Wollo Ethiopian Heritage Society:  Local History Series



WOREILU (ወራይሉ)

Wollo, Ethiopia


Woreilu (variously transliterated as Warra-Illu, Were-Illu, Werailu, Woraylu) is a highland district previously known as Bete Giorgis in the historic region of Bete Amhara**. Today, it is an administrative district (woreda) in the South Wollo zone of the Amhara Regional State. Woreilu (widely assumed to have been named after one of the clans of the Wollo Oromo who overran the region in the seventeenth century) refers to both the town and the entire county (then an awraja with four woreda, and currently just one).

Woreilu is located some 490 km (300 miles) north of Addis Ababa, 570 km southeast of Bahir Dar, and 90 km south of Dessie. The road from Dessie-Kombolcha to Addis Ababa passes through the towns of Kabi, Woreilu, Mehal Meda, Debre Sina, and Debre Birhan. In terms of watersheds, the woreda is bounded by a tributary of the Wonchit River (which empties into River Abbay) in the east, Yewol Mountain in the north, the escarpment of Lege Hida and Kelala in the west and the fertile plains of Jamma in the south. After 1994, Woreilu awraja lost two of its woreda units: Jamma-Degolo, which boasted a population 128,000 in 2007, and Lege Hida with a population of 67,000 in 2007. Both are now autonomous administrative districts.

Population and Economy (the woreda)

Woreilu had a population of some 110,000 in 2007, 10% of whom resided in the towns of Woreilu, Woyn-Amba, and Segno-Gebaya (aka Aragfign or Monday Market). The credibility of the 2007 census numbers is questionable since, with a population of some 120,000 in the 1994 Census and little evidence of mass outmigration, the Woreda should have been about 150,000 in 2007. According to the 1994 and 2007 censuses, 99% of the population identified as Amara, and the woreda is predominantly Muslim, especially in the Kabi sub-district.

Over 80% of the land is in the Dega zone (cold zone with 8000+ feet) while the remainder is in the Woyna-Dega (sub-tropical or temperate) zone. Most of the smallholder farmers in the 23 kebele (clusters of rural hamlets) rely on crops in main Meher (monsoon) season and must often contend with unreliable rainfall. Income diversification takes the form of mixed farming (animal husbandry), off-season trading and wage labor, and handicrafts (mainly hand-woven baskets, cloth, and woolen carpets as well as pottery).


The region that now goes by the name of Woreilu has an illustrious place in Ethiopian political history. It was one of the political centers of Bete Amhara, the original homeland of Amharic speaking people, whose territorial reach extended from Lake Hayq and the Beshillo River in the north, the Afar and Argobba lowlands in the east, the Abbay River in the West, and the Awash River just south of modern Addis Ababa[1] .

With the rise of the so-called Solomonic Dynasty in 1270 under Emperor Yikuno Amlak (born in the Maqdalla region) and until the establishment of Gondar as the new imperial capital around 1600, the Debre-Birhan to Mekane-Selassie region was the primary seat of the roving Wolloye-Shewan emperors. This period is most significant in the formation of the medieval Ethiopian state, the spread and consolidation of Orthodox Christianity (following the example set by the Zagwe kings in preserving the Axumite heritage) and propagating to the core provinces (besides Tigray/Eritrea, Wolkayt, and Lasta) of Bete Amhara, Gojam, Begemdir, northern Shewa, Gafat, and Damot [2].

The region’s recorded history, in fact, goes back to the first decades of the second millennium. For example, St. George’s Church in the town of Woreilu (whose Tabot is reputed to have been carried by Emperor Menilik at the Battle of Adwa) was established around 1200.

The parish of Mekane Sellasie (መካነ ስላሴ), near Neded and the home of the famous cathedral by the same name, served as a favorite royal playground. The construction of Mekane Sellassie (meaning: the abode of the Trinity) was begun by Emperor Naod (1494-1508) and completed by his son Emperor Libna Dengel (royal nom-du-guerre, Wanag Seged). This was a year before the church (along with a large number of monasteries in the region) was sacked and burned down in 1531 by the infamously destructive Jihad led by Ahmad bin Ibrahim (aka Ahmed Gragn).

Francisco Alvarez, who had earlier visited the church, confirms that its size was some 150 feet by 150 feet—wholly covered in gold leaf, inlaid with gems, pearls and corals[3]. Astounded by the wealth and workmanship, the Yemeni chronicler of Ahmed Gragn notes: "The imam asked all the Arabs who were with him, ‘Is there the like of this church, with its images and its gold, in Byzantium, or in India, or in any other place?' They replied, ‘We never saw or heard of its like in Byzantium or India or anywhere in the world.[4]’” The field on which Gragn’s soldiers encamped is still called Gragn Meda along with a big hole in the ground which is mythologized by the traumatized population as the spot where Gragn’s horse pounced with all his force.

Abba Gregorius (1596-1658), the famous monk whose Jesuit association and global travels disseminated invaluable knowledge overseas about Ethiopia, is said to hail from Woreilu. In a 1650 letter to the German scholar Hiob Ludolf (1624-1704), the Ethiopologist deservedly known as the father of Ethiopian Studies, Abba Gregorius describes himself as follows: "As to my origins, do not imagine, my friend, that they are humble, for I am of the HOUSE of AMHARA which is a respected tribe; from it come the heads of the Ethiopian people, the governors, the military commanders, the judges and the advisers of the King of Ethiopia who appoint and dismiss, command and rule in the name of the King, his governors, and grandees. [5]

Woreilu (the town)

Woreilu town sits some 9000 feet above sea level, sandwiched by three perennial streams and a commanding hill overlooking the Kidus Georgis and Kidus Mikael churches. According to the Population Statistics Abstract of Ethiopia, Woreilu woreda had 11,000 people living in towns in 2012. The Abstract does not provide a breakdown by towns but, being by far the largest, Woreilu town’s urban population likely falls in the range of 6,000-7,000—double its population of 3,700 in 1956.

