“The Ethiopians were regarded by the Greeks as the best people in the world. Homer speaks of them in the Iliad as the ‘blameless Ethiopians’. He claims that they were visited by Zeus, the king of the gods, by the goddess Iris, who travelled to their country to participate in their sacrificial rites, and by Poseidon, the sea god, who ‘lingered delighted’ at their feasts. This theme was taken up, in the first century BC, by Diodorus of Sicily, who asserted that the gods Hercules and Bacchus were both ‘awed by the piety’ of the Ethiopians, whose sacrifices, he claims, were the most acceptable to the gods.”
Passage from ‘The Ethiopians, A History’ by Richard Pankhurst
Written by Barry Hoberman
This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the July/August 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
One of the most characteristic – and stirringly evocative – symbols of Islam is the adhan, the Arabic call to prayer, dramatically intoned by a muezzin from high atop a lofty minaret. Heard once, it is never forgotten.
The use of the adhan goes back to the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, and is mentioned once in the Koran, in connection with the Friday assembly:
O believers, when proclamation is made for prayer on the Day of Congregation, hasten to God’s remembrance and leave trafficking aside; that is better for you, did you but know. – Sura 62:9
Muslim tradition supplies the story of how the adhan came to be used to announce the times of the five daily prayers. After the emigration of Muhammad and his followers from Makkah (Mecca) to Medina-which is called the Hijra – a believer named Abd Allah ibn Zaid had a vision in which he tried to buy a wooden clapper to summon people to prayer. But the man who had the clapper advised him to call out to the people instead and to cry:
God is most great! God is most great!
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Apostle of God.
Come to prayer! Come to prayer!
Come to salvation! Come to salvation!
God is most great! God is most great!
There is no god but God.
According to Ibn Ishaq, the eighth-century biographer of the Prophet, Ibn Zaid went to Muhammad with his story and Muhammad, approving, told him to ask an Ethiopian named Bilal, who had a marvelous voice, to call the Muslims to prayer. As Ibn Ishaq told the story (in Albert Guillaume’s translation):
When the Apostle was told of this he said that it was a true vision if God so willed it, and that he should go to Bilal and communicate it to him so that he might call to prayer thus, for he had a more penetrating voice. When Bilal acted as muezzin, ‘Umar I, who later became the second caliph, heard him in his house and came to the
Apostle… saying that he had seen precisely the same vision. The Apostle said ‘God be praised for that!’
Though slightly different versions of the story exist, all agree that Islam’s first muezzin was Bilal. But who was this man whom the sources credit with such a key role in the nascent Muslim community?
Actually, very little is known. Bilal ibn Rabah, an Ethiopian, was born in Makkah sometime in the late sixth century, of very humble parentage, and was one of the first inhabitants of Makkah to accept the religion that a local merchant named Muhammad – the Prophet – began to preach there around the year 610.
According to Ibn Ishaq, Bilal suffered for his immediate acceptance of Muhammad’s message. In fact Bilal’s master, Umayya ibn Khalaf reportedly, “would bring him out at the hottest part of the day and throw him on his back in the open valley and have a great rock put on his chest; then he would say to him, ‘You will stay here till you die or deny Muhammad and worship al-Lat and al-‘Uzza” (pre-Islamic goddesses).
Bilal, however, would not renounce Islam and eventually Abu Bakr, later the most distinguished of the Prophet’s Companions and the first Caliph, rescued him.
In 622, the year of the Hijra, Bilal also migrated to Medina and over the next decade accompanied the Prophet on all military expeditions, serving, tradition says, as the Prophet’s mace-bearer and steward, but also as a muezzin revered by Muslims for his majestically sonorous renditions of the adhan .
Bilal’s finest hour came in January, 630, on an occasion regarded as one of the most hallowed moments in Islamic history. After the Muslim forces had captured Makkah, the Prophets muezzin ascended to the top of the Ka’ba to call the believers to prayer – the first time the call to prayer was heard within Islam’s holiest city.
There is confusion about what happened to Bilal after the death of the Prophet in 632. Abu Bakr succeeded the Prophet as head of the Muslim community, and some sources say that Bilal acted as Abu Bakr’s muezzin but subsequently declined to serve his successor, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, in the same capacity. Other authors say the Prophets death signaled the end of Bilal’s career as a muezzin, and that he called the faithful to prayer only twice more in his life – once in Syria, to honor the visiting ‘Umar, and a second time, in Medina, when he was specifically asked to do so by the Prophet’s grandsons.
What seems clear is that at some point Bilal accompanied the Muslim armies to Syria and that he died there between 638 and 642, though the exact date of death and place of burial are disputed.
Yet if there is some disagreement concerning the hard facts of Bilal’s life and death, his importance on a number of levels is incontestable. Muezzin guilds, especially those in Turkey and Africa, have traditionally venerated the original practitioner of their noble profession, and African Muslims as a whole feel a special closeness and kinship to him; he was an Ethiopian, after all, who had been exceptionally close to the Prophet, and is a model of steadfastness and devotion to the faith. The story of Bilal, in fact, remains the classic and most frequently cited demonstration that in the Prophet’s eyes, the measure of a man was neither nationality nor social status, but piety.
Barry Hoberman studied Islam at Harvard and Indiana Universities.
Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization Part 2
By John G. Jackson (1939)
In the study of ancient affairs, folklore and tradition throw an invaluable light on historical records. In Greek mythology we read of the great Ethiopian king, Cepheus, whose fame was so great that he and his family were immortalized in the stars. The wife of King Cepheus was Queen Cassiopeia, and his daughter, Princess Andromeda. The star groups of the celestial sphere, which are named after them are called the ROYAL FAMILY (the constellations: CEPHEUS, CASSIOPEIA and ANDROMEDA.) It may seem strange that legendary rulers of ancient Ethiopia should still have their names graven on our star maps, but the voice of history gives us a clue.
A book on astrology attributed to Lucian declares that: “The Ethiopians were the first who invented the science of stars, and gave names to the planets, not at random and without meaning, but descriptive of the qualities which they conceived them to possess; and it was from them that this art passed, still in an imperfect state, to the Egyptians.” The Ethiopian origin of astronomy is beautifully explained by Count Volney in a passage in his Ruins of Empires, which is one of the glories of modern literature, and his argument is not based on guesses. He invokes the weighty authority of Charles F. Dupuis, whose three monumental works, The Origin of Constellations, The Origin of Worship and The Chronological Zodiac, are marvels of meticulous research. Dupuis placed the origin of the zodiac as far back as 15,000 B.C., which would give the world’s oldest picture book an antiquity of 17,000 years. (This estimate is not as excessive as it might at first appear, since the American astronomer and mathematician, Professor Arthur M. Harding, traces back the origin of the zodiac to about 26,000 B.C) In discussing star worship and idolatry, Volney gives the following glowing description of the scientific achievements of the ancient Ethiopians, and of how they mapped out the signs of the zodiac on the star-spangled dome of the heavens:
Should it be asked at what epoch this system took its birth, we shall answer on the testimony of the monuments of astronomy itself, that its principles appear with certainty to have been established about seventeen thousand years ago, and if it be asked to what people it is to be attributed, we shall answer that the same monuments, supported by unanimous traditions, attribute it to the first tribes of Egypt; and reason finds in that country all the circumstances which could lead to such a system; when it finds there a zone of sky, bordering on the tropic, equally free from the rains of the equator and the fogs of the north; when it finds there a central point of the sphere of the ancients, a salubrious climate, a great but manageable river, a soil fertile without art or labor, inundated without morbid exhalations, and placed between two seas which communicate with the richest countries; it conceives that the inhabitant of the Nile, addicted to agriculture from the facility of communications, to astronomy from the state of his sky, always open to observation, must have been the first to pass from the savage to the social state; and consequently to attain the physical and moral sciences necessary to civilized life.
It was, then, on the borders of the upper Nile, among a black race of men, that was organized the complicated system of the worship of the stars, considered in relation to the productions of the earth and the labors of agriculture. Thus the Ethiopian of Thebes named stars of inundation, or Aquarius, those stars under which the Nile began to overflow; stars of the ox or bull, those under which they began to plow, stars of the lion, those under which that animal, driven from the desert by thirst, appeared on the banks of the Nile; stars of the sheaf, or of the harvest virgin, those of the reaping season; stars of the lamb, stars of the two kids, those under which these precious animals were brought forth. Thus the same Ethiopian having observed that the return of the inundation always corresponded with the rising of a beautiful star which appeared towards the source of the Nile, and seemed to warn the husbandman against the coming waters, he compared this action to that of the animal who, by his barking, gives notice of danger, and he called this star the dog, the barker (Sirius). In the same manner he named the stars of the crab, those where the sun, having arrived at the tropic, retreated by a slow retrograde motion like the crab of Cancer. He named stars of the wild goat, or Capricorn, those where the sun, having reached the highest point in his annuary tract, imitates the goat, who delights to climb to the summit of the rocks. He named stars of the balance, or Libra, those where the days and nights being equal, seemed in equilibrium, like that instrument; and stars of the scorpion, those where certain periodical winds bring vapors, burning like the venom of the scorpion.
(Volney’s Ruins of Empires, pp. 120-122, New York, 1926)
The traditions concerning Memnon are interesting as well as instructive. He was claimed as a king by the Ethiopians, and identified with the Pharaoh Amunoph or Amenhotep, by the Egyptians. A fine statue of him is located in the British Museum, in London. Charles Darwin makes a reference to this statue on his Descent of Man which is well worth reproducing: “When I looked at the statue of Amunoph III, I agreed with two officers of the establishment, both competent judges, that he had a strongly marked Negro type of features.” The features of Akhnaton (Amennhotep IV), are even more Negroid than those of his illustrious predecessor. That the earliest Egyptians were African Ethiopians (Nilotic Negroes), is obvious to all unbiased students of oriental history. Breasted’s claim that the early civilized inhabitants of the Nile Valley and Western Asia were members of a Great White Race, is utterly false, and is supported by no facts whatsoever. A similar racial bias is shown by Elliot Smith in his work, The Ancient Egyptians and Their Influence Upon the Civilization of Europe, p. 30, New York & London, 1911. “Not a few writers,” says he, “like the traveler Volney in the 18th century, have expressed the belief that the ancient Egyptians were Negroes, or at any rate strongly Negroid. In recent times even a writer so discriminating as Ripley usually is has given his adhesion to this view.” (The writers referred to here, are Count Volney, the French Orientalist and Professor William Z. Ripley, of Harvard University, an eminent American Anthropologist.) Professor Smith is convinced that these men are wrong, because he holds that there is a “profound gap that separates the Negro from the rest of mankind, including the Egyptian.” (Ancient Egyptians, p. 74.) Another English scholar, Philip Smith, is far more rational in discussing this point:
No people have bequeathed to us so many memorials of its form complexion and physiognomy as the Egyptians. If we were left to form an opinion on the subject by the description of the Egyptians left by the Greek writers we should conclude that they were, if not Negroes, at least closely akin to the Negro race. That they were much darker in coloring than the neighboring Asiatics; that they had their frizzled either by nature or art; that their lips were thick and projecting, and their limbs slender, rests upon the authority of eye-witnesses who had traveled in the country and who could have had no motive to deceive. The fullness of the lips seen in the Sphinx of the Pyramids and in the portraits of the kings is characteristic of the Negro. (The Ancient History of the East, pp. 25-26, London, 1881.)
