Kush, Meroe, Ethiopia and Abyssinia: Sorting Realities from Myths


Arguably, learned historians and the contemporary novice observers of Ethiopia, including the internet-age western media journalists, seem to have very different images of Ethiopia. Learned historians often give a very rich disposition of Ethiopia and its peoples. Even the Judeo-Christian-Islam religious establishments are not in short supply of this rich disposition about Ethiopia.


The contemporary novice observers seem to remember Ethiopia as a seriously troubled state whose social fabric is damaged by poverty, famine as well as continuous social conflicts. Perhaps, the only commonality that the learned historians, the Judeo-Christian-Islam religious establishments, and the contemporary novice observers tell us about Ethiopia is the rich hospitality of the peoples living in it.


That observation may well be a very important clue that will help us sort the realities from the myths about Ethiopia. More than anything—whether that may be Tony Blair’s Africa Commission, Live8, G8 meetings, the World Bank’s and IMF’s structural adjustments, the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission in the Hague, Western Diplomat’s backdoor discussions that sometimes leave bad taste in the mouths of some of these diplomats, CNN’s weeklong reporting from Ethiopia, or BBC's pathetic shallow reporting—it is the understanding of the social chemistry of the peoples living in Ethiopia that will help solve it's problems and perhaps use that as a springboard to solve Africa's problems as well.


Such understanding will help sort the realities from the myths, which may be essential for identifying the firm ground to stand on from the shaky foundation that will always lead to eventual collapse despite the amount of support it gets from different directions.


The realities about Ethiopia and the origin of the name itself have been documented in ancient times. According to some accounts, Ethiopian civilization predates Greek Civilization. In her review of the Aithiopika, an ancient novel written by Heliodorus from Greece, Kathryn Chew of California State University at Long Beach observed “... Greek culture takes a back seat to the cultures of Egypt and Ethiopia.” According to other sources, Heliodorus wrote An Ethiopian Tale to document about romance that begins and ends in Meroe that, according to some observers, would “blend the best of Ethiopia, Greece and even Egypt”.


In his book titled Black Athena, Martin Bernal maintains that “Classical Western civilization originating in the city-states of Ancient Greece had in turn its origins in Black Africa, on the assumption that ancient Egypt was a ‘black’ nation,” according to one reviewer of Martin Bernal's argument.


In an interview a few years ago with an Ethiopian newspaper, Jean Doresse, a famous French historian, noted that he couldn't understand Plato's work until he visited Ethiopia. In the same interview, he also said: “Ethiopia is older than pharaonic Egypt. We have some proofs for this. People working on Ethiopia did not find the language of ancient Egypt in Ethiopia. But in ancient Egyptian we found many words which are in Ethiopia, both in Amharic and even more in Oromiffa. So, the conclusion is that Ethiopia is the birthplace of ancient civilization which developed later in Egypt and much later on in Greece and other countries.”


He goes on to say the following on the birthplace of languages: “Historians argue that the first language was Sabean. But Oromiffa, Somali and Afar languages use words whose origin is earlier than hieroglyphic Egyptian. They are the most ancient spoken languages. It was later on that Amharic was born and developed with Semitic characteristics.”


Another critical revelation Jean Doresse said in the interview was the following: “there is a word ‘Oromo’ in Ethiopia which appeared in ancient Egypt referring to the same subject...”


In a book titled Moses and Akhenaten, Ahmad Osman reports that according to the Talmud story, before the Exodus, “the Ethiopians placed Moses upon their throne and set the crown of State upon his head …” Some observers argue that Moses conception of Monotheism may have been actually borrowed from Kushitic wisdom tradition as the belief in Waaqa Tokkicha (one God) by the Oromo people. Professor Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University’s recent assertion that Christianity is “… a Near-Eastern and North African religion that has been traveling for the last 2000 years” doesn’t seem to dispute the above argument at all.  


