Description of Magdala - Climate and Water Supply - The Emperor's Houses - His Harem and Magazines - The Church - Prison-house - Guards and Gaol - Discipline - A previous Visit of Theodore to Magdala - Slaughter of the Gallas...

Amba Magdala, distant about 320 [Footnote: According to Mr. C. Markham.] miles from Zulla, and about 180 from Gondar, arises in the province of Worahaimanoo, on the border of the Wallo Galla country. The approach is difficult on account of the steep ascent and narrow precipitous ravines that separate it from the rivers Bechelo and Jiddah and from the table-land of Wallo. It stands almost isolated - amongst gigantic surrounding masses, and viewed from the western side possesses the appearance of a crescent. On the extreme left of this curve appears a small flat plateau called Fahla, connected by a strip of land with a peak higher than the amba itself, and called Selassie (trinity), on account of the church erected upon it, and designated by that name. From Selassie to Amba Magdala itself there is a large plain called Islamgee, several hundred feet lower than the two peaks it separates. At Islamgee several small villages had been erected by the peasants who cultivate the land for the Emperor, the chiefs, and soldiers of the amba. The servants of the prisoners had also there a spot given to them where they were allowed to build huts for themselves and cattle. On Saturday a weekly market, formerly well supplied, was held at the foot of Selassie. Numerous wells were generally sunk during the dry season close to the springs of Islamgee, which wells afforded a small but constant supply of water. From Islamgee the road up to Magdala is very steep and difficult. To the first gate it follows, at times very abruptly, the flank of the mountain. To the right, the sides of the amba rise like a huge wall; below is a giddy abyss. From the first to the second gate the road is exceedingly narrow and steep, turning to the right at a sharp angle with the first part of the road. Small earthworks had been erected on the flanks near the gates, protecting every weak point; The summit of the ridge was strongly fenced and loopholed. Two other gates led from the amba to the foot of the mountain; one had some time before been closed, but the other, called Kafir Ber, opened in the direction of the Galla country. The amba is well fortified by nature, and Theodore, to increase its strength, added some rude fortifications.

The Magdala plateau is oblong and somewhat irregular, about a mile and a half in length, and on the average about a mile broad. It was one of the strongest fortresses in Abyssinia, and by its position between the rich and fertile plateau of Dahonte, Dalanta, and Worahaimanoo, easily provisioned. Magdala is more than 9,000 feet above the level of the sea; and enjoys a splendid climate. In the evenings, almost all the year round, a fire is welcome, and, though a month or two before the rains the temperature rises somewhat, in the huts we never found it too hot to be uncomfortable. The high land that surrounds the amba in the distance is barren and bleak, due to the great altitude, and many of the peaks in the Galla country are, for several months in the year, covered with snow or frozen hail. Water, during and for some months after the rainy season, is abundant, but from March to the first week in July it gets scarcer and scarcer, until it is obtained only with difficulty. In order to remedy this disadvantage, Theodore, with his usual forethought, had several large tanks constructed on the mountain, and also sunk wells in promising places. The effort was pretty successful; the wells gave only a small supply of water, it is true, but it was a constant one all the year round. The water collected in the tanks was of very little use. Those reservoirs were not covered after the rains, and the water, impregnated with all kinds of vegetable and animal matter, soon became quite unfit to drink. The principal springs are at Islamgee; there are a few on the amba itself, and numerous less important ones issue from the sides, not many feet from the summit, at the base of the ridge itself.

Magdala was not only used by Theodore as a fortress, but also as a gaol, a magazine, a granary, and as a place of protection for his wives and family. The King's house and the granary stood almost in the centre of the amba; in front towards the west a large space had been left open and clear; behind stood the houses of the officers of his household; to the left, huts of chiefs and soldiers; to the right, on a small eminence, the godowns and magazines, soldiers' quarters, the church, the prison; and behind again another large open space looking towards the Galla plateau of Tanta.

