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Pajiba Storytellers: In Proxy Wars, Everybody Wins!

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | November 9, 2011 |

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | November 9, 2011 |

I’ve read your letters, I’ve heard your prayers, fine. We’re doing 16th century Ethiopia.

I figured I’d get that out of the way as soon as possible, in case anyone came by looking for Polly Walker’s boobs again - I’ve no idea what cover image this will get posted with, and Dustin’s (supposed lack of) advertorial savvy sometimes rolls right over people’s hopes and dreams.

(Publisher’s Note: Well, now I HAVE to include Polly Walker’s boobs. — DR)

To those of you who stuck around — a quick note on spelling. For once, I was using local sources, and the attempt to reverse-engineer Polish transliterations of Ethiopian names of places that don’t even exist anymore into English almost shattered my phylactery. So please don’t pelt me with feces if that one village where that thing almost happened doesn’t seem to be listed on Wikipedia.

Ethiopia is a religious nexus of mindblowing proportions — the most recent (and most tangential) addition being, of course, Rastafarianism. But it was also the site of the earliest Muslim settlement in Africa AND one of the first nations in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion (in 4th century A.D., so more or less simultaneously with the Roman Empire). To top things off, Ethiopia also had their own indigenous Jewish population, the Beta Israel (so obviously a work in progress. Heh heh. I’m so sorry.) the remnants of which were literally airlifted into Israel in the 1980s - but that story already got made into a movie.

Ours is one of religion bringing the whole nation onto the brink of total annihilation. There will be fire, bloodshed, more monks than you can shake a stick at, and in the end, that staple of African-centered Hollywood productions: a white guy swooping in to save the day. Or a brown one, depending on who you’re rooting for. What I’m saying is, both days got saved, because in proxy wars, everybody wins!

Over the course of centuries, Ethiopia eventually found herself surrounded by hostile sultanates. Being an anomalous Christian nugget in a swelling sea of Islam wasn’t an easy gig, so at times Ethiopians had to get creative — my favorite example of that being their threats to Egypt that unless they stop harassing Ethiopian delegations to their Church’s patriarch in Alexandria, they’re going to divert the Nile. A sort of “Cut it out, or no civilization for you!” if you will. Luckily for them, their country was essentially a giant natural fortress, filled with nearly unscalable mountains, which required no further fortification and were topped with fertile soil, so their defenders could not be starved to death.

Ethiopian Emperors were a proud lot who traced their lineage back to the mythical King Solomon. They ruled over their country by way of flying circus - setting up shop for a few months at a time before moving on to a different region. They did so in order to constantly reassert their sovereignty over the disparate provinces of their realm, but also because there wasn’t enough firewood or food around to sustain their several-thousand-strong retinue for longer than that. In fact, there was a rule banning the imperial court from returning to the same spot for 10 years, so the locals could recover.

European contacts with Ethiopia were pretty sparse, seeing as the country was located very much off the beaten track, but in the event that a European somehow found himself in the Empire, things followed a set pattern. The European had two dialogue options, depending on his initial agenda — either “I have finally found the kingdom of Prester John!*” or “Omahgawd! I must have stumbled into the kingdom of Prester John!” The Ethiopians would meet this with a look of silent resignation, before soldiering through the sacred formula of “Not this bullshit again. Can you do anything useful?” If the European knew any craft, he would be greeted as the Emperor’s honored guest, and granted every luxury until the day he died, but wouldn’t be allowed out of the country ever again. If not - good luck on your way back through the sultanates.

The 16th century brought two changes into the equation. On a global scale, the Ottoman Empire and Portugal found themselves at the peaks of their respective historic trajectories and decided it was time for some downright modern projection of power — both Istanbul (2300 miles away) and Lisbon (3700 miles away) wanted a tighter hold on the spice trade, so they started duking it out around the Horn of Africa (northeastern part, where Ethiopia is located). On a local scale, the nearby Adal Sultanate got a promising new emir (military leader), Ahmud ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, who would go on to become known simply as “Gragn,” or “Left-handed”.

Now, I agree that Ahmud the Left-handed doesn’t have the same ring as Alexander the Great, Vlad the Impaler, or my favorite — Louis XI the Universal Spider (wtf, France?) It does, however, carry a certain laconic menace. And in any case, I’m not in any position to bitch about it — we named one of our most accomplished kings Tiny Elbow**. Ladislaus Tiny Elbow, who reintegrated the country after a period of disunity started by Boleslaw Crooked Lips. Now picture Polish middle-schoolers trying to cling to their sense of national pride through that.

