Menelik II

Emperor Menelik II GCB, GCMG, (Ge'ez ምኒልክ) baptized as Sahle Maryam (17 August 1844 – 12 December 1913), was Negus of Shewa (1866–89), then Nəgusä Nägäst of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death. At the height of his internal power and external prestige, the process of territorial expansion and creation of the modern empire-state had been completed by 1898. Ethiopia was transformed under Nəgusä Nägäst Menelik: the major signposts of modernization were put in place. Externally, his victory over the Italians colonists had earned him great fame: following Adwa, recognition of Ethiopia’s independence by external powers was expressed in terms of diplomatic representation at the court of Menelik and delineation of Ethiopia’s boundaries with the adjacent colonies. Menelik II is considered an African icon and one of the most powerful black persons in history.


Abeto Menelik (Sahle Maryam) was born in Angolela, near Debre Birhan, Shewa. He was the son of Negus Haile Melekot of Shewa and WoizeroIjigayehu. Woizero Ijigayehu was a lady in the household of Haile Melekot's grandmother, the formidable Woizero Zenebework, widow of Merid Azmatch Wossen Seged, and mother of King Sahle Selassie of Shewa. Most sources indicate that while no marriage took place between Haile Melekot and Woizero Ijigayehu, Sahle Selassie ordered his grandson legitimized.

Prior to his death in 1855, Negus Haile Melekot named Menelik as successor to the throne of Shewa. Shortly after Haile Melekot died, Menelik was taken prisoner by Nəgusä Nägäst Tewodros II. Following Nəgusä Nägäst Tewodros II's conquest of Shewa, he had young Sahle Maryam transferred to his mountain stronghold of Magdala. Still, Tewodros treated the young prince well. He even offered him the hand of his daughter Altash Tewodros in marriage, which Menelik accepted.

Upon Menelik's imprisonment, his uncle, Haile Mikael, was appointed as Shum of Shewa by Nəgusä Nägäst Tewodros II with the title of Meridazmach. However, Meridazmach Haile Mikael rebelled against Tewodros, resulting in his being replaced by the non-royal Ato Bezabeh as Shum. However, Ato Bezabeh in turn then rebelled against the Emperor and proclaimed himself Negus of Shewa. Although the Shewan royals imprisoned at Magdala had been largely complacent as long as a member of their family ruled over Shewa, this usurpation by a commoner was not palatable to them. They plotted the escape of Menelik from Magdala; with the help of Mohammed Ali and Queen Worqitu of Wollo, he escaped from Magdala the night of 1 July 1865, abandoning his wife, and returned to Shewa. Enraged, Emperor Tewodros slaughtered 29 Oromo hostages then had 12 Amhara notables beaten to death with bamboo rods.

King of Shewa

Bezabeh's attempt to raise an army against Menelik failed miserably; thousands of Shewans rallied to the flag of the son of Negus Haile Melekot and even Bezabeh's own soldiers deserted him for the returning prince. Abeto Menelik entered Ankober and proclaimed himself Negus. While Negus Menelik reclaimed his ancestral Shewan crown, he also laid claim to the Imperial throne, as a direct descendant male line of Nəgusä Nägäst Lebna Dengel. However, he made no overt attempt to assert this claim during this time; Marcus interprets his lack of decisive action not only to Menelik's lack of confidence and experience, but that "he was emotionally incapable of helping to destroy the man who had treated him as a son." Not wishing to take part in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, he allowed his rival Kassai to benefit with gifts of modern weapons and supplies from the British. Afterwards other challenges—a revolt amongst the Wollo to the north, the intrigues of his next wife Baffana to replace him with her choice of ruler, military failures against the Arsi Oromo to the south east—kept Menelik from directly confronting Kassai until after his rival had brought an Abuna from Egypt who crowned him Nəgusä Nägäst Yohannes IV.

