Part III. Oromo/Kush/Meroe
VF: Your wealth of knowledge about Meroe is impressive. How did you become interested in Meroe?
Prof: Since my childhood, I have been fascinated with stories of my grandfathers about monuments and antiquities they had seen while traveling at the very beginning of the 20th century in Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. It was already sure that after the primary and the secondary education, I would study in the university Cuneiform Assyrian – Babylonian, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. All this came true, when in October 1978 I moved to Paris for post graduate studies, since there was – and still there is – nothing related to these fields in Athens where I graduated.
My French professor of Egyptology was Jean Lecalnt, who has been the Permanent Secretary of the French Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, the sublime academic position in Humanities in France, since 1984. He had already a very particular interest for Ancient Sudan, the so-called Meroitic Studies, since Meroe was the name of one of the capitals of Ancient Ethiopia, i.e. the present day Sudan. Subject of his doctoral dissertation were the monuments of the 'Ethiopian', 25th dynasty of Egypt, you know all these rulers who succeeded Piankhi at Napata (present day Karima in Sudan) and then with the support of the Theban Amun priesthood at Deba - Thebes (present day Luqsor in Egypt), I mean Shabaka, Shabataka, Taharqa, the most famous one, and the unfortunate Tanutamon, who was kicked out of Egypt by the Assyrian Emperor Assurbanipal at the third Assyrian invasion of Egypt (666 BCE). It is impressive that for approximately 100 years the twin capitals of their state (Thebes and Napata) were at a distance of 1250 km from one another and the only means of communications were either fluvial navigation or crossing the desert!
Furthermore, Leclant was repeatedly involved in excavations in Northern Sudan, at Sulb (Soleb as he is pleased to alter the name in French), at Sadinga (that he calls Sedeinga), and at Napata (Karima), the Ancient Kushitic capital, nearby the renowned Djebel Barkal. Of course, he did not find the huge golden statue of Amun of Napata, the Sudanese counterpart of Amun of Thebes, that was said to be fixed in the huge western precipice of the Mount (Djebel) Barkal, and to perpetually shine to faraway distant desert travelers, since Sudan is a very flat country, and although Mount Barkal is 150 meters high, it can be noticed from great distance in the Bayuda desert!
I took a course on Meroitic decipherment with Leclant at the famous Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Veme section, Sciences Religieuses. We had first one hour on Isiac cults spread throughout the Roman Empire, and then one hour on Meroitic. It was a nice 'periplus', a circumnavigation in the Antiquity. I was feeling like the famous geographer Strabo who participated in the Roman expedition in the buffer zones between Roman Egypt and Meroitic Ethiopia that were called Dodekaschoinos (12 schoinoi long) and Triakontaschoinos (30 schoinoi long), and both started at Syene (present day Aswan in Egypt) and extended to the south. In the first buffer zone, Dodekaschoinos, there was a Roman – Meroitic condominium, since the two states wished to set up a neutral zone of common cooperation against nomadic desert peoples. The coronation of the Roman – Meroitic Entente Cordiale was the continuation of the common works carried out by Arkamani of Meroe and Cleopatra 7th of Egypt. The Roman invader and emperor, Octavian Augustus, understood very well that continuation of imperial (Pharaonic in this case) tradition matters a lot in that part of the world!
This was an initial attraction and familiarization with what lies in the south of Egypt. I had my permanent magnets: the 'Periplus of the Red Sea', a 24 page text of which I made a 300 page book later on, Strabo, Heliodorus' 'Aithiopica', Herodotus, the Annals of Assurbanipal, Hatshepsut's Expedition to Punt, Cosmas Indicopleustes, all about people of the 'North', Assyria, Egypt, Anatolia, Syria, Rome moving to the South. It is true that in the 80’s, I focused more on Assyriology and since the early 90’s I shifted to Egyptology. In this case, my first trips to Egypt (especially Upper Egypt) and the Sudan impressed me very much, and I must say Sudan more than Egypt! Visiting throughout vast areas deprived of any telephony and electricity infrastructure, and studying in Sudan the archaeological sites my professor was excavating, when I was a newly born child, the middle and late 50s, exploring the pyramids of Nuri, El Kurru and Djebel Barkal (dating back to the Kushitic period 850 – 450 BCE), as well as those of Bagrawiyah (dating to the later, more genuinely Sudanese, Meroitic period 450 BCE – 370 CE), with the books (or photocopies of them) of Arkell, Shinnie, and Lazlo Torok as main travel companions, was a most fascinating moment of my life.
For the first time I found myself so close to the Antiquity I was exploring and penetrating. So many thousands of stars in the sky, the feeling of the Firmament, when you are at a distance of 700 km from the nearest electric source of light in the night, when you look around and you do not find a single object (belonging to the modern technological world) that would be 'unknown' to the Qore of Ancient Sudan and to the Pharaohs of Egypt, the feeling of living, of seeing the past, the funeral procedures of a Qore at Meroe, when walking among the numerous pyramids at Bagrawiyah completely alone overnight, all these experiences are the best moments of my life…
In the vast Butana desert land of present day Sudan, Naqa is to be found at a distance of approximately 40 km from the Nile in the south-east of Shendi. The remains of four Meroitic temples are there, and one of them testifies to common architectural taste with the Romans; modern Western scholars call it ‘Roman kiosk’ but it was quite Meroitic and African indeed! The entire area was green in the Antiquity, and in the vicinity of Naqa, at Mussawarat at Sufra, there was a specific enclosure for elephants’ training and familiarization with military. Meroe was exporting elephants to Ptolemaic Egypt, and since the view of elephants among the opposite army was quite scary, the Ptolemies used them in their fights against Seleucid Antioch, the bigger among the states to which the monarchy of Alexander split. Elephants were transported to Ptolemais Theron (Ptolemais of the Hunting - present day Suakin) and from there loaded on ships sailing to Egypt.
