Search Results for 'aksum'

UNESCO Presents Exhibition on Reconstruction of Aksum Obelisk

Above: Child holding a model of the Aksum Obelisk by Hiwot
Gebre Geziabeher (9 years old) for UNESCO

UNESCO

Monday, April 20, 2009

An exhibition – photographs and a video installation – at UNESCO will celebrate the reinstallation of the Aksum obelisk. The show will give visitors a chance to learn about the history of the Ethiopian site and to view the key stages of reinstalling the monument, 24 metres high and weighing 150 tons.

Open to the public from 4 to 15 May (9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.), the exhibition will be inaugurated on 23 April by Koïchiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO, in the presence of the Ethiopian and Italian ambassadors to UNESCO, Adelech Haile Mikael and Giuseppe Moscato.

The artists in the show, who are from Ethiopia, Belgium, France and Italy, were invited by UNESCO to visit Aksum and to express their vision of the restoration of the obelisk, a symbol of Ethiopian culture.

Their works highlight the uniqueness and magnitude of the project. The monument’s history has been eventful: erected in the 4th century then vandalized in the 7th, the obelisk was hauled off to Rome at Mussolini’s orders and set up near the Circus Maximus, finally returning to Aksum in 2005.

The artists – Tito Dupret, Theo Eshetu, Hiwot Gebre Geziabeher, Michael Tsegaye and Paola Viesi – give their personal interpretations of these events. The gigantic, 15-screen video installation by Theo Eshetu benefits from the dual perspective of the artist, born in Ethiopia and living in Rome. Hiwot Gebre Geziabeher, a schoolgirl from Aksum who learned photography from Michael Tsegaye, takes the local inhabitants’ point of view. Included in the show are films and photos depicting the extraordinary reinstallation work and Aksum’s lifestyle and culture. For an even better sense of the project’s scope, a 360°* projection offers visitors a simulated tour of the Aksum archaeological site and works.

With this exhibition, UNESCO is celebrating the successful reinstallation and showing how a cultural project can help bring about reconciliation between two countries with conflict in their past.

This project and this exhibition were made possible thanks to the generous contribution of the Italian Government.

From 4 to 15 May, individuals and school groups may reserve guided visits organized by UNESCO, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

Contact for inauguration accreditation:

Djibril Kébé, tel. + 33 (0)1 45 68 17 41 / d.kebe@unesco.org

*Website with 360° images : http://www.1001merveilles.org/15

Related: Royal Monuments Recall the Lost Glory of an African Empire

Source: Archaeology:
A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Of Obelisks and Empire
By Mark Rose
Photographs by Chester Higgins, Jr.

Royal monuments and ancient accounts recall the lost
glory of an African kingdom

In the first century A.D., an unknown merchant recorded details of the Red Sea trade, and mentioned Adulis, the harbor of “the city of the people called Aksumites” to which “all the ivory is brought from the country beyond the Nile.” The ruler of Aksum, he wrote, was Zoskales, who was “miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature.” Just two centuries later, the philosopher Mani (ca. A.D. 210-276) included Aksum as one of the four great empires, along with Rome, Persia, and Sileos (possibly China). And in 274, envoys from Aksum took part in the triumphal procession staged by the emperor Aurelian when he paraded the captured Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, fettered with gold chains, through Rome.

Today, Aksum is a dusty, regional market town of about 50,000 in northern Ethiopia. If people have heard of it, perhaps it is on account of another queen: the Biblical Sheba. According to the Kebra Nagast (Book of the Glory of the Kings), an early-14th-century compilation that chronicles Ethiopia’s rulers, Solomon and Sheba had a son, Menelik, who brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Aksum. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains that the Ark is still kept within the precinct walls of the Church of Tsion (Mary of Zion) in Aksum. Read more.

Pankhurst’s Memories of the Aksum Obelisk Issue

In the following article (part three of a four-part series on Capital, a business newspaper in Ethiopia), Professor Richard Pankhurst (pictured above with model of the Axum obelisk in his office in Addis Ababa), a member of the "Ethiopian Axum Obelisk Return Committee", describes "the events, personalities and collective effort behind the successful repatriation of the Obelisk from Italy."

Personal Memories of the Aksum Obelisk Issue (Capital Ethiopia)

By Richard Pankhurst

Part Three

Saturday, August 2, 2008

We saw in the last article how the original Aksum Obelisk Committee, an entirely private body composed of less than a dozen individuals, albeit people of good will, helped to launch a movement for the return of the Aksum obelisk which Mussolini had looted from Ethiopia a generation or so earlier: Please read on:

The Obelisk Return movement at this time was not without a useful international dimension. Having formerly been Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies several decades earlier I was on good personal terms with most of the international scholars of Ethiopian affairs, many of whom, when approached, expressed support for our campaign. This enabled me to issue a succession of statements to the essentially sympathetic press – announcing that such and such Ethiopianist was demanding the Obelisk’s repatriation. This helped to keep the issue virtually every week in the public eye.

Such supporters, who rallied to the cause, included Professor Sven Rubenson from Sweden, Professor Angelo Del Boca from Italy, Professors Richard Greenfield, Christopher Clapham and Frederick Halliday from Britain, Professors Donald Crummey, Frederick Gamst, Pascal Imperato, and Alberto Sbacchi from the United States, Maria Rait and Yuri Kobischanov from Russia, Hagai Erlich from Israel, Viraj Gubta from India, Katsuyoshi Fakui from Japan – and many, many others. Support was likewise announced from not a few prominent writers, among them Wilfred Thesiger, Thomas Pakenham, David Buxton, Graham Hancock, and Germaine Greer, as well as Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley, and Lutz Becker, producer of the remarkable historical film The Lion of Judah, as well as the two leading British historians of modern Italy: William Deakin and Denis Mack Smith. Mrs Winthrop Boswell, an American scholar who had some years earlier used the IES library to study ancient Ethiopian-Irish relations, most generously supplied us with much appreciated “Return Our Obelisk” car stickers. They bore a representation of an Aksum obelisk as reproduced by the Scottsih traveller James Bruce in 1790.

The movement also rallied extensive support among the Ethiopian Diaspora, most notably from Ato Samuel Ferenje in Canada, Dr. Asfawossen Asrate in Germany, and Ato Zaudie Haile Mariam in Sweden, as well as Professors Achamele Debele, Ashenafe Kebede, Ephraim Isaac, Getachew Haile, Syum Gabre Egziabher, and Ato Kassahun Chekole, all in the United States. Support was also received from prominent Americans of Italian decent, among them our friend Professor Pascal Imperato. Many articles on the Obelisk likewise appeared in the Italian media, many supportive ones from the heroic pen of Professor Angelo Del Boca. Other writings on the obelisk, by the present writer and others, also appeared in the Ethiopian Diaspora press, the Ethiopian Review, the Ethiopian Register and others. As well as, in Ethiopia itself, in Addis Tribune and other papers.

The Obelisk Return Movement gained further impetus once again as a result of an Anniversary – this time the Centenary of the Battle of Adwa of 1896. In the lead-up to that anniversary Professor Andreas Eshete, Chairman of the Ethiopian Centenary Committee, and an old family friend, seized the occasion to appeal to the Italian Government, on Ethiopian TV, for the monument’s restitution – and was joined by Fitawrari Amede Lemma and several other members of the Obelisk Return Committee. A few days later the Ethiopian Parliament held a Public Hearing on the Obelisk, the first such hearing in its history, at which several of us urged the case for repatriation. We were joined in this by Professor Marco Vigoni, a teacher at Addis Ababa’s Italian School.

Then, on 8 February 1996, the Parliament voted unanimously – to demand the Obelisk’s return – just as its predecessor, the Emperor’s Parliament, had done three decades earlier.

The cause of the Obelisk’s restitution, first voiced by a few isolated individuals in different parts of the globe, had thus at last become official Ethiopian Government policy; and a matter to be discussed at an inter-governmental level – but that is another story.

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Aksum Obelisk Reinstalled in Ethiopia

One of Ethiopia's most iconic monuments, the 1,700-year-old Aksum Obelisk, has been successfully reinstalled at its original location after the third and final block was mounted in place this week by teams from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

UNESCO Teams Successfully Complete Return of Ethiopian Obelisk (News Blaze)

The monument’s reinstallation, completed yesterday, took place six decades after Italian soldiers carted the obelisk off to Rome during Benito Mussolini’s invasion in 1937.

UNESCO said locals living near the Aksum World Heritage site in northern Ethiopia, close to the Eritrean border, greeted the end of the reinstallation with joy, organizing spontaneous musical concerts. An inauguration ceremony has been slated for 4 September.

The Aksum Obelisk, which is 24 metres high and weighs 150 tons, is the second largest stela – or upright stone slab or tablet – on the Aksum World Heritage site. It has become a symbol of the Ethiopian people’s identity.

After mediation by UNESCO, Italy decided to return the obelisk in April 2005, and paid for the dismantling in Rome and subsequent transport and reinstallation. The monument’s size meant it had to be cut into three pieces before being reinstalled.

Source: United Nations

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NYC Screening of ‘Ethiopian Tenacity’

Left: The Obelisk of Axum in Ethiopia in 2009. Right: The Obelisk in Rome in 2002. (Photographs: CM)

Tadias Magazine
Events News

Published: Friday, January 17th, 2014

New York — The documentary Ethiopian Tenacity will be screened at Imagenation Raw Space in Harlem on Sunday, January 19th. The film focuses on the invasion of the city Wolwol during the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

“The Italians escalated the battle and were able to enter Addis Ababa on May 5, 1936, and occupied it until 1941. During the five year occupation of Ethiopia, Mussolini’s soldiers looted many artifacts and historical monuments from Ethiopia, one of which was the Aksum Obelisk,” states the event announcement. “The documentary shows the whole episode of the occupation, liberation, the return and re-erection of the obelisk in Axum.”

The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Producer Ato Tadele Bitul Kibrat.

If You Go:
BINA Cultural Foundation
Imagenation Cinema & Ethio-Mixer USA
Present a Special Screening of Ethiopian Tenacity
Sunday, January 19th, 2014
Imagenation Raw Space at 7:00PM
Admission: FREE
2031 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.
(7th Ave. Between 121st and 122nd)
http://imagenation.us/cinema-cafe/rawspace/

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The Significance of the 1896 Battle of Adwa

March 1st, 2013 marked the 117th year anniversary of the Battle of Adwa and historian Ayele Bekerie shares an essay on the historic victory. (Photo: Mountains of Adwa/File)

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie, PhD

ayele_author.jpg

Published: Friday, March 1st, 2013

Mekelle, Ethiopia (TADIAS) – In 1896, eleven years after the Berlin Conference, the Ethiopian army decisively defeated the Italian military at the Battle of Adwa. It was a resounding victory because it aborted Italia’s ambition to establish a colonial foothold in Ethiopia. On March 2, 1896, The New York Times reported with a headline: “Abyssinians Defeat Italians; Both Wings of [General] Baratieri’s Army Enveloped in an Energetic Attack.” On March 4, 1896, The New York Times featured another story about “Italy’s Terrible Defeat.” NYT also stated “three thousand men killed, sixty guns and all provisions lost.” It further indicated how high the defeat’s impact has reached by referring to the Pope who “is greatly disturbed by the news.” “The terrible defeat” sent shock waves throughout Europe and the colonized world. It was the first time that a non-white people had defeated a European power. According to Teshale Tibebu, the victory the Ethiopians had achieved over Italy was different than other battles won by African forces. This was permanent.

While Europeans saw the defeat as a real threat to their vast colonial empires in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Caribbean, the colonized subjects in these territories understood the event as the beginning of the end of colonialism. Adwa as Davidson aptly puts it has become a prelude to decolonization in Africa. Clearly the victory at the Battle of Adwa lends itself to multiple meanings and interpretations, depending upon perspectives and stances in relation to colonialism. The purpose of this piece is to look into the interpretations of the event from the perspectives of the colonized and how the victory brought about the idea of global Ethiopia. It can be argued that the Battle has further enhanced the symbolic significance of Ethiopia in Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. Ethiopia has become a symbol of the anti-colonial movements throughout the world. The Battle may have also given geographical and historical certitude to Ethiopia. The Battle of Adwa is another significant symbol in the imaginary of the idea of Ethiopia. This paper looks into the symbolic importance of Adwa in the conception and development of pan-African solidarity and identity.

Ethiopia at the time of the Battle was a highly traditional empire-state where kings and nobilities ruled over a predominantly agrarian people. Modes of rules were not only dictated by customs and personal whims, they were also exploitative. Adwa then ushered a new paradigm to alter or reform the tradition, to replace it with a modern system of centralized and unified government. While the symbolic significance of the Battle successfully echoed the call for freedom and independence and an end to colonial domination abroad, the full meanings of Adwa have yet to be fully realized within Ethiopia. Adwa suggests the power of indigenous multiple voices voluntarily cooperating to defeat and challenge the European colonial order.

Virtually all the regions, religions, linguistic groups, aristocrats and peasants pulled their resources together to formulate and execute a strategy of victory. By their actions the Ethiopians were not only affirming the power and immense possibilities of unity in diversity, but they were placing issues of freedom and internal reform at the top of the national agenda. Adwa necessitates a new set of directions interspersed with broader definition and application of freedom so that all those who participated in the Battle would be able to participate in the affairs of their country. As Maimre puts it, “from the perspectives of the thousands who participated in the campaign of Adwa, the resistance to the Italian invasion embodies the aspiration for freedom, equality and unity as well as the rejection of colonialism.”

Adwa reminds the Shoan nobility to let freedom ring from northern highlands to the rift valleys, the river basins, the plain lush fields of Arussi and the salty Danakil depressions. Adwa presents a unique opportunity to reconfigure the empire-state. Unfortunately, absolutism and imperial glory overshadowed and undermined the emancipatory route suggested by the historic event of Adwa. Adwa presses on the monarchy to modernize and to let the people involve in the political process through constitutional means. Unfortunately, the leaders resisted internal reform or introduced ineffective and nominal elements of modernity. Absolute monarchy, imitative and nominal modernization and detached and non-transformative tradition were pursued and, to this date, insist on clinging to the status quo. The status quo is the cause of immense poverty and disenfranchisement for the vast majority of the people in the country.

Adwa’s magnificent victory is a model in as far as people of various cultures, religions and languages willingness to assemble for a purpose. 100,000 Ethiopian troops took positions on the fields and mountains of Adwa to encircle and defeat the enemy. The multi-cultural army paid the ultimate sacrifice when about nine thousand of its soldiers died at the Battle. With their sacrifice, they set the stage for the birth of a new Ethiopia where the reach of freedom, politically and economically, would be more egalitarian. The model, unfortunately, was not pursued in post-Adwa Ethiopia. The model of voluntary cooperation and coexistence has yet to be implemented in the twenty first century Ethiopia. The model has yet to break the cycle of poverty and endless violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa.

While the victory is certainly a major milestone in Ethiopian history, Menelik and his successors failed to fully appreciate and adopt the new reality that emerged (locally and internationally) as a consequence of the victory. The meaning and reach of freedom hampered by intolerance to internal criticism and resistance to reform the monarchy. Internationally, most historians agree that Adwa opened the way for the ultimate demise of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere.

Adwa is significant because it disturbed the colonial order in the world. Colonial subjects interpreted Adwa as a call to resist and defeat colonialism and racial oppressions through out the world. With Adwa, they have a permanent symbol and a constant reminder that colonialism was wrong and it ought to be defeated. No system is just in as long as it treats human beings as objects and fodders to exploitative and profitable economic systems. Citizen subject is a right that cannot be denied and that should be exercised if at all freedom is a universal right of peoples and communities. Adwa, to most historians, is an African victory. The 1884-85 Berlin Conference was convened to divide up the entire continent of Africa and assign colonial territories to European powers. The Europeans allocated the Horn of Africa to Italy. Italy’s unsuccessful military push in Ethiopia was a part of the European colonial order in Africa.

In preparation for this essay, I conducted field and library research in Ethiopia and abroad. I visited the town of Adwa in September 2006 and March 2012. Adwa is only 25 miles west of the ancient city of Aksum. I made the journey to Adwa in search of memorial markings, to participate in the 116th Battle of Adwa Anniversary, to pay tribute to the war heroes and heroines, to converse with residents and to visit relevant institutions and museums. The Battle of Adwa is known locally as 1886, the Ethiopian calendar year for 1896.

I also had a chance to examine archival documents in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University and the National Archive in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The National Archive has, among other books, manuscripts and papers written in local languages and scripts, a rich collection of documents encompassing the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries of the Common Era in Ethiopian history. I particularly read and copied relevant documents from the archival collections of Belata Mersea Hazen Wolde Qirqos, Doctor Dejazemach Zewde Gebre Selassie, Dejazemach Kebede Tessema, and Aleqa Taye Gebre Mariam. Recent publications of memoirs in Amharic by former palace officials or associates, such as Fitawrari Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariam and Dejazemach Zewde Retta, have also helped a great deal to elucidate historic events. Tsehafe Tezaz Gebre Selassie’s Tarike Zemen Ze Dagmawi Menelik Neguse Negest Ze Ethiopia (Historical Period of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia) is a useful source of the Battle. Gebre Selassie served as a personal chronicler of the Emperor.

The collection donated to the National Archive by Belata Merse Hazen Wolde Qirqos includes a critical essay entitled Atse Menelikena Ethiopia (Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia) written by a great Ethiopian scholar, Gebre Hiwot Baykedagn. His essay criticizes Ethiopian historians for failing to engage in critical interpretations of the past. He also points out the achievements and failures of Emperor Menelik II. Another scholar who was trained in Europe, Afeworq Gebreyesus wrote the biography of Emperor Menelik. The work is regarded as serious and fruitful. Gebre Hiwot Baykedagn criticizes the book for lack of balance in the appraisal of the leadership of Emperor Yohannes II in comparison to Emperor Menelik. In addition, almost ten years ago, I participated in a book project to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Battle of Adwa. The book, One House: The Battle of Adwa 1896-100 Years, edited by Pamela S, Brown and Fasil Yirgu, has contributors, such as the Late Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin, Richard Pankhurst, and Teshale Tibebu. My contribution is entitled “How Africa Defeated Europe.”

Menelik’s (Abba Dagnew) success at the Battle of Adwa may be attributed to the following factors: One, he surrounded himself with great advisors, such as Empress Taitu Bitul, Fitawarari Habte Giorgis Dinegde (Abba Mechal) and Ras Mekonnen, a nephew and father of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Menelik was a popular leader, skillful diplomat, and good listener. Menelik believed in reconciliation. Those who revolted against him once defeated they were immediately pardoned and allowed, unfortunately, to retain their original privileged position. Menelik was keenly aware of the colonial expansionist ambition of the French, British and Italians in the region. As a result, he actively sought and acquired modern weapons from Europe. He even bought a large quantity of weapons from the Italians. He also fully exploited the rivalries among the three colonizers. More importantly, out of a long war experience, together with his ministers, regional kings, he developed a winning war plan.

Menelik’s war declaration was widely heeded and welcomed throughout the country, a clear affirmation of his popularity. Menelik’s declaration is an important literary document in the context of preparation, the will to fight and become victorious at the Battle of Adwa. Menelik appealed to love of family, religion and country. He reminded Ethiopians that the intention of the enemy is to take away the core values and traditions cherished by the people. Menelik declared (translation mine):

“Up until now, through the grace of God, who permitted me to live by destroying my enemies and expanding the territorial boundaries of our country. It is also through the grace of God that I am ruling. Therefore, I have no fear of death. More importantly, God has never let me down and I am confident that he will let me be victorious again.”

“At this time, another enemy has entered our territory by crossing our God given sea. His objective is to destroy the country and to change the religion. As a result of a major cattle disease that devastated a large number of our livestock and brought great sufferings to our farmers and pastoralists in the last few years, I remained quiet and patient to numerous hostile provocations. And yet the enemy continued to dig dipper in the ground like a hog.”

“Now God willing or with God’s help, I will not surrender my country. My fellow country folks, I do not believe that I disappointed you in the past. You have not also disappointed me. If you are strong, then help me with your strength to fight the enemy. If you are not strong, I seek your moral support for the sake of your children, wife and religion. If, on the other hand, you seek lame excuse not to join the national campaign against our enemy, I will be upset and I will not have mercy on you, I will punish you. My campaign begins in October, and I expect volunteers from Shoa to gather in Woreilu by mid October.”

This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: abekerie@gmail.com.

About the Author:
Ayele Bekerie is an Associate Professor at the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Mekelle University.

Related:
The 1896 Battle of Adwa: Empress Taitu Bitul, The Visionary Co-Leader
Call for the Registry of Adwa as UNESCO World Heritage Site (Tadias)


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Photos: In Ethiopia, a Close-Up for the Gelada

Times photographer Damon Winter describes a trip to Ethiopia's Simien Mountains and an encounter with the gelada. (Photo: Flickr)

The New York Times

By Damon Winter

I was in Ethiopia last November for a monthlong assignment for The Times on art in Africa. The final leg of our trip sent us to Ethiopia, where we took a quick detour to the Simien Mountains, full of deep gorges and intricate mazes of canyons. The mountains are home to the gelada, sometimes called bleeding heart baboons because of a red patch on the chest of the males. (They are actually not baboons, though they are closely related.) They live exclusively on the short, tough grasses that grow on the Simiens’ slopes.

I guess the gelada are so used to visitors that they hardly notice people anymore. They move in large bands from one patch of grass to another, and you can walk alongside the group and watch a complete range of social behavior unfold right in front of you. You can see the delicate dance between male and female that defines their social structure, and watch the alpha males defend their territory and their harem from aggressors.

On my last morning there, I found one band grazing in a small field of grass near a cliff edge. After watching for about an hour in the field, I wandered over to the edge of the cliff and sat down to take in the view. Within about 20 minutes, the entire band of geladas had shifted positions and encircled me. It was as if I was just a part of the landscape.

Click here to view the slide show at The New York Times.

Related:
An Art Critic in Africa: Aksum and Lalibela

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Simien Mountains: One of the World’s Most Elevated & Isolated Wonderlands

Simien Mountains National Park in Ethiopia can be visited year-round, but a trip during Ethiopia's main dry season, running from October to February, is recommended. (Henry Wismayer)

The Wall Street Journal
By Henry Wismayer

My new companion on the mountain ledge emitted a croak and hopped a little closer. A momentary standoff followed as I contemplated a beak like bolt-cutters and talons the size of butcher’s hooks. The ground dropped away for a vertical mile on either side of this slender promontory. This was no place for wrangling with a feathered brute. I shuffled back to let the enormous raven—twice as big as any I’d ever seen—scavenge from my picnic leftovers.

If you’ve ever wondered how Jack felt on that first foray up the beanstalk, you could do worse than to visit Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. Looming high above the volcanic outriders of the Great Rift Valley, 670 miles north of Addis Ababa, the range is nature junked-up on growth hormones: a 37-mile-long basalt escarpment staggered between altitudes of 10,000 and 15,000 feet. The area is populated by supersize plants, boisterous monkey armies 500-strong and supersize ravens with a penchant for cookie crumbs.

It’s not a place that has always welcomed outsiders. From 1983 to ’99, famine and regional warfare snuffed out its tourism potential. Today, however, with Ethiopia’s economy expanding amid a semblance of political stability, the country is becoming a relatively safe and accessible destination. It’s often the tawny grandeur of the Ethiopian highlands, cradling Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches and towering above the fabled tombs of Aksum, that most impresses visitors. And it’s here in the Simiens that this region can be seen at its biggest and most sensational. Inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1978, it is a place that has been extolled by Unesco as “one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.” When I’d prepared to leave the scruffy, one-road town of Debark to begin a six-day trek of its high plateaus, I found myself wondering whether the hyperbole had left me expecting too much.

Continue reading at WSJ.com.

Related:
‘Ethiopia: Inspiring Journey’ A Coffee Table Book by Esubalew Meaza (TADIAS)

ART CRITIC: Bedrock of Art and Faith – The St. George Church in Lalibela

The St. George church in Lalibela, dedicated to Ethiopia’s patron saint, is one of 11 Ethiopian Orthodox churches that were carved out of the rock in the 13th century and are literally anchored in the earth. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

The New York Times
By HOLLAND COTTER

Published: April 20, 2012

LALIBELA, Ethiopia – ON the roads through Ethiopia’s highlands traffic raises a brick-red haze that coats your clothes, powders your skin and starts a creaking in your lungs. Despite the dust people wear white. Farmers wrap themselves in bleached cotton. Village funerals look like fields of snow. At churches and shrines white is the pilgrim’s color. I wear it too, protectively: long-sleeved white shirt, tennis cap, Neutrogena sun block. A pilgrim? Why not?