We read of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, in Greek mythology, to be exact in Homer’s Iliad, where he leads an army of Elamites and Ethiopians to the assistance of King Priam in the Trojan War. His expedition is said to have started from the African Ethiopia and to have passed through Egypt on the way to Troy. According to Herodotus, Memnon was the founder of Susa, the chief city of the Elamites. “There were places called Memnonia,” asserts Professor Rawlinson, “supposed to have been built by him both in Egypt and at Susa; and there was a tribe called Memnones at Moroe. Memnon thus unites the eastern with the western Ethiopians, and the less we regard him as an historical personage the more must we view him as personifying the ethnic identity of the two races.” (Ancient Monarchies, Vol. I, Chap. 3.)
The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia are sometimes called the Chaldeans, but this is inaccurate and confusing. Before the Chaldean rule in Mesopotamia, there were the empires of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians. The earliest civilization of Mesopotamia was that of the Sumerians. They are designated in the Assyrio-Babylonian inscriptions as the black-heads or black-faced people, and they are shown on the monuments as beardless and with shaven heads. This easily distinguishes them from the Semitic Babylonians, who are shown with beards and long hair. From the myths and traditions of the Babylonians we learn that their culture came originally from the south. Sir Henry Rawlinson concluded from this and other evidence that the first civilized inhabitants of Sumer and Akkad were immigrants from the African Ethiopia. John D. Baldwin, the American Orientalist, on the other hand, claims that since ancient Arabia was also known as Ethiopia, they could have just as well come from that country. These theories are rejected by Dr. II. R. Hall, of the Dept. Of Egyptian & Assyrian Antiquities of the British Museum, who contends that Mesopotamia was civilized by a migration from India. “The ethnic type of the Sumerians, so strongly marked in their statues and reliefs,” says Dr. Hall, “was as different from those of the races which surrounded them as was their language from those of the Semites, Aryans, or others; they were decidedly Indian in type. The face-type of the average Indian of today is no doubt much the same as that of his Dravidian race ancestors thousands of years ago. And it is to this Dravidian ethnic type of India that the ancient Sumerian bears most resemblance, so far as we can judge from his monuments. And it is by no means improbable that the Sumerians were an Indian race which passed, certainly by land, perhaps also by sea, through Persia to the valley of the Two Rivers. It was in the Indian home (perhaps the Indus valley) that we suppose for them that their culture developed. On the way they left the seeds of their culture in Elam. There is little doubt that India must have been one of the earliest centers of human civilization, and it seems natural to suppose that the strange un-Semitic, un-Aryan people who came from the East to civilize the West were of Indian origin, especially when we see with our own eyes how very Indian the Sumerians were in type.” (The Ancient History of the Near East, pp. 173“174, London, 1916.) Hall is opposed in his theory of Sumerian origins by Dr. W. J. Perry, the great anthropologist, of the University of London. “The Sumerian stories or origins themselves tell a very different tale,” Perry points out, “for from their beginnings the Sumerians seem to have been in touch with Egypt. Some of their early texts mention Dilmun, Magan and Meluhha. Dilmun was the first settlement that was made by the god Enki, who was the founder of Sumerian civilization. Magan was famous among the Sumerians as a place whence they got diorite and copper, Meluhha as a place whence they got gold. Dilmun has been identified with some place or other in the Persian Gulf, perhaps the Bahrein Islands, perhaps a land on the eastern shore of the Gulf. In a late inscription of the Assyrians it is said that Magan and Meluhha were the archaic names for Egypt and Ethiopia, the latter being the south-western part of Somaliand that lay opposite.” (The Growth of Civilization, pp. 60“61, 2nd Edition, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1937, Published by Penguin Books, Ltd.)
Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire
by Drusilla Dunjee Houston [1926, no renewal]
Because of the great lapse. of time, it seems almost impossible to locate the original seat of the old Ethiopian empire. Bochart thought it was “Happy Araby,” that from this central point the Cushite race spread eastward and westward. Some authorities like Gesenius thought it was Africa. The Greeks looked to old Ethiopia and called the Upper Nile the common cradle of mankind. Toward the rich luxurience of this region they looked for the “Garden of Eden.” From these people of the Upper Nile arose the oldest traditions and rites and from them sprang the first colonies and arts of antiquity. The Greeks also said that Egyptians derived their civilization and religion from Ethiopia. “Egyptian religion was not an original conception, for three thousand years ago she had lost all true sense of its real meaning among even the priesthood.” (Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection–Preface.) Yet Egyptian forms of worship are understood and practiced among the Ethiopians of Nubia today. The common people of Egypt never truly understood their religion, this was why it so easily became debased.
Ptolemaic writers said that Egypt was formed of the mud carried down, from Ethiopia, that Ethiopians were the first men that ever lived, the only truly autochthonous race and the first to institute the worship of the gods and the rites of sacrifice. Egypt itself was a colony of Ethiopia and the laws and script of both lands were naturally the same; but the hieroglyphic script was more widely known to the vulgar in Ethiopia than in Egypt. (Diodorus Siculus, bk. iii, ch. 3.) This knowledge of writing was universal in Ethiopia but was confined to the priestly classes alone in Egypt. This was because the Egyptian priesthood was Ethiopian. The highly developed Merodic inscriptions are not found in Egypt north of the first cataract or in Nubia south of Soba. These are differences we would expect to find between a colony and a parent body. Herodotus (bk. ii, p. 29) says that Meroe was a great city and metropolis, most of its buildings were of red brick. 800 B. C. at Napata, the buildings were of hard stone. (Meroe–Crowfoot, pp. 6, 30.)
The Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature says, “There is every reason to conclude that the separate colonies of priestcraft spread from Meroe into Egypt; and the primeval monuments in Ethiopia strongly confirm the native traditions, reported by Diodorus Siculus, that the worship of Zeus-Ammon originated in Meroe, also the worship of Osiris. This would render highly probable the opinion that commerce, science and art descended into Egypt from the Upper Nile. Herodotus called the Ethiopians “Wisemen occupying the Upper Nile, men of long life, whose manners and customs pertain to the Golden Age,those virtuous mortals, whose feasts and banquets are honored by Jupiter himself.” In Greek times, the Egyptians depicted Ethiopia as an ideal state. The Puranas, the ancient historical books of India, speak of the civilization of Ethiopia as being older than that of Egypt. These Sanskrit books mention the names of old Cushite kings that were worshipped in India and who were adopted and changed to suit the fancy of the later people of Greece and Rome.
The Hindu Puranas speak of the Cushites going to India before they went to Egypt, proving Hindu civilization coeval with that of Chaldea and the country of the Nile. These ancients record that the Egyptians were a colony drawn out from Cusha-Dwipa and that the Palli, another colony that made the Phoenicians followed them from the land of Cush. In those primitive days, the central seat of Ethiopia was not the Meroe of our day, which is very ancient, but a kingdom that preceeded it by many ages; that was called Meru. Lenormant spoke of the first men of the ancient world as “Men of Meru.” Sanskrit writers called Indra, chief god of the Hindu, king of Meru. He was deified and became the chief representative of the supreme being. Thus was primitive India settled by colonists from Ethiopia. Early writers said there was very little difference in the color or features of the people of the two countries.
Ancient traditions told of the deeds of Deva Nahusha, another sovereign of Meru, who extended his empire over three worlds. The lost literature of Asia Minor dealt with this extension of the Ethiopian domain. An old poem “Phrygia,” was a history of Dionysus, one of the most celebrated of the old Ethiopians. It was written in a very old language and character. He preceeded Menes by many ages. Baldwin says that the authentic books that would have given us the true history concerning him, perished long before the Hellenes. The Greeks of historical times distorted the story of Dionysus and converted him into their drunken god of wine. “They misconstrued and misused the old Cushite mythology, wherever they failed to understand it, and sought to appropriate it entirely to themselves.” One of the poetical versions of the taking of Troy, on the coast of Asia Minor, was entitled “The Æthiops,” because the inhabitants of Troy, as we shall prove later, who fought so valiantly in the Trojan war, were Cushite Ethiopians. This version presented the conflict as an Egyptian war.
In those early ages Egypt was under Ethiopian domination. In proof of this fact, the Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature says, “Isaiah often mentions Ethiopia and Egypt in close political relations. In fine the name of Ethiopia chiefly stood as the name of the national and royal family of Egypt. In the beginning Egypt was ruled from Ethiopia. Ethiopia was ruined by her wars with Egypt, which she sometimes subdued and sometimes served.” Modern books contain but little information about the country of the Upper Nile, but archaic books were full of the story of the wonderful Ethiopians. The ancients said that they settled Egypt. Is it possible that we could know more about the origin of this nation than they? Reclus says, “The people occupying the plateau of the Blue Nile, are conscious of a glorious past and proudly call themselves Ethiopians.” He calls the whole triangular space between the Nile and the Red Sea, Ethiopia proper. This vast highland constituted a world apart. From it went forth the inspiration and light now bearing its fruit in the life of younger nations.
Heeren thought, that excepting the Egyptians, no aboriginal people of Africa so claim our attention as the Ethiopians. He asks, “To what shall we attribute the renown of this one of the most distant nations of the earth? How did the fame of her name permeate the terrible deserts that surrounded her: and even yet form an insuperable bar to all who approach. A great many nations distant and different from one another are called Ethiopians. Africa contains the greater number of them and a considerable tract in Asia was occupied by this race. The Ethiopians were distinguished from the other races by a very dark or completely black skin. ” (Heeren’s Historical Researches–Ethiopian Nations. Ch. 1, p. 46) Existing monuments confirm the high antiquity of Meroe. In the Persian period Ethiopia was an important and independent state, which Cambyses vainly attempted to subdue. Rosellini thinks that the right of Sabaco and Tirhakah, Ethiopian kings, who sat upon the throne of Egypt in the latter days, must have been more by right of descent than by usurpation or force of arms. “This may be judged,” he says, “by the respect paid to their monuments by their successors.”
