Menelik II

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Menelik II
Emperor of Ethiopia
Emperor Menelik II.png
Emperor of Ethiopia
Reign10 March 1889 – 12 December 1913
Coronation 3 November 1889
Predecessor Yohannes IV
Successor Lij Iyasu (designated but uncrowned Emperor of Ethiopia)
Born(1844-08-17)17 August 1844
Angolalla, Shewa, Ethiopia
Died12 December 1913(1913-12-12) (aged 69)
Ba'eta Le Mariam Monastery
(now Se'el Bet Kidane Meheret Church)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Spouse Taytu Betul
Issue Zewditu I
Shoa Ragad
Wossen Seged
House House of Solomon
Father Haile Melekot (King of Shewa)
Mother Ijigayehu Adyam
Religion Ethiopian Orthodox

Menelik II GGCB, GCMG (Ge'ez : ዳግማዊ ምኒልክ; Dagmäwi Menelik [nb 1] ; baptised as Sahle Maryam; 17 August 1844 – 12 December 1913) was Emperor of Ethiopia [nb 2] from 1889 to his death in 1913 and Negus (King) of Shewa (1866–89). At the height of his internal power and external prestige, the process of territorial expansion and creation of the modern empire-state was completed by 1898, which expanded the Ethiopian Empire to the extent of the historic Aksumite Empire. [1] Menelik was also remembered for leading Ethiopian troops against the Kingdom of Italy in the First Italo-Ethiopian War, where Menelik scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Adwa.

Order of the Bath Series of awards of an order of chivalry of the United Kingdom

The Most Honourable Order of the Bath is a British order of chivalry founded by George I on 18 May 1725. The name derives from the elaborate medieval ceremony for appointing a knight, which involved bathing as one of its elements. The knights so created were known as "Knights of the Bath". George I "erected the Knights of the Bath into a regular Military Order". He did not revive the Order of the Bath, since it had never previously existed as an Order, in the sense of a body of knights who were governed by a set of statutes and whose numbers were replenished when vacancies occurred.

Order of St Michael and St George series of appointments of an order of chivalry of the United Kingdom

The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George is a British order of chivalry founded on 28 April 1818 by George, Prince Regent, later King George IV, while he was acting as regent for his father, King George III.

Emperor of Ethiopia Hereditary rulers of the Ethiopian Empire

The Emperor of Ethiopia was the hereditary ruler of the Ethiopian Empire, until the abolition of the monarchy in 1975. The Emperor was the head of state and head of government, with ultimate executive, judicial and legislative power in that country. A National Geographic article called imperial Ethiopia "nominally a constitutional monarchy; in fact [it was] a benevolent autocracy".


Ethiopia was transformed under Emperor Menelik: the major signposts of modernisation with the help of key ministerial advisors, such as Gäbre-Heywät Baykädañ, were put in place. [2] Externally, Menelik’s victory over the Italian invaders earned him great fame: following the Battle of Adwa, recognition of Ethiopia's independence by external powers was expressed in terms of diplomatic representation at his court and delineation of Ethiopia's boundaries with the adjacent colonies. [1] Menelik expanded his kingdom to the south and east, into Kaffa, Sidama, Wolayta and other kingdoms. [3] [4] He is widely called "Emiye Menelik" [nb 3] in Ethiopia for his forgiving nature and his unselfish deeds for the poor.

First Italo-Ethiopian War 1895–1896 war between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy

The First Italo-Ethiopian War was fought between Italy and Ethiopia from 1895 to 1896. It originated from the disputed Treaty of Wuchale which, the Italians claimed, turned the country into an Italian protectorate. Much to their surprise, they found that Ethiopian ruler Menelik II, rather than being opposed by some of his traditional enemies, was supported by them, so the Italian army, invading Ethiopia from Italian Eritrea in 1893, faced a more united front than they expected. In addition, Ethiopia was supported by Russia, an Orthodox Christian nation like Ethiopia with military advisers, army training, and the sale of weapons for Ethiopian forces during the war. Ethiopia was also supported diplomatically by the French in order to prevent Italy from becoming a colonial competitor. In response, the United Kingdom supported the Italians to challenge Russian influence in Africa. Full-scale war broke out in 1895, with Italian troops having initial success until Ethiopian troops counterattacked Italian positions and besieged the Italian fort of Meqele, forcing its surrender. Italian defeat came about after the Battle of Adwa, where the Ethiopian army dealt the heavily outnumbered Italians a decisive blow and forced their retreat back into Eritrea. The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed during the battle with 3,000 taken prisoner ; the Ethiopian losses were estimated to be 4,000.

