Aida, Verdi’s opera, stands out as reminder of the on-going Nile dilemma

12 Jan

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin | First published on Jan 12, 2011

At a time of terrible slump in the global economy, when millions of workers and families across countries have been visited by its adverse consequences, the watchmaker Rolex fêted the international public with six famous opera performances, via CNBC, transmitted at intervals from 24 Dec on. A good gesture as it was, the treat became part of the Christmas celebrations and best wishes for the New Year.

Aida, the four-act opera by Giuseppe Verdi, the famous Italian romantic composer, became the finale on 2nd January 2011.
In the opening scene, the High Priest Ramfis enters the Pharaoh’s Palace. He tells (bass) Radames, captain of the palace guard, “Yes, it is rumored that the Ethiop dares once again our power in the valley of Nilus, Threaten as well as Thebes. The truth from Messengers I soon shall know.” Radames (tenor) inquires, “Hast thou consulted the will of Isis?” [Egyptian goddess, mother of heaven and earth, wife and matron of nature and magic] The High Priest replies, “She has declared who of Egypt’s renowned armies shall be leader.” * The High Priest proceeds to the king’s chamber to inform him of the bad news, without telling Radames whom the goddess Isis has chosen.

Aida is a story about an imaginary Ethiopian invasion of Egypt, composed for celebration of the invader’s defeat, the climax of victory being marked by the capture of the Ethiopian king. It is only after that, Aida becomes a story of love, betrayals, broken hearts, sorrows, lament of fate and death, opera’s usual grits. Staging Aida is the brainchild of none other than Ismail Pasha—the ruler of Egypt with the title Khedive of Egypt and Sudan from 1863 to 1879. His reign was terminated by popular uprising and destructive riots forced, which invited British intervention of British forces in the interest of protecting their interests in the Suez Canal, without Ismail Pasha. The British had acquired 44 percent share of the Suez Canal Company, after the khedive became unable repayment of his debts o British and other European banks, money mostly spent on his extravagance. The actual British interest was protection of their trade route to India, a colony that had been backbone of London’s financial and commercial empire.

For purposes of the opera, music historians have conjecturally put occurrences of Aida’s events around 2000 BC during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, when Thebes was the seat of the kings. This time frame and Aida’s theme are only a presented as red herring to disguise the true intentions of Khedive Ismail Pasha. We see five years later history having recorded the actual truth, in terms of actual events, dates and places, including through information gathered from letters and diaries of American and European mercenaries hired by him. In the end, not only Egypt’s ambitions, especially its intentions and efforts of occupying the entire Horn of Africa, were severely punished and became unrealisable. Also the fictional story Aida stands out as reminder of the humiliation of expansionist Egypt and its flighty khedive.

Therefore, this article is presented to put the reality into its proper context. This action is necessary because the underlying motive of Aida is still alive and kicking in Cairo and is persistent. It would be presented in two parts. Aida, as an expression of Egyptian ambitions is the first part, contrasted with the actual history. The second part would deal with the actual Nile issues and the problems confronted. Further, I must add that the second part would take a whiff from my on-going work on the Nile dilemmas and the difficulties thereon in Ethio-Egyptian relations—past, present and in the future. I started the study in the middle of 2010, awakened on one hand by Egypt’s continuing lust and arrogance and, on the other, by a combination of factors, both internal and external to Ethiopia, which call for reflection. Even before the research work is completed, Aida has impelled me to compare its theme with the actual events. My intention is to remind my readers “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” All that is needed is motive, as Oscar Wilde has ably shown in his essay The Decay of Lying.

Standing where the high Priest had left him and unfazed by the imminence of war, Radames blasts his prayers/wishes, expressing his hope that Isis would choose him as commander of the Egyptian forces. While a good warrior and a man in love at that point, already two women so much wanting him, his fortunes, even by his volition, have been linked to the pursuit of fame and glory only to impress Aida. She is an Ethiopian slave in the Pharaoh’s Palace, captured as war prisoner, along others, early on. Aida’s secret is that she was an Ethiopian princess, about whom not a soul knows in the palace, save that she is a slave—I presume a beautiful one at that! As it happens, she is secretly in love with Radames.

The other woman is Amneris, the king’s daughter, who, while deeply in love with Radames enormously, suffers with jealousy after she discovered shortly before the arrival of the invading army that the man for whom she had a special place in her heart was interested in Aida, her slave. Before her father’s entry to the hall, Amneris (mezzo-soprano) makes Radames understand her awareness of the lusts of his heart saying, “In thy visage I trace a joy unwonted! What martial ardor is beaming in thy noble glances! Ah me! How worthy were of all envy; the woman whose dearly wish’d for presence; could have power to kindle in thee such rapture! In your looks I trace a joy unwonted.”

