The origins of Abyssinia and Ethiopia A. Abyssinia, the real name of the ethnic identity of emigrating Yemenites to Africa
The name Abyssinia (Habashat) is first found in Ancient Yemenite inscriptions; it is the name of a tribe or small ethnic group and about this not a single specialist has the slightest doubt.We know that this tribe or ethnic group represents the bulk of Yemenite waves across the Bab al Mandeb, i.e. the populations that several times throughout the first millennium BCE moved from Yemen to the Eastern African highlands, and established themselves around Axum.
They brought their own writing system from Yemen, the syllabogrammatic writing that they developed into what appears in Africa as Gueze. So close these scriptures are that modern scholars could not have deciphered Ancient Yemenite (the term South Arabic is extensively used in this regard but it is false) with the decisive help offered by Gueze. The language is just one Southern Semitic language, closely related to the Himyarite, the Sabaean and other ancient Yemenite languages.
The Abyssinian country centered around Axum, Yeha and Hawalti Melazo did not extend much in the south; it was depending on the Red Sea and East – West trade. Adulis, the famous port of call at the area of present day Massawa, was the reason of the wealth, the development and the progress of Habashat – Abyssinians.
In this regard, we have to stress that nothing in the Antiquity ‘proves, or ‘justifies’ a separation, a schism, a different identity and/or destiny of the Red Sea coast from Axum; the link is strong between the port of call and the ‘metropole’, Axumites (according to the 1st century CE text of the Periplus of the Red Sea).
B. Abyssinian Axum is a late phenomenon in the History of Civilizations
It is therefore sure that the Abyssinian state of Axum rises very late in the World History, about 100 years after Octavian Augustus invaded Egypt! This is very, very late for what History (which means written monuments) and Political History (historical sources with explicit references to the political matters and affairs) have been in the entire area of the Middle East, and more particularly in the neighboring lands of present day Sudan and Yemen.
It is essential to understand that the form of archaic state that seems to have been developed under Zoscales in Axum is the equivalent of structures like the Kerma state in Sudan (centered at the area of present day Kerma, 500 km in the south of Wadi Halfa) that rose to power in the first half of the second millennium BCE, so 2000 years before Axumite Abyssinia ultimately reached that level.
It is quite indicative that the early Axumite kingdom of Abyssinia at the beginning of the Christian era had not yet developed structures we find 800 years ago in Napata, the capital of the Kush kingdom that ruled Upper (southern) Egypt for more than half a century, and is the state the ancient Greeks called ‘Ethiopia’, the country of the Black faced people.
C. Comparison between ’Ethiopia’ and ‘Abyssinia’
This is an essential issue to be always taken into consideration: Ancient Sudanese, Khammitic – Kushitic, ‘Ethiopian’, civilization is
a. more highly developed
b. much earlier formed
c. much farther radiating
than the Semitic Axumite Abyssinian civilization.
Whereas Kushitic ‘Ethiopians’ ruled the southern half of Egypt and the entire area of Sudan from the present day Sudanese - Egyptian border to the area of Atbara and Shendi in the year 700 BCE,….
King Zoscales of Axum, almost 800 years later, was limited between Adulis (in the area of the Eritrean city Massawa) and Axum, according to the author of the Periplus of the Red Sea.
It is interesting to note that this text that dates back to the years of Nero (70 CE), after referring to Ptolemais Theron (present day Sawakin or Suakin at the Sudanese Red Sea coast) and describing Meroe, as ‘metropolis’, i.e. capital of Ethiopia, goes on narrating about Adulis, adding the contacts between that port of call and ‘Axumites’, also called ‘metropolis’, but does not give any political and administrative detail about Avalites.
Avalites is the present day Eritrean port of Assab, at the very confines of Bab al Mandeb. There is not a single mention that it was comprised within the realm of Zoscales of Axum.
It is apparently impossible to compare the little Axumite kingdom of Zoscales with
a. either the Kushitic – Ethiopian Kingdom of Napata (present day Karima) that 800 years before Zoscales controlled a 2000 km long area, including the southern half of Egypt, and used Egyptian Hieroglyphic as official language,
b. or the (contemporary to Zoscales) Meroitic Kingdom of Ethiopia that had its capital at present day Bagrawiyah and expanded over an area of at least 1800 km alongside the Nile, having already a long past in using two locally conceived and implemented systems of scripture, one hieroglyphic and one cursive.
D. Before the 1st c. CE rise of Axum, the area of Abyssinia was totally unknown to the civilized world
It is also essential to realize that before that moment, never peoples from the entire Mediterranean environment, Egyptian, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Aramaeans, Greeks or Romans were interested in or knew something particular about the area of the African plateau that is currently by the state of Abyssinia.
