Renegotiating Ethiopian Nationalism: The Solomonic Myth in the Long Twentieth Century

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For centuries, the ‘Solomonic myth’, as narrated by the Kəbrä Nägäst (‘The Glory of Kings’, fourteenth century), was a founding component of Ethiopian imperial nationalism. Drawing on the legend of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba present in a number of antecedent traditions, the Kəbrä Nägäst describes how the Ethiopians became God’s new chosen people and how the Ark of the Covenant was transferred from Jerusalem to Aksum. The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by profound changes in the configuration of Ethiopia as a polity, and this paper will trace how Ethiopian intellectual and political elites proposed to reconfigure state nationalism in accordance with these changes. Firstly, the Solomonic ideology was bent to account for the transformation of the Solomonic empire into a sovereign state in the modern sense. The idea of Ethiopia became anchored for the first time to a fixed geographic space and acquired a clearly defined cartographical identity, with internationally-recognised boundaries. These borders were located, as a result of Mənilək II’s military campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s, much farther afield than the traditional territorial core of the Solomonic polity. The Abyssinian Empire had already been multicultural, multireligious and multilingual, but the range and scale of ethnic diversity encompassed by Mənilək II’s new state was unprecedented. The second part of the paper analyses how the multi-ethnic character of the new state was described in political theory, and how the Solomonic myth was used to sustain policies of cultural centralisation and assimilationism.


The Long History of Identity, Ethnicity and Nationhood

Contact name: Ilya Afanasyev

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Audience: Open to all