The Kushitic pyramids at Nuri nearby Marawi, opposite Karima, can be seen from the top of Djebel Barkal, the holy mountain of Amun of Napata. Along with the pyramids of Karima (next to the mountain Barkal) and those of El Kurru (at 5 km distances in the south-west of Karima), they form the earlier unit of pyramidal mortuary architecture in Sudan covering the period 800 – 500 BCE. It seems that the strange direction of the Nile’s flow intrigued people in the Antiquity as much as it does nowadays! Contrarily to what happens during most of the Nile flow, from Abu Hamed to Debba the river takes the direction from north-east to south-west, and in this way the western coast becomes … eastern coast. So, people get confused about the correct place of burying the dead, and building tombs, mortuary temples, and pyramids. The theoretically correct place is of course the west coast of the Nile that was thought by Egyptians and Kushites to be the entrance of the Nether world. But for the aforementioned part of the Nile’s trajectory the west coast looks as if it is in the east! It seems that the ancient Kushites followed first a very empirical and phenomenological approach, building the first pyramids in El Kurru, which is on the eastern coast that becomes of course western coast, if you consider the points of the rising and the setting sun. The practice soon expanded in areas closer to the Kushitic capital, Napata itself (pyramids at Djebel Barkal). Later, prevailed among the local priesthood theoretical considerations that the land continuation and the Nile flow itself are more important criteria than the appearance of the sunrise and the sunset. So, they stopped building on the wrong side (the ‘western’ that is in truth the ‘eastern’ coast) and they started building on the eastern coast (Nuri) that looks like that but it is not!
VF: Some words and names such as Naga, Basa, Naqa that are associated with Meroe have meanings in Oromo language. Another Oromo word, Kiya, is given to the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton. Some documentation about her suggests that “the name itself is cause for much debate. It appears to be a ‘pet’ form, rather than a full name…. In inscriptions, she is given the titles of “The Favorite”, and the “greatly beloved”…. This name also has a meaning in Oromo language, and very strikingly, with very similar sentiment as described. Kiya means my or mine, as in my lady. Naga means peace, health, among others. Basa could mean pay price, get them out or mount. Naqa means take the cattle to water at a river or refers to making drinks such as traditional beer. Might these seemingly Oromo names or vocabularies be just a coincidence or are they suggesting anything in relation to your statement that Oromos may have lived at Meroe? Do you think such traces may be a potential area of future research for you and other social science scholars?
Prof: Linguistic evidence and comparative studies between Ancient Egyptian, Meroitic and Oromo are an important step to be undertaken. At this moment, it would be necessary to describe the situation. Later phases of Egyptian Hieroglyphic, Demotic or Coptic are not going to help much in this regard, because strong Semitic (Phoenician, Aramaic, Jewish), Greek and Latin influences have been exercised over the Egyptian language already since the 1st millennium BCE! So, to find the most authentic Kushitic forms of the Egyptian language we must go back to the New Kingdom (2nd half of the 2nd millennium), or even better to Middle Kingdom (beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE) which is the period of the Classical Egyptian that is taught through the famous method of the ‘Egyptian Grammar’ of Sir Alan Gardiner.
The worst difficulty in our effort comes from the fact that there are not many bilingual texts (Egyptian/Meroitic, Greek/Meroitic, or Latin/Meroitic) to help us advance decisively our decipherment of Meroitic, the language of the ancient Ethiopians, the Kushitic people of Sudan, for a period of use of hieroglyphic and cursive scriptures for approximately 800 years (450 BCE – 370 CE). But certainly the already deciphered part that contains vast Onomastica must become the object of a vast linguistic comparative study, Meroitic - Oromo.
Furthermore, the bulk of the saved Makkurian texts must be also taken into consideration, studied, and used in this comparative linguistic approach. The Makkurian language and scripture testifies to the linguistic development of the Meroitic during the Christian periods of Sudanese History; it covers a period going from the beginning of the 5th century CE until the 12th century CE. Certainly this period dates after the great Kushitic Emigration from the land of Ancient Ethiopia to present day Oromo country, but certainly a Makkurian – Oromo linguistic approach would help establishing closer parallels. Now, it must be said that Makkurian was written in Greek characters, since cursive and hieroglyphic Meroitic writings have been abandoned following the Axumite Abyssinian invasion by king Ezana, and the destruction of Meroe. From the time of the last Makkurian inscriptions until the aurora of the modern Oromo history the distance is just 400 years.
Archeological survey would also help in clarifying the path of the emigration (probably alongside the Blue Nile, until it turns to the North within present day Abyssinia), as well as earlier Oromo settlements going back to 1500 CE. History of Religion is another field that plays an important role in this regard, especially when it comes to symbol interpretation, cosmological concepts, and approaches to the world of Divine. Many significant conclusions will come out of a parallel study here.
You understand that such an academic background research necessitates great part of interest from the young Oromo generation, needs funds, takes a great deal of field research, and theoretical method. It would, of course, be the ultimate corroboration of the historical interpretational scheme that extends the Oromo History back to the 3rd millennium BCE. Tremendous educational and literary work would follow this first step, but this first step is something huge, it would take the vital resources of many people for whom it would become basic ‘purpose in life’. I would certainly feel most flattered to participate, especially since I emitted first this historical interpretational diagram.
VF: Oromos have rich cultures such as the Gada, Guddifacha and Guma systems. Some scientists such as Dr. Marco Bassi of Bologna University in Italy agree that the Gada system is one of the most structured and democratic institutions in the world. Guddifacha is similar to adoption. Guma can be roughly stated as the price paid in kind for capital crime. One of the most interesting aspects of Guma is its ability to bypass capital punishment for capital crime. In the US, people are still debating whether capital punishment is the right way to address capital crime. Some people suggest that the Guma approach is better than the approach of capital punishment. Some have the opinion that these three Oromo values are flickers of old civilization still striving to survive. These are the systems that bypassed the system of slavery. Are you familiar with any of these three systems? What is your opinion on the thesis that these are flickers of old civilization?
