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History, European Influence

Coptic Christianity, modernizer, Coptic Church, Ethiopian church, Menelik

After warriors from the Islamic state of Adal invaded Ethiopia beginning about 1527, the emperor, as the ruler was now called, asked the Portuguese for assistance. With Portuguese help, the Ethiopians defeated the Muslims in 1543. In 1557 Jesuit missionaries arrived, but their ongoing attempts to convert the Ethiopian emperors from Coptic Christianity to Roman Catholicism were largely unsuccessful, and provoked social and political unrest in those who felt the Coptic Church was the backbone of an independent Ethiopian culture. In 1632, following a period of turbulence and dynastic confusion, Fasiladas became emperor. He was succeeded by his son, Johannes I, in 1637. During the 17th century the country experienced an artistic renaissance for Ethiopian culture, as it was exposed to styles of expression from Western Europe and the Muslim world. This was especially true during the reign of Johannes’ son, Iyasus I, also known as Iyasus the Great. After succeeding to the crown in 1682, Iyasus became known as a lover of the arts, as well as a modernizer and brilliant military tactician. His reign saw the construction of some of Ethiopia’s most beautiful religious architecture as well as the re-establishment of governmental authority over several provinces in the south that had succumbed to Muslim and tribal encroachment. After the death of Iyasus in 1706, Ethiopia entered another prolonged period of dynastic confusion and decline, during which the country fractured into separate regions.

The only unifying force that remained throughout this period was the Ethiopian church. Gaining the support of high church officials, a successful brigand from the northwestern frontier, Kassa Haylu, had himself crowned Emperor Theodore II in 1855, after having defeated a number of petty feudal rulers who controlled various sections of the country. Later, when Theodore imprisoned some British officials for conspiring against him, the British dispatched an expeditionary force to Ethiopia, and the emperor committed suicide in 1868 rather than be taken prisoner. After a four-year struggle for the throne by various claimants, Dejaz Kassai, governor of the province of Tigray, succeeded, with British aid, in being crowned Johannes IV, emperor of Ethiopia.

In the 1870s the main external enemy of the empire, which was little more than a collection of semi-independent states, was Egypt. In 1875 the Egyptian khedive Ismail Pasha extended Egyptian protection to the Muslim ruler of Harer and launched an attack on Ethiopia from both the north and the east. Johannes successfully halted the Egyptian invasion, but the continued occupation by Egypt of the Red Sea and Somali ports severely curtailed the supply of arms and other goods to Ethiopia. Johannes was killed defending his western frontier against the Sudanese in 1889. He was succeeded by Menelik II, who established a new capital at Addis Ababa and succeeded in uniting the provinces of Tigray and Amhara with Shewa.

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