Today, the administrative and market town boasts a primary school which was established as Princess Yeshimebet School in 1952 (grades 1-8; aka Dil BeAl) at Jamma Ber. Woreilu Senior Secondary School was established in the 1980s at Abbaw Baye, as one of the two tertiary institutions. The town also hosts one of the four health centers located in the woreda.[6]

Woreilu town’s richly historic heritage as the northernmost part of Shewa is attested by the following illustrative historical factoids[7]:

• Woreilu (along with Enawari) was established as a ketema (garrison town) in 1868 (before Dessie, circa 1900 and Addis Ababa, 1886) by Menelik long before he became emperor in 1889. Its establishment was a key part of a t strategy of pacifying the districts to the north. Since 1870, the Thursday market of Woreilu was judged among the best attended in Shewa—noted for the various specialty products of black wool.

• After Menelik recaptured Mekdela, peace was made with the Wollo chiefs and Imam Muhammad Ali (later Ras/Negus Mikael). Menelik subsequently granted Woreilu and Borena-Sayint to the Imam to be parts of his governorship. At the Mesqel feast in 1869, the Shewan soldiery is said to be shocked at the breach of religious taboo while watching a tolerant Menelik eating and drinking with his Muslim guests.

• Menelik built a substantial Gibbi (royal compound) on the eastside hill, a campus with several stone structures (government offices, jail, grand banquet hall). The Gibbi today commands an impressive view of the Wonchit gorges. Menelik stayed here for substantial periods in 1871-1879—during which Imam Muhammad Ali conspired and burned down the town (July 1877), and the would-be Emperor used the town as a springboard for waging military campaigns in Gojam and Yeju.

• Emperor Yohannes IV marched on Woreilu after having summoned Negus Teklehaymanot of Gojam and Negus Menelik of Shewa seeking the unequivocal acceptance of his emperorship by the two potential pretenders to the throne.

• Emperor Menelik called on Shewan lords to assemble at Woreilu for the historic battle of Adwa which ended in the first decisive defeat of a European power (Italy) by an African one (Ethiopia). Ras Alula, Ras Mekonnen, Empress Taitu, and Emperor Menelik assembled well over 100,000 troops at Woreilu in 1895-96. Woreilu became a supply dump with 1.5 million cartridges, thousands of guns, and several granaries.

• Empress Zewditu Menelik was born and married in Woreilu where she held an extensive estate. Her maternal uncle, Ras Habte Maryam, whose masonry tomb still graces the compound of the Church of St. George, managed her lands.

• Woizero Yeshimebet Ali, the mother of Emperor Haile Selassie, also hailed from this region.

• The second church in town, St. Mikael, sits at the northern end surrounded by decrepit castles of big landed families whose descendants had left for better pastures.

• The pedigree of Woreilu is also underscored by the fact that the Italian telegraph and telephone lines connecting Asmara to Addis Ababa (constructed in 1902-1904) had an office here. Parenthetically, current plans to introduce a digital phone service cannot mask the stagnation of the town since the days of Menilik.


Notes 1

[**]  Present-day Wollo bears the names of the various Gossa of Oromigna speakers who invaded the predominantly Amhara and Agew region beginning in mid-1500s.  True to their pastoral traditions, they renamed the conquered lands down to hills and streams after them.  Most of these stuck till today--a hallmark of the power cultural assimilation and mutual tolerance that Wollo symbolizes today: 

Pre-Gragn      Post-Gragn

        የጁ           ገነቴ

       ወራይሉ       ቤተ-ጊዮርጊስ/ወሰል

       አምባሰል      አምባሰል (አልተበገረም)

       ቦረና          አማራ ሳይንት (ላይ ሳይንት አልተበገረም)

       ቃሉ          ቢራሮ

       ላስታ         ላስታ ላሊበላ (አልተበገረም)

       ዋግ           ዋግ (አልተበገረም)

       አውሳ         ማስዳጎር

       ደሴ ዙሪያ     ላኮመንዛ/ ወሰል

       ወሎ          ቤተ-አማራ

Notes 2

[1]       Levine (2003)

[2]       Tamrat (1972)

[3]       Beckingham and Huntingford (1961)

[4]       Arab Faqih (2003: 247)

[5]       Pankhurst (1965:60)

[6]       Woreilu Administration (2009)

[7]       Marcus (2002); Hussein (1990)


C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, The Prester John of the Indies, Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961.

Arab Faqih, Futuh Al-Habasha: The Conquest of Abyssinia, Tsehai Publishers, 2003.

Abibi Hussein, The History of Warra Ilu with Particular Emphasis on the Town from its Foundation, 1870/71 to 1941, B.A. thesis, AAU, 1990.

Donald Levine, “Amhara,” Encyclopedia Aethiopica, V. 1, Wiesbaden: Harrasowiz Verlag, 2003.

Harold Marcus, The History of Ethiopia, University of California, 2002.

Richard Pankhurst, Travellers in Ethiopia, Oxford: OUP, 1965.

Tadesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1570, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Woreilu Administration, Special Magazine Issue: Trade Exhibition and Bazaar, May 2009.