In contrast with Yemen, which is equally far but repeatedly mentioned or referred to in several languages’ ancient texts, the entire area of present day Abyssinia was totally unknown to the Mediterranean world. And the reason is very simple: there were very tiny and insignificant political and cultural entities and/or infrastructure so that an interest equivalent to that generated in the case of Sudan (Ethiopia) or Yemen (Sabaa, Himyar, etc) be reproduced.
And this theoretical interpretation is corroborated by the archeological evidence emanating from archeological sites throughout Abyssinia and Eritrea that date back to the 1st millennium BCE. Of course, there are impressive ‘hawalti’ in Axum and in several other places, but you cannot compare all that to the numerous groups of pyramids of Meroe, the capital of Ethiopia, the great palaces and temples, the illustrious ‘Table of the Sun’ (referred to by ancient Greek authors and identified with excavated monuments by modern archeologists), and the fabulous imperial baths that we have found in that vast and original African capital.
‘Ethiopia’: a Greek name describing the successive states of Napata and Meroe that both did not expand as far in the south as present day Abyssinia
It is clear that the Ancient Greek name Ethiopia was used to describe the state, the country and the people immediately in the South of Egypt. This has nothing to do with Abyssinia; it refers absolutely and exclusively to Sudan, the state and the country Kush that the Egyptians called Kas. Either we go as back as Herodotus and the last days of the Kushitic kingdom of Napata, or we refer to later Ancient Greek historians and authors, Ethiopia is limited to the northern – northeastern part of today’s Sudan. The reason is simple: at those days the state known as ‘Ethiopia’ throughout the Greek sources and identified by modern archeologists with antiquities unearthed at the area of present day Sudan did not expand beyond the confines of the northern – northeastern part of that country. Furthermore, we know through archeological research that there were only insignificant political and cultural structures at the area of present day Abyssinia that were totally unknown to people like Herodotus or Heliodorus. And Meroitic Ethiopia did not find the interest to expand to that wilderness…
On the other hand, an unbelievable plethora of majestic monuments testifies to the veracity of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic, Ancient Greek and Latin texts that also bear witness to the greatness of that, Khammitic – Kushitic – Ethiopian, civilization. Although we did not decipher Meroitic writing that covers a span of approximately 800 years, we are able to read it, since it consists of Egyptian Hieroglyphic ideograms, and we have established therefore lists of Qore (Kings) and Kandake (Queens), personal names, toponymics, etc. We are also able to delineate the basic historical events of Meroitic Ethiopia, since thanks to its interactions with the Ptolemaic state of Egypt and later with the Roman Empire Ethiopia was a matter of interest of the Mediterranean peoples.
Never anybody confused in the Antiquity Ethiopia with the area of present day Somalia, Abyssinia, Eritrea or Djibouti. And how this could be possible since there were many Ethiopian (Sudanese) embassies sent to Rome and Iran, the main two powers of those days? In order to keep calm at their border, where the vicinity of nomadic desert peoples could create a problem, Rome and Meroitic Ethiopia cooperated repeatedly. Octavian Augustus and Arkamani of Ethiopia continued the common work of Cleopatra and Arkamani at the erection of the temple of Maluli (Greek Mandulis) at Talmis (present day Kalabsha).
The confusion between Ethiopia and Abyssinia does not start before the Christian Abyssinian Axumite invasion of Meroe by king Ezana of Axum. It is actually an Abyssinian invasion of Ethiopia, but properly speaking only of a part of Ethiopia (Sudan), since we do not how much in the north did Ezana advance, after he destroyed Meroe, the capital of Ethiopia.
The Bible refers to the world that was known to the biblical authors, it reflects their views, and it repeats their mistakes. Indonesia and Scandinavia were totally unknown to the Hebrew rabbis and erudite scribes, who composed the various biblical books. But Persia, Greece, Egypt, Babylon were very well known. So was Sudan, Kush for the Hebrew text or ‘Ethiopia’ for the Greek translation of the Old Testament. But Abyssinia, Uganda and Tanganyika were not known to the biblical authors, and consequently were not referred to.
The acceptance of Christianity by the Abyssinian court brought the need for drastic cultural changes. Suddenly, Abyssinia had to be connected to the Biblical world!
The closest (to Abyssinia) countries that were known to the Biblical authors were Sheba (the subject of the Queen of Sheba is discussed also the ‘New Testament’) and Ethiopia. Although the references to the Queen and the people of Sheba are important, the characteristic reference to Ethiopia as extending her hand to God must have totally captured the imagination of the early -christened Abyssinians.