Battle of Adwa Battle between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy near the town of Adwa,

The Battle of Adwa was the climactic battle of the First Italo-Ethiopian War. Led by Emperor Menelik II, Ethiopian forces defeated an invading Italian force on 1 March 1896, near the town of Adwa in Tigray. The decisive victory thwarted the Kingdom of Italy's campaign to expand its colonial empire in the Horn of Africa and secured the Ethiopian Empire's sovereignty for another forty years. As the only African nation to successfully resist European conquest during the scramble for Africa, Ethiopia became a pre-eminent symbol of the pan-African movement and international opposition to colonialism, although Ethiopia was atypical amongst African nations by being both Christian and possessing a written culture several centuries old by the time of the Italian invasion.

The Kingdom of Kaffa was an early modern state located in what is now Ethiopia, with its first capital at Bonga. The Gojeb River formed its northern border, beyond which lay the Gibe kingdoms; to the east the territory of the Konta and Kullo peoples lay between Kaffa and the Omo River; to the south numerous subgroups of the Gimira people, and to the west lay the Majangir people. The native language, also known as Kaffa, is one of the Omotic group of languages.

Later in his reign, Menelik established the first Cabinet of Ministers to help in the administration of the Empire, appointing trusted and widely respected nobles and retainers to the first Ministries.[ citation needed ] These ministers would remain in place long after his death, serving in their posts through the brief reign of Lij Iyasu and into the reign of Empress Zauditu. They also played a key role in deposing Lij Iyasu.

Zewditu Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930

Zewditu was Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930. The first female head of an internationally recognized country in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the first empress regnant of the Ethiopian Empire, her reign was noted for the reforms of her Regent and designated heir Ras Tafari Makonnen, about which she was at best ambivalent and often stridently opposed, due to her staunch conservatism and strong religious devotion. She was also the most recent empress regnant in world history.

Early life

Of multiethnic background from Shewan aristocrat father and a noble mother (Ejigayehu Lemma Adyamo), Sahle Maryam, who later became known as Menelik, was born in Angolalla. [5] He was the son of Negus Haile Melekot of Shewa who had fathered him at the age of 18 before inheriting the throne. There are conflicting accounts concerning the maternal ancestry of Menelik but his mother was most probably a palace servant girl named Ejjigayehu whom Haile Malekot married after Sahle Maryam was born

Angolalla Tera Woreda in Amhara Region, Semien Shewa

Angolalla Tera is one of the woredas in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. It is named in part after one of the capitals of the former principality of Shewa, Angolalla. Located at the eastern edge of the Ethiopian highlands in the Semien Shewa Zone, Angolalla Tera is bordered on the south by Hagere Mariamna Kesem, on the west by the Oromia Region, on the north by Basona Werana, and on the southeast by Asagirt. The administrative center of this woreda is Chacha. Angolalla Tera was part of former Angolalla Terana Asagirt woreda.

Haile Melekot Negus of Shewa

Haile Malakot was Negus of Shewa, a historical region of Ethiopia, from 12 October 1847 until his death. He was the older son of Negus Sahle Selassie and his wife Woizero Bezabish Wolde. Haile Melekot was half-brother to Darge Sahle Selassie.

. The boy enjoyed a respected position in the royal household and he received a traditional church education. [6]

Prior to his death in 1855, Negus Haile Melekot named Menelik as successor to the throne of Shewa. However, shortly after Haile Melekot died, Menelik was taken prisoner by Emperor Tewodros II who conquered Shewa, and had him transferred to his mountain stronghold of Magdala. Still, Tewodros treated the young prince well, even offering him his daughter Altash Tewodros in marriage, which Menelik accepted.

Tewodros II Emperor of Ethiopia

Tewodros II was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1855 until his death in 1868. He was born Kassa Hailegiorgis. His rule is often placed as the beginning of modern Ethiopia, ending the decentralized Zemene Mesafint.

Upon Menelik's imprisonment, his uncle, Haile Mikael, was appointed as Shum [nb 4] of Shewa by Emperor Tewodros II with the title of Meridazmach [nb 5] . However, Meridazmach Haile Mikael rebelled against Tewodros, resulting in his being replaced by the non-royal Ato [nb 6] Bezabeh as Shum. However, Ato Bezabeh in turn then rebelled against the Emperor and proclaimed himself Negus of Shewa. Although the Shewan royals imprisoned at Magdala had been largely complacent as long as a member of their family ruled over Shewa, this usurpation by a commoner was not acceptable to them. They plotted Menelik's escape from Magdala; with the help of Mohammed Ali and Queen Worqitu of Wollo, he escaped from Magdala on the night of 1 July 1865, abandoning his wife, and returned to Shewa. Enraged, Emperor Tewodros slaughtered 29 Oromo hostages then had 12 Amhara notables beaten to death with bamboo rods. [7]

