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Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and the Battle of Adwa: A Pictorial History

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(The following is a post by Fentahun Tiruneh, Area Specialist for Ethiopia and Eritrea, African and Middle Eastern Division.) 

In Ethioipia today, few figures are as revered as Menelik II (1844-1913), the second-to-last reigning monarch of Ethiopia. Like Menelik I of the 10th century BC, the legendary son of King Solomon from whom he took his regal name, Menelik II traced his descent to the Solomonic line of kings. But it is his role in the history of Ethiopia for which Menelik II is most revered to this day, for it was he who defeated a European nation – Italy – on the field of battle, to defend Ethiopian independence.

Menelik II was crowned King of Kings and Emperor of Ethiopia on November 3, 1889, with the additional royal sobriquet of “the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” The coronation, which took place in the great Entotto Mariam Church in Addis Ababa, was captured for posterity by the Italian artist Pio Joris (1843-1921) and subsequently reproduced in chromolithograph images, today exceedingly rare. In the painting below, the artist depicted the entire royal entourage in gorgeous color and detail. On the left and right, we see the two leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith: the Archbishop of Alexandria and the Bishop of Ethiopia; the two lions of Judah, traditional symbol of the Solomonic line of kingship; and the “negarit” drums* and the drummers. On the left we see the lesser king and princes congratulating the Emperor, and flanking the Emperor are the various ministers of his cabinet.  Among those present during the coronation in the Entotto Mariam Church are Ras Dargie, uncle of Menelik; Dejazmach Dereso, General of the king;  Tekle Haimanot, King of Gojjam; Ras Mikael, governor of eastern and parts of southern Wollo; and Ras Mengesha-Atikim, governor of Damot, Agawmeder, Qwarra and adjacent areas.

Coronation of King of Kings Menelik II. Chromolithograph of the painting by Italian artist Pio Joris in 1890 (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Collection).
Illustration published in “L’Illustrazione Italiana,” after a painting by the artist E. Zemenes, 1889 (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Collection).

The illustration seen here commemorates the Wuchale Peace Treaty May 1889, by which the King sought to come to an agreement with Italy and avert warfare.  In the upper left-hand corner we see a Star of Solomon with a cross in the middle; two important symbols signaling the marriage between the Old and New Testament in Ethiopian culture. The peace talks failed, however, and ultimately led to the famous Battle of Adwa.

The Battle of Adwa as painted by Shibru Nuru, 1975 (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Collection).

The year 1896 was a crucial year for Europe as a whole, and for Italy in particular. In that year, Italy was defeated by Ethiopia at the Battle of Adwa, signaling the end of the “might is right” era assumed by the European powers of the day. The defeat of the Italians was a major blow to the industrial world because it heralded the beginning of resistance against the industrial powers and the struggle for independence by the colonized African nations. In the painting shown here, St. George appears at the very apex, a reference to the proverbial Ethiopian belief that the Italians were defeated thanks to divine intervention. The drums used to herald the coronation of the King of Kings here become the battle drum that reverberates through the hills of Adwa, shaking the morale of the enemy.

Menelik II by Charles Leandre (1864-1922) (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Collection).

Not surprisingly, some European artists rushed to the defense of colonialism. French artist Charles Leandre,) painted the caricature of Menelik that we see above. At the top right the artist wrote, “The benevolent Negus [i.e., King] takes advantage of the victory, but he never abuses it.” The underlying message, of course, is that the “beastly” and “barbarian” king is going to shame Europe (i.e., Italy), here represented by the helpless, naked woman.

In the aftermath of the war, Pope Leo XIII and King Menelik exchanged letters to effect the release of Italian Prisoners of War, and the Vatican turned to the Church of Alexandria for help with mediation. Trade cards of the day reflect current event in brightly colored images. Here we see Monsignor Macaire of the  vicar of the Egyptian Coptic Church approaching Emperor Menelik on behalf of the Pope of Rome; a prudent example of  religious diplomacy since the King of Kings and Monsignor Macaire both belonged to the Orthodox faith.

Monsignor Macaire of the vicar of the Egyptian Coptic Church approaching Emperor Menelik on behalf of the Pope of Rome. 1896 (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian collection of Trade Cards).
Letter from the Holy Father Leon XIII to Menelik and his reply to his Holiness. (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Collection of Trade Cards.)

Negotiations between the two dignitaries bore results. On November 20, 1896, the Emperor released 200 Italian POWs in honor of the Queen of Italy’s birthday, and successive releases were effected in February and June of 1897, when the last of the Italian POWs left the country.

Illustration of the jubilant prisoners of war when released. [Supplement Illustre du Petit Journal, Nov. 29, 1896]. (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Collection)
The Battle of Adwa and Its Legacy

Every year in March, Ethiopians celebrate their victory at the Battle of Adwa. The hero of that battle, Menelik II, remains a venerated figure in Ethiopian society, and indeed worldwide.