The pictures on the Egyptian monuments reveal that Ethiopians were the builders. They, not the Egyptians, were the master-craftsmen of the earlier ages. The first courses of the pyramids were built of Ethiopian stone. The Cushites were a sacerdotal or priestly race. There was a religious and astronomical significance in the position and shape of the pyramids. Dubois points to the fact that in Upper Egypt there were pictured black priests who were conferring upon red Egyptians, the instruments and symbols of priesthood. Ethiopians in very early ages had an original and astounding religion, which included the rite of human sacrifice. It lingered on in the early life of Greece and Home. Dowd explains this rite in this way: “The African offered his nearest and dearest, not from depravity but from a greater love for the supreme being.” The priestly caste was more influencial upon the Upper Nile than in Egypt. With the withdrawal of the Ethiopian priesthood from Egypt to Napata, the people of the Lower Nile lost the sense of the real meaning of their religion, which steadily deteriorated with their language after their separation from Ethiopia.
If we visit Nubia, modern Ethiopia today, we can plainly see in the inhabitants their superiority to the common Egyptian type. The Barabra or Nile Nubians are on a footing of perfect equality in Egypt because that was their plane in ancient days. Baedecker describes them as strong, muscular, agricultural and more warlike and energetic than Egyptians. Keane says the Nubians excel in moral qualities. They are by his description obviously Negroid, very dark with full lips and dreamy eyes. They have the narrow heads which are the cranial formation of Ethiopia. Race may be told by shape of the skull far better than by color or feature, which are modified by climate. The members of the Tartar race have perfectly rounded skulls. The head of the Ethiopian races is very elongated. Europeans have an intermediate skull. The cranial formation of unmixed races never changes. Keane concludes by saying, “All Barbara have wooly hair with scant beards like the figures of Negroes on the walls of the Egyptian temples.” The race of the Old Empire approached closely to this type.
Strabo mentions the Nubians as a great race west of the Nile. They came originally from Kordofan, whence they emigrated two thousand years ago. They have rejected the name Nubas as it has become synonymous with slave. They call themselves Barabra, their ancient race name. Sanskrit historians call the Old Race of the Upper Nile Barabra. These Nubians have become slightly modified but are still plainly Negroid. They look like the Wawa on the Egyptian monuments. The Retu type number one was the ancient Egyptian, the Retu type number two was in feature an intermingling of the Ethiopian and Egyptian types. The Wawa were Cushites and the name occurs in the mural inscriptions five thousands years ago. Both people were much intermingled six thousand years ago. The faces of the Egyptians of the Old Monarchy are Ethiopian but as the ages went on they altered from the constant intermingling with Asiatic types. Also the intense furnace-like heat of Upper Egypt tended to change the features and darken the skin.
In the inscriptions relative to the campaigns of Pepi I, Negroes are represented as immediately adjoining the Egyptian frontier. This seems to perplex some authors. They had always been there. This was the Old Race of predynastic Egypt–the primitive Cushite type. This was the aboriginal race of Abyssinia. It was symbolized by the Great Sphinx and the marvelous face of Cheops. Take any book of Egyptian history containing authentic cuts and examine the faces of the first pharaohs, they are distinctively Ethiopian. The “Agu” of the monuments represented this aboriginal race. They were the ancestors of the Nubians. and were the ruling race of Egypt. Petrie in 1892 exhibited before the British Association, some skulls of the Third and Fourth Dynasties, showing distinct Negroid characteristics. They were dolichocephalic or long skulled. The findings of archaeology more and more reveal that Egypt was Cushite in her beginning and that Ethiopians were not a branch of the Japheth race in the sense that they are so represented in the average ethnological classifications of today.
Egyptians said that they and their religion had come from the land of Punt. Punt is generally accepted today to have been Somaliland south of Nubia. On the pictured plates at Deir-el-Baheri, the huts of the people of Punt were like the Toquls of the modern Sudanese, being built on piles approached by ladders. The birds were like a species common among the Somali. The fishes were not like those of Egypt. The wife of the king of Punt appears with a form like the Bongo women with exaggerated organs of maternity. This was a distinctive Ethiopian form. The king had the Cushite profile. The products carried by the wooly haired porters were ebony, piles of elephant tusks, all African products and trays of massive gold rings. Punt is mentioned in the inscriptions as a land of wonders. We find marvelous ruins in southeastern Africa that substantiate these reports. The inscription in the rocky valley of Hammat tells how 2000 B. C. a force gathered in the Thebaid to go on an expedition to Punt to bring back the products that made the costly incense of the ancients. The Stage Temple at Thebes showed in gorgeous pictures another expedition in 1600 B. C. We now know that Somaliland yielded the frankincense of ancient commerce, which was used in the ceremonials of all ancient kingdoms. Punt was called the “Holy Land” by the Egyptians.
In Egypt today, the most effective battalions are those commanded by black Nubians. In ancient ages the Egyptians followed the lead of the Ethiopian to battle and it is instinctive in them to do so today. Cushites were the backbone of the armies in the earliest ages. The Egyptian has no warlike qualities. It was the Cushite who was the head and brains of the foreign conquests. It was the Cushite element of the Old Empire that extended itself in foreign colonization eastward and westward around the world. Across Arabia and southwestern Asia, even to the central highlands, inscriptions and massive images in stone stand as voiceless witnesses that they were the commanders of the Egyptian armies and that the Ethiopian masses accompanied the soldiers as trusted allies and not as driven slaves. We must remember that in the early ages they were not a subject race but that their power as a great empire was at its zenith.
The Egyptian of today much changed from the ancient whom Herodotus called black, is content to live in a mud hut beside his beloved Nile. He is despised by the prouder Nubian, who saves his earnings to buy a home and piece of ground in his native Ethiopia. Reclus tells us that the dislike between Egyptians and Nubians is carried to such a great extent that the Nubians even in Egypt will not marry an Egyptian woman and that he refuses his daughter in marriage to the Egyptian and Arab. This could have come down alone front an age-old consciousness of superiority. He knows the proud traditions of his race. In books careless of ethnography, we find the Nubian classed with Semitic stock. They have no affinities at all with this race. Nubians are never able to speak the Arabic tongues gramatically. Nubian women are seldom seen in Egypt. They are the most faithful to the manners and customs of the Old Race. The Egyptian of today makes
little showings of ambition or the spirit for great deeds. He squanders his earnings upon trinkets and seems content in the same mud hovel in which the masses of Egyptians primitively lived.
Prichard recognizes two branches of the Nubians, the Nubians of the Nile and those of the Red Sea. In the age of Herodotus, the countries known as Nubia and Senaar were occupied by two different races, one of which he includes under the name Ethiopian; the other was a pastorial race of Semitic decent which led a migratory life. This distinction continues to the present day. The Red Sea nomadic tribes are extremely savage and inhospitable. The Nile Nubas or Barabra are the original Ethiopians. They are agricultural and have the old Hamitic traits. They plant date trees and set up wheels for irrigation. These are the Ethiopians mentioned in chronicles as possessing war chariots. Their allies were the Libyans. Semites at that age of the world had no possession of iron vehicles. Heeren says “that the ancestors of these Ethiopians had long lived in cities and had erected magnificent temples and edifices, that they possessed law and government, and that the fame of their progress in knowledge and the social arts had spread in the earliest ages to a considerable part of the world.”
Maurice, that reliable authority on ancient remains, declares, “The ancient Ethiopians were the architectural giants of the past. When the daring Cushite genius was in the full career of its glory, it was the peculiar delight of this enterprising race to erect stupendous edifices, excavate long subterranean passages in the living rock, form vast lakes and extend over the hollows of adjoining mountains magnificent arches for aqueducts and bridges. It was they who built the tower of Babel or Belus and raised the pyramids or Egypt; it was they who formed the grottoes near the Nile and scooped the caverns of Salsette end Elephante. (These latter are wonders of Hindu architecture.) Their skill in mechanical powers astonishes posterity, who are unable to conceive by what means stones thirty, forty and even sixty feet in length from twelve to twenty in depth could ever be raised to the point of elevation at which they are seen in the ruined temples of Belbec and Thebais. Those comprising the pagodas of India are scarcely less wonderful in point of elevation and magnitude.” (Maurice’s Ancient History of Hindustan.)
A Critical Review of the Evidence of Archaeology, Anthropology, History and Comparative Religion: According to the Most Reliable Sources and Authorities
By John G. Jackson (1939)
In discussing the origin of civilization in the ancient Near East, Professor Charles Seignobos in his History of Ancient Civilization, notes that the first civilized inhabitants of the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates valleys, were a dark-skinned people with short hair and prominent lips; and that they are referred to by some scholars as Cushites (Ethiopians), and as Hamites by others. This ancient civilization of the Cushites, out of which the earliest cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia grew, was not confined to the Near East. Traces of it have been found all over the world.
In modern geography the name Ethiopia is confined to the country known as Abyssinia, an extensive territory in East Africa. In ancient times Ethiopia extended over vast domains in both Africa and Asia. “It seems certain,” declares Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, “that classical historians and geographers called the whole region from India to Egypt, both countries inclusive, by the name of Ethiopia, and in consequence they regarded all the dark-skinned and black peoples who inhabited it as Ethiopians. Mention is made of Eastern and Western Ethiopians and it is probable that the Easterners were Asiatics and the Westerners Africans.” (History of Ethiopia, Vol. I., Preface, by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge.) In addition Budge notes that, “Homer and Herodotus call all the peoples of the Sudan, Egypt, Arabia, Palestine and Western Asia and India Ethiopians.” (Ibid., p. 2.) Herodotus wrote in his celebrated History that both the Western Ethiopians, who lived in Africa, and the Eastern Ethiopians who dwelled in India, were black in complexion, but that the Africans had curly hair, while the Indians were straight-haired. (The aboriginal black inhabitants of India are generally referred to as the Dravidians, of whom more will be said as we proceed.) Another classical historian who wrote about the Ethiopians was Strabo, from whom we quote the following: “I assert that the ancient Greeks, in the same way as they classed all the northern nations with which they were familiar as Scythians, etc., so, I affirm, they designated as Ethiopia the whole of the southern countries toward the ocean.” Strabo adds that “if the moderns have confined the appellation Ethiopians to those only who dwell near Egypt, this must not be allowed to interfere with the meaning of the ancients.” Ephorus says that: “The Ethiopians were considered as occupying all the south coasts of both Asia and Africa,” and adds that “this is an ancient opinion of the of the Greeks.” Then we have the view of Stephanus of Byzantium, that: “Ethiopia was the first established country on earth; and the Ethiopians were the first who introduced the worship of the gods, and who established laws.” The vestiges of this early civilization have been found in Nubia, the Egyptian Sudan, West Africa, Egypt, Mashonaland, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabia, South America, Central America, Mexico, and the United States. Any student who doubts this will find ample evidence in such works as The Voice of Africa, by Dr. Leo Froebenius; Prehistoric Nations, and Ancient America, by John D. Baldwin; Rivers of Life, by Major-General J. G. R. Forlong; A Book of the Beginnings by Gerald Massey; Children of the Sun and The Growth of Civilization, by W. J. Perry; The Negro by Professor W.E.B. DuBois; The Anacalypsis, by Sir Godfrey Higgins; Isis Unveiled by Madam H. P. Blavatsky; The Diffusion of Culture, by Sir Grafton Elliot Smith; The Mediterranean Race, by Professor Sergi; The Ruins of Empires, by Count Volney; The Races of Europe, by Professor William Z. Ripley; and last but not least, the brilliant monographs of Mr. Maynard Shipley: New Light on Prehistoric Cultures and Americans of a Million Years Age.
