Habesh ( _tr. Habeş / Hebeşe) was an Ottoman province that bordered the Red Sea. It comprised Massawa, Hergigo, Suakin and their hinterlands in Africa (taken from Ethiopia, now part of Eritrea). later it would also incorporate Zeila and western Somaliland. The city of Harar in modern Ethiopia was added much later in the 19th century, after administration of the province had been transferred to Egypt in the late 19th century and its Pasha had conquered the city. The term for the province comes from the Arabic form ("al-Ḥabašah", "Bilād al-Ḥabašah") of the EthioSemitic term for Ethiopians (Habesha), which is now used to denote those of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent.


The proclamation of this province in 1554 (although conquest of the territories did not begin until 1557), was preceded by several generations of conflict between the Ottomans, who had been primarily concerned with Anatolia and Eastern Europe, and the Portuguese, who were the major power in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 brought the two powers into direct conflict. In order to keep spices from Asia flowing to the West at low prices, the Portuguese, led by the newly appointed governor Albuquerque, "blockad [ed] the entrance to the Red Sea and the [Persian] Gulf", and made an unsuccessful attempt to capture Hormuz. [Salih Özbaran, "The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman-Portuguese Relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman Administration in the Arab Lands During the Sixteenth Century" (Istanbul: Isis Press, 1994), pp. 70-1;81] The spice trade had existed in the early 16th century before the Ottoman conquests of the Muslim states, but Portugal was able to it around Africa to Western Europe. [Özbaran, 93-4] Despite Ottoman control of Egypt, Portugal continued to rule the seas for a number of decades; not until the Ottoman conquest of Aden in 1538 did the Portuguese grip begin to loosen, which led to direct conflict between the two powers, and a revival of the Red Sea spice trade, and allowing the Ottomans to influence the Red Sea. [Özbaran, 68-9; C. R. Boxer 415]

The first clash between the Ottomans and Portuguese came in 1538, when the beylerbey of Egypt, Süleyman Pasha was given 74 ships with 3000 men and big guns and charged with taking Portugal-held Diu in India. [Özbaran, 71] This first attack failed, but Ottoman forces under Süleyman Pasha were able to score decisive victory at Aden later that year in the largest naval attempt by the Ottomans in the war.Özbaran, 84] Aden, located in Yemen on the Indian Ocean was and still is a major port in the region for transshipment of goods destined for the Levant and the Red Sea; the Ottoman capture was a major blow to the Portuguese blockade. Later attacks by both the Ottomans and Portuguese failed to achieve any advantage; not until 1552 were the Ottomans able to launch a second large campaign, when they attempted to seize Hormuz with 25 galleys, 4 galleons, and 850 men, but were ultimately defeated.Özbaran, 72]

Both sides struggled under the weight of this war, which was carried out over such a great area (and strained tiny Portugal's resources), resulting in the end of large-scale campaigning. The final, and perhaps only, "serious naval confrontation in the Indian Ocean" took place in 1554. [Özbaran, 86] The next year the provinces of Lahsa (al-Hasa) and Habesh were proclaimed, with Özdemir Pasha assigned the task of conquering Habesh.

The Ottoman activities in Ethiopia proper precede their invasion. They had supported campaign of Imam Ahmad Gragn (which had begun in 1527), and following the Imam's reverse after the Battle of Jarta in 1542, sent him badly-needed aid in the form of matchlockmen to Adal at a time when firearms in the region were rare: 10 cannons with artillery men, as well as as many as 900 gunmen in 1542. [The number of musketmen vary amongst the primary sources. Castanhoso states there were 900 musketmen (R.S. Whiteway, editor and translator, "The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1441-1543", 1902. [Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967] , p.55), the Emperor Gelawdewos in two different letters states there were 600 (translated in Whiteway, pp. 117, 120).] This support led to the destruction of almost the Portuguese force under Christopher da Gama, and had Ahmad Gragn not dismissed these reinforcements soon afterwards, their help might have helped him to prevail at the decisive Battle of Wayna Daga.

