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.