By Samuel Estefanous
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a Gunner myself. I mean I am not an Arsenal fan. It is true, the Gunner’s emblem, the cannon mounted on wheels, always reminds me the similar design of Tewodros’ Sevastopol.
Recently while rereading Henry Blanc, it occurred to me that the sentimental staged plays and performances of Tewodros’ adventures have eclipsed the image and close study of the true historical Tewodros. By all accounts he was a true maverick of the greatest magnitude.
I kinda felt a little overwhelmed and oppressed by the nearsightedness and stench of most current political rhetoric and chose to reminiscences about Tewordros for a change.
1-the Arabic language and Tewodros
It never ceases to intrigue me how the Arabic language has lost its importance and significance over the years. It has rendered the imperial courts, scribes, merchants and proselytizers invaluable services up until Menelik II’s ascension to the throne. Given the language’s natural potency to penetrate fresh territories and communities, it is supposed to have reached deep in to the recesses of the Empire. Anyway that is beside the point, the least noticed or glossed over truth is the fact that Tewodros is very well versed in the language and it was his choice of medium when it comes to cursing. Perhaps that partly explains his singular deep friendship with Hormuz Rassam.
Rassam to his dying days remembered Tewodros’ farewell words to him. “One day you might stand looking down at my dead body and say to yourself at last this cruel man has passed on and it is a good riddance …” Later Rassam writes that it exactly happened just like the Empror had prophesized. At Amba Mekdela, Rassam was fated to stand looking down at the fallen Emperor when he was asked to identify the body by Napier’s retinue.
2-Tewodros and the fabled City of Forty four Churches
The beauty, vibrancy and religious significance of Gonder was such that even when it was under the control of the Muslims, the latter didn’t have the nerve or coarseness of heart to destroy or desecrate a single religious site. Yohanis IV met his demise in his effort to save it from the Dervish hordes. And he was famously mourned with the heart wrenching dirge “ye Gonder haymanot koma staleks angetun setelat Dagmyi Yohanes.” I think he was titled Yohanes II just not to spoil the free flow and rhyme of the dirge.
Such is the famed and fabled Gonder. But for the eccentric self-made Emperor it was nothing but a harem of debauchery, a market stall of dishonest merchants and a harbor of all sins associated with an urbane center. So what he did, he razed it to the ground for no particular reason. He loved and preferred Debre Tabor.
3-Dahomey, the American Civil War and Russia
According to Blanc, Rassam and Plawden the Emperor parched for knowledge so much that sometimes he would take a handful of his followers and ride out to Gaffat and inspect the foundry; perhaps to understand something that had intrigued him the night before. His interest and love for the ferenjis industrious technical and mechanical skills is well known and much has been written about it and he was much ridiculed on that account. He sure did oblige a bunch of missionaries to build cannons. If their kind could build one in the far off native lands beyond the high seas, they might as well do it at Gaffat.
Tewodros’ wandering restless mind wouldn’t let him be. If you think he was totally preoccupied by the Ras Alis, Ras Wubes, the Dejach Goshus, the Consul Camerons, the Debtera Zenebs etcetera, you are wrong. He was constantly botheed by what was happening in Dahomey (present day Mali and the neighboring countries). He would engage an Arab merchant or one of the hapless ferenjis on topics no one would give any importance.
He would quiz any fresh arrival at his court from overseas with the outcome of the American civil war. “Pray tell me to whom side is destiny being partial?”
He kinda reigned in the most definitive decades of the 19th Century. In those days, the American Civil War and the Crimean War were raging in the distant lands and he seems to have a good sense of what was going on.
He knew that the entire Western half of Europe had ganged up on Russia and had held siege on Crimea. Yes, you are right the same Crimea of 2014! Yes, the same naval base of Sevastopol! He knew he couldn’t even reach Adua and effectively subdue Ras Wube’s folks let alone send a detachment to the Black Sea but goddamnit he can name his best Cannon freshly rolling out of the Gaffat military industrial complex “Sevastopol”.
It is instances like this that make me ponder the Biblical simile about the spotted jaguar and the Ethiopians. Just randomly inquire any Ethiopia whose side he is supporting in the ongoing conflict between NATO gangs and Russia, chances are he/she wouldn’t even think twice. He would blurt out just like Tewodros would. Same old, same old.
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