In short, it is obvious that the world has witnessed one of the greatest civilizations in North East Africa. What may have been lost to the world as well as the many of the peoples directly affected and their leaders are the reasons surrounding the collapse of this civilization and the establishment of non-functioning social chemistry in the region since then. The Meroe kingdom with its glorious political establishment was caught off guard by another civilization, Abyssinian civilization to be specific, established around Axum by Yemeni immigrants. In his analysis of Yemen’s history, Professor Muhammad S. Megalommatis, noted that “The name Abyssinia (‘-b-sh-t, Abashat) is mentioned in Ancient Yemenite texts and epigraphic documentation as the name of a … Yemenite tribe!” In the same analysis, he stresses that “the use of the name ‘Ethiopia’ by the nineteenth and twentieth century royal authorities of Abyssinia is completely false, and doesn’t stand any scholarly and academic argumentation.” 


According to a recent documentary by the Discovery Channel titled Nubia: The Forgotten Kingdom, the last kingdom at Meroe was defeated by the Abyssinian King named Ezana in about 370 A.D. This Abyssinian expansion may have been the precursor to the expansion of Christianity among the Kushitic peoples and its subsequent clash with Islamic expansion in the region and the cultures of these peoples.


Abyssinian expansion not only destroyed an African civilization, it also attempted to appropriate its glorious past and use it as its historical outfit up to the present day. The process simply put the region and its peoples in a Dark Age of its own version.


What may be most interesting is that there are yet un-deciphered Meroitic Hieroglyphic and Cursive texts, which will, when deciphered, probably lead to an explosive history that will shape the politics of the region in a qualitatively different way.


Thus, it may well be argued that what has been happening in that region for well over sixteen centuries is one civilization camouflaged and sitting over another and pretending to be standing on a monolithic historical foundation. That may well be the greatest myth many failed to grasp. The reality facing us in the face is that these civilizations are neither one nor can one permanently defeat the other. The damage its misinterpretation caused is immense and the confusion it has cultivated has become vast. Even some western historians who have studied the peoples of the region for over fifty years have very unfortunately been trapped in the vastness of this confusion that would send their acquired knowledge in the direction of bankruptcy of intellectual faculty. The descendants of Abyssinian civilization are lost between claiming Abyssinian and Kushitic civilizations, both at the same time. Many of them including their supposedly enlightened ones, tragically fail to grasp the difference between the two and conveniently take one for the other in their opportunistic political discourse.


It is such tragic confusion that led two Abyssinian former liberation front leaders, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea, to take the adventure of dividing Tigre speaking Abyssinians into two countries in the early 1990. Common sense dictates that if these leaders had inherited wisdom from their forefathers, when the opportunity came their way in the early 1990s, they would establish a home for Yemenite outpost in East Africa on the foundation of Axumite civilization and initiate peaceful co-existence of the peoples in the region. They failed to do that and world leaders bought into the two leaders confused political maneuverings and went to the extent of listing them in their new brand of African leaders. Careful understanding of the facts on the ground in the social chemistry would avail wisdom not to utter judgments that no one has to take back, or invite any one to sit on an honorable position only to have a second thought about it when the social chemistry on the ground makes unexpected events unfold.


For careful and close observers, what is happening in Ethiopia as well as the larger expanse of North East Africa is, therefore, nothing less than the continuous clash of two qualitatively different civilizations since the defeat of Meroitic Kingdom by King Ezana of Aksum. Its rational and genuine solution rests in the establishment of Kushitic and Abyssinian centered political establishments that will make their foundational references their respective past civilizations. Such political establishments in North East Africa may be the necessary catalyst not only for overcoming the political, social, economic and cultural problems in the region, but also in checking and repulsing Arab cultural expansion. In effect, this points to a political establishment in the north lead by the Abyssinians and another political establishment in the center-south lead by the Kushites. Failure to do this will not solve these problems and continue to create a volatile political ground fertile for imported cultural expansions at the expense of truly African wisdom traditions. It can be further noted that what has been happening in the region for the last many centuries amounts to a malfunctioning social experimentation.


In the final analysis, what will be more helpful may be the understanding of the facts on the ground than endless maneuvering by various parties to support what is standing on a shaky foundation. Whereas Kush, Meroe and Ethiopia point in one direction, Abyssinia points to another direction. No amount of maneuvering to get to the ground of Kush, Meroe, or Ethiopia through the gate and gate keepers of Abyssinia will ever solve the chronic political, social, economic as well as cultural problems in the region.