Gojjam - History


The ancient history of Gojjam is mostly associated with religion. During the pre-Christianity era Mertule Mariam and Gish Abay in the eastern and central parts of Gojjam, respectively were places of worship. Along with Tana Qirqos in Lake Tana, Axum Tsion in Tigray, and Tadbaba Maryam in Wollo province, Mertule Mariam was a place where animal sacrifices were made for worship. Gish Abay is also considered as a sacred place for being the source of Abay River, also called Felege Ghion in Geez. Ghion is believed to be the Biblical name of Abay River that is mentioned in the Book of Genesis as one of the four rivers, which flows out of Aden and encompasses the land of Ethiopia. Considering its location within the bend of Abay River, the province of Gojjam is also referred to, especially by the church community, as Ghion or Felege Ghion.

The first church in Gojjam was then built at Mertule Mariam, which became the second church in Ethiopia, next to Axum Tsion (as in second-most important). Tradition relates that Christianity then spread from Tana Qirqos, Gish Abay and Mertule Mariam to different parts of the province. Gojjam then became home to some of the finest liturgical schools in Ethiopia. Other schools worthy of mention include Washera Mariam, Dima Giorgis, Debre Elias, Debre Werq, Amanuel, Tsilalo, and Gonji. These schools are generally credited for developing a sophisticated genre of expression called Sem'na Worq ("Wax and Gold") which is distinctive to Ethiopia.

The earliest recorded mention of Gojjam was during the medieval period, in a note in a manuscript of Amda Seyon's military campaigns there and in Damot in 1309 EC (AD 1316/7), during which time it was incorporated into Ethiopia. It was also referenced on the Egyptus Novello map, (c.1451), where it is described as a kingdom (though it had by this time long been subject to the Emperor of Ethiopia). Emperor Lebna Dengel, in his letter to the King of Portugal (1526), also described Gojjam as a kingdom but one that was part of his empire.

At least as early as Empress Eleni, Gojjam provided the revenues of the Empress until the Zemene Mesafint ("Era of the Judges"), when central authority was weak and the revenues were appropriated by Fasil of Damot. Gojjam then became a power base for a series of warlords at least as late as Ras Hailu Tekle Haymanot, who was deposed in 1932.

During the Italian occupation, Gojjam came to be the home of armed bands who resisted the Italian occupiers, whose leaders included Belay Zelleke, Mengesha Jemberie, Negash Bezabih and Hailu Belew. These resistance fighters, known as arbegnoch (or "Patriots"), limited the Italians to only the immediate arreas around heavily fortified towns like Debre Markos. Belay Zelleke was even able to fully liberate and run civil administration in the eastern part of Gojjam and some adjacent woredas in South Wollo and North Shoa. Since the Italians were unable to bring Gojjam under their control, the province was finally chosen by Emperor Haile Selassie as a safest way to return back to Ethiopia. During his return, he was supported by the combined forces of British army, Gojjamie Patriots, and other Ethiopians living abroad by then in fear of persecution by Italians. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, however, the inhabitants of Gojjam rebelled several times due to resentment over ill-treatment of patriots and increased taxes, the latest occasion in 1968 -- about the same time as the Bale revolt. Unlike in Bale, the central government did not use a military solution to end the revolt, instead replacing the governors and reversing the attempt to levy new taxes; in response to the 1968 revolt, the central government went as far as waiving tax arrears back to 1950.

Gojjam was divided in to western and eastern portions during the time of the Derg military regime, with Debre Marqos remaining the capital of East Gojjam while Bahir Dar became the capital of West Gojjam. With the adoption of a new constitution in 1995, Gojjam was divided with the westernmost part forming the majority of the Metekel Zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz Region, and the rest becoming the Agew Awai, the Mirab (West) Gojjam and the Misraq (East) Gojjam Zones of the Amhara Region.

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