Submission to Yohannes

Eventually Menelik acquiesced to the superior position of Yohannes and, on 20 March 1878, Menelik "approached Yohannes on foot. He was carrying a rock on his neck and his face was down in the traditional form of submission. However, very aware of how precarious his own position was, Yohannes recognized Menelik as Negus of Shewa and gave him numerous presents which included four cannons, several hundred modern Remington rifles, and ammunition for both.


On 10 March 1889, Emperor Yohannes was killed in a war against the dervishes during the Battle of Gallabat (Matemma). With his dying breaths, Yohannes declared his natural son, Dejazmach Mengesha Yohannes, as his heir. On 25 March, upon hearing of the death of Yohannes, Negus Menelik immediately proclaimed himself as Nəgusä Nägäst.

The succession now lay between Mengesha Yohannes of Tigray and Menelik of Shewa. Menelek argued that while the family of Yohannes IV claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba through females of the dynasty, his own claim was based on uninterrupted direct male lineage which made the claims of the House of Shewa equal to those of the elder Gondar line of the dynasty. In the end, Menelik was able to obtain the allegiance of a large majority of the Ethiopian nobility. On 3 November 1889, Menelik was consecrated and crowned as Nəgusä Nägäst before a glittering crowd of dignitaries and clegy. He was crowned by Abuna Mattewos, Bishop of Shewa, at the Church of Mary on Mount Entoto.

The newly consecrated and crowned Nəgusä Nägäst Menelik II quickly toured the north in force. He received the submission of the local officials in Lasta, Yejju, Gojjam, Welo, and Begemder.

Menelik, and later his daughter Zauditu, would be the last Ethiopian monarchs who could claim uninterrupted direct male descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (both Lij Iyasu and Emperor Haile Selassie were in the female line, Iyasu through his mother Shewarega Menelik, and Haile Selassie through his paternal grandmother, Tenagnework Sahle Selassie).
His reign as emperor
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In April 1889, while claiming the throne against Mengesha Yohannes, Menelik reached at Wuchale (Uccialli in Italian) in Wollo province a treaty with Italy, ceding the northern province of Eritrea to Italy. Most of the highland area of this province was part of Abyssinian kingdoms for hundreds of years under the title of Medri-Bahri (Land of the Sea), consisting of the districts of Hamasien, Akele-Guzay, and Seraye. It was also referred to as Merab Melash, meaning the "Land Beyond the River". The river was the boundary that separated the two northern Abyssinian provinces; Medri-Bahri and Tigrai.

Menelik signed the Treaty of Wuchale with the Italians on May 2, 1889. Controversy soon emerged on the interpretation of article 17 of the treaty. While the Amharic text reads that Menelik could, if he wished, call upon the services of the Italian authorities in his communications with other powers, the Italian version made this obligatory, thereby making Ethiopia in effect a protectorate of Italy.

Tapestry of the Battle of Adwa.

Emperor Menelik denounced it and demanded that the Italian version be changed. Negotiations failed, so Menelik renounced the treaty, leading Italy to declare war and invade from Eritrea. After defeating the Italians at Amba Alagi and Mekele, Menelik inflicted an even greater defeat on them, at Adwa on 1 March 1896, forcing them to capitulate. A treaty was signed at Addis Ababa recognizing the absolute sovereign independence of Ethiopia.

Menelik II can be named as father for modern Ethiopia. He was a russophile because he thought only Russia could be the main ally of his policy of integration of Ethiopia by reason of necessity to counteract the British colonial expansion and sabotage against integration, starting with the war against the British (1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, theft of Kebra Nagast and death of Tewodros II).
Portrait of Menelik II.

During the visit of a Russian diplomatic and military mission in 1893, Menelik II concluded a strong alliance with that country. As a result of that alliance, from 1893–1913, Russia sponsored the visits of thousands of advisers and volunteers to Ethiopia. Two friendships that evolved from these visits were friendships between Menelik II and Alexander Bulatovich and also between Menelek II and Nikolay Gumilyov the great poet.