In the study of ancient affairs, folklore and tradition throw an invaluable light on historical records. In Greek mythology we read of the great Ethiopian king, Cepheus, whose fame was so great that he and his family were immortalized in the stars. The wife of King Cepheus was Queen Cassiopeia, and his daughter, Princess Andromeda. The star groups of the celestial sphere, which are named after them are called the ROYAL FAMILY—(the constellations: CEPHEUS, CASSIOPEIA and ANDROMEDA.) It may seem strange that legendary rulers of ancient Ethiopia should still have their names graven on our star maps, but the voice of history gives us a clue. A book on astrology attributed to Lucian declares that: “The Ethiopians were the first who invented the science of stars, and gave names to the planets, not at random and without meaning, but descriptive of the qualities which they conceived them to possess; and it was from them that this art passed, still in an imperfect state, to the Egyptians.” The Ethiopian origin of astronomy is beautifully explained by Count Volney in a passage in his Ruins of Empires, which is one of the glories of modern literature, and his argument is not based on guesses.
We read of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, in Greek mythology, to be exact in Homer’s Iliad,where he leads an army of Elamites and Ethiopians to the assistance of King Priam in the Trojan War. His expedition is said to have started from the African Ethiopia and to have passed through Egypt on the way to Troy.
Another great nation of Ethiopian origin was Elam, a country which stretched from the Tigris River to the Zagros Mountains of Persia. Its capital was the famous city of Susa, which was founded about 4,000 B.C., and flourished from that date to its destruction by Moslem invaders about the year 650 C.E.
We cannot devote much space to the early inhabitants of India, though they were beyond all doubt an Ethiopic ethnic type. They are described by Professor Lynn Thorndike as “short black men with almost Negro noses.” (Short History of Civilization, p. 227, New York, 1936.) Dr. Will Durant pictures these early Hindus as “a dark-skinned, broad-nosed people whom, without knowing the origin or the word, we call Dravidians.” (Short History of Civilization, Part I, p. 396, New York, 1935.)
Most readers of history know about the Celts, ancient inhabitants of Europe, whose priests were known as the Druids. It is generally thought that these Celts were Caucasoids, but Sir Godfrey Higgins, after much study came to the conclusion that they were a Negroid people. Higgins wrote a ponderous volume entitled The Celtic Druids. In the following passage from his Anacalypsis he modestly refers to it as an essay: “In my essay on the Celtic Druids, I have shown that a great nation called Celtae, of whom the Druids were the priests, spread themselves almost over the whole earth, and are to be traced in their rude gigantic monuments from India to the extremity of Britain. The religion of Buddha of India is well known to have been very ancient.” (Higgins is here referring to the first Buddha, who is supposed to have lived between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, and not to Gautama Buddha who lived about 600 years B.C. There were at least ten Buddhas mentioned in the sacred books of India.) “Who these can have been but the early individuals of the black nation of whom we have been treating I know not, and in this opinion I am not singular. The learned Maurice says Cuthies (Cushites), i.e. Celts, built the great temples in India and Britain, and excavated the caves of the former; and the learned mathematician, Reuben Burrow, has no hesitation in pronouncing Stonehenge to be a temple of the black curly-headed Buddha.” (Anacalypsis, Vol. I, Book I, Chap. IV, New York, 1927.)
Most of us are familiar with the Mayan civilization of Yucatan and Central America, since American archaeologists have devoted many years of intensive research to these territories. Among the speculations concerning the origin of this culture, those of LePlongeon and Raquena are the most valuable. Professor Rafael Requena, a Venezuelan archaeologist, holds that there was once an island in the Atlantic Ocean, of continental dimensions, known to the ancients as Atlantis, that this island was settled by Egyptians, who in turn established colonies in America before the submergence of Atlantis…That Atlantis was connected with the history of ancient Ethiopia there can be little doubt. The Greek philosopher, Proclus, stated in his works that he could present evidence that Atlantis at one time actually existed. He cited as his authority The Ethiopian History of Marcellus. In referring to Ethiopian history to prove the existence of Atlantis, Proclus plainly infers that Atlantis was a part of Ethiopia. (See Cory’s Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Carthaginian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Other Authors, London, 1876. See also, Maynard Shipley’s New Light on Prehistoric Cultures and Bramwell’s Lost Atlantis.)
we find the great nations of the world, both past and present, worshipping black gods, then we logically conclude that these peoples are either members of the black race, or that they originally received their religion in toto or in part from black people. The proofs are abundant. The ancient gods of India are shown with Ethiopian crowns on their heads. According to the Old Testament, Moses first met Jehovah during his sojourn among the Midianites, who were an Ethiopian tribe. We learn from Hellenic tradition that Zeus, king of the Grecian gods, so cherished the friendship of the Ethiopians that he traveled to their country twice a year to attend banquets. “All the gods and goddesses of Greece were black,” asserts Sir Godfrey Higgins, “at least this was the case with Jupiter, Baccus, Hercules, Apollo, Ammon. The goddesses Benum, Isis, Hecate, Diana, Juno, Metis, Ceres, Cybele were black.” (Anacalypsis, Vol. I, Book IV, Chap. I.) Even the Romans, who received their religion mainly from the Greeks, admitted their debt to Egypt and Ethiopia.
A study of the images of ancient deities of both the Old and New Worlds reveal their Ethiopic origin. This is noted by Kenneth R. H. Mackezie in T. A. Buckley’s Cities of the Ancient World, p. 180: “From the wooly texture of the hair, I am inclined to assign to the Buddha of India, the Fuhi of China, the Sommonacom of the Siamese, the Zaha of the Japanese, and the Quetzalcoatl of the Mexicans, the same, and indeed an African, or rather Nubian, origin.” Most of these black gods were regarded as crucified saviors who died to save mankind by being nailed to a cross, or tied to a tree with arms outstretched as if on a cross, or slain violently in some other manner. Of these crucified saviors, the most prominent were Osiris and Horus of Egypt, Krishna of India, Mithra of Persia, Quetazlcoatl of Mexico, Adonis of Babylonia and Attis of Phrygia. Nearly all of these slain savior-gods have the following stories related about them: They are born of a virgin, on or near Dec. 25th (Christmas); their births are heralded by a star; they are born either in a cave or stable; they are slain, commonly by crucifixion; they descend into hell, and rise from the dead at the beginning of Spring (Easter), and finally ascend into heaven. The parallels between the legendary lives of these pagan messiahs and the life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Bible are so similar that progressive Bible scholars now admit that stories of these heathen Christs have been woven into the life-story of Jesus. (These remarkable parallels are discussed and interpreted in a pamphlet, Christianity Before Christ, by John G. Jackson, New York, 1938.)
An inspiring audio reading by Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, Poet Laureate of Ethiopia
“Speaking of African studies or of Africa, the origin of all living things, the origin of all human kind, and the origin of the first civilization, very little is known. Very little has been studied so far. And a great deal more remains to be studied, to be excavated and to be re-discovered. The name Aesop means in the Egyptian-Cushitic hieroglyphs, the Upper Throne, the Higher Throne. Aethop, the name of Aethopia means the Upper Truth, the Higher Truth.”
By Negussay Ayele
Background to Deir Sultan at a glance
Unknown by much of the world, monks and nuns of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, have for centuries quietly maintained the only presence by black people in one of Christianity’s holiest sites—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. Through the vagaries and vicissitudes of millennial history and landlord changes in Jerusalem and the Middle East region, Ethiopian monks have retained their monastic convent in what has come to be known as Deir Sultan or the Monastery of the Sultan for more than a thousand years. Likewise, others that have their respective presences in the area at different periods, include Armenian, Russian, Syrian, Egyptian and Greek Orthodox/Coptic Churches as well as the Holy See. As one writer put it recently, “For more than 1500 years, the Church of Ethiopia survived in Jerusalem. Its survival has not, in the last resort, been dependent on politics, but on the faith of individual monks that we should look for the vindication of the Church’s presence in Jerusalem….They are attracted in Jerusalem not by a hope for material gain or comfort, but by faith.” It is hoped that public discussion on this all-important subject will be joined by individuals and groups from all over the world, particularly the African Diaspora. At this time, I will confine myself to offering a brief profile of the Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem and its current state of turmoil. I hope that others with more detailed and/or first hand knowledge about the subject will join in the discussion.
Accounts of Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem invoke the Bible to establish the origin of Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem. Accordingly, some Ethiopians refer to the story of the encounter in Jerusalem between Queen of Sheba–believed to have been a ruler in Ethiopia and environs–and King Solomon, cited, for instance, in I Kings 10: 1-13. According to this version, Ethiopia’s presence in the region was already established about 1000 B.C. possibly through land grant to the visiting Queen, and that later transformation into Ethiopian Orthodox Christian monastery is an extension of that same property. Others refer to the New Testament account of Acts 8: 26-40 which relates the conversion to Christianity of the envoy of Ethiopia’s Queen Candace (Hendeke) to Jerusalem in the first century A.D., thereby signaling the early phase of Ethiopia’s adoption of Christianity. This event may have led to the probable establishment of a center of worship in Jerusalem for Ethiopian pilgrims, priests, monks and nuns.