Consequently, Khedive Ismail Pasha commissioned composer Giuseppe Verdi in January 1871 long before his planned invasion of Ethiopia in 1874-1876. However, the preparations had begun much earlier. For instance, the great Ethiopianist, Prof Richard Pankhurst writes that already at the beginning of his reign in 1872, Emperor Yohannes IV had experienced strong pressure form the Egyptians, due to Egypt’s continued surge downwards since the late 1860s, mostly in the direction of eastern Sudan and the adjacent areas on the Ethiopian borders. He notes, “On 20 May 1868, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had transferred Massawa to the Egyptians, who soon afterwards occupied the nearby port of Zulla, and instituted a rigid blockade to prevent the import of arms by Yohannes” (The Pankhurst History Library: A Page in Ethiopia’s Late 19th Century History The Reign of Emperor Yohannes IV: Part I, There is no doubt that Aida is a true expression of Egypt’s longstanding ambitions: the determination to take control of the Nile waters and treat the Horn of Africa as its backyard.

In most of its advances into Ethiopian territory, Egypt was aided by power hungry warlords in the likes of Welde Mikel Selomon of Hazega that needed modern weapons from the invader. Such behaviour had been a curse that befell the nation at different times, including by the actions of its saviours, unifiers and builders. The lessons left by those experiences have relevance to today’s generation, especially those in power—whether they would be deluded by the magnitude of the day’s problems and abandon national principles, choosing the temporary comforts of political expediency to avoid confronting challenges. Before he assumed the throne, Yohannes had done it to Tewodros, guiding the British to Maqdala. Napier awarded him military aid worth approximately £500,000, artillery, muskets, rifles, and munitions that in addition to his existing formidable military capability had ensured his rise to the throne (Harold Marcus, A History of Ethiopia, 1994).

Fortunately, the British did not occupy the country. After ensuring the Emperor Tewodros’s demise and the destruction of Maqdala, the Napier expeditionary force left the country, nearly as they got it. Of course, Napier took with him the British prisoners Tewodros had held and looted valuables, especially historical artefacts, including numerous works of art and old manuscripts from churches and private individuals some of which are still in display in the British Museum. Menilik had done the same thing to Yohannes, especially when the latter was trying to prevent foreign invasion. Historians refer to the 2 July 1888 conversation between Menilik and Count Antonelli, that took place without the knowledge of Yohannes. Menilik is quoted as saying, “he was breaking with the emperor [Yohannes], that he sought Rome’s cooperation, and that he wanted ten thousand remingtons with adequate ammunition. Of this, Prof. Marcus notes:

Antonelli therefore advised his government to send Menilek what he wanted and to schedule the occupation of Asmera and Bogos for the outbreak of civil war. He then pushed the king to agree that the additional territories would provide a better frontier with Ethiopia and a temperate environment for European soldiers. Menilek saw through the sophism, but needed the Italian diversion more than he required Bogos. Antonelli advised the king that Italian troops would occupy the region as soon as he attacked Yohannes.

Similarly, taking advantage of the chaos of the infamous Zemene Mesafint, the Era of Princes, Egypt took advantage of Ethiopia, including using foreign mercenaries and domestic sell-outs. Prof Harold Marcus writes, “Egyptians had occupied Gallabat [Matamma] and all the ports of south Mitswa.” He further notes: By early September 1875, Khedive Ismail had “ordered four expeditions to take control over the Horn of Africa. Two were successful, and Cairo won the important inland trading center of Harer and consolidated its hold over the Somali coast.” The Swiss mercenary Munzinger, who had been promoted to pasha and made governor-general of eastern Sudan and the Red Sea Coast, was “ordered to cross the hinterland of Tadjoura [Djibouti] and contact Shewa.

Thanks to a trap set by the Afar of Awsa, who fought to retain control over key trading routes, the force commanded by Munzinger on 14 November 1875 disastrously failed and he lost his life. The Egyptians were perhaps influenced by the ease with which the British had overthrown Tewodros in 1868, observes Prof R. Pankhurst, to attack Yohannes and to occupy Adwa. They sent “a well-equipped Egyptian force led by a Danish commander, Colonel Arendrup, and a number of American officers, who had formerly served in the Confederate forces in the American Civil War” and advanced from Massawa inland. It was at the point of their crossing the Marab River they were “badly mauled” at Gundet on 16 November 1875. It is written that Egypt had sent a third force that also lost. Notwithstanding that, in Aida Ethiopia is presented as invader.

