Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
01. Ancient and Medieval Life
Maintenance of Independence
Ethiopia’s mountainous and largely inaccessible terrain tended from early times to isolate the country, and contributed much towards the preservation of its independence in the era of the Scramble for Africa.
One of the most interesting aspects of Ethiopian history, and one which is most often commented upon, is the fact that the country preserved its independence throughout the colonial period. Colonialism thus occurred only on the seaboard, where the Italians established the colony of Eritrea in the late nineteenth century, and for the five years of Mussolini’s very temporary occupation from 1936 to 1941. A quarter of a century ago Daniel Thwaite wrote in his African Melting Pot, subtitled a “Study of Black Nationalism”:
Ethiopia’s prestige in Africa consequent upon her triumphant success in repelling invasion, and in having remained unconquered throughout the centuries, is practically unfathomable. To the Africans in general, not only to those who invoked her as a liberator, she stands as a granite monument, a living exponent and testimony of the innate puissance of the black race, the shrine enclosing the last sacred spark of African political freedom, the impregnable rock of black resistance against white invasion, a living symbol, an incarnation of African independence.”
By preserving her national independence in a continent which was largely conquered by foreign powers Ethiopia became something unique in Africa. Ethiopian history was in many ways different from that of the rest of the African continent, being characterised on the one hand by isolation and conservatism, and on the other by limited development carried out by the rulers of the land independently of the European or colonial powers. The object of the present series of articles is to examine the twin theme of conservatism and innovation in the country’s long recorded history.
Ethiopian history is often said, rightly or wrongly, to begin with the founding of the Aksumite realm long before the opening of the Christian era. That state, to judge from archaeological evidence, rose from modest beginnings to a high level of attainment. It displayed a degree of innovation not to be apparent again until modern times. The achievements of this period included the construction of well-proportioned buildings of various kinds, the fashioning and erection of the unique monoliths of Aksum, the evolution of a new script and language, and the issue of currency for several hundred years.
“Learning Solomon’s Wisdom”
The Aksumite realm appears to have been considerably responsive to developments in the outside world. This isapparent even in the legendary Ethiopian story of the Queen of Sheba, as stated in the Kebra Nagast, of “Glory of Kings.” In it we are told that the Queen travelled all the way to Jerusalem to learn of Solomon’s wisdom. As the Book of Kings says : “When the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with questions.” Her approach was thus, to say the least, innovative.
A thousand years after the Queen’s supposed lifetime, the unknown author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Graeco-Egyptian trade manual of the first century or so A.D., says that King Zoscales of Aksum was “acquainted with Greek literature,” and Greek influence is abundantly corroborated by the issue of Aksumite coins with Greek lettering, as well as by the erection of Aksumite monuments in Greek. One of these paid homage to Zeus, the father of the Greek gods, Ares, the Greek god of war, and Poseidon, the Greek sea god.
Acceptance of Christianity
The subsequent conversion of the Aksumite state to Christianity, which is thought to have taken place around 330 A.D. by the Syrian Frumentius, known in Ethiopia as Abba Salama, was both rapid and largely complete. So was the introduction, a century or so later, of the monastic system.
Asylum for Early Muslims
Later again, in the early seventh century, King Armah of Aksum is said to have displayed remarkable statesmanship, and lack of animosity, when confronted with the rise of yet a new religion, Islam. He afforded asylum to the early followers of the Prophet Mohammed, when they were persecuted in Arabia, and, according to Arab tradition, refused to return them to their persecutors. He is said to have declared, ” If you were to offer me a mountain of gold I would not give up these people who have taken refuge with me.”
Armah later reportedly sent a dowry to Mohammed on the occasion of the latter’s marriage to one of the women who had found refuge in Ethiopia. The Prophet reciprocated by praying for Armah’s soul and commanding his followers to “leave the Abyssinians in peace,” thereby exempting them from the ravages of the Holy War.
Early Commercial Contacts
In the first half millennium of the Christian era the Aksumite realm won itself a significant position in the Middle East. Aksum received diplomatic attention from the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, and for a time occupied part of South Arabia. Commercial relations were also forged with many areas of the Orient, including Egypt, Nubia, Arabia, Persia and India, and Aksumite ships appear to have travelled widely, in the Red Sea and lndian Ocean.
Though our knowledge of the Aksumites is fragmentary the general picture which emerges is thus of a relatively dynamic society ready to innovate in all fields, and thus to play no mean role on the international stage of the day.
Passing down the centuries we may argue that the Ethiopian Empire of the Middle Ages appears in many ways to have been more static than its Aksumite predecessor of ancient times. Medieval Ethiopia was thus a largely rural civilisation, in many respects not unlike that of medieval Europe, and covered an extensive area of the East African plateau which was at least nominally subject to the Emperors. The latter, whose authority received strong support in the Fetha Nagast, or “Law of the Kings,” a book of law partially based on the Bible. Ethiopian monarchs wielded immense power over persons and property alike. They were highly revered by their subjects, and were able to move far and wide at the head of huge armies, at times perhaps a hundred thousand or more strong.
A well-developed social hierarchy existed, composed of nobles, priests, peasants and slaves, as well as traders and craftsmen. The two latter were relatively few in number, and often clearly differentiated from the rest of the population on the basis of either religion or taboo. The existence of this complex social hierarchy, the primarily agricultural character of the economy, and the absence of a market mechanism, necessitated a system of taxation very largely based on the payment of tribute in kind or labour, as well as types of land tenure in which the sovereign allocated land to his subjects in return for services rendered by them in peace or war. Other types of tenure, however, were also operative, land in many areas being for example firmly vested in the community.
Economic life tended to be self-sufficient whether regarded from the point of view of the empire, the province, the village, or even the individual household, which in many instances produced most of the goods it required.
Geographically, the mountainous nature of the land and the existence of several large rivers and innumerable torrent-beds, which were of no use for navigation, but constituted a formidable obstacle to land traffic, and seriously discouraged communications between one area and another. This tendency was intensified by historic factors, such as hostile foreign control of the coast, a high degree of local autonomy in many of the provinces, and the consequent system of internal customs posts, as well as the dangers of war and brigandage. The absence of currency and the consequent reliance on various forms of “primitive money” also militated against the development of commerce.
Trade in this period was regarded as an inferior pursuit by the majority of the Christian population of the plateau. Commercial activity was largely in the hands of Muslims, who often received preferential treatment from the Ottoman rulers at Massawa, as well as in Arabia, Egypt and the Sudan, the main areas of commerce, where a knowledge of Arabic in many cases also stood them in good stead. The tendency of Muslims to be traders was further accentuated by the fact that in the mainly Christian areas of the plateau it was difficult for them to hold land or to obtain advancement in either government service or the army. A popular Tigrinya proverb declared, “The sky has no pillar and the Muslim no land.” Other traders included various foreigners, notably Egyptians, Syrians, Armenians and Greeks, most of whom were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and hence privileged when travelling through lands subject to it. Emperors of Ethiopia in many cases employed persons of these races, rather than their own people, who had no feeling for commerce, as their trade agents.