Keeping these renditions as a backdrop, what can be said for certain is the following. Ethiopian monastic activities in Jerusalem were observed and reported by contemporary residents and sojourners during the early years of the Christian era. By the time of the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and the region (634-644 A.D.) khalif Omar is said to have confirmed Ethiopian physical presence in Jerusalem’s Christian holy places, including the Church of St. Helena which encompasses the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord Jesus Christ. His firman or directive of 636 declared that“the Iberian and Abyssinian communities remain there” while also recognizing the rights of other Christian communities to make pilgrimages in the Christian holy places of Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem and the region around it, has been subjected to frequent invasions and changing landlords, stakes in the holy places were often part of the political whims of respective powers that be. Subsequently, upon their conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the Crusaders, had kicked out Orthodox/Coptic monks from the monasteries and installed Augustine monks instead. However, when in 1187 Salaheddin wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders, he restored the presence of the Ethiopian and other Orthodox/Coptic monks in the holy places. When political powers were not playing havoc with their claims to the holy places, the different Christian sects would often carry on their own internecine conflicts among themselves, at times with violent results.
Contemporary records and reports indicate that the Ethiopian presence in the holy places in Jerusalem was rather much more substantial throughout much of the period up to the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, an Italian pilgrim, Barbore Morsini, is cited as having written in 1614 that “the Chapels of St. Mary of Golgotha and of St. Paul…the grotto of David on Mount Sion and an altar at Bethelheim…”among others were in the possession of the Ethiopians. From the 16th to the middle of the 19thcenturies, virtually the whole of the Middle East was under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. When one of the Zagwe kings in Ethiopia, King Lalibela (1190-1225), had trouble maintaining unhampered contacts with the monks in Jerusalem, he decided to build a new Jerusalem in his land. In the process he left behind one of the true architectural wonders known as the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela. The Ottomans also controlled Egypt and much of the Red Sea littoral and thereby circumscribed Christian Ethiopia’s communication with the outside world, including Jerusalem. Besides, they had also tried but failed to subdue Ethiopia altogether. Though Ethiopia’s independent existence was continuously under duress not only from the Ottomans but also their colonial surrogate, Egypt as well as from the dervishes in the Sudan, the Ethiopian monastery somehow survived during this period. Whenever they could, Ethiopian rulers and other personages as well as church establishments sent subsidies and even bought plots of land where in time churches and residential buildings for Ethiopian pilgrims were built in and around Jerusalem. Church leaders in Jerusalem often represented the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in ecumenical councils and meetings in Florence and other fora.
During the 16th and 17th centuries the Ottoman rulers of the region including Palestine and, of course, Jerusalem, tried to stabilize the continuing clamor and bickering among the Christian sects claiming sites in the Christian holy places. To that effect, Ottoman rulers including Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) and Suleiman “the Magnificent” (1520-1566) as well as later ones in the 19th century, issued edicts or firmans regulating and detailing by name which group of monks would be housed where and the protocol governing their respective religious ceremonies. These edicts are called firmans of the Status Quo for all Christian claimants in Jerusalem’s holy places including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which came to be called Deir Sultan or the monastery (place) of the Sultan. Ethiopians referred to it endearingly as Debre Sultan. Most observers of the scene in the latter part of the 19th Century as well as honest spokesmen for some of the sects attest to the fact that from time immemorial the Ethiopian monks had pride of place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Deir Sultan). Despite their meager existence and pressures from fellow monks from other countries, the Ethiopian monks survived through the difficult periods their country was going through such as the period of feudal autarchy (1769-1855). Still, in every document or reference since the opening of the Christian era, Ethiopia and Ethiopian monks have been mentioned in connection with Christian holy places in Jerusalem, by all alternating landlords and powers that be in the region.
As surrogates of the weakening Ottomans, the Egyptians were temporarily in control of Jerusalem (1831-1840). It was at this time, in 1838, that a plague is said to have occurred in the holy places which in some mysterious ways of Byzantine proportions, claimed the lives of allEthiopian monks. The Ethiopians at this time were ensconced in a chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Deir Sultan) as well as in other locales nearby. Immediately thereafter, the Egyptian authorities gave the keys of the Church to the Egyptian Coptic monks. The Egyptian ruler, Ibrahim Pasha, then ordered that all thousands of very precious Ethiopian holy books and documents, including historical and ecclesiastical materials related to property deeds and rights, be burned—alleging conveniently that the plague was spawned by the Ethiopian parchments. Monasteries are traditionally important hubs of learning and, given its location and its opportunity for interaction with the wider family of Christiandom, the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem was even more so than others. That is how Ethiopians lost their choice possession in Deir Sultan. By the time other monks arrived in Jerusalem, the Copts claimed their squatter’s rights, the new Ethiopian arrivals were eventually pushed off onto the open rooftop of the church, thanks largely to the machinations of the Egyptian Coptic church.
Although efforts on behalf of Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem started in mid-19th Century with Ras Ali and Dejach Wube, it was the rise of Emperor Tewodros in 1855 in Ethiopia that put the Jerusalem monastery issue back onto international focus. When Ethiopian monks numbering a hundred or so congregated in Jerusalem at the time, the Armenians had assumed superiority in the holy places. The Anglican bishop in Jerusalem then, Bishop Samuel Gobat witnessed the unholy attitude and behavior of the Armenians and the Copts towards their fellow Christian Ethiopians who were trying to reclaim their rights to the holy places in Jerusalem. He wrote that the Ethiopian monks, nuns and pilgrims “were both intelligent and respectable, yet they were treated like slaves, or rather like beasts by the Copts and the Armenians combined…(the Ethiopians) could never enter their own chapel but when it pleased the Armenians to open it. …On one occasion, they could not get their chapel opened to perform funeral service for one of their members. The key to their convent being in the hands of their oppressors, they were locked up in their convent in the evening until it pleased their Coptic jailer to open it in the morning, so that in any severe attacks of illness, which are frequent there, they had no means of going out to call a physician.’’ It was awareness of such indignities suffered by Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem that is said to have impelled Emperor Tewodros to have visions of clearing the path between his domain and Jerusalem from Turkish/Egyptian control, and establishing something more than monastic presence there. In the event, one of the issues which contributed to the clash with British colonialists that consumed his life 1868, was the quest for adequate protection of the Ethiopian monks and their monastery in Jerusalem.
Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889), the priestly warrior king, used his relatively cordial relations with the British who were holding sway in the region then, to make representations on behalf of the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem. He carried on regular pen-pal communications with the monks even before he became Emperor. He sent them money, he counseled them and he always asked them to pray for him and the country, saying, “For the prayers of the righteous help and serve in all matters. By the prayers of the righteous a country is saved.” He used some war booty from his battles with Ottomans and their Egyptian surrogates, to buy land and started to build a church in Jerusalem. As he died fighting Sudanese/Dervish expansionists in 1889, his successor, Emperor Menelik completed the construction of the Church named Debre Gennet located on what was called “Ethiopian Street.” During this period more monasteries, churches and residences were also built Empresses Tayitu, Zewditu, Menen as well as by several other personages including Afe Negus Nessibu, Dejazmach Balcha, Woizeros Amarech Walelu, Beyenech Gebru, Altayeworq. As of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century the numbers of Ethiopian monks and nuns increased and so did overall Ethiopian pilgimage and presence in Jerusalem. In 1903, Emperor Menelikput $200, 000 thalers in a (Credileone?) Bank in the region and ordained that interests from that savings be used exclusively as subsidy for the sustenance of the Ethiopian monks and nuns and the upkeep of Deir Sultan. Emperor Menelik’s 6-point edict also ordained that no one be allowed to draw from the capital in whole or in part. Land was also purchased at various localities and a number of personalities including Empress Tayitu, and later Empress Menen, built churches there. British authorities supported a study on the history of the issue since at least the time of kalifa (Calif) Omar ((636) and correspondences and firmans and reaffirmations of Ethiopian rights in 1852, in an effort to resolve the chronic problems of conflicting claims to the holy sites in Jerusalm. The 1925 study concluded that ”the Abyssinian (Ethiopian ) community in Palestine ought to be considered the only possessor of the convent Deir Es Sultan at Jerusalem with the Chapels which are there and the free and exclusive use of the doors which give entrance to the convent, the free use of the keys being understood.”
Until the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930’s when Mussolini confiscated Ethiopian accounts and possessions everywhere, including in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem had shown some semblance of stability and security, despite continuing intrigues by Copts, Armenians and their overlords in the region. This was a most difficult and trying time for the Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem who were confronted with a situation never experienced in the country’s history, namely its occupation by a foreign power. And, just like some of their compatriots including Church leaders at home, some paid allegiance to the Fascist rulers albeit for the brief (1936-1941) interregnum. Emperor Haile Sellassie was also a notable patron of the monastery cause, and the only monarch to have made several trips to Jerusalem, including en route to his self-exile to London in May, 1936. Since at least the 1950s there was an Ethiopian Association for Jerusalem in Addis Ababa which coordinated annual Easter pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Hundreds of Ethiopians and other persons from Ethiopia and the Diaspora took advantage of its good offices to go there for absolution, supplication or felicitation, and the practice continues today. Against all odds, historical, ecclesiastical and cultural bonding between Ethiopia and Jerusalem waxed over the years. The Ethiopian presence expanded beyond Deir Sultan including also numerous Ethiopian Churches, chapels, convents and properties. This condition required that the Patriarchate of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church designate Jerusalem as a major diocese to be administered under its own Archbishop.
Contemporary developments related to Deir Sultan
The foregoing pages should give the reader some idea of the deeply rooted but checkered and sinewy Ethiopian tenure in Jerusalem’s Deir Sultan. That the Ethiopian monastery has survived so far against all odds, is nothing short of a miracle. The different powers played havoc with the Ethiopian monks and nuns in Deir Sultan, taking away their key to their own chapel, changing locks on them, burning their precious religious materials, beating and mistreating them and eventually pushing them out of their central holdings in the main chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher onto the rooftop of the Church. Still, they remained there making their own thatched roofs, linoleum ceiling covers, plants for shades, water well and makeshift cookeries and bathrooms. There they stayed fasting, praying, singing hymnals in the style of David of old. They also carried on their religious rituals and ceremonies in accordance with the practices and requisites of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Throughout its history the Ethiopian monastery has been a political football for Egyptian Copts and Armenian Orthodox in particular and the Turks and other overlords of the region in general. Most of the time, the Ethiopian state, was not in a position to do much on behalf of the Deir Sultan Ethiopian monks, as it was itself struggling for its survival and sovereignty in a hostile environment. Only towards the end of the 19thCentury, did the Ethiopian state and the Metropolitan in Addis Ababa start making some difference in stabilizing whatever could be salvaged from centuries of Egyptian/Coptic usurpation sustained by the Ethiopian monastery.
