Amhara or Amharic Speaking Others


One of the things Mengistu Hailemariam told us before he left Finfinne in 1991, which is still fresh in our memories, is his out of the blue statement that there are no people called Amhara. Many of us were surprised and bewildered to hear that kind of statement from a Head of State since we all thought, at least most of us, that there have always been people called Amhara. That assertion was echoed by Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam, who was thought to be an Amhara himself; or perhaps Mengistu echoed Prof. Mesfin’s thesis. Not many may have asked the serious questions of why a head of state that spoke in Amharic and a professor born presumably to an Amharic speaking family would go out of their way to say that there are no people called Amhara. Why would anyone, let alone a professor, venture to say the people he supposedly belongs to do not exist? Many of us didn’t take them seriously because we thought that they didn’t know history and we knew better. Could we have been wrong and they may have been right?


Of course, there is no doubt that there was and there is the Amharic language spoken by millions of people in Ethiopia and around the world. Yet, the argument that there are no people called Amhara seems to have resurfaced afresh in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2005 Ethiopian legislative elections, this time with some new evidences to make us revisit the thesis.


It must be noted at the outset that this effort to revisit the thesis is not meant to coerce any self to be the other self, but to put to the test our full understanding of our past that will help us look into the future with a better perspective.


At a recent United Liberation Forces of Oromia (ULFO) forum in Washington, D.C., an elderly Oromo pointed out Emperor Susaniyos as an example of an Oromo who did not work for the interest of the Oromo people. There is some observation in the rhetoric of the supporters of some political parties that both Emperor Susaniyos and his successor in Gondar, Emperor Fasiladas, were “full” Oromos. Interestingly, these two Emperors are at the center of Gondar’s sixteenth century political establishment. Another prominent emperor in Gondar, Libne Dingil, was born to an Oromo mother with the name of Na’od Mogassa. Arguably, for the Amharic speaking people, Gondar is equivalent to what Aksum is for the Tigre people or Lalibela is for the Agaw people.


At the religious and language levels, there are indications of high level involvement of Oromos as well as the Oromo language in Gondar and Wallo. According to Donald N. Levine, one of the monks of Damot by the name of Kasmati Wali was of Oromo origin. This monk was believed to be involved in the mobilization of a great number of Oromos to oppose the religious policies of Emperor Iyasu I, the name itself suggestive of Oromo origin. Emperor Bakkafa, whose name is Oromo, took refugee among the Yejju Oromo after an escape from prison, served Oromos at his court, recruited a regiment of Oromo soldiers, employed an Oromo as master of his Palace, and surrounded himself with an Oromo praetorian guard, according to Donald N. Levine. Bakkafa’s Son, Iyasu II married a Wallo Oromo and their son Iyoas I insisted on speaking Oromo language at the court and gave numerous official posts to Oromo men.


Granted that these accounts of Donald N. Levine are true, a curious mind would ask if such an intense involvement of Oromo Emperors in Gondar would be possible at all without bloodshed had there been a significant other people with a completely different origin. If at least some of the Emperors in Gondar were Oromos, who were the people they led? This is, in fact, a more subtle question. Could Oromo rulers have, by and large, governed people who were not Oromos? That would amount to colonization of other people by Oromo rulers. If that were the case, could they have led their followers without any social conflict between the followers and the rulers themselves? Could they have assumed their power without any invasion if the rulers from whom they took over the power were not Oromos? Why are indications of power conflict not so prevalent in the history of the Emperors in Gondar if there were interactions between these Oromo rulers and the other rulers if they were from other people?


Prof. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis recently argued that the Meroe kingdom, in the present day Sudan north of Gondar, which King Ezana of Aksum defeated around 370 A.D., may have been an Oromo kingdom. If and when the argument is positively concluded, Gondar will simply fill a hole in an expanse of historically Oromo land stretching from present day Sudan to Kenya. If Oromos lived at Meroe, it only makes sense to have moved a little south to Gondar or may have lived there as the neighbors of those at Meroe.


Revisiting of Prof. Mesfin’s thesis should not fall short of studying the origin of the Amharic speaking people and the Amharic language itself. Although both Prof. Mesfin and Mengistu told us that there were no people called Amhara, they fell shy of telling us who exactly the Amharic speaking people are or what to call them. Of course, for argument’s sake, some could tell us to call them Ethiopians, but that would be a misrepresentation of the priori identity of the people the Greek traveler described with the term Ethiop, which roughly meant burnt face people.

Some suggest that Amharic was born as a language around 1270 A. D. in Shawa with the rise of Yekuno Amlak who is reported to have claimed lineage from the Solomonic Dynasty. Obviously, no people on this earth can claim to have been born nearly seven hundred years ago. That means, if the assertion that Amharic was born around 1270 A. D. is true, the people who started speaking Amharic must have had a priori identity. Did certain people with priori identity start to speak Amharic all of a sudden? Could any people have lived on this earth for about 700 years only?