Theodore's houses had nothing regal about them. They were built on the same pattern as the ordinary huts of the country, but only on a larger scale. He himself, I believe, never, or at least very rarely, lived in them; he preferred his tent at Islamgee, or on some neighbouring height, to the larger and more commodious abode on the amba. To his dislike to houses in general, I believe was added a particular objection to shutting himself up in the fort. The majority of these houses were occupied by Theodore's wives and concubines, the eunuchs, and female slaves. The granary and tej houses were in the same inclosure, but separated from the ladies' department by a strong fence; the granary consisted of half a dozen huge huts, protected from the rain by a double roof. They contained barley, tef, beans, peas, and a little wheat. All the grain was kept in leather bags piled up until they reached almost to the roof. It is said that, at the time of the capture of Magdala by our troops, there was grain in sufficient quantity stored in these granaries to last the garrison and other inhabitants of the amba for at least six months. The dwellings of the chiefs and soldiers were built on the model of the Amhara houses - circular, with a pointed thatched roof. The huts of the common soldiers were built without order, in some places in such close proximity that if, as it happened on one or two occasions, a fire broke out, in a few seconds twenty or thirty houses were at once burnt to the ground: nothing could possibly stop the conflagration but rapidly pulling down to leeward the huts not as yet on fire. The principal chiefs had several houses for themselves, all in one inclosure, surrounded and separated from the soldiers' huts by a high and strong fence. Since about a year before his death Theodore had been gradually accumulating at Magdala the few remnants of his former wealth. Some sheds contained muskets, pistols, &c.; others books and paper; others carpets, shamas, silks, some powder, lead, shot, caps; and the best the little money he still possessed, the gold he had seized at Gondar, and the property of his workmen sent over to Magdala for safe custody. All the store-huts were during the rainy season covered with black woollen cloth, called mak, woven in the country. Once or twice a week the chiefs would meet in consultation in a small house erected for that purpose in the magazine inclosure to discuss public affairs, but, above all, to assure themselves by personal inspection that the "treasures" entrusted to their care were in perfect order and in safe keeping.

The Magdala church, consecrated to the Saviour of the World (Medani Alum), was not in any respect worthy of such an important place. It was of recent date, small, unadorned with the customary representations of saints, of the life of the Apostles, of the Trinity, of God the Father, and the devil. No St. George was seen on his white charger, piercing the dragon with his Amhara lance; no martyr smiled benignly at his fiend-like tormentors. The mud walls had not even been whitewashed; and every pious soul longed for the accomplishment of Theodore's promise - the building of a church worthy of his great name. The inclosure was as bare as the holy place itself; no graceful juniper, tall sycamore, or dark green guicho solemnized its precincts, or offered cool shade where the hundred priests, defteras, and deacons who daily performed service, could repose after the fatiguing ceremony - the howling and the dancing to David's psalms. On the same line, but below the hillock on which stood the church, the Abouna possessed a few houses and a garden; but, alas for him, his pied-a-terre had for several years become his prison.

The prison-house, a common gaol for the political offenders, thieves, and murderers, consisted of five or six huts inclosed by a strong fence, and surrounded by the private dwellings of the more wealthy prisoners and guards, extending from the eastern slope of the hillock to the edge of the precipice and to the open space towards the south. At the time of our captivity these houses cannot have contained less than 660 prisoners. Of these, about 80 died of remittent fever, 175 were released by his Majesty, 307 executed, and 91 owed their liberty to the stormers of Magdala. The prison rules were in some respects very severe, in others mild and foreign to our civilized ideas. At sunset every prisoner was ordered into the central inclosure. As they passed the gate they were counted and their fetters examined. The women had a hut for themselves; only a late arrangement, however, as before they had to sleep in the same houses as the men. The space was very limited and the prisoners were packed in like herrings in a barrel. Abyssinians themselves, hard-hearted as they are, described the scene at night as something fearful. The huts, crowded to excess, were close, the atmosphere fetid, the stench unbearable. There lay, side by side, the poor, starved vagabond, chained hands and feet, and often with a large forked piece of wood several yards long fixed round his neck, and the warrior who had bled in many a hard-won fight, the governor of provinces - nay, the sons of kings and conquered rulers themselves. In the centre the guards, keeping candles lighted all night, laughed or played some noisy game, indifferent to the sufferings of the unfortunates they watched. At day-dawn, always about 6 A.M. in that latitude, the prison-door was opened, and those who were lucky enough to possess any, repaired to the huts they had erected in the vicinity of the sleeping-houses, while the poorer crawled about the prison inclosure, awaiting their pancake loaf with all the impatience of hungry men, just kept from immediate starvation by the bounty of the Emperor. Others strolled about in couples, begging from their more favoured companions, or, when leave was granted, went from house to house imploring alms in the name of the "Saviour of the World."