King of Shewa

Menelik, king of Shewa Menelik, king of Shewa 1877.png
Menelik, king of Shewa

Bezabeh's attempt to raise an army against Menelik failed; thousands of Shewans rallied to the flag of the son of Negus Haile Melekot and even Bezabeh's own soldiers deserted him for the returning prince. Abeto Menelik entered Ankober and proclaimed himself Negus. While Negus Menelik reclaimed his ancestral Shewan crown, he also laid claim to the Imperial throne, as a direct descendant male line of Emperor Lebna Dengel. However, he made no overt attempt to assert this claim at this time; Marcus interprets his lack of decisive action not only to Menelik's lack of confidence and experience, but that "he was emotionally incapable of helping to destroy the man who had treated him as a son." [8] Not wishing to take part in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, he allowed his rival Kassai to benefit with gifts of modern weapons and supplies from the British. When Tewodros committed suicide, Menelik arranged for an official celebration of his death even though he was personally saddened by the loss. When the British asked him why he did this, he replied "to satisfy the passions of the people ... as for me, I should have gone into a forest to weep over ... [his] untimely death ... I have now lost the one who educated me, and toward whom I had always cherished filial and sincere affection." [8] Afterwards other challenges – a revolt amongst the Wollo to the north, the intrigues of his second wife Befana to replace him with her choice of ruler, military failures against the Arsi Oromo to the south east – kept Menelik from directly confronting Kassai until after his rival had brought an Abuna from Egypt who crowned him Emperor Yohannes IV.

Menelik was cunning and strategic in building his power base. He organized extravagant three-day feasts for locals to win their favor, liberally built friendships with Muslims (such as Muhammad Ali of Wollo) and struck alliances with the French and Italians who could provide firearms and political leverage against the Emperor. In 1876, an Italian expedition set out to Ethiopia led by Marchese Orazio Antinori who described King Menelik as "very friendly, and a fanatic for weapons, about whose mechanism he appears to be most intelligent". Another Italian wrote for Menelik, "he had the curiosity of a boy; the least thing made an impression upon him ... He showed ... great intelligence and great mechanical ability". Menelik spoke with great economy and rapidity. He never became upset, Chiarini adds, "listening calmly, judiciously [and] with good sense ... He is fatalistic and a good soldier, he loves weapons above all else". The visitors also confirmed that he was popular with his subjects, and made himself available to them. [8] Menelik had great political and military acumen, and made key engagements that would later prove essential as he expanded his Empire.


On 10 March 1889, Emperor Yohannes IV was killed in a war with Mahdist Sudan during the Battle of Gallabat (Matemma). [9] With his dying breath, Yohannes declared his natural son, Dejazemach Mengesha Yohannes, to be his heir. On 25 March, upon hearing of the death of Yohannes, Negus Menelik immediately proclaimed himself as Emperor. [10]

Menelik argued that while the family of Yohannes IV claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba through females of the dynasty, his own claim was based on uninterrupted direct male lineage which made the claims of the House of Shewa equal to those of the elder Gondar line of the dynasty. Menelik, and later his daughter Zauditu, would be the last Ethiopian monarchs who could claim uninterrupted direct male descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (both Lij Iyasu and Emperor Haile Selassie were in the female line, Iyasu through his mother Shewarega Menelik, and Haile Selassie through his paternal grandmother, Tenagnework Sahle Selassie).[ unreliable source? ]

In the end, Menelik was able to obtain the allegiance of a large majority of the Ethiopian nobility. On 3 November 1889, Menelik was consecrated and crowned as Emperor before a glittering crowd of dignitaries and clergy by Abuna Mattewos, Bishop of Shewa, at the Church of Mary on Mount Entoto. [11] The newly consecrated and crowned Emperor Menelik II quickly toured the north in force. He received the submission of the local officials in Lasta, Yejju, Gojjam, Welo, and Begemder.

Consolidation of power and defeat of the Italians


Menelik's campaigns 1889-96 Menelik campaign map 2 3.jpg
Menelik's campaigns 1889–96
Menelik's campaigns 1897-1904 Menelik campaign map 3 3.jpg
Menelik's campaigns 1897–1904

Menelik II was the actual founder of modern Ethiopia. [12] [13] Before the centralization process he completed, Ethiopia had been devastated by numerous wars, the most recent of which was fought in the 16th century. In the intervening period, military tactics had not changed much. In the 16th century the Portuguese Bermudes documented depopulation and widespread atrocities against civilians and combatants (including torture, mass killings and large scale slavery) during several successive Aba Gedas' Gadaa conquests of territories located north of Genale river (Bali, Amhara, Gafat, Damot, Adal). [14] [15] Warfare in the region essentially involved acquiring cattle and slaves, winning additional territories, gaining control over trade routes and carrying out ritual requirements or securing trophies to prove masculinity. [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] Wars were fought between people who might be members of the same linguistic group, religion and culture, or between unrelated tribes. Centralization greatly reduced these continuous wars; minimizing the loss of lives, raids, destruction and slavery that had previously been the norm. [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]