Looking at the alphabet that was used to write the Amharic language, it is apparent that it was inherited from the Tigrigna language, which itself is based on the Ge’ez script that has its roots in Yemen. The fact that there were Yemeni sailors who crossed over to the African side of the Red Sea has also been established by some historians. What we do not know is how much of Yemeni root has shaped the social fabric of the Tigrigna speaking peoples in Tigray and Eritrea. In addition, according to some sources, a Sheik most probably of Arabic origin has settled among the Oromo in Wallo in the early 16th century and fathered many children. The village where he settled got the name of Warra Seh, roughly meaning Seh Family in Oromo language. How much of the Oromo people in Wallo this Arab migrant has influenced is also not clear.


Be that as it may, even more interesting in the search for the origin of Amharic speaking people is the lack in history books of a migration of people that formed the Solomonic Dynasty. What we know is the reported claim, although never proven, by Yekuno Amlak of his lineage from the Solomonic Dynasty and the absence of a parallel claim for the subject people. A similar claim had been made around Aksum long before the rise of Yekuno Amlak. Such similar claims would make it appear that the two have some solid relationships except for the following three facts: 1) the claims were made at nearly two millennia apart, 2) the claims were made at geographically different locations far from each other, and 3) the second claim was made after the fall of the Semitic Aksumite Dynasty in the wake of Muslim Arab conquests from the east. At the time of the fall of the Aksumite Dynasty, there was a Cushitic Agaw Dynasty to the south. We do not have any credible record of a Semitic rule south of Aksum before the rise of Yekuno Amlak.


Then, from where did some individuals in Shawa get the idea of claiming lineage from the Solomonic Dynasty? Donald N. Levine reports an oral tradition that goes “the sole survivor of Aksumite royalty, Ambasa Widim, fled south to Menz after the sack of Aksum and fathered a line of descendents who eventually ‘restored’ the Solomonic Dynasty in 1270.” If true, what this suggests is that there may have been other people that had been living in Shawa who gave refuge to Ambasa Widim. This would in turn presuppose that there may have been pre-Amharic language in Shawa that the people who started using Amharic may have been using before the birth of Amharic as a language. In other words, Amharic was born, but the people who started speaking it existed and spoke another language before Amharic was born. What we do not know is who these people were and why Amharic was created following the time when Ambasa Widim fled Aksum to the area south of the Cushitic Agaw Dynasty? Is it very likely that since the Agaw people lived south of Aksum and Menz from where Yekuno Amlak rose lies even farther south, the people who have inhabited the area south of Agaw land were not Semitic? Our historians have a huge task to conclusively answer this question.


One more subtle question to ask is how did the name Amharic (Amharigna) came into being? It has been argued in the past that Amharic (Amharigna) is the mother tongue of Jesus. In reality, Jesus’ mother tongue is not Amharic (Amharigna) but Aramaic (Aramaean). Of course, looking at the alphabet that was used to write this language, we may assume the Amharic speaking people to be descendants of Tigres who led the Aksumite civilization. However, the Solomonic Dynasty in central Ethiopia has closer geographic proximity to the vast land the Oromo people have been living in than the centrifugal locus of Aksum and its civilization. In addition, the Zagwe Dynasty south of Aksum and north of the Solomonic Dynasty in Shawa, as well as the sequence of the rise of the three dynasties—Aksumite, Zagwe and Solomon—suggests that any southward march by the Akum Dynasty would have been, in all likelihood, checked by the Zagwe Dynasty.


Many agree that the Amharic language is known as a Semitic language with significant Cuhitic language components, the forerunner of which is the Oromo language. Then could it be that Amharic was a product of intermarriage of the Semitic Tigre language and the Cushitic Oromo language, and could it be that Ambasa Widim may have settled among and married from local Cushitic people, who could well be Oromo or Agaw? With all these clues, could it be that most of the Amharic speaking people may actually have Oromo ancestors? If so, what would make them to choose to be the other self? Something very fundamental must have set in motion the choice to be the other self. If one can find a reason for it, could it be the concept of the chosen people?


It is very well true that one can see marked distinction between the cultures of the Oromo people and those of the Amharic speaking people. However, we do not know whether the two cultures have different roots and grew parallel over time or whether they had the same root and one of them was born as a trajectory from the main root. Donald L. Levine notes that most of the Amharic speaking people’s culture traits “appear to have characterized the Amhara system since the fourteenth century.” That is shortly after the birth of the Amharic language around the end of the thirteenth century. It may be such short age that could be the source of the culture of the Amharic speaking people that learned scholars as well as close observers find it harder to understand. Some have actually nominated it for a study of mass psychology. 