The prison guards were the greatest ruffians I have ever seen. They had been for so many years in contact with misery in its worst shape that the last spark of human feeling had died out in their callous hearts. Instead of showing compassion or pity for their prisoners, many of them innocent victims of a low treachery, they added to their misery by the harshness and cruelty of their conduct. Had a chief received at last a small sum of money from his distant province, he was soon made aware that he must satisfy the greed of his rapacious gaolers. But that was nothing compared to the moral tortures they inflicted on their prisoners. Many of them had been for years confined on the amba, and had brought their families to reside near them. Woe to the woman who would not listen to the solicitations of these infamous wretches; threatened and even beaten, few indeed of the sorrowful wives and daughters held out; others willingly met advances; and when the chief, the man of rank, or the wealthy merchant, left his day house, he knew that his wife would immediately receive her chosen lover, or, what was still more heartrending, a man she despised but feared.

Such was the daily life of those whose fault was to have given ear to the fair words of Theodore, an error that weighed heavier upon them than a crime. But when the Emperor, on his way, stopped a few days at Magdala, what anxiety, what anguish, reigned in that accursed place! No day house, no hours spent with the family or the friend, no food hardly; the prisoners must remain in the night houses, as the Emperor at any moment might send for some one of them to set him at liberty, or, more likely, to put an end to his miserable existence. Let us take, for example, his visit to Magdala in the first days of July, 1865, on his return from his unsuccessful campaign in Shoa. No doubt long-continued misfortunes crush the better qualities of men, and induce them to perform acts at the mere thought of which in better days they would have blushed. Such was the case with Beru Goscho, formerly the independent ruler of Godjam. Since years he had lingered in chains. In the hope of improving his position, he had the baseness to report to his Majesty that when a rumour was started that he had been killed in Shoa, a great many of the prisoners had rejoiced. Theodore, on receiving this message, gave orders for all the political prisoners who were only chained by the leg to have hand chains put on - exempting only from this order his informer Beru Goscho. However, some days later, this chief having sent a servant to Theodore to ask as a reward to be allowed to have his wife near him, the Emperor, who did not approve of treachery in others, pretended to be annoyed at his request, and gave orders that he should also be put in hand chains. But this was trifling compared with the massacre of the Gallas, which happened during that same visit of Theodore. After subduing the Galla country he required hostages. Accordingly, the Queen Workite sent him her son, the heir to the throne; and many chiefs, believing in the high character of Theodore, willingly accompanied him. The Galla prince had at first been kindly treated; even made governor of the mountain; but soon, on some pretext or other, he was disgraced: first made a prisoner at large, and then sent to the common gaol, to endure chains and misery for years.

Menilek, the grandson of Sehala Selassie, had been since his youth brought up near the Emperor; he was entrusted with an independent command, and in order to strengthen his adherence to his cause, Theodore gave him his daughter in marriage. Under these circumstances, I can easily fancy the rage and passion of Theodore when, one morning, he was informed that Menilek had deserted with his followers, and was already on his way to claim the dominions of his fathers. The Emperor with a telescope saw on the distant Wallo plain Menilek received, with honour by the Galla Queen Workite. Blind, with rage, he had no thought but revenge. He dared not venture to pursue Menilek and encounter the two allies; at hand he had easy victims - the Galla prince and his chiefs. Theodore mounted his horse, called his body-guard, and sent for those men, who had already lingered long in captivity through trusting to his word, and then followed a scene so horrible that I dare not write the details. All were killed some - thirty-two, I believe - and their still breathing bodies hurled over the precipice. It is probable that shortly afterwards Theodore regretted having allowed himself to be guided by passion. With Menilek he had lost Shoa; by the murder of the Galla prince he had made those tribes his deadly foes. He sent word to the Bishop, "Why, if I was acting wrongly, did you not come out with the 'Fitta Negust' (Abyssinian code of law) in your hands, and tell me I was wrong?" The Bishop's reply was simple and to the point: - "Because I saw blood written in your face." However, Theodore soon consoled himself. The rains were late, and water scarce on the amba: the next day it rained. Theodore, full of smiles, addressed his soldiers, saying, "See the rain; God is pleased with me because I have killed the infidels."

Such is Magdala, the sun-burnt barren rock, the arid lonely spot where we had to undergo nearly two years of captivity in chains.

We furnished our house without much expense; two tanned cows' hides were all we required. These, together with a few old carpets Theodore had presented us with at Zage, was about the extent of our worldly goods. I had a small folding table and a camp-stool (some of our kit had arrived a few days before); but our hovel was too small to admit them and us. The rainy season had fairly set in, and the broken roof of our godjo was rapidly giving way under the weight of the wet grass; we propped it up as best we could by means of a long stick, still it looked very shaky, and leaked worse and worse. The ground, always damp now, had quite the appearance of an Irish bog; and if the straw that was placed underneath the skins to make our bed a little softer was not removed every other day, the steam rose even through the old carpets that adorned our abode. At last I could stand it no longer: I was afraid of falling ill. It was bad enough to be in chains and in a hovel, but sickness into the bargain would have driven me to despair. I sent my Abyssinian servants to cut some wood, and made a small raised platform; it was rather irregular and hard, but I preferred it to sleeping for so long on the wet ground.