Egyptian government/Coptic cabal against Ethiopian/black presence in Jerusalem became even more politicized and more pronounced after the 1950’s when the Ethiopian Orthodox Church opted to be autocephalous, thereby ending the centuries old tutelage of the Alexandrian Coptic Church, which had until then provided the Metropolitan or Patriarch for the Ethiopian Church. The Egyptian Copts never got over that act of self-determination by the Ethiopian Church, and they were quick to peg their petty or greedy quest for complete takeover of all Ethiopian properties and possessions in the holy places, especially the prized Church of the Holy Sepulcher. To that end, they have leaned on the Egyptian government to pressure different landlords of Jerusalem including the Jordanians until 1967 and the Israelis since then. In one form or another, therefore, the question of Deir Sultan has become intertwined with the larger issue of Arab/Palestinian an Israeli conflict in the region. Technically, the Status Quo firmans issued in earlier times, as adumbrated in foregoing pages, are supposed to govern possessions of the holy places in question and relations among the Christian claimants of same. These firmans are not only rigorous and stringent, but it is also incumbent on all landlords that be–such as Turks, British, Jordanian or Israeli—to enforce them strictly to the letter. A recent report points out, for example, that the Status Quo“prohibits simple renovations, removal of fallen debris from the decaying ceiling, even sweeping has to be done in the dark or the Ethiopians risk being reported to the authorities by their Christian neighbors.” Despite such strict provisions, it is, as we have seen heretofore, the rights and footholds of the Ethiopian monks that have been continuously usurped, to benefit mainly the Egyptian Copts and then the Armenians and to some extent other groups as well. The Ethiopian monks are even victims of internecine rivalries and jockeying for advantages among the other Christian usual suspects.
When in 1948, the State of Israel came into existence in Palestine, Jerusalem was still part of the Kingdom of Jordan. The ever irksome Copts provoked a confrontation with Ethiopian monks in Deir Sultan which required Jordanian intervention or, more properly enforcement of the age-old Status Quo provisions. Given the somewhat frigid relations then between Egypt and Jordan on the one hand and the nascent cordiality between Emperor Haile Sellassie and King Hussein on the other at that moment, the Jordanian government ordered that the Egyptian Copts hand over the keys to Deir Sultan to the Ethiopians. When the Copts failed to comply with the order, the Jordanians went ahead and changed the locks and gave the new keys to the Ethiopians. This was, however, short lived as newfound courtship between Egyptian President Nasser and Jordanian king Hussein resulted in a Jordanian volte-face which reversed their earlier ruling and the keys were once again given to the Copts. As is well known, in its sweeping military victory over its Arab antagonists in the 1967 war, Israel occupied territories of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. More importantly, Israel wrested Jerusalem from Jordanian control and became henceforth the new landlord of the Christian holy places as well. And so, the problem of Deir Sultan was now squarely on Israel’s shoulders. And, it did not take long for their judgment to be tested. The chronic tug-of-war between the Copts and Ethiopian Orthodox monks flared up again in 1970, when the Israeli government is said to have changed the locks and given the keys to the Ethiopians. The Copts, as expected, did not take this lying down. They decided to take the matter to the Israeli courts where they filed papers alleging that they were the sole owners of Deir Sultan and that at best the Ethiopians were only guests with no property rights to the holy places. In 1971, the Israeli High Court is said to have ruled in favour of the Coptic claim and ordered that the government turn over the keys to the Copts. It is reported that the Israeli government did not comply with the court order insisting that “its dispute with the Copts was political and not legal and that the judiciary should desist from pressuring the government to resolve the case in court.” It is to be remembered that through all this, the Egyptian Copts have already usurped the main floor and chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Ethiopians are pushed to the rooftop of the Church. What the Copts want is for the Ethiopians to disappear once and for all from the scene, from the last vestige of presence they have maintained for nearly two thousand years altogether. With such Christian charity who needs enemies.
Despite the fact that the government of Emperor Haile Sellassie broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, in solidarity with Egypt (an OAU member) which lost its Sinai territory, the Israeli government did not at this time retaliate by siding with the Egyptian Copts. To be sure, the Israelis were, and some say they still are, annoyed by Ethiopia’s decision which they regard as ‘betrayal’ and which also spawned an avalanche of diplomatic break off of ties with Israel by several other African countries, they did not retaliate on Deir Sultan for several reasons. One reason was that in the larger Arab-Israeli scheme of things, Deir Sultan does not figure big either for Egypt, the Arabs or for Israel. Sinai, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Red Sea littoral and most importantly, sovereignty over Jerusalem as a whole and, when all is said and done, Palestinian/Arab and Israeli peaceful coexistence in the region are the most important issues. At best, the Deir Sultan issue is a nuisance to them as it has been for all landlords of Jerusalem historically.
Another reason for the Israeli reluctance to tackle the Deir Sultan dispute between mainly the Copts and the Ethiopian monks has to do with yet a different factor in the mix embedded in millennial history of the region. For a very long time, it was recognized by Zionist elements that several thousands of Ethiopians referred to in Ethiopia as falashas and now named bete Israelis as being more or less Jews and in the early 1970’s the rabbinical authorities had authenticated as Jews in exile from one of the lost tribes and therefore eligible for the right of return oraliyah to Israel. Thus, for several years Jewish groups in North America, Europe and Israel had been working painstakingly to safely facilitate the return of the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and the Israeli government was well advised not to jeopardize this process by antagonizing the Ethiopian government(s) on the Deir Sultan issue. In the event, between the mid-1980’s and 1991 more than 60, 000 Ethiopian Jews have arrived in Israel.
It appears that the Egyptian government and the Copts have left no stone unturned to divest the Ethiopian Church of its rightful heritage in Jerusalem which is as much, if not more, legitimate as that of the Copts and other Christian sects. It is to be recalled that in 1978, then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat were negotiating land for peace through the good offices of U.S. president Jimmy Carter at Camp David. It is believed that in the course of those negotiations, Sadat privately raised the Deir Sultan issue on behalf of the Copts under his suzerainty, and it is intimated that Begin made some kind of personal promise to him. Inasmuch as what transpired or what exactly was promised was all personal, private and unregistered or not declared publicly at the time, one wonders if any responsible state or government would deem to be duty bound to act upon such informal exchanges. The Egyptians are said to have also raised the matter of Deir Sultan at the Israeli-Egyptian Normalization talks in 1986. What is of interest to us here in all of the above litany of Egyptian/Coptic pleas and goadings, is how relentless and dogged the Egyptians/Copts have been in their hostility to Ethiopian/black Christian presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.
This brings us to the latest physical clashes perpetrated by the Egyptian Coptic clerics in the Deir Sultan holy site in Jerusalem, which has been the subject of several reports by British, American, Israeli and Arab papers.
Unholy violence occurred in Christianity’s holiest place in Jerusalem at the end of July 2002, when an Egyptian Coptic priest, Father Abdel Malek, decided to bring a chair, go up to the rooftop of the Church, which is the last remaining preserve of the Ethiopian monks, and proceeded to sit there under the shade of a tree in clear violation of the Status Quo. It is to be remembered that, the cleric and his colleagues would not allow Ethiopians to visit, sit or worship in the Coptic chapels. The details are sketchy in terms who did what and when. However, it appears that when Ethiopians naturally tried to resist this wanton violation of their rights to their space by the impudent Copt, violent clashes erupted involving also Israeli policemen. In the melee, nearly a dozen monks, mostly Ethiopians suffered injuries and lascerations. After all that, it is reported that, escorted by Israeli police daily, Coptic cleric Abdel Malek continued to perch at the Ethiopian property, presumably until the Ministry of Religious Affairs issues a ruling on the matter. A question that comes on loudly to an interested observer is, “Why did the Copts choose this particular time to force a confrontation on Deir Sultan?” It seems that, given the volatile and bloody situation in Palestinian and Israeli relations, the Egyptians/Copts may have assumed that the Israelis may at the moment be ready to cave in and Deir Sultan’s rooftop may just be the kind of bone they can throw to them to elicit a possible or putative mediating role vis-à-vis the Palestinians. And the Egyptians/Copts continue to put pressure on Israel by inflaming Arab opinion. Egyptian President Mubarak is said to have boycotted an important regional meeting recently protesting the Deir Sultan affair. An Arab paper reported that earlier on, Pope Shenuda III of Alexandria lambasted Israeli Prime Minister Israel Sharon, calling on the Arab world to unite and put more effective pressure on Israel, inserting his pet agenda and saying, “the Israelis are occupying since 1970, the Deir Al Sultan church in east Jerusalem by force, and did not implement a ruling issued by the Jewish Supreme Court in favor of the (his Coptic) church.”
Since these shameful events, several deputations and representations to the Israeli authorities have been made by a newly formed “Ethiopian Association for Jerusalem” in the United States. These deputations took the form of written communications to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and also in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Other concerned groups including the longstanding Association in Ethiopia and individuals of Ethiopian origin are, no doubt making efforts to let the authorities in Israel know their concern on the issue. It is also hoped that the black Jews from Ethiopia and elsewhere will also weigh in on the matter. Though the current regime in Addis Ababa is better known for its systematic destruction of Ethiopian history, culture, and integrity, it sent a delegation to Israel for perfunctory reasons and with no avail on behalf of the Ethiopian monks or the monastery. Given the split of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa and in the Diaspora, the Church’s effectiveness in successfully challenging the Egyptian Coptic pressures to eliminate Ethiopian, hence black presence in Jerusalem is a matter of serious concern.
Ethiopia and Black Heritage In Jerusalem
For hundreds of years, the name or concept of Ethiopia has been a beacon for black/African identity liberty and dignity throughout the Diaspora. The Biblical (Psalm 68:31) verse , “…Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God” has been universally taken to mean African people, black people at large, stretch out their hands to God (and only to God) in supplication, in felicitation or in absolution. As Daniel Thwaite put it, for the Black man Ethiopia was always “…an incarnation of African independence.” And today, Ethiopian monastic presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or Deir Sultan in Jerusalem, is the only Black presence in the holiest place on earth for Christians. For much of its history, Ethiopian Christianity was largely hemmed in by alternating powers in the region. Likewise, Ethiopia used its own indigenous Ethiopic languages for liturgical and other purposes within its own territorial confines, instead of colonial or other lingua franca used in extended geographical spaces of the globe. For these and other reasons, Ethiopia was not able to communicate effectively with the wider Black world in the past. Given the fact that until recently, most of the Black world within Africa and in the Diaspora was also under colonial tutelage or under slavery, it was not easy to appreciate the significance of Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem. Consequently, even though Ethiopian/Black presence in Jerusalem has been maintained through untold sacrifices for centuries, the rest of the Black world outside of Ethiopia has not taken part in its blessings through pilgrimages to the holy sites and thereby develop concomitant bonding with the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem. Apropos to this theme, there is an initiative afoot by a few individuals to launch a “Forum for African Heritage in Jerusalem” website that can serve as a forum for education, dialogue and/or action by any and all concerned on Deir Sultan and the sustenance of Black presence there.