I’m here for something I’ve longed to see, Ethiopia’s holy cities: Aksum, the spiritual home of this east African country’s Orthodox Christian faith and, especially, the mountain town of Lalibela, with its cluster of 13th-century churches some 200 miles to the south. Lalibela was conceived as a paradise on earth. And its 11 churches, cut from living volcanic rock, are literally anchored in the earth. In scale, number, and variety of form there’s no architecture or sculpture quite like them anywhere. They’re on the global tourist route now, though barely. To Ethiopian devotees they’ve been spiritual lodestars for eight centuries, and continue to be.

Read more at The New York Times.

Assumptions and Interpretations of Ethiopian History (Part II)

Figure 3: Hatse Bazin’s Stela at Aksum (Photo: Ayele Bekerie)

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie
ayele_author.jpg

Published: Monday, March 15, 2010

Click here to read part one of this article.

Who are the authors of the external paradigm?

New York (Tadias)- Sergew (1972) represents the Ethiopian scholars who look at the Ethiopian history from outside in, one of the most ardent proponents of the external origin of Ethiopian history and civilization is Edward Ullendorff. In the preface to his book The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People, Ullendorff (1960) wrote:

This book is principally concerned with historic Abyssinia and the cultural manifestations of its Semitized inhabitants – not with all the peoples and regions now within the political boundaries of the Ethiopian Empire.

The constituent elements of the external paradigm are thus “historic Abyssinia” and “Semitized inhabitants.” Regarding the name Abyssinia, Martin Bernal (1987), in his book Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Vol 1, wrote: “It should be made clear that the name ‘Abyssynia’ was used precisely to avoid ‘Ethiopia,’ with its indelible association with Blackness. The first American edition of Samuel Johnson’s translation of the 17th-century travels of Father Lobo in Ethiopia and his novel Rasselas, published in Philadelphia in 1768, was entitled The History of Rasselas, prince of Abissinia: An Asiatic Tale! Baron Cuvier equated Ethiopian with Negro, but categorized the Abyssinians – as Arabian colonies – as Caucasians.”

On the question of “Semitized inhabitants, Bernal (1987) appears to agree with Ullendorff. Bernal stated, “The dominant Ethiopian languages are Semitic.” I must add, however, Bernal now claims the origin of what is generally accepted as Afro-Asiatic or “Semitic” languages is Ethiopia. The possible diffusion of the Afro-Asiatic languages from Ethiopia to the Near East since Late Paleolithic times have also been emphasized by Grover Hudson (1977; 1978). This claim by itself is a major challenge to the South Arabian or external paradigm. Ullendorff’s claim that “the Semitized inhabitants of historic Ethiopia” had South Arabian origin has become difficult to sustain. It is, however, exemplary to look into the writings of Ullendorff in order to bring to light the process of linking the Ethiopian history to an external paradigm.

According to Ullendorff, “no student of Ethiopia can afford to neglect the connection between that country and South Arabia. Among those who have recognized this vital link are Eugen Mitwoch, while leo Reinsch is the undisputed master of the Semitic connection with the Hamitic (Kushitic) languages of Ethiopia.” Hamitic/Semitic divide, of course, was nothing but a means to keep the Ethiopian people divided.

His divisiveness even became clearer in the following statement: “The Abyssinians proper, the carriers of the historical civilization of Semitized Ethiopia, live in the central and northern highlands. From the mountain of Eritrea in the north to the Awash valley in the south we find this clearly distinguishable Abyssinian type who for many centuries has maintained his identity against the influx of Negroid peoples of the Nile Valley, the equatorial lakes, or the Indian Ocean littoral.” What is surprising is this outdated argument of physical anthropology that remained unchallenged until very recently. It is also unfortunate that a significant portion of the Ethiopian elite would buy such erroneous assertion.

The outline of Ethiopian history constructed by Ullendorff begins with “South Arabia and Aksum.” And the outline has been duplicated and replicated by a significant number of Ethiopian historians. For instance, Sergew used similar “external” approach in his otherwise very important book entitled Ancient and medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. Sergew (1972) wrote, “Ethiopia is separated from Southern Arabia by the Red Sea. As is well known, the inhabitants of South Arabia are of Semitic stock, which most probably came from Mesopotamia long before our era and settled in this region. … For demographic and economic reasons, the people of South Arabia started to migrate to Ethiopia. It is hard to fix the date of these migrations, but it can be said that the first immigration took place before 1000 B.C.11 Sergew essentially echoed the proposition advanced by Ethiopianits, such as E. Littmann (1913), D. Nielson (1927), J Doresse (1957), H.V. Wissman (1953), C. Conti Rossini (1928), M. Hoffner (1960), A. Caquot and J. Leclant (1955), A. Jamme (1962), and Ullendorff (1960).12 The Ethiopianists almost categorically laid down the external or South Arabian paradigmatical foundation for Ethiopian history.

Challenges of the External Paradigm from Without

In Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity, Stuart Munro-Hay (1991) writes: “The precise nature of the contacts between the two areas [South Arabia and Ethiopia], their range in commercial, linguistic or cultural terms, and their chronology, is still a major question, and discussion of this fascinating problem continues.”13 What is notable in Munro-Hay’s interpretation is the very labeling of the Aksumite civilization as an African civilization. Its impact may be equivalent to Placid Temples’ Bantu Philosophy. At a time when Africans are labeled people without history and philosophy, the Belgian missionary in the Congo inadvertently overturned the Hegelian reduction of the so-called Bantu. Temples elevated the Bantu (African) by wanting to observe him in the context of reason and logic, that is, philosophy.

By the same token, Aksum: An African Civilisation dares to place or locate Aksum in Africa. That by itself is a clear shift of paradigm, from external to internal. It is an attempt to see Ethiopians as agents of their history. It is an attempt to question the validity of the south Arabian origin of the Ethiopian history and civilization.

Jacqueline Pirenne’s proposal has also convincingly challenged the validity of the external paradigm as the source of Ethiopian history. Pirenne suggests that the influence is in reverse, i.e., the Ethiopians influenced the civilization of the South Arabians. She reached her ‘ingenious’ conclusion after “weighing up the evidence from all sides, particularly aspects of material culture and linguistic/paleographic information.” Pirenne is essentially confirming the proposal made by scholars such as DuBois and Drusilla Dungee Houston, two African American vindicationist historians, who, in the early 1900s, wrote arguing that South Arabia was a part of ancient Ethiopia.

Another landmark in the refutation of the South Arabian paradigm comes from the Italian archaeologist, Rodolofo Fattovitch, who linked the pre-Aksumite culture to Nubia, “especially to Kerma influences, and later on to Meroe.” After more than three decades of extensive research and publications, Fattovitch in 1996 made the following conclusion: “The present evidence does not support the hypothesis of migration from Arabia to Africa in late prehistoric times. On the contrary, it suggests that Afro-Arabian cultures developed in both regions as a consequence of a strong and continuous interaction among the local populations.” Recent archaeological evidence from Asmara region also appeared to support the conclusion reached by Fattovitch. “Archaeologists from Asmara University and University of Florida, based on preliminary excavations in the vicinity of the Asmara, seemed to have found an agricultural settlement dated to be 3,000 years old.”

Challenges of the External Paradigm from Within

Among the Ethiopian scholars, Hailu Habtu (1987) presents a very strong case against the external paradigm. As far as Hailu is concerned, “the formulation of Ethiopian and other African historiography by European scholars at times suffers from Afro-phobia and Eurocentrism.” Hailu utilizes linguistic and historical linguistics evidence to challenge the external paradigm. Most importantly, Hailu suggested a new approach in the reading of the Ethiopian past by declaring the absence of “Semito/Hamitic dichotomy in Ethiopian tradition.” Hailu cites the works of Murtonen (1967) to question any significant linguistic connection between Ge’ez and the languages of South Arabia. According to Murtonen, “Ancient South Arabic is more closely related to northern Arabic and north-west Semitic rather than Ethiopic.” He also cites Ethiopian sources, such as Kibra Nagast or the Glory of Kings and Anqatsa Haimanot or the Gate of Faith.

Another Ethiopian historian who challenged the external paradigm is Teshale Tibebu. Teshale (1992) poignantly summarizes the argument as follows: “That Ethiopians are Semitic, and not Negroid; civilized, and not barbaric; are all images of orientalist semiticism in Western Social Science. Ethiopia is considered as the southwestern end of the Semitic world in Africa. The Ethiopian is explained in superlative terms because the ‘Negro’ is considered sub-human. That the heavy cloud of racism had been deeply embedded in the triplicate4 intellectual division among Social Sciences, orientalism, and anthropology – corresponding to Whites, ‘orientals’ (who included, Semitic people, who in turn included Ethiopians), and Negro and native American ‘savages,’ respectively – is common knowledge nowadays. … Ethiopians have always been treated as superior to the Negro but inferior to the White in Ethiopianist Studies because of the racist nature of the classification of the intellectual disciplines. It is quite revealing to see that more is written on Ethiopia in the Journal of Semitic Studies than in the Journal of African History.”

Perhaps the most persistent critique of the external paradigm was the great Ethiopian Ge’ez scholar, Aleqa Asras Yenesaw. Aleqa Asras categorically rejected the external paradigm as follows:

The notion that a Semitic fringe from South Arabia brought the writing system to Ethiopia is a myth.

1. South Arabia as a source of Ethiopian civilization is a political invention;

2. South Arabia was Ethiopian emperors inscribed a part of Ethiopia and the inscriptions in South Arabia.

3. There is no such thing as Sabaen script; it was a political invention designed to undermine Ethiopia’s place in world history.

Paleontological Evidence Places the Origin in Africa

Of course, Ethiopia in terms of place and time emerged much earlier than the name itself. The formation of a geographical feature called the Rift Valley predates in millions of years the word Ethiopia. It was in the Rift Valley of northeast Africa, thanks to the openings and cracks, that paleontologists have been able to unearth the earliest human-like species. At least 5 million years of human evolution has taken place before the naming of Ethiopia. Dinqnesh, Italdu, Garhi, ramidus or afarensis are names assigned within the last thirty years, even if they predate Ethiopia by a much longer time periods.

Ethiopia’s beginning, in paleontological terms, was in what we now know as southern Ethiopia. The Afar region is primal, for it is the cradle of human beings. The people of this region may have experimented with the oldest stone technology to develop our initial knowledge about plants and animals. They may have also experimented with languages and cultures so as to create groups and communities. They may have also been the first to map varying residential sites by moving from one locality to another.

In other words, the history of human beings begins in Africa, more specifically in the Rift Valley regions of northeast and southern Africa. As a result, African history is central to the early development of human beings. As the oldest continent on earth, it has been particularly valuable in the study of life. To many, Africa has made one of the most important, if not the most important contributions: the emergence of the earliest human ancestors about five million years ago. Evidence has shown that all present humans originated in Africa before migrating to other parts of the world. Paleontology is providing an incredible array of information on human origin. Furthermore, gene mapping and blood test are useful methods in the understanding of human beginnings in Africa.


Figure 4: Paleontological Site at Melka Kunture, central Ethiopia (Photo by
Ayele Bekerie)

Ethiopia has become one of the most important sites in the world in the unearthing and understanding of our earliest ancestors. Among the earliest human-like species found in Ethiopia are: Aridepithecus ramidus (4.4 – 4.5 myo), Australopithecus afarensis also known as Dinqnesh (3.18 myo), and Australopithecus garhi (2.5 – 2.9 myo). A. ramidus (an Afar word for root) is one of the earliest hominid species found in Aramis, Afar region by a team including Tim White and Berhane Asfaw. A. afarensis is widely considered to be the basal stalk from which other hominids evolved. Dinqnesh was found in Hadar, Afar region by Donald Johanson and his team in 1974. In addition, the oldest stone tools or the earliest stone technology, which is dated 2.5 million years old, was found in the Afar region by an Ethiopian paleontologist, Seleshi Semaw and his team in 1998.

Furthermore, Ethiopia has also provided us with a concrete fossil evidence for the emergence of modern human species, Homo sapiens, about 160, 000 years ago, again from the Afar region of Ethiopia. The fossil evidence supports the DNA evidence that traced our common ancestor to a 200,000-year-old African woman.23 “Geneticists traced her identity by analyzing DNA passed exclusively from mother to daughter in the mitochondria, energy-producing organelles in the cell.”24 Likewise, scientists from Stanford University and the University of Arizona have conducted a study to find the genetic trail leading to the earliest African man or Adam. According to this Y chromosome study, the earliest male ancestors of the modern human species include some Ethiopians, whose descendants populated the entire world.

According to Berhane Asfaw, an Ethiopian paleontologist, Edaltu, the probable immediate ancestor of anatomically modern humans and the 160,000-year-old fossilized hominid crania from Herto, Middle awash, Ethiopia, “fill the gap and provide crucial evidence on the location, timing and contextual circumstances of the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa.”

In other words, as Lapiso Dilebo puts it, “Ethiopia is the primordial home of primal human beings and that ancient Ethiopian civilization ipso facto and by recent archaeological findings precedes chronologically and causally all civilizations of the ancients, especially that of Egyptian and Greco-Roman civilizations.”

I am also devoting more space to the paleontological aspect of Ethiopian history to show the way toward a paradigm shift in the reading of the Ethiopian past. It is very clear that humanity has gone through a set of dynamic evolutionary processes in Africa. What we now know as Ethiopia is central to part of an evolutionary transformation, which is attested by the presence of more than 87 linguistic groups that eventually emerged in it.

I think it will be fascinating to look into the historical convergence and divergence of all these linguistic/cultural groups, of course, from inside out.

Towards the People-Centered History of Ethiopia

A people-centered Ethiopian history will have at least the following foundations of material cultures. I would like to identify them as pastoral, inset and teff civilizations. Distinct communities and ways of lives have been established and perpetuated on the bases of these three civilizations in three major ecological zones. Moreover, we observe the emergence of national traditions and identity through the interactions of these civilizations.

Pastoral civilizations tend to concentrate in the lowlands or dry or semi dry lands of Ethiopia. The civilization is also conducive to coexist with the traditions and practices of both inset and teff civilizations. The inset civilization covers a wide region in the south and southwest, in an area known as woina dega or an ecological zone between the lowland and the highlands of Ethiopia. It is a tradition that is deeply rooted among the peoples of Wolaita, Gurage Betoch, Keffa and numerous other nationalities of the south. Teff civilization is the civilization encompassing central and northern Ethiopia that is the mountainous region of Ethiopia. It is important to note that I use the term civilization to denote the social, economic and cultural institutions that are established and sustained by the people. Pastoral, inset and teff are primary occupations of the people, but the essence of their lives is not entirely dominated by them.


Figure 5: Bete Giorgis Church at Lalibela, northern Ethiopia
(Photo by Ayele Bekerie)

What are the main characteristics of these civilizations? The civilizations are home grown and deeply rooted. In other words, the people have succeeded in mastering ways of life that can be passed on from generations to generations. Furthermore, the civilizations are allowed to flourish in a pluralistic environment. In other words, they are civilizations that embrace or tolerate multilingual and multi-religious expressions. In all the three cases, we witness the presence of monotheistic or indigenous religious traditions, multiple linguistic expressions and patterns of social structures and functions under the umbrellas of these civilizations.

It is my contention that such inward approach may help us to fully understand, for instance the Gada age-grade system of the Oromos. The Gada system is regarded as one of the most egalitarian democratic system invented by the Oromos. The system allows the entire community to fully participate in its own affairs. All age groups have roles to play, events to chronicle and responsibilities to assume. I just can’t imagine how we can achieve modernity, or for that matter post-modernity in governance and development, without seriously considering such a relevant practice.

The inset civilization tends to allow its male members to venture to other professions far from home. A case in point would be the Gurages and the Dorzes. The Gurages are active in trading and business through out the country. The Dorzes are the weavers and cloth makers from homegrown resources for the larger population. Inset does not take a lot of space. A well-fertilized acreage at the back of the residential home may have enough inset plants, which are capable of meeting the carbohydrate needs of the entire household throughout the year.

Teff is part of the plow culture of the highlands. Just like inset, teff culture is unique to Ethiopia. No traces of teff or inset cultures are found in South Arabia. It is indeed in these significant material cultures that we begin collecting data in order to construct the long and diverse history of Ethiopia.
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Slideshow: Photos used in this article

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Publisher’s Note: We hope this article will spark a healthy discussion on the subject. The piece is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: ab67@cornell.edu.

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.

The Not-So-Lost Ark of the Covenant

A fallen Stela facing the Saint Zion Maryam Church in Aksum, Ethiopia. (Photo by Ayele Bekerie)

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie, PhD

ayele_author.jpg

Published: Monday, December 21, 2009

New York (TADIAS) – “We don’t have to prove it to anyone. [If] you want to believe, it’s your privilege. If you don’t want to believe, it’s your own privilege again.”

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), offered the above response to Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University when asked to provide ‘a piece of evidence’ for the Ark of the Covenant during an interview for a PBS documentary film in 2003 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Patriarch, in perhaps most memorable moment of the interview, reminded the learned professor from Harvard that the Ark and its meaning to Ethiopians, is a matter of faith and not proof.

The Ark of the Covenant, which registers close to three thousand years (one thousand years of amete alem or zemene bluei (Old Testament) and two thousand years of amete mehret or zemene hadis (New Testament)) of history, beginning with the period of Queen Makeda (also known as Queen of Sheba) of Aksum. The Ark has been established as a central tenet of Christianity in Ethiopia. It captures the true essence of faith to at least 40 million believers in the ancient-centered Ethiopia and the EOTC’s dioceses all over the world. Its people’s communication to Igziabher is mediated through this sacred prescribed relic. The purpose of this essay is to narrate a history of the Ark and its relevance from a perspective of Ethiopian history and culture.

The EOTC, according to Abuna Yesehaq teaches, “Igziahaber is one Creator, one Savior, and redeemer for all humankind.” It also teaches, based on the ecumenical council’s confessions that Jesus Christ was not in two natures but rather one. The two natures were one nature united without any degree of separation, thus, making Christ both perfect God and perfect person simultaneously.

According to Abba Gorgorios, the Ark or what Ethiopians call tabot is linked to the Old Testament and the freedom of the Hebrew Israelites. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt; he was accompanied by two tablets that were inscribed with asertu qalat which were given to him by the Amlak of Abraham, Yisahq and Yacob on Mount Sinai (debre sina). Moses was further instructed by Amlak to build a container (tabot) for the tablets or what Ethiopians call tsilat and a temple.

Abba Gorgorios described the tabot not only as a safe and secret station for the tsilat, but it is also a site of spiritual revelation, the revelation of Amlak’s limitless mercy. The tabot is like a throne and at the time of its coronation (negse), it is revealed spiritually to the faithful. Among the various Old Testament traditions Ethiopia decided to incorporate to its form of Christianity is the tradition of the Ark.

The Ark, which is brought out of its inner sanctum during important church festivals, is not a physical representation of Igziabher (God). The Ark is believed to carry the presence of God and Ethiopia is perhaps the first country in the world to accept the Old Testament faith. The Ark is an accepted tradition among the Oriental Churches. For instance, the Copts referred to it as Luhe. The Eastern Churches, on the other hand, do not embrace the Ark in their faith.

According to Sergew Hable Selassie, Abu Salih, the Armenian traveler and author, was the first foreigner who made a reference to the existence of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia. He described the Ark in which are the two tables of stone, “inscribed by the finger of God with the Ten Commandments.”

The Ark of the Covenant may have been a source of mystery and curiosity for people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but for Ethiopian Christians, it is the rock of their faith. There have been countless conjectures regarding the Ark’s fate and final resting place, but the Ethiopian Christians locate the Ark or what they call Tabot at the center of their faith. While the rest of the world sees it, at best, as a source of inspiration to write mystery novels, construct countless theories or make adventurous films, “the Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia from Jerusalem with the return of Menelik I after his famous visit with his father, the King Solomon.”

Writers such as Graham Hancock at present or James Bruce in the eighteenth century make their fortunes or earn their fame by dedicating or investing their lives to ‘discover’ the not-so-lost Ark of the Covenant or other ancient relics. To Ethiopians, Menelik I also brought the Kahinat of the Old Testament and many Old Testament books.

The EOTC is a member of the family of Orthodox churches, such as the Coptic, Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Indian, Russian and Serbian churches. “Together with the Roman Catholic Church and the Byzantine Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Churches were a single church for four centuries until they split apart at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.” The EOTC has 32 dioceses in Ethiopia. It has also dioceses in Jerusalem, the Caribbean, South America, the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and several sites in the rest of Africa. The EOTC has 40 archbishops, 400 thousand clergy and 30, 000 parish churches.


Figure 2: The Faithful praying and waiting for tsebel (holy water) by the fence of the
Chapel where the Ark is kept. Across is another view of Saint Zion Maryam Church.
(Photo by Ayele Bekerie)

The story of the not-so-lost Ark of the Covenant is widely known, but only Ethiopians claim that they are its keepers. Legend has it that the Ark is endowed with enough power, if approached too closely or touched, to strike mortal beings dead. These aspects of the Ark has been extrapolated and exploited in movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Its power may have also encouraged the Ethiopians to always keep it under wrap. Not only that, at the core of the ecclesiastical, liturgical and doctrinal teachings and practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahado Church, the centrality of the Ark becomes quite evident.

The Ark is, in fact, the most sacred and defining symbol of the Church, which is one of the oldest churches in the world. Ethiopians wholeheartedly believe that the original Ark was brought to Ethiopia from Jerusalem by Menelik I, a creation of royal affairs between the Queen of Sheba of the Aksumites and King Solomon of the Israelites. Menelik I, according to Ethiopian tradition, was a consolidator of a new dynasty found by his mother, approximately 3,000 years ago.


Figure 3: The Chapel for the Ark of the Covenant. (Photo by Ayele Bekerie)

It is important to note that organized and orderly system of government did not begin with Queen of Sheba in Ethiopia. There were a series of rulers prior to the rise of the Queen. The Queen succeeded in elevating her empire to a global status by wisely adopting Judaism. The extent of her wisdom even becomes clearer when the rule of her son became irreversibly and forever linked to the great symbol: the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, in the Ethiopian context, is a great source of tradition and continuity. With established rituals, the faithful maintain a sense of connection to Igziabher and through religious pilgrimage; they ensure the vitality of their religion.

I concede that the story of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon has several versions both within and without Ethiopia. For instance, the origination of the Queen’s Arabian name, Bilqis, is a derivative of a “vast and confused skein of traditions and tales.” The Queen is cited by some Arabian sources as having been born in Mareb, the capital of the Sabean Empire, and as being the successor of her father. The grand temple of the Mahram Bilqis in Mareb still bears her name, and according to local folklore, her spirit surrounds the temple and nearby dam.

In Hebrew traditions, the Old Testament refers to the Queen as “Queen of Sheba” and in the New Testament she is the “Queen of the South” or Azeb. The Ethiopians, on the other hand, not only they use these biblical names, but they have also added their own name, Negest Makeda.

In the Ethiopian text of the Kebra Nagast, an elaborate version that places the Queen at the center of the tale is rendered. The Ethiopian source distinguishes itself by devoting its focus on Makeda’s son Menelik I. In fact, the tradition of Menelik I belongs more to ancient Ethiopia than the Arabian Peninsula.

The Ark’s holy pedestal is in a chapel next to Saint Maryam Zion Church in Aksum, the holy city of Orthodox Christianity. Georgelas observes, “If most places draw guests inside for a transformative experience, Aksum’s unassuming chapel does the opposite. By shrouding itself and its holy treasure in mystery, it gains its power by remaining unseen – a sacred place that can’t be entered or directly experienced, only imagined and believed.” Georgelas is expressing the views of those who see the Ark and its ‘discovery’ as their potential source of glory. The Ethiopians never entertain such a view. However, keenly recognizing the undying interest of adventurers or enemies to wrest the Ark from them, they came up with a strategy of keeping it safe and secure.

The Ark is replicated thousands of times so that its presence within the faith and history of Ethiopia remains uninterrupted from one generation to another. The replication is also a strategy to secure the ever presence of the Ark by making it next to impossible to remove the Ark from the chapel. In addition, the Ark is guarded by a succession of monks who, once anointed, remained in the Chapel or the chapel grounds until they die. Their sole duties are to protect the Ark.