Prof: Well, social anthropology is not my domain, contrarily to the excellent Italian colleague you mention. I remember his pertinent study on La Carestia in Ethiopia, in Afriche e Orienti 1/2001. I view similar cases under the viewpoint of a historian. In the Antiquity, there was not a single country that was ruled by democratic rules and methods. This is the basic statement. But, of course, there are exceptions and conditions to all that. First, and quite contrarily to this ‘basic statement’ for the Antiquity, the rise of sophisticated urban structure at the dawn of civilization takes place in a rather democratic environment. When religion did not mean something deeply cultic and absolutely separate from power, we had a king, a high priest and the elder of the city; this is Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, in present day Iraq. Of course, it was not yet a big country. The aforementioned situation concerned separately Eridu, Ur, Larsa, Uruk, Lagash, and the other early Sumerian cities-states. Then, the opposition and polarization king vs. priest brought about the royal form of state, and at the same time shaped ‘religion as an establishment, as an administrative form of hierarchy. But this early situation concerns Sumer, not Egypt! Elam, Sumer’s neighbor and rival seems concerned as well, but more centralized authority seems to rise early at Susa. When the rise comes later to other parts of the world, Canaan, Anatolia, Greece, Iran, Rome, there you have royal – monarchical states, and the closer the link with the earlier heroic tribe, the stronger the centralizing royal power appears.
Democracy does not appear first in Greece, as the debased colonial historiography stipulated in their racist effort to alter World History to their profit, but in Elam. Pathetic statesmen like Valery Giscard d’ Estaing, the former French President, should know that! It is in Elam around 1850 BCE, when the forefathers of the Indo-European Greeks were still structured in semi-barbaric and possibly cannibalistic societies, that we attest the system of the elected Sukkalmahhu, the Elamite mayors’ council that rules Elam in present day SE Iraq and SW Iran without the existence of a king. The Elamite democratic system of a republican state lasted some 500 years, much more than the Athenian case for which too much of ecstasy has been deployed by modern European ignorant and falsifying ‘intellectuals’ and politicians.
Then comes the Phoenician connection. This is what concerns us most; not because it consists in the real origin of the democratic system among the Athenians – we must not forget that most of the other Ancient Greek states were ruled by kings – but because it has to do with eventual changes of rule and of administrative structure among the Kushites. Here, I want to stress the point that I refer not to eventual Semitic – Phoenician influences on the Kushitic Ethiopians of Sudan, the plausible ancestors of the modern Oromo, but to potential parallels. The Phoenicians were all ruled by kings, whose power extended up to the limits of their small cities-states, Tyr, Byblus, Arwad, Sidon, etc. But their limited land capabilities pushed to extensive seafaring; they became the greatest navigators of the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic, whereas they were not irrelevant of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, they became the first real colonizers. They colonized the Libyan coast, the Aegean Sea. Here, I am not referring to Cyprus, since they were always there and Cyprus is virtually Phoenician. They were present at the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea. Then, at 800 BCE they established Kart Hadasht, Carthage, the New City as its name means in Phoenician, at the area of present day Tunis. That city took the Phoenician ideals further on to the Tyrrhenian Sea, Sicily, Sardinia, the North-Western African coast in the Mediterranean, the Iberian coasts either in the Mediterranean or in the Atlantic, and the Atlantic coasts of Northwestern Africa.
But what is the concept of becoming a colon? How close can the contact with the metropolis and its administrative structure be kept? What does a king mean for 3000 colons who erect a new city 3000 km away? You understand that if Uruguay was able to become independent from Spain, the same could occur and actually did occur to Carthage that became independent from Tyr, and further on to Carthaginian colonies that in turn became independent from Carthage. You cannot control so far away areas, and modern successful exceptions are few; Canada, Australia, New Zealand became all independent states. Only French Polynesia remains as the exemplary relics of the colonial times in the Pacific still subjugated by France. They do not import Coca Cola from nearby New Zealand but from France, and it costs an entire fortune!
So, you understand the point, that when 400 people leave together and go to settle in a faraway place, there are few chances that one among them becomes a king! Most probably there applies the basic democratic attitude, since all feel weak in the faraway place, and prefer to take decisions in equilibrium of responsibility. This is the very practical beginning of the republican and democratic systems.
I want therefore to transfer the ancient colonies’ model to the emigrating peoples’ concept. It is only normal that in case you have a settled population that leaves its place of origin and escapes foreign domination, you have a certain beginning of democratic community; the king may have lost his credibility or the entire royal family decapitated. More than that, the emigrating people’s social structures differ tremendously from those of a settled society. What palace, what temples, what castles and fortresses, what public buildings can emigrating people aspire to have? A straw hut does not perform the role of a palace very convincingly, you know! Even worse, if the previous majestic palace has left a stamp on the memory of the first generation of emigration. So, ultimately all leads to a change towards a democratic rule.
It is very different for the genuinely nomadic peoples, among whom the leader is a chieftain able to kill a wild animal and rise to that low level concept of ‘prince’. You have it everywhere; then when the nomadic people are obliged to move across great distance, the old chieftain becomes the heroic ancestor ready to be at times deified. If all this leads to a final settlement in another country, the chieftain may have the chance to turn to a civilized king! Timur Leng and the Huns were like that. Such a structure never leads to a democratic society because the ‘primus’ has no ‘pares’, his likes, so it can never turn out to be even a ‘primus inter pares’ (first among the equal ones) system!
