Prof. Taddesse Tamrat, historian and educator, dies at 78
Ethiopian intellectual Taddesse Tamrat, the pre-eminent historian of medieval Ethiopia, died Tuesday in a hospital in Chicago, where he was being treated for acute sickness. He was 78.
A towering figure in Ethiopian medieval history and one of the first full-time members of staff at the Department of History of Addis Ababa University, the late Taddesse was an active and prolific scholar and teacher whose students became well-known academics in the field.
Taddesse was born in Addis Ababa to his father Tamirat Gebreyes and his mother Berhane Muluneh.Taddesse’s grandparents had all been Orthodox clerks; his father was one founders of the Menbere Berhan Saint Mary Church, and worked as the Patriarchal Vicar (Abune Kesis) for the last Egyptian patriarch, Abune Kerselom.
Young Taddesse learned alphabet at Kidsit Mariam church and later
joined elementary school at Holy Trinity School, which he said helped him to retain a deep absorption with his heritage. For his high school studies, he joined Kokebe Tsiba Secondary High school and later Harar Medhani Alem Secondary School. From his first days in grade school, Taddesse was deeply dedicated to scholarship.He entered academic life after obtaining his bachelor’s degree from the Addis Ababa University.
Taddesse received his PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London in 1968, specializing in the history of Ethiopia and he was published extensively throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.Living in the United States for a number of years, the late Professor served as a visiting professor at the University of California, Northwestern University, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from SOAS in recognition of his work as one of Africa’s foremost modern historians.
Professor Taddesse’s internationally acclaimed book is “Church and State in Ethiopia: 1270-1527”, which is seen as a pioneering monograph on nineteenth century Protestant and Catholic missions in Ethiopia.Accessibly written, it reached a large public and inspired an interest in church history and monasticism in many casual readers, as well as in some who went on to enter the profession. Professor Marilyn E. Heldman, author of African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia, described the book as “the essential text for the history of the highland Christian state of Ethiopia during the period of its development as the dominant state in the Horn of Africa”.Professor Charles F Beckingham, Emeritus Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of London, wrote that the book offers “the reader much more than the title might suggest, for it examines most aspects of the Ethiopian state and the Ethiopian church from the supposed restoration of the supposedly Solomonic dynasty to the eve of the Muslim invasion [Ahmed Gragne] in the sixteenth century.” However, the renowned scholar, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam found the book irritating, saying that it tries to impose an idea that was formulated by foreign authors. For him, the book fails to show an independent nation, free from the opinion and judgment of foreign writers; it rather contains a mix of intriguing insights into politics and religion, state and the Orthodox Church. More damagingly, the book puts Christianity above all else and it makes no attempt to show a nation of different religious creeds, according to Prof. Mesfin.
But Taddess’s high regard for his views on the history of Africa and the Ethiopain people is never questioned.He was a strong advocate of an indigenous history of Africa written by Africans rather than the Europeans.He helped form the Institute of the Ethiopian studies, centre for the international studies of the arts of Ethiopian, and was one of its Directors and the Addis Ababa University Press, where he was one of its most admired figures for a decade, serving as director, and editor.
He was also an accomplished linguist, translating Tobbya, Ethiopia’s first novel, which appeared in Amharic in 1900. Professor Tamrat was frequently interviewed for his views on modern African history and guest lectured at numerous international symposiums and conferences.Professor Taddesse has produced several articles on Ethiopia that have appeared in numerous academic journals, magazines and newspapers.
Professor Tadesse was preceded in death in July 2012 by his wife of 45 years, and he is survived by his three daughters.