Habesh Eyalet (Ottoman Turkish: ایالت حبش; Eyālet-i Ḥabeš) was an Ottoman eyalet that bordered the Red Sea. It comprised Massawa, Hergigo, Suakin and their hinterlands. Later, it would also incorporate Zeila and other parts of northwestern Somalia. The city of Harar in modern Ethiopia was added much later in the 19th century, after administration of the eyalet had been transferred to Egypt in the late 19th century and its Pasha had conquered the city.
The term for the eyalet comes from the Arabic form (al-Ḥabašah, Bilād al-Ḥabašah) of the Semitic term for Abyssinians (Habesha), which is now used to denote only those Ethiopian and Eritrean people from the highlands (also known as Kabessa) region.
After the Dahlak Sultanate had vanished, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi’s short-lived empire had collapsed and the empire of Ethiopia was weakened, the Ottomans brought the African shore of the Red Sea under their control. The ports of Sawakin, Massawa and Zayla were occupied by Özdemir Pasha, who had been appointed beylerbey in 1555, and the province of Habesh was formed in 1557. Massawa being of secondary economical importance, the administrative capital was soon moved across the Red Sea to Jeddah (from the end of the 16th century until the early 19th century; Medina temporarily served as the capital in the 18th century).
The first two years were a period of active expansion further inland. Vassals of the Ethiopian emperors changed sides and allied with Özdemir Pasha. The expansion was halted in 1578, and the Ottomans retired from most of the highlands. During the following centuries, the Ottoman administration largely refrained from further interventions, relying on a system of indirect rule. Only on the island of Massawa itself was there an Ottoman governor, who controlled trade and taxes; in Sawakin the Ottoman authorities appointed a customs officer. The garrison of Hargigo, made up of Kurds, Albanians, Turks and Arabs, mixed with the local population, their descendants keeping the Ottoman rents and titles.
There is very little in the way of source material for Ottoman rule in the eyalet of Habesh after the 16th century. Most of Cengiz Orhonlu's Ottoman sources on Habesh come from the late 16th century, with some from the 17th century. Despite the seminal nature of his Habesh Eyaleti, he could not "find precise data regarding the administrative and financial structure of the province" or information on any agricultural taxation.
When Muhammad Ali successfully fought the Ottoman–Saudi War, he received the administration of Habesh in 1813. His son Ahmad Tushun Pasha was appointed wali by a firman, thus also gaining control over the ports of Sawakin and Massawa. Muhammad Ali's control of Habesh was only temporary; after the Wahhabi emergence came to an end, it reverted to Ottoman rule in 1827. Massawa and Sawakin were given to him again in 1846, until his death in 1849.
In 1866, however, Habesh was taken away from Jeddah and formally incorporated into the Egyptian vice-kingdom as a separate entity. Thus Habesh ceased to exist in its traditional form and starting from 1869 was replaced by a series of subsequent Egyptian governorates.
Administrative divisions 
Sanjaks of the Eyalet:
- Sanjak of Ibrim
- Sanjak of Sawakin
- Sanjak of Hargigo
- Sanjak of Massawa
- Sanjak of Zayla
- Sanjak of Jeddah
Specific Ottoman interest in Habeshistan arose from its pivotal geographic position in the region: it had ports and coastline on both the Red Sea (and near the Bab-el-Mandeb, where Ottoman blockades could be performed if necessary) and on the Indian Ocean (specifically Zeila and the Somali coast). The Ottoman navy was still relatively weak and in its infancy, so Ottoman land forces would have to capture key areas to ensure that the weak navy would have some influence and strengthen.
Selman also recognized a religious duty to conquer Habesh:
- Every year raids are carried out against the infidel Habash, on the path of Allah, by way of the holy war, and they fight hard. To the port of Suakin mentioned above come every year one thousand Arab horses from the land of Sa'id (upper Egypt) and they are sold to the Infidels in the province of Abyssinia. It is related that the Muslims of the Aforesaid Zaila' send letters to the tribesfolk (A'rab) of Suakin asking "why are you selling horses to the Infidels in your country? Through these horses they become powerful and fight against us. Are you, too, not Muslim?"
After the 1517 conquests, the Ottomans also were interested in the region because of the hajj. Having conquered the former Muslim defenders of the hajj, the Ottomans, being the successor of those states, was charged with protecting and providing safe passage to all undertaking the hajj. Portuguese hegemony in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, however, gave them some control over hajjis. In the same vein, other Muslim states in the region saw the Ottomans as their defenders as Muslim brothers:
- The Shah of Hormuz, Sharafaldin, wrote a letter to Sultan Süleyman to provide him with military help in order to expel the Portuguese from Hormuz. The ruler of Gujerat [Gujarat] also sought Ottoman military help.
Finally, there was a pre-emptive element to the Ottoman invasion of Ethiopia. If the Portuguese had built fortresses and taken control of the Red Sea ports first (especially Dahlak), they would have controlled the whole region, both directly and through their allies. Despite the possible economic gain from taxing Habesh proper, the Ottomans were more concerned with overcoming and outmaneuvering the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
Part of the reasoning behind Ottoman expansion was to aid fellow Muslim states in the new role it had taken on, but economic issues were pertinent as well. Though weapons were usually given unilaterally, the Muslim states could provide another source of revenue through the selling of firearms, as those were greatly in demand there. More important, however, was the Red Sea trade, despite its relatively small revenue. The Ottomans even constructed a canal some time after 1532 between the Nile and the Red Sea so that spices could go directly to Istanbul.
According to Dom Andre de Oviedo, the Ottomans were interested in the area because of the prospect of capturing slaves for galleys, provisions, iron, and other goods. According to Selman Reis, an ambitious Ottoman Red Sea admiral, the coast (specifically the Dahlak Archipelago) was also rich with pearls, and the amount of merchandise and trade consisting of "gold, musk, and ivory" present at Berbera, on the Somali coast, was described by Selman as "limitless".
Despite the promises of Selman Reis, Habesh did not provide much revenue for the Ottomans, partly because the spice trade was not very profitable, but more importantly because the rich hinterlands were unconquered, with the Ottomans holding only the dry and hot coasts. Given that Yemen often cost more in upkeep than it sent to Istanbul as taxes, and that Habesh had much less in the way of agricultural taxes (but just as high a salary for the beylerbeyi), the province was probably very unprofitable.
Habesh, along with other 16th century conquests, was not under the timar system as were lands conquered in Europe and Anatolia. Rather, it was a salyaneli province, in which taxes "were collected directly for the centre and were transferred to the central treasury after the local expenses were deducted". Due to the aridity of the province, little in the way of taxes on agriculture were collected; the most important source of revenue was the customs duty collected through iltizam (tax farming) on goods flowing through Massawa, Beylul, and Suakin in Sudan. Individuals would be allowed to collect duties, but in return would have to send a specified amount to the Sultan every year.
The slave trade represented another important source of income, based on slaves who, as mentioned earlier, were either bought from caravans visiting Massawa or acquired through cattle-raiding parties. Although Ottoman interest in Habesh had dwindled by the end of the 16th century, it was still strategically located and therefore still guarded by Ottoman galleys in the 17th century.
- Africa from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century at Google Books By Bethwell A. Ogot
- A political chronology of Africa at Google Books By David Lea, Annamarie Rowe
- "Some Provinces of the Ottoman Empire". Geonames.de. Retrieved 25 February 2013.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 194.
- Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: D-Ha. 2003. p. 951.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 195.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 191.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 108.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 95.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 96.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 192.
- Özbaran 1994, pp. 108-109.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 35.
- Özbaran 1994, p. 196.
Özbaran, Salih (1994), The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman-Portuguese Relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman Administration in the Arab Lands During the Sixteenth Century, Isis Press