Details on the origins of all the peoples that make up the population of highland Ethiopia were still matters for research and debate in the early 1990s. Anthropologists believe that East Africa's Great Rift Valley is the site of humankind's origins. (The valley traverses Ethiopia from southwest to northeast.) In 1974 archaeologists excavating sites in the Awash River valley discovered 3.5-million-year- old fossil skeletons, which they named Australopithecus afarensis. These earliest known hominids stood upright, lived in groups, and had adapted to living in open areas rather than in forests.
Coming forward to the late Stone Age, recent research in historical linguistics--and increasingly in archaeology as well--has begun to clarify the broad outlines of the prehistoric populations of present-day Ethiopia. These populations spoke languages that belong to the Afro-Asiatic super-language family, a group of related languages that includes Omotic, Cushitic, and Semitic, all of which are found in Ethiopia today. Linguists postulate that the original home of the Afro-Asiatic cluster of languages was somewhere in northeastern Africa, possibly in the area between the Nile River and the Red Sea in modern Sudan. From here the major languages of the family gradually dispersed at different times and in different directions--these languages being ancestral to those spoken today in northern and northeastern Africa and far southwestern Asia.
The first language to separate seems to have been Omotic, at a date sometime after 13,000 B.C. Omotic speakers moved southward into the central and southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, followed at some subsequent time by Cushitic speakers, who settled in territories in the northern Horn of Africa, including the northern highlands of Ethiopia. The last language to separate was Semitic, which split from Berber and ancient Egyptian, two other Afro-Asiatic languages, and migrated eastward into far southwestern Asia.
By about 7000 B.C. at the latest, linguistic evidence indicates that both Cushitic speakers and Omotic speakers were present in Ethiopia. Linguistic diversification within each group thereafter gave rise to a large number of new languages. In the case of Cushitic, these include Agew in the central and northern highlands and, in regions to the east and southeast, Saho, Afar, Somali, Sidamo, and Oromo, all spoken by peoples who would play major roles in the subsequent history of the region. Omotic also spawned a large number of languages, Welamo (often called Wolayta) and Gemu-Gofa being among the most widely spoken of them, but Omotic speakers would remain outside the main zone of ethnic interaction in Ethiopia until the late nineteenth century.
Both Cushitic- and Omotic-speaking peoples collected wild grasses and other plants for thousands of years before they eventually domesticated those they most preferred. According to linguistic and limited archaeological analyses, plough agriculture based on grain cultivation was established in the drier, grassier parts of the northern highlands by at least several millennia before the Christian era. Indigenous grasses such as teff (see Glossary) and eleusine were the initial domesticates; considerably later, barley and wheat were introduced from Southwest Asia. The corresponding domesticate in the better watered and heavily forested southern highlands was ensete, a root crop known locally as false banana. All of these early peoples also kept domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. Thus, from the late prehistoric period, agricultural patterns of livelihood were established that were to be characteristic of the region through modern times. It was the descendants of these peoples and cultures of the Ethiopian region who at various times and places interacted with successive waves of migrants from across the Red Sea. This interaction began well before the modern era and has continued through contemporary times.
During the first millennium B.C. and possibly even earlier, various Semitic-speaking groups from Southwest Arabia began to cross the Red Sea and settle along the coast and in the nearby highlands. These migrants brought with them their Semitic speech (Sabaean and perhaps others) and script (Old Epigraphic South Arabic) and monumental stone architecture. A fusion of the newcomers with the indigenous inhabitants produced a culture known as pre-Aksumite. The factors that motivated this settlement in the area are not known, but to judge from subsequent history, commercial activity must have figured strongly. The port city of Adulis, near modern-day Mitsiwa, was a major regional entrep“t and probably the main gateway to the interior for new arrivals from Southwest Arabia. Archaeological evidence indicates that by the beginning of the Christian era this pre-Aksumite culture had developed western and eastern regional variants. The former, which included the region of Aksum, was probably the polity or series of polities that became the Aksumite state.
