Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

A Question for the New Year, Who was the First Ethiopian Astronomer?

Traditional Ethiopian education dates back to the establishment early in the Christian era of the first schools of the Ethiopian Church, while modern secular education within the country began with the
founding of the Menilek School in Addis Ababa in 1908.  This latter institution was initially run largely by Egyptian Copts, led by one of their number, Professor Hanna Salib.
Ethiopian higher education had its roots in the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa, in which the present writer began to teach in 1956. The College had an astronomical observatory presided over by our old friend Dr Pierre Gouin, a French Canadian Jesuit.
Ethiopian Tertiary Education began to flower with the establishment of Haile Sellassie I University, which evolved out of the former University College, and after the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 was
that year renamed Addis Ababa University. Its President for much of this initial period was my former student and friend Duri Mohamed, who came from Harer, and always gained an A in all his exams – in all subjects.
The education of a significant number of Ethiopian students abroad began towards the closing years of Menilek’s reign in the late 19th century. Students were at first despatched to Switzerland and Russia
as well as to Egypt, Lebanon and other countries of the Middle East. Study abroad greatly expanded in the 20th century.
But what then of astronomy?
Astronomy was a branch science by no means unknown to traditional Ethiopian church scholars who, among other subjects, studied mathematics. This enabled them to work out the chronology of the
various Ethiopian historical eras, as well as to establish the date of Easter and other church festivals – and fasts. It also facilitated calculation of the length of the reigns of various Ethiopian monarchs.
Ethiopians were traditionally also skilled in calculating the time of day. This they did most effectively – before the coming of clocks and watches – by measuring the length of their shadows.
But who, we would again ask, was the first Ethiopian Astronomer?
To answer this repeated, but perhaps unexpected, question – we must go way back to the year 1908, and turn to the leading French periodical on Astronomy: the Bulletin de la Société Astronomique de France.
This journal reported that Menilek had shown great interest in the movement of the planet Mercury as visible in Ethiopia in 1907, and had been elected on 6 May of the following year as an honorary member of the Society.
The Ethiopian monarch, we may say, was thus in honorific terms, his country’s first Astronomer!
He was, however, not without friendly critics, among them the Italian diplomat Lincoln De Castro. Asserting that the Ethiopian ruler was ‘’a progressive sovereign in the true sense of the word”, he jokingly declared that “if a builder of castles in the air came with a plan to erect an escalator from the earth to the moon” Menilek would have him build it “if only to see whether it could be done”.
Menilek’s to prestigious appointment to the French Astronomical Society was made by a personality of no small historical interest, with whom, dear Reader, we should be familiar. He was no other than
Krikor Howayan, a distinguished Constantinople-born Armenian. He had studied – and subsequently taught – military science in Turkey.
Unhappy with conditions under Turkish rule he, however later travelled to France where he enrolled in the prestigious Ecole Nationale in Paris, specializing in mathematics and duly graduating in 1885. He
later devoted himself to scholarship, and among wrote a number of important scientific publications, among them a highly regarded Perpetual Calendar.
He subsequently embarked on an extensive tour of the East which took him among other countries to Armenia, Georgia and Romania. In 1904 he reached Jibuti, and in the following year he made his way to Addis Ababa, where Menilek appointed him his engineer. Howyan helped the Ethiopian ruler with the erection of the Taytu hotel, in 1907, as well as and a certain amount of road-building in the Ethiopian capital.
Very happy, like many Armenians in Addis Ababa, he decided to settle in the Ethiopian capital.
While in Addis Ababa the good Krikor Howayan built Menilek a simple observatory, which was set up in the latter’s Palace – thus reinforcing the claim that the Ethiopian ruler was his country’s first astronomer.
A man of immense benevolence Howayan bequeathed one third of his property to the then newly established Armenian State, one-third to Addis Ababa’s Armenian community, and one-third to his own immediate family. He died in 1925.
Menilek, who pre-deceased him in 1913, seems to have taken a keen interest in the Armenian’s observatory. It was an instrument, the likes of which, it is only fair to say, few foreign rulers of the time
are known to have taken much interest.