Monument of Menelik II riding into battle. Addis Ababa; Erected, 1930. (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Photograph Collection)

In marked contrast to the caricature shown above, Emperor Menelik II was often depicted as a noble and dignified figure in the art of his own time, as we see in this Trade Card here:

Imagination of a Spanish artist of the triumphant emperor, Menelik II (1896). (Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division, Ethiopian Collection of Trade Cards)

The King’s call for arms against Italy resonates powerfully to this day:

Now an enemy that intends to destroy our homeland and change our religion has come crossing our God-given frontiers. Now, with the help of God I will not allow him to have my country. You, my countrymen, I have never knowingly hurt you, nor have you hurt me. Help me, those of you with zeal and will power; those who do not have the zeal, for the sake of your wives and your religion, help me with your prayers.  (Gebre Selassie, Tarika zaman Zadagmawi Menilek Negusa Nagast ZeItyopya, 1966, p. 225.)

Menelik’s wife, the Princess Taitu, also commands respect in popular memory, and is often depicted as falling to her knees in prostration when the battle began and praying for victory. It was she who warned the Emperor about suspicious activities on the part of the Italian emissaries, scenting out political ploys under the cover of peace negotiations. Most important of all, she played a very strategic role by controlling the sources of water from the enemy.

Sehafe Te’ezaz Gebre Selassie, an eyewitness to the Battle of Adwa, concludes in his memoirs that no matter how organized an army may be, and no matter how sophisticated its arsenal of weapons, victory is only possible through God-given valor and skill. And in the Battle of Adwa, Menelik II proved the moral imperative in the struggle of Ethiopia against colonialism.

For more information resources about this topic at the Library of Congress, contact the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room (AMED) through the AMED’s Ask-a-Librarian inquiry form.


*A “negarit” drum is a special drum beaten to herald the approach of a monarch or the announcement of a decree.

Comments (30)

  1. Well done Ato Fnatahun! I hope Ethiopian artists and historians will, one day, develop Fantahun’s work into a book. The book, in addition to collections of photographs, can be supplemented with an artistic rendition of important personalities, places, and discourses with blurbs–like what we find in comic books. Such books will immensely contribute to teaching children about their history. Thank you

  2. Very well written and a good collection of art surrounding Atse Menelik II and the Ethiopian victory at Adwa. I will come and see these artifacts first hand as soon as I can.

  3. Nicely articulated. It gives pride and responsibility to shoulder the rich history.

  4. wow

  5. Quite moving and uplifting story of our forefathers!

    I kindly suggest for the King’s call be completed! I felt it has missed even very critical sections.

  6. A Rich And Proud History Of The Victory Of Adwa By The Brave Ethiopians Headed by Emperor Menelik II. Feelings Of Pride And Joy Fills My Heart As I Read And See. I Came to research Menelik II After A Dream I Had Last Night in which i was given the Order of Menelik II alongside some letters with pictures of royal people. I Woke Up and began researching and found the above info. I Am Sure Of My Roots In Ethiopia.

  7. Thanks very for this blog. It is very useful as teaching material. Menelik, Taytu, and Adwa are favorite topics of research for students in my Modern African History course. Do you have suggestions for other accessible primary source materials in English (or in translation) that can be helpful for them?

    • Thanks for your comments. There may be primary source materials in the Library’s collections that could be of interest to you. Please send your reference question via Ask A Librarian ( and a reference specialist will get in touch with you to offer further assistance.

  8. The significance of the story still resonates true (including the setting, characters and plot) in Ethiopia.

    Thank you Fentahun Tiruneh and the blogger.

  9. Plese write the consequense of minilik and his rull,power strength

  10. The archaic texts are interesting in searching the further studies of Africa, colonialism, the Horn & Near Eastern Studies.

  11. Ethiopia is indeed unique. Today We are proud to be Ethiopian because of what our Father’s have done. Now is the right time to write our History like our Father’s have done.

  12. The picture of menelik 2 it’s not interest and disrespectful for the defeater of italian fearful soldiers

  13. Thank you for creating this, but it would be appreciated if you changed the inappropriate and racist drawing of Menelik II by Charles Leandre to something more proper.