Well do I still remember that long, dreary, rainy season, and with what impatience we looked for the Feast of the Cross, about the 25th of September; as the natives told us that the rains always ceased about that time! I had brought with me from Gaffat an Amharic grammar. "Faute de mieux," I struggled hard to study it, but the mind was not fitted for such work; and, book in hand, I was in spirit, thousands of miles away, thinking of home, dreaming awake of beloved friends, of freedom and liberty. Towards the end of August, shortly after the return of our ill-fated messenger, we wrote again and sent another man: by this time we had abundant proof that Samuel, - formerly our introducer, now our gaoler, - was completely in our interests; and by his good arrangements the messenger started without any one knowing of it, and managed to reach Massowah with his letter.

I have spoken often of Samuel, and shall again and again have to mention his name in my narrative. He was, from the beginning, mixed up with the affairs of the Europeans, and I believe at one time he was rather unfriendly towards them; but since our arrival and during our captivity, he behaved exceedingly well. He was a shrewd, cunning man, and one of the first who perceived that Theodore was losing ground. Outwardly he swore by his name, and kept his confidence; but all the while he was serving us, and helping us in our communications with the coast, the rebels, &c. In his youth his left leg had been broken and badly set; and though Theodore liked him, he did not give him a military command, but always employed him in a civil capacity. He did not like to speak of the accident that occasioned his deformity, and would, if asked, always give an evasive answer. Pietro, the Italian, was a great gossip, and his stories could not always be relied upon. His account of the broken leg was that when Samuel went to Shoa, some Englishman there gave him a kick which sent him rolling down some small ravine, and in the fall the leg was broken. It was on account of that blow from an Englishman, Pietro said, that Samuel hated them all so much, and was so bitter against them at first. It may be so; but I believe that he had not been understood.

Samuel fancied that he was a very great man in his own country. His father had been a small sheik; and Theodore, after Samuel's native country had rebelled, made him governor of it. With all the appearance of great humility, Samuel was proud; and by treating him as if he was in reality a great man, he was as easily managed as a child. He had suffered from a severe attack of dysentery during our stay at Kourata. I attended him carefully, and he always felt grateful for my attentions towards him. When we separated and lived in different houses, he did not allow the guards to sleep inside our hut. It is true it would have been difficult; but Abyssinian soldiers are not particular: they sleep anywhere, - on their prisoner's bed, if there is no other place, making use of him as a pillow. Of course Mr. Rassam had none; but he was the great man, the dispenser of favours. Stern, Cameron, and Rosenthal, being neither rich nor favourites, had the advantage of the presence of two or three of those ruffians as their companions every night; nor were those in the kitchen better off, as some soldiers were always sent in at night not to watch Kerans and Pietro, but the King's property (our own kit).

Samuel soon made friends with some of the chiefs. After a while, two of them were constantly in our inclosure, and, under the pretext of coming to see Samuel, would spend hours with us. Kerans, a good Amharic scholar, was the interpreter on those occasions: one of them, Deftera Zenab, the King's chief scribe, (now tutor to Alamayou,) is an intelligent; honest man; but he was quite mad on astronomy, and would listen for hours to anything concerning the solar system. Unfortunately, either the explanations were faulty or his comprehension dull as each time he came he wanted the whole dissertation over again until at last our patience was fairly exhausted, and we gave him up as a bad job. His other intimate was a good-natured young man called Afa Negus Meshisha, son of a former governor of the Amba; Theodore, on the death of the father, had given Meshisha the title, but nothing more. His forte was playing the lute, or a rude instrument something like it. Samuel could listen to him for hours; but two minutes was quite enough to make us run off. He was, however, useful in his way, as he gave us good information about what was going on in Theodore's camp, - intelligence which his position as an occasional member of the council enabled him to obtain.

Such, apart from ourselves, was our only society. It is true that the Ras and the great men would occasionally call on Mr. Rassam, much more frequently since he give them arrack and toj, instead of the coffee he used to offer them at first; but, unless one of them wanted some medicine, it was very rare that they honoured us with a visit; they thought that they had done quite enough - indeed bestowed a great favour, for which we ought to be grateful - if, as they passed near our hut, they shouted "May God open thee!"

