The Lion of Zion, Part 1: Ethiopia and Idiosyncracy

Ethiopia is a country that defies being put into boxes. It’s seen as one of the poorest countries in Africa, but it has the 12th highest GDP. It’s Christian in the majority, but about as close to Madagascar as Jerusalem, and it’s been that way for longer than Rome itself. It was home to the messiah of a world religion who never believed in the faith built around him, and it continues to contain the only part of Africa to have never belonged to “civilised” colonists from another continent. And despite its unique features, it’s likely the place where all human life originated, which is the kind of bragging right even Ancient Greece would envy. It might seem weird to look at Ethiopia holistically. You can’t generalise its history to the countries around it, you can’t really see themes and connectivity as clearly in a mountain kingdom that even the continent-conquering caliphs and imperialists left alone. But in a way Ethiopia is the best portrait of Africa you can get, not because it conforms, but because it’s so diverse and unusual. It’s so far from the stereotype of Africa as to make the stereotype look ridiculous, and if you start breaking preconceptions like that you can start to see the area less as a continent and more as a collection of states with individual needs, desires and histories. Welcome back to African history. But more specifically, welcome Ethiopia.

myrrh

Ethiopia and the Egyptians: One Frankincense short of a Nativity.

Ethiopia has been inhabited by humans since “inhabited by humans” meant “there are some tall, hairy monkeys here and when they’re not getting eaten by sabre tooth cats they’re actually pretty good at making tools”. The first records of civilisation there come much later, but considering that they were Ancient Egypt’s main source of myrrh and gold we can safely say that there’s been some kind of recognisable state there for  about 5,400 years. Originally occupying both sides of the Red Sea, what the Ancient Egyptians called Punt or Pwenet was a bountiful land of mountains, mummies and monkeys, but history about it kind of goes dark again when the Egyptians literally forgot that it was a real place (which seems ridiculous, but ask someone if Timbuktu is real and that suddenly gets more believable). In around 700BC, Ethiopia was rediscovered intact by settlers from what is now Yemen, who brought with them their kings, their genes and their alphabet to create the land of D’mt – incidentally, the genes and unique South Arabic alphabet remain in Ethiopia to this day, both long dead in their home country. At some indeterminate point later came the Beta Israel, a distinct ethnic group of black Jews who were either converted ethnic Ethiopians or southbound exiles from Jerusalem, who would become one of Ethiopia’s most interesting and unexpected minorities. But the first real records come from the Kingdom of Axum, a successor state of D’mt from around the turn of the first century AD. Axum, where D’mt created Ethiopian language and ethnicity, would create two of the most important traditions of Ethiopian history – Christianity, and diplomatically kicking ass.

prester

Prester John, like Jesus, evidently acquired the ability to turn from a Middle Eastern man into a white beardy guy to please Europeans.

Axum, truly the hipster of nations, was Christian before it was cool. It was one of the first Christian nations in the world, probably adopting it as a state religion before even the Roman Empire did (which, as we all know, they did in AD391). This early Christianity led to some interesting situations further down the line – including a rather ironic song that asks if Ethiopians even know it’s Christmas time, because they sure as hell knew before Bob Geldof’s ancestors did – and was probably the source of medieval European rumours about the Kingdom of Prester John, a mythical Christian utopia in the east surrounded by Muslim lands. It also led to an uneasy alliance with the Roman Empire, who bordered Ethiopia after they aggressively expanded towards each other. You can perhaps see why they got along. So diplomacy saved Ethiopia for not the last time, and brought the country back in touch with the Middle East via…well, via the via, because that’s literally the Roman word for road. In an ironic inversion of the D’mt invasion some 400 years earlier, the Ethiopians even teamed up with Rome to take over Yemen in the AD 600s, all the while growing as a regional power. But that power came at a cost, and Axum’s growth was threatened by its declining fertility and the slow advance of the Sahara desert. Axum couldn’t feed its population, couldn’t plant trees to match its deforestation, couldn’t survive the plagues that its burgeoning trade with the north brought it. Axum, again the hipster of nations, was destroyed by its declining environment 1,200 years before we began to worry that it could happen to us.

What replaced Axum was a series of monarchies and tribal divisions. Groups like the Beta Israel built their own towns and nations in the North, newly converted Muslims did the same in the East while the remaining Christians settled in the central highlands. But as the remnants of a now shattered Roman Empire in Africa and the Middle East were being eaten by the Islamic Caliphates, Ethiopia still managed to pull a legendary trick of diplomacy: because they had sheltered early Muslim refugees and promised to pose no threat to the Caliphate, the Prophet Muhammad specifically declared that attacking Ethiopia was against Islam. Ethiopia, where their old trading partners Egypt and Eastern Rome had fallen, remained unconquered throughout the Dark Ages.

What is remarkable was that that truce lasted, with one Ottoman-shaped exception, for the next millennium.

church ethiopia

When they’re not being churches, the carvings at Lalibela make for great helipads.

And so Ethiopia bumbled along peacefully for most of its existence. Under a new and unification-minded set of kings who traced their ancestry to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (to be fair, all you have to do to claim ancestry from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is 1: Be a King and 2: Say so) they built ridiculous underground rock churches, traded with the emerging powers of the time, even survived another threat to their independence in the 1500s – that is, the Ottoman-shaped exception – by enlisting the help of the Portuguese, who believed themselves to have found the real-life Kingdom of Prester John and were no doubt looking for all the Fountains of Eternal Youth and nubile white maidens that had been added to the legend over time. Even during the peak of colonisation, Ethiopia managed to retain its independence, but this time by being not particularly worth it – all rumours of Prester John dispelled, and without as much manpower and natural resources as, say, the Zimbabwe, but with a more modern army and mountains that could kick the shit out of a European soldier, the cost would have been greater than the prize. But Ethiopia’s years of peace would dry up as Axum’s farms had a millennium earlier. The modern age was blooming, and with it, modern threats. Solomon’s descendants still ruled. And they would go out with a bang.

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