The Aksumite state emerged at about the beginning of the Christian era, flourished during the succeeding six or seven centuries, and underwent prolonged decline from the eighth to the twelfth century A.D. Aksum's period of greatest power lasted from the fourth through the sixth century. Its core area lay in the highlands of what is today southern Eritrea, Tigray, Lasta (in present-day Welo), and Angot (also in Welo); its major centers were at Aksum and Adulis. Earlier centers, such as Yeha, also continued to flourish. At the kingdom's height, its rulers held sway over the Red Sea coast from Sawakin in present-day Sudan in the north to Berbera in present-day Somalia in the south, and inland as far as the Nile Valley in modern Sudan. On the Arabian side of the Red Sea, the Aksumite rulers at times controlled the coast and much of the interior of modern Yemen. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Aksumite state lost its possessions in southwest Arabia and much of its Red Sea coastline and gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward.
Inscriptions from Aksum and elsewhere date from as early as the end of the second century A.D. and reveal an Aksumite state that already had expanded at the expense of neighboring peoples. The Greek inscriptions of King Zoskales (who ruled at the end of the second century A.D.) claim that he conquered the lands to the south and southwest of what is now Tigray and controlled the Red Sea coast from Sawakin south to the present-day Djibouti and Berbera areas. The Aksumite state controlled parts of Southwest Arabia as well during this time, and subsequent Aksumite rulers continually involved themselves in the political and military affairs of Southwest Arabia, especially in what is now Yemen. Much of the impetus for foreign conquest lay in the desire to control the maritime trade between the Roman Empire and India and adjoining lands. Indeed, King Zoskales is mentioned by name in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (the Latin term for the Red Sea is Mare Erythreum), a Greek shipping guide of the first to third centuries A.D., as promoting commerce with Rome, Arabia, and India. Among the African commodities that the Aksumites exported were gold, rhinoceros horn, ivory, incense, and obsidian; in return, they imported cloth, glass, iron, olive oil, and wine.
During the third and fourth centuries, the traditions related to Aksumite rule became fixed. Gedara, who lived in the late second and early third centuries, is referred to as the king of Aksum in inscriptions written in Gi'iz (also seen as Ge'ez), the Semitic language of the Aksumite kingdom. The growth of imperial traditions was concurrent with the expansion of foreign holdings, especially in Southwest Arabia in the late second century A.D. and later in areas west of the Ethiopian highlands, including the kingdom of Meroë .
Meroë was centered on the Nile north of the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile. Established by the sixth century B.C. or earlier, the kingdom's inhabitants were black Africans who were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture. It was probably the people of Meroë who were the first to be called Aithiopiai ("burnt faces") by the ancient Greeks, thus giving rise to the term Ethiopia that considerably later was used to designate the northern highlands of the Horn of Africa and its inhabitants. No evidence suggests that Meroë had any political influence over the areas included in modern Ethiopia; economic influence is harder to gauge because ancient commercial networks in the area were probably extensive and involved much long-distance trade.
Sometime around A.D. 300, Aksumite armies conquered Meroë or forced its abandonment. By the early fourth century A.D., King Ezana (reigned 325-60) controlled a domain extending from Southwest Arabia across the Red Sea west to Meroë and south from Sawakin to the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. As an indication of the type of political control he exercised, Ezana, like other Aksumite rulers, carried the title negusa nagast (king of kings), symbolic of his rule over numerous tribute-paying principalities and a title used by successive Ethiopian rulers into the mid-twentieth century.
The Aksumites created a civilization of considerable distinction. They devised an original architectural style and employed it in stone palaces and other public buildings. They also erected a series of carved stone stelae at Aksum as monuments to their deceased rulers. Some of these stelae are among the largest known from the ancient world. The Aksumites left behind a body of written records, that, although not voluminous, are nonetheless a legacy otherwise bequeathed only by Egypt and Meroë among ancient African kingdoms. These records were written in two languages--Gi'iz and Greek. Gi'iz is assumed to be ancestral to modern Amharic and Tigrinya, although possibly only indirectly. Greek was also widely used, especially for commercial transactions with the Hellenized world of the eastern Mediterranean. Even more remarkable and wholly unique for ancient Africa was the minting of coins over an approximately 300-year period. These coins, many with inlay of gold on bronze or silver, provide a chronology of the rulers of Aksum.
