By John Graham


Debre Tabor may be a small place to consider one of the ‘cities of Ethiopia’ but it was effectively the capital of Ethiopia during a turbulent period in the 19th Century.


There is not much evidence in the town today of this prestigious past.  Unlike Gondar which preceded it, or Addis Ababa which followed (after an interval), Debre Tabor has no preserved castles or palaces. It does have two large churches, one of which is quite remarkable, but the fact remains that there is little evidence of past greatness in the town. 


After the glory days of Gondar in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Ethiopian monarchy had fallen into eclipse. With no central authority, the various princes or Rases fought for pre-eminence amongst themselves, and Ethiopia was a divided and vulnerable nation. (For a fuller account of this period and the succeeding monarchs, see A History of Modern Ethiopia by Bahru Zewdu).


'Big Gugsa', or more accurately Ras Gugsa Mursa, was the figure who emerged as the most powerful during this interregnum. He established Debre Tabor as his capital as the most powerful Ras during the Yajju dynasty, moving the seat of power from Gondar. From the time of his ascendancy in 1803 until the rise of Menelik II as the new emperor in 1889, Debre Tabor was the capital of Ethiopia, although during the latter years of the reign of Johannes IV he had effectively moved the seat of power from Debre Tabor to his magnificent new castle in Mekelle.


Debre Tabor St Mary Church 


The great remaining mark of Ras Gugsa Mursa is the Church of Jesus (Yesus) on one of the hills bordering Debre Tabor. This is a magnificent old stone church, with a wide circular stone wall and a large circular stone church within. When I visited, our local informer told me that the church was 677 years old and had been built by 'big Gugsa'.  I'm always a bit confused by the source of these inaccuracies. Clearly the church would be about 177 years old if associated with 'big Gugsa'. Does the informer not know the dates and genuinely believe the exaggeration? Was the church built on an old foundation which actually dates back a further 500 years? Does the informer know the story, but to impress or fool the inquisitive ferengi he exaggerates?  I really don't know the answer, but I am quite satisfied with the notion that the church as we see it was built with the support of Ras Gugsa Mursa in the early 1800's.  




Other than the Church of Jesus, the only old structure of any significance is another church, St. Mary, which was built in the 1860s with the support of Emperor Tewodros II (1855-68), the modern Emperor who reunited Ethiopia just in time to resist the incursions of European powers.


A wonderful engraving of Debra Tabor survives from that period (see Ethiopia Engraved - Pankhurst and Ingrams),  which shows the Church of St. Mary as the centre of the capital, with a large wall around it, and the houses and tents of the inhabitants covering the hillside below. The large house of the Emperor is clear in the foreground, but no evidence of its continued existence is to be found today.  Houses built from wood and mud don't last for 130 years, especially if they are on pieces of prime real estate. According to my historian friend and Debra Tabor native, Gizaw Zewdu, invaluable historical sites have been mindlessly replaced with ‘modern’ buildings.  Even stone structures disappear as building materials. As well, many old structures are built upon, altered and painted so that their original character disappears. Therefore in Debra Tabor, as in many other places, there is a lamentable lack of any physical evidence of past glory.


                     Debre Tabor wall of foundry at Gafat


No doubt Tewodros built the church in order to demonstrate his piousness, which fuelled his desire to reform the church.  These attempts included redistribution of land from the church to peasants, and involvement in the theological squabbles of the day. His interventions were not appreciated. The view of the church seems to have been that Tewodros must be branded an unbeliever or heretic, and his name was further muddied after his death. When I asked the priest at the Church of St. Mary about the connection with Tewodros he didn't want to talk about it. Even today acknowledging that Tewodros did something for the church seems to be taboo. 


Beneath the church on the hill near the Goha Hotel is a large pile of rocks.   So what?  The story goes that the rocks were brought from Checheho, a mountainous pass about 80 km East of Debre Tabor. More interesting is how the rocks were brought - which was by soldiers who lined the route to Checheho and passed the rocks hand to hand to Debre Tabor. This would have taken a lot of soldiers. After passing enough rocks to build the church and the wall around it, the soldiers returned to Debre Tabor, the story goes, and each carried one rock with them. The rocks were deposited below the church, and formed the mound which remains to this day.  With the help of a civil engineering friend we did a rough calculation of the number of rocks in the pile, which is about 4 meters high, 16 long and 8 wide.  With great mathematical precision, we took into account the slope of the hill, the size of the rocks, and the estimated space between the rocks and came up with the approximate figure of 270,000 rocks.   Tewodros was estimated to have had 60,000 troops at his height - so you decide.




