Ethiopia Military

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The Ahmed Gragn wars of revolt (1524 – 1543.)

17 Comments · Military history

Between 896 and 1577, the three Ethiopian Sultanates of Shewa (896-1285), Yifat (1285-1415), and Adal (1515-1577) succeeded one another in southeast Ethiopia over much the same territory and people with different dynastic and administrative centres in Shewa, Yifat, Zeila, Dakar, and Harer.

Between 1285 and 1577, the local Walasma dynasty and rulers of Yifat and Adal became tributary subjects of the Ethiopian Hatse State.

However, when the central leadership of the Hatse State of Ethiopia became weak or faced the frequent problems of succession and civil wars, the Walasma sultans of Yifat-Adal often revolted against the central Hatse Government until the rebellious Sultan Shihabadin Badlay (1433-1445) was killed in 1445 by Hatse Zara Yaeqob (1434-1468), at the Battle of Gmut in Dawaro.

After Zara Yaeqob successfully destroyed the simultaneous revolts of the Adal and Hadiya sultans, Shihabadin Badlay and Mahiko, and strengthened the central authority of the Hatse State in the entire region of southeast Ethiopia including the coastal area of Mogadisho, the old ruling class of the Walasma Dynasty and nobility of Adal ceased their occasional revolts against the central Hatse Government, and began to pay their traditional allegiance and tributes to the latter.

However, on the other hand, a new and militant class of regional warlords, governors, merchants, scholars, and religious teachers known by such various names and feudal titles as the baitas, the emirs, the imams, the garads, the awarais the viziers, the sheiks, and the qadhis emerged in the Adalite cities and regions of Zeila, Berbera, Dakar, Hubat, Harer, etc. and challenged the rule of both the old local Walasma aristocratic class of sultans and nobility and the kings, government and soldiers of the central Hatse State of Ethiopia.

Emir Ladai Uthman, governor of Zeila in the 1470s, Emir Mahfuz, governor of Zeila and Harer (1492-1517), Emir Mansur of Hubat, Garad Abun of Hubat, and the latter’s soldier and successor Imam Ahmed Gragn of Hubat were but a few of the new militant regional warlords of Adal against both the Walasma sultans and the central Hatse State of Ethiopia before the 1527-1543 Adalite War.

According to the historical evidence given by Imam Ahmed’s chronicler, Arab-Faqih, the militant leadership and the anti-Christian policy of these Adalite warlords originated from the Ethiopian highlands of Tigrai during the later decades of the fourteenth century.

During the time of the Adalite Sultan Saad El Dien, (1387-1415), a certain Tigrean chief named Balaw went to the latter’s court and changed his name from Balaw to the new Islamic name of Abd Allah and was given the Sultan’s daughter in marriage.

The offspring and descendants of this Tigrean-Adalite political marriage produced the new and militant Adalite tribe of Balaw in the well known province of Hubat between Harer and Ogaden, from where many of the Adalite warlords, including Imam Ahmed Gragn, emerged against the local Walasma rulers and the rulers and soldiers of the Hatse State of Ethiopia.

This and more being known and said about the origins and the militant policy of the Adalite warlords of Ethiopia, in the final analysis, the external and decisive factors in the latter’s uprisings and successes were the advent and the interference of the the Portuguese and the Turks in the regional affairs of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and Northeast Africa.

How did the activities of the Portuguese and Turks in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea affect Ethiopian affairs and events in the subcontinent in the 1520s, the 1530s, and the 1540s?

Between 1498 and 1520 the Portuguese maritime pirates summarily destroyed commercial ships and ports of various types and sizes all along the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, and successfully managed to divert the routes and flow of trade in oriental spices from southern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea via the Middle East to Western Europe via the southern tip of Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. For example, in the year 1507 alone, Portuguese pirates burned more than 332 commercial ships of various types and sizes in the Persian and Arabian Gulfs.

Before these events and the maritime piracy of the Portuguese in the regions under reference, the Adalite merchants and regional governors had many coastal, maritime, and commercial ports and ships in Bebera, Zeila, Massawa, the Dahlak, and elsewhere along the coast.

After the Portuguese had devastated these ports in 1513,  1517 and 1520 the bankrupt Adalite merchants, together with the Arab, Turk, and Persian mercenaries and plunderers became the followers of Imam Ahmed Gragn in his wars of revolt against the local Walasma rulers and the central Hatse Government of Libna Dingil (1508-1540).
Before Imam Ahmed Gragn declared the war of revolt against Libna Dingel’s plunderous soldiers and governors in the region in 1527, there was the civil war of succession in Adal itself for a number years, in which he and his rebellious followers successfully challenged the ruling sultan of Adal and his Somali followers.

While Imam Ahmed was in revolt against the Adalite Sultan, sometime between 1523 and 1524, king Libna Dingel’s governor of Dawaro named Fanuel, at the head of a large force, made the customary incursion into the Adalite province of Hubat in the neighbourhood of Harer, where the rebel Imam Ahmed himself was. The latter not only fought and destroyed the Fanuel force of incursion, but soon after he himself made a counter-raid into the neighbouring Province of Dawaro.

After his Dawaro raid, Imam Ahmed Gragn destroyed the sultan and subjugated the Somali followers of the latter on the final battlefield, and managed to seize the local Adalite state power in Harer in 1527.

Before, and after he made himself the leader of Adal, then the largest Ethiopian frontier province roughly between the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in the east and the Chercher Highlands and the Awash Valley in the West, between ca. 1523 and 1535, Imam Ahmed Gragn from his successive campaign headquarters of Harer, Debre Berhan, Waj, Dawaro, and Aksum extended his military campaigns from Zeila in the east to Funj, Nubia in the northwest and from in the southwest to Massawa in the north and, from 1535 until 1543, he ruled this vast and diverse subcontinent of North-East Africa from his Dambia headquarters in the northwest.

In greater detail, first, sometime between 1523 and 1524, Imam Ahmed fought and destroyed the Fanuel force of incursion into Hubat. Then, in 1524, he organized and led a campaign against Sultan Abun Bakr and his Somali followers in the southeast of Harer.

After this, sometime between 1526 and 1527, Imam Ahmed made his first plunderous incursion from Harer into the neighbouring province of Dawaro where he lost many of his men in action. After Dawaro campaign he fought and killed the Adalite Sultan in Harer and successfully repulsed a counter-raid into the Harer area by Libna Dingil’s warlord, Degalhan.

In 1527, again from Harer, Imam Ahmed organised and led a campaign against the Somali rebels as far as the eastern sea coast and forcefully recruited various Somali tribal groups and chiefs to serve in his campaigns against Hatse Libna Dingel and his soldiers.

In 1527, after he had forcefully recruited these Somali warriors and tribal chiefs to participate in his highland campaigns, Imam Ahmed organised and led simultaneous and successful incursions into the Awash-Chercher provinces of Gatagar, Yifat, and Dawaro and returned to Harer in victory.

In 1528-29, Imam Ahmed at the head of 12,500 Harla, Somali, Mlassay, and oversea soldiers made an incursion into the province of Fatagar from Harar. During this campaign, in September 1528, at the battle of Badake in today’s Yerer Kereyu of Shewa the Adalites suffered defeat at the hands of the king’s famous Maya archers on the narrow banks of a certain Samarma River and he then retreated to the Mojo-Zukuala Area.

On March 23, 1529, at the famous Battle of Shimbra Kure, somewhere between Mojo and Dukam, Libna Dingel’s huge but unorganized army of 216,000 men from the provinces of Tigrai, Agew, Gojam, Begemdir, Angot, Amhara, Damot, Gazn, Dawaro, Bali, Maya, Fatagar, Shewa, etc; in eight divisions under the royal command of the king, suffered utter defeat at the hands of 12,500 men under the decisive command of Imam Ahmed. Indeed, the Battle of Shimbra Kure is the largest in Ethiopian history in which 228, 500 Ethiopians fought a civil war.

After they returned to Harer from Shimbra Kure, in June-July, 1529, the Adalites made an incursion into the province of Dawaro as far as the highland sources of the Wabe River and expelled its governor. After he returned from his Dawaro campaign of 1529, the old Adalite aristocratic class staged an unsuccessful opposition to Imam Ahmed’s war policy.

During the closing months of 1529, the Adalites from Harer made an incursion into the southeastern province of Bali and fought and defeated its governors before returning to Harer in triumph.

Between 1530 and 1532, the Adalites under Imam Ahmed from Harer, in their unsuccessful attempts to capture the fugitive Hatse Libna Dingel, conducted ceaseless campaigns in the regions of Argoba, Dawaro, Sharka, Waj, Maya, Zukuala, Fatagar, Dukam, Damot, Shewa, and Amhara, as far as the Bashilo River in the north, before they staged a military show of victory in which 30,000 warriors participated under 50 warlords in the ancient city of Debra Berhan in January, 1532.

During this long campaign, on February 23, 1531, at the Battle of Antakyah (Anthokia), in Dawaro, the king’s massive army of 106,000 men was routed at the hand of 10,500 Adalites.

On October, 26, 1531, at the Battle of Wasel in the Province of Amhara, the Adalites just missed capturing the fugitive Hatse. On November 24, 1531, at the Battle of Amba Gishe, they also failed to capture the famous royal prison. But, everywhere they went, the Adalites plundered and burned the wealthy churches and monasteries including the famous monastery of Debre Libanos.

Between January 1532 and 1533, from their temporary centres of Debre Berhan, Waj in the Zway Area, and Ayfars in Dawaro, the Adalites summarily conquered and consolidated the central eastern, southern, and western provinces and peoples of Shewa, Yifat, Fatagar, Argoba, Maya, Waj, Dawaro, Sharka, Bali, Hadiya, Ganz, Kembata, Gurage, Damot, Gafat, Jimma, and Enariya. However, they suffered defeat and had to retreat from via in their Gamo-Welamo incursion of 1532.

Between April 1533, and April 1535, from their campaign centres of Debre Berhan and Aksum, the Adalites also conquered and consolidated the northern provinces and peoples of Angot, Keda, Tigrai, Sahart, Abargale, Enderta, Temben, Shire, Agame, Seraye, Hamasen, and the coastal region of Massawa. The rulers of the Dahlak and Mazaga also became tributary vassals of Imam Ahmed.

In April, 1533, the Adalites, after appointing their local and loyal followers in the northern regions moved to the northwest from Tigrai, Seraye and Hamasien by the way of Mazaga, and conquered and directly occupied the provinces and peoples of Tsalamt, Wegera, Begamdir, Semen, Lasta, and Dembia, and made the latter their administrative centre until the advent and interference of the Portuguese soldiers which brought the downfall of Imam Ahmed and his vast and diverse sultanate of Ethiopia in 1543.

From their administrative centre of Dembia, from 1535 to 1543, the Adalites also made efforts to expand the country’s northwestern frontiers into the Nilotic regions of the Gumuz and Funj, Nubia.

(Source: National Atlas of Ethiopia)


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