One of the most important contributions the Aksumite state made to Ethiopian tradition was the establishment of the Christian Church. The Aksumite state and its forebears had certainly been in contact with Judaism since the first millennium B.C. and with Christianity beginning in the first century A.D. These interactions probably were rather limited. However, during the second and third centuries, Christianity spread throughout the region. Around A.D. 330- 40, Ezana was converted to Christianity and made it the official state religion. The variant of Christianity adopted by the Aksumite state, however, eventually followed the Monophysite belief, which embraced the notion of one rather than two separate natures in the person of Christ as defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (see Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, ch. 2).
Little is known about fifth-century Aksum, but early in the next century Aksumite rulers reasserted their control over Southwest Arabia, though only for a short time. Later in the sixth century, however, Sassanian Persians established themselves in Yemen, effectively ending any pretense of Aksumite control. Thereafter, the Sassanians attacked Byzantine Egypt, further disrupting Aksumite trade networks in the Red Sea area. Over the next century and a half, Aksum was increasingly cut off from its overseas entrep“ts and as a result entered a period of prolonged decline, gradually relinquishing its maritime trading network and withdrawing into the interior of northern Ethiopia.
The rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula had a significant impact on Aksum during the seventh and eighth centuries. By the time of the Prophet Muhammad's death (A.D. 632), the Arabian Peninsula, and thus the entire opposite shore of the Red Sea, had come under the influence of the new religion. The steady advance of the faith of Muhammad through the next century resulted in Islamic conquest of all of the former Sassanian Empire and most of the former Byzantine dominions.
Despite the spread of Islam by conquest elsewhere, the Islamic state's relations with Aksum were not hostile at first. According to Islamic tradition, some members of Muhammad's family and some of his early converts had taken refuge with the Aksumites during the troubled years preceding the Prophet's rise to power, and Aksum was exempted from the jihad, or holy war, as a result. The Arabs also considered the Aksumite state to be on a par with the Islamic state, the Byzantine Empire, and China as one of the world's greatest kingdoms. Commerce between Aksum and at least some ports on the Red Sea continued, albeit on an increasingly reduced scale.
Problems between Aksum and the new Arab power, however, soon developed. The establishment of Islam in Egypt and the Levant greatly reduced Aksum's relations with the major Christian power, the Byzantine Empire. Although contact with individual Christian churches in Egypt and other lands continued, the Muslim conquests hastened the isolation of the church in Aksum. Limited communication continued, the most significant being with the Coptic Church in Egypt, which supplied a patriarch to the Aksumites, but such contacts were insufficient to counter an ever-growing ecclesiastical isolation. Perhaps more important, Islamic expansion threatened Aksum's maritime contacts, already under siege by Sassanian Persians. Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade, formerly dominated by the Byzantine Empire, Aksum, and Persia, gradually came under the control of Muslim Arabs, who also propagated their faith through commercial activities and other contacts.
Aksum lost its maritime trade routes during and after the mid-seventh century, by which time relations with the Arabs had deteriorated to the point that Aksumite and Muslim fleets raided and skirmished in the Red Sea. This situation led eventually to the Arab occupation of the Dahlak Islands, probably in the early eighth century and, it appears, to an attack on Adulis and the Aksumite fleet. Later, Muslims occupied Sawakin and converted the Beja people of that region to Islam.
By the middle of the ninth century, Islam had spread to the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden and the coast of East Africa, and the foundations were laid for the later extensive conversions of the local populace to Islam in these and adjacent regions. East of the central highlands, a Muslim sultanate, Ifat, was established by the beginning of the twelfth century, and some of the surrounding Cushitic peoples were gradually converted. These conversions of peoples to the south and southeast of the highlands who had previously practiced local religions were generally brought about by the proselytizing efforts of Arab merchants. This population, permanently Islamicized, thereafter contended with the Amhara-Tigray peoples for control of the Horn of Africa.
Medhani Alem Church, one of the twelve rock-hewn churches in Lablibela. Courtsey United Nations Educational. Science. and Cultural Organization
In response to Islamic expansion in the Red Sea area and the loss of their seaborne commercial network, the Aksumites turned their attention to the colonizing of the northern Ethiopian highlands. The Agew peoples, divided into a number of groups, inhabited the central and northern highlands, and it was these peoples who came increasingly under Aksumite influence. In all probability, this process of acculturation had been going on since the first migrants from Southwest Arabia settled in the highlands, but it seems to have received new impetus with the decline of Aksum's overseas trade and consequent dependence upon solely African resources. As early as the mid-seventh century, the old capital at Aksum had been abandoned; thereafter, it served only as a religious center and as a place of coronation for a succession of kings who traced their lineage to Aksum. By then, Aksumite cultural, political, and religious influence had been established south of Tigray in such Agew districts as Lasta, Wag, Angot, and, eventually, Amhara.