Figure 4: Celebrating the day of Saint Maryam in the month of September at Saint
Zion Maryam Church. (Photo by Ayele Bekerie)

Munro-Hay’s The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant documents and narrates the medieval history of Ethiopia, particularly the history of the monarchy, the church and the contending forces against these two major institutions both from within and without. Among the well-documented medieval history, a reader finds the attempt by the Catholic Church to destroy the Ethiopian Church during the rule of Emperor Susenyos quite fascinating. “On 11 December 1625, at Danquaz, an Emperor of Ethiopia, Susenyos, knelt before a Catholic Patriarch to offer obedience to the Roman Pontiff, Urban VII.” His short-lived conversion triggered a bloody civil war where millions of Ethiopians died. It is important to note, however, “In a dramatic and successful effort to preserve their most sacred relic, some priests fled with the Holy Tabot of Aksum, as the Catholic faith grew stronger.” Ethiopians also succeeded in restoring their faith thanks to the martyrdom of Takla Giorgis, the son-in-law of Susenyos and many others. In 1628, Takla Giorgis smashed the sacred ornaments of the Catholics placed in the Holy of Holies of the Aksum Church. After 11 years and six months stay in Digsa, the eastern highlands of Eritrea, the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Aksum.

Menelik I also began, as a result of his successful transfer of a holy relic and royal blood, the Solomonic line of dynastic rulers, who ruled Ethiopia until 1974. Emperor Haile Selassie was the last ruler to claim a line of this mythologized and enduring dynasty in Ethiopian history. The Ark is, therefore, at the center of both church and state formations and consolidations in Ethiopia. The two institutions not only functioned in tandem, but they have also played defining roles by delineating some of the cultural, political, social and economic parameters of Ethiopia.

The Ark became the basis for establishing the divine lineage of Ethiopian monarchy in addition to centering the faithful to a unique form of Christianity. The Ark as a central symbol of Christianity is exclusively an Ethiopian phenomena. The Ark is called Tabot in the Ethiopian languages and its sacredness is maintained by always keeping it wrapped and placed in the inner most circle or citadel, Qidist, of the Church. As a matter of faith, Ethiopians always insist that they possess the original Ark. The holy relic, however, has had a tremendous impact on both Judaism and Christianity. Despite intense controversies associated with the relic, particularly with regard to its existence, the established and regularly observed religious rituals of the Ark in Ethiopia, has assured undying interest in it throughout the world.

The remarkable marriage between the Old Testament and the construction of Ethiopian Orthodoxy is perhaps captured with the picture below. The fallen largest obelisk is shown together with Tsion Maryam Church in Aksum. According to oral traditions, the Ark of the Covenant’s supreme power sliced the obelisk out of the rock and set it into place.


Photo by Ayele Bekerie.

The Ethiopians’ assured insistence in possessing the Ark ought to be seen in the context of Biblical history and in their desire to see themselves within it. The Ark is tied to the histories of the Israelites and Ethiopians. While the tradition of the Israelites, as amply described in the Old Testament, settled with the story of the lost Ark, the Ethiopian tradition is constituted on the belief that the not-so-lost Ark is in Aksum.

According to Hoberman, The Ark suddenly disappeared in the sixth century BCE, perhaps at the time of the Babylonian invasion and destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonian army. The Ark was originally housed in a temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem circa 970 – 930 BCE. Most biblical scholars also acknowledge that the Ark was originally built by Israelites. It was Moses, the prophetic leader of the Israelites, who placed the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which he obtained from God atop Mount Sinai. The Ethiopians call the Ten Commandments asertu qalat.

The Ethiopian source for the Ark of the Covenant is the authoritative and the scared book, Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings). This ancient book, in the main, narrates how the Ark was transferred from Jerusalem to Aksum and proclaimed as the most important symbol of the Church. Kebra Nagast vividly describes the journey of Makeda (Negesta Saba or the Queen of Sheba) to Jerusalem to ascertain King Solomon’s greatness and wisdom and in the process how Menelik was begotten. When the son came of age, “he went to visit his father, and on his return journey was accompanied by the first born sons of some Israelite nobles, who, unbeknown to Menelik, stole the Ark and carried it with them to Ethiopia.” Geogelas claims that the son of the high priest of Jerusalem, Azariah stole the Ark and Menelik only learned that the Ark had been stolen on his journey back to Ethiopia. Menelik still continued on his journey after hearing of the theft, and brought the Ark to Aksum.

The Ark, Hoberman writes, became the source of much elation, for it is the outward symbol of God’s holy presence. Ethiopians also see the relic’s ‘safe and secure’ presence in Aksum as legitimate heirs to the kings of Israel and Judah. The Ark marks the decision to switch from an indigenous religion to Judaism, which later became transformed, voluntarily and peacefully, into Ethiopian Christianity.

It is important to note that the switch from traditional religion to Judaism or the addition of Christianity to the belief system was voluntary. This method of religious adoption is instrumental in the creation and maintenance of indigenous traditions. There were no religious wars or invasions in the process. In fact, the conscious decision to incorporate these two monotheistic religions may have paved the way for creative adaptation and for the proliferation of literary and artistic traditions in Aksum and beyond. To the faithful, the Ark made Ethiopia “the second Zion; Aksum, the new Jerusalem.”

The continuity of a remarkable tradition becomes apparent nationally four times a year during Gena (the Feast of Nativity), Timqat (the Feast of the Glorious Baptism), Tinsaé (the Feast of the Holy Resurrection), and Mesqel (the Feast of the Illuminating Cross). The event that the Ark is magnified the most is on January 18th in conjunction with the celebration of Timkat or Epiphany. The replicas of the Ark or tabotat are brought out of the Churches and paraded through the streets in the presence of a sea of colorfully costumed and purely joyous believers throughout the country. An observer describes the ceremony as follows:

“On their heads the priests carried the tabotat, wrapped in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Catching the sight of the scared bundle, hundreds of women in the crowd began ululating – making a singsong wail with their tongues – as many Ethiopian women do at moments of intense emotion.”

There are also special annual celebrations of the coronation of tabotat in revered sites, such as Geshen Mariam on September 21, Tsion Mariam on November 21, Qulubi Gabriel on December 19 (As an undergraduate student at the then Alemaya College and now Horemaya University, I affirmed my faith, which was passed on from my parents, by walking from Alemaya to Qulubi for the annual festival and spiritual ecstasy by attending yequlubi Gabriel tabot neges.), Abo Gebre Menfus Qedus on October 5, Gena or Christmas in Lalibela on December 29, Timkat or Epiphany in Gondar on January 11. It is very common for the faithful to make pilgrims at least once to all these sites.

I trust Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., will be willing to reconsider to revise his mode of thinking regarding the not-so-lost Ark. I am sure, if he makes another ‘wandering’ trip to what he correctly calls the holy land, he will not ask the Patriarch for a ‘piece of evidence.’ Rather he may deploy his creative talent to narrate the extraordinary achievement of Ethiopians who succeeded in weaving an ancient tradition of the Ark and its unseen power to their sense of identity, continuity and inter-nationality.

The Monarchy may have gone, but tabot is negus in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians, without a doubt, believe the original Ark is located in a chapel of St Mary of Zion Church in Aksum. The replica of the Arc is found in over 30, 000 churches throughout the country as well as in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The Ark is central to the religious belief of the Christian Ethiopians. The Ark’s centrality in Ethiopian Christianity is bound to persist for generations to come.

Hymns to not-so-lost of the Ark, hymns to the majestic shrine, hymns to the visible embodiment of the presence of Igziabher, for it signifies the hybridity of our expressive and visual signposts drawn from the ancestral past to integrate into our much diverse and broader present Ethiopian culture.

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Publisher’s Note: This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: ab67@cornell.edu

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.

The Saint Yared Choir Performs At The U.N. Tellman Chapel

Above: The Saint Yared Choir of Washington D.C was featured
as special guest at NNN’s event held the U.N. Tellman Chapel
on Sunday, December 6, 2009.

Tadias Magazine
Events News

Published: Saturday, December 12, 2009

New York (Tadias) – The Saint Yared Choir of Washington D.C. gave a breathtaking concert at The United Nations Tellman Chapel last week.

The event, hosted by Nation to Nation Networking (NNN), a non-profit organization based in New York, featured vocal ensembles of diverse backgrounds including: The Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, The Hai Tien Chorus, and The Children’s Theatre Company of New York.

The St. Yared Choir was established by the Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church (St. Mary’s) in Washington D.C, to celebrate the life and work of St. Yared, a composer and a choreographer who lived in Aksum in the 6th century AD.

According to Ayele Bekerie, a Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University, “Zema or the chant tradition of Ethiopia, particularly the chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, is attributed to St. Yared…he is credited for inventing the Zema of the Church; the chant that has been in use continuously for the last almost 1500 years.”

The voices and choreographed movements of the St. Yared D.C choir was led by Mr. Moges Seyoum, recipient of the 2008 National Heritage Fellowship for his “artistic excellence” and “cultural authenticity” – the highest honor in folk and traditional arts awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The concert’s theme: “Building bridges across cultures and fostering a broader understanding among peoples and communities of all nations.”

The afternoon musical testimony of diverse faith was moving and enchanting.


Proceeds from the event is going to fund NNN’s annual International Youth Assembly and the completion of the organization’s Adolescent Resources Centers in Africa and the Caribbean.

Slideshow: More photos from the U.N. Tellman Chapel

Video: St. Yared Celebration at St. Mary’s in D.C. 3 years ago

Ethiopian and Egyptian Art at the Walters Art Museum

Examiner.com
By Shirlene Alusa-Brown
Baltimore Ethnic Events Examiner

July 12, 2009

The Walters Art Museum has one of the largest collections of Ethiopian art outside of Ethiopia. The collection of Ethiopian Art at the Walters Art Museum is exhibited with those of Byzantium and Russia in a permanent gallery devoted to the art of the Orthodox world. The Ethiopian collection of art is very large and rivals the Byzantium and Russian collections. Read more.

Related From Tadias Magazine Archive
Ethiopian Art from The Walters Art Museum
New Yorkers Received Rare Treat at MOBIA
Tadias Magazine
By COLLEEN LUTOLF

New York – (Tadias) – Walters Art Museum Director Gary Vikan’s fascination with Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian art began in a Washington D.C. basement during the 1960s.

——————————————————————————————–
Listen on WNYC: Dr. Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters
Art Museum, talks about the significance of Ethiopian
religious icons and other objects of worship on display
at the Museum of Biblical Art.


——————————————————————————————-

“I do remember going into somebody’s house in Washington [D.C.] and seeing the Virgin [Mary] with these huge, dark eyes,” Vikan said during a recent interview. “And I remember the moment I saw it and where I was standing. The memory is very strong.”

Private collections throughout the world, like those protected beneath a Washington D.C. house, inside rock-hewn Christian monasteries in Ethiopia, or above ground in a New York City SoHo loft, have provided the Walters Art Museum with a majority of its Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian art, Vikan said.

Vikan only began collecting Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art for the Walters in 1993, the same year he curated “African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia,” an historical exhibition he said served as a “flashpoint” for the current strife occurring in Ethiopia at the time.

“In the context of doing the exhibition, it was not easy. It was a troubled moment historically” in Ethiopia, Vikan said, with Mengistu Haile Mariam’s reign of Red Terror having just ended. The trial that would prosecute members of the communist Derg, mostly in absentia, would soon begin.

“These aspects put people on edge, and they kind of spilled over, not into the exhibition itself, but the different views, it was very interesting,” he said. “The exhibition had facets that most exhibitions don’t have.”

A year later, Vikan, a medieval orthodox art scholar and trained Byzantinist, moved from chief curator to director of the Walters and began collecting Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art in earnest. The Walters now boasts the largest collection of this type of Ethiopian devotional art outside of Ethiopia in the world.

“Certainly the best, from some very interesting private collections,” Vikan said. “I was attracted to it before anyone paid much attention to it.”

When the collection of a sub-Saharan art dealer who passed away was being sold off, Vikan got a call.

“Somebody selling off the collection who knew about me – this would’ve been in 1995 in New York in a loft in SoHo – they invited me down to look at this and I thought, ‘This is really amazing,’” Vikan recalled. A stock market windfall allowed Vikan to buy a number of those pieces for the Walters, and they are now included in the museum’s 100-piece collection of metalwork, icon painting, woodcarvings and ancient manuscripts that span 1,500 years of Ethiopian Christian devotion. The collection is now the central exhibit on the medieval floor of the Walters Art Museum.

“It’s in the pride position because it is so visually powerful that nothing else could dominate it,” Vikan said. “It dominates the Byzantine art around it.”

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian collection also shares the medieval floor with Russian, Byzantine, and Georgian Orthodox art in the Baltimore museum.

“The others revolve around Ethiopia,” Vikan said. “It would make the room look funny [if they didn’t] because the others are not as visually strong.”

New Yorkers were recently given an opportunity to view about half of the Walters’ collection when the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City hosted “Angels of Light: Ethiopian Art from The Walters Art Museum” from March 23 through May 20.

If museum-goers had a feeling they were being watched as they entered the “Angels of Light” exhibition at the MOBIA, they had good reason. Huge, dark eyes similar to those that greeted Vikan in that Washington D.C. basement over 40 years ago were looking out from various devotional icon paintings depicting Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, almost always flanked by angels with equally large eyes that symbolize holiness.

triptych-with-virgin-and-child2_new.jpg
Above: Anonymous painter. Triptych with Virgin and Child
Flanked by archangels, scenes from the life of Christ,
apostles and Saint George and Saint Mercurius. Ethiopia
(Gojjam?), late 17th century. Tempera on panel. 14 78 x
4 5/16 inches left; 15 1/8 x 9 inches center; 15 1/16 x 4
7/16 inches right. 36.7 museum purchased, the W. Alton
Jones Foundation Acquisition Fund, 1996, from the Nancy
and Robert Nooter Collection.

Most of the iconic paintings date between the 15th to 17th centuries in diptychs and triptychs depicting familiar Christian scenes – Christ on the cross; the Virgin Mary, seated, with the Christ child holding a book in his left hand, and embraced in Mary’s left arm with the first two fingers of her right hand pointing downward; Christ with a crown of thorns, Christ teaching the apostles.

While the compositions of these depictions can be traced to visiting missionaries and artists carrying with them Byzantine and Western examples of Christian iconic devotional paintings after the 14th century, the Ethiopian depictions are unique from any other depiction of Christian scenes in the world, MOBIA curator Holly Flora said.

“Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has a very close relationship to angels that is not always found elsewhere,” said Flora. “Objects relating to healing as well are emphasized in Ethiopian art.”

Also unique to the art of Ethiopian Orthodoxy is the artists’ use of vibrant colors in paintings and manuscripts.

diptych-with-virgin-and-child_new.jpg
Above: Diptych with Virgin and Child flanked by archangels, apostles,
and Saint George. Ethiopia, late 15th century. Tempera on panel.

To understand what makes Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art unique, one must understand the role African traditional religions and Judaism played in Ethiopian culture prior to the introduction to Christianity, said Ayele Bekerie, assistant professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center.

“The influence of ancient religious traditions are manifested in what we now call Ethiopian Christianity, particularly in reaching out to angels and visualizing the biblical stories in colors and styles inspired by the material culture and environment,” Bekerie said. “It is important to note that most monasteries and some churches are built on top of hills and mountains where you experience remarkable and colorful views of the sunrise and sunset. Besides, the landscape is always a panorama of rainbow colors.”

Ethiopian Christianity also evolved out of a Judaic culture as well, established over 3,000 years ago. Bekerie tells the story:

“Judaism is introduced to Ethiopia at the time of Empress Makeda (She is also called Azeb and Queen of Sheba) and her son, Menelik I, the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty in Ethiopia. According to Ethiopian oral tradition, Empress Makeda paid a visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem where she made a deliberate journey in order to learn from the reported wisdom of the king. She did achieve her objective and even more by giving birth to Menelik, the son of the king. Menelik’s rite of passage was to travel to Jerusalem to meet with his father. The overjoyed king asked him to become the king of Israel, but the son wanted to return back to Ethiopia.”

“His return (there are many versions) resulted in the establishment of Judaism (a new tradition of believing in one God) in Ethiopia with the most important sacred symbol of the Ark at the center of the new belief system. When later on, Christianity emerged in Ethiopia, we observe a logical evolution of the faith from Judaism. This is because the Ethiopian Christianity is the only Christianity in the world that embraces and holds the Ark of the Covenant as its defining sacred symbol.”

“Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia,” Flora said. “They will tell you unequivocally the Ark is there.”

Ethiopians believe the Ark is located in the Aksumite Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, but every church in Ethiopia and throughout the world must have a replica of the Ark in order affirm their legitimacy, Bekerie said.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world. The religion was practiced along the Ethiopian coastline as early as 42 A.D., Bekerie said, after a Meroë (in what is modern day Sudan) merchant introduced commoners to the religion. Due to the inclusive nature of African traditional religions, Christians were able to worship openly without fear of persecution.

Perhaps more significantly, Ethiopia became one of the first countries in the world to take Christianity as its state religion approximately 300 years later when, according to legend, Frumentius, a Christian merchant seaman from Tyre on his way to India with relatives, became shipwrecked and was delivered to the king in Axum, a powerful world empire in the fourth century, Bekerie said.

“He was raised with special care and managed to master the language and traditions of the Aksumites,” said Bekerie. When the king’s son Ezana, came to power, the long-trusted Frumentius convinced him to make Christianity the state religion.

Proof of the conversion is part of the Walters Art Museum collection. Two silver coins, slightly larger in diameter than a pencil eraser, and crafted in the 4th century, show on one side the likeness of Aksumite King Ousanas, on the other, a cross. Aksumite coins are the first in the world to carry the cross, pre-dating Constantinople.

African traditional religious practices were also incorporated into the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian religion.

Protective scrolls, made for those who were ill or believed to be possessed by demons, were created (and still are today in some remote villages, Flora said), by clerics known as däbtära. The däbtära would sacrifice a goat, sprinkle the ill or those believed to be possessed with the goat’s blood, then fashion the scroll from the sacrificed goat’s skin, Flora said.

A healing scroll from the 18th century obtained by the Walters Museum and on display there, was created for a woman named “Martha.” The scrolls combined Christian imagery with magical incantations written in Ge´ez, a liturgical language developed in Ethiopia in the 4th century. The incantations were book-ended by talismans drawn at the top and bottom of the scroll and are believed to protect their owners, Flora said. The scrolls’ recipients then wore the prayer scrolls until they were believed healed.

prayer-scrool_new.jpg
Above: Prayer Scroll. Ethiopia,
19th century. Ink on parchment.
65 9/16 x 3 7/16 inches. W.788,
gift of Mr. James St. Lawrence
O’Toole, 1978.

Another prayer object that is unique to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and features the well-honed abilities of Ethiopian metalworkers are processional crosses. Draped in purple textiles, the MOBIA featured six such crosses, almost six feet in height, dating as far back as the 13th century. Made of gold or silver, these crosses are carried by priests during processions and feature intricate geometrical patterns, Flora said.

“Priests carried these during mass and also used them as instruments of blessing,” she said.

hand-cross_new.jpg
Above: Hand Cross. Ethiopia, 18th–19th century.

While Ethiopian artists were almost unquestionably influenced by Western and Byzantine devotional icon painting in the 15th century, due in part, museum curators suggest, to the destruction of many church murals and liturgical objects during the Muslim invasions of the 1530s and 1540s, Bekerie said some observers are too quick to see overt Western influence in Ethiopian artists’ creative thought.

“It seems to me there is some sort of mental block not to acknowledge originality and creativity in the Ethiopian artists,” he said. “I always advise scholars to use the example of the architecture of the Debre Damo Monastery, the oldest monastery in Ethiopia.”

The monastery is constructed of stone blocks and logs, creating a distinct architectural feature, Bekerie said. Distinct painting traditions have also emerged in different regions of Ethiopia and are pursued by students over the centuries.
The monarchy and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian Church were institutional pillars that guided culture and politics in Ethiopia until the monarchy’s fall in 1974, Bekerie said.

“The monarchy is gone and the church is still place,” he said. “It is true that there are other religious institutions, including Islamic, Catholic and Protestant institutions. The oldest and by far the most influential is the Tewahedo Church. [Its] influence is apparent in art, music, social relations, food habits and literature.”

And as the collection of Ethiopian art becomes more popular, the sources for these collections become fewer, said Vikan.

“All of it’s drying up and that’s a good thing,” he said. “We need this art to be shown outside of the country, but [its distribution] needs to be controlled and shown in a way that acknowledges the dignity of the culture from which it comes.”


About the Author:
Colleen Lutolf is a reporter for Tadias Magazine.

Royal Monuments Recall the Lost Glory of an African Empire

Source: Archaeology:
A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Of Obelisks and Empire
By Mark Rose
Photographs by Chester Higgins, Jr.

Royal monuments and ancient accounts recall the lost
glory of an African kingdom

In the first century A.D., an unknown merchant recorded details of the Red Sea trade, and mentioned Adulis, the harbor of “the city of the people called Aksumites” to which “all the ivory is brought from the country beyond the Nile.” The ruler of Aksum, he wrote, was Zoskales, who was “miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature.” Just two centuries later, the philosopher Mani (ca. A.D. 210-276) included Aksum as one of the four great empires, along with Rome, Persia, and Sileos (possibly China). And in 274, envoys from Aksum took part in the triumphal procession staged by the emperor Aurelian when he paraded the captured Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, fettered with gold chains, through Rome.

Today, Aksum is a dusty, regional market town of about 50,000 in northern Ethiopia. If people have heard of it, perhaps it is on account of another queen: the Biblical Sheba. According to the Kebra Nagast (Book of the Glory of the Kings), an early-14th-century compilation that chronicles Ethiopia’s rulers, Solomon and Sheba had a son, Menelik, who brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Aksum. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains that the Ark is still kept within the precinct walls of the Church of Tsion (Mary of Zion) in Aksum. Read more.

Related: Embracing Ethiopia By CHESTER HIGGINS

Chester Higgins, Jr.

Tadias Magazine
By Chester Higgins, Jr.
Photo Updated: April 21st, 2009

New York (Tadias) – Long before I set foot in Ethiopia, the name itself summoned images of Biblical proportion for me and, I believe, for many other African Americans as well. In the Bible, ‘Ethiopia’ is a place of refuge, an amazing mystical land.

Then with the advent of Marcus Garvey and African nationalists, who rallied against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during the Second World War, Ethiopia became a symbol of resistance to Colonialism. In the 1960s, when Emperor Haile Selassie appeared on national TV during a state visit to the US, millions more African American imaginations burned with the knowledge of an independent African people.

Not until the 1970s did the image and concept of Ethiopia, inspired by the reggae music of Bob Marley, gain extraordinary prominence in the minds of a young generation of African Americans. The Rastafarian Movement’s efforts to re-define the sanctity of Ethiopia and re-cast Emperor Selassie in a sacred light caught the imagination of young people as they swayed to reggae music. A new light had come out of Africa, but the beam started in the diaspora, this time in Jamaica.

In 1969 I had the good fortune to make a portrait of the renowned Harlem historian and teacher Dr. John Henrik Clarke. He was deeply committed to Africa and African people. My young mind was a parched field, and the many hours I spent with him, asking questions and hearing his answers, fertilized and watered that dry soil. Through him, my knowledge and understanding of Ethiopia grew. Dr. Clarke had this effect on thousands of Harlem residents and on students at Hunter College and Cornell University.

In 1973, on my first journey to Ethiopia, I attended the tenth anniversary conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now called the African Union (AU). That year the conference was held in Addis Ababa. I came to photograph African heads of state; I wanted to share with African Americans my view of rulers responsible for African people.

him.jpg
Above: Emperor Haile Selassie (1973).
Photo by Chester Higgins.

For me the most significant ruler, the most interesting leader, turned out to be Emperor Haile Selassie. In my new book, Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey (Doubleday 2004), I write: “…As I waited at the Addis Ababa airport for a glimpse of arriving dignitaries, my attention was pulled from the action around the arriving airplanes to a group of men making their way across the tarmac. I could sense the power of one man in particular before I could even see him.” Although he was of such small stature that he was dwarfed by the others alongside him, something about his aura so profoundly moved me that I lowered the camera so I could see him with both eyes. Only after he passed me did I learn that I had been in the presence of His Majesty Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.

Returning from that trip, I began to seek out Ethiopian students at Ethiopian restaurants and conferences to discuss my experience, encountering a mixed reception and political discontent. The students were receptive to my interest in their country, although none shared my enthusiasm for the emperor. Through the many students I have met over the years, I have discovered informative books and begun attending the Horn of Africa Conference, held annually at the City College of New York.