I would conclude that precisely this situation bears witness to the entire theory of the Meroitic past of the Oromo. And it is not very common in Africa. The earliest long text reference to a non Egyptian, African, society and state we have dates back to the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. It is the famous text of Queen Hatshepsut ‘Expedition to Punt’. Punt was a very small country at the area of the northern coast of Somalia and the Bab al Mandeb straits. But there were a king and a queen, no democratic affinities…
VF: When you talk about kings, queens, princes and princess, you are talking about figures that Oromos have no vocabulary for, let alone historical figures. Isn’t it possible to have a social system trajectory that lacks the king and queen culture?
Prof: After the first generations of emigration, the Meroitic Qore and Kandake, kings and queens, have been forgotten. Quite interesting and somehow convincing is the fact that for the Meroites, who did not emigrate but remained in the area of Ancient Ethiopia, we do not find a notion of strong Christian king in Alodia, Makkuria, and Nobatia. We attest a less monarchical and more priestly society, as the Christian priests had the upper hand there too.
VF: You have suggested that the Oromo people may have moved south from Meroe. We have read in the past where the Oromos 'came' from. There were stories that Oromos came from Asia, Madagascar, water, and that they have Caucasian trace. Your suggestion is from a place closer to home; may be you are closing in on Oromo home. Scholars on Ethiopia have been teaching that Oromos migrated from south to north and even some Oromo scholars have fallen for such theory. All the theories do not seem to be in agreement at all and there is the opinion that says interest makes the same people move south from the north and north from the south. How do you explain this?
Prof: No, I disagree. I did not say the Meroites migrated to the south to settle in present day Oromo country and become the present day Oromo people! I said that there has long been attested a very scarce population in the Nile valley in the south of the second cataract (around modern Wadi Halfa) during the period that follows the Abyssinian invasion. Many sites – even those in parts that were certainly not attacked by Ezana of Axumite Abyssinia – have been abandoned, and if we find a continuity, this is with few people and with low level material culture. The missing population is very plausible that moved away, rejecting the Christianization evangelized by Ezana, and went towards a destination that would offer survival far from Abyssinia, and in a rather similar green environment of cultivated lands and pasturelands. They could not cross the jungle that was extended until far more in the north than the areas it reaches nowadays, so they followed the Blue Nile valley and, after a certain point, instead of advancing up to the river’s source and the area of Lake Tana, they advanced further towards the present day Oromo country. It happens that this led them to the south. South, north and the other cardinal points mean nothing by themselves. I do not want to enter into a perennial discussion about the origins of the civilization, north, east, south, west and the like; I believe this is counterproductive. What counts is the environment, the natural setup and the possibilities it offers to the emigrants. Whether this is in the north or the south this matters not.
In the case of the eternal enigma of the Meroitic studies, namely the question about the whereabouts of the fleeing Meroites, since the valley of the Nile from the area of Wadi Halfa down to Shendi and Khartoum seems to have suddenly emptied, there are important parameters that should be taken into consideration. They could not leave the valley and go to find shelter in the desert! They would not have the means of survival; they did not have anything in common with the then existing nomads of the desert, and they could not apply to themselves such an unfamiliar life organization and social system. That is why the modern Beja and Hadendawa cannot originate from the ancient Meroites, although they are also Kushitic in origin. Neither could they cross the jungle, since that was impossible even for strong armies in the antiquity. So there is no way they find their descendents among the Nuer of the Sudanese extreme south. Furthermore, there are other issues to be taken into consideration. The social structures, the beliefs, the anthropological data, the movements from place to place, and so on. Someone who studied carefully the geography of Sudan and Abyssinia cannot end up indicating the Nuer or the Dinka as descendents of the Meroites.
Now, I want to advise again the extremist positions about the Oromo coming from the south. The only way for this to be plausible would be that Oromo belonged to the Bantu family that constitutes the bulk of Sub-Saharan peoples. We know this is not the case. We know that in the Antiquity, Bantu were further pressed to the south of the continent, and that they moved towards northern areas in either Western of Eastern Africa. Furthermore, we have an approximately good basis on the History of Eastern Africa. Especially from the Ptolemaic times down to the Colonial expansion, we have Ancient Greek, Latin, Yemenite, Medieval Greek texts, and of course for Islamic periods we have Arabic and Farsi texts. Nowhere do we find a plausible interpretation of a movement of populations or an emigration of populations that led to the establishment of the Oromo at the Abyssinian south. The number of the population matters to some extent too. The great number of Oromo testifies to a long past. Finally, I would be reluctant to retrace the Oromo past back to Somalia, or Azania as people were calling the area of the Eastern Somali coast in the Late Antiquity. And I do not discuss the Madagascar option or fiction! A complete change of environment and social habits is not easy; it almost never happens, except within micro-systems. But in those cases it leaves traces that we can find. Among inland villagers of the Moluccas islands of Indonesia we attest to popular nuptial songs referring to arriving ships for the collection of spices; this proves that these villagers were living a coastal life before the arrival of the Dutch, who pushed the indigenous population towards the inland in order to control trade and customs. But it is a micro-system, not the coast of Azania and the south of Abyssinia, which would imply a complete de-figuration.
To end this answer I should say that present day Abyssinian Amhara ‘academia’ are taking politically motivated positions that deprive them from any serious appearance in their argumentation. The level of the dogmatic, rotten, and obscurantist Amhara-patronized universities of Abyssinia is worse than that of the universities in Sudan and Egypt. All Eastern Africa is academically doomed.
VF: The Borana branch of the Oromo people who live in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya still practice non-withered Oromo culture. In the areas where Oromos became in contact with Abyssinians or foreign missionaries, their cultures have been weakened. Doesn’t this counterweigh the notion that Oromos may have moved south from Meroe because of Abyssinian influence?
