Published: Monday, March 8, 2010
New York (Tadias) – The purpose of this essay is to interrogate assumptions in the reading of our past and to suggest new approaches in the construction of Ethiopian history.
I contend that the long history and its resultant diversity have not been taken into consideration to document and interpret a history of Ethiopia. In fact, what we regard as a history of Ethiopia is mostly a history of northern Ethiopia and their links to the Arabian Peninsula. This is because historical narratives have been shaped by external paradigms. The assumptions and interpretive schemes used to construct Ethiopian history are extracted from experiences and traditions other than our own. Almost all history texts begin from the premises that the history and civilization of Ethiopia have had an external origin. It is also my contention that the centrality of the external paradigms in the interpretations of Ethiopian history has created a hierarchy of national identity (the civilized north vs. the pre-historic south) and culture (written vs. oral traditions) among the polity.
The history of northern Ethiopia is regarded by several writers as “superior” to the history of the rest of Ethiopia. The history of the north, not only has been constructed to have a non-African orientation, but also the historical values of its two major institutions: the monarchy and the church are allowed to dominate. I argue that a history that is constructed on the basis of external paradigms is divisive, neglects the South, too monarcho-tewahedo centric, and privileges the North. Furthermore, the external based history cannot even guarantee the unity among the northerners. What are these external paradigms? Who are there authors? Why did they remain so prevalent in our construction of Ethiopian history? What prevents from pursuing an Ethiopia-centered (people-centered) interpretations and construction of Ethiopian history?
It took a revolution to fundamentally change our assumptions and interpretations. Languages, religions and cultures are no longer presented in hierarchical forms. There are no superior or inferior religious or linguistic traditions within the country. This is not to suggest that equity in diversity has been achieved in the country. But it is safe to say that the country is moving towards plurality and unity in diversity.
In this paper, I will also attempt to address these and related questions with the intent of searching and developing internal paradigms rooted in the observed and narrated traditions of the diverse and yet remarkably intertwined communities of cultures and languages in the place we call Ethiopia.
One of the most persistent and most pervasive themes in the Ethiopian history and historiography until very recently was the theme of “the South Arabian or the South Semitic origin of the major part of the Ethiopian civilization and culture, including its writing system, its religion, its languages, agricultural practices and dynasties.” According to this external paradigm, the history of the Ethiopian people begins with the arrival and settlements of the “culturally superior” people from South Arabia, the Greater Middle East, including Jerusalem, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Lebanon. These ‘Semitic’ people supposedly brought with them to the highlands of Ethiopia their languages and, most importantly, their writing system and agricultural practices, such as terracing and ploughing. The external paradigms are still pervasive and, despite the facts to the contrary, they continue to distort the Ethiopian history.
In fact, the South Arabian origin of Ethiopian history and civilization is so pervasive, almost all accountings of Ethiopia are prefaced or began their introductory chapters by highlighting the external factors. It is as if Ethiopia is fathered and mothered or at worst adopted by guardians who came from elsewhere. It is a strategy that places Ethiopia in a permanent state of dependency, from its emergence to the present.
As I argued before, what is the logic of beginning a history of a people or a country from an external source? It is my contention that a history of a people that begins with an external source is quite problematic. It would not be the history of the Ethiopian people, but the history of south Arabians in Ethiopia. Since history narrates or records the material and cultures of all peoples, it is important that we seek conceptions, construction and narration of the Ethiopian history from the inside.
Ever since its conception by the “father” of Ethiopian Studies, Hiob Ludolf (1624-1704CE) of Germany, in the 17th and 18th centuries of our era, the external paradigms became a kind of scholarly tradition among both the Ethiopianists and the Ethiopian scholars. Very few scholars have raised questions regarding the external origin of the Ethiopian polity. Before I explore this assertion further, let me provide some background information on the history of the term Ethiopia.
What is Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is a term by far the most thoroughly referenced and widely recognized both in the ancient and the contemporary world. It is a term associated with people, place, religions and cultures unarguably from the continent of Africa, and to some extent Asia. In fact, at one time, Ethiopia was almost synonymous with continental Africa. Only Ancient Libya and Ancient Egypt were known or recognized as much as Ethiopia in Africa. It is a term deeply explored by both ancient and contemporary writers, theologians, historians, philosophers and poets. Ethiopia is known since antiquity and, as a result, has been a source of legends and mythologies. All the great books of antiquity made probing references to Ethiopia. The term, etymologically speaking, has its origin in multiple sources.
Ethiopians insist that the term originated from the word Ethiopis, who was one of the earlier kings of Ethiopia. Ethiopians also point out that the term is a combination of Eth and Yop, terms attributed to a king of Ethiopia who resided by the source of the Blue Nile. There are also others who link the term with incense, thereby tracing it to the land of incense.
Given these suppositions that are primarily presented based on oral traditions, it is incumbent upon us to dig deeper into our past, in order to come to terms with our Ethiopian identity. It is interesting to note that the ancient historians had a better understanding of the Ethiopian past and wrote profusely, from Homer to Herodotus, from Siculus to Origen.
According to Snowden, “Aeschylus is the first Greek to locate Ethiopians definitely in Africa.” ‘Io, according to the prophecy of Prometheus, was to visit a distant country, and a black people, who lived by the waters of the sun, where the Ethiopian river flowed, and was to go to the cataract where the Nile sent forth its stream from the mountains.”
Snowden identifies Xenophanes as the first to apply to Ethiopian physical characteristics that include flat-nosed black-faced features. “Fifth-century dramatists wrote plays involving Ethiopian myths, made references to Ethiopians, and included intriguing geographical details such as snows in the Upper Nile which fed the waters of the Nile.”
Slideshow: Photos used in this article
Publisher’s Note: Part two of this article will be published on Monday, March 15, 2010. It will explore the following points: Who are the authors of the external paradigm?; Challenges of the External Paradigm from Without; Challenges of the External Paradigm from Within; Paleontological Evidence Places the Origin in Africa; and Towards the People-Centered History of Ethiopia. This piece is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author:
Ayele Bekerie, is an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University. He is the author of the award-winning book “Ethiopic, An African Writing System: Its History and Principles” Bekerie is also the creator of the African Writing System web site and a contributing author in the highly acclaimed book, “ONE HOUSE: The Battle of Adwa 1896-100 Years.” Bekerie’s most recent published work includes “The Idea of Ethiopia: Ancient Roots, Modern African Diaspora Thoughts,” in Power and Nationalism in Modern Africa, published by Carolina Academic Press in 2008 and “The Ancient African Past and Africana Studies” in the Journal of Black Studies in 2007.