Menelik’s clemency to Ras Mengesha Yohannes, whom he made hereditary Prince of his native Tigray, was ill repaid by a long series of revolts. [9] In 1898, Menelik crushed a rebellion by Ras Mengesha Yohannes (who died in 1906). [9] After this, Menelik directed his efforts to the consolidation of his authority, and to a degree, to the opening up of his country to outside influences. [9]

Menelik brought together many of the northern territories through political consensus. The exception was Gojjam, which offered tribute to the Shewan Kingdom following its defeat at the Battle of Embabo. [25] Most of the western and central territories like Jimma, Welega Province and Chebo were administered by chiefs who allied their clan's army with the central government peacefully. Native armed soldiers of Ras Gobana Dacche, Ras Mikael Ali, Sultan Aba Jifar, Kumsa Mereda, Habtegyorgis Dinegde, Balcha Aba Nefso and Jote Tullu were allied to Menelik's Shewan army which campaigned to the south to incorporate more territories. [26] [27] [28] [29] [30] [31]

Beginning in the 1880s, Menelik set off from the central province of Shewa to reunify 'the lands and people of the South, East and West into an empire. [3] During his battles, he made tactical alliances with different groups and appointed Habte Giyorgis Dinagde as Minister of Defense, who was of mixed Gurage-Oromo ancestry. The people incorporated by Menelik through conquest were the southerners – Oromo, Sidama, Gurage, Wolayta and other groups. [4] Menelik II had Oromo ancestry himself on his mother's side, and his late father King Haile Melekot's alliance with the Wollo Oromo helped him militarily. [32] [33] He achieved most of his conquests with the help of Ras Gobena's Shewan Oromos, who helped Menelik previously during his clashes with Gojjam. [34]

In territories incorporated peacefully like Jimma, Leka and Wolega the former order was preserved and there was no interference in their self-government; in areas incorporated after war the appointed new rulers did not violate the peoples' religious beliefs and they treated them lawfully and justly. [35] [36] [37] However, the territories incorporated by military conquest, Menelik's army carried out atrocities against civilians and combatants including torture, mass killings and large scale slavery. [38] [39] Large scale atrocities were also committed against the Dizi people and the people of the Kaficho kingdom. [40] [41] Some estimates that the number of people killed as a result of the conquest from war, famine and atrocities go into the millions. [38] [42] [43] [44] According to Alexander Bulatovich, Menelik's Russian military aide, Menelik's armies "dreadfully annihilated more than half" of the Oromo (Galla) population down to 5 million people, which "took away from the Galla all possibility of thinking about any sort of uprising." [45]

Foundation of Addis Ababa

For a period Ethiopia lacked a permanent capital; instead, the royal encampment served as a roving capital. For a time Menelik's camp was on Mount Entoto, but in 1886, while Menelik was on campaign in Harar, Empress Taytu Betul camped at a hot spring to the south of Mount Entoto. She decided to build a house there and from 1887 this was her permanent base, which she named Addis Ababa (new flower). Menelik's generals were all allocated land nearby to build their own houses, and in 1889 work began in a new royal palace. [46] The city grew rapidly, and by 1910 the city had around 70,000 permanent inhabitants, with up to 50,000 more on a temporary basis. [47] Only in 1917, after Menelik's death, was the city reached by the railway from Djibouti. [48]

The Great Famine (1888 – 1892)

During Menelik’s reign, the great famine of 1888 to 1892, which was the worst famine in the region's history, killed a third of the total population which was then estimated at 12 million. [49] The famine was caused by rinderpest, an infectious viral cattle disease which wiped out most of the national livestock, killing over 90% of the cattle. The native cattle population had no prior exposure and were unable to fight off the disease. [50]

Wuchale Treaty

Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in an 1891 map, showing notional borders before the Battle of Adwa Abyssinia1891map-excerpt1.jpg
Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in an 1891 map, showing notional borders before the Battle of Adwa