Prof: No! I did not say either that the Meroites moved away from their homeland ‘because of Abyssinian influence’; What I said is that they left their land in order to escape forced Christianization that would be the result of king Ezana’s victory over Meroe, and destruction of the capital city of Ethiopia. Since that Axumite Abyssinian king usurped the name of Ethiopia in order to offer himself the basics of a royal propaganda justifying the christening of Abyssinia, it was obvious to the subjugated Ethiopians, the Meroites, that they would be forced to Christianity. The foreign invader had found in the famous Biblical excerpt about Kush (‘Ethiopia’ in the Greek translation of the 70 Elder of Alexandria) a supposed prophecy about accepting Christian faith. This is all irrelevant of course, but you understand that what mattered to the Ethiopians at that time was to reject a faith that had already been imposed with nefarious impact in Egypt, which was part of the Roman Empire and at the same time very well known to the Meroites of Ancient Ethiopia. We actually know that acceptance of Christianity by illiterate, uneducated, fanatic, low social level masses in Rome, in Egypt, in Greece, in Anatolia, in Syria, in Judea and elsewhere throughout the Roman Empire meant the rise of religious fanaticism, intolerance, barbarism and obscurantism, and actually led to the destruction of thousands of temples, sanctuaries, libraries, scientific laboratories (of those days), observatories, museums, palaces, theaters and all sorts of centers of culture, education, knowledge and erudition.
The rise of Christianity brought about an unprecedented racial discrimination and an ulcerous Anti-Semitism; for three hundred years of Christian rule over Aelia Capitolina – Jerusalem not a single Jew was allowed to enter that city! It is only normal that the highly civilized Ethiopians of the Ancient Sudan, who were still building pyramids at Meroe, present day Bagrawiyah in Sudan, wished to escape the obscurantist and barbaric rule of the Abyssinian king Ezana. What they may also have known, but has not survived in any sort of documentation until today, is the setup and the circumstances of the christening of Axumite Abyssinia. Perhaps that was also an alarming waning for them.
As you know, we have the famous story about the Syrian monks Edesius and Frumentius, Keddous Faramanatos, who traveled, accompanied their uncle Metropius, to Abyssinia, and when their ship stopped at one of the harbors of the Red Sea, supposedly Adulis, nearby the present day Eritrean city of Massawa, people of the neighborhood massacred the whole crew, with the exception of those who were taken as slaves to the King of Axum. By then, they were young boys, but they managed to gain the favor of the king, who made them free citizens of his country. After the death of the last pre-Christian king of Axumite Abyssinia, the widow queen convinced them to remain at the court and look after the education of the young prince Erazanes. This was done and especially Frumentius used his influence to spread his Christian beliefs and ideas. They built the first Christian churches to address the needs of the Christian merchants who were coming to Axum. Following the young prince’s accession to the throne, Frumentius became even more eager to convert Abyssinia to Christianity, and ultimately moved to Alexandria, and requested Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, to send a bishop and priests to Abyssinia. St. Athanasius considered Frumentius as the most suitable person and consecrated him as bishop of Abyssinia. Then, Frumentius returned to Abyssinia, built up the first cathedral of Axum, baptized King Aeizanas, around 340 – 345 CE, and spread Christianity throughout Abyssinia. All this is a nice Christian legend, a myth that we cannot accept at face value, since we have no other non-Christian documentation left, and we are not able to crosscheck sources for a better understanding.
It may well have been a more brutal and excruciating reality, with palatial plots, patricide, conspiracy, bloodshed across the country, with the involvement of foreign merchants and sailors of Christian faith. All this may well have been known to the Meroites of Ethiopia as an evil and atrocious act, and they may have wished to avoid such disastrous adventures, by abandoning their country and moving to quasi-uninhabited areas that would permit them to preserve the basics of life, arable land, cultivation, pastoral life, with less trade and stressed isolation – we must admit.
We have good reasons to believe that the Christianization of Abyssinia involved a lot of blood and even terrible fights among theological fractions and ideological groups. Just before the attack against Ethiopia and the destruction of Meroe (370 CE), the Roman Emperor Constantius addressed a letter to King Aeizanas and to his brother Saizanas that dates back to 365 CE. Now, we are certainly on historical ground, distancing ourselves from the otherwise pleasant Christian myth of a peaceful christening for Abyssinia. In that letter, Constantius demanded Ezana to substitute the Arian bishop Theophilus for Frumentius (Athanasius, "Apol. ad Constantium" in Patrologia Graeca, vol. XXV, 631). Now, if we only transplant at the area of the Axumite Abyssinia the virulent and venomous fights and polarizations between Arians and their opponents within Christianity, as we know them in Egypt, in Rome and elsewhere, we realize that terrible fratricide fights took place in Axum as well, at the eve of Ezana’s attack against Meroitic Ethiopia. It is even plausible that a Roman letter asked this in the hope of consolidating the situation in the south of Egypt. In the middle of the 4th century CE Christian power in Egypt resided mostly in the north, in Lower Egypt, and non-Christian Egyptians were prevailing in Upper Egypt, Thebes (Luqsor), Syene (Aswan) and further on to the Dodekaschoinos and the Triakontaschoinos buffer zone areas. Nubians and desert nomads like the Blemmyes were making the Christian Roman rule even more unsure and unstable at that point. All anti-Christian elements could find an excellent shelter in Ethiopia, the vast area of the present day North of Sudan. So, the Romans had to eliminate the Meroitic kingdom of Ethiopia that was not Christianized. Busy with their inner problems, and with the wars with the Sassanid Empire of Iran, the other superpower of those days, they may have demanded Ezana to do the job. If this was the case, again the Meroites knew that they had to move away, if they were to avoid forced christening.