Anyway, what Gragn lacked in monikers, he made up for in origin story. According to legend, his mother was a Muslim woman from Harer on her way to bring a tribute to the Ethiopian Emperor. At nightfall, she happened upon a Christian monk from a nearby monastery, and since it was dark, and stuff, they engaged in some inter-cultural dialogue. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the monk, her headdress got tangled in his hood, so upon his return his brothers learned he’d lain with a Muslim and beat him to death. Obviously. Meanwhile, the woman went back home and gave birth to a boy. When he came of age, she told him what happened to his father, and he vowed to destroy Ethiopia. To that end, he married the daughter of the Sultanate’s preeminent emir, Mahfouz (they were the great star-crossed lovers of their era, in that her father was also bludgeoned to death by monks), and then killed the Sultan, replacing him with his puppet. I mean, not an actual… Never mind.

Meanwhile, wary of Adal’s growing power, the ancient Ethiopian Empress Helena, great-great-grandmother (not exactly, polygamy complicates things) of Emperor Dawit II, sends out an envoy to Portugal - the only Christian nation present in Eastern Africa at the time - to establish diplomatic relations. The Portuguese embassy arrives in 1520. Unfortunately, the Empress dies soon after, and Dawit II sees his fortress state as secure enough for him not to have to deal with foreigners - a belief bolstered by the successful repulsion of Gragn’s first skirmish in 1525 - so after several years, the Portuguese depart. It is 1526.

In 1527, Ahmud ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi calls for a holy war of extermination against the heathens. Muslim tribes all the way from the Red Sea, through Somalia, down to the Indian Ocean coast like it, and attend the event in droves. The first major battle (at the T’er Shet’ river, I think, see: transliteration disclaimer) was pretty lackluster, and kind of a case of failing upwards. The Muslim army was so disorganized that it kept breaking rank, with various bands constantly retreating. Upon seeing the disarray, the better-trained Ethiopians also broke rank and started randomly chasing the enemy down. Unfortunately for Ethiopia, Gragn eventually got his shit together, and ordered his core units to start slaughtering the would-be deserters on the spot. This worked wonders for their morale, so they did an about-turn, and in a sudden twist annihilated the scattered Ethiopian forces.

From then on, it just got worse.

Every time the Ethiopians seemed to have the upper hand, Gragn managed to turn the tables — mostly thanks to help from within. Ethiopia was a diverse country, with a significant Muslim population, which would at times side with the invaders. The same can be said of various local lords, who threw their support behind Gragn either to boost their power, or to avoid execution. This more or less invalidated the Empire’s home court advantage, as the locals would often show the Adal army secret mountain passes which allowed them to circumvent the entrenched Imperial forces and ambush them. That being said, Gragn was also a very cunning bastard. When at one point the Ethiopians plugged up all 5 passes that led into the heart of their country with their forces, he ordered his army to stop looting and burning stuff and switch to the local language, and started spreading rumors that he had been defeated in one of the chokepoints. Then he leisurely moved up the pass held by Dawit II himself, sending out scouts cheering the arrival of the victorious Ethiopian general. By the time the Ethiopians realized the soldiers making their way up the mountain were actually the other guys (and they only did because some drunken idiot didn’t get the memo and set fire to a nearby church), it was too late. In the ensuing panic people were literally flinging themselves into ravines, and the Emperor barely fled on foot into the wild.

And so, the Ethiopians suffered defeat after defeat, until the conflict turned from war into a relentless, bloody manhunt. Gragn wasn’t a politician, but a god of carnage. He wasn’t interested in acquiring land, or expanding his influence - instead he went on a sort of macabre tour of Ethiopian religious monuments. He would enter a province, loot all the monasteries, sell everyone who wouldn’t convert to Islam into slavery, use all the proceeds to equip more soldiers, and move on to the next one - all the while hot on the heels of the Emperor. And it wasn’t a matter of plunder either. Gragn would pursue the fleeing monarch even at the expense of his own forces - at one point his army was already so burdened with loot, that he posted guards at the entrance to a mountain pass they were about to cross and ordered them to behead anyone caught with more than one mule of spoils. For him, it was all about his prey.