On 2 May 1889, while claiming the throne against Ras Mengesha Yohannes, the "natural son" of Emperor Yohannes IV, Menelik concluded a treaty with Italy at Wuchale (Uccialli in Italian) in Wollo province. On the signing of the treaty, Menelik said "The territories north of the Merab Milesh (i.e. Eritrea) do not belong to Abyssinia nor are under my rule. I am the Emperor of Abyssinia. The land referred to as Eritrea is not peopled by Abyssinians – they are Adals, Bejaa, and Tigres. Abysinnia will defend his territories but will not fight for foreign lands, which Eritrea is to my knowledge." [51] Under the Treaty, Abyssinia and Kingdom of Italy agreed to define the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia. For example, both Ethiopia and Italy agreed that Arafali, Halai, Segeneiti and Asmara are villages within the Italian border. Also, the Italians agreed not to harass Ethiopian traders and to allow safe passage for Ethiopian goods, particularly military weapons. [52] The treaty also guaranteed that the Ethiopian government would have ownership of the Monastery of Debre Bizen but not use it for military purposes.

However, there were two versions of the treaty, one in Italian and another in Amharic. Unknown to Menelik the Italian version gave Italy more power than the two had agreed to. The Italians believed they had "tricked" Menelik into giving allegiance to Italy. To their surprise, upon learning about the alteration, Emperor Menelik II rejected the treaty. The Italians attempted to bribe him with two million rounds of ammunition but he refused. Then the Italians approached Ras Mengesha of Tigray in an attempt to create civil war, however, Ras Mengesha, understanding that Ethiopia's independence was at stake, refused to be a puppet for the Italians. The Italians therefore prepared to attack Ethiopia with an army led by Baratieri. Subsequently, the Italians declared war and attempted to invade Ethiopia.

Battle of Adwa

Tapestry of the Battle of Adwa. Battle of Adwa tapestry at Smithsonian.png
Tapestry of the Battle of Adwa.

Menelik's disagreement with Article 17 of the treaty led to the Battle of Adwa. Before Italy could launch the invasion, Eritreans rebelled in an attempt to push Italy out of Eritrea and prevent its invasion of Ethiopia. [53] The rebellion was not successful. However, some of the Eritreans managed to make their way to the Ethiopian camp and jointly fought Italy at the battle of Adwa. On 1 March 1896, the two armies met at Adwa. The Ethiopians came out victorious.

With victory at the Battle of Adwa and the Italian colonial army destroyed, Eritrea was Emperor Menelik's for the taking but no order to occupy was given. It seems that Emperor Menelik II was wiser than the Europeans had given him credit for. Realizing that the Italians would bring all their force to bear on his country if he attacked, [54] he instead sought to restore the peace that had been broken by the Italians and their treaty manipulation seven years before. In signing the treaty, Menelik II again proved his adeptness at politics as he promised each nation something for what they gave and made sure each would benefit his country and not another nation. Subsequently, the Treaty of Addis Ababa was reached between the two nations. Italy was forced to recognize the absolute independence of Ethiopia. (See Article III of the Treaty of Addis Ababa).

Ethnic makeup of Menelik's government

Habtegyorgis, from the Oromo Speaking Chebo tribe, was the Prime minister and war minister who was the most prominent general during Menelik, Lij Iyasu & Zewditu's reign Fitawrari Habte Giyorgis.JPG
Habtegyorgis, from the Oromo Speaking Chebo tribe, was the Prime minister and war minister who was the most prominent general during Menelik, Lij Iyasu & Zewditu's reign

At the Battle of Adwa, Ethiopian fighters from all parts of the country rallied to the cause and took up positions on the battlefield that allowed them to come to each other's aid during combat. Armies who participated in the battle includes Negu Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam's Amhara infantry and cavalary; Ras Mengesha Yohannes' and Ras Alula's Tigrayan army; Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael's Harar army that included Amhara, Oromo and Gurage soldiers; Ras Mikael’s mainly muslim Wallo cavalary; Fitawrari Tekle's Wallaga Cavalary and infantry; Wag-shum Gwangul's Agaw and Amhara from Wag and Lasta; and Ras Wolle Bitul's Gondar army that also included Muslim-Christian cavalary from Yejju and Borana Wallo. The mehal sefari or central fighting unit included mostly Shewan Amhara, Mecha-Tulama Oromo cavalary, Gurage as well as Taytu Bitul's Yejju armies. The Fitawrari's army, normally the leader of the advanced guard, was commanded by Gebeyehu Gorra. The Ethiopian army at Adwa was, therefore, a mosaic of various ethnic groups and tribes that marched north for a common, national cause. [55] [56] [57]

Various ethnic groups played leading roles during Menelik's reign and the following period, with Amharas and Oromos holding key positions in the central government. [20] [58] Once Menelik became King of Shewa, he gave the top military leadership to Ras Gobana Dacche, Ras Makonnen and finally to Habte Giyorgis Dinagde, all of whom were Oromos. Even decades after Menelik's death, Oromos continued to hold key positions in the empire and by the time Italians invaded Ethiopia for the second time they dropped leaflets stating "Amhara tyranny" all over the country, and in response to this propaganda Richard Greenfield in his book states that: "Italians appear not to have understood that the leading families are Oromo". [59]

