined the route to Checheho and passed the rocks hand to hand to Debre Tabor. This would have taken a lot of soldiers. After passing enough rocks to build the church and the wall around it, the soldiers returned to Debre Tabor, the story goes, and each carried one rock with them. The rocks were deposited below the church, and formed the mound which remains to this day. With the help of a civil engineering friend we did a rough calculation of the number of rocks in the pile, which is about 4 meters high, 16 long and 8 wide. With great mathematical precision, we took into account the slope of the hill, the size of the rocks, and the estimated space between the rocks and came up with the approximate figure of 270,000 rocks. Tewodros was estimated to have had 60,000 troops at his height – so you decide.
The tradition of rocks marking the number of soldiers is an honourable one in Ethiopia. I’ve seen two other examples – one in Dedir near Harar in the East, and one in South Wollo near Dessie. Both are attributed to the Moslem invader Ahmed Gran of Harar, who conquered most of Ethiopia in his day.