Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Wolbert SMIDT, Erfurt University, Research Centre Gotha / affiliated PhD Programme "History and Cultural Studies", Mekelle University

One of the most important source editions on Ethiopian history were the three volumes of the “Acta Aethiopica” by Sven Rubenson. That work made several hundreds of diplomatic and other letters written by Ethiopian leaders and individuals accessible to the public and researchers, which has changed (and is still changing) our perspective on the history of relations between Ethiopia and the outside world. Despite the fact that Rubenson consulted a great number of foreign archives, from Egypt to Turkey and France and England etc., still other very important collections of Ethiopian letters remain unknown. This paper presents a collection of almost 80 Ethiopian letters mainly kept in the widely unknown collections of the St Chrischona Pilgrim Mission in Switzerland. These letters, written by Ethiopians linked with the early Protestant mission in Ethiopia between 1855 and 1896, including some Ethiopian rulers (such as atse Tewodros II, Yohannes IV and Menilek II), give us an insight into the radically changing foreign relations of Ethiopia starting from the mid-19th century. This was the period, in which modern Ethiopia was formed, between the attempts of reform by Tewodros II and the successful repellation of colonial armies under Menilek II. The – often highly religious – letters reflect the intellectual and religious history of the country in the context of the mission, but also report in detail about marking historical events such as the conflict with the dervishes and the great famine of the late 1880s. They are witnesses of a cultural transfer, based on purely local movements of religious reform linking themselves with the outside world, and on a highly active production of foreign religious texts in Amharic, imported into Ethiopia.