In July 1992, I returned to Ethiopia with my son Damani as my photography assistant. As I wrote in my book Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (1994), “The memory of being in his [Emperor Haile Selassie I] presence has remained an inspiration in my personal life. Damani, who has locked his hair, shares my love of His Majesty and reggae, the music of the Rastafarians who worship Selassie.”

So far I have been to Ethiopia about a dozen times. On each visit, I use my camera to make a record of contemporary and ancient Ethiopia. Spending weeks at a time, I have traveled in the North to the cities of Mekele, Gondar, Lalibela, Aksum, Bahir Dar, Dessie and Yeha. In the South, I have recorded sites and ceremonies in Nazareth, Debra Ziet, Awassa, Tiya and Tutafella.

fasiledes.jpg
Above: Fasilides Castle. Photo by Chester Higgins.

Ethiopia is indeed home to the earliest humans. In the National Museum in Addis are the bones of Dinquinesh, or Lucy, dating back almost 4 million years. In Aksum, I have seen the monumental mains of tombs and obelisks from earliest kingdoms. Also in Aksum, in 1000 BCE, Makeda, Queen of Sheba, turned away from the old faith of the Nile River cultures — the worship of the Sun that climaxed as the ancient Egyptian religion — and embraced the faith of the Hebrews. Here, too, Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity in 324 CE. The richness of the historic and photographic appeal of Ethiopia is revealed for me especially in the ancient monolithic stone churches of Lalibela and the more ancient Moon Temple in Yeha.

yeha-temple.jpg
Above: Yeha Temple. Photo by Chester Higgins.

axum_tomb.jpg
Above: Axum Tomb. Photo by Chester Higgins.

Today, Ethiopian people stand tall and proud, their feet planted securely on the land of their fathers and under the sky of their mothers. Ethiopians work hard, believe hard, and are driven hard to persevere by the vicissitudes of nature and life.

It has been a pleasure getting to know Ethiopia and her people.


Learn more about Chester Higgins at:chesterhiggins.com

Leo Hansberry, Founder of Ethiopian Research Council

Historian and anthropologist William Leo Hansberry's research was posthumously edited by Joseph E. Harris and printed in two volumes by Howard University Press: "Pillars in Ethiopian History" (1974), and "Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers" (1977).

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie

Published: Monday, February 23, 2009

New York (TADIAS) – William Leo Hansberry (1894-1965) was the first academician to introduce a course on African history in a university setting in the United States in 1922. He taught a History of Africa, both ancient and contemporary, for 42 years at Howard University. He gave lectures on African history both in the classrooms and in public squares here at home and in Africa. Thousands of students and ordinary people took his history lessons and some followed his footsteps to study and write extensively about historical issues. Among the seminal contribution of Hansberry is the academic reconstruction and teaching of Ancient African History. His proposal to develop an Africana Studies as an interdisciplinary field not only visualized the centrality of African History, but also laid down the groundwork for eventual establishment of Africana Studies institutions in the United States and Africa.

Hansberry, who studied at Harvard, Oxford and University of Chicago, was an exemplary scholar-activist. He firmly and persistently engaged in disseminating historical knowledge on Africa beyond the classroom. Even though he was not able to complete his PhD dissertation, he evidently demonstrated a remarkable research and writing skills. It is time for Howard University to recognize the immense contributions of Hansberry by organizing a major conference and by naming the Department of African Studies, William Leo Hansberry Department of African Studies. He served as a research associate to the great African American scholar, W.E.B. DuBois. Among his former students were Chancellor Williams (The Destruction of Black Civilization (1987) , and John Henrik Clarke (the author of several books, author of the blueprint for Africana Studies at Cornell University, the distinguished professor of African History at Hunter College, a leading theorist and the founder of the African Heritage Studies Association).

This great man of antiquity, founder of the Ethiopian Research Council, the forerunner of Ethiopian Studies, and genuine friends of African students, died without getting his due recognition from Howard or elsewhere. In fact, it was close to his time of death that he got a few recognitions in his country. His great accomplishments were duly recognized in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia and Nigeria. To this date, no building or sections of building has been named after him at Howard. This is in contrast to former prominent professors of Howard, such as Alain Locke.

Conceptualizing, writing and teaching what Leo Hansberry calls pre-European History of Africa and Africana Studies at a time of open denial and advancement of notion of African inferiority will always remain as his great legacy. In fact, I like to argue that William Leo Hansberry might have been the person who coined the word Africana. One of the most comprehensive outlines he prepared is entitled “Africana and Africa’s Past” and published by John Doe and Company of New York in 1960.

(Photo of William Leo Hansberry)

The term eventually became a useful conceptual word for interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies in the field of Africana Studies, that is, the study of the peoples and experiences of Africa, African America, the Caribbean as well as the Black Atlantic by gathering and interpreting data obtained from a range of disciplines, such as History, Political Science, Archaeology, Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Literature and Biology. My department is named Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University with interdisciplinary focus on Africa, African America and the Caribbean. Until very recently, Africana Center was the only center that has used the term Africana. Now institutions like Harvard and others have adopted the conceptual word. The purpose of this paper is to revisit the approaches and writings of William Leo Hansberry on History of Africa as well as Africana Studies in light of the findings of the last forty years.

Claims made by Leo Hansberry, such as the African origin of human beings, the migrations of human beings out of Africa to populate the world, the link between the peoples and civilizations of Egypt, Nubia and Alpine Ethiopia, the civilizations of Western Sudan in medieval times, are no longer in dispute. Several archaeological and archival findings have confirmed his claims. Lucy or Dinqnesh, the 3.1 million years old human-like species, currently touring the major cities of the United States, is major evidence affirming Africa’s place as a cradle of human beings.

The intervention of enslavement and massive economic activities associated with it suppressed, distorted or destroyed much of the facts and histories of Africa. Hansberry and his associates argued tirelessly and fearlessly, in spite of academic ostracism and harassment, to research, construct and teach African history. The publication of UNESCO History of Africa in 8 volumes and the establishment of Departments of History and Africana Studies in the United States, Europe and Africa, particularly in the 1960s, are clear evidence of the correctness and rightness of Hansberry’s approach to history. Hansberry’s diligent and determined search for Africana Antiqua is rooted in his now famous proposition: “It was, in the main, the ruin which followed in the wake of Arab and Berber slave trade in the late Middle Ages and the havoc was wrought by the European slave trade in more recent times that brought about the decline and fall of civilization in most of these early African states.”

He then framed his argument for persuasion in the following manner: “On the strength of the now available information about ancient and medieval Africa, together with the published reports relating to the continent in Stone Age times, it is now certain that Africa has been, throughout the ages, the seat of a great succession of cultures and civilizations which were comparable in most respects and superior in some aspects to the cultures and civilizations in other parts of the world during the same period.” In fact, it is time for Oxford, Harvard and University of Chicago to posthumously award him an honorary doctorate degree.

Leo Hansberry did graduate work at Oxford, Harvard and Chicago Universities and yet none of them were prepared to award him with a PhD degree. His intellectual strategy to dismantle the lingering impact of enslavement by researching and teaching about ancient African civilizations was challenged aggressively, both from within and from without throughout his academic career at Howard University. He taught for over forty years at Howard University in the history department. Thousands of students took his African history courses, and yet his title did not go beyond an instructor.

In the absence of promotion and grants, he persisted in teaching and researching Africa in antiquity. He was denied a grant from the Rosenwald Fund and his Rockefeller grant was terminated while he was studying at Oxford University. He did manage to get a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to visit sites of antiquities in Africa. Throughout his ordeals, his source of great strength was his wife, Myrtle Kalso Hansberry, who not only supported him, but she also collaborated in his research by serving as “his research assistant, translator, grammarian, and counselor.” In addition, she taught for many years in the Public School System of the District of Columbia. At present, his two daughters are the custodians of his writings and manuscripts. It is my hope that they will be able to find an appropriate institution to house his works.

Leo Hansberry was born in 1894 in Mississippi. His father taught history at Alcorn College, a historically Black Institution of Higher Learning. No information is provided on his mother. His early years (1894-1916) coincided with era of Jim Crow, Negrophobia, and constitutional disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans. He was also exposed at the same time to a tradition of resistance and Black Nationalism. Leo Hansberry, however, came from a family with rich intellectual tradition, including his niece, Loraine Hansberry, the great playwright and author of a Broadway play A Raising in the Sun. His parents, both educators, nurtured him with self-pride and self-worth so as to instill in him a desire to pursue a pioneering academic field with a persistent focus on Africana Studies and history of Africa, particularly ancient Africa.

(Photo of Playwright and author Loraine Hansberry, Leo Hansberry’s niece)

Leo Hansberry inherited his father’s library, for his father died while he was young. Home schooling (long before it became a common practice in the United States) might have been the reason behind his confidence and determination to pursue “Africana Antiqua” in his own terms. His father’s library served him as a source what John Henrik Clarke, his former student, calls ‘more and more information’ on Africa. According to Kwame Wes Alford, a major breakthrough in his search for Africa took place after he read W.E.B.DuBois’s book The Negro (1915). The book provided him with ‘more information’ on African long history, cultures and civilizations. The book freed him from a state of psychological bondage. Later in his academic career, he became an important source of information on African history to W.E.B. Dubois.

Leo Hansberry studied at Harvard University from 1916 to 1920. It was during this period that he read all the books suggested by DuBois’s reading list. He got his masters at Harvard, but left Harvard before earning a PhD degree.

By 1920, Hansberry recognized the conceptual importance of interdisciplinarity, the cross-discipline approach to a field of study, and, in fact, became the first African American scholar to establish African Studies in the United States. In 1922, he actually became the first scholar to develop and teach courses in African history at Howard University. African history was not offered in any of the American universities at that time.

Hansberry had meaningful relationships with WEB DuBois, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the founder of the United Negro Improvement Association, James Weldon Johnson, the author of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ Carter G. Woodson, the author of The Miseducation of the Negro and Frank Snowden, the author of Blacks in Antiquity.

“Hansberry led the African American and Diaspora contingent in support of Ethiopia as president of the Ethiopian Research Council (ERC) during the Italo-Ethiopian War.” ERC is a forerunner of Ethiopian Studies. His vision of broader conception of the field, however, was not pursued when the field is established in Ethiopia. The field is defined by focusing on not only alpine Ethiopia, but also on the history and cultures of northern Ethiopia. Southern Ethiopia and the histories and cultures of the vast majority of the people of Ethiopia did not get immediate attention. Furthermore, the idea of Ethiopia is a global idea informed by histories and mythologies of ancient Africa. In other words, the idea and practice of Ethiopia should be broadened in order to integrate the multiple dimensions of Ethiopia in time and place.

Leo Hansberry writes with such simplicity and clarity, it is indeed a treat to read his treatises. The renowned Egyptologist W.F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University noted the considerable writing skill of Hansberry. He acknowledged the “vivid style and clearness and cogency” of Hansberry’s writing.

Leo Hansberry counseled and assisted African students for 13 years at Howard University. Among the students who took his class was Nnamide Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria. He was also a good friend of Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana. Hansberry was instrumental “in founding the All African Students Union of the Americas in the mid-1950s.” “With William Steen and the late Henrietta Van Noy, he co-founded in 1953 the Institute of African-American Relations, now the African-American Institute” with its headquarter in New York City. According to Smyke, Hansberry was also the “prime mover in the establishment of an Africa House for students in Washington.”

(Photo: Nnamide Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, was one of Leo Hansberry’s African students)

In 1960 his former student Dr. Azikiwe, the first elected president of Nigeria, conferred on him the University of Nigeria’s second honorary degree, and at the same time inaugurated the Hansberry School of Africana Studies at the University. In 1964 Hansberry was selected by the Emperor Haile Selassie Trust to receive their first prize for original work in African History, Archaeology, and Anthropology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In 1963, Hansberry gave a series of lectures in the University of Nigeria at Hansberry College of African Studies, Nsukka Campus. His main topic was “Ancient Kush and Old Ethiopia.” He described it as “a synoptic and pictorial survey of some notable peoples, cultures, kingdom and empires which flourished in the tropical areas of Nilotic Africa in historical antiquity.”

With regard to his sources, he used the English translations of Egyptian, Assyrian, Nubian and Ethiopian manuscript documents and inscriptions. He cited Breasted’s Records of Ancient Egypt; Luckenbill’s Assyrian Records; Budge’s Annals of Nubian Kings; and Budge’s History of Nubia, Ethiopia and Abyssinia. The Classical references are to be found in various modern editions of the authors mentioned. Access to archaeological reports may be found in the great national and larger university libraries. For the introduction to the history of ancient Nubia, A.J. Arkell’s History of the Ancient Sudan may be read with considerable profit.

His subtopics were Cultural and Political Entities (The peoples and cultures of Lower Nubia, 3000 -1600 BCE ; Kerma Kushites of Middle Nubia, 2500 – 1500 BCE; Kushite kingdoms of Napata and Meroe in Lower Middle and Upper Nubia, 1400 BCE – 350 CE; Peoples and cultures of the Land of Punt (Eritrea and the Somalilands), 3000 BCE – 350 CE; The Ethiopian (‘Abyssinian’) kingdom of Sheba (according to the Kebra Nagast), 1400 to 100 BCE; and the Ethiopian Empire of Aksum, 100 BCE to 600 CE. These geographical and historical designations have been conformed by a series of archeological studies in the last fifty years. It is also clear from this important chronology that Ethiopia is a term used by both Nubia and present-day Ethiopia.

In his sub-topic II, he outlined, in greater detail, some notable primary sources of information.

1. Egyptian traditions concerning Punt or Ethiopia as the original homeland of Egypt’s most ancient peoples and their culture.

2. Kushite traditions (as recorded by Diodorus Siculus) to the effect that Egypt was ‘at the beginning of the world’ nothing but a vast swamp and remained such until it was transformed into dry land by alluvium brought down from the land of Kush by the River Nile.

3. Kushite traditions (as recorded by Diodorus Siculus) to the effect that earliest ‘civilized’ inhabitants of Egypt and the basic elements of their civilization were derived from a common ancestral stock.

4. Genesaical traditions (Genesis X) to the effect that the Ancient Kushites and the Ancient Egyptians were derived from a common ancestral stock.

5. Egyptian historical records detailing numerous peaceful commercial missions from Egypt to Kushite countries and the Land of Punt for the purpose of procuring many valuable and useful products which were lacking in Egypt but abundant in ‘the good lands of the south.’

6. Egyptian inscriptions on stone and other types of written records commemorating defensive and offensive efforts of various pharaohs to the safeguard Egypt from military attacks and invasions by Kushites pushing up from the South.

7. Biblical and Rabbinical traditions, and the testimony of Flavius Josephus concerning the relationships of Moses, the great Hebrew lawgiver, with the Ancient Kushites.

8. The surviving annals of Nubian kings on the Kushite conquest of and relationships with, Egypt in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE; notably: -

a. Piankhy’s Conquest Stele
b. The inscriptions of king Taharka
c. The Memphite stele of King Shabaka
d. Tanutamen’s reconquest stele

9. Biblical, Assyrian and Classical (Greek and Roman) historical references and traditions concerning the national and international activities of Kushites kings of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE.

10. Surviving Nubian Annals on the careers of Kushite kings who flourished between the 7th century BCE and the 6th century CE, notably: -

a. Inscriptions of Aspalta – 6th century BCE
b. Stele of Harsiotef – 4th century BCE
c. Stele of Nastasen – 4th century BCE
d. Inscriptions of Netekaman and Amantere – 1st century BCE
e. Stele of Amenrenas – 1st century BCE
f. Stele of Teqerizemani – 2nd century CE
g. Stele of Silko – 6th century CE

11. Myths, legends, traditions and historical reference relating to peoples and cultures of Ancient Kush and Old Ethiopia which are preserved in the surviving writings of Classical (Greek and Roman) poets, geographers and historians; notably: -

a. Homeric and Hesiodic traditions concerning the ‘blameless Ethiopians.’
b. Arctinus of Miletus and Quintus of Smyrna on the exploits of ‘Memnon Prince of Ethiopia’ in the Trojan War.
c. Classical traditions (as preserved in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) concerning the unusual misfortunes of Cephus, the king, and Cassiopeia, the queen, of Old Ethiopia, and the extraordinary experiences of their daughter, the princes Andromeda.
d. Herodotus, ‘the father of history’, on the ill-fated attempt of Cambyses, king of Persia, to invade the homeland of the Ancient Kushites.
e. Stories of Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus concerning the mutiny of the mercenaries in the Egyptian army and their enrollment in the military service of the King of Kush.
f. Heliodorous’s Aethiopica on the disastrous attempt of a Persian governor of Egypt to seize emerald mines belonging to the Kushite domain.
g. The alleged visit of Alexander of Macedon to ‘Candace, Queen of Kush’ according to the remarkable (but no doubt apocryphal) story preserved in the Romance of Alexander the Great, which is attributed, perhaps without foundation, to Callisthenes of Olynthus.
h. Diodorus Siculus’ account of the attempted religious and political reforms of Ergamenes, king of Kush in circa 225 BCE.
i. Plutarch and Dion Cassius on the friendly relationships between Cleopatra and the Queen of Kush.
j. Strabo, Pliny the Elder, etc., on a. the invasion and defeat of the Romans in Upper Egypt by the queen of Kush; and b. the subsequent defeat of the Kushite queen and the invasion of her country by a Roman Army.
k. Numerous Greek and Latin references to the unstable political and military relationships between the Kushites and the Roman and Byzantine overlords of Egypt during the period between the 1st and 6th century CE.
l. John of Ephesus on the circumstances under which Christianity became the State religion of Nubia towards the middle of the 6th century CE.

12. The Kebra Nagast and the Book of Aksum on the traditional history of Ethiopia from the 14th century BCE until the 4th century CE.

13. Ethiopian traditions concerning Queen Makeda (c. 1005 – c.955 BCE) who is generally believed by the Ethiopians, and by many others, to have been ‘the Queen of Sheba’ of Biblical renown.

14. The text of a long historical inscription – commemorating the military exploits of a powerful, but unnamed Ethiopian warrior king – which was anciently inscribed on a great stele set up in the Ethiopian seaport –city of Adulis where it was seen and copied by Cosmas Indicopleustes in c. 530 CE but which has since disappeared, and is now known to us only through Cosmas’ copy.

15. Four long inscriptions on stone set up by the Aksumite king Ezana (c. 319 – c. 345 CE); the texts of three of these commemorate Ezana’s achievements while he was still a devotee of the ancestral religion, while the text of the fourth and last is an account of events which occurred after his acceptance of Christianity as the State religion of his empire.

Here are some excerpts taken from Hansberry’s article on a history of Aksumite Ethiopia:

“The ancient kingdom of Aksum, according to its own annals and other reliable testimony, transformed itself into a Christian state about the year A.D. 333, which was, it will be remembered, only about a decade after Christianity had been made the state religion of the Roman Empire.” (p. 3-4)

“The present kingdom of Ethiopia is history’s second oldest Christian state. For several centuries after it became a Christian nation, the kingdom of Axum shared with the Byzantine Empire universal renown as one of the two most powerful Christian states of the age; and, of the Christian sovereigns of that period, none deserved and enjoyed more than certain Axumite kings, a wider reputation as Defenders of the Faith.” (p. 4)

Although relationships between the Byzantine Empire and the Christian kingdoms of Ethiopian lands were rather close during the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, the continued decline of European Civilization, as an aftermath of the barbarian invasions and the rise and expansion of Islam, put an end to such relationships for several hundred years.” (p. 4)

“In the time of the Crusades, relationships between the Ethiopian Christians and the European brothers of the same faith were, however, revived, and considering the great distance which separated them – remained exceptionally close until well down into early modern times.” (p. 4)

“During these centuries, the old kingdom of Aksum was more commonly known in European lands as the Empire of Prester John; and mutual intercourse between those widely separated parts of Christendom exercised a profoundly significant influence upon the course of world affairs that period. For it was out of European efforts, first, to re-establish, and then, to maintain, relationships with the Empire of Prester John, that arose those international developments which ultimately resulted in the discovery of America and the establishment of the ocean-route to Indies.” (p.4-5)

“Toward the end of the 18th Century, Edward Gibbon declared that Ethiopia in the Middle Ages was ‘a hermit empire’ which ‘slept for a thousand years, forgetful of the world by which it was forgot.’ As the proceeding review indicates, it is now known that this point of view is widely at variance with the historical facts; but is it quite true that, despite the significant part that Ethiopia long has played in mankind’s stirring and storied past, the world at large, at least in our own times, is singularly unfamiliar with the history of that ancient land.” (p. 5)

William Leo Hansberry’s life is a reflection of the struggle of African Americans to recover and reclaim their past. It is also an integral part of the rich intellectual tradition of the African Diaspora. It is a persistent attempt, in spite of the enormous difficulties, to construct and own one’s own historical memory. It is after all history that guides the present and the future. Hansberry charted a great tradition of intellectual discourse and community activism, which are still important attributes for the 21st century.

—–
Publisher’s Note: This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: ab67@cornell.edu

About the Author:
Ayele Bekerie is an Associate Professor at the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Mekelle University. He was an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. Bekerie is a contributing author in the highly acclaimed book, “One House: The Battle of Adwa 1896 -100 Years.” He is also the author of the award-winning book “Ethiopic, An African Writing System: Its History and Principles” — among many other published works.

New York Times Photographer Chester Higgins: Southern Omo Tribes of Ethiopia

Tadias Magazine
By Liben Eabisa

Published: Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New York (Tadias) – Chester Higgins’ most recent photographs focus on the peoples of the Omo Valley of Ethiopia.

Higgins, Jr., is one of the most significant photographers of his generation. He has been a staff photographer at The New York Times since 1975. One of the most indelible images of Emperor Haile Selassie was captured by him in 1973 at Addis Ababa airport during the tenth anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now called the African Union (AU).

His body of work is a fluid, sensitive and in-depth diary of his explorations of the human Diaspora; they reflect his concern with his own humanity. Through his portraits and studies of living rituals, traditional ceremonies, and ancient civilizations, his viewers gain rare insight into cultural behavior — a window to another place and time.

“For the first time I visited the southern tribes in the Omo Valley. It was a step back in time. These various tribes live in the corner where Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya come together,” Higgins said via email.

“We had to camp out for 15 nights, paid the people for posing, brought a carload of lighting equipment to setup my studio without walls, and had great fun making these images.”

You can view these stunning photographs at chesterhiggins.com.

Higgins’ photographs have appeared in ArtNews, The New York Times Magazine, Look, Life, Newsweek, Fortune, Ebony, Essence, Black Enterprise, GEO, The Village Voice, The New Yorker , Archaeology and Tadias.

—-
About the Author:

Liben Eabisa is the Founder & Publisher of Tadias Magazine. He is also the publisher of the book: Abyssinia of Today – Reissue of Robert P. Skinner’s memoir, a narrative of the first American diplomatic mission to black Africa. Liben Eabisa lives in New York City.
———

Related: Embracing Ethiopia By CHESTER HIGGINS

Chester Higgins, Jr.

New York (Tadias) – Long before I set foot in Ethiopia, the name itself summoned images of Biblical proportion for me and, I believe, for many other African Americans as well. In the Bible, ‘Ethiopia’ is a place of refuge, an amazing mystical land.

Then with the advent of Marcus Garvey and African nationalists, who rallied against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during the Second World War, Ethiopia became a symbol of resistance to Colonialism. In the 1960s, when Emperor Haile Selassie appeared on national TV during a state visit to the US, millions more African American imaginations burned with the knowledge of an independent African people.

Not until the 1970s did the image and concept of Ethiopia, inspired by the reggae music of Bob Marley, gain extraordinary prominence in the minds of a young generation of African Americans. The Rastafarian Movement’s efforts to re-define the sanctity of Ethiopia and re-cast Emperor Selassie in a sacred light caught the imagination of young people as they swayed to reggae music. A new light had come out of Africa, but the beam started in the diaspora, this time in Jamaica.

In 1969 I had the good fortune to make a portrait of the renowned Harlem historian and teacher Dr. John Henrik Clarke. He was deeply committed to Africa and African people. My young mind was a parched field, and the many hours I spent with him, asking questions and hearing his answers, fertilized and watered that dry soil. Through him, my knowledge and understanding of Ethiopia grew. Dr. Clarke had this effect on thousands of Harlem residents and on students at Hunter College and Cornell University.