For nearly two millennia now, the Ethiopian Church and its adherent monks and priests have miraculously maintained custodianship of Deir Sultan, suffering through and surviving all the struggles we have glanced at in these pages. In fact, the survival of Ethiopian/Black presence in Christianity’s holy places in Jerusalem is matched only by the “Survival Ethiopian Independence” itself. Indeed, Ethiopian presence in Deir Sultan represents not just Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity but all African/black Christians of all denominations who value the sacred legacy that the holy places of Jerusalem represent for Christians everywhere. It represents also the affirmation of the fact that Jerusalem is the birthplace of Christianity, just as adherents of Judaism and Islam claim it also. The Ethiopian foothold at the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the only form of Black presence in Christianity’s holy places of Jerusalem. It ought to be secure, hallowed and sanctified ground by and for all Black folks everywhere who value it. The saga of Deir Sultan also represents part of Ethiopian history and culture. And that too is part of African/black history and culture regardless of religious orientation.
When a few years ago, an Ethiopian monk was asked by a writer why he had come to Jerusalem to face all the daily vicissitudes and indignities, he answered, “because it is Jerusalem.” And the writer makes the perceptive observation that “The Ethiopian church in Jerusalem itself resembles a plant which in Jerusalem has found poor soil, but has continued to grow in defiance of the laws of probability and to survive the hardest winters and the hottest summers.” The number of Ethiopian monks and nuns domiciled in Deir Sultan today has shrank drastically from several hundreds at the turn of the century to a few dozens today. And they are of the view that “if they are forced to leave Deir as-Sultan Monastery, blacks will never again be represented in the sacred place.” It is hoped that henceforth not only Ethiopians but all other Black folks from every land in the African continent and in the Diaspora will embark on annual pilgrimages to the Ethiopian convent of Deir Sultan and assert their rights of representation in this holiest of holy Christian shrines in Jerusalem.
8 November 2002
Published June 7 2015 – By Dalya Alberge
British archaeology team uncovers stunning Aksumite and Roman artefacts
Spectacular 2,000-year-old treasures from the Roman empire and the Aksumite kingdom, which ruled parts of north-east Africa for several centuries before 940AD, have been discovered by British archaeologists in northern Ethiopia.
Louise Schofield, a former British Museum curator, headed a major six-week excavation of the ancient city of Aksum where her team of 11 uncovered graves with “extraordinary” artefacts dating from the first and second centuries. They offer evidence that the Romans were trading there hundreds of years earlier than previously thought.
Schofield told the Observer: “Every day we had shed-loads of treasure coming out of all the graves. I was blown away: I’d been confident we’d find something, but not on this scale.”
She was particularly excited about the grave of a woman she has named “Sleeping Beauty”. The way the body and its grave goods had been positioned suggest that she had been beautiful and much-loved.
Schofield said: “She was curled up on her side, with her chin resting on her hand, wearing a beautiful bronze ring. She was buried gazing into an extraordinary Roman bronze mirror. She had next to her a beautiful and incredibly ornate bronze cosmetics spoon with a lump of kohl eyeliner.”
The woman was also wearing a necklace of thousands of tiny beads, and a beaded belt. The quality of the jewellery suggests that she was a person of very high status, able to command the very best luxurious goods. Other artefacts with her include Roman glass vessels – two perfectly preserved drinking beakers and a flask to catch the tears of the dead.
There was also a clay jug. Schofield hopes that its contents can be analysed. She believes it would have contained food and drink for the afterlife.
Although “Sleeping Beauty” was covered only with soil, her grave was cut into a rock overhang, which is why the finds survived intact.
The team also found buried warriors, with each skeleton wearing large iron bangles. They may have been killed in nearby battlefields.
Other finds include another female skeleton with a valuable necklace of 1,065 coloured glass beads, and, elsewhere, a striking glass perfume flask.
In 2012, the Observer reported that Schofield’s earlier excavations in the region had discovered an ancient goldmine that may solve the mystery of from where the Queen of Sheba of biblical legend derived her fabled treasures.
Aksum, the capital of the Aksumite kingdom, was a major trading power from the first to the seventh centuries, linking the Roman Empire and India. Aksumites were a literate people. Yet little is known about this so-called “lost”’ civilisation.
“Ethiopia is a mysterious place steeped in legend, but nobody knows very much about it,” said Schofield. “We know from the later Aksumite period – the fourth and fifth centuries, when they adopted Christianity – that they were trading very intensely with Rome. But our finds are from much earlier. So it shows that extraordinarily precious things were travelling from the Roman Empire through this region centuries before.”
In return, the Romans sought ivory tusks, frankincense and metals. Schofield’s excavations also found evidence of iron working.
The finds will go to a new German-funded museum, opening in October. Schofield hopes to organise a loan to the British Museum, but first the finds must be conserved: the mirror, for example, is corroded and slightly buckled. Germany is sending nine conservators.
Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/luxury/travel/72794/divine-ethiopia-religion-churches-and-incredible-travel-sights.html (May 29th 2015 by Stanley Stewart)
Ethiopia “resembles no other country in Africa”, wrote the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, “or anywhere else.”
Sunday Service in the church of Abuna Yemata Guh requires nerves of steel. Yet they assured me the congregations were good. “Don’t worry,” the priest fussed. “Pregnant women are attending, old people are attending, tiny children are attending.”
I wasn’t sure I would be attending. I was standing on a narrow ledge. Below me was a 1,000ft drop to the valley floor. Somewhere above me, beyond a sheer polished cliff, was the church. My legs felt like water. I was sweating in places I had never sweated before. At that moment, the eye of a needle seemed easier to negotiate. “You must try,” the priest whispered. “God is watching.”
There are moments when Ethiopia seems to belong to an atlas of the imagination – part legend, part fairy-tale, part Old Testament book, part pulling your leg. In this land of wonders there are medieval castles of a black Camelot, monasteries among Middle Earth peaks accessible only by rope and chains, the ruined palace of the Queen of Sheba and the original Ten Commandments in a sealed box guarded by mute monks with killer instincts.
In the northern highlands priests with white robes and shepherds’ crooks appear to have stepped out of a Biblical painting. In the southern river valleys bare-breasted tribeswomen, who scar their torsos for erotic effect and insert plates the size of table mats in their lower lips, seemed to have emerged from a National Geographic magazine circa 1930. Ethiopia “resembles no other country in Africa”, wrote the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, “or anywhere else.”
Its isolation is legendary. Not only was Ethiopia never colonised, but it also inflicted the greatest defeat on a European army in the history of the continent – at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. It was only the Italians, of course, but it still counts. Ethiopians were “forgetful of the world”, Edward Gibbon wrote, “by whom they were forgotten”. For long medieval centuries Europeans believed that Ethiopia was home to Prester John, legendary Christian ruler, descendant of one of the three Magi, keeper of the Fountain of Youth, protector of the Holy Grail, and all-round good guy who would one day rescue the Holy Land from the Muslims.
Crossing the threshold of the church of Medhane Alem in Lalibela , I seemed to step back a thousand years. Cut by shafts of dusty light from high windows, the interior gloom was scented with frankincense. I came round a pillar to find a dozen priests leaning on their croziers, chanting in Ge’ez , a language no one has spoken since the Middle Ages. The sound was a curious cross between Gregorian plainsong and a nasal Arabic call to prayer. These were among the earliest Christian rites, unchanged for well over 1,500 years. Worshippers sat on the ground against the bare stone walls, wearing clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Book of Genesis. They gazed mournfully at a pair of threadbare theatrical curtains. Beyond the curtains lay the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies , which held the Ark of the Covenant .
For a country with so much to offer, it is surprising to find tourism in Ethiopia still in its infancy. The war and famine of the 1970s and 80s, though now almost ancient history, may be partly responsible. But a deeper issue may be a feature of the national character – a lack of entrepreneurial urgency. Ethiopia may not be big on stylish boutiques hotels, littered with objets d’art and architectural magazines, but it is a delightfully old-fashioned place, with ravishing landscapes, sleepy villages and friendly, unhurried people.
It is difficult to pick a single destination from Ethiopia’s treasure chest, but first-time visitors shouldn’t miss Lalibela and its remarkable churches, all below ground level, and all carved from the rock as entire buildings with surrounding courtyards, exterior walls and roofs. Historians are uncertain about much of their history but Ethiopians have a handle on it. A celestial team of angels came in at night to help out after the terrestrial workforce had clocked off.
There are always two histories in Ethiopia: the history of historians, sometimes a trifle vague, often tentative; and the history of Ethiopians, a people’s history, confident, detailed, splendid, often fantastical. The two rarely coincide. Historians are still wringing their hands about the mysteries of Aksum in Tigray in the north, with its colossal stelae, its underground tombs, its ruined palaces and its possible connections to the Queen of Sheba. For a thousand years, until about AD 700, it was a dominant power in the region, “the last of the great civilisations of antiquity”, according to Neville Chittick , the archaeologist, “to be revealed to modern knowledge”.
Fortunately, the Ethiopians are on hand to fill in most of the historical blanks. The city was founded, they say, by the great-grandson of Noah. For 400 years it was ruled by a serpent who enjoyed a diet of milk and virgins. Historians may be divided about the Queen of Sheba but Ethiopians know she set off from here to Jerusalem with 797 camels and lot of rather racy lingerie to seduce King Solomon. Historians carelessly lost track of the Ten Commandments not long after Moses came down from Mount Sinai. Ethiopians have the originals under lock and key in a chapel in Aksum, guarded by those mute monks, assigned to kill all intruders.
