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The Horsemen of Old-Time Ethiopia

The Horsemen of Old-Time Ethiopia

By Richard Pankhurst

Ethiopia has since time immemorial been a great country of horses and horsemen; riding ability and prowess on horseback have been traditionally rated by an essentially warrior people as among the highest of manly virtues, and some of the most daring and highly honoured acts of sportsmanship were carried out on horseback, rulers and important personalities being indeed frequently referred to by the names of their horses.


The vastness of the Ethiopian scene – the word Empire is fully appropriate – and the frequency of warfare, above all in the old days between the Christian empire and its Muslim and pagan neighbours, gave immense importance to the horse which was par excellence the warrior's steed. The animal was in fact primarily ridden for fighting when speed of manoeuvre was essential; at other times in view of the rugged terrain the mule was preferred, the latter animal usually costing about twice twice as much as the former.

History does not tell us when the horse was first used in Ethiopia or when people first took to riding, but already in the thirteenth century we find the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, writing, albeit with somewhat confused ideas of geography, that “in the province of Abash (Abyssinia) there are excellent soldiers, and many horsemen. They have great numbers of horses. And it is well for them that this is so, for they have to fight with the Sultan of Aden (Adal), with that of Nubia, and with many more besides. On account of this constant practice in arms, they are deemed the best soldiers in all the pro-vinces of India.”

The wars of those days, and indeed so often in Ethiopian history were fought with chivalry as well as bravery. The royal chronicle of the fourteenth century Emperor Amda Tseyon, written, it should be remembered like other works of this kind for the glorification of the ruler, tells, for example, how Sabradin, one of the chiefs of the Muslim provinces of the east, rebelled against the sovereign, and sent him a message saying: “If you come against me I will not fear you, because I have more soldiers than you. They can fight with the sword, with the knife, with horses, with the bow, with the shield, with the spear, with the iron staff, and with arrows. If you do come against me, come, the road is open. But if you do not come, I will make war on you.”

Later in the text we are told how Amda Tseyon him-self fought valiantly on horse-back. At one stage in the battle he is said to have been regarded as lost, as he had forced his way into the midst of the enemy and was no longer visible. His soldiers fought steadfastly, but then began to cry out, “Where is the King?” At this moment, we are told, “the King appeared riding his horse, he rode among the rebels and struck one of them with the point of his spear, and he fell backwards. At last the rebels could not resist him and they took to flight; and the King pursued them with his army, and their bodies were strewn over the face of the earth.”

In another passage we read that Amda Tseyon was abandoned by almost all his followers, only six cavaliers remaining with him. At this point, the chronicler says, “when the King saw them fleeing, he called with a loud voice to his soldiers saying, ‘Whither are you fleeing?

Do you think that today you will reach your own coun-tries? Do you not know that it is I who brought you up, made you grow fat by means of fat cattle, honey-wine, and grain, and decorated you with gold and silver and fine clothing?” So saying, he bounded like a leopard and leapt like a lion, and mounted his horse whose name was Harab Asfare.

“And,” the chronicle continues, “he told one of his attendants named Zanasfare, the commander of the young horsemen, to go by the right in the midst of the rebels. And he obeyed the order and went among the rebels and passed through them followed by five horse-men ... The King went against the left wing where the rebels were numerous; he did not flinch nor turn back when arrows rained upon him like rain and spears and javalins of iron and wood like hail. They surrounded him with their swords and he, his face set hard like stone and his spirit undaunted by the prospect of death, clove the ranks of the rebels and struck so hard that he trans-fixed two men as one with a blow of his spear, through the strength of God. Thereupon the rebels scattered and took to flight, being unable to hold their ground in his presence, for he was an old and experienced warrior; and none could stand against him in battle.

“The six horsemen of whom I spoke before struck from the rear, and when the King had put the other rebels to flight his troops which had fled returned and forced the rebels into a ditch which God had prepared, and a countless number fell into it. Then the King dis-mounted from his horse, took his shield, and struck the rebels; and when his right hand was tired he struck them with his left hand; and when his left hand was tired he struck again with his right hand . . . Amda Tseyon pre-vailed against them and totally destroyed them through the strength of Jesus Christ the Son of God, with the help of Sion the spouse of heaven and the glory of the whole world; by the prayers of the priests and deacons and monks; by the prayers of faithful men and women; and especially by his trust and faith.

“Then the King mounted his horse and pursued the fugitives, accompanied by a few of his soldiers ... Our fathers have not recorded for us nor told us of such things before our time, and neither we nor our fathers have heard or seen them.”