But our enemy was one of the day guards, named Abu Falek, an old rascal who delighted in making mischief; he was hated by every one on the mountain, and on that account outwardly respected. The day he was on guard it was very difficult to write, as he was always putting his ugly grey head in at the door to see what we were doing. He did his best to do us harm, but could reach no higher than our servants: our dollars were too much for him.

Everything has an end. With Maskal (the Feast of the Cross) came sunshine and pleasant cool weather. We had already been two months and a half in chains, and we expected that soon some comforting news would reach us, telling us "Be of good cheer; we are coming."

Since our arrival at Magdala we had not received a single letter: and more than six months had elapsed without news from our friends, or any intelligence whatsoever from Europe.

Immediately after the rains, Mr. Rassam had his house repaired and improved, and a new hut built, as Mrs. Rosenthal was expected to join our party; Samuel obtained a piece of ground adjoining our inclosure, which was afterwards included in it, and on which he built a hut for himself and family. Samuel had several times spoken to me about pulling down our wretched godjo, and building a larger hut instead; but I thought it was hardly worth the while, as before many months some change or the other would take place: another reason was, that part of the old fence stood in front of my godjo, and I should hardly have gained more than a foot of ground. Samuel promised to do his best to have the fence removed if I would build; I agreed to do so, and he endeavoured to fulfil his part of the contract, but failed. However, a few weeks later, one of the chiefs, whom I had attended almost since our arrival, in his first burst of gratitude at being cured, took upon himself to break down the fence, and promised to send me his men to help me.

All the materials - wood, bamboos, cow-hides, straw - could be purchased below the mountain, and in a few days all was ready. I sent word to my patient, who came at once, with about fifty soldiers, who, by his orders, broke down the fence, and pulled down my godjo. The ground was afterwards levelled, the circumference of the hut traced with a stick, fixed to the centre by a piece of string, and a trench a foot and a half deep dug. Two strong sticks were placed at the spot where the door would be, and each soldier, carrying several of the branches with which the walls are built, placed them in the ditch, filling up the vacant space with the earth that had been taken out; they had only to tie, with strips of cow-hide, flexible branches transversely in order to keep the vertical ones together, and the first part of the structure was complete. A few days afterwards they returned, made the framework of the roof, and lifted it up on the walls; it then only required the thatcher to render our new abode inhabitable. The servants brought water and made mud, with which the walls were coated inside, and a week from the day the godjo had been pulled down, Prideaux and myself were able to give our house-warming. The soldiers were delighted with their job, and always came in large numbers when we required their assistance, as we treated them very liberally: for instance, the materials for our new hut cost eight dollars, but we spent fourteen dollars in feasting those who had assisted us. We had now seven feet of ground each, the table could be placed in the centre, and the folding chair offered to a visitor. Mr. Rassam had tried, with success, to whitewash the interior of his hut with a kind of soft white yellowish sandstone, that could be obtained in the vicinity of the Amba; we, therefore, also put our servants to work, but first had the mud walls several times besmeared with cow-dung, in order to make the whitewash adhere. We enjoyed very much the neat clean appearance of our hut. Unfortunately, being situate between two high fences and surrounded by other huts, it was rather dark. To obviate this defect, we cut out of the walls some of the framework, and made four windows; this was certainly a great improvement, but at night we felt the cold bitterly. Luckily, our friend Zenab gave us some parchment; out of an old box we made some rude frames, and the parchment, previously well soaked in oil served instead of glass.

We were obliged to keep a large staff of servants, as we had to prepare everything for ourselves. Some women were engaged to grind flour for us and the Abyssinian servants; others to bring water or wood. Men-servants went to the market or to the neighbouring districts to purchase grain, sheep, honey, &c.; many were employed as messengers to the coast or to Gaffat. I had with me two Portuguese, who were the torment of my life, as they were always quarrelling, often drunk, impertinent, and unwilling to work. The Portuguese lived in the kitchen, but as they were always fighting with the other servants, and we were perfectly helpless, and could not possibly enforce our commands, I had a small hut erected for them. The inclosure had been enlarged again by the chief, and Cameron had built a log-house for himself, and Mr. Rosenthal had had one made for his servants; mine for the Portuguese was built on the same spot, and before the rainy season I had another one made for the Abyssinians, as they grumbled and threatened to leave, if they had to spend the rains in a tent.

All these arrangements took us some time; we had been glad to have something to do, as the days passed much quicker, and time did not weigh so heavily upon us. Our Christmas was not very merry, nor did we on New Year's Day wish one another many returns of a similar one; but we were on the whole more accustomed to our captivity, and certainly in many respects more comfortable.