In 1973, on my first journey to Ethiopia, I attended the tenth anniversary conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now called the African Union (AU). That year the conference was held in Addis Ababa. I came to photograph African heads of state; I wanted to share with African Americans my view of rulers responsible for African people.

him.jpg
Above: Emperor Haile Selassie (1973).
Photo by Chester Higgins.

For me the most significant ruler, the most interesting leader, turned out to be Emperor Haile Selassie. In my new book, Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey (Doubleday 2004), I write: “…As I waited at the Addis Ababa airport for a glimpse of arriving dignitaries, my attention was pulled from the action around the arriving airplanes to a group of men making their way across the tarmac. I could sense the power of one man in particular before I could even see him.” Although he was of such small stature that he was dwarfed by the others alongside him, something about his aura so profoundly moved me that I lowered the camera so I could see him with both eyes. Only after he passed me did I learn that I had been in the presence of His Majesty Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.

Returning from that trip, I began to seek out Ethiopian students at Ethiopian restaurants and conferences to discuss my experience, encountering a mixed reception and political discontent. The students were receptive to my interest in their country, although none shared my enthusiasm for the emperor. Through the many students I have met over the years, I have discovered informative books and begun attending the Horn of Africa Conference, held annually at the City College of New York.

In July 1992, I returned to Ethiopia with my son Damani as my photography assistant. As I wrote in my book Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (1994), “The memory of being in his [Emperor Haile Selassie I] presence has remained an inspiration in my personal life. Damani, who has locked his hair, shares my love of His Majesty and reggae, the music of the Rastafarians who worship Selassie.”

So far I have been to Ethiopia about a dozen times. On each visit, I use my camera to make a record of contemporary and ancient Ethiopia. Spending weeks at a time, I have traveled in the North to the cities of Mekele, Gondar, Lalibela, Aksum, Bahir Dar, Dessie and Yeha. In the South, I have recorded sites and ceremonies in Nazareth, Debra Ziet, Awassa, Tiya and Tutafella.

fasiledes.jpg
Above: Fasilides Castle. Photo by Chester Higgins.

Ethiopia is indeed home to the earliest humans. In the National Museum in Addis are the bones of Dinquinesh, or Lucy, dating back almost 4 million years. In Aksum, I have seen the monumental mains of tombs and obelisks from earliest kingdoms. Also in Aksum, in 1000 BCE, Makeda, Queen of Sheba, turned away from the old faith of the Nile River cultures — the worship of the Sun that climaxed as the ancient Egyptian religion — and embraced the faith of the Hebrews. Here, too, Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity in 324 CE. The richness of the historic and photographic appeal of Ethiopia is revealed for me especially in the ancient monolithic stone churches of Lalibela and the more ancient Moon Temple in Yeha.

yeha-temple.jpg
Above: Yeha Temple. Photo by Chester Higgins.

axum_tomb.jpg
Above: Axum Tomb. Photo by Chester Higgins.

Today, Ethiopian people stand tall and proud, their feet planted securely on the land of their fathers and under the sky of their mothers. Ethiopians work hard, believe hard, and are driven hard to persevere by the vicissitudes of nature and life.

It has been a pleasure getting to know Ethiopia and her people.


Learn more about Chester Higgins at:chesterhiggins.com

Tadias’ 20 Favorite People of 2008

By Tadias Staff

Published: Monday, December 29, 2008

New York (Tadias) – Here are our 20 favorite people of the year that we interviewed and/or featured their work in 2008. The numbers are not rankings of their achievements. We look forward to 2009. Happy New Year!

20) Selam Mulugeta (Former Obama Campaign Staffer)

Ethiopian-American Selam Mulugeta worked as a staff member for President-Elect Obama’s successful 2008 campaign for the White House. Ms. Mulugeta, who formerly served as a Congressional staffer and Special Assistant to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), founder and Chair of the Congressional Ethiopia and Ethiopian American Caucus, served as a Field Organizer for the Obama/Biden campaign in Northern Virginia. Obama won the state on November 4th, 2008, becoming the first Presidential candidate from the Democratic party to do so in more than 40 years. Read more about Selam Mulugeta.

19) Bekele Geleta (The New Boss at Red Cross)

Ethiopian-born Bekele Geleta, 64, was appointed Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in 2008. Mr. Geleta previously served as General Manager of International Operations for the Canadian Red Cross. He spent five years in prison in Ethiopia, but later served as a Cabinet Minister and the Ethiopian Ambassador to Japan. He went to Canada as a refugee in 1992 with his wife, Tsehay Mulugeta, and their four sons. He started a new career in humanitarian work in Ottawa , serving with Care Canada, Red Cross and other organizations, which eventually led to this current prestigious post. Read our interview with Bekele Geleta.

18) Beejhy Barhany (Founder, BINA Cultural Foundation)

Beejhy Barhany (pictured above with her husband at the Ethiopian Millennium celebration concert at Joe’s Pub. on Saturday, May 31, 2008), is the Director of BINA Cultural Foundation and the chief coordinator of the 2008 Ethiopian Millennium Events Series in New York, which included a concert, an art exhibition, a film festival and an interfaith panel discussion. Tadias Magazine congratulates Mrs. Barhany on a successful series of events.

17) Chef and Author Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, is best known as the co-owner of New York’s finest Scandinavian restaurant, Aquavit. After having excelled at the Swedish side of his culinary heritage, Mr. Samuelson traveled extensively throughout the African continent, and shared with us some of the most profound lessons that he learned about Pan-African cuisine. He culminated his journey with his award-winning book, The Soul of a New Cuisine, and a new African Restaurant. Read our interview with Marcus Samuelsson.

16) Haile Gerima (Award Wining Director)

Ethiopian-born director Haile Gerima (pictured above left with Tunisian Culture Minister Abderraouf Basti) scooped several international awards in 2008 for his new film “Teza”. Tadias Magazine congratulates Mr. Gerima on his well deserved recognition. Read More.

15) Yohannes Gebregeorgis (CNN Hero)

Yohannes Gebregeorgis, one of the Top Ten CNN Heroes of 2008, was recognized by CNN for his remarkable efforts to bring free public libraries and literacy programs to thousands of children in Ethiopia, including the country’s first Donkey Mobile Library. Mr. Gebregeorgis, 59, was born in Ethiopia and came to the United States as a political refugee in 1981. He eventually put himself through college, earning a graduate degree in library science and worked as a Librarian in San Francisco for nearly two decades before embarking on his current project. He currently lives in Ethiopia. Read our interview with Yohannes Gebregeorgis.

14) Getatchew Mekurya (king of Ethiopian saxophone)

The legendary saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya stole the show at a historic concert on August 20, 2008, at Damrosch’s Park in NYC. “The concert closed with a gripping performance by Mr. Mekurya, the king of Ethiopian saxophone…” noted a columnist for The New York Times, and we couldn’t agree more. We likewise salute Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshete, who both performed at the show. Read more.

13) Aida Muluneh (Photographer)

Photographer Aida Muluneh, whose current exhibition is being hosted by Berlin’s Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (through November 1st, 2009), established an NGO in 2008 to train a new generation of African photographers to compete in the global media industry while reshaping the image of Africa to reflect their personal experiences. Read More.

12) Dr. Ebba Ebba (Founder, Gemini Health Care Group)

Dr. Ebba Ebba (above left), founder of Gemini Health Care Group, a non-profit established to provide health care to Ethiopian children, hosted two notable events in 2008: a health care forum in July at George Washington University and a fundraiser in Atlanta to benefit the building of a children’s hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Read more.

11) Philipos & Sara (Queen of Sheba Restaurant in New York)

Philipos & Sara of the Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in New York demonstrated why crowds are flocking to their midtown Manhattan eatery at the first Annual Choice Eats tasting event organized by The Village Voice in 2008. Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant was one of thirty-three favorite restaurants of Voice food critic Robert Sietsema, author of Secret New York. Sietsema has reviewed more than 2,000 restaurants in the last 14 years and this year’s Choice Eats covered samples from all corners of the world. Read more about this event.

10) Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru (The Ethiopian Nun Pianist)

Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru, the 85-year-old Ethiopian nun and renowned classical pianist and composer, performed at a sold out benefit concert for the first time in 35 years in June, 2008, in Washington, DC. She captured an eager audience, along with seven young performers who shared the stage with her. Read more.

9) Artist Assegid Gessesse (“Memory Tourist”)

Assegid Gessesse exhibited his spirited mixed media prints in 2008. “I am a memory tourist,” Gessesse says referring to our favorite print entitled ‘Addis Abeba’ – a vivid collage reflecting architecture, the urban/rural dichotomy, and use of space. Read More.

8. Teodross “Teo” Avery

What does Teodross “Teo” Avery have in common with jazz giants Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Arturo Sandoval? They all have graced the stage of The Blue Note, one of New York’s legendary jazz clubs. Teo, a talented Ethiopian-American musician is carving his own niche in hip-hop jazz. He has recorded and collaborated with powerhouse musicians including: Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Shakira, Wu Tang Clan, Ethiopian artists Abegaz Shiota and Henok Temesgen, and Amy Winehouse. Films such as Love Jones, Brown Sugar and Beauty Shop also carry songs he has either written or produced. His own lyrics entitled New Day New Groove and My Generation capture the proactive, idealistic and determined energy of his generation. Read the interview with Teo Avery.

7) Zelela Menker

Zelela Menker’s OP-ED pieces on Tadias in 2008 advocating for the election of Barack Obama generated a healthy discussion. We first met Zelela Menker while covering an Obama rally in New York on Feb 2, 2008. Zelela was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College (MHC) in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she majored in Critical Social Thought with a concentration on Health Disparities and Healthcare Policy. Read More.

6) Kedist Geremaw (Obama Organizing Fellow)

Kedist Geremaw, a health care administrator in Washington, D.C., was one of the 3,600 individuals who were selected and trained as an Obama Organizing Fellow during the summer of 2008. Mrs. Geremew has accomplished much as an Obama Organizing Fellow, and the creativity, dedication, and optimism that she and her colleagues displayed was inspiring, commendable, contagious, and has our respect and recognition. Read more about Mrs. Geremaw.

5) Abaynesh Asrat, Founder & CEO of NNN

Ethiopian-born Abaynesh Asrat was recognized with “The Sojourner Truth Award” in 2008, which is given each year by the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. Abaynesh is a member of Harlem’s legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church delegation to Ethiopia in 2007, which took place as part of the church’s bicentennial celebration and in honor of the Ethiopian Millennium.

4) Professor Donald Levine

Professor Donald Levine’s thoughtful and insightful opinion articles during the Presidential Campaign of 2008 was much needed and appreciated by our readers. He is a colleague of President-Elect Barack Obama from their teaching days at the University of Chicago. He is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and his research and teaching interests focus on classical social theory, modernization theory, Ethiopian studies, conflict theory and aikido, and philosophies of liberal education. Read More.

3) Professor Ayele Bekerie

Dr. Ayele Bekerie ‘s scholarly papers on historical topics, such as the story of St. Yared, the great Ethiopian composer, choreographer and poet, who lived in Aksum almost 1500 years ago, was one of the most popular articles among our readers. Ayele Bekerie, an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University, is the author of the award-winning book “Ethiopic, An African Writing System: Its History and Principles” (The Red Sea Press, 1997). Bekerie’s papers have been published in scholarly journals, such as ANKH: Journal of Egyptology and African Civilizations, Journal of the Horn of Africa, Journal of Black Studies, the International Journal of Africana Studies, and the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies. 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. Bekerie appears frequently on the Amharic Service of Voice of America and Radio Germany. He is a regular contributor to Tadias Magazine and other Ethiopian American electronic publications. His current book project is on the “Idea of Ethiopia.” Read More.

2) Ted Alemayuhu (Founder & Chairman of USDFA)

Ethiopian-born Ted Alemayuhu (pictured above right with friends – Russell Simmons left – at Cipriani Wall Street on October 17th, 2007), is the Founder & Chairman of U.S. Doctors for Africa (USDFA). He was one of the featured keynote speakers at the 2008 Health Disparities Conference at Columbia University. Mr. Alemayuhu is preparing to host the gathering of over 20 African First Ladies for their first-ever U.S.-based health summit on April 20-21, 2009, at the RAND Corporation in Los Angeles. Read More.

1) Tibarek (Tadias’ Favorite Person of the Year!)

Eight year old Tibarek, who traveled with her adoptive mother from their home in New York to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to knock on doors for Barack Obama and Joe Biden, is our favorite person of the year! We choose Tibarek not only because we love her charismatic personality, but also because she symbolizes the diversity and vibrancy of the Diaspora’s next generation. Read more.

Editor’s Note: The numbers are not rankings of their achievements. We honor each person listed. Happy 2009!



Church to Honor St. Yared – the Great Ethiopian Composer

Ethiopian Reporter
Photo: Getty Images

By Yelibenwork Ayele

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, – The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in a press conference, said it would hold a great event next Sunday at the Millennium Hall commemorating St. Yared, the Ethiopian author of cantatas, traditional education and various pieces of religious literature.

Zema or the chant tradition of Ethiopia, particularly the chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, is attributed to St. Yared, a composer and a choreographer who lived in Aksum in the 6th century AD. He is credited for inventing the Zema of the Church; the chant that has been in use continuously for the past 1500 years. His music has defined the ritualistic feature of all the major fasts and feasts of the Church.

St. Yared was born to a family of a long line of church scholars in Axum in the sixth century. At the age of six he was assigned to a priest so that he could learn, but Yared turned out to be a poor student and was sent back to his parents. After his father passed away, his mother gave him away to her brother, Aba Gedeon, who was then a well known priest-scholar of the church of Axum Zion, to look after his education. Read More.

Related:
St. Yared – the great Ethiopian composer (Tadias)

Embracing Ethiopia: NYT Photographer Chester Higgins

Publisher’s Note:

New York (Tadias) Chester Higgins, Jr. is one of the most significant photographers of his generation. He has been a staff photographer at The New York Times since 1975. One of the most indelible images of Emperor Haile Selassie was captured by him in 1973 at Addis Ababa airport during the tenth anniversary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now called the African Union (AU).

His photographs have appeared in ArtNews, The New York Times Magazine, Look, Life, Newsweek, Fortune, Ebony, Tadias, Essence, Black Enterprise, GEO, The Village Voice, The New Yorker and Archaeology.

Higgins’ body of work is a fluid, sensitive and in-depth diary of his explorations of the human Diaspora; they reflect his concern with his own humanity. Through his portraits and studies of living rituals, traditional ceremonies, and ancient civilizations, his viewers gain rare insight into cultural behavior — a window to another place and time.

In this piece for Tadias Magazine (Embracing Ethiopia), Higgins shares with us some stunning photographs of Ethiopia, as well as the story of his journey to this ancient nation.

Embracing Ethiopia
By CHESTER HIGGINS

Updated: August 13th, 2008

Long before I set foot in Ethiopia, the name itself summoned images of Biblical proportion for me and, I believe, for many other African Americans as well. In the Bible, ‘Ethiopia’ is a place of refuge, an amazing mystical land.

Then with the advent of Marcus Garvey and African nationalists, who rallied against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during the Second World War, Ethiopia became a symbol of resistance to Colonialism. In the 1960s, when Emperor Haile Selassie appeared on national TV during a state visit to the US, millions more African American imaginations burned with the knowledge of an independent African people.

Not until the 1970s did the image and concept of Ethiopia, inspired by the reggae music of Bob Marley, gain extraordinary prominence in the minds of a young generation of African Americans. The Rastafarian Movement’s efforts to re-define the sanctity of Ethiopia and re-cast Emperor Selassie in a sacred light caught the imagination of young people as they swayed to reggae music. A new light had come out of Africa, but the beam started in the diaspora, this time in Jamaica.

In 1969 I had the good fortune to make a portrait of the renowned Harlem historian and teacher Dr. John Henrik Clarke. He was deeply committed to Africa and African people. My young mind was a parched field, and the many hours I spent with him, asking questions and hearing his answers, fertilized and watered that dry soil. Through him, my knowledge and understanding of Ethiopia grew. Dr. Clarke had this effect on thousands of Harlem residents and on students at Hunter College and Cornell University.

In 1973, on my first journey to Ethiopia, I attended the tenth anniversary conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now called the African Union (AU). That year the conference was held in Addis Ababa. I came to photograph African heads of state; I wanted to share with African Americans my view of rulers responsible for African people.

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Above: Emperor Haile Selassie (1973).
Photo by Chester Higgins.

For me the most significant ruler, the most interesting leader, turned out to be Emperor Haile Selassie. In my new book, Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer’s Journey (Doubleday 2004), I write: “…As I waited at the Addis Ababa airport for a glimpse of arriving dignitaries, my attention was pulled from the action around the arriving airplanes to a group of men making their way across the tarmac. I could sense the power of one man in particular before I could even see him.” Although he was of such small stature that he was dwarfed by the others alongside him, something about his aura so profoundly moved me that I lowered the camera so I could see him with both eyes. Only after he passed me did I learn that I had been in the presence of His Majesty Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.

Returning from that trip, I began to seek out Ethiopian students at Ethiopian restaurants and conferences to discuss my experience, encountering a mixed reception and political discontent. The students were receptive to my interest in their country, although none shared my enthusiasm for the emperor. Through the many students I have met over the years, I have discovered informative books and begun attending the Horn of Africa Conference, held annually at the City College of New York.

In July 1992, I returned to Ethiopia with my son Damani as my photography assistant. As I wrote in my book Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (1994), “The memory of being in his [Emperor Haile Selassie I] presence has remained an inspiration in my personal life. Damani, who has locked his hair, shares my love of His Majesty and reggae, the music of the Rastafarians who worship Selassie.”

So far I have been to Ethiopia about a dozen times. On each visit, I use my camera to make a record of contemporary and ancient Ethiopia. Spending weeks at a time, I have traveled in the North to the cities of Mekele, Gondar, Lalibela, Aksum, Bahir Dar, Dessie and Yeha. In the South, I have recorded sites and ceremonies in Nazareth, Debra Ziet, Awassa, Tiya and Tutafella.

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Above: Fasilides Castle. Photo by Chester Higgins.

Ethiopia is indeed home to the earliest humans. In the National Museum in Addis are the bones of Dinquinesh, or Lucy, dating back almost 4 million years. In Aksum, I have seen the monumental mains of tombs and obelisks from earliest kingdoms. Also in Aksum, in 1000 BCE, Makeda, Queen of Sheba, turned away from the old faith of the Nile River cultures — the worship of the Sun that climaxed as the ancient Egyptian religion — and embraced the faith of the Hebrews. Here, too, Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity in 324 CE. The richness of the historic and photographic appeal of Ethiopia is revealed for me especially in the ancient monolithic stone churches of Lalibela and the more ancient Moon Temple in Yeha.

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Above: Yeha Temple. Photo by Chester Higgins.

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Above: Axum Tomb. Photo by Chester Higgins.

Today, Ethiopian people stand tall and proud, their feet planted securely on the land of their fathers and under the sky of their mothers. Ethiopians work hard, believe hard, and are driven hard to persevere by the vicissitudes of nature and life.

It has been a pleasure getting to know Ethiopia and her people.


Learn more about Chester Higgins at:chesterhiggins.com



Queens, Spies, and Servants: A History of Ethiopian Women in Military Affairs

Above: These female war veterans are pictured in Addis
Ababa’s Menelik Square in 1973 at a ceremony to commemorate
an early victory against the Italians. Photo by Shemelis Desta
(BBC)

By Tseday Alehegn

Chronicles of war and military prowess are plentiful in Ethiopia’s historical literature. Growing up we are effortlessly taught the virtues of honor and duty, which have bestowed sovereignty to generation after generation of Ethiopians. Countless retelling of tales depicting the early and decisive victory at the battle of Adwa remain ever fresh in our proud minds and hearts; the feeling only to be outdone by the resoluteness of heroes who ended the Italian occupation of Ethiopia during the Second World War. Indeed, it is as the 17th century writer Almeida wrote of us: “In war they are reared as children, in war they grow old, or the life of all who are not farmers is war.”

The emphasis on military virtues becomes more palpable when we recognize the unique manner in which Ethiopians chose to fight off their external enemies. From earliest times, both women and men were encouraged to participate in mobilization and preparation efforts. Depicting the atmosphere during the battle of Adwa in 1896, historian G.F. Berkeley observes how the Ethiopian army was not merely organized as a segment of the population, but rather as an entire collective that had integrated the occurrence of war into its normal day-to-day activities. He points out, “It’s not an army [it is] an invasion, the transplanting of the whole people.” No one was left behind. While men served as soldiers they brought along with them their wives who in turn became involved either as civilian participants or as military combatants. What rights, titles, honors men claimed for their valor women were able to do the same.

Females were traditionally not allowed to inherit land unless the father died before the daughter married or there were no sons in the family. However, women would be able to claim property after serving in military mobilization efforts. In an uncommon way, the ability of women to participate on the warfront initiated change to their otherwise lower societal status. Not all participation in war, however, was voluntary as is clearly depicted in the following 19th century edict by the leader Ras Gugsa: “One who does not join the army of Gugsa, man and woman, will lose his genital and her breast respectively.”

Historians have estimated that an average of 20,000 to 30,000 women have participated in the campaign of Adwa alone. While the majority served in non-violent chores such as food preparation and nursing of the wounded, a significant portion served as soldiers, strategists, advisors, translators, and intelligence officers. Women from the aristocracy worked alongside maids and servants thereby breaking norms in class separation.

Female Military Strategists & Combatants:

At a time when women in most parts of the world were relegated to household chores, the number of Ethiopian women in the late 17th century participating in war expeditions against foreign aggressors was on the rise. Whereas most war decrees at this time encouraged all Ethiopians to fight occupation attempts, in 1691 Emperor Iyasu issued one of the first proclamations to curtail the rapid growth of women soldiers. The chronicles report:

“The king had the herald proclaim that the girls of the country must not ride
astride mules, because at this time these girls had adopted the practice of doing
so, tightening the belts of their shirts, covering their heads with their shammas and holding a long spear in their hand..marching in expeditions like men.”

Queen Yodit is one of the earliest-mentioned Ethiopian female leaders who fought spiritedly in battles. She successfully overthrew the powerful Aksumite kingdom, but because many churches and historically important sites were destroyed in the process her reign is infamously described as the dark era. Between 1464 and 1468, under the leadership of King Zere Yaqob, women’s expansion into political positions became more evident. Historian Richard Pankhurst notes how Zere Yaqob “established a women’s administration by appointing his daughters and relatives to key provinces.”

King Zere Yaqob’s wife, Queen Eleni, was an equally formidable and astute military strategist, and was largely responsible for the arrival in 1520 of the Portuguese as one of the first diplomatic missions. Predicting the appetite of Turks in invading Ethiopia’s coastline she proposed a joint attack strategy to the Portuguese leadership against the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks. Sylvia Pankhurst records her letter to the Portuguese summoning a coalition. Queen Eleni is to have written:

“We have heard that the Sultan of Cairo assembles a great army to attack
your forces…against the assault of such enemies we are prepared to send
a good number of men-at-arms who will give assistance in the sea bound
areas…If you wish to arm a thousand warship we will provide the necessary
food and furnish you with everything for such a force in very great abundance.”

The Turks were soundly defeated. Years later Queen Seble Wongel was able to draw on the help of the Portuguese in defeating Ahmed Gragn’s muslim expansion into Ethiopia. In February 1543 her army fought at the battle of Woina Dega where Gragn succumbed to his death.

Harold Marcus documents Queen Worqitu’s history as the warrior queen who helped Menelik gain his crown. In 1865 Queen Worqitu of Wollo granted Menelik a safe route through her territory as the future monarch successfully escaped from King Tewodros’ prison.

The effect of her support in aiding Menelik to power is recorded in Ethiopia’s ensuing transformation from a ‘land of kings’ to a nation ruled by a ‘king of kings.’

Perhaps the most famous queen involved in military affairs is Empress Taitu, wife of Emperor Menelik II. In the battle of Adwa Empress Taitu is said to have commanded an infantry of no less than 5,000 along with 600 cavalry men and accompanied by thousands of Ethiopian women. Her strategy to cut off the invading Italian army’s water supply led to the weakening of the enemies warfront.

Following her example, Itege Menen avidly participated in battles taking places during the ‘Era of the Princes.’ Fighting against the incursion of the Egyptians, she is said to have had 20,000 soldiers under her command. Likewise, during the Italo-Ethiopian occupation, Princess Romanworq Haile Selassie upheld the tradition of women going to the battlefront and she fought alongside her husband.