Menelik had in 1898 crushed a rebellion by Ras Mengesha Yohannes (who died in 1906). He directed his efforts thenceforth to the consolidation of his authority, and in a certain degree, to the opening up of his country to western civilization. Menelik’s clemency to Ras Mangasha, whom he compelled to submit and then made hereditary Prince of his native Tigray, was ill repaid by a long series of revolts by that prince. Menelek focused much of his energy on development and modernization of his country after this threat to his throne was firmly ended. He had granted in 1894 a concession for the building of a railway to his capital from the French port of Djibouti but, alarmed by a claim made by France in 1902 to the control of the line in Ethiopian territory, he stopped for four years the extension of the railway beyond Dire Dawa. When in 1906 France, the United Kingdom and Italy came to an agreement on the subject, granting control to a joint venture corporation, Menelek officially reiterated his full sovereign rights over the whole of his empire.
Developments during Menelik's reign

Menelik II was fascinated by modernity, and like Tewodros II before him, had a keen ambition to introduce Western technological and administrative advances into Ethiopia. The Russian support for Ethiopia led to the advent of a Russian Red Cross mission. The Russian mission was a military mission conceived as medical support for the Ethiopian troops. It arrived in Addis Ababa some three months after Menilek's Adwa victory, and then the first hospital was created in Ethiopia. Following the rush by the major powers to establish diplomatic relations following the Ethiopian victory at Adwa, more and more westerners began to travel to Ethiopia looking for trade, farming, hunting and mineral exploration concessions. Menelik II founded the first modern bank in Ethiopia, the Bank of Abyssinia, introduced the first modern postal system, signed the agreement and initiated work that established the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway with the French, introduced electricity to Addis Ababa, as well as the telephone, telegraph, the motor car and modern plumbing. He attempted unsuccessfully to introduce coinage to replace the Maria Theresa thaler.

According to one persistent tale, Menelik heard about the modern method of executing criminals using electric chairs during the 1890s, and ordered 3 for his kingdom. When the chairs arrived, Menelik learnt they would not work, as Ethiopia did not yet have an electric power industry. Rather than waste his investment, Menelik used one of the chairs as his throne, sending another to his "second" (Lique Mekwas) Abate Ba-Yalew. Recent research, however, has cast significant doubt on this story, and suggested it was invented by a Canadian journalist during the 1930s.

During a particularly devastating famine caused by Rinderpest early in his reign, Menelik personally went out with a hand-held hoe to furrow the fields to show that there was no shame in plowing fields by hand without oxen, something Ethiopian highlanders had been too proud to consider previously. He also forgave taxes during this particularly severe famine.

Later in his reign, Menelik established the first Cabinet of Ministers to help in the administration of the Empire, appointing trusted and widely respected nobles and retainers to the first Ministries. These ministers would remain in place long after his death, serving in their posts through the brief reign of Lij Iyasu and into the reign of Empress Zauditu. They played a key role in deposing Lij Iyasu.

Private life and death

In 1864, Menelik married Altash Tewodros, whom he divorced in 1865; the marriage produced no children. In 1865, he married Befana Gatchew, whom he divorced in 1882; the marriage produced no children. Finally, in 1883, he married Taytu Betul, who remained his wife until his death. From 1906, for all intents and purposes, Taytu Betul ruled in Menelik's stead during his infirmity.

Woizero Altash Tewodros was a daughter of Emperor Tewodros II and the first wife of Menelik II. She and Menelik were married during the time that Menelik was held captive by Tewodros. The marriage ended when Menelik escaped captivity abandoning her. She was subsequently remarried to Dejazmatch Bariaw Paulos of Adwa.