Although Khedive Ismail’s transaction with Giuseppe Verdi was indeed real, as per the agreement signed in June 1870, his actions far advanced for his time—trying to impress the Europeans as an equal—Cairo to this day denies that Aida has anything to do with any war plans and preparations for the conquest of the Horn of Africa by the mid-1870s. They also deny that it is linked to the opening of the Suez Canal. Further, they disagree with any speculation by foreign music historians, such as that Aida was composed either for the inauguration of the Khedive Opera House, which the pasha ordered erected in 1869, or that of the Cairo Opera House in 1870. Their implausible explanations seem to prefer to push the whole thing under the rug, thereby leaving it bereft of explanations. Certainly, war plans are supposed to be secret, as national security information. The irony is that they do not admit it today either for a reason unclear to me at this stage, although I could speculate.

Giuseppe Verdi was widely recognised for several of his superb operatic works. Last autumn, the San Francisco Opera paid a glowing tribute to Aida as “the grandest of grand operas, a brilliant balance of spectacular pageantry and emotional intimacy” ( Twice before Verdi had refused Khedive Ismail’s enticement to compose the opera for him, “considering himself not suited to composing operas on demand” ( The khedive only succeeded in his third attempt, for which he paid Verdi 150,000 francs, a huge sum by then. After its completion, Aida was performed in Cairo on 24 December 1871 and was rapturously received.

Nevertheless, visibly missing during Aida’s premiere in Cairo was Verdi himself. He protested that only politicians and dignitaries were invited, with no attendance of members of the general public. For that reason, Verdi arranged Aida’s real premiere at La Scala, Italy, on 8 February 1872, according to opera history, heavily involving himself in that venture. Since 1873, Aida has been shown around the world continuously. The opera returned to Egypt for the second time in 1994, after 123 years absence. This gap may be because of the country’s circumstances, changed priorities since the 1940s, as Egypt had been engrossed in the question of peace and security outside its borders the pursuit of Arab leadership on its mind. At the same time, it could also be due to awareness of the need for a balancing act in the face of Middle East’s varied periods of religious fervour. Since Aida was shown in the Giza pyramids about 16 years ago, it has almost now become an annual event, a sign of Egypt’s cultural tourism development and growing liberalism.

As Radames and Amneris were standing, the king enters the Palace Hall, accompanied by the High Priest, ministers and the clergy. In the presence of his dignitaries, the king asks (bass) to be informed about the Ethiopian invasion of Egypt. A messenger waiting at the door is brought into the hall, where he announces (tenor), “The Ethiopians led by King Amonasro were marching on Thebes.” Immediately, the King declares war and, on the nomination of the goddess Isis, proclaims Radames commander of the Egyptian army.

Although Aida was torn between her love for her father the king, her country and Radames, she utters the following words in dejection (soprano):

Thy brow may laurels crown! what! can my lips; Pronounce language so impious! wish him; Victor o’er my father! o’er him who wages war; But that I may be restored to my country, To my kingdom, to the high station, I now perforce dissemble! wish him conqueror, O’er my brothers! e’en now I see him stained, With their blood so cherished, ‘mid the clamorous, Triumph of Egyptian battalions! Behind his chariot A king, my father comes, his fettered captive! Return a conqueror…”

The war’s course ends with Egypt prevailing and Egypt taking captive the Ethiopian monarch and his men. The king offers his daughter hand in marriage to Radames. The Ethiopian king joins his daughter Aida in captivity. As is always the case with opera, the story then becomes that of human emotions: rage, sorrow, fate, nostalgia, love, betrayal, heroism and vendetta and eventually death. Instead of Amneris, Radmes shows determination to stick with his heart’s choice of Aida, despite the honour Egypt had given him in leading its forces against Ethiopia and the status of a privileged citizen for the victory he had brought.

Like history, it seems, fate also has its will. Even without the union between Radames and Amneris is realized, Radames falls from grace and gets thrown to jail charged with treason. The justices gathered in the temple sentence him to be buried alive. This time, Aida had secretly entered the prison where she knew they would throw him choosing to die with him. Treason charges were brought against him because the High Priest had seen him talking to Egypt’s enemies—the prisoner Ethiopian king. In truth, Radames was actually plotting their escape, since he was in love with his daughter. If it were up to him, he had chosen to escape with the princess, which in this troubled time is a positive element that underlines a continuing link between the two countries. The Aida story ends with Aida and Radames accepting their fate, in the lower floor of the vault of the temple of Vulcan. Amneris weeps and prays to the goddess Isis from the upper floor for the loss of her love. Aida dies in Radames’ arms.