This southward expansion continued over the next several centuries. The favored technique involved the establishment of military colonies, which served as core populations from which Aksumite culture, Semitic language, and Christianity spread to the surrounding Agew population. By the tenth century, a post-Aksumite Christian kingdom had emerged that controlled the central northern highlands from modern Eritrea to Shewa and the coast from old Adulis to Zeila in present-day Somalia, territory considerably larger than the Aksumites had governed. Military colonies were also established farther afield among the Sidama people of the central highlands. These settlers may have been the forerunners of such Semitic-speaking groups as the Argobba, Gafat (extinct), Gurage, and Hareri, although independent settlement of Semitic speakers from Southwest Arabia is also possible. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Shewan region was the scene of renewed Christian expansion, carried out, it appears, by one of the more recently Semiticized peoples--the Amhara.
About 1137 a new dynasty came to power in the Christian highlands. Known as the Zagwe and based in the Agew district of Lasta, it developed naturally out of the long cultural and political contact between Cushitic- and Semitic-speaking peoples in the northern highlands. Staunch Christians, the Zagwe devoted themselves to the construction of new churches and monasteries. These were often modeled after Christian religious edifices in the Holy Land, a locale the Zagwe and their subjects held in special esteem. Patrons of literature and the arts in the service of Christianity, the Zagwe kings were responsible, among other things, for the great churches carved into the rock in and around their capital at Adefa. In time, Adefa became known as Lalibela, the name of the Zagwe king to whose reign the Adefa churches' construction has been attributed.
By the time of the Zagwe, the Ethiopian church was showing the effects of long centuries of isolation from the larger Christian and Orthodox worlds. After the seventh century, when Egypt succumbed to the Arab conquest, the highlanders' sole contact with outside Christianity was with the Coptic Church of Egypt, which periodically supplied a patriarch, or abun, upon royal request. During the long period from the seventh to the twelfth century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church came to place strong emphasis upon the Old Testament and on the Judaic roots of the church. Christianity in Ethiopia became imbued with Old Testament belief and practice in many ways, which differentiated it not only from European Christianity but also from the faith of other Monophysites, such as the Copts. Under the Zagwe, the highlanders maintained regular contact with the Egyptians. Also, by then the Ethiopian church had demonstrated that it was not a proselytizing religion but rather one that by and large restricted its attention to already converted areas of the highlands. Not until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries did the church demonstrate real interest in proselytizing among nonbelievers, and then it did so via a reinvigorated monastic movement.
The Zagwe's championing of Christianity and their artistic achievements notwithstanding, there was much discontent with Lastan rule among the populace in what is now Eritrea and Tigray and among the Amhara, an increasingly powerful people who inhabited a region called Amhara to the south of the Zagwe center at Adefa. About 1270, an Amhara noble, Yekuno Amlak, drove out the last Zagwe ruler and proclaimed himself king. His assumption of power marked yet another stage in the southward march of what may henceforth be termed the "Christian kingdom of Ethiopia" and ushered in an era of increased contact with the Levant, the Middle East, and Europe.
The new dynasty that Yekuno Amlak founded came to be known as the "Solomonic" dynasty because its scions claimed descent not only from Aksum but also from King Solomon of ancient Israel. According to traditions that were eventually molded into a national epic, the lineage of Aksumite kings originated with the offspring of an alleged union between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whose domains Ethiopians have variously identified with parts of Southwest Arabia and/or Aksum. Consequently, the notion arose that royal legitimacy derived from descent in a line of Solomonic kings. The Tigray and Amhara, who saw themselves as heirs to Aksum, denied the Zagwe any share in that heritage and viewed the Zagwe as usurpers. Yekuno Amlak's accession thus came to be seen as the legitimate "restoration" of the Solomonic line, even though the Amhara king's northern ancestry was at best uncertain. Nonetheless, his assumption of the throne brought the Solomonic dynasty to power, and all subsequent Ethiopian kings traced their legitimacy to him and, thereby, to Solomon and Sheba.
