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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: March 2020

1 - Cultural Backgrounds and the Habäsha State


This chapter introduces the legacy of Gondärine Ethiopia as well as key components of the culture and society of the highlands of Ethiopia. It defines and displays the importance of key political and religious titles as well as religious, political, and societal structures of the groups in the highlands. It argues that the Habäsha community is a syncretic cultural community that includes all of the cultural groups of the highlands and a combination of their cultural practices.

Highland Beginnings: Church and State

The Gondärine period (1600–1755) was marked by the slow decline of central authority and the rise in prominence of four separate provincial units, Gojjam, Tigray, Shäwa, and Wällo, the former Amhara. Central authority, which previously moved throughout the empire, was permanently housed in the city of Gondär by the Yäjju Oromo, who controlled the puppet emperors from Däbrä Tabor. This new permanent capital also accelerated cultural changes resulting from the concentration of religious, cultural, and political figures in one place. Ironically, this period is known more for local conflicts than for its urbanity. One could argue that without a permanent capital and its accompanying culture, the Yäjju might have remained outsiders. Authorities on the period link the provincialism that marks the Zämänä Mäsafent to the Gondärine period. He highlights three main features of the Gondärine period that started and exacerbated the fall of central authority: continued sectarian strife, independent territory acquisition by provincial nobles, and the rise in authority of the Ras Bitwäddäd (“the most loved Ras”), all elements implicitly devoid of ethnicity. This process is mirrored in the Oromo societies that moved north or west with titles like Moti or king. In the highlands, many became Ras Bitwäddäd.

Sectarian conflict arose for three reasons. The first important factor was the practice of polygyny: nobles and emperors of this period had many children by many different mothers, and there was no distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. Even when there was a named successor, succession was often contested. Generally, the deciding factor was support from the powers behind the throne, which could mean the Ras Bitwäddäd or an informal alliance of political elites.

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