Though “Prester John,” that is to say the Christian Emperor of Ethiopia, could almost certainly command the largest number of cavalry ever seen on the Horn of Africa the neighbouring Muslim principalities, which were sometimes under his sway and sometimes indepen-dant, were also well equipped with horsemen. An Egyptian scholar, Ibn Fadl Allah, learnt in the early fourteenth century that these States could marshal over 100,000 cavalry, of whom 40,000 were in Hadea, 18,000 in Bali, and 15,000 in Ifat and Dawaro. Our vision of the Ethiopian horseman becomes clearer as we enter the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, largely thanks to the writing of the memorable Portuguese priest Francisco Alvarez and of the subsequent Jesuit authors. Alvarex, who had a good eye for detail, tells us, for example, that though the Emperor, as well as his courtiers, when travelling rode on a mule, “there were on each side two horses with their haunches almost in line with the head of the mule ... these horses were so caparisoned and adorned and covered with brocade that in the light they looked as if they were sewn up in gold; and they had great diadems on their heads, which came down to the bits, and big plumes in the diadems.

”When the moment of battle arrived, however, the mule was invariably discarded, and the horse came into its own. In the 1520's, during the fighting between Ahmed Gragn, a Muslim rebel from Harar, and Emperor Lebna Dengel, for example, the Muslim leader is said to have made use of 560 cavalry, and 12,000 foot soldiers, while the Emperor had 16,000 horsemen and 200,000 infantry. Cavalry, for all its importance, thus numerically constituted only a small fraction of the traditional Ethiopian army.

Horsemanship was nonetheless regarded as an essential accomplishment. Thus the chronicle of the sixteenth century Emperor Galawdewos, states that this ruler while still a youth was “shown how to ride a horse, draw the bow, and then, as was the custom of the children of Kings, he was taught everything concerning the art of war.”

Foreign observers of the past were greatly impressed by Ethiopian horsemen. Thus Almeida declares: “The Abyssinians are good troops; they sit a horse well, are quite strong and healthy and are brought up and inured to toil.” Turning more specifically to the cavalry he tells us that “the horsemen strike and fight only with short lances in the style of our javalins. Those who have coats of mail, and they are not many, do not trouble themselves with the shield so as to be less encumbered. They do, however, carry some narrow lances to throw.”

The Emperor's army of the early seventeenth century, according to the same Jesuit historian, might consist of 4,000 or 5,000 cavalry, as against 26,000 to 35,000 foot soldiers. “Of the horsemen as many as 700 or 800 wear coats of mail and helmets. All the rest of them have no arms except the spear and shield.”

Cavalry were so valuable to the Ethiopian State at this time that horses were a major item of tribute: Alvarez reports that the province of Gojam paid a tax of no less than 3,000 or 3,500 of these animals, though the best, only 350 or so in number, came from Tigre and the coastal province, and wete particularly large and handsome as they originated in Egypt or Arabia. The handing over of this tribute was a great affair, for most of the beasts would be made to run and jump before the Emperor's eyes, so that when a lord arrived with 150 horses the day was “passed without anything else being done.” The nobles, according to the same observer, were so anxious to possess the best possible steeds that, despite the great difficulties of communication, many mares were imported for breeding pulposes from Egypt or Arabia. The Muslim chiefs near the coast were especially favoured in this respect, and, according to Alvarez, obtained many horses from the rulers of Arabia, mainly in exchange for slaves and other valuables. Control of the western provinces bordering the Sudan was likewise a matter of no small significance, for, as the Scottish traveller James Bruce, noted in the eighteenth century, it secured “a constant supply of horses for the King's troops.”

Horse-riding may well have been on the increase during these centuries. Bahrey, an Ethiopian monk, relates in his History of the Gallas that in the middle of the sixteenth century the Galla chief Mesle introduced among his people the hitherto unknown custom of riding horses and mules. He is quoted as having declared: “Those who travel on two or three legs, I have made them travel on four legs.” “He said “three legs’,” Bahrey explains, “because they leaned on their spears, as men would on their staffs when they were tired.”

A curious incident is likewise recorded in the chronicle of the seventeenth century Ethiopian Emperor Iyasu I who is said to have been disturbed by the fact that the women-folk were riding in the army like men. Feeling that this conduct was improper and unladylike he gave orders to the court herald, as the annalist notes, to “proclaim that the girls of the country must not ride astride mules, because at this time the girls had adopted the practice of doing so, tightening the belts of their skirts, covering their heads with their shammas (i.e., togas or wraps), and holding a long spear in their hand . . . The King ordered the proclamation to be read out by the herald for three days so that they should not return to these practices.”