The landscapes of Tigray are appropriately Biblical. It is a world where everything comes and goes by foot or hoof, a world of timeless villages perched beneath vast mesas and plunging ravines, a world where it is possible to imagine startling young men turning water into wine. With my bag loaded onto a Palm Sunday donkey, I set off on a three-day walk down the Erar Valley . I strolled through the latticed shade of eucalyptus trees, past scented banks of sage and mint, past stands of prickly pear and neatly ploughed fields framed by irrigation channels. I rested under the shade of vast fig trees beneath colonies of hornbills, bee-eaters and firefinches. A man in a white robe was winnowing wheat, tossing yellow forkfuls into the air, allowing the wind to take the chaff. Children ghosted out of orchards with home-made toys: a ball of goatskin and twine, a doll of twigs and wool. In the late morning I passed people coming back from the weekly market, two hours’ walk away. They were carrying some of life’s essentials: bags of rice, new sickles, bolts of bright cloth, blocks of salt that had come up from the Danakil Desert by camel caravan. Everyone stopped to greet me with handshakes and smiles.
The trek was part of a new community project. The guides and the transport – my faithful donkey – were provided by local villagers who, with the help of NGOs, have also built hedamos, or guesthouses. There is something special about these Tigrayan guesthouses – their location. Tigray is a mountainous region, characterised by ambas: dramatic, sheer-sided, flat-topped mountains. Most of the treks are easygoing, following the valley floors through pastoral landscapes. But towards the end of each day I started to climb with the guide, following steep paths along narrow rising ledges, to the summits of these anvil-headed ambas.
On the top, we emerged into a whole new world of luminous light and distant views. Here we found our home for the night, the community hedamo, perched in splendid isolation on the lip of a colossal escarpment, perhaps 3,000ft above the landscapes below. The views were breathtaking. We looked straight down, past circling eagles, to the world we had just left – ploughed fields, stone tukuls, eddying sheep, tiny white-robed figures trailing along dust lanes. Farther away, rivers carved swathes of ancient earth, canyons yawned open and valleys tumbled into one another. Farther still, mountains patrolled the horizons. With a slight turn of the head, I took in hundreds of miles.
At Erar and Shimbrety , the stone-built guesthouses, with their little courtyards and roof terraces, were comfortable but basic. Village women prepared delicious Ethiopian dinners that made little concession to Western tastes. The loos, Western-style, were in spartan huts. Washing facilities were wooden buckets of warm water. There was no electricity, just lanterns and candles. Yet these felt like the most luxurious places I had ever stayed. It was the luxury of unique experience, of meeting local villagers on their own ground, of engaging with an ancient way of life, of being far from tourism’s well-trodden trails. And it was the luxury of spectacular location. I have never been anywhere with more stunning views.
At Erar, night came with equatorial suddenness. A troop of gelada baboons , 30 or so strong, made their way home across the summit of the amba after a day’s feeding. They climbed down over the edge of the escarpment to precipitous ledges where they would be safe from leopards. The sun set over distant, mythical-looking mountains. When I turned round, a fat full moon was rising directly behind me. The world seemed to be in perfect balance.
Tigray, too, has its remarkable buildings. Scattered across these mountains are more than 120 ancient churches, most excavated in remote rock-faces like caves. Until the 1960s they were virtually unknown to the outside world. Older than the churches at Lalibela, they are little understood by historians. Which means we are left with the fabulous oral history of the Ethiopians.
Abuna Yemata Guh is one of the more challenging churches to reach. A rock butte soared above us; I was getting a crick in my neck and a serious case of vertigo just looking at it. I imagined, as with the sheer-sided ambas, that there would be some circuitous path, some scrambling route to the top. It was only when we had trekked up from the valley floor and gained the narrow ledge that I began to realise I was going to have to climb a cliff-face, in fact several cliff-faces, to get to church.
A priest was waiting on the ledge, with the kind of morbid face usually reserved for the last rites. He advised me to remove my shoes and socks; bare feet would give me a better grip. It turned out that two men, who I had assumed to be casual passers-by, were in fact there to try to prevent me from plummeting to my death.
We started to climb. My two assistants, one above and one below, guided me to precarious foot- and hand-holds. This was rock climbing without the ropes, the safety harness or the Chris Bonington confidence. Spread-eagled on the cliff-face, clinging to the minor indentations that passed for handholds, I felt a trifle out of my comfort zone. Had I know what was in for, I would probably not have chosen Abuna Yemata Guh for a casual visit.
But once I reached it, I was thrilled I had. The climb might be hair-raising but the church is unmissable.
At the top of the cliff, not daring to look down, I gazed ahead, just in time to see a side-chamber full of bones – the priest insisted they were deceased clerics, not fallen visitors. Then I shuffled along a narrow ledge and came to a cave-like opening. The priest wrestled with a key the size of a cricket bat. A door opened and I stepped into the gloom of the tiny church, hardly larger than a modest drawing room. As my eyes adjusted, I became aware of faces round the walls. Then the priest lit a torch and held it aloft. Suddenly the dark walls were alive with figures: apostles and saints, prophets and the archangels, Mary and the infant Christ. The famous Nine Saints from the Levant , who had brought Christianity to Ethiopia in the fifth century, were here, as was Saint Yared, who wrote so many of the early Ethiopian chants. The builder of this cliff church was here, Abu Yemata, mounted on a horse and accompanied by his nephew Benjamin, who had painted the murals.
The priest, a humble villager, told me the stories that swarmed across these walls. He told the stories as they had been told to him, as they had been handed down from one priest to the next from the earliest days of the Christian era. He referred to the apostles as if they were old friends. He talked of the saints as if they were men who had known his grandparents. He told me about the groom who had neglected Yemata’s horse. Yemata had turned him into a weasel. There, he said, bringing his torch near to the wall, illuminating a small weasel-headed man beneath the horse.
I asked why the church was here, so difficult to access, so high in these cliffs. The priest said it was for reasons of safety – it may well have been built when Christianity was still vulnerable. Then he added: “We are closer to God here, away from our world, and closer to His.” He lifted an ancient text enclosed in an ox-hide satchel from a nail on the wall. He asked if he should say prayers. I said I thought a few words might be a good idea. After all, I still had to get down that cliff-face.
May 8th 2015 by Steven Kaplan
The Ethiopians [in Israel] will remain in the anomalous situation of both having entered the Promised Land and continuing to wander in the desert. Forty years may not be long enough this time.
Anyone viewing the recent clashes between Ethiopian-Israeli demonstrators and local policemen in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv could not help being reminded of similar scenes taking place barely a week earlier in Baltimore. Such a clear visual link between events in two such disparate places cannot but be viewed as further testimony to the power of satellite news and globalized media. We should, however, proceed cautiously in comparing the two situation or reactions of the parties involved.
Israel’s Ethiopian population is of fairly recent origin. Beginning in 1977, small groups began to make their way to Israel through Sudan or other countries. (At the time, Israel had no diplomatic relations with Ethiopia’s Marxist military regime.) Dramatic airlifts from Sudan (1984 and ’85) and on the eve of the fall of the Marxist government (1991) brought thousands into the country. After 1991, tens of thousands more arrived. Many of these immigrants spent years in transition camps in Ethiopia while Israeli politicians debated whether descendants and relatives of those brought into the country as Jews also had the right to make aliyah (literally “to ascend”) to Israel.
Today the Ethiopian population stands at about 135,000, over a third of whom were born in Israel or arrived in the country as small children. Despite plenty of good intentions (and we all know where those lead), their integration (what is called in Israel absorption) has not been easy.
While the immediate catalyst for the latest eruption of rage was the beating of an Ethiopian soldier caught on video, there are clearly deeper structural issues at stake. Although there have been clear improvements in school performance, high school completion, employment and almost every other quantifiable measure, Ethiopians still lag behind most of the country in educational achievement and income. Moreover, while the percentage of Ethiopians who serve in the military is higher than for the general population (and in Israel this is considered a badge of success), the percentage who complete their service is comparatively low. Despite official rulings in their favor, large parts of the powerful rabbinic establishment still question the Jewishness of the Ethiopians. Almost every school year begins with “crises” as one school or another refuses to accept its planned number of Ethiopian students.
Although it is often said that Israel is the first country to bring in people of African descent not to enslave them but to grant them equal rights as citizens, the truth is much more complex. Ethiopians were brought to Israel not merely to have equal rights but to be part of the dominant Jewish majority. Perhaps the most persistent testimony to this is that virtually any statistic available from government and nongovernment sources regarding the Ethiopians compares them not with the population as a whole but to other Jews.
For purposes of comparison, the 20 percent of the population that is Arab is invisible, and the success or failure of the Ethiopians is measured against only their Jewish counterparts. Thus while the campaigns on behalf of the Ethiopians are often voiced in terms of universal human rights, they often have a much narrower focus: equality with other Israeli Jews.
According to polls, Israelis overwhelmingly acknowledge that Ethiopians are discriminated against. This is commendable and in sharp contrast to the United States, where denial about racial discrimination is still common. At least in part, the Israeli anti-racist consensus is convenient because it limits itself to Jewish Ethiopian-Israelis.
Thus one can be anti-racist on the one hand and on the other ignore or take part in the ongoing pernicious discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel (leaving the territories out of the equation for the moment) or African migrants. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who infamously warned of “droves” of Arab voters going to the polls during the recent election, was quick to chime in condemning the latest mistreatment of Ethiopians. “We must stand together as one against the phenomenon of racism, to denounce it and eliminate it,” he said.
Similarly, the Orthodox Sephardi party Shas has been among the most welcoming to the Ethiopians, while depicting African migrants as infiltrators who pose “no less a threat than a nuclear Iran,” as onetime party leader Eli Yishai put it. In a 2012 poll, more than 50 percent of Israelis surveyed agreed with the statement that African migrants are a “cancer on the body of the nation.” The same poll indicated that fully a third condoned violence against the migrants. Small wonder that at least some of the anti-Ethiopian violence in Israel appears to begin when police mistook Ethiopians for the “wrong” kind of African — Sudanese or Eritreans.
That said, there is no arguing that the situation of Ethiopians in Israel is difficult. Many suffer from daily slights and discrimination. Moreover, they are underrepresented in the country’s universities and key industries and overrepresented in its jails and prisons. Many are stuck in Israel’s periphery in small towns, which have poor schools and limited employment opportunities.
If past incidents are any indication, the latest uproar will quickly pass after the requisite handwringing and public statements. The policemen involved have already been either fired or suspended, and the political leaders have voiced their condemnation. The Israeli Ministry of Education immediately put forward age-appropriate lesson plans on racism and violence.
Doubtless money will be found for cultural awareness programs, for recruitment of Ethiopian officers and for research, which will be call for more programs, more recruitment and more research. The beating of the soldier will be added to the cumulative song (think “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”) of injustices done to Ethiopian Israelis, all of which will be dutifully recited the next time their mistreatment becomes public.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopians will remain in the anomalous situation of both having entered the Promised Land and continuing to wander in the desert. Forty years may not be long enough this time.