On the other hand, going back to your question, in modern times, missionaries arrived up to changing the overall environment to some extent. They faced unprecedented fanaticism, and met massacre at the hands of the Amhara Abyssinians. This happened to Dominicans who traveled to Abyssinia even before the Crusades, since for several centuries Rome was completely cut off from Abyssinia, after the early explosion of Islam. The same happened later when Basilides mounted to the throne in 1632. Opposing the practices of the earlier king Socinios, who had rejected Monophysitism and sought rapprochement with Rome, Basilides closed the country to all missionaries, after he killed all those whom he found present there! This policy continued through Theodoros and Johannes IV.
Missionaries did not face so hard times among the Oromo people. The example of Father William Massaia, an Italian Capuchin, formerly tutor to King Umberto is quite indicative. He was lucky enough to be assigned to the Oromo land and to awful Gondar, where in the middle of the 18th century – at the times of Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and the Encyclopedists – three missionaries were stoned to death in a public square! What a place!
Mgr. Massaia landed at Massawa in the disguise of a merchant, and was constantly under the espionage of the mercenaries of the Abouna-Salama and Theodoros, and was at times attacked by a frenzied crowd, but he contrived to escape. He left Abyssinia, arrived in Europe, visited France and England, where he met with Napoleon III and Queen Victoria. Having received from them important help in his work, he returned to his mission, in September 1853. On his arrival, he compiled an early Oromo dictionary, translated the Bible, converted a prince of Lagamara, vaccinated a hundred people daily during smallpox epidemic, and finally achieved a great work leaving 10,000 Catholic Christians in the country.
You are right when you say that Oromos exposed to missionaries lose in originality; neither Christianity nor Islam were the original Weltanshauung of the Oromo. Cultural westernization comes along with the missionaries as well; of course, this does not necessarily imply extreme modernization, but many Europeans and Americans would reject today several ‘acquisitions’ of the modern western world. What you say is probably true for anybody, anywhere on this planet that underwent a global metamorphosis.
VF: It seems that the major issue with this migration connotation appears to be the question of “who was there first?” In one of your replies to one of the participants on this issue on Ethioindex forum, you wrote:
“… you want to check whether among the present day peoples of Abyssinia there is one who spent more time there, and was present there longer! I am afraid this is not going to be answered convincingly and decisively. Even more this would mean nothing; it is rather a childish approach to History. Presence does not imply contribution to shaping History; more recently arrived peoples, who achieved more significant accomplishments, and are certainly more important than ‘older and less active’ ones! Then, I realize that the case of the Afar should be discussed in another mail, since they are the true top longevity candidates in Abyssinia. In the area of the present day Abyssinian South and West, there were insignificant tribal societies.”
You also wrote in another thread
“… Semitic were the original inhabitants of the area, particularly the Ancient Yemenites, whose presence in Yemen has been attested since the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium BCE. There were not a single Kushite there before them! Even not for a pick nick.”
These statements seem to be too simplistic and biased since a) the definition of shaping history is not clear (one can argue about Hitler’s shape of history) and b) our current “lack of evidence” about the peoples who lived in East Africa before the Yemeni arrived doesn’t suggest or preclude the absolute lack of evidence.
Prof: Well, to some extent you misinterpret my text. I say precisely that ‘who was there first’ is not the major issue! The Afar people seem to have been longer in the area of present day Abyssinia but the Abyssinian ancestors of Amhara and Tigray (who arrived in gradual successive waves during the 1st millennium BCE) seem to have developed a higher level of culture and civilization. Oromos seem to have come on this very soil long after the Abyssinians arrived and settled around Axum and Yeha. The Oromos had an even greater and longer past elsewhere, in their ancestors’ fatherland, the area of Meroitic Ethiopia, at the north of present day Sudan. This is not a unique case, it happens very often in the World History. A historian’s comment would be ‘sic transit gloria mundi’.
On the other hand, you refer to a very different point of my contributions. Speaking about the area of Yemen, I said that there was never a trace of Kushitic peoples found there. You know, we have vast archeological evidence from Yemen dating back to the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. Nothing, absolutely nothing that would indicate presence of Kushitic peoples! It may look simple or simplistic to you but it is not wrong. History at times is very simple; look for instance, we can calmly say that there has been absolutely no evidence of Chinese presence in Britain during the Antiquity! You see how simple it is? Sometimes, we are correctly sure about something, whereas sometimes we are full of contradictory evidence, and we cannot draw a single conclusion! You must understand, as far as the past of the Khammitic and the Kushitic peoples is concerned, that they have never shown a strong inclination to seafaring, contrarily to both, Semites and Indo-Europeans.
Look, at the Northwestern confines of the African continent, there were Khammitic Berbers among the Carthaginians. But they were not involved in the Carthaginian thalassocracy. Try to compare Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians to the Egyptians, as far as seafaring is concerned. We now know that Assyrians and Babylonians reached the Eastern coast of Africa even before the Egyptians! Sargon of Assyria invaded Cyprus long before the Ptolemies, thanks to their Macedonian origin and the subsequent involvement in the Aegean and the Mediterranean worlds did so! Assyrians controlled Dilmun, the island of Bahrein, Meluhha and Makkan, the eastern coast of the Arabic peninsula. The Egyptians hired Phoenicians, Semites, to circumnavigate the African continent!
You cannot compare the involvement of Meroe and of Axum into the Red Sea commerce and navigation! Kushitic Meroe was focusing on the Nile, the desert, the savannah! Ptolemais Theron (present day Suakin, 50 km at the south of Port Sudan) was founded and then controlled by first the Ptolemies of Egypt, and then the Romans! Contrarily, further to the south of Meroe and Ptolemais Theron, Adulis did not escape the control of Axum! The famous and very rich in information text of the Periplus of the Red Sea that dates back to the years of Nero (around 70 – 75 CE) is very clear and explicit on these issues. Meroe did not control the coast, whereas Axum did.