In real life, the outcome of Khedive Ismail’s extravagant adventure had not brought him what he had hoped for. History had dealt him a different hand at Gundet and Gura. Whatever Egypt’s driving force was, fortunately for Ethiopia, the outcome of the war that followed Aida’s performance a short five years later rather became totally different from what is ascribed in Aida, or the Khedive had badly wanted or his commanders, some of them European mercenaries from different countries, including fifty Americans (The Journal of Military History – Volume 70, Number 1, January 2006), had ever anticipated. In the words of Haggai Erlich, the Battles of Gundet and Gura became “a turning point in the fortunes of Egypt in the Horn of Africa” (The Cross and the River: Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Nile, 2002).

The whole ambition of the khedive and Ethiopia’s repulsion of it is synoptically captured by Prof Donald Crummy in his book Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia, 2000, where he relates:

In 1870s Khedive Ismail, grandson of Muhammed Ali, embarked on an ambitious plan to create an Egyptian empire in the greater Nile Valley and north east Africa. So far as Ethiopia is concerned, this plan entailed three expeditions, a successful one, which led to the occupation of Harar, from 1875-1882, and two expeditions from Massawa into northern Ethiopia, in 1875-1876. Yohannes turned back these latter invasions with victory in the bitter battles of Gundet and Gura. Under Yohannes leadership, Ethiopia proved able to frustrate Egypt’s schemes for a larger empire, but it was not able to dislodge Egypt from its established holdings in the region.

In his analysis of the Battles of Gundet and Gura, the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde insightfully observes that those two victories were even more remarkable than their famous successor, the Battle of Adwa, following which Menilik was to lead a united Ethiopia against the Italians, while Yohannes faced the Egyptians as the head of a divided house. He further adds:

For Egypt, the defeat had more deadly effects than was to be the case for Italy two decades later. The Ethiopian victory hastened Ismail’s downfall and the subsequent British occupation of Egypt. Yohannes, on the other hand, came out of the conflict with material and psychological gains. The modern arms, including some twenty cannon that he captured from the enemy, strengthened his military position vis-à-vis his internal rivals like Menilik…Yet in the immediate aftermath, the Gundet and Gura victories were to remain hollow. Ethiopia gained little in practical terms. The Egyptians conditions for peace soon after their defeat leave us uncertain as to who was the victor and who the vanquished. Not only they demand the repatriation of the Egyptian prisoners and guarantees of trade, but they also required the restoration of their captured arms and cessation of Ethiopian troop movements in Hamasen.

Ever since, at least, there has not been any direct military engagement between Ethiopia and Egypt, chastened by the lessons of history. Nevertheless, the question of equal access by all co-riparians for utilisation of the Nile River was and still is top most national security concerns and priorities for both countries. Nevertheless, there is growing noise about the texture of each side’s concerns and needs; I sense that path is full of unexploded mines, not at all capable of serving as bridge over the complex Nile impasse. Ethiopia and Egypt are capable of working common solution, if only Egypt begins to work from a more comprehensive model, instead of its fixation with the Ismailian model that did not even work, despite the huge and well armed forces and the pomp of opera. Neither resort to conflicts and destabilisation nor cajoling of water source countries with economic and technical cooperation could win the day.

Aida is instructive at so many levels. Most importantly, reality dictates that Egypt see wisdom in the words of the respected Egyptian journalist, freedom of thought and equality activist and writer Iqbal Baraka, who has taken it upon herself to exorcise the false belief in Egyptian thinking that the Nile is Egypt’s alone. In It is not our Nile, Ms Baraka laments:

It never happened in any era or age in which Egypt paid attention to the fact [that] the Nile has other wives and sons who should share in the great heritage (the Nile). We were brought up to believe in a great myth that the Nile is exclusively Egypt’s own and we went on making love songs about Egypt and showing our pride to the world that we were able to build a great civilization along its [banks].

~ Quoted in Sudan Tribune, The Egyptian role in Sudan’s development and underdevelopment 1899-2010, 27 June 2010

(To be continued)

The writer was a former civil servant and diplomat in the Ethiopian government. Later he served as International Civil Servant with the United Nations and is currently in retirement, devoting his time for research and writing. He can be reached at

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