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The Wandering Capitals of Ethiopia*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009


The purpose of this essay has been twofold: first, to describe the wandering capitals of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Ethiopia, and secondly, to offer an explanation for the pattern of movement.

Ethiopian wandering capitals possessed many of the characteristics that are often used to distinguish cities from other forms of settlement. Roving capitals were large and densely populated enough to qualify for city status, they performed an essentially urban role of administration, the capitals were heterogeneous socially, and representatives of the Ethiopian literati were present. The population of these capitals were for the most part only seasonally urban and seasonally rural. And yet, these capitals were not permanent.

The explanation offered may be succinctly summarized as follows. Initially, military motives prompted the Ethiopian éite to change their capitals from fixed to mobile settlements. These guerilla cities were adapted to in several ways. First, capitals moved to food supplies rather than supplies being moved to the capital. Secondly, capitals impoverished their current hinterlands. And thirdly, political integration of Ethiopia came eventually to depend on a mobile centre of polity. These three factors not only represent adaptations to nomadic capitals, but they in turn made a stabilization of capitals difficult. In other words, the very adaptations to the wandering capitals themselves had a feedback effect on the pattern of movement, and therefore contributed to a continuation of capital movement.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1969

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1 Wirth, L., ‘Urbanism as a way of life’, American Journal of Sociology, XLIV (1938), 8 (see especially p. 10n);Google ScholarLampard, E. E., Encyclopedia Britannica, v (1963), 809. Permanency is implicit in most discussions on the nature of cities.Google Scholar

2 In Beardsley, R. K. et al. , ‘Functional and evolutionary implications of community patterning’, Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, Xl (1956), 129–57, one may find an attempt to classify all human communities on the basis of the permanency'mobility dichotomy and permanency was here simply defined as ‘potential permanency’.Google Scholar

3 Toynbee, A. J., A Study of History (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), VII, 193, observes that ‘the seats of the central governments of universal states show a decided tendency to change their locations in course of time’. Capital city migration was important enough for Toynbee to devote 35 pages (pp. 193–228) to the description of various aspects of the phenomenon.Google Scholar

4 Personal communications with Christopher Salter, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.

5 Maquet, J. J., Le Systéme des relations sociales dans le Ruanda ancien, I (Tervuren: Annales du Musée Royal du Congo Beige, 1954), 35–6;Google ScholarSouthall, A., ‘Kampala-Mengo’, in Miner, H. (ed.), The City in Modern Africa, (New York: Praeger, 1967), 299300.Google Scholar

6 Huntingford, G. W. B., (trans. and ed.), The Glorious Victories of 'Āmda Seyon King of Ethiopia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 16 n.Google Scholar

7 Ibid. 53–110; Perruchon, J., ‘Histoire des guerres d'Àmda Ṣyon, roi d'éthiopie’, Journal Asiatique, XIV (1889), 271363, 381493.Google Scholar

8 Bruce, J., Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, III (Edinburgh: Archibald Constance, 1805), 37, 92;Google ScholarHuntingford, , The Glorious Victories, plate II, facing p. 16;Google ScholarPerruchon, J., Les Chroniques de Zara Yaqob et de Baeda Maryam (Paris, 1893), xx.Google Scholar

9 For example, a description of the camps revealed by Portuguese sources can be compared with one by Griaule, M., ‘Un camp militaire Abyssin’, Journal de la Société des Africanistes, IV, (1934), 117–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar also see Sellassie, Guebre, Chronique du régne de Ménélik, II (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1931), tome II carte IV.Google Scholar

10 Almeida gives a figure of 30,000 for the camps, though he adds that when the entire army was assembled the figure could rise to 100,000 or 120,000. At one extraordinarily large rainy season residence he reports 8,000–9,000 hearths (de Almeida, Manoel, ‘The history of High Ethiopia or Abassia’, in Some Records of Ethiopia, 1593–1646, trans. and ed. Beckingham, C. F. and Huntingford, G. W. B. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1954). 79, 188).Google Scholar Alvarez gives a figure of 20,000 or 40,000 depending on the edition (Father Alvarez, Francisco, The Prester John of the Indies, transl. and ed. Beckingham, C. F. and Huntingford, G. W. B., I (Cambridge University Press, 1961), 268, 268n, 321).Google Scholar Lobo's figure is 40,000 (Lobo, J., A Voyage to Abyssinia, trans. Johnson, S. (London, 1735), 264).Google Scholar

11 Alvarez, , Prester John, I, 320–21.Google Scholar

12 Bruce, , Travels III, 2832.Google ScholarAlvarez, , Prester John I, 303; II, 437–44.Google ScholarAlmeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 79.Google Scholar

13 Bruce, , Travels, III, 30–1;Google ScholarAlmeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 78, 82;Google ScholarAlvarez, , Prester John, II, 443, 445, 447.Google Scholar

14 Bruce, , Travels III, 33.Google ScholarAlmeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 78–9.Google ScholarAlvarez, , Prester John, I, 275–6; II, 381, 442–3, 445.Google Scholar