Even more so, Sabaean and Himyarite Yemenites were controlling all the eastern coast of present day Somalia, as well as the coast of Kenya and Tanzania down to Dar es Salam (Rhapta according to the text of the Periplus of the Red Sea)! Hadramawt Yemenites were controlling Soqotra island (‘Dioscouridou nesos’ in Greek) and were very active in the navigation and the trade throughout the Indian Ocean and the western coast of India. Of course, Yemenites and Axumite Abyssinians are Semites, whereas Meroites are Kushites.
So, ‘not a single Kushite there’ refers to Yemen, not Eastern Africa. And never forget that whereas archaeological evidence is scarce in parts of Eastern Africa, it is not so in Yemen, as far as the 1st millennium BCE and the 1st millennium CE are concerned.
VF: I am afraid there was a misunderstanding in the previous question regarding ‘not a single Kushite there’ reference. It seemed that you were implying that no Kushites lived on the land the Yemenites immigrated to in East Africa prior to their immigration. I apologize.
Prof: I understand; no, I was referring to Yemen only.
VF: As you well know, the Kushitic peoples live in East Africa region stretching from Egypt to Kenya (see Figure below). Oromos are also the largest in number, over 30 million by conservative estimates. We do not read any migration of the other Kushitic peoples including the Afar and the Somali peoples. On the other hand, as indicated earlier, the current population of Yemen is about 20 million. If we do not hear about the migration of the other Kushitic peoples and if the Yemeni people lived across the Red Sea since recorded history with their own civilization, why wouldn’t the Oromo, who are about one and a half times larger in number than Yemen’s population, live on the African side over a large swath of land with their own civilization?
This map is adopted from Voices of the World, Millennium Edition, published by the National Geographic in 2000. Note to the readers: it is not clear whether Oromo (one of the Kushitic peoples) on the map refers to the area numbered 3 or 4, but the correct one should be 3, which is clearly indicated under the Afro-Asiatic (language group) legend.
Prof: I think I already answered this question; as continental African peoples, the Khammitic peoples of Northern, Northwestern, and Eastern Africa have no vocation for seafaring. Consequently, the inland attracts them more. They may reach near the coast, but what matters to them is the inland, the vast continental landmass of fertile valleys, mountains, deserts, savannas, rivers, lakes, and plateaus. This is not strange, and it is certainly not unique! Take ancient Phoenicia, present day Syrian and Lebanese coasts, in the 1st half of the 1st millennium BCE. In the coast, you had Semitic Phoenicians, who were attracted by affairs and milieus, spectra and marvels thousands of miles away! Their thought was in the Aegean Sea, in Libya, in Spain, in the Atlantic. And 40 km inland, you had the Semitic Aramaeans, whose concern where their cultivations, their pastures, their trade, Euphrates river and the rest of the Syrian – Mesopotamian world!
The first person known by his name in History to have sailed from the area of the ‘known world’ (the Mediterranean) down to present day Sierra Leone African coast is Hanno the King of Carthaginians, whose forefathers originated from the famous Phoenician city of Tyr. And the first person known by his name in History to have voyaged from the area of the ‘known world’ (the Mediterranean) up to China is Maes Tatianus, a Syrian Aramaean of the Roman imperial times. His origin may have been just a few kilometers from the Mediterranean coasts.
Among Indo-Europeans, we have similar cases. Could we compare Russians to British? The issue is very old whatsoever! Within the context of Ancient Greece, one could not compare the ‘continental’ Thebans to the ‘maritime’ Athenians.
Khammites and Kushites seem to have been of limited maritime experience, interest, and aspiration. Wherever you find references to Khammitic and Kushitic peoples living on African coasts, you find either very limited maritime exploits or foreign leadership.
More precisely, I will focus on Azania, based on the Periplus of the Red Sea. When the text refers to the entire area going from the Cape Guardafui (the Horn of Africa) to the southernmost East African coastal confines known, the author names Tabai, Opone, Apocopa, Aigialos, Sarapion pastureland, Nicon pastureland, the Pyralaon Islands and Dioryhos (‘straits’), Menouthias and Rhapta, the furthermost port of call in the south, the last place known, which is identified with the Dar es Salam area.
Political geography was among the author’s top qualifications. After his references to Roman Egypt, Meroe and Axumite Abyssinia, the author, proceeding to the south, names seventeen toponyms but only two political entities. From the point where the control of the Abyssinian king Zoscales ends (Avalites harbour at the area of present day Eritrean port of Assab) starts ‘the Other Berberia’, which corresponds to the Northern Somalia up to the Horn of Africa. In this regard, it is useful to bear in mind that ‘Berberia’ is called by the author of the Periplus of the Red Sea the area in the south of Berenice (end of the Egyptian Red Sea coast), and in the north of Adulis (beginning of the Axumitic Red Sea coast), which corresponds to the area around Ptolemais Theron, today’s Sudanese Red Sea coast. All toponyms from Malao to Cape Aromaton (Cape of Perfumes), as the author calls the Horn of Africa, belong to ‘the Other Berberia’. One should also stress in this regard that Berberia as toponym should not be confused with the adjective ‘barbaric’.
Beyond Akroterion Aromaton (Horn of Africa), from Tabai and Opone down to Rhapta, the entire land is called ‘Azania’. The appellation encompasses today’s eastern coast of Somalia, as well as the coast of Kenya and Tanzania. Azania is the oldest name used collectively for this entire area (approx. 3000 km long!) and the only collective appellation throughout history for this part of the world. Of course, one may refer to the Ancient Egyptian term ‘Punt’, target-area of the homonymous pharaonic expedition undertaken by Nehesi, the admiral to Pharaoh Hatshepsout. But that term signified a small kingdom the extent of which we cannot perceive accurately through the hieroglyphic text of the Deir al Bahari mortuary temple of Hatshepsout (Thebes – West, Luqsor). The term Punt, however, presents similarities to the later Ancient Greek term ‘Opone’, since –t and –e are respectively Egyptian and Greek endings of feminine names and/or toponyms. And Opone was just a port of call!