  14. በኢትዮጵያ ታረክ ዉስጥ የበርካታ ነገስታት የሀገር ታሪኮች ተፅፈዋል፡፡በወቅቱ አንድነት ወይም ህብረት የሚለዉን ቃል በትክክል ተጠቅመዉበታል የሚል እምነት አለኝ ፡፡ ከድሮዉ ታሪካችን የምንማረዉ ዘረኝነት በይፋ አለመታወጁን ነዉ፡፡ታሪክ እንደ ፀሀፊ ይወሰናል የሚል ግምት አለኝ፡፡ ለምሳሌ ለፖለቲካ ፍጆታ ብቻ የሚዉሉ ታሪኮች አሉ፡፡ሀገራዊ ታሪኮች ሲሰነዱ ከፖለቲካ ነፃ መሆን አለባቸዉ፡፡ሲዘጋጁም ቦታዉ ላይ የነበረዉ ሀቅ ነዉ፡፡የአንድን ብሄር ብሄረሰብ ባህልና ወግ ከባለቤቱ ጋር ቀጥታ ግንኙት ሳይኖረዉ በሶስተኛ ወገን የሚጻፍ ከሆነ የሀገር ታሪክ ሳይሆን ልብወለድ ይሆናል፡፡ታሪክና ልብወለድ የተምታታበት ህዝብ ደግሞ በጠባቡ ለሚያስቡ ፖለቲክኞች ንጉስ ያደርጋቸዋል፡፡

  15. wow how it is a nice story, it will teach the coming leaders of Ethiopia

  16. Many give much more credit to Empress Taitu for the success of the Battle of Adwa in which she physically participated. Thanks for mentioning the fact that she saw through the feigned platitudes of the Italians and that her insight enabled Emperor Menelik to prepare for their deceitful actions. That feminine sixth sense must not be ignored.

  17. ke photo betechemarey lela tarikoch yechemwru

  18. Our hero!

  19. The pictorial history of King of Kings Menelik contained in the blog is not meant to represent the glorious history of the Battle of Adwa or of the sovereign. It is meant to inform researchers that the library intentionally collects images, photos, illustrations, trade cards, postcards as long as they depict major historical events. It is important to fill the gaps of Ethiopian history which is scantly written and documented.

  20. Your motive and desire to keep alive our history and motivate the younger generation to do more deeper research about their history is simply awesome…!

  21. I put forth that the derogatory image of the king as well as Italy’s attempted conquest of Ethiopia was not so much “Europe” as “International Free Mason Europe,” given that Free Masonry held such great power in Italy in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, and was, at that time, attempting to march against any religious nation (hence of mockery of the Emporer’s belief in Divine Intervention). Ethiopia is the oldest Christian nation in the world.
    The 1800s were a time of Free Mason control in Europe after they (related lodges and organizations) beheaded the king and queen of France at the end of the 1700s and Napoleon, a free mason, had risen to power and marched against Europe. The Mason Mazzini had proclaimed the “Roman Republic” and sacked Churches to pay for the help of British Masonry during an international Free Mason movement to destroy religion, which was seen on any continent where religion was proclaimed. The Roman Republic fell, still in the 1800s, but Free Masonry was still at work, confiscating land from the Church under Freemason Garibaldi, including the great breach of Porta Pia on September 20th, 1870. Going onto 1917 when Free Masonry, celebrating its 200th anniversary in London, marched with black flags in Rome and carrying the slogan (translated) “Satan must reign in the Vatican. The Pope will be his slave.”
    Incidentally, the English still own holy relics of Ethiopia and refuse to allow Ethiopian Orthodox in their country to pray near these relics. This controversy was reported in the Times of Israel on the 2nd of June, 2019. Ethiopia tried to get the relic in 2010 and refused, which sparked controversy.

  22. Africa is indeed great.
    But we seem to have forgotten our history.
    Let us come together to remember the Battle of Adwa!

  23. This is a very great article exhibited how Ethiopia conquered the invading colonial power. Especially I like the way you portrayed the Adwa victory through arts. You can also find more artistic works within Ethiopia to be used to signify this victory.
    Best regard.

  24. Nice work,,, we need more of these to keep the history of our land.

  25. How come Charles Leandre drew our great emperor Menelik II in such ugly manner to look like an ape and not a human being? This is ungodly and racism to disrespect the almighty God who created all human beings in his own image. All you concerned repent to God not to face the judgment of God.

  26. Who’s St George aka (ቅዱስ ግዮጊስ) the depicted as one of the participants in this war?

  27. A beautiful story. Thank you for sharing!

  28. A successful tool that really helped to delve into the history and portrayal of Emperor Menelik during his reign. Useful as always.

  29. I am proud Ethiopian American because of Menelik the great descendant of King Solomon, whose blood flows through my veins, and those Americans who died for me. Ethiopia has millions of descendants of King Solomon as it was through King Menelik and King of Kings Haile Selassie… We Ethiopians will unify to strive and liberate all of Israel from Arabs. We will continue to fight for those Felashas the true Israelites who are left behind in Ethiopia from travelling to Israel.

    We Ethiopians are true to our heritage, culture, and history. We will continue to fight for our rights, the rights of Israelis, Africans, and Humanity as a whole body of all races, the black race who were colonized and oppressed and in the diaspora. We will lay the foundation for future generations to succeed by all means necessary with their counterpart, the white race to become victorious in all aspects of combined duties.



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