Woizero Bafena Gatchew was married to Menelik for seventeen years from 1865 to 1882. Her brother was Zeka Gatchew, the first husband of Empress Taytu Betul. Woizero Bafena was implicated in a plot to overthrow Menelik when he was King of Shewa. She was widely suspected of being secretly in touch with Emperor Yohannes IV in her ambition to replace her husband on the Shewan throne with one of her sons from a previous marriage. With the failure of her plot, Woizero Bafena was separated from Menelik, but Menelik apparently was still deeply attached to her. An attempt at reconciliation failed, but when his relatives and courtiers suggested new young wives to the King, he would sadly say "You ask me to look at these women with the same eyes that once gazed upon Bafena?" Paying tribute both to his ex-wife's great beauty and his own continuing attachment to her.

Empress Taytu Betul was a noblewoman of Imperial blood and a member of one of the leading families of the regions of Semien, Yejju in modern Wollo, and Begemder. Her paternal uncle, Dejazmatch Wube Haile Maryam of Semien, had been the ruler of Tigray and much of northern Ethiopia. She had been married four times previously and exercised considerable influence. Taytu and Menelik were married in a full communion church service and thus fully canonical and insoluble, which Menelik had not had with either of his previous wives. Menelik and Taytu would have no children. Empress Taytu would become Empress consort upon her husband's succession, and would became the most powerful consort of an Ethiopian monarch since Empress Mentewab.

Previous to his marriage to Taytu Betul, Menelik fathered several "natural" children. Three natural children that Menelik recognized were Woizero Shoaregga Menelik, born 1867, Woizero (later Empress) Zauditu Menelik, born 1876, and Abeto Asfa Wossen Menelik, born 1873.

In 1886, Menelik married ten-year-old Zauditu to Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, the fifteen-year-old son of Emperor Yohannes IV. In May 1888, Ras Araya Selassie died. Woizero Shoaregga was first married to Dejazmatch Wodajo Gobena, the son of Ras Gobena Dachi. They would have a son, Abeto Wossen Seged Wodajo, but this grandson of Menelik II was eliminated from the succession due to dwarfism. In 1892, twenty-five-year-old Woizero Shoaregga was married for a second time to forty-two-year-old Ras Mikael of Wollo. They had two children, a daughter Woizero Zenebework, and Menelik's eventual successor, Lij Iyasu. Woizero Zenebework Mikael would evetually marry at age twelve, the much older Ras Bezabih Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam, and died in childbirth a year later. Abeto Asfa Wossen Menelik died when he was about fifteen-years-old. Only Shoagarad has present day descendants.

Rumoured natural children of the Emperor include Ras Birru Wolde Gabriel and Dejazmach Kebede Tessema. The latter, in turn, was possibly the natural grandfather of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the communist leader of the Derg, who eventually deposed the monarchy and assumed power in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.

On 27 October 1909, Menelik II suffered a massive stroke and his "mind and spirit died". After that, Menelik was no longer able to reign, and the office was taken over by Empress Taytu. as de facto ruler, until Ras Bitwaddad Tesemma was publicly appointed regent. However, he died within a year, and a council of regency — from which the empress was excluded — was formed in March 1910.
Menilek's mausoleum.

In the early morning hours of 12 December 1913, Nəgusä Nägäst Menelik II died. He was buried quickly without announcement or ceremony at the Se'el Bet Kidane Meheret Church, on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. In 1916 Menelik II was reburied in the specially built church at Ba'eta Le Mariam Monastery of Addis Ababa.


After the death of Menelik II, the council of regency continued to rule Ethiopia. As described above, Lij Iyasu had been designated successor of Menelik II by Empress Taytu in May 1909 — however, the imperial Abyssinian rules of succession dictated that only a Christian could rule Ethiopia as Emperor, and Lij Iyasu had taken the Muslim faith. Therefore Lij Iyasu was never crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, and eventually Empress Zewditu I succeeded Menelik II on the 27 September 1916. She was his oldest daughter.

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Menelik II, ethiopians, Ethiopian nobility, Nobility


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