Intelligence Officers, Advisors, and Translators:

Intelligence work was key in Ethiopia’s gaining the upper hand against fascist Italy and here too women played a significant role in information gathering. Through the establishment of the Central Committee of ‘Wust Arbegnoch’ (Inner Patriots) women members helped provide soldiers with intelligence information as well as arms, ammunition, food, clothing, and medicine. Sylvia Pankhurst also records how the female patriot Shewa Regged had organized an elite Ethiopian intelligence service to gather more arms while leading the Ethiopian guerilla fighters to the locale of Addis Alem to defeat an Italian fortification. Pankhurst recounts Shewa Regged’s resilience in her biography as follows:

“She was captured by the Italians and tortured by them with electricity to compel her to disclose her accomplices; despite all their cruelties, she preserved silence.”

Queen Taitu’s role as advisor is also well known. In depicting the wariness and foresight of Queen Taitu, historian R. Greenfield records her advise to Emperor Menelik and his cabinet regarding the Italian encroachment. She warns:

“Yield nothing. What you give away today will be a future ladder against your
fortress and tomorrow the Italians will come up it into your domains. If you
must lose lands lose them at least with your strong right arms.”

Her dedication and subsequent victory in preserving Ethiopia’s sovereignty won her the title “Berhane ZeEthiopia” (Light of Ethiopia). Her official seal bore this distinguished title.

In the role of translator, Princess Tsehay Haile Selassie served her country by accompanying the Emperor to the League of Nations and aiding in Ethiopia’s call for support from the International Community. The Plea falling on deaf ears the League soon dissolved as the Italians persisted on invading the last free African stronghold. Plunged into war, Empress Menen is to have asserted “Women of the world unite. Demand with one voice that we may be spared the honor of this useless bloodshed!”

Non-Combatant Efforts:

The role of women in Ethiopian military history will remain largely untold if their work as non-combatants is not recalled. It is in this position that the majority of women of the lower class contributed in strengthening Ethiopia’s defense. While some uplifted the morale of the fighting contingent through popular battle songs and poetry, others labored for the daily nourishment and overall well-being of the soldiers. The record of Ethiopia’s long-standing independence will be incomplete without the recognition of thousands of women servants who accompanied women and menfolk of the aristocracy in battle after battle. Maids and servants were responsible for the gathering and preparation of food and other administrative roles. The traveler and writer James Bruce stresses the diligence of these women during war expeditions. He writes in earnest:

“I know of no country where the female works so hard… seldom resting
till late at night, even at midnight grinding, and frequently up before
cockcrow. Tired from the march, no matter how late, water must be brought,
fuel collected, supper prepared by the soldiers’ wife…and before daylight, with
a huge load, she must march again.”

When not involved in presiding over day-to-day affairs women helped out in the clearing of roads, digging of trenches, and nursing of the wounded. In the same spirit, during the Italo-Ethiopian war, Princess Tsehay Haile Selassie helped mobilize women of all classes in efforts to provide gas masks, clothes, rations and bandages to the civilian population to protect against frequent Italian air raids and mustard gas attacks.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, it is appropriate to recognize the achievements of Ethiopia’s women who helped in the creation of a one-of-a-kind defense system, which has successfully deterred foreign aggression not for a few years, but for thousands.

Publisher’s Note: This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Tseday Alehegn directly at: tseday@tadias.com

About the Author:
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Tseday Alehegn is the Editor-in-Chief of Tadias Magazine. Tseday is a graduate of Stanford University (both B.A. & M.A.). In addition to her responsibilities at Tadias, she is also a Doctoral student at Columbia University.

The Great Ethiopian Composer – St. Yared

From Tadias archive (updated: August 9, 2008)

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie, PhD

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Aug 9, 2008

New York (TADIAS) – In his recent song dedicated to the Ethiopian Millennium and entitled Musika Heiwete (Music is My Life), the renowned Ethiopia’s rising pop singer, Teddy Afro, traces the geneaology of his music to classical Zema or chant compositions of St. Yared, the great Ethiopian composer, choreographer and poet, who lived in Aksum almost 1500 years ago.

Teddy, who is widely known for his songs mixed with reggae rhythms and local sounds, heart warming and enlightening lyrics, shoulder shaking and foot stomping beats, blends his latest offering with sacred musical terms, such as Ge’ez, Izil, and Ararary, terms coined by St. Yared to represent the three main Zema compositions.

In so doing, he is echoing the time tested and universalized tradition of modernity that has been pioneered and institutionalized by Yared. Teddy seems to realize the importance of seeking a new direction in Ethiopian popular music by consciously establishing links to the classical and indigenous tradition of modernity of St. Yared. In other words, Teddy Afro is setting an extraordinary example of reconfiguring and contributing to contemporary musical tradition based on Yared’s Zema.


Teddy Afro

An excellent example of what I call tradition of modernity, a tradition that contains elements of modernity or the perpetuation of modernity informed by originative tradition, is the annual celebration of St. Yared’s birthday in Debre Selam Qidist Mariam Church in Washington D.C. in the presence of a large number of Ethiopian Americans.

The Debteras regaled in fine Ethiopian costume that highlights the tri-colors of the Ethiopian flag, accompanied by tau-cross staff, sistra and drum, have chanted the appropriate Zema and danced the Aquaquam or sacred dance at the end of a special mass – all in honor of the great composer.

The purpose of this article is to narrate and discuss the life history and artistic accomplishments of the great St. Yared. We argue that St Yared was a great scholar who charted a modernist path to Ethiopian sense of identity and culture. His musical invention, in particular, established a tradition of cultural dynamism and continuity.


Figure 1: An artist rendering of St Yared while chanting Zema accompanied by sistrum, tau-cross staff. The three main zema chants of Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray which are represented by three birds. Digua, a book of chant, atronse (book holder), a drum, and a processional cross are also seen here. Source: Methafe Diggua Zeqidus Yared. Addis Ababa: Tensae Printing Press, 1996.

Zema or the chant tradition of Ethiopia, particularly the chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, is attributed to St. Yared, a composer and a choreographer who lived in Aksum in the 6th century AD. He is credited for inventing the zema of the Church; the chant that has been in use continuously for the last almost 1500 years.

It is indeed a classical tradition both musically and culturally. St Yared’s chants are characterized as subtle, spiritually uplifting, and euphonic. St Yared’s composition draws its fame both in its endurance and institutionalization of a tradition to mark the rhythm of life, the life of the faithful.

By composing chants for all natural and spiritual occasions, St. Yared has also laid down the foundation for common purpose and plurality among various ethnic, linguistic and regional groupings of the Ethiopian people. Elaborate visual representation of chants, the introduction of additional musical instruments, movements and performances by Ethiopian scholars have further enriched and secured the continuity and dynamism of the tradition to the present.

Furthermore, the music has become the central defining ritualistic feature of all the major fasts and feasts, appropriately expressing and performing joys and sorrows with the faithful in the or outside of the Church.

Saint Yared, the great Ethiopian scholar, was born on April 5, 501 A.D. in the ancient city of Aksum. His father’s name was Adam, whereas his mother’s name was Tawkelia. He descended from a line of prominent church scholars. At the age of six, a priest named Yeshaq was assigned as his teacher. However, he turned out to be a poor learner and, as a result, he was sent back to his parents. While he was staying at home, his father passed away and his mother asked her brother, Aba Gedeon, a well known priest-scholar in the church of Aksum Zion, to adopt her son and to take over the responsibility regarding his education.

Aba Gedeon taught The Old and New Testaments. He also translated these and other sacred texts to Ge’ez from Greek, Hebrew and Arabic sources. Even if Aba Gedeon allowed St. Yared to live and study with him, it took him a long time to complete the study of the Book of David. He could not compete with the other children, despite the constant advice he was receiving from his uncle. In fact, he was so poor in his education, kids used to make fun of him. His uncle was so impatient with him and he gave him several lashes for his inability not to compete with his peers.

Realizing that he was not going to be successful with his education, Yared left school and went to Medebay, a town where his another uncle resided. On his way to Medebay, not far from Aksum, he was forced to seek shelter under a tree from a heavy rain, in a place called Maikrah. While he was standing by leaning to the tree, he was immersed in thoughts about his poor performance in his education and his inability to compete with his peers. Suddenly, he noticed an ant, which tried to climb the tree with a load of a seed. The ant carrying a piece of food item made six attempts to climb the tree without success. However, at the seventh trial, the ant was able to successfully climb the tree and unloaded the food item at its destination. Yared watched the whole incident very closely and attentively; he was touched by the determined acts of the ant. He then thought about the accomplishment of this little creature and then pondered why he lacked patience to succeed in his own schooling.

He got a valuable lesson from the ant. In fact, he cried hard and then underwent self-criticism. The ant became his source of inspiration and he decided to return back to school. He realized the advice he received from his uncle was a useful advice to guide him in life. He begged Aba Gedeon to forgive him for his past carelessness. He also asked him to give him one more chance. He wants all the lessons and he is ready to learn.

His teacher, Aba Gedeon then began to teach him the Book of David. Yared not only was taking the lessons, but every day he would stop at Aksum Zion church to pray and to beg his God to show him the light. His prayer was answered and he turned out to be a good student. Within a short period of time, he showed a remarkable progress and his friends noticed the change in him. They were impressed and started to admire him. He completed the Old and New Testaments lessons at a much faster pace. He also finished the rest of lessons ahead of schedule and graduated to become a Deacon. He was fluent in Hebrew and Greek, apart from Ge’ez. Yared became as educated as his uncle and by the young age of fourteen, he was forced to assume the position of his uncle when he died.

Yared’s Zema is mythologized and sacralized to the extent that the composition is seen as a special gift from heaven. One version of the mythology is presented in Ethiopian book Sinkisar, a philosophical treatise, as follows: “When God sought praise on earth, he sent down birds from heaven in the images of angels so that they would teach Yared the music of the heavens in Ge’ez language. The birds sang melodious and heart warming songs to Yared. The birds noticed that Yared was immersed in their singing and then they voiced in Ge’ez:

“O Yared, you are the blessed and respected one; the womb that carried you is praised; the breasts that fed you the food of life are praised.”

Yared was then ascended to the heavens of the heaven, Jerusalem, where twenty-four scholars of the heaven conduct heavenly choruses. St Yared listened to the choruses by standing in the sacred chamber and he committed the music to memory. He then started to sing all the songs that he heard in the sacred chambers of the heaven to the gathered scholars. He then descended back to Aksum and at 9 a.m. (selestu saat) in the morning, inside the Aksum Zion church, he stood by the side of the Tabot (The Arc of the Covenant), raised his hands to heaven, and in high notes, which later labeled Mahlete Aryam (the highest), he sang the following:

“hale luya laab, hale luya lewold, hale luya wolemenfes qidus qidameha letsion semaye sarere wedagem arayo lemusse zekeme yegeber gibra ledebtera.”

With his song, he praised the natural world, the heavens and the Zion. He called the song Mahlete Aryam, which means the highest, referring to the seventh gates of heaven, where God resides. Yared, guided by the Holy Spirit, he saw the angels using drums, horns, sistra, Masinko and harp and tau-cross staff instruments to accompany their songs of praise to God, he decided to adopt these instruments to all the church music and chants.

The chants are usually chanted in conjunction with aquaquam or sacred dance. The following instruments are used for Zema and aquaquam combination: Tau-cross staff, sistra and drum. St Yared pioneered an enduring tradition of Zema. Aquaquam and Qene. These are musical, dance and literary traditions that continue to inform the spiritual and material well being of a significant segment of the Ethiopian population.

It is important to note that, as Sergew Hable Selassie noted “most of Yared’s books have been written for religious purposes.” As a result, historical facts are interspersed with religious sentiments and allegorical renderings.

According to Ethiopian legend, St.Yared obtained the three main Zema scores from three birds. These scores that Yared named Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray were revealed to him as a distraction from a path of destruction. According to oral tradition, Yared was set to ambush a person who repeatedly tried to cheat on his wife. In an attempt to resolve such vexing issue, he decided to kill the intruder. At a place where he camped out for ambush, three birds were singing different melodies. He swiftly lent his ears to the singing. He became too attracted to the singing birds. As a result, he abandoned his plan of ambush. Instead, he began to ponder how he could become a singer like the birds. Persistent practice guided by the echo of the melodies of the birds, fresh in his memory, ultimately paid off. Yared transformed himself to a great singer and composer as well as choreographer. Yared prepared his Zema composition from 548 to 568 AD. He had taught for over eleven years as an ordained priest.

Yared’s zema chants have established a classic Zema Mahlet tradition, which is usually performed in the outer section of the Church’s interior. The interior has three parts. The Arc of the Covenant is kept in Meqdes or the holiest section.

EMPEROR GEBRE MESQEL, THE CULTURAL PHILANTHROPIST

The Ethiopian emperor of the time was Emperor Gebre Mesqel (515-529), the son of the famous Emperor Kaleb, who in successfully, though briefly, reunited western and eastern Ethiopia on both sides of the Red Sea in 525 AD.

Emperor Gabra Masqal was a great supporter of the arts; he particularly established a special relationship with St. Yared, who was given unconditional and unlimited backing from him. The Emperor would go to church to listen to the splendid chants of St. Yared.

The Emperor was ruling at the peak of Aksumite civilization. He consolidated the gains made by his father and consciously promoted good governance and church scholarship. Furthermore, he presided over a large international trade both from within and without Africa.

According to Ethiopian history, Emperor Gabra Mesqel built the monastery of Debre Damo in Tigray, northern Ethiopia in the sixth century AD. It is the site where one of the nine saints from Syria, Abuna Aregawi settled. St Yared visited and performed his Zema at the monastery. The chants and dance introduced by Yared at the time of Gebra Mesqel are still being used in all the churches of Ethiopia, thereby establishing for eternity a classical and enduring tradition.

ST YARED’S MUSICAL COMPOSITION

St Yared created five volumes of chants for major church related festivals, lents and other services and these volumes are:

The Book of Digua and Tsome Digua, the book of chants for major church holidays and Sundays, whereas the book of Tsome Digua contain chants for the major lent (fasting) season (Abiy Tsom), holidays and daily prayer, praise and chant procedures.

Digua is derived from the word Digua, which means to write chants of sorrow and tearful songs. Digua sometimes is also called Mahelete Yared or the songs of Yared, acknowledging the authorship of the chants to Yared. Regarding Digua’s significance Sergew Hable Selassie writes, “Although it was presented in the general form of poetry, there are passages relating to theology, philosophy, history and ethics.”

The Book of Meraf, chants of Sabat, important holidays, daily prayers and praises; also chants for the month of fasting.

The Book of Zimare, contain chants to be sang after Qurban (offerings) that is performed after Mass. Zemare was composed at Zur Amba monastery.

The Book of Mewasit, chants to the dead. Yared composed Mewasit alongside with Zimare.

The Book of Qidasse, chants to bless the Qurban (offerings).


Figure 2. An illustrated Zema chant text and notes from the Book of Digua (Metshafe Digua Zeqidus Yared), p. 3.

Yared completed these compositions in nine years. All his compositions follow the three musical scales (kegnit), which he used to praise, according to Ethiopian tradition, his creator, who revealed to him the heavenly chants of the twenty-four heavenly scholars.


Figure 3. The front cover of Metshafe Digua Zeqidus Yared (Book of Digua). The cover shows the five volumes of Yared’s Zema composition: Digua, Tsome Digua, Miraf, Zimare, and Mewasit. Processional Ethiopian cross, drum, sistrum, and tau-cross staff are also illustrated in the cover.

Each of these categories are further classified with three musical scales (Kegnitoch) that are reported to contain all the possible musical scales:

Ge’ez, first and straight note. It is described in its musical style as hard and imposing. Scholars often refer to it as dry and devoid of sweet melody.

Izel, melodic, gentle and sweet note, which is often chanted after Ge’ez. It is also described as affective tone suggesting intimation and tenderness.

Ararai, third and melodious and melancholic note often chanted on somber moments, such as fasting and funeral mass.

Musical scholars regard these scales as sufficient to encompass all the musical scores of the world. These scales are sources of chants or songs of praise, tragedy or happiness. These scales are symbolized as the father, the son and the Holy Spirit in the tradition.

The composer Yared wrote the notes of the Digua on parchment and he also composed ten musical notations. The notations were fully developed as musical written charts in the 17th century AD. This took place much earlier than the composition of the musical note using seven alphabetic letters within the Western tradition. St Yared named the ten musical notations as follows: Yizet, Deret, Rikrik, Difat, Cheret, Qenat, Hidet, Qurt, Dirs, and, Anbir.

The ten notations have their own styles of arrangement and they are collectively called Sirey, which means lead notations or roots to chants. The notations are depicted with lines or chiretoch (marks).


Names and signs of St. Yared zema chant. The names are written in Ge’ez in the second column. The signs are in the third column.

According to Lisane Worq Gebre Giorgis, Zema notes for Digua were fully developed in the 16th century AD by the order of Atse Gelawedos. The composers were assembled in the Church of Tedbabe Mariam, which was led by Memhir Gera and Memhir Raguel. The chants, prior to the composition of notations, learned and studied orally. In other words, the chants were sang and passed on without visual guidance. Oral training used to take up to 70 years to master all the chants, such as Digua (40 years), Meraf (10 years), Mewasit (5 years), Qidasse (10 years), and Zimare (15 years). The chant appeared in the written form made it easier for priests to study and master the various chants within a short period of time.

The ten Zemawi notations are designed to correspond with the ten commandments of Genesis and the ten strings of harp. The notes, however, were not restricted to them. In addition, they have developed notations known as aganin, seyaf, akfa, difa, gifa, fiz, ayayez, chenger, mewgat, goshmet, zentil, aqematil, anqetqit, netiq, techan, and nesey.

The composition of the Digua Zema chant with notations took seven years, whereas mewasit’s chants were completed in one year, zemare’s in two years, qidasse in two years, and meraf remained oral (without notations) for a long time until it also got its own notations.

The two leading scholars were fully recognized and promoted by the King for their accomplishments. They were given the title of azaze and homes were built for them near Tedbabe Mariam Church. While their contributions are quite significant, St Yared remains as the key composer of all the Zemas of the chants. He literally transformed the verses and texts of the Bible into musical utterances.


Figure 4. A sample page from St Yared’s zema or chant composition from Metsafe Digua Zeqidus Yared.

The ten chants are assigned names that fully described the range, scale and depth of Zema. Difat is a method of chanting where the voice is suppressed down in the throat and inhaling air. Hidet is a chant by stretching one’s voice; it is resembled to a major highway or a continuous water flow in a creek. Qinat is the highlighted last letter of a chant; it is chanted loud and upward in a dramatic manner and ends abruptly. Yizet is when letters or words are emphasized with louder chant in another wise regular reading form of chant. Qurt is a break from an extended chant that is achieved by withholding breathing. Chiret also highlights with louder notes letters or words in between regular readings of the text. The highlighted chant is conducted for a longer period of time. Rikrik is a layered and multiple chants conducted to prolong the chant. Diret is a form of chant that comes out of the chest. These eight chant forms have non-alphabetic signs. The remaining two are dirs and anber which are represented by Ethiopic or Ge’ez letters.

Yared’s composition also includes modes of chant and performance. There are four main modes. Qum Zema is exclusively vocal and the chant is not accompanied by body movement or swinging of the tau-cross staff. The chant is usually performed at the time of lent. Zimame chants are accompanied by body movements and choreographed swinging of the staff. Merged, which is further divided into Neus Merged and Abiy Merged are chanted accompanied by sistrum, drums, and shebsheba or sacred dance. The movements are fast, faster and fastest in merged, Neus Merged, and abiy merged respectively. Abiy Merged is further enhanced by rhythmic hand clappings. Tsifat chant highlights the drummers who move back and forth and around the Debteras. They also jump up and down, particularly with joyous occasions like Easter and Christmas.

St. Yared’s sacred music is truly classical, for it has been in use for over a thousand years and it has also established a tradition that continues to inform the spiritual and material lives of the people. It is in fact the realization of the contribution of St.Yared that earned him sainthood. Churches are built in his name and the first school of music that was established in the mid twentieth century in Addis Ababa is named after him. By the remarkable contribution of St. Yared, Ethiopia has achieved a tradition of modernity. It is the responsibility of the young generation to build upon it and to advance social, economic, and cultural development in the new millennium.

—–
Publisher’s Note: This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: ab67@cornell.edu

About the Author:
ayele_author.jpg
Ayele Bekerie was born and raised in Ethiopia. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies at Temple University in 1994. He has written and published in scholarly journals, such as, Journal of Egyptology and African Civilizations (ANKH), Journal of Black Studies, The International Journal of Africana Studies, and Imhotep. He is also the author of Ethiopic: an African Writing System, a book about the history and principles of Ethiopic (Ge’ez). He is a Professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. He is a regular contributor to Tadias Magazine.

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Schomburg Center Hosts Discussion on Ethiopia’s Religious History

At NYC's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Sunday, June 22, 2008. (Photo: Tadias )

Tadias Magazine
Events News

Published: Monday, June 23, 2008

New York (TADIAS) – This past Sunday, at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a panel discussion entitled “Ethiopia: The Three Faiths” attracted a diverse and large audience. The event hosted by Beta Israel of North America foundation began with cultural dances from the Indian subcontinent and an Ethiopian dance troupe called Keremela.

The panel included Dr. Ephraim Isaac, Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies at Princeton University; Dr. Ayele Bekerie, Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University, Dr. Said Samatar, Professor of African History at Rutgers University; and Dr. Yohannes Zeleke, an archaeologist, anthropologist, and historian as well as the former curator of the National Museum of Ethiopia.

Dr. Zeleke shared information regarding the recent archaeological findings in Axum including the unearthing of the Queen of Sheba’s palace and an alter for the Arc of the Covenant by the University of Hamburg.

“These findings were already made 26 years ago, but they are being verified now” he said. He also discussed the Jewish culture and heritage of the pre-Aksumite empire, until 330 A.D. when Christianity took over as the official state religion.

“The only place in the world, when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, where Jewish rulers still reigned was in Ethiopia,” he told the audience. “Ethiopian Jews were not foreigners, they are part of the ancient culture of Ethiopia.”

Dr. Said Samatar described Ethiopia’s historic role in providing sanctuary for the earliest Muslims. He shared the story of King Armah (Negash) and his decision to grant refuge to the family of the Prophet Mohammad, who arrived at Aksum while fleeing from their pagan persecutors.

“Negash held court and asked both the Quraish tribal members and the family of Mohammad to state their case” he notes. Sharing the exchange of words between the Ethiopian Christian King and those in the court, Samatar described how a Christian King refused bribes and granted sanctuary to the fleeing Muslims in Aksum.

“Mohammad didn’t forget the generosity of the Negash,” he said, “and in the sayings (hadith) of the Prophet that have been recorded and passed on for generations, it is noted that ‘Abyssinia is a land of justice in which no one is oppressed.’”

“In effect,” Samatar said “that meant that no jihad could be waged against the Kingdom of Abyssinia.”

Samatar also pointed to the presence of Islam’s oldest mosque, located in Aksum. “Islam may well have come to Ethiopia before the new religion flourished in Mecca” he said. Samatar mentioned that Ethiopia’s King had read the Prophet’s letter himself, and turning to the Schomburg’s audience, he asked the question:

“Did the King read Arabic?”

Dr. Ayele Bekerie then expounded on the relations between King Armah and his Meccan counterparts, noting new findings that King Armah, who provided sanctuary to the Prophet Mohammed’s followers, had been born in Mecca after his father, Wosen Seged, one of the sons of Atse (Emperor) Gebre Mesqel, the son of Atse Caleb, had been taken to Arabia as a military commander and had been captured as a slave by Persians and sold in Mecca. Armah was born to a Meccan woman and he later bought his freedom, returned to Ethiopia, and replaced his brother as King of Aksum.

“So it is likely that he was familiar with the Prophet Mohammad as well as being able to speak Arabic” Bekerie points out.

As to the king’s forefathers, Bekerie says: “Emperor Gebre Mesqel (King Armah’s grandfather), like his father Emperor Caleb, conducted military campaign in defense of the Christians, but he returned to Ethiopia safe.”

Bekerie provided the audience with a summary of Christianity in Ethiopia and the Tewahedo Orthodox church in particular. He noted its separation from the Chalcedonian council in 5th century A.D. and the translation of the earliest bibles from Greek to Ge’ez as well as the establishment of monasteries by the nine saints of Syria who arrived in Abyssinia while fleeing from Byzantine persecution.