The Ottomans invaded Ethiopia in 1557 with a force of perhaps 1400-1500 under Özdemir Pasha. First they captured Massawa and Hergigo, then moved inland and occupied the regional capital of Debarwa, where he "established a fort [...] with 'a long wall and very high tower... filled with vases of gold and silver, precious stones", and other valuables that were obtained by looting, extractions on trade, and the imposition of a poll tax on the local population. [Özbaran, 67; Richard Pankhurst, "Ethiopian borderlands" (Asmara: Red Sea Press, 1997), p. 235] A fort was also constructed at Hergigo; a planned fort at Massawa had to be abandoned due to a lack of suitable building materials.Richard Pankhurst, "History of Ethiopian Towns" (Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH Wiesbaden, 1982), p. 86] Debarwa was then given to the local noble Ga'éwah, the sister of Ahmed Gragn's mother-in-law. According to Cengiz Orhonlu, Debarwa was intended to be the "base of penetration of [...] Ethiopia", but had to be abandoned due to several reasons.Özbaran, 68] Most important were that the invading force had run out of provisions, and the water cisterns that they had dug had dried up. Lastly, the local population, who "were beginning to have access to fire-arms" put up fierce resistance. As a result, the Ottoman force abandoned the fort and retreated to Massawa, but was attacked and defeated by the local peasants who "captured all their goods".

The Ottomans at this point made a change in tactics, opting to pit Ethiopian rulers against each other in order to achieve their conquest, rather than invading unilaterally. They had employed this same tactic earlier in the Balkans: absorbing local entities through local rulers due to a shortage of manpower (here because of its peripheral nature and problems with the Safavids and in the Mediterranean) rather than direct conquest. The Bahr negash Yeshaq had bad relations with Emperor Menas, who had just assumed the throne, so in 1561 he revolted against Menas, but the following year he was defeated in battle. Yeshaq then fled to the Ottomans and promised to cede them Debarwa, Massawa, Arqiqo, and all the land in between in return for their help. Yeshaq and the Emperor later made peace, and the Ottomans withdrew from Debarwa in 1572, which Yeshaq quickly occupied, but he returned it to the Ottomans as a result of the earlier agreement.

Sarsa Dengel, Menas' successor as Emperor, was angered by this and campaigned against Yeshaq in 1576, defeating an alliance of the Ottomans, the Bahr negash, and the Emir of Harar in 1579, killing their leaders. Emperor Sarsa Dengel then retook Debarwa, which surrendered to him and some of whose soldiers were absorbed into the army. [Özbaran, 69] According to Ottoman sources, the force took Arqiqo and managed to destroy Massawa's fort as well as kill 40 of its 100 defenders, though it failed to take the city. As a result, 100 riflemen and 100 cavalrymen were sent to Massawa from Egypt.Pankhurst, "History", p. 87] Given Debarwa's importance as a staging point for the conquest of the rest of Ethiopia, further Ottoman advances on the city were inevitable. Massawa was reinforced by 300 musketeers, 100 cavalry, 10 canonneers, 10 large guns, and 5 builders to repair the fort, all from Egypt. Again employing their earlier tactic of fighting with local leaders, the Ottomans appointed a man named Wad Ezum as Bahr nagash, and in 1588 moved inland where they were defeated by a local lord. [Pankhurst, "History", pp. 69-70] Emperor Sarsa Dengel was alarmed by the Ottoman expansion, and replied with an attack on Hergigo in 1589 which failed to capture the fort.

