Articles in this series:
Series: Trade and Business
01. Trade in Ethiopia in Ancient Times
These two articles are adapted from a study presented by the author to the 74’th District Conference and Assembly of Rotary International, held in Addis Ababa from 7 to 9 May, 1999. They were published in the Addis Tribune newspaper in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 4 June 1999 and 11 June 1999 respectively.
Trade and business have a long history in Ethiopia.
Pharaohs and Ptolemies
Our earliest records are those of the Egyptian Pharaohs, who conducted numerous commercial expeditions down the Red Sea. The most important of the areas they visited was what they termed the Land of Punt, which modern scholars equate with the coast of what is now Eritrea, an area then as later intimately linked with the hinterland of what is present-day Ethiopia.
Such expeditions came to the Ethiopian region largely in quest of myrrh and other incense, gold, any ebony, or other valuable wood.
The best known expedition of the Pharaohs was despatched by the rediubtable Queen Hapshetsut (1501-1479 BC), whose achievements are recorded to this day on the walls of her temple of Dair el-Bahri, at Thebes in Upper Egypt.
It was not long, however, before the Puntites, i.e. the people of the Ethiopian region, were themselves undertaking expeditions. This is evident for example from a tomb at Thebes, dating from the reign of King Amenhotep II (1447-1420 BC). It tells of two Puntite chiefs arriving with gold, incense, ebony, ostrich feathers and eggs, and animal skins, as well as two wild animals. These were the happier in that they brought their skins on their own backs.
Commercial activity in the Ethiopian region was later carried out, around the third century BC, by the Egyptian Ptolemies. They likewise sent expeditions down the Red Sea, in their case in search of elephants, which they used in their military campaigns. The monsters have aptly been termed the tanks of the ancient world.
Indian trade with Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, though harder to document historically, was doubtless by this time also well established. This commerce owed much to the famous Trade Winds, which at various seasons of the year blew either to or from the sub-continent, thus facilitating commercial sailings with Africa.
The dawn of the Christian era coincided approximately, with the rise in what is now northern Ethiopia, of the renowned Aksumite kingdom. This was an important commercial realm, which issued its own currency, in gold, silver, and bronze. The Aksumites, who constituted the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, included both resolute merchants and skilled craftsmen.
The Aksumite realm, which had its own port at Adulis, near present-day Massawa, traded widely with Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India, and even far-away Ceylon. Aksumite exports, as evident from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek manual probably written by an Egyptian trader around the first century AD, consisted largely of ivory, rhinoceros, tortoise-shell, and obsidian stone. Imports comprised cloth, raw metal, and a wide range of manufactured and luxury goods, including even lacquerware, wine and olive oil.
The artisans of Aksum were particularly able. This is apparent from the city; archaeological remains, which include fine temples and tombs, as well as the famous obelisks of Aksum. The second largest, looted by Mussolini in 1937, is currently in Rome due for repatriation, as soon, we are assured, as circumstances permit. Yes, I know it should have been dismantled many months ago, but some countries are slower than others in meeting international obligations.
Though the Aksumites minted their own coins, many of which have been found in Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and India, when trading with the interior they also engaged in what is termed “silent trade”. This was reported by Kosmos Indikopleustes, an early sixth century Egyptian merchant-cum-monk. He states that Aksumite traders, when travelling to the Blue Nile area to obtain gold, would take with them cattle, as well as pieces of salt and iron.
They would then make a large hedge of thorns around their camp, after which they would slaughter some of their livestock, and place portions of the meat, together with pieces of salt and iron upon the fence, before withdrawing into their camp. The local people would then come and put gold beside the meat, salt and iron, they wished to obtain in exchange for the gold and would then withdraw.
The traders would then approach. If satisfied with the quantity of gold offered they would take it, and go back to their camp, whereupon the locals would pick up the meat, salt and iron offered in exchange, but if unsatisfied, would return, and recover their articles.
“Such”, Kosmos writes, was “the mode in which business is transacted… because the language is different and interpreters are hardly to be found”.
The Middle Ages: Markets and Caravans
Ethiopian trade in the Middle Ages was based largely on two institutions: local markets and long distance merchants caravans.
Markets were to be found in all major towns, but more commonly in the countryside, where fairs were usually held weekly at some distance from inhabited settlements. Such markets would be attended by local people coming to buy and sell their produce, as well as to exchange gossip, but also by travelling merchants, in many cases handling imported articles. Such traders would probably attend a different fair each day.
Merchants, who for security often travelled together in large caravans made their way across the length and breadth of the country. Those seeking ivory, gold, civet musk, and slaves would journey to the rich lands of Ethiopia’s south-west. If engaged in the import-export trade they would, however, make their way to the Red Sea port of Massawa, the Gulf of Aden ports of Tajurah, Zeila and Berbera, or to the Sudan frontier in the far west. Imports in this period, as earlier, consisted largely of cotton and manufactured goods.
Currency, which had come to an end in Aksumite times, was no longer used in this period. Gold measured by weight, was, however, employed by the merchants for large-scale transactions, but most people made use of barter, or so-called “primitive money”. The latter is the name given to articles which were used for exchange purpose instead of money. They consisted, in Ethiopia, of amoles, or bars of rock salt mined in the Danakali, or Afar, depression; pieces of iron, to be used for the local manufacture of spear-heads, sickle-blades, sword-blades, etc.; and pieces of cloth, to be later worn as clothing. After the coming of fire-arms, bullets or cartridges, were also much used as “primitive money”.
Trade in those days was largely in the hands of Ethiopian Muslims, or foreigners, including Arabs, and Armenians, though Greek and Indian merchants later came to the fore.