Noting the depths of religious convictions in Ethiopia Bekerie noted that leaders come and go but faith remains a constant in the lives of the Ethiopian people. One good way to celebrate the millennium therefore, would be to celebrate the depths of Ethiopia’s interfaith history and culture.

“Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world guided by religious tolerance for more than a millennium” he said. “Ethiopia can serve as a model for interfaith space.”

Samatar and Zeleke equally stressed the need to recover the goodwill between the three faiths in their closing commentaries.

“In the fourth millennium we need to work towards the building of a federation that is worthy of the children of the Queen of Sheba”, Samatar concluded to an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience.



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St. Yared – the great Ethiopian composer

An artist rendering of St Yared, the great Ethiopian composer, who lived in Aksum almost 1500 years ago.

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie
ayele_author.jpg

Updated: Nov 29, 2007

New York (Tadias) – In his latest song dedicated to the Ethiopian Millennium and entitled Musika Heiwete (Music is My Life), the renowned Ethiopian popular singer, Teddy Afro (Theodros Kassahun) traces the geneaology of his music to classical Zema or chant compositions of St. Yared, the great Ethiopian composer, choreographer and poet, who lived in Aksum almost 1500 years ago.

Teddy, who is widely known for his songs mixed with reggae rhythms and local sounds, heart warming and enlightening lyrics, shoulder shaking and foot stomping beats, blends his latest offering with sacred musical terms, such as Ge’ez, Izil, and Ararary, terms coined by St. Yared to represent the three main Zema compositions.

In so doing, he is echoing the time tested and universalized tradition of modernity that has been pioneered and institutionalized by Yared. Teddy seems to realize the importance of seeking a new direction in Ethiopian popular music by consciously establishing links to the classical and indigenous tradition of modernity of St. Yared. In other words, Teddy Afro is setting an extraordinary example of reconfiguring and contributing to contemporary musical tradition based on Yared’s Zema.

An excellent example of what I call tradition of modernity, a tradition that contains elements of modernity or the perpetuation of modernity informed by originative tradition, is the annual celebration of St. Yared’s birthday in Debre Selam Qidist Mariam Church in Washington D.C. in the presence of a large number of Ethiopian Americans.

The Debteras regaled in fine Ethiopian costume that highlights the tri-colors of the Ethiopian flag, accompanied by tau-cross staff, sistra and drum, have chanted the appropriate Zema and danced the Aquaquam or sacred dance at the end of a special mass – all in honor of the great composer.

The purpose of this article is to narrate and discuss the life history and artistic accomplishments of the great St. Yared. We argue that St Yared was a great scholar who charted a modernist path to Ethiopian sense of identity and culture. His musical invention, in particular, established a tradition of cultural dynamism and continuity.


Figure 1: An artist rendering of St Yared while chanting Zema accompanied by sistrum, tau-cross staff. The three main zema chants of Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray which are represented by three birds. Digua, a book of chant, atronse (book holder), a drum, and a processional cross are also seen here. Source: Methafe Diggua Zeqidus Yared. Addis Ababa: Tensae Printing Press, 1996.

Zema or the chant tradition of Ethiopia, particularly the chants of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, is attributed to St. Yared, a composer and a choreographer who lived in Aksum in the 6th century AD. He is credited for inventing the zema of the Church; the chant that has been in use continuously for the last almost 1500 years.

It is indeed a classical tradition both musically and culturally. St Yared’s chants are characterized as subtle, spiritually uplifting, and euphonic. St Yared’s composition draws its fame both in its endurance and institutionalization of a tradition to mark the rhythm of life, the life of the faithful.

By composing chants for all natural and spiritual occasions, St. Yared has also laid down the foundation for common purpose and plurality among various ethnic, linguistic and regional groupings of the Ethiopian people. Elaborate visual representation of chants, the introduction of additional musical instruments, movements and performances by Ethiopian scholars have further enriched and secured the continuity and dynamism of the tradition to the present.

Furthermore, the music has become the central defining ritualistic feature of all the major fasts and feasts, appropriately expressing and performing joys and sorrows with the faithful in the or outside of the Church.

Saint Yared, the great Ethiopian scholar, was born on April 5, 501 A.D. in the ancient city of Aksum. His father’s name was Adam, whereas his mother’s name was Tawkelia. He descended from a line of prominent church scholars. At the age of six, a priest named Yeshaq was assigned as his teacher. However, he turned out to be a poor learner and, as a result, he was sent back to his parents. While he was staying at home, his father passed away and his mother asked her brother, Aba Gedeon, a well known priest-scholar in the church of Aksum Zion, to adopt her son and to take over the responsibility regarding his education.

Aba Gedeon taught The Old and New Testaments. He also translated these and other sacred texts to Ge’ez from Greek, Hebrew and Arabic sources. Even if Aba Gedeon allowed St. Yared to live and study with him, it took him a long time to complete the study of the Book of David. He could not compete with the other children, despite the constant advice he was receiving from his uncle. In fact, he was so poor in his education, kids used to make fun of him. His uncle was so impatient with him and he gave him several lashes for his inability not to compete with his peers.

Realizing that he was not going to be successful with his education, Yared left school and went to Medebay, a town where his another uncle resided. On his way to Medebay, not far from Aksum, he was forced to seek shelter under a tree from a heavy rain, in a place called Maikrah. While he was standing by leaning to the tree, he was immersed in thoughts about his poor performance in his education and his inability to compete with his peers. Suddenly, he noticed an ant, which tried to climb the tree with a load of a seed. The ant carrying a piece of food item made six attempts to climb the tree without success. However, at the seventh trial, the ant was able to successfully climb the tree and unloaded the food item at its destination. Yared watched the whole incident very closely and attentively; he was touched by the determined acts of the ant. He then thought about the accomplishment of this little creature and then pondered why he lacked patience to succeed in his own schooling.

He got a valuable lesson from the ant. In fact, he cried hard and then underwent self-criticism. The ant became his source of inspiration and he decided to return back to school. He realized the advice he received from his uncle was a useful advice to guide him in life. He begged Aba Gedeon to forgive him for his past carelessness. He also asked him to give him one more chance. He wants all the lessons and he is ready to learn.

His teacher, Aba Gedeon then began to teach him the Book of David. Yared not only was taking the lessons, but every day he would stop at Aksum Zion church to pray and to beg his God to show him the light. His prayer was answered and he turned out to be a good student. Within a short period of time, he showed a remarkable progress and his friends noticed the change in him. They were impressed and started to admire him. He completed the Old and New Testaments lessons at a much faster pace. He also finished the rest of lessons ahead of schedule and graduated to become a Deacon. He was fluent in Hebrew and Greek, apart from Ge’ez. Yared became as educated as his uncle and by the young age of fourteen, he was forced to assume the position of his uncle when he died.

Yared’s Zema is mythologized and sacralized to the extent that the composition is seen as a special gift from heaven. One version of the mythology is presented in Ethiopian book Sinkisar, a philosophical treatise, as follows: “When God sought praise on earth, he sent down birds from heaven in the images of angels so that they would teach Yared the music of the heavens in Ge’ez language. The birds sang melodious and heart warming songs to Yared. The birds noticed that Yared was immersed in their singing and then they voiced in Ge’ez:

“O Yared, you are the blessed and respected one; the womb that carried you is praised; the breasts that fed you the food of life are praised.”

Yared was then ascended to the heavens of the heaven, Jerusalem, where twenty-four scholars of the heaven conduct heavenly choruses. St Yared listened to the choruses by standing in the sacred chamber and he committed the music to memory. He then started to sing all the songs that he heard in the sacred chambers of the heaven to the gathered scholars. He then descended back to Aksum and at 9 a.m. (selestu saat) in the morning, inside the Aksum Zion church, he stood by the side of the Tabot (The Arc of the Covenant), raised his hands to heaven, and in high notes, which later labeled Mahlete Aryam (the highest), he sang the following:

“hale luya laab, hale luya lewold, hale luya wolemenfes qidus qidameha letsion semaye sarere wedagem arayo lemusse zekeme yegeber gibra ledebtera.”

With his song, he praised the natural world, the heavens and the Zion. He called the song Mahlete Aryam, which means the highest, referring to the seventh gates of heaven, where God resides. Yared, guided by the Holy Spirit, he saw the angels using drums, horns, sistra, Masinko and harp and tau-cross staff instruments to accompany their songs of praise to God, he decided to adopt these instruments to all the church music and chants.

The chants are usually chanted in conjunction with aquaquam or sacred dance. The following instruments are used for Zema and aquaquam combination: Tau-cross staff, sistra and drum. St Yared pioneered an enduring tradition of Zema. Aquaquam and Qene. These are musical, dance and literary traditions that continue to inform the spiritual and material well being of a significant segment of the Ethiopian population.

It is important to note that, as Sergew Hable Selassie noted “most of Yared’s books have been written for religious purposes.” As a result, historical facts are interspersed with religious sentiments and allegorical renderings.

According to Ethiopian legend, St.Yared obtained the three main Zema scores from three birds. These scores that Yared named Ge’ez, Izil, and Araray were revealed to him as a distraction from a path of destruction. According to oral tradition, Yared was set to ambush a person who repeatedly tried to cheat on his wife. In an attempt to resolve such vexing issue, he decided to kill the intruder. At a place where he camped out for ambush, three birds were singing different melodies. He swiftly lent his ears to the singing. He became too attracted to the singing birds. As a result, he abandoned his plan of ambush. Instead, he began to ponder how he could become a singer like the birds. Persistent practice guided by the echo of the melodies of the birds, fresh in his memory, ultimately paid off. Yared transformed himself to a great singer and composer as well as choreographer. Yared prepared his Zema composition from 548 to 568 AD. He had taught for over eleven years as an ordained priest.

Yared’s zema chants have established a classic Zema Mahlet tradition, which is usually performed in the outer section of the Church’s interior. The interior has three parts. The Arc of the Covenant is kept in Meqdes or the holiest section.

EMPEROR GEBRE MESQEL, THE CULTURAL PHILANTHROPIST

The Ethiopian emperor of the time was Emperor Gebre Mesqel (515-529), the son of the famous Emperor Kaleb, who in successfully, though briefly, reunited western and eastern Ethiopia on both sides of the Red Sea in 525 AD.

Emperor Gabra Masqal was a great supporter of the arts; he particularly established a special relationship with St. Yared, who was given unconditional and unlimited backing from him. The Emperor would go to church to listen to the splendid chants of St. Yared.

The Emperor was ruling at the peak of Aksumite civilization. He consolidated the gains made by his father and consciously promoted good governance and church scholarship. Furthermore, he presided over a large international trade both from within and without Africa.

According to Ethiopian history, Emperor Gabra Mesqel built the monastery of Debre Damo in Tigray, northern Ethiopia in the sixth century AD. It is the site where one of the nine saints from Syria, Abuna Aregawi settled. St Yared visited and performed his Zema at the monastery. The chants and dance introduced by Yared at the time of Gebra Mesqel are still being used in all the churches of Ethiopia, thereby establishing for eternity a classical and enduring tradition.

ST YARED’S MUSICAL COMPOSITION

St Yared created five volumes of chants for major church related festivals, lents and other services and these volumes are:

The Book of Digua and Tsome Digua, the book of chants for major church holidays and Sundays, whereas the book of Tsome Digua contain chants for the major lent (fasting) season (Abiy Tsom), holidays and daily prayer, praise and chant procedures.

Digua is derived from the word Digua, which means to write chants of sorrow and tearful songs. Digua sometimes is also called Mahelete Yared or the songs of Yared, acknowledging the authorship of the chants to Yared. Regarding Digua’s significance Sergew Hable Selassie writes, “Although it was presented in the general form of poetry, there are passages relating to theology, philosophy, history and ethics.”

The Book of Meraf, chants of Sabat, important holidays, daily prayers and praises; also chants for the month of fasting.

The Book of Zimare, contain chants to be sang after Qurban (offerings) that is performed after Mass. Zemare was composed at Zur Amba monastery.

The Book of Mewasit, chants to the dead. Yared composed Mewasit alongside with Zimare.

The Book of Qidasse, chants to bless the Qurban (offerings).


Figure 2. An illustrated Zema chant text and notes from the Book of Digua (Metshafe Digua Zeqidus Yared), p. 3.

Yared completed these compositions in nine years. All his compositions follow the three musical scales (kegnit), which he used to praise, according to Ethiopian tradition, his creator, who revealed to him the heavenly chants of the twenty-four heavenly scholars.


Figure 3. The front cover of Metshafe Digua Zeqidus Yared (Book of Digua). The cover shows the five volumes of Yared’s Zema composition: Digua, Tsome Digua, Miraf, Zimare, and Mewasit. Processional Ethiopian cross, drum, sistrum, and tau-cross staff are also illustrated in the cover.

Each of these categories are further classified with three musical scales (Kegnitoch) that are reported to contain all the possible musical scales:

Ge’ez, first and straight note. It is described in its musical style as hard and imposing. Scholars often refer to it as dry and devoid of sweet melody.

Izel, melodic, gentle and sweet note, which is often chanted after Ge’ez. It is also described as affective tone suggesting intimation and tenderness.

Ararai, third and melodious and melancholic note often chanted on somber moments, such as fasting and funeral mass.

Musical scholars regard these scales as sufficient to encompass all the musical scores of the world. These scales are sources of chants or songs of praise, tragedy or happiness. These scales are symbolized as the father, the son and the Holy Spirit in the tradition.

The composer Yared wrote the notes of the Digua on parchment and he also composed ten musical notations. The notations were fully developed as musical written charts in the 17th century AD. This took place much earlier than the composition of the musical note using seven alphabetic letters within the Western tradition. St Yared named the ten musical notations as follows: Yizet, Deret, Rikrik, Difat, Cheret, Qenat, Hidet, Qurt, Dirs, and, Anbir.

The ten notations have their own styles of arrangement and they are collectively called Sirey, which means lead notations or roots to chants. The notations are depicted with lines or chiretoch (marks).


Names and signs of St. Yared zema chant. The names are written in Ge’ez in the second column. The signs are in the third column.

According to Lisane Worq Gebre Giorgis, Zema notes for Digua were fully developed in the 16th century AD by the order of Atse Gelawedos. The composers were assembled in the Church of Tedbabe Mariam, which was led by Memhir Gera and Memhir Raguel. The chants, prior to the composition of notations, learned and studied orally. In other words, the chants were sang and passed on without visual guidance. Oral training used to take up to 70 years to master all the chants, such as Digua (40 years), Meraf (10 years), Mewasit (5 years), Qidasse (10 years), and Zimare (15 years). The chant appeared in the written form made it easier for priests to study and master the various chants within a short period of time.

The ten Zemawi notations are designed to correspond with the ten commandments of Genesis and the ten strings of harp. The notes, however, were not restricted to them. In addition, they have developed notations known as aganin, seyaf, akfa, difa, gifa, fiz, ayayez, chenger, mewgat, goshmet, zentil, aqematil, anqetqit, netiq, techan, and nesey.

The composition of the Digua Zema chant with notations took seven years, whereas mewasit’s chants were completed in one year, zemare’s in two years, qidasse in two years, and meraf remained oral (without notations) for a long time until it also got its own notations.

The two leading scholars were fully recognized and promoted by the King for their accomplishments. They were given the title of azaze and homes were built for them near Tedbabe Mariam Church. While their contributions are quite significant, St Yared remains as the key composer of all the Zemas of the chants. He literally transformed the verses and texts of the Bible into musical utterances.


Figure 4. A sample page from St Yared’s zema or chant composition from Metsafe Digua Zeqidus Yared.

The ten chants are assigned names that fully described the range, scale and depth of Zema. Difat is a method of chanting where the voice is suppressed down in the throat and inhaling air. Hidet is a chant by stretching one’s voice; it is resembled to a major highway or a continuous water flow in a creek. Qinat is the highlighted last letter of a chant; it is chanted loud and upward in a dramatic manner and ends abruptly. Yizet is when letters or words are emphasized with louder chant in another wise regular reading form of chant. Qurt is a break from an extended chant that is achieved by withholding breathing. Chiret also highlights with louder notes letters or words in between regular readings of the text. The highlighted chant is conducted for a longer period of time. Rikrik is a layered and multiple chants conducted to prolong the chant. Diret is a form of chant that comes out of the chest. These eight chant forms have non-alphabetic signs. The remaining two are dirs and anber which are represented by Ethiopic or Ge’ez letters.

Yared’s composition also includes modes of chant and performance. There are four main modes. Qum Zema is exclusively vocal and the chant is not accompanied by body movement or swinging of the tau-cross staff. The chant is usually performed at the time of lent. Zimame chants are accompanied by body movements and choreographed swinging of the staff. Merged, which is further divided into Neus Merged and Abiy Merged are chanted accompanied by sistrum, drums, and shebsheba or sacred dance. The movements are fast, faster and fastest in merged, Neus Merged, and abiy merged respectively. Abiy Merged is further enhanced by rhythmic hand clappings. Tsifat chant highlights the drummers who move back and forth and around the Debteras. They also jump up and down, particularly with joyous occasions like Easter and Christmas.

St. Yared’s sacred music is truly classical, for it has been in use for over a thousand years and it has also established a tradition that continues to inform the spiritual and material lives of the people. It is in fact the realization of the contribution of St.Yared that earned him sainthood. Churches are built in his name and the first school of music that was established in the mid twentieth century in Addis Ababa is named after him. By the remarkable contribution of St. Yared, Ethiopia has achieved a tradition of modernity. It is the responsibility of the young generation to build upon it and to advance social, economic, and cultural development in the new millennium.

—–
Editor’s Note: This article is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at: ab67@cornell.edu

About the Author:
Ayele Bekerie was born and raised in Ethiopia. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies at Temple University in 1994. He has written and published in scholarly journals, such as, Journal of Egyptology and African Civilizations (ANKH), Journal of Black Studies, The International Journal of Africana Studies, and Imhotep. He is also the author of Ethiopic: an African Writing System, a book about the history and principles of Ethiopic (Ge’ez). He is a Professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. He is a regular contributor to Tadias Magazine.

Countdown to Ethiopia’s Millennium: Rethinking Our Sense of Time

Models pose for the Ethiopian Millennium Tee by Bernos. Read about Bernos’ Ethiopian Millennium PhotoShoot.

By Ayele Bekerie, PhD

“Ethiopia has existed for 3,000 years. In fact, it existed ever since the first man [person] appeared on earth.” (Emperor Haile Selassie responding to an interview question by Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci on Sunday, June 24, 1973).

A Japanese historian observes that those who control their time, control their destiny. As we approach our millennium, it is appropriate to take inventory of our time, our historical time. How old are we? What is the significance of the human fossil discoveries in the Afar region of southeast Ethiopia that are dated in millions of years? How can we integrate different reckoning of time by our people into an Ethiopian sense of temporality? Such questions, responses to them and the consensus we reach are useful in shaping the present and planning for the future. The purpose of this article is to rethink the Ethiopian sense of time and to suggest an alternative organization of it.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, our understanding of historical time has changed, thanks to the scholarly works of archaeologists, paleontologists, historians, biologists, and geologists. Our sense of time has been stretched to seven digits into millions. Even though we are preparing for a grand celebration of the Ethiopian millennium, we all agree, thanks to the works of paleo-anthropologists, our time begins with the beginning of humanity. The evidence obtained from the Afar region, among other useful sites in the vast Rift Valley, suggests that southeast Ethiopia may have been the cradle of human beings. In other words, our sense of time has expanded beyond the 2000 years we want to acknowledge with grand celebration. Simply put, we are a million years old people. Such a time scale should help us to place our present language based differences in a proper perspective. We are time-endowed people with a claim to uninterrupted long human development.

Reckoning of time in the past, primarily concentrates on the events and traditions of northern Ethiopia. Of course, we salute the contribution of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the establishment and keeping of the time period that we know as Amate Mehret (Year of Mercy). We are grateful to them mapping out a time scale that embraces our conception and understanding of werat (months), ametat (years), and zemenat. We are also appreciative of the Church for the maintenance of Zemene Fitrit (Era of creation). Just as we recognize the diversity of our people, it is equally important to recognize the diverse reckoning of time by Ethiopians. Thanks to the Ethiopian Muslim chroniclers, time and events in the lowlands, coastal regions and in the southeastern part of the country have been recorded based on Islamic calendar. The Oromos have Gada system of time and community organizations based on age-grade. There may be numerous other ways of time reckoning in our country and we should study them and find ways of incorporating into our Ethiopian collective sense of time.

As I pointed out earlier, it is increasingly becoming clear that our sense of time has been greatly influenced by the discovery of early human fossils in the southeast part of the country. Dinqnesh (She has multiple names, including Lucy) has permanently registered in our psyche a sense of ancestral and resultant diversity. We do not argue about the ethnic origin of our eponymous ancestors. Time has placed them at the center of our origin and it will not be honest if we fail to include the ancestors in our calculation of self and community regardless of our immediate identity. Besides, Dinqnesh (Lucy) is the mother of all mothers and all the 6 billion people on earth can claim her. She is the universal ancestor and it is exciting to note that our beginning, given its universal dimension, as I stated earlier, is postmodern, postpositive, if I may use the discourse of our age. The tribal and ethnic entity that we currently debate about is subdued by time. Time ties us together.

rsz_lucy_new_houston1.jpg
A full-sized model of Dinqnesh (Lucy), the 3.2 million-year-old member of the Australopithecus afarensis, is displayed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 29, 2007. Photographer: Craig Hartley/Bloomberg News

To organize our time, we may want to establish four general divisions: millions, thousands, millenniums, and centuries. Millions refer to the time period for the emergence of our ancestors. The foundation of our diversity is established during this period. Our ancestors moved in and out of our motherland in search of suitable locations for habitation. Significant human evolution has also taken place during this period.

Thousands coincide with the emergence of modern human beings. Researchers such as Sileshi Semaw have found reliable evidence to affirm our modernity. During this time, there was a movement out of Africa to populate the rest of the world. The process continued until thirty or forty thousand years ago.

Millenniums are regarded as a revolutionary period because the ancestors of this period succeeded in domesticating plants and animals. They were even credited for establishing one of the original sources of plant and animal species. Thanks to their diligent work, we now have four main occupations associated with our ecology: grain producers, meat and milk producers, inset producers and fishers. Oral traditions have also identified, together with some recorded history, the period as time of empire and international trade. Here I am particularly referring to Queen Makeda and her journey to Jerusalem.

Centuries are a time period measured in centuries. This is the period of great written and oral records. It is a period of events, including reorganization, tumultuous interaction, royal rule and egalitarian social formation. As we transition to the Ethiopian millennium, we should strive to cultivate participatory democracy.

Let me make another observation regarding the Ethiopian chronology or detailed recorded time lines of our past. The study of ancient Egypt begins with ancient Egyptian chronology, which was developed by Manetho in the third century B.C., at least 2, 800 years after the establishment of the first dynasty. Manetho identified thirty Egyptian dynasties in the historical period of 3100 years. The dynasties were divided into three major kingdoms: old, middle and new Egyptian kingdoms. Regardless of the location of the capitals of the dynasties, they always remained Egyptian dynasties and not Memphite, Thebite, or Napatan dynasties. The benefit of the Egyptian chronology is that it ties all the dynasties as one historical epoch. This is not what we find with Ethiopian chronology.

The name of the chronology shifts with the changing capitals of the Ethiopian rulers. We have chronological time calculated on the basis of events that took place in the northern part of Ethiopia, such as Damot, Aksum, Zagwe, Gondar, and Shoa. Even then the names of the different periods in the chronology give an impression as if there is no continuity or relations.

Furthermore, the chronology does not present the whole historical time encompassing all Ethiopian historical events. I am proposing to reckon and organize Ethiopian time in such a way that we will have Ethiopian Time I at Afar (4.4 million years to 18, 000 years), Ethiopian Time II at Teffland, Ensetland, and Pastoral land (18, 000 years to 1, 000 years), Ethiopian Time III at Damot (1,000 years to 300 BCE), Ethiopian Time IV at Aksum (300 BCE to 1,000 CE), Ethiopian Time V at Zagwe (1200 to 1400 CE), Ethiopian Time VI of Oromo Kingdoms, Afar Sultanates and others (1400 to 1600 CE), Ethiopian Time VII at Gondar (1600 to 1800), Ethiopian Time at Kaffa, Konso, Anuak, Shoa and other states as well as the movement towards a federal republic (1800 to Present). This new proposal also helps us to incorporate all Ethiopian autonomous states, such as Kaffa kingdom, Jotte kingdom, Afar Sultanate, particularly in the southern part of Ethiopia.

