The Kingdom of Medri Bahri was a semi unified state situated in the Horn of Africa (modern day Eritrea). It was established in the early 12th century and rose to prominence in the 13th century, through trade and its impressive defensive army. It survived multiple serious invasion attempts by formidable enemies, including the powerful Ottomans, and Imam Gran. They mainly traded and fished in the Red Sea, and had a substantial navy, which unfortunately was greatly reduced in the defence against the Ottoman Red Sea Expansion. It also had a complex relationship with the Ethiopian Empire to its south, ranging from autonomy to eventual annexation.
Origin and Rise to Power
The highlands of modern-day Eritrea has seen a number of kingdoms rise to power. In 1137, after the decline of one such kingdom, The Kingdom of Aksum, the highlands were taken over and ruled over by the Bahr Negus (King of the Sea). This area, under the Bahr Negus was known as the ‘Land between the sea and the River’, otherwise known as Ma’ikele Bahr. The capital of this kingdom was at Debarwa, which was a city situated not far from the coast of the Red Sea. The kingdom flourished mainly through trade of minerals like gold, copper and ivory.
In 1433 the emperor Zara Yaqob took the throne in Debarwa, and introduced the title of Bahr Negash, and strove to replace the existing title of Bahr Negus with it. He was also the one who renamed the kingdom to Medri Bahri, which was the official start of the kingdom.
Zara Yaqob strove to consolidate his power as the ruler of the kingdom and increased the power of the position of Bahr Negash. To strengthen the imperial presence in Medri Bahri, Zara Yaqob also established a military colony consisting of Maya warriors permanently based in the city. These warriors came from the south of his realm. This army helped him completely eradicate the title of Bahr Negus and establish his authority over all else.
In 1520 the kingdom was visited by the portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares, when the Bahr Negash was Dori. Dori was the uncle of the Ethiopian Emperor at that time, Lebna Dengel, who he was forced to paid tribute to. This marked the first Bahr Negash under whom the Kingdom of Medri Bahri was considered a tributary of the Ethiopian Empire.
However, despite the tributary status, Dori had immense power and respect, and his kingdom stretch from the Red Sea, to as far north as Suakin and even covering the areas of the Inda Selassie, which was across the Mereb River.
Areas Under Rule, Administration, and Population Estimates
At its peak, the Kingdom of Medri Bahri stretched from the Red Sea to the Mereb River and beyond, covering areas of the Inda Selassie and its surrounding regions. This vast region was subdivided into three main provinces, namely Akele Guzai, Hamasein and Serae. Of these three, Serae was the most politically important district, as the most influential and important people took up residence there. As a consequence, this was also the wealthiest, the best maintained and the best protected district.
Under the office of the Bahr Negus, these districts operated with near autonomy of the capital, Debarwa. However, this changed when this title was phased out by Zara Yaqob, the control that the Bahr Negash had over these districts increased dramatically. The tributes paid by them became regulated, and were increased, and there was a garrison of Maya warriors stationed in each of these districts to maintain order and loyalty to the Bahr Negash.
Still the tribal leaders in these areas were allowed considerable independence apart from the tribute they were expected to pay. Unlike other kingdoms in the area, the religion of this kingdom was kept separate from the royalty. This arrangement developed with the advent and popularity of Christianity in the kingdom.
However, the decision to station a garrison of warriors in the district of Akele Guzai was not very well received by the people in that area, and around 1700 the district rejected the authority and rule of the Bahr Negash and regained independence.
At its peak the there was a significant amount of people in the kingdom, with some estimates putting the population at around 25,000 people living in the kingdom at one point.
Travellers’ account of Medri Bahri
In 1520 a Portuguese traveller named Francisco Alvares visited the kingdom, mainly to expand the trade between Portugal and Medri Bahri. He described the rule of Dori as the Bahr Negash. It was Francisco who first wrote about the tributary status of Medri Bahri. These tributes were mainly of imported cloth, horses and carpets. Francisco established a Portuguese office in the kingdom, which kept detailed accounts of the conflicts that the kingdom was involved in. Through these records it is known that at this time, Dori was also engaged in a war with the Nubians, who had murdered his son. Nubians were viewed as robbers and originated from Taka, 5 to 6 days away from Medri territory. Although this reputation may be attributed to prejudices held by the Medri against perceived enemies.
In 1770 a Scottish traveller James Bruce visited the kingdom who reported that at that time the Medri Bahri kingdom was a separate political entity from the Ethiopian Kingdom though the two were frequently in conflict. His account also speaks of the raids on the kingdom by the Tsazega people and the subsequent shift of the capital to the city Tsazega due to the Kingdom of Medri Bahri being overrun by them.
Another British traveller by the name of Henry Salt traveled to the Ethiopian Empire in the 19th century and was able to observe the collapse and annexation of the Kingdom of Medri Bahri. He divided the Ethiopian Empire into 3 distinct provinces, namely: Tigre, Amhara and Shoa. Of these he named Tigre being the most powerful, and also noted the inclusion of the title of Bahr Negash and its territories of Medri Bahri to be included in this province.
Medri Bahri is considered to have one of the most turbulent times when it comes to the defence of its borders. It had to constantly fight off enemies which were superior to it, in terms of numbers and technological prowess. However, despite these odds, the kingdom usually prevailed in keeping its borders protected. It fought off repeated invasion attempts by the Ottomans and its neighbours, the Ethiopian Empire, and prevailed in keeping the Nubians away from its main trade centres.
The decline of the Kingdom of Medri Bahri was brought on by its turbulent relationship with the Ethiopian Empire. Since the kingdom inception, its interactions with the Ethiopians played a huge role in its policies. In the 13th century, it was completely independent of the Ethiopians, and even conducted its own raids into Ethiopian territory. Under the rule of Zara Yaqob the position of autonomy was strengthened.
However by 1520 the influence of the Ethiopian had grown significantly, to the point where the emperor Lebna Dengel was able to ensure the appointment of his own uncle, Dori, to the title of Bahr Negash. The Kingdom of Medri had to pay heavy tributes to the Ethiopian Empire from that point on.
Soon the Medri Bahri kingdom was targeted over and over again by the Ottoman Empire through the Red Sea. While these attacks were unsuccessful at gaining any territory, they were able to completely shut off Medri Bahri’s access to the Red Sea, severely affecting its trade and food supplies. This led to an even higher dependence on the Ethiopian Empire for an increasing number of reasons.
In 1587 the Ottomans launched a final attack on the Medri Bahri Kingdom, and were even able to conquer the capital. However, the Bahr Negash Aquba Michael, with the aid of the Ethiopians was able to fight them off and regain control of the capital.
This put the Medri kingdom completely at the mercy of the Ethiopian Empire, which slowly starting annexing its territories.
Eventually in 1879, under emperor Ras Alula, the kingdom was completely annexed by the Ethiopians, who made Woldemichael Solomon, the last Bahr Negash, their prisoner. Later Kaffal, Solomon’s son-in-law, asked the Italians for aid and kept fighting the Ethiopians and forced them to retreat.
This victory was short lived, as the italians then took over the region of the Medri Bahri, renaming the kingdom “Italian Eritrea”, thus ending the kingdom for good.
Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1994, second edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2001)
Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren, Naigzy Gebremedhin Asmara: Africa’s secret modernist city, 2003.
Henry Salt A Voyage to Abyssinia. Published in 1816 pp