Searching for another connection with Tewodros led me out to the hamlet of Gafat - a few kilometers outside of Debre Tabor. This involved driving to the East of Debre Tabor, finding someone who knew the place, going off the main road along a dirt track for two kilometers, and finally walking the final kilometer over farmers’ fields. 


Gafat is associated with the most critical and bizarre episode in Tewodros' reign - the hostage taking of missionaries who were then forced to manufacture a cannon. The missionaries were held at Gafat, and you can still see the foundations and walls of the buildings they used as foundries. Young children tried to sell us pieces of rock which were supposed to be leftover iron from the many unsuccessful castings of cannons, but they look more like the regular porous heavy rocks of the area than metal castings.


The story of the missionaries is well known in Gafat, and we quickly found a relatively young farmer who was well informed.  Apart from taking us to the recognizable stone walls which he called the foundries, he was able to point out the hill on which he said the missionaries resided.  Across the way is another hill, on which he says the soldiers guarding the missionaries were camped.  He also pointed out the direction from which the Emperor Tewodros rode in about 5 kilometers over the hills to inspect the progress of the missionaries, a daily occurrence when the Emperor was not away fighting one of his endless campaigns against unruly nobles.  


There is not much left, which is unsurprising given that the events occurred over 130 years ago, but there is more physical evidence of the reign of Tewodros here than in Debre Tabor itself. The place had been relatively undisturbed, obviously not a major centre after the missionaries were taken by Tewodros to his fortress of Makdella in l868, where he subsequently was defeated  by the British and killed himself.  Gafat, with its small stone walls, had a greater feel for the period of Tewodros for me than anything in the town.


The cannon built by the missionaries still lies on the Makdella plateau over 100 kilometers away, over the typically rugged terrain of Gondar and Wollo. The missionaries were artisans, some of them with blacksmithing skills, who were quite qualified in metallurgy. Although it was given out after the missionaries were freed that they were unwilling victims of  Tewodros who were forced to build the cannon, reality appears to have been somewhat different.


They apparently worked quite gladly on producing the cannon, after some initial reluctance probably, and there was great merriment when they successfully tested a small prototype. The challenges in building the cannon were enormous - including finding all the raw materials locally, and smelting the metal into rigged up casts.  The results are quite impressive, as I had a chance to personally visit the cannon at Makdella and see for myself.


The cannon is actually an attempted mortar - about two meters long and one meter wide. It didn't work.  The mouth was no doubt not wide enough, so when the fuse was lit through the mouth, the projectiles failed to go very far and the back of the cannon cracked, rendering it useless.


To get to Gafat we drove about 2 kilometers East from the centre of Debre Tabor. There is a dirt road turnoff heading North from the Western side of a flat plain, which was covered with 2 dozen or more children playing Ethiopian field hockey  (Gena) when we passed by.  Although the dirt road is badly eroded in spots, we managed to follow it for about 2 kilometers along the side of the plain and through to some hills beyond and across a stream.  We parked next to a terraced eucalyptus grove, and after asking directions from an old farmer we traipsed across fields for a kilometer.


As in almost anywhere in Ethiopia we quickly gathered an entourage of local children and the young farmer who proved to be our surprisingly good guide and historian. Almost everyone seemed a bit amazed at a ferengi walking any distance, although it was quite a trivial walk. They obviously do not receive many visitors. The foundry walls are in a grazing area which is well watered by a small stream, no doubt a reason for the selection of the site. 


The young farmer was able to point out the hill where the missionaries lived, and the other hill across the way where the soldiers guarding them resided. He also pointed out the pass through which Tewodros rode out the 5 km from Debre Tabor every day to check on his proteges. All that was left of the site were a few stone walls, but it was easy to stop and visualize the active little foundry which was the first ‘modern’ manufacturing site in Ethiopia.


There is not much further to say about Debre Tabor.  After the defeat of Tewodros by the British, the Emperor Johannes IV consolidated power, largely with the help of the weapons the departing British left in thanks for his collusion in defeating Tewodros. Once his power was established, he set himself up in Debre Tabor, and ruled from there for the first part of his reign. Remains of his castle, unfortunately covered in thorn bushes,  remain on a hill just outside Debre Tabor.  As indicated, once he had constructed his castle in Mekelle the centre of power gravitated there, where it remained until his death in battle against the Mahdists of Sudan in 1889. The new Emperor Menelik II initially ruled from his Showa capital of Ankober, but soon moved to Entoto hill overlooking Addis, then established what became the permanent capital in Addis in the 1890's.


I thoroughly enjoy my visits to Debre Tabor. Although it is the centre of the effort that reunited modern Ethiopia, and gave the base upon which a unified country successfully repulsed the Italian invasion of 1896, the town has little to show for the past glory. But that doesn't change its history or importance.

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