15 Almeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 80, observed that actually all travellers were granted such treatment.Google Scholar

16 See Polanyi, K. et al. , Trade and Market in the Early Empires (New York: The Free Press, 1957), 250–6, for a discussion of redistribution.Google Scholar

17 Alvarez, , Prester John, I, 114–17, 181, 187, 253, 295; II, 425–29.Google ScholarAlmeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 72–3, 76, 84–9.Google Scholar

18 Alvarez, , Prester John, I, 314–15; II, 330–1.Google Scholar

19 Ibid., I, 314–15, 320–5; II, 323–4. Almeida, ‘High Ethiopia’, 79, 82.

20 Alvarez, , Prester John, I, 320; II, 331, 337.Google ScholarBruce, , Travels, III, 29, estimated that so to 14 miles might be covered in one day.Google Scholar

21 Ludolf, J., A New History of Ethiopia, transl. Gent, J. P. (London: 1682), 215,Google ScholarBruce, , Travels, III, 28;Google ScholarAlmeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 79;Google ScholarAlvarez, , Prester John, II, 442, 444.Google Scholar

22 Alvarez, , Prester John, I, 320; II, 335–7.Google Scholar

23 Ibid. I, 277.

24 The origins of this castle-building tradition are difficult to ascertain. Apparently Galawdewos (1540–59) had a castle built Ca. 1548 in his residence in the district of Wadj (Budge, E. A. W., A History of Ethiopia (Oosterhout, Netherlands, Anthropological Publications, 1966), 344).Google Scholar Later Sarsa Dengel (1563–95) had at least two castles built: one in 1571 at Enfraz and another one later at Ayba (Doresse, J., Ethiopia, transl. Coult, E. (London, Elek Books, 1959), 154).Google Scholar According to Bruce, Yakob built a palace at Coga (Bruce, , Travels, III, 33);Google Scholar Susenyos (1604–32) had palaces at Dancaz, Gorgora, Azazo, and Axum. (Doresse, , Ethiopia, 160;Google ScholarBudge, , History, 395).Google Scholar

25 Almeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 188.Google Scholar

26 Bruce, , Travels, III, 33.Google Scholar

27 Baratti, G., The Late Travels of S. Giacomo Baratti in… Ethiopia Interior (London: Billingsley, 1670), 202. Zaga Zabo's observation is especially noteworthy because, when he went to Europe, he found that cities were permanently sited, and his statement was made in reference to the contrast between Ethiopia and Europe.Google Scholar

28 Bruce, , Travels, III, 33 (from a history of Ethiopia based on chronicles of emperors and oral history).Google Scholar

29 Ludolf, , New History, 214, states that ‘The Kings of Habessinia live continually in tents, whether it be that they are not accustomed to houses that their frequent wars and tedious marches will not admit long rest…‘ (italics mine).Google ScholarAlmeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 82,Google Scholar observed that military considerations were important, but he goes on to emphasize the fact that firewood requirements were perhaps more important. Bruce, , Travels, III, 28, notes that ‘The sovereigns of Habesh, were generally, during nine fair months of the year, in the fild, engaged in war with the Mahometans, Galla, or other tribes on the frontiers of the kingdoms’Google Scholar (Huntingford, , Glorious Victories, 16 n.).Google Scholar

30 Alvarez, , Prester John, II, 223, 223 n., 235.Google Scholar

31 See footnote zo above; Conzelman, W. E., Chroniques De Galawdewos (Paris: 1895), 149.Google Scholar

32 Lippmann, W., ‘Bygone Notions’, Newsweek (I 08, 1966), 55.Google Scholar

33 Almeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 7980.Google Scholar

34 Levine, D. N., Wax and Gold (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1965), 3841, discusses the character of the Manze Amhara specifically in this regard.Google Scholar

35 Pankhurst, R., An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia (Lalibela House, 1961), 138,Google Scholar quotes Corsali, Andrea, Historiale description, from the year 1517;Google ScholarAlmeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 7980.Google Scholar

36 Hoselitz, B. F., ‘Generative and parasitic cities’, Economic Development and Cultural Change, III (1955), 278–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Almeida, , ‘High Ethiopia’, 82, mentions this in the seventeenth century. Since then the idea has been restated a great number of times by scholars and travellers alike.Google Scholar

38 The observations by travellers on this point have been assembled in Pankhurst, R., ‘The foundation and growth of Addis Ababa to 1935’, Ethiopia Observer, VI (1962), 3361.Google Scholar

39 Horvath, R., ‘Addis Ababa's eucalyptus forest’, Journal of Ethiopian Studies (1968) 1319.Google Scholar

40 One may obtain this impression from a review of the royal chronicles, Budge, , History of Ethiopia, 372.Google Scholar

41 One should not get the idea that these secondary factors were easily overcome. The stabilization of Ethiopian capitals, which involved the overcoming of these ‘secondary factors’, is in itself a long story which may in part be found in Horvath, R., ‘Around Addis Ababa:a geographical study of the impact of a city on its surroundings’ (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Geography Department, University of California, Los Angeles, 1966. 219).Google Scholar

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