Developments during Menelik's reign

Relations with Russia

Portrait of Menelik II Minilk.jpg
Portrait of Menelik II

Menelik thought only Russia would be the main ally of his policy of centralisation of territories under Shewan government because of its interest in counteracting British colonial expansion, which had begun with Britain's 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, theft of Kebra Nagast [ citation needed ] and death of Tewodros II. [60] [61] During the visit of a Russian diplomatic and military mission in 1893, Menelik II concluded a strong alliance with that country. As a result, from 1893 to 1913 Russia sponsored the visits of thousands of advisers and volunteers to Ethiopia. [62] Friendships grew from these visits between Menelik II and both Alexander Bulatovich and Nikolay Gumilyov the great poet. [60] [63] [64] Russian support for Ethiopia led to the advent of a Russian Red Cross mission as medical support for Ethiopian troops. It arrived in Addis Ababa some three months after Menilek's Adwa victory, [65] and established the first hospital in Ethiopia.

Abolition of slave trading

By the mid-1890s, Menelik was actively suppressing slave trade, destroying notorious slave market towns and punishing slavers with amputation. [66] Both Tewodros II and Yohannes IV had previously outlawed slave trading but since all tribes were not against it and the country was surrounded on all sides by slave raiders and traders, it was not possible to entirely suppress this practice even by the 20th century. [67] While Menelik actively enforced his prohibition, it was beyond his capacity to change the mind of his people regarding this age-old practice. [68]

Introducing new technology

After Treaty of Addis Ababa signed in 1896 Europeans recognised sovereignty of Ethiopia, Menelik then finalized signing treaties with Europeans to demarcate the border of modern Ethiopia by 1904 Africa 1909, Edward Hertslet (Map of Africa by treaty, 3rd edition).jpg
After Treaty of Addis Ababa signed in 1896 Europeans recognised sovereignty of Ethiopia, Menelik then finalized signing treaties with Europeans to demarcate the border of modern Ethiopia by 1904

Menelik II was fascinated by modernity, and like Tewodros II before him, had a keen ambition to introduce Western technological and administrative advances into Ethiopia. Following the rush by the major powers to establish diplomatic relations following the Ethiopian victory at Adwa, more and more westerners began to travel to Ethiopia looking for trade, farming, hunting and mineral exploration concessions. Menelik II founded the first modern bank in Ethiopia, the Bank of Abyssinia, introduced the first modern postal system, signed the agreement and initiated work that established the Addis Ababa –Djibouti railway with the French, introduced electricity to Addis Ababa, as well as the telephone, telegraph, the motor car and modern plumbing. He attempted unsuccessfully to introduce coinage to replace the Maria Theresa thaler.

In 1894, Menelik granted a concession for building Ethio-Djibouti Railways Dire Dawa-Djibouti train leaving, c. 1912..jpg
In 1894, Menelik granted a concession for building Ethio-Djibouti Railways

In 1894, Menelik granted a concession for the building of a railway to his capital from the French port of Djibouti but, alarmed by a claim made by France in 1902 to control of the line in Ethiopian territory, he ordered a stop for four years on the extension of the railway beyond Dire Dawa. In 1906 when France, the United Kingdom and Italy came to an agreement on the subject, granting control to a joint venture corporation, Menelik officially reaffirmed his full sovereign rights over the whole of his empire.

According to one persistent tale, Menelik heard about the modern method of executing criminals using electric chairs during the 1890s, and ordered 3 for his kingdom. When the chairs arrived, Menelik learnt they would not work, as Ethiopia did not yet have an electric power industry. Rather than waste his investment, Menelik used one of the chairs as his throne, sending another to his second (Lique Mekwas) or Abate Ba-Yalew. [69] Recent research, however, has cast significant doubt on this story, and suggested it was invented by a Canadian journalist during the 1930s. [70]

Personal life and death

Taytu Betul, the third wife of Menelik. Taitu Betul v d.jpg
Taytu Betul, the third wife of Menelik.

In addition to Ethiopian languages of Amharic, Oromo, Afar and Tigrigna, Menelik reportedly spoke French, English and Italian fluently. [71] He read many books and was educated in finance, getting involved in various investments, including in American railroads and American securities and French and Belgian mining investments. [72]


Menelik married three times but he did not have a single legitimate child by any of his wives. However, he is reputed to have fathered several children by women who were not his wives, and he recognized three of those children as being his progeny.