The most striking evidence that supports the thesis that Amharic speaking people may have Oromo ancestors is to be found in the least expected place. It is to be found in the similarity of a number of provisions and prohibitions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Oromo Qallu Institution. A proof of which party may have borrowed the provisions and prohibitions of the other party needs a detailed and careful study. However, suffice to say at this point that a curious and intelligent mind has recently discovered a number of striking similarities.

No one seems to have more closely observed than Donald N. Levine the fact that the Amharic speaking people are the self who chose to be the other self when he refers to them as Semitized Ethiopians. Historically, Ethiop was the name coined and used by Greeks to refer to the Cushitic people and the subtle and intelligent observation that the Amharic speaking people are Semitized Ethiopians amounts to saying they are Semitized Cushites, as in the Arabized Sudan. What could have been the bridge for the Semitization of the Cushites may well be the unproven claims, which occurred at least three times in the history of the Semitized Cushites.

The first one was made by the legendary Menelik I who is claimed to be the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The second one was made by Yekuno Amlak in 1270 A.D. around which time Amharic that has also been claimed to be Jesus’ mother tongue, although less frequently, may have been born as a language. The third claim was made by Haile Selassie in the early 1900s. Haile Selassie’s grandfather is believed to be an Oromo, but he still claimed descent from the Solomonic Dynasty. Again, what is very interesting is that there are no parallel claims of descent from the Solomonic Dynasty for the subject peoples.

Then, why would these kings make the claims only for themselves, and perhaps, for their immediate families alone and not for the peoples they would rule? It may well be to get legitimacy to rule over their subject peoples. The root of that legitimacy appears to lie in the Old Testament which discusses about the concept of the chosen people. As Donald N. Levine attempts to postulate, “… a protracted identity struggle must have been set in motion by the sustained confrontation between the Northern Ethiopians [Cushites] and the intruding Oriental Semites…” As he further explains, the Tigrean literati dealt with a sequence of four identity conflicts through the Kibre Negest, which roughly means the Glory of Kings. The first one of these four conflicts was the perception of Judaic religion as superior. In what appears to be the self in the other self, the “Tigreans had to deny that they were the Hamites of the Old Testament”, according to Donald N. Levine.

To the misconception in the Old Testament, the Kibre Negest may have been meant to be a cleanser, which effectively put millions in the struggle for identity for millennia? This identity struggle may have tangentially engulfed a large segment of the Oromo and the Agaw peoples. While the Agaw people may have been the worst victims in loosing one’s identity, the Oromo have effectively fought off this identity problem set in motion by the Tigreans. The Amharic speaking people became the buffer between the Semitized Cushites and the Oromo people that maintained their Cushitic identity. Obviously, the Amharic speaking people have weighed towards the Semitized Cushites than towards those who preserved their Cushitic identity. Interestingly, there is no wonder then if Donald N. Levine observed Oromo antithesis of preserving Cushitic identity to Amharic speaking people’s and their other supporters’ thesis of Semitizing the Cushites. On that note then, what would solve the identity problem may not be the synthesis of the thesis of Semitizing the Cushites and the Oromo people’s antithesis of Semitizing the Cuhsites. It would be an adoption of a complete antithesis of Semitizing the Cushites, which is the right thing to do. In fact, we should wonder if the effort of Semitizing the Cushites would not be doing grave disservice to the subject people, in this case the Amharic speaking people.

This analysis raises many questions and makes no conclusions. Whether the Amharic speaking people existed historically in the same way as the Oromo, Agaw and Tigre people or whether they may have come from Oromos, Agaws or Tigres or a combination of them needs to be studied instead of rejecting it. The conclusion is bound to deepen our understanding of the socio-politics of our region. It may well be that in biological terms, some Amharic speaking people in today’s Amhara state may well qualify as Oromos than some Oromos in the peripheral areas of Oromia state, such as in West Wallaga, who paid immense sacrifice in Oromo movement to protect Oromo identity that was targeted by these Amharic speaking people.


In the final analysis, if at least the majority of the Amharic speaking people branched from the Oromo people about 1270 A.D. because of religious doctrine, the relationship between these two peoples is bound to be interpreted differently than the contemporary interpretation. The two peoples may well be victim kin and kith divided about 700 years ago by this doctrine, which interestingly has not faded away even today. Yet, both may have held onto two basic tenets of the Oromo nation: the first group an Oromo identity and the second group the Oromo Qallu Institution with a new cover on it.


If this proves to be the case, the socio-politics of East Africa will develop a formidable new dimension that will have far reaching implications and may become a catalyst for resurrection of Cushitic Civilization. Just when Oromo politicians thought that they may be close to answering the Oromo people’s question, they may find themselves at the transition point from Oromo Redemption to Resurrection of Cushitic Civilization.