What makes a striking impression is the explicit reference of the author of the Periplus of the Red Sea to the fact that the entire vast area of Azania, according to an ancient law, belonged to the (Yemenite) ruler (‘tyrannos’) of Mofar, and that the earliest state formation that was developed here was due to Yemenites of the Mofar and Muza region. Because of this, the text of the Periplus states the rights accorded to the merchants of Muza by the Yemenite king (‘Basileus’). More than just political control and commercial presence, the text (precisely in paragraph 16) testifies to high level Yemenite colonial practices: “Furthermore, they (Yemenites from Muza and Mofar) send here (Azania, East Africa coast) merchant fleet manned by Yemenite captains and sailors, who thanks to their mixed marriages with indigenous women, as well as to their familiarization with the entire area, know very well the local dialect and the traditions”. In addition, the text offers valuable information about the trade exchanged between Yemen and its African colony, Azania. Yemenites were exporting military artifacts and other crafts to the African coast of Azania, and they were also sending wheat and wine as gifts to the local tribal leaders (paragraph 17) in a diplomatic effort to keep their colonial rule stabilized and unchallenged.
We truly do not know whether the Azanians were Kushitic or Bantu people; we rather tend to consider them as Kushitic. But the reference is clear; they were colonized by the skilful Yemenite navigators.
VF: When we carefully think about Abyssinians and Kushitic peoples, we are talking about very different peoples with very different backgrounds, each with qualitatively different old civilizations. There are some opinions that Oromo culture, generally community- and Logos-based, is in clash with Abyssinian culture, generally dictatorial and Mythos-based. What is your comment on this?
Prof: You are right in using the term ‘qualitatively different civilizations’. It applies to earlier stages as well! I mean before the introduction of Islam and Christianity, Meroe and Axum were very different.
We do not know much about Amanikhatashan the Meroitic counterpart of Negus (king) Zoskales of Axum for whom we have some details within the text of the Periplus of the Red Sea. And we do not know much, even not the name of the Abyssinian Axumite counterpart of the great Qore Shorkaror of Meroe, who lived earlier, at the last years of Jesus’ historical presence. We know that Zoskales had learnt Greek, and we are sure that there were Greek artists at the Ethiopian court of Meroe, probably disembarking at Prolemais Theron/Suakin. We attest the presence of Iranian artists at Meroe thanks to a relief at Djebel Qeili (about 150 km east of Khartoum), a kind of a drawing on a granite outcrop in the middle of the desert, that attributes strong solar insignia to the Supreme Meroitic god, a Mithraic version of Amun congratulating and supporting the Qore in the aftermath of a victory that is depicted in a typically Iranian way. We find Indian influences and this is also normal due to the development of maritime and commercial contacts.
However, all these elements show similarities that lie on a substrate of significant differences. In the aforementioned relief, Shokraror is depicted as wearing a quiver and carrying a bow, arrows, a spear and sword. He is shown, at the aftermath of a battle, victorious over his enemies. He stands on a row of four bound prisoners. He holds seven more by a leash that he is handing to the god. Other enemy figures are shown in rows like they are lying dead on a field of battle or being thrown off a cliff. The god hands the king a clump of dhurra (millet, a grain). The millet probably symbolizes good crop harvests. This is something you would never find in pre-Christian or Christian Abyssinia. It shows a deep involvement in a pastoral and peaceful style of life that was not interrupted by the fight that had taken place!
The differences between Semites and Khammites/Kushites are very striking, yet the subject has not been thoroughly studied. Khammitic rule never took the absolute monarchical aspect the concept of kingdom had among the Semites. You can never compare Khefren to Naram Sin, Senwosre II to Shamshi Adad I, Ramses III to Tiglathpileser I, Taharqa and Nechao to Assurbanipal and Nabukadnezzar. There have been great Khammitic military leaders in Egypt and in Ethiopia, but their power was never as compact as it happened among Semitic kings and emperors. Semitic discipline reminds us German order at times! More specifically among the Meroitic Ethiopians the role of the Queen, the ‘Kandake’ was highly stressed! From Accadians to Yemenites and from Aramaeans to Hebrews, we have only some exceptions within the context of 2700 years of pre-Christian Semitic History. We are about to reach a level of understanding of the Ancient Egyptian History, according to which the ancient temples were not only holy places, universities and research centers, but they also represented a kind of social and ideological – political institutions parallel to Modern History’s political parties and associations. This was reflected in Ancient Ethiopia as well. Among Semites it was not like this.
VF: You attach immense value to the name of any country for education and deeper self-consciousness of that country’s people. This may very well be true in view of contemporary Abyssinian culture where leaving one’s country voluntarily has become a fashion instead of shame. Oromo scholars have argued in the past about the correct name for Oromo country. Two competing names are Oromia and Biyya Oromo. In Oromo language, Biyya means country. Oromia seems to be a synthesis between Oromo and ia as in Arabia or Romania. It seems Biyya Oromo may be more meaningful for educating Oromo children and instill in them deeper understanding of what a country means whereas Oromia can be a simplistic name for the outside world. Do you have some thoughts on that?
Prof: I believe nothing has more value for the Oromo people than the minds and the hearts of the next Oromo generations. Genuine national feeling, self-respect, national dignity, sense of historicity, and deep political commitment necessitate an authentic name that illustrates best the image of a great culture and of a most evaluated Fatherland. The foreigners cannot be a matter of concern at this point. Tourism follows cultural development in every country; a nation that adopts Tourism Marketing as its top value is a faceless place. The financial success is a parody of achievement. In the case of Oromo struggling for national auto-determination, Biyya Oromo sounds the most original choice.