Meroitic Ethiopia was in decay in the middle of the 4th century; it seems that the christianized Roman Empire started having border problems in Egypt, perhaps not as serious as in its eastern border, but certainly most preoccupying. Large upper Egyptian populations had not accepted the Christian terrorism, and felt contempt for such a poor and rootless ideology and religion that was already the reason of mass massacres in Alexandria and other parts of Lower Egypt, as well as of holy temples’ destruction. Allied to them were the nomadic desert tribes, ethnic groups and / or peoples, who were strong believers and fighters of Isis of Philae. They were able to attack Roman garrisons, instigate upsurge and support separation and / or independence. The Romans had difficulty in pursuing them far in the desert, and Meroitic Ethiopia looked as immense as Sudan truly is. The Isidist Blemmyes had an excellent recourse, when retreating there where the Romans would never catch them! If Ethiopia were less friendly to the Blemmyes and to the other desert nomads, this would signify increased Roman safety in Upper Egypt without a need for enhanced military obligations, since Rome was facing a terrible pressure in Asia, and it was not long ago when a Roman emperor had fallen captive of the Great Sassanid Iranian Shah Shapur I (Valerian fighting at Edessa – Urfa in 260 CE).
It is within this context that we have to place the Abyssinian attack led by Ezana of Axum, the Semite, against the Kushites of Ethiopia. It took place at 370 CE and originated from a place that had never fomented any serious attack against Meroe. For a brief period of time, at least a part of Ethiopia was under Abyssinian control…
Truly speaking, we do not know the reasons of the event; were they of economic interest, and consequently related to the trade between East and West through the Red Sea? It is possible! Already, many modern scholars interpret the wars between Iran and Rome (before and after the latter went christened) as mostly of economic reasons, because of conflicting commercial interests.
Was Ezana’s attack against Ethiopia and destruction of Meroe serving Roman interests, and did it take place after a special Roman demand? It is also possible! Certainly what is suggested here looks bold as historical interpretation of an event that apparently had local importance only. But we only know that Romans faced great difficulties in their southern borders in Egypt. And we know that, 150 years later, at the beginning of the 6th century, when Romans faced difficulties with Iran, they asked their Christian Axumite Abyssinian allies to intervene and come to their help. So, one could interpret Ezana’s Abyssinian invasion of Ethiopia through a similar scheme.
Was Ezana’s attack corresponding to the then existing needs for expansion, or did it satisfy royal ideological options? This is also possible!
Perhaps Ezana undertook the military expedition against Ethiopia only for the need of the usurpation of the name itself.
Interpretational schemes can therefore be many; the facts are very clear however. The first commemorative inscription of king Ezana after his victory names the Abyssinian King of Axum, among many other titles, ‘King of Ethiopia’ Ethiopia used as national name for the needs of the Abyssinian royal propaganda
The later use of the name of Ethiopia by Abyssinian Axumite kings bears witness to their passionate desire to present themselves dependent on the Biblical vision of World History as interpreted by the Abyssinian Monophysite priests and the Axumite court. It must have been very important for them to show that the christening of their country was prophesied in the Old Testament, and that at the days of Paul’s preaching one prince of theirs, uneasy of thoughts, beliefs and faith, was seeking the Truth in the ‘Promised’ Land.
So important this need seems to have been for Abyssinia that they did stick to this continuously, when it came to royal propaganda, political ideology, and interpretation of the diachronic role of Abyssinia. An entire myth was therefore created around the christening of the country, and certainly a remarkable point of that myth was the use of the foreign name ‘Ethiopia’ that meant nothing to the average 4th century (or 7th century or 11th century) CE Abyssinian.
A. ‘Ethiopia’: obscure and foreign to the average Abyssinians, indifferent to the ‘Ethiopians’ themselves!
The average Abyssinian never understood the meaning of that foreign name, and what is even more important is that, with the emergence of the three Christian states in the area of Sudan around the middle of the 5th century CE, Abyssinia lost any real right or title to the name ‘Ethiopia’, since it did not control any portion of ‘Ethiopian’ land anymore.
But of course, we must always bear in mind that to the Kushitic people of pre-Christian Sudan, either at the times of Napata or at the times of Meroe as capital, the ancient Greek name meant equally nothing. And so it did to their royal court, as well as to their priests. It was just a foreign name used for the description of their land and nothing more.
It is like a modern Frenchman. Why should he truly care that in Greece a Greek, speaking in Greek, names the Frenchman’s country ‘Gallia’, using a term that is unrelated to the French national name?
The word ‘German’ (in German: Deutsch) becomes ‘Allemand’ (in French), ‘Aleman’ (in Spanish), ‘Tedesco’ (in Italian), ‘Niemets’ (in Russian)! Why shall a German care for that?
The same indifference towards the foreign name ‘Ethiopia’ seems to have characterized the Kushite populations of Nobatia, Makkuria and Alodia. We have strong indications of Coptic (Monophysitic) influence on the first, and of Greek Orthodox impact on the second. But it seems that there were not many contacts between the Nile centered Kushitic Christian ‘Ethiopian’ states of Sudan, and the Red Sea centered Semitic Christian Abyssinia. There seems to have been total indifference among Nobatians and Makkurians about the occasional diplomatic propagandistic use of the name of Ethiopia by the king of Abyssinia.