Cavalry in Ethiopia continued to play an important, and often decisive role throughout the greater part of the nineteenth century, the period that is to say which culminated in Emperor Menelik’s defeat of the Italians at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, which enabled the ancient African State to maintain its independence despite the European “scramble for Africa.” Thus in the 1830's we find Dejazmach Wube, the provincial ruler of Tigre, quoted as on one occasion rallying 30,000 horsemen, while Dufton, an English traveller of the 1860's, emphasises the importance of cavalry when, describing the camp of Emperor Tewodros II, he writes of the presence of thousands of horses. At the battle of Adowa itself Menelik, despite the, by then, greatly increased significance of fire-arms, is estimated by his Russian military adviser Leontieff to have had over 22,000 cavalry which constituted in fact over a fifth of the entire Ethiopian force. According to the German envoy Rosen the Ethiopians were “born horsemen,” while Menelik’s Swiss adviser Alfred Ilg notes that they followed their leader's commands exactly, made good use of the advantages of the land, and were clever at getting the better of the enemy by strategems.

Such cavaliers were still at that time but lightly armed. Besides a round leather shield, often embossed with gold or silver decorations in the case of the nobility, they usually carried two spears, one of a light wood which would be thrown from a distance, while the other was retained for subsequent hand to hand encounters.

Fully conscious that the qualities of his steed were literally matters of life and death the Ethiopian cavalier paid them the most careful attention. Persons flocking to the great Addis Ababa horse market and many smaller fairs throughout the land in former days would thus insist on closely scrutinizing the animals, and being allowed to put them through their paces before agreeing to any purchase.

In Ethiopia the ownership of horses and mules was traditionally an indication of status. Mansfield Parkyns, an English observer of the middle of the nineteenth century, relates that “most men pretending to anything like gentility are possessed of one or the other, or one of each of these animals.” And he adds: “The horse is never used on the road, but led before his master, like the war-horse of an ancient knight, while the owner follows on an ambling mule.”

The cavalier, it should be added, would be finely dressed according to his rank, while his horse, and mule, would similarly have decorations on their head and saddle appropriate to their master's status. Shoes however, being virtually unknown, the horseman by way of stirrups would use small iron rings, through which he would pass his great toe, or at most, two first toes as was the custom also among both the Indians and the Arabs.

The Ethiopian’s deeply engrained respect for the horse may be illustrated by the fact that it was customary for Emperors and great nobles to be known by the names of their trusted steeds. Thus Emperor Tewodros, the mid-nineteenth century pioneer of modernisation, was called Abba Tatek, after his horse Tatek. Menelik, victor of the battle of Adowa and founder of the modern Ethiopian State, was likewise lovingly referred to as Abba Dagnew, while Ras Makonnen, Menelik’s governor of Harar and father of the present Emperor Haile Sellassie I, was Abba Kagnew, a name perpetuated in more recent times as the appellation of the Ethiopian military contingent in Korea as well as of the great American satellite tracking station at Asmara in northern Ethiopia.



Ethiopia's love of horsemanship is exemplified by the traditional game of guks still played in innumerable villages throughout the land. This game, which may be described as mock cavalry warfare, often takes place during marriage celebrations as well as at the major religious festivals of Masqal, or feast of the Cross, and Timkat, or Epithany.

The game, which is very loosely organised, and therefore subject to great variation, usually starts by the horsemen of the village dividing themselves into two roughly equal groups who disport themselves on some broad meadow. Each player will normally carry three wands, corresponding to the three spears used in real warfare, and will endeavour to hit one or more of his opponents with them on the head or body. The players will carry shields with which to ward off such attacks, or may twist round and endeavour with their own wands to strike off their assailants. As the tide of battle ebbs and flows the horsemen will advance and retreat. When advancing they will urge their horses forwards with their thigh and instep, and, when retreating, will gallop away without touching their bridles. Fallen wands will be collected by servants and restored to the various players. Though, of course, never as dangerous as actual fighting, accidents sometimes occur. Thus a horse may be wounded by the point of a wand or horseman may fall off his steed. At the end of the game the players will often entrust their horses to a servant to drape and lead home, they themselves, as at the end of a real engagement, returning home on mule-back.

In this homely fashion the traditions of a warrior people are kept alive.

Note: Ethiopia is home to 8.85 million donkeys, 2.01 million horses, and 0.46 million mules. With 2.01 million head of horses, Ethiopia accounts for about 34.5% of the total African equine population, and 3.45% of the global population. In Ethiopia, equines are used for transportation of people and commodities, as well as in support of crop production. Ed.

Source: Ethiopia observer. Vol.13, 1970, pp. 12—17 | Photos: Dimitri Kyriazis 

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