In 1864, Menelik married Woizero Altash Tewodros, whom he divorced in 1865; the marriage produced no children. Altash Tewodros was a daughter of Emperor Tewodros II. She and Menelik were married during the time that Menelik was held captive by Tewodros. The marriage ended when Menelik escaped captivity, abandoning her. She was subsequently remarried to Dejazmatch Bariaw Paulos of Adwa.

In 1865, the same year as divorcing his first wife, Menelik married Woizero Befana Wolde Michael, sister of Dejazmatch Tewende Belay Wolde Michael. This marriage was also childless, and they were married for seventeen years before being divorced in 1882. Menelik was very fond of his wife, but she apparently did not have sincere affection for him. Woizero Befana had several children by previous marriages, and was more interested in securing their welfare than in the welfare of her present husband. For many years, she was widely suspected of being secretly in touch with Emperor Yohannes IV in her ambition to replace her husband on the throne of Shewa with one of her sons from a previous marriage. Finally, she was implicated in a plot to overthrow Menelik when he was King of Shewa. With the failure of her plot, Woizero Befana was separated from Menelik, but Menelik apparently was still deeply attached to her. An attempt at reconciliation failed, but when his relatives and courtiers suggested new young wives to the King, he would sadly say "You ask me to look at these women with the same eyes that once gazed upon Befana?", paying tribute both to his ex-wife's great beauty and his own continuing attachment to her.

Finally, Menelik divorced his treasonous wife in 1882, and in 1883, he married Taytu Betul. Menelik's new wife had been married four times previously, and he became her fifth husband. They were married in a full communion church service and the marriage was thus fully canonical and indissoluble, which had not been the case with either of Menelik's previous wives. The marriage, which proved childless, would last until his death. Taytu Betul would become Empress consort upon her husband's succession, and would become the most powerful consort of an Ethiopian monarch since Empress Mentewab. She enjoyed considerable influence on Menelik and his court until the end, something which was aided by her own family background. Empress Taytu Betul was a noblewoman of Imperial blood and a member of one of the leading families of the regions of Semien, Yejju in modern Wollo, and Begemder. Her paternal uncle, Dejazmatch Wube Haile Maryam of Semien, had been the ruler of Tigray and much of northern Ethiopia. She and her uncle Ras Wube were two of the most powerful people among descendants of the great Ras Gugsa Mursa, a ruler of Oromo descent from the house of were Sheik of Wollo. Emperor Yohannes was able to broaden his power base in northern Ethiopia through Taytu's family connections in Begemider, Semien and Yejju; she also served him as his close adviser, and went to the battle of Adwa with 5,000 troops of her own. [73] [74] From 1906, for all intents and purposes, Taytu Betul ruled in Menelik's stead during his infirmity. Menelik II and Taytu Betul personally owned 70,000 slaves. [75] Abba Jifar II also is said to have more than 10,000 slaves and allowed his armies to enslave the captives during a battle with all his neighboring clans. [76] This practice was common between various tribes and clans of Ethiopia for thousands of years. [18] [22] [77]

Taytu arranged political marriages between her Yejju and Semien relatives and key Shewan aristocrates like Ras Woldegyorgis Aboye, who was Governor of Kaffa, Ras Mekonen who was governor of Harar, and Menelik's eldest daughter Zewditu Menelik who became Nigeste Negestat of the empire after the overthrow of Lij Iyasu. [78] Taytu's step daughter, Zewditu, was married to her nephew Ras Gugsa Welle who administered Begemider up to the 1930s. [78]

Natural children

The emperor caricatured by Glick for Vanity Fair (1897) Emperor of Abyssinia Vanity Fair 1897-07-29.jpg
The emperor caricatured by Glick for Vanity Fair (1897)

Previous to his marriage to Taytu Betul, Menelik fathered several natural children. Among them, he chose to recognize three specific children (two daughters and one son) as being his progeny. These were:

  1. A daughter, Woizero Shoaregga Menelik, born 1867. [nb 7] She would marry twice and become the mother of:
    • A son, Abeto Wossen Seged Wodajo, born of the first marriage; never considered for the succession due to dwarfism
    • A daughter, Woizero Zenebework Mikael, who was married at age twelve and died in childbirth one year later
    • A son, the purported Emperor Iyasu V. He nominally succeeded upon Menelik's death in 1913, but was never crowned; he was deposed in 1916 by powerful nobles.
  2. A daughter, Woizero (later Empress) Zauditu Menelik, born 1876, died 1930. [nb 8] She married four times and had some children, but none of them survived to adulthood. She was proclaimed Empress in her own right in 1916, but was a figurehead, with ruling power in the hands of regent Ras Tafari Makonnen, who succeeded her in 1930 as Emperor Haile Selassie.
  3. A son, Abeto Asfa Wossen Menelik, born 1873. He died unwed and childless when he was about fifteen years of age.