Though pivotal to the control of the Red Sea, Habesh as a whole was less important than the Mediterranean or Eastern border with the Persian Safavids. After the death of Ozdemir Pasa, much of the Ottoman conquests were reversed, and the Yemeni revolt in 1569 - 70 further reduced the importance of Habesh. [H. A. R. Gibb, et al., "The Encyclopedia of Islam" (Leiden: Brill, 1960); Özbaran, p. 194] Recognizing the difficulty of expanding its territories and the minimal gain from success, in 1591 Habesh was put under the jurisdiction of a local Beja Na'ib, or deputy, who was to pay an annual tribute to the Ottomans, with a small Ottoman garrison left in Massawa. [Pankhurst, "History", p. 70; Özbaran, 87] Further relations between the Ethiopian emperor and the Ottoman Na'ib were marked by periods of relative peace and others of confrontation. The first major conflict came in 1615, in the reign of the Portuguese-influenced (he would later convert to Roman Catholicism) Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos. During the reign of the Na'ibs, Ottoman raiding parties from the garrison at Massawa would periodically raid the surrounding hinterland for cattle, slaves, and other booty. [Özbaran, 88] One such raid was defeated, which angered the Pasha of Massawa, who decided to impound goods at the port meant for the Emperor until 62 rifles taken from his men were returned. As a result, Susenyos ordered the governor of a northern province to cut the Na'ib off from Ethiopian supplies, as the province of Habesh had no supplies of its own. Though the Pasha told his men to acquiesce in case of such an event before leaving on a "hajj", he was replaced by another Pasha who was unyielding. [Özbaran, 88-9] Susenyos later commented that if he wished to retake Arqiqo, he could do it quickly, but could not hold it against retaliatory Ottoman assaults.

Despite the relative weakness of the Na'ib and Ottoman garrison in the province, the threat of real Ottoman presence and attack kept the territory safe from attack. Even with the weakness of the Ottoman garrison, attacks continued with a number of soldiers and Arabs raiding the countryside for cattle in 1624; this raid was defeated, and its weapons (many firearms and scimitars) were captured and used against the fort at Hergigo. Susenyos then once again prevented caravans from supplying the ports in order to get more favorable terms in any future treaty. [Özbaran, p. 89] A peace treaty was finally brokered in which goods for the Emperor and the Ethiopian Church would be exempted from taxes, imperial agents and Jesuits had free travel, and the Ottomans would only purchase slaves by the Ottomans brought to the port by caravan; the treaty was to be honored by the successors of the rulers as well and contained provisions for breaking the treaty. [Özbaran, pp. 89f] As a result of the peace and Ottomans' technological superiority, Massawa, with its Ottoman garrison, was not fortified, while Hergigo was defended by a fortress guarded by artillery.Özbaran, p. 90]

Relations under Susenyos's successor, Fasilides, were markedly better. Susenyos's conversion to Catholicism had resulted in a backlash against the Catholic Portuguese. Fasilides expelled or killed all Jesuits, burned their books, and in 1648 made agreements with the Pashas of Massawa and Suakin to execute any Jesuits attempting to enter Ethiopia through those ports. There was little change in the relatively good (though obviously tense due to contrary intentions) relations until the reign of Iyasu I at the end of the century. The Na'ib seized gifts intended for the Emperor because of their high value, and attempted to levy a tax on them.Özbaran, p. 91] Refusing to pay, Iyasu banned a northern province from supplying Habesh with food on pain of death. The Na'ib was forced to give back the goods, supplemented with rugs in order to prevent famine in Habesh. In later interactions in the mid-18th century, the Na'ib would prevail over Iyasu II through his threat of killing Ethiopian clergy impounded in Massawa as a retaliation for cutting off food. [Özbaran, 91-2]


Specific Ottoman interest in Ethiopia (Turkish: "Habeşistan", "Habeshistan") arose from its pivotal geographic position in the region: it had ports and coastline on both the Red Sea (and near the Bab-el-Mandeb, where Ottoman blockades could be performed if necessary) and on the Indian Ocean (specifically Zeila and the Somali coast). The Ottoman navy was still relatively weak and in its infancy, so Ottoman land forces would have to capture key areas to ensure that the weak navy would have some influence and strengthen [Özbaran, p. 191] According to Dom Andre de Oviedo, the Ottomans were interested in the area because of the prospect of capturing slaves for galleys, provisions, iron, and other goods. [Özbaran, p. 192] According to Selman Reis, an ambitious Ottoman Red Sea admiral, the coast (specifically the Dahlak Archipelago) was also rich with pearls, and the amount of merchandise and trade consisting of "gold, musk, and ivory" present at Berbera, on the Somali coast, was described by Selman as "limitless". [Özbaran, 108-9] Selman also recognized a religious duty to conquer Habesh:

:Every year raids are carried out against the infidel Habash, on the path of Allah, by way of the holy war, and they fight hard. To the port of Suakin mentioned above come every year one thousand Arab horses from the land of Sa'id (upper Egypt) and they are sold to the Infidels in the province of Abyssinia. It is related that the Muslims of the Aforesaid Zaila' send letters to the tribesfolk (A'rab) of Suakin asking "why are you selling horses to the Infidels in your country? Through these horses they become powerful and fight against us. Are you, too, not Muslim?"Özbaran, 108]

After the 1517 conquests, the Ottomans also were interested in the region because of the "hajj". Having conquered the former Muslim defenders of the "hajj", the Ottomans, being the successor of those states, was charged with protecting and providing safe passage to all undertaking the "hajj".Özbaran, 95] Portuguese hegemony in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, however, gave them some control over "hajjis". In the same vein, other Muslim states in the region saw the Ottomans as their defenders as Muslim brothers:

:The Shah of Hormuz, Sharafaldin, wrote a letter to Sultan Süleyman to provide him with military help in order to expel the Portuguese from Hormuz. The ruler of Gujerat [Gujarat] also sought Ottoman military help.

Part of the reasoning behind Ottoman expansion was to aid fellow Muslim states in the new role it had taken on, but economic issues were pertinent as well. Though weapons were usually given unilaterally, the Muslim states could provide another source of revenue through the selling of firearms, as they greatly demanded it. More important, however, was the Red Sea trade, despite its relative small revenue. The Ottomans even constructed a canal sometime after 1532 between the Nile and the Red Sea so that spices could go directly to Istanbul. [Özbaran, 96]

Finally, there was a pre-emptive element to the Ottoman invasion of Ethiopia. If the Portuguese had built fortresses and took control the Red Sea ports first (especially Dahlak), they would have controlled the whole region, both directly and through their allies. Despite the possible economic from taxing Habesh proper, the Ottomans were more concerned with overcoming and outmaneuvering the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Historical sources

There is very little in the way of source material for Ottoman rule in the province of Habesh after the 16th century. Most of Cengiz Orhonlu's Ottoman sources on Habesh come from the late 16th century, with some from the 17th century. Despite the seminal nature of his "Habesh Eyaleti", he could not "find precise data regarding the administrative and financial structure of the province" or information on any agricultural taxation.Özbaran, 195] Like Ottoman control in North Africa, Yemen, Bahrain, and Lahsa, the Ottomans had no "effective, long term control" outside of the ports where there was a direct Ottoman presence and garrison. [Özbaran, 194] Control was limited to key points along the coast and constant tension and hostilities meant that it had to be constantly reinforced, usually by troops from nearby provinces like Egypt and Yemen (194). Furthermore, despite the promises of Selman Reis, Habesh did not provide much revenue for the Ottomans, partly because the spice trade was not very profitable, but more importantly because the rich hinterlands were unconquered, with the Ottomans holding only the dry and hot coasts. Given that Yemen often cost more to upkeep than it sent to Istanbul as taxes, and that Habesh had much less in the way of agricultural taxes (but just as high a salary for the "beylerbeyi"), the province was probably very unprofitable. [Özbaran, 35] Habesh, along with other 16th century conquests, was not under the timar system as had lands conquered in Europe and Anatolia. Rather, it was a salyaneli province, in which taxes "were collected directly for the centre and were transferred to the central treasury after the local expenses were deducted". Due to the aridity of the province, little in the way of taxes on agriculture was collected; the most important source of revenue was the customs duty collected through "iltizam" (tax farming) on goods flowing through Massawa, Beylül, and Suakin in Sudan. Individuals would be allowed to collect duties, but in return would have to send a specified amount to the Sultan every year. The slave trade represented another important source of income, which, as mentioned earlier, were either bought from caravans visiting Massawa or acquired through cattle-raiding parties. Although Ottoman interest in Habesh had dwindled by the end of the 16th century, it was still strategically located and therefore still guarded by Ottoman galleys in the 17th century. [Özbaran, 196]


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