As we prepare to celebrate the Ethiopian millennium, it is perhaps appropriate to place our historical time in order. It is also important to organize our historical time so as to promote “the cardinal rule of unity in diversity.”

Our sense of time should assist us to develop a sense of unity. It is important to remember that we are celebrating our second millennium where we can demonstrate continuous and free living. It is an important mark of time that certainly deserves a big celebration. However, we should always be aware of the fact that our age is measured in millions of years. That should also help us to place all our immediate differences in some kind of proper perspective.

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About the Author:
ayele_author.jpg
Ayele Bekerie was born in Ethiopia, and earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies at Temple University in 1994. He has written and published in scholarly journals, such as , ANKH: Journal of Egyptology and African Civilizations, Journal of Black Studies, The International Journal of Africana Studies, and Imhotep. He is an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University. He is also a regular contributor to Tadias Magazine.

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Queens, Spies, and Servants: A History of Ethiopian Women in Military Affairs

Above: These female war veterans are pictured in Addis
Ababa’s Menelik Square in 1973 at a ceremony to commemorate
an early victory against the Italians. Photo by Shemelis Desta
(BBC)

By Tseday Alehegn

Chronicles of war and military prowess are plentiful in Ethiopia’s historical literature. Growing up we are effortlessly taught the virtues of honor and duty, which have bestowed sovereignty to generation after generation of Ethiopians. Countless retelling of tales depicting the early and decisive victory at the battle of Adwa remain ever fresh in our proud minds and hearts; the feeling only to be outdone by the resoluteness of heroes who ended the Italian occupation of Ethiopia during the Second World War. Indeed, it is as the 17th century writer Almeida wrote of us: “In war they are reared as children, in war they grow old, or the life of all who are not farmers is war.”

The emphasis on military virtues becomes more palpable when we recognize the unique manner in which Ethiopians chose to fight off their external enemies. From earliest times, both women and men were encouraged to participate in mobilization and preparation efforts. Depicting the atmosphere during the battle of Adwa in 1896, historian G.F. Berkeley observes how the Ethiopian army was not merely organized as a segment of the population, but rather as an entire collective that had integrated the occurrence of war into its normal day-to-day activities. He points out, “It’s not an army [it is] an invasion, the transplanting of the whole people.” No one was left behind. While men served as soldiers they brought along with them their wives who in turn became involved either as civilian participants or as military combatants. What rights, titles, honors men claimed for their valor women were able to do the same.

Females were traditionally not allowed to inherit land unless the father died before the daughter married or there were no sons in the family. However, women would be able to claim property after serving in military mobilization efforts. In an uncommon way, the ability of women to participate on the warfront initiated change to their otherwise lower societal status. Not all participation in war, however, was voluntary as is clearly depicted in the following 19th century edict by the leader Ras Gugsa: “One who does not join the army of Gugsa, man and woman, will lose his genital and her breast respectively.”

Historians have estimated that an average of 20,000 to 30,000 women have participated in the campaign of Adwa alone. While the majority served in non-violent chores such as food preparation and nursing of the wounded, a significant portion served as soldiers, strategists, advisors, translators, and intelligence officers. Women from the aristocracy worked alongside maids and servants thereby breaking norms in class separation.

Female Military Strategists & Combatants:

At a time when women in most parts of the world were relegated to household chores, the number of Ethiopian women in the late 17th century participating in war expeditions against foreign aggressors was on the rise. Whereas most war decrees at this time encouraged all Ethiopians to fight occupation attempts, in 1691 Emperor Iyasu issued one of the first proclamations to curtail the rapid growth of women soldiers. The chronicles report:

“The king had the herald proclaim that the girls of the country must not ride
astride mules, because at this time these girls had adopted the practice of doing
so, tightening the belts of their shirts, covering their heads with their shammas and holding a long spear in their hand..marching in expeditions like men.”

Queen Yodit is one of the earliest-mentioned Ethiopian female leaders who fought spiritedly in battles. She successfully overthrew the powerful Aksumite kingdom, but because many churches and historically important sites were destroyed in the process her reign is infamously described as the dark era. Between 1464 and 1468, under the leadership of King Zere Yaqob, women’s expansion into political positions became more evident. Historian Richard Pankhurst notes how Zere Yaqob “established a women’s administration by appointing his daughters and relatives to key provinces.”

King Zere Yaqob’s wife, Queen Eleni, was an equally formidable and astute military strategist, and was largely responsible for the arrival in 1520 of the Portuguese as one of the first diplomatic missions. Predicting the appetite of Turks in invading Ethiopia’s coastline she proposed a joint attack strategy to the Portuguese leadership against the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks. Sylvia Pankhurst records her letter to the Portuguese summoning a coalition. Queen Eleni is to have written:

“We have heard that the Sultan of Cairo assembles a great army to attack
your forces…against the assault of such enemies we are prepared to send
a good number of men-at-arms who will give assistance in the sea bound
areas…If you wish to arm a thousand warship we will provide the necessary
food and furnish you with everything for such a force in very great abundance.”

The Turks were soundly defeated. Years later Queen Seble Wongel was able to draw on the help of the Portuguese in defeating Ahmed Gragn’s muslim expansion into Ethiopia. In February 1543 her army fought at the battle of Woina Dega where Gragn succumbed to his death.

Harold Marcus documents Queen Worqitu’s history as the warrior queen who helped Menelik gain his crown. In 1865 Queen Worqitu of Wollo granted Menelik a safe route through her territory as the future monarch successfully escaped from King Tewodros’ prison.

The effect of her support in aiding Menelik to power is recorded in Ethiopia’s ensuing transformation from a ‘land of kings’ to a nation ruled by a ‘king of kings.’

Perhaps the most famous queen involved in military affairs is Empress Taitu, wife of Emperor Menelik II. In the battle of Adwa Empress Taitu is said to have commanded an infantry of no less than 5,000 along with 600 cavalry men and accompanied by thousands of Ethiopian women. Her strategy to cut off the invading Italian army’s water supply led to the weakening of the enemies warfront.

Following her example, Itege Menen avidly participated in battles taking places during the ‘Era of the Princes.’ Fighting against the incursion of the Egyptians, she is said to have had 20,000 soldiers under her command. Likewise, during the Italo-Ethiopian occupation, Princess Romanworq Haile Selassie upheld the tradition of women going to the battlefront and she fought alongside her husband.

Intelligence Officers, Advisors, and Translators:

Intelligence work was key in Ethiopia’s gaining the upper hand against fascist Italy and here too women played a significant role in information gathering. Through the establishment of the Central Committee of ‘Wust Arbegnoch’ (Inner Patriots) women members helped provide soldiers with intelligence information as well as arms, ammunition, food, clothing, and medicine. Sylvia Pankhurst also records how the female patriot Shewa Regged had organized an elite Ethiopian intelligence service to gather more arms while leading the Ethiopian guerilla fighters to the locale of Addis Alem to defeat an Italian fortification. Pankhurst recounts Shewa Regged’s resilience in her biography as follows:

“She was captured by the Italians and tortured by them with electricity to compel her to disclose her accomplices; despite all their cruelties, she preserved silence.”

Queen Taitu’s role as advisor is also well known. In depicting the wariness and foresight of Queen Taitu, historian R. Greenfield records her advise to Emperor Menelik and his cabinet regarding the Italian encroachment. She warns:

“Yield nothing. What you give away today will be a future ladder against your
fortress and tomorrow the Italians will come up it into your domains. If you
must lose lands lose them at least with your strong right arms.”

Her dedication and subsequent victory in preserving Ethiopia’s sovereignty won her the title “Berhane ZeEthiopia” (Light of Ethiopia). Her official seal bore this distinguished title.

In the role of translator, Princess Tsehay Haile Selassie served her country by accompanying the Emperor to the League of Nations and aiding in Ethiopia’s call for support from the International Community. The Plea falling on deaf ears the League soon dissolved as the Italians persisted on invading the last free African stronghold. Plunged into war, Empress Menen is to have asserted “Women of the world unite. Demand with one voice that we may be spared the honor of this useless bloodshed!”

Non-Combatant Efforts:

The role of women in Ethiopian military history will remain largely untold if their work as non-combatants is not recalled. It is in this position that the majority of women of the lower class contributed in strengthening Ethiopia’s defense. While some uplifted the morale of the fighting contingent through popular battle songs and poetry, others labored for the daily nourishment and overall well-being of the soldiers. The record of Ethiopia’s long-standing independence will be incomplete without the recognition of thousands of women servants who accompanied women and menfolk of the aristocracy in battle after battle. Maids and servants were responsible for the gathering and preparation of food and other administrative roles. The traveler and writer James Bruce stresses the diligence of these women during war expeditions. He writes in earnest:

“I know of no country where the female works so hard… seldom resting
till late at night, even at midnight grinding, and frequently up before
cockcrow. Tired from the march, no matter how late, water must be brought,
fuel collected, supper prepared by the soldiers’ wife…and before daylight, with
a huge load, she must march again.”

When not involved in presiding over day-to-day affairs women helped out in the clearing of roads, digging of trenches, and nursing of the wounded. In the same spirit, during the Italo-Ethiopian war, Princess Tsehay Haile Selassie helped mobilize women of all classes in efforts to provide gas masks, clothes, rations and bandages to the civilian population to protect against frequent Italian air raids and mustard gas attacks.

In commemoration of the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, it is appropriate to recognize the achievements of Ethiopia’s women who helped in the creation of a one-of-a-kind defense system, which has successfully deterred foreign aggression not for a few years, but for thousands.

For original referenced-version of this article please click here

About the Author:
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Tseday Alehegn is the Editor-in-Chief of Tadias Magazine. Tseday is a graduate of Stanford University (both B.A. & M.A.). In addition to her responsibilities at Tadias, she is also a Doctoral student at Columbia University.

New Yorkers Received Rare Treat at MOBIA: Ethiopian Art from The Walters Art Museum

Tadias Magazine
By COLLEEN LUTOLF

New York – (Tadias) – Walters Art Museum Director Gary Vikan’s fascination with Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian art began in a Washington D.C. basement during the 1960s.

——————————————————————————————–
Listen on WNYC: Dr. Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters
Art Museum, talks about the significance of Ethiopian
religious icons and other objects of worship on display
at the Museum of Biblical Art.


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“I do remember going into somebody’s house in Washington [D.C.] and seeing the Virgin [Mary] with these huge, dark eyes,” Vikan said during a recent interview. “And I remember the moment I saw it and where I was standing. The memory is very strong.”

Private collections throughout the world, like those protected beneath a Washington D.C. house, inside rock-hewn Christian monasteries in Ethiopia, or above ground in a New York City SoHo loft, have provided the Walters Art Museum with a majority of its Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian art, Vikan said.

Vikan only began collecting Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art for the Walters in 1993, the same year he curated “African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia,” an historical exhibition he said served as a “flashpoint” for the current strife occurring in Ethiopia at the time.

“In the context of doing the exhibition, it was not easy. It was a troubled moment historically” in Ethiopia, Vikan said, with Mengistu Haile Mariam’s reign of Red Terror having just ended. The trial that would prosecute members of the communist Derg, mostly in absentia, would soon begin.

“These aspects put people on edge, and they kind of spilled over, not into the exhibition itself, but the different views, it was very interesting,” he said. “The exhibition had facets that most exhibitions don’t have.”

A year later, Vikan, a medieval orthodox art scholar and trained Byzantinist, moved from chief curator to director of the Walters and began collecting Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art in earnest. The Walters now boasts the largest collection of this type of Ethiopian devotional art outside of Ethiopia in the world.

“Certainly the best, from some very interesting private collections,” Vikan said. “I was attracted to it before anyone paid much attention to it.”

When the collection of a sub-Saharan art dealer who passed away was being sold off, Vikan got a call.

“Somebody selling off the collection who knew about me – this would’ve been in 1995 in New York in a loft in SoHo – they invited me down to look at this and I thought, ‘This is really amazing,’” Vikan recalled. A stock market windfall allowed Vikan to buy a number of those pieces for the Walters, and they are now included in the museum’s 100-piece collection of metalwork, icon painting, woodcarvings and ancient manuscripts that span 1,500 years of Ethiopian Christian devotion. The collection is now the central exhibit on the medieval floor of the Walters Art Museum.

“It’s in the pride position because it is so visually powerful that nothing else could dominate it,” Vikan said. “It dominates the Byzantine art around it.”

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian collection also shares the medieval floor with Russian, Byzantine, and Georgian Orthodox art in the Baltimore museum.

“The others revolve around Ethiopia,” Vikan said. “It would make the room look funny [if they didn’t] because the others are not as visually strong.”

New Yorkers were recently given an opportunity to view about half of the Walters’ collection when the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City hosted “Angels of Light: Ethiopian Art from The Walters Art Museum” from March 23 through May 20.

If museum-goers had a feeling they were being watched as they entered the “Angels of Light” exhibition at the MOBIA, they had good reason. Huge, dark eyes similar to those that greeted Vikan in that Washington D.C. basement over 40 years ago were looking out from various devotional icon paintings depicting Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, almost always flanked by angels with equally large eyes that symbolize holiness.

triptych-with-virgin-and-child2_new.jpg
Above: Anonymous painter. Triptych with Virgin and Child
Flanked by archangels, scenes from the life of Christ,
apostles and Saint George and Saint Mercurius. Ethiopia
(Gojjam?), late 17th century. Tempera on panel. 14 78 x
4 5/16 inches left; 15 1/8 x 9 inches center; 15 1/16 x 4
7/16 inches right. 36.7 museum purchased, the W. Alton
Jones Foundation Acquisition Fund, 1996, from the Nancy
and Robert Nooter Collection.

Most of the iconic paintings date between the 15th to 17th centuries in diptychs and triptychs depicting familiar Christian scenes – Christ on the cross; the Virgin Mary, seated, with the Christ child holding a book in his left hand, and embraced in Mary’s left arm with the first two fingers of her right hand pointing downward; Christ with a crown of thorns, Christ teaching the apostles.

While the compositions of these depictions can be traced to visiting missionaries and artists carrying with them Byzantine and Western examples of Christian iconic devotional paintings after the 14th century, the Ethiopian depictions are unique from any other depiction of Christian scenes in the world, MOBIA curator Holly Flora said.

“Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has a very close relationship to angels that is not always found elsewhere,” said Flora. “Objects relating to healing as well are emphasized in Ethiopian art.”

Also unique to the art of Ethiopian Orthodoxy is the artists’ use of vibrant colors in paintings and manuscripts.

diptych-with-virgin-and-child_new.jpg
Above: Diptych with Virgin and Child flanked by archangels, apostles,
and Saint George. Ethiopia, late 15th century. Tempera on panel.

To understand what makes Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art unique, one must understand the role African traditional religions and Judaism played in Ethiopian culture prior to the introduction to Christianity, said Ayele Bekerie, assistant professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center.

“The influence of ancient religious traditions are manifested in what we now call Ethiopian Christianity, particularly in reaching out to angels and visualizing the biblical stories in colors and styles inspired by the material culture and environment,” Bekerie said. “It is important to note that most monasteries and some churches are built on top of hills and mountains where you experience remarkable and colorful views of the sunrise and sunset. Besides, the landscape is always a panorama of rainbow colors.”

Ethiopian Christianity also evolved out of a Judaic culture as well, established over 3,000 years ago. Bekerie tells the story:

“Judaism is introduced to Ethiopia at the time of Empress Makeda (She is also called Azeb and Queen of Sheba) and her son, Menelik I, the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty in Ethiopia. According to Ethiopian oral tradition, Empress Makeda paid a visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem where she made a deliberate journey in order to learn from the reported wisdom of the king. She did achieve her objective and even more by giving birth to Menelik, the son of the king. Menelik’s rite of passage was to travel to Jerusalem to meet with his father. The overjoyed king asked him to become the king of Israel, but the son wanted to return back to Ethiopia.”

“His return (there are many versions) resulted in the establishment of Judaism (a new tradition of believing in one God) in Ethiopia with the most important sacred symbol of the Ark at the center of the new belief system. When later on, Christianity emerged in Ethiopia, we observe a logical evolution of the faith from Judaism. This is because the Ethiopian Christianity is the only Christianity in the world that embraces and holds the Ark of the Covenant as its defining sacred symbol.”

“Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia,” Flora said. “They will tell you unequivocally the Ark is there.”

Ethiopians believe the Ark is located in the Aksumite Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, but every church in Ethiopia and throughout the world must have a replica of the Ark in order affirm their legitimacy, Bekerie said.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world. The religion was practiced along the Ethiopian coastline as early as 42 A.D., Bekerie said, after a Meroë (in what is modern day Sudan) merchant introduced commoners to the religion. Due to the inclusive nature of African traditional religions, Christians were able to worship openly without fear of persecution.

Perhaps more significantly, Ethiopia became one of the first countries in the world to take Christianity as its state religion approximately 300 years later when, according to legend, Frumentius, a Christian merchant seaman from Tyre on his way to India with relatives, became shipwrecked and was delivered to the king in Axum, a powerful world empire in the fourth century, Bekerie said.

“He was raised with special care and managed to master the language and traditions of the Aksumites,” said Bekerie. When the king’s son Ezana, came to power, the long-trusted Frumentius convinced him to make Christianity the state religion.

Proof of the conversion is part of the Walters Art Museum collection. Two silver coins, slightly larger in diameter than a pencil eraser, and crafted in the 4th century, show on one side the likeness of Aksumite King Ousanas, on the other, a cross. Aksumite coins are the first in the world to carry the cross, pre-dating Constantinople.

African traditional religious practices were also incorporated into the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian religion.

Protective scrolls, made for those who were ill or believed to be possessed by demons, were created (and still are today in some remote villages, Flora said), by clerics known as däbtära. The däbtära would sacrifice a goat, sprinkle the ill or those believed to be possessed with the goat’s blood, then fashion the scroll from the sacrificed goat’s skin, Flora said.

A healing scroll from the 18th century obtained by the Walters Museum and on display there, was created for a woman named “Martha.” The scrolls combined Christian imagery with magical incantations written in Ge´ez, a liturgical language developed in Ethiopia in the 4th century. The incantations were book-ended by talismans drawn at the top and bottom of the scroll and are believed to protect their owners, Flora said. The scrolls’ recipients then wore the prayer scrolls until they were believed healed.

prayer-scrool_new.jpg
Above: Prayer Scroll. Ethiopia,
19th century. Ink on parchment.
65 9/16 x 3 7/16 inches. W.788,
gift of Mr. James St. Lawrence
O’Toole, 1978.

Another prayer object that is unique to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and features the well-honed abilities of Ethiopian metalworkers are processional crosses. Draped in purple textiles, the MOBIA featured six such crosses, almost six feet in height, dating as far back as the 13th century. Made of gold or silver, these crosses are carried by priests during processions and feature intricate geometrical patterns, Flora said.

“Priests carried these during mass and also used them as instruments of blessing,” she said.

hand-cross_new.jpg
Above: Hand Cross. Ethiopia, 18th–19th century.

While Ethiopian artists were almost unquestionably influenced by Western and Byzantine devotional icon painting in the 15th century, due in part, museum curators suggest, to the destruction of many church murals and liturgical objects during the Muslim invasions of the 1530s and 1540s, Bekerie said some observers are too quick to see overt Western influence in Ethiopian artists’ creative thought.

“It seems to me there is some sort of mental block not to acknowledge originality and creativity in the Ethiopian artists,” he said. “I always advise scholars to use the example of the architecture of the Debre Damo Monastery, the oldest monastery in Ethiopia.”

The monastery is constructed of stone blocks and logs, creating a distinct architectural feature, Bekerie said. Distinct painting traditions have also emerged in different regions of Ethiopia and are pursued by students over the centuries.
The monarchy and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian Church were institutional pillars that guided culture and politics in Ethiopia until the monarchy’s fall in 1974, Bekerie said.

“The monarchy is gone and the church is still place,” he said. “It is true that there are other religious institutions, including Islamic, Catholic and Protestant institutions. The oldest and by far the most influential is the Tewahedo Church. [Its] influence is apparent in art, music, social relations, food habits and literature.”

And as the collection of Ethiopian art becomes more popular, the sources for these collections become fewer, said Vikan.

“All of it’s drying up and that’s a good thing,” he said. “We need this art to be shown outside of the country, but [its distribution] needs to be controlled and shown in a way that acknowledges the dignity of the culture from which it comes.”


About the Author:
Colleen Lutolf is a reporter for Tadias Magazine.

Treasures of Ethiopian Art To Shine at Museum of Biblical Art

Above:Church, Mädhane Aläm at Mäjate, Ethiopia, 1892-1893; Private Collection, France, before 1973; Sam Fogg, London; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1998, by purchase.

New York, NY — The Museum of Biblical Art examines the exhilarating artistic heritage of one of the world’s oldest Christian kingdoms in Angels of Light: Ethiopian Art from the Walters Art Museum, opening Friday, March 23, 2007.

For the showing, towering metalwork crosses, brilliantly colored icon paintings, decorated manuscripts, and other rare objects have been drawn from one of the largest and finest collections of Ethiopian art outside of Addis Ababa—that of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

pendant.jpg ethiopian_art_walters_museum0002.jpg

Angels of Light covers a vast sweep of time, from the 4th century, when Ezana, the King of Aksum, converted to Christianity, to the 19th century. Altogether, 44 masterworks speak to the manner in which Ethiopian artists infused their works with a unique sense of form and color, continually absorbing and transforming influences from other cultures.

“Ethiopia’s artistic heritage defies expectation, blending Semitic oral traditions and African colors and patterns with Italian narratives and Byzantine icon forms. I believe that many visitors will be amazed by what they see, from the hot yellow and red colors of the painted icons to the dramatic processional crosses, draped in fabric,” says Ena Heller, director of MOBIA.

Ethiopian culture has deep roots: the first Ethiopian emperor is even said to have been the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. According to tradition, it was he, Menelike, who brought the Ark of the Covenant to the country from Jerusalem, thus crowning Ethiopia as the new Israel.

“Today, too often we forget that Ethiopia was a world power, along with Rome and Persia, for much of the first millennium of the common era,” says Gary Vikan, Director and Curator of Medieval Art at the Walters Art Museum. “The Walters’ collection of Ethiopian art is a relatively new addition to the Museum—initiated only in 1993. Yet the power of these objects has already earned them an invaluable place in the story we tell of the cultures of Eastern Orthodoxy, alongside the Byzantine, Greek, and Russian cultures.”

By the 15th century, Ethiopia had developed a tradition of icon painting that rivaled the production of icons in Byzantium and Russia, and the new kind of painting emerging in Renaissance Italy. Representing this high point in the history of Ethiopian art in Angels of Light are nine rare panel paintings, diptychs, and triptychs, each representing a distinct style or iconology. One is a large tempera on panel called “Our Lady Mary with Her Beloved Son and Archangels Michael and Gabriel,” which is thought to have been created by a painter of the royal court between 1445 and 1480. The artist suggests an easy, human affection between Mary and Jesus in the way he depicts the pair locked in a rapt gaze and holding hands, encircled by folds of cloth. The choice of the Virgin and Child as a subject here, and the use of forms familiar from Byzantine or Italian models, confirm that Ethiopian artists were aware of Western traditions. Even more directly linked to the art of the Mediterranean is a triptych painted approximately 200 years later, depicting the Virgin and Child flanked by the archangels and scenes from the life of Christ, the apostles, Saint George, and Saints Honorius, Täklä Haymaont, and Ewostatewos. The central panel is based on a famous icon from the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore that was believed to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist.

The illuminated books and scrolls in Angels of Light are especially powerful reminders of the passionate faith of medieval Christians in Africa. In particular, a pair of illuminated charts dating to the late 14th century or early 15th century bring to light an exercise of scholarship and devotion that seems mind-boggling in today’s “Google” age. On a single sheet of parchment, framed by classical arches surmounted by birds, the Canon Tables provided priests with an early cross-referencing system to reconcile the different accounts of Christ’s life. Also in this section of the exhibition is a 16th-century gospel book, in nearly pristine condition, which features full-page portraits of the Evangelists painted in bright bold color and an assured line.

Eight medieval bronze processional crosses will be stationed together in the MOBIA gallery, their varied geometric patterns offering a delight to the eye and mind. Meant to be seen against the sky or by candlelight, their abstract shapes are a hybrid of Byzantine and Islamic forms, incised, perforated, welded, and /or cast by master artisans. In one cross from the late 12th or early 13th century, the sign of Christ, as described in the Gospel of Matthew, can be made out in the curved abstracted form. Upