Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi

With the success of Ahmed Gragn, Ethiopia almost became a Islamic state in the 16th century. Islam entered Ethiopia in the 7th century and ever since then its influence grew. Islam initially took hold among nomad tribes on the coast of the Red Sea. It penetrated further inland and took hold in eastern Shoa and Sidama [1]. By the 13th century, strong Muslim kingdoms were found with strong armies that controlled the trade route to the Red Sea [2]. In the 14th and 15th century, when ever clashes broke out between these kingdoms and Christian Ethiopia. the Christians summarily defeated the Muslims. However, the Muslim kingdoms always recovered [3].

In the 16th century, competition between the Portuguese and the Ottoman empire to control the Red Sea trade helped Ethiopian muslims overcome their Christian counterparts. The arrival of the Portuguese, a Christian nation, in the region and the possibility of them forming an alliance with Ethiopia alarmed the Muslim nations of the Red Sea [4]. As a result, the Muslims of the Middle East accelerated the aide they provided to Ethiopian Muslims[5]. Firearms were sent through from the Somali coast to Adal, seat of the strongest Muslim kingdom in Ethiopia [7]. With the firearms also came Arabian mercenaries [8]. As fortune would have it, Ethiopia in the 16th century was ripe for the taking. Political infighting, lack of a strong king, and an ambivalent church weakened Ethiopia's economy and its ability to withstand an attack from an invader [6].

After he ordered Adal not to pay its tribute to the Christian emperor, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi defeated the emperor’s army at the battle of ad-Dir in 1527. In 1529, Ahmad won a key battle against Emperor Lebna Dengel at Shembera Kure and by 1535 he had invaded Dewaro, Shewa, Amhara, Lasta, and Tigray. Emperor Lebna Dengel became nothing but a fugitive running from one hiding place to another. His son, Galawdewos, took over after his father’s death in 1540, but he inherited a small disconcerted army [12].

Before Lebna Dengel’s death, he had requested military assistance from the king of Portugal. In February 1541, 400 well-equipped musketeers led by Dom Christovao de Gama arrived in Massawa. He joined his forces with Empress Sebla Wangel and the Tigrean army in April of 1542, where they were able to force Ahmad to surrender the lake Tana area. But with the aid of 700 Turkish troops, Ahmad returned in August and defeated the Ethiopian force. Dom Christovao was captured and beheaded in that battle [9].

After the success of this battle, many of the Turkish troops returned to Zebid (Yemen). Later that year, Emperor Galawdewos joined wtih his mother along with the remaining Portuguese army. On February 21, 1543, the Ethiopian force led by Emperor Galawdewos invaded Ahmad’s army in Lake Tana. The outnumbered Portuguese and Ethiopian forces shot and killed Ahmad in the battle. His troops, upon the loss of their leader, scattered and fled [10].

The Ethiopians were dully wounded from the 14-year of warfare. The Muslims didn’t reestablish a new resurgence large enough to threaten the Ethiopian empire. Although the Christian empire was once again restored, the Ethiopians were unable to prevent the Turks from taking Massawa [11].

Abir, M. Ethiopia and the Red Sea. 1980.
Henze, Paul B. , Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Hess, Robert L., Ethiopia. New York: Cornell University, 1970.
Pankurst, Richard. The Ethiopians. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
Prouty, Chris and Rosenfeld, Eugene. Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. London: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982.
Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam In Ethiopia. 1952.

[1] Trimingham 60
[2] Trimingham 67
[3] Trimingham 67-76
[4] Abir 78
[5] Abir 79
[6] Abir 80
[7] Abir 85
[8] Abir 87
[9] Pankhusrt 92-93
[10] Henze 88
[11] Hess 46
[12] Prouty and Rosenfeld, 101-2