The chase lasted 13 years, over the course of which Dawit II saw almost everyone he knew slain or captured, and his country burnt to the ground. During one of the more cinematic episodes of this nightmare, Gragn suddenly came upon recently discarded cooking pots, left behind by the imperial cooks. Despite his army’s exhaustion, he immediately launched into pursuit, and at dusk caught up with the Emperor’s rear guard. Once again switching to the local language, he started inconspicuously riding up the column, towards his prize. The ruse was discovered when it got so dark that torches had to be lit. In the ensuing chaos, Gragn charged ahead alone, to find the Emperor - but he went the wrong way, and once again, the monarch narrowly escaped.

Around 1535, in an act of final desperation, Dawit II sent out pleas for help to Portugal and the Papal States, promising to convert his country to Catholicism in exchange for military aid. The response never reached him, as he died on 2nd September 1540, hounded into the northernmost reaches of his country, with the monks from a nearby monastery so terrified by Gragn’s specter that they refused to even bury his body for fear retribution. He was succeeded by Emperor Gelawedos.

Portuguese aid eventually did arrive, however - a year later, in the form of 400 musketeers and a couple of cannons, led by Christopher da Gama (son of the famous Vasco). And just like that, the tide of war had turned. In actuality, 400 muskets didn’t make that big a difference, especially since the battles were fought by armies numbering in tens of thousands, and the shift actually owed more to the new Emperor’s greater popularity in the northern provinces and the exhaustion of Gragn’s forces, but that’s SO boring on film, so let’s go with magic crackers.

The first few battles alongside the Portuguese went great, but bringing a conflict up a geopolitical echelon is often a double-edged sword. This was also the case here. Faced with this new development, Gragn turned to the Ottoman Empire, promising vassalage in return for support. And so, when the Portuguese next met Gragn in combat, to their surprise they found he now also commanded 1000 Yemeni musketeers, 10 cannons, and a squad of choice Ottoman shock troops (arguably the best military of that era). The battle was a disaster - da Gama was taken prisoner (and subsequently beheaded), and half of the Portuguese musketeers were slain.

Which is where we come full circle. Sixteen years after the sudden reversal of fate at T’er Shet’, Gragn drank from the same bottle of stupid and grew overconfident, disbanding most of his Ottoman reinforcements. Unfortunately, he did not account for Portuguese berserkers (though in his defense — so few people do). The remnants of da Gama’s squad managed to rendezvous with Emperor Gewadelos’ army, and on 22nd February 1543 they met the invaders at Wayna Daga. Gragn didn’t really get to see the battle — he was singled out and shot by one of the Portuguese musketeers, who were all out to avenge their boss. Upon seeing his death, the Adal forces scattered, and the invasion more or less ended. The Ethiopians spent the next 15 years reclaiming province after province and generally trying to figure out how one resets a dislocated country. The hostilities ended in 1559.

Probably the worst thing about all this (from a purely historical point of view, the slaughter of thousands of people and being hunted for decades by a bloodthirsty maniac is pretty bad in and of itself) is that the entire war was absolutely pointless. It came and went, causing nary a political ripple. In 1557, the Ottomans captured Massawa, and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, now in possession of a big port on the Red Sea, promptly lost any interest in the African interior. As for the Portuguese… well, they themselves didn’t account for Portuguese berserkers either. In 1578, King Sebastian woke up thinking it’s the Middle Ages all over again, yelled something about a crusade, and went ker-splat against Morocco, leaving no heirs. This began a 60-year period of Spanish rule (because when you have no kids, Habsburgs come and grab your shit) which focused Portugal on South America and trying to outspank the Dutch. And once the big league players withdrew their support, the whole thing just fizzled out, as if it never happened.

Now couple that knowledge with the fact that the war cost Ethiopian culture incalculable losses. And I mean literally incalculable - we’ll never know, because the destruction was so widespread and thorough that there are hardly any Ethiopian manuscripts predating Gragn’s rampage left.

Did you get that warm, fuzzy feeling? Glad I could be of help.

* a mythical Christian kingdom somewhere in the East that was all the rage in the Middle Ages

** full disclosure: these are the modern readings of their names, I’m sure in medieval times they sounded a tad less ridiculous

Wojtek lives in Poland, where rainbows are gray. You can send him stuff for free at this email address.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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