The periods of strength and decay differ. In the 6th century the three Sudanese states seem peripheral to the Roman world, and Axumite Abyssinia plays a certain role in the Red Sea, up to the moment Iranian armies kick Abyssinians out of Yemen causing them a series of defeats. Then, with the rise of Islam, Abyssinia loses its main source of wealth, i.e. the Red Sea trade, but Nobatia and Makkuria gain importance. Nobatian and Makkurian Christian art seems different than the Abyssinian Axumite art, and although Axum seems not to influence at all Faras and Dongola Agouza (the capitals of Nobatia and Makkuria respectively), the 10th – 11th centuries frescos of the Faras Cathedral seem to introduce elements that are later diffused among Abyssinian Christian wall painting).
Among the Abyssinian realm, the name ‘Ethiopia’ never gained momentum and until the 19th and the 20th centuries the term can be found only in texts related to the state propaganda, which of course we cannot afford to take at face value.
Modern Concepts must not be projected on past periods.
Of course, the modern conviction of Abyssinians and Eritreans that are not ‘black’ may lead many people to think that it is contradictory to reject and despise your own national name, to believe that your skin colour is not ‘black’ (although it is very dark brown, and in the cases of large populations of your country it is absolutely black indeed), and at the same time to accept for you nation a foreign name that means “black face people”!
It looks like a funny comedy, but it is actually a kind of tragedy – comedy or rather a bucolic tragedy or a pastoral comedy!
One has to bear in mind that the modern times racism did not exist in the Antiquity. Black was not a problem, and nobody considered the Black people as inferior to the White people. And how this could be possible since many Egyptian pharaohs were black of skin, and Egypt had developed a great civilization, leading the world in several fields of knowledge and technology? In addition, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Aramaeans, Yemenites, were all of varied dark skin, and finally the Kushites of Sudan were all black of skin.
If we go through a careful study of ancient painting, we notice that several colours were in use to depict human beings, angels and gods, but we soon realize that there is a variation of colours that is rather relevant of theoretical and ideological considerations. We have no use of black colour itself, but this does not imply any repulsion to it. Only Christianity attributed ‘black’ to ‘negative’, but again not at the level of skin colour. A strange combination resulted from that, and in the frescos of the (Nobatian capital) Faras Cathedral, angels and New Testament figures are depicted as light brown of skin!
It is therefore sure that the ancient Abyssinians, even after the country’s christening, would not have felt offended if described as ‘black face people’. Certainly they knew that their face, absolutely Semitic as they were, was not as ‘black’ as that of their neighboring Ethiopians, but the need to use the biblical excerpt for propagandist purpose was so overwhelming that they just did not pay attention to such secondary issues.
What is the later historiographical trajectory of the name ‘Ethiopia’? After the collapse of the Meroitic state of Ethiopia, Eastern Roman contacts with the area of Sudan seem to diminish dramatically. The entire vast area was however affected by an unprecedented emigration (giving possibly origin to the modern Oromos), and actually got depopulated up to impressive extent.
The contacts between the eastern Roman Empire and Axum seem to have continued and to have entered an even more important phase at the times of Justinian, and his wars against Khusraw Anoshak Ravan (in Farsi: Anushirvan / Chosroes I) the great Sassanid Iranian Shah.
It is at these days of the 6th century CE, when the southern part of the Red Sea area gains tremendous importance at the level of World Politics, that the term ‘Ethiopia’ rises in use again, this time to describe the only known African state in the south of Egypt, i.e. Abyssinia. Byzantine authors liked very much the use of celebrated, ancient historiographical terms, even if these terms were not accurately used and could contribute to confusion.
By the way, one should not forget that at the same time and by the same authors of Medieval Greek and Latin texts the term ‘India’ is also used for all the areas in the south of the southern Egyptian border of the Eastern Roman state. Should this mean that modern India should send a delegation of 300 million people to populate the relative empty lands of Eastern Africa that lie between Egypt and South Africa, before annexing that part of the world and re-applying the term ‘India’?
The aforementioned does not imply that Medieval Greek authors did not use the term Abyssinia for the Axumite kingdom; quite contrarily, it was the prevailing term in this regard. Of course, what matters with regard to any national name is the term employed by the native population of a country, and the term used by Abyssinians was ‘Abyssinia’ with the exception of royal propagandistic texts that definitely kept using the mysterious for the average Abyssinian name of ‘Ethiopia’. But this did not have an impact on the cultural and historical developments in the African highlands of Abyssinia during more than 1000 years.
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