Menelik's only recognized son, Abeto Asfa Wossen Menelik, died unwed and childless when he was about fifteen years of age, leaving him with only two daughters. The elder daughter, Woizero Shoaregga, was first married to Dejazmatch Wodajo Gobena, the son of Ras Gobena Dachi. They had a son, Abeto Wossen Seged Wodajo, but this grandson of Menelik II was eliminated from the succession due to dwarfism. In 1892, twenty-five-year-old Woizero Shoaregga was married for a second time to forty-two-year-old Ras Mikael of Wollo. They had two children, namely a daughter, Woizero Zenebework Mikael, who would be married at the age of twelve to the much older Ras Bezabih Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam, and would die in childbirth a year later; and a son, Lij [nb 9] Iyasu, who would nominally succeed as Emperor after Menelik's death in 1913, but would never be crowned, and would be deposed by powerful nobles in favor of Menelik's younger daughter Zewditu in 1916.

Menelik's younger daughter, Zewditu Menelik, had a long and chequered life. She was married four times, and eventually became Empress in her own right, the first woman to hold that position in Ethiopia since the Queen of Sheba. She was only ten years old when Menelik got her married to Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, the fifteen-year-old son of Emperor Yohannes IV, in 1886. In May 1888, Ras Araya Selassie died and Zauditu became a widow at age twelve. She was married two more times for brief periods to Gwangul Zegeye and Wube Atnaf Seged before marrying Gugsa Welle in 1900 CE. Gugsa Welle was the nephew of Empress Taytu Betul, Menelik's third wife. Zauditu had some children, but none of them survived to adulthood. Menelik died in 1913, and his grandson Iyasu claimed the throne on principle of seniority. However, it was suspected that Iyasu was a secret convert to Islam, which was the religion of his paternal ancestors, and having a Muslim on the throne would have grave implications for Ethiopia in future generations. Therefore, Iyasu was never crowned; he was deposed by nobles in 1916, in favour of his aunt, Zewditu. However, Zewditu (aged 40 at that time) had no surviving children (all her children had died during young) and the nobles did not want her husband and his family to exercise power and eventually occupy the throne. Therefore, Zauditu's cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was named both heir to the throne and regent of the empire. Zauditu had ceremonial duties to perform and wielded powers of arbitration and moral influence, but ruling power was vested in the hands of regent Ras Tafari Makonnen, who succeeded her as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930.

Apart from the three recognized natural children, Menelik was rumoured to be the father of some other children also. These include Ras Birru Wolde Gabriel [79] [80] and Dejazmach Kebede Tessema. [81] The latter, in turn, was later rumoured to be the natural grandfather of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, [82] [81] the communist leader of the Derg, who eventually deposed the monarchy and assumed power in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.

Illness, death and succession

On 27 October 1909, Menelik II suffered a massive stroke and his "mind and spirit died". After that, Menelik was no longer able to reign, and the office was taken over by Empress Taytu. [83] as de facto ruler, until Ras Bitwaddad Tesemma was publicly appointed regent. [84] However, he died within a year, and a council of regency – from which the empress was excluded – was formed in March 1910.

Menelik's mausoleum. Menelik II Mausoleum.jpg
Menelik's mausoleum.

In the early morning hours of 12 December 1913, Emperor Menelik II died. He was buried quickly without announcement or ceremony [83] at the Se'el Bet Kidane Meheret Church, on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. In 1916 Menelik II was reburied in the specially built church at Ba'eta Le Mariam Monastery in Addis Ababa.

After the death of Menelik II, the council of regency continued to rule Ethiopia. Lij Iyasu was never crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, and eventually Empress Zewditu I succeeded Menelik II on 27 September 1916.

Notable quotes

See also


  1. Dagmäwi means "the second".
  2. Nəgusä Nägäst.
  3. Emiye in Amharic means "My Mother" affectionately.
  4. Roughly equivalent to Governor.
  5. Roughly equivalent to Supreme General.
  6. Equivalent to Sir or Mr.
  7. Also spelled "Shoaregga" and "Shewa Regga".
  8. Eventually Empress of Ethiopia.
  9. Roughly equivalent to Child.
  10. The crypts of Menilek (center), Taytu Betul (left), and Zauditu (right).
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Menelik II
Born: 17 August 1844 Died: 12 December 1913
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Yohannes IV
Emperor of Ethiopia
with Taytu Betul (1906–1913)
Succeeded by
Iyasu V
Preceded by
Haile Melekot
King of Shewa
Succeeded by
Haile Mikael
Preceded by
Joined to Ethiopian crown