Under Yekuno Amlak, Amhara became the geographical and political center of the Christian kingdom. The new king concerned himself with the consolidation of his control over the northern highlands and with the weakening and, where possible, destruction of encircling pagan and Muslim states. He enjoyed some of his greatest success against Ifat, an Islamic sultanate to the southeast of Amhara that posed a threat to trade routes between Zeila and the central highlands (see fig. 3).
Upon his death in 1285, Yekuno Amlak was succeeded by his son, Yagba Siyon (reigned 1285-94). His reign and the period immediately following were marked by constant struggles among the sons and grandsons of Yekuno Amlak. This internecine conflict was resolved sometime around 1300, when it became the rule for all males tracing descent from Yekuno Amlak (except the reigning emperor and his sons) to be held in a mountaintop prison that was approachable only on one side and that was guarded by soldiers under a commandant loyal to the reigning monarch. When that monarch died, all his sons except his heir were also permanently imprisoned. This practice was followed with some exceptions until the royal prison was destroyed in the early sixteenth century. The royal prison was one solution to a problem that would plague the Solomonic line throughout its history: the conflict over succession among those who had any claim to royal lineage.
Figure 3. The Early Period, Thirteenth to Seventeenth Centuries
Yekuno Amlak's grandson, Amda Siyon (reigned 1313-44), distinguished himself by at last establishing firm control over all of the Christian districts of the kingdom and by expanding into the neighboring regions of Shewa, Gojam, and Damot and into Agew districts in the Lake Tana area. He also devoted much attention to campaigns against Muslim states to the east and southeast of Amhara, such as Ifat, which still posed a powerful threat to the kingdom, and against Hadya, a Sidama state southwest of Shewa. These victories gave him control of the central highlands and enhanced his influence over trade routes to the Red Sea. His conquests also helped facilitate the spread of Christianity in the southern highlands.
Zara Yakob (reigned 1434-68) was without a doubt one of the greatest Ethiopian rulers. His substantial military accomplishments included a decisive victory in 1445 over the sultanate of Adal and its Muslim pastoral allies, who for two centuries had been a source of determined opposition to the Christian highlanders. Zara Yakob also sought to strengthen royal control over what was a highly decentralized administrative system. Some of his most notable achievements were in ecclesiastical matters, where he sponsored a reorganization of the Orthodox Church, attempted to unify its religious practices, and fostered proselytization among nonbelievers. Perhaps most remarkable was a flowering of Gi'iz literature, in which the king himself composed a number of important religious tracts.
Beginning in the fourteenth century, the power of the negusa nagast (king of kings), as the emperor was called, was in theory unlimited, but in reality it was often considerably less than that. The unity of the state depended on an emperor's ability to control the local governors of the various regions that composed the kingdom, these rulers being self-made men with their own local bases of support. In general, the court did not interfere with these rulers so long as the latter demonstrated loyalty through the collection and submission of royal tribute and through the contribution of armed men as needed for the king's campaigns. When the military had to be used, it was under central control but was composed of provincial levies or troops who lived off the land, or who were supported by the provincial governments that supplied them (see Military Tradition in National Life, ch. 5). The result was that the expenses borne by the imperial administration were small, whereas the contributions and tribute provided by the provinces were substantial.
In theory, the emperor had unrestrained control of political and military affairs. In actuality, however, local and even hereditary interests were recognized and respected so long as local rulers paid tribute, supplied levies of warriors, and, in general, complied with royal dictates. Failure to honor obligations to the throne could and often did bring retribution in the form of battle and, if the emperor's forces won, plunder of the district and removal of the local governor. Ethiopian rulers continually moved around the kingdom, an important technique for assertion of royal authority and for collection--and consumption--of taxes levied in kind. The emperor was surrounded by ceremony and protocol intended to enhance his status as a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He lived in seclusion and was shielded, except on rare occasions, from the gaze of all but his servants and high court officials. Most other subjects were denied access to his person.
The emperor's judicial function was of primary importance. The administration of justice was centralized at court and was conditioned by a body of Egyptian Coptic law known as the Fetha Nagast (Law of Kings), introduced into Ethiopia in the mid-fifteenth century (see The Legal System, ch. 5). Judges appointed by the emperor were attached to the administration of every provincial governor. They not only heard cases but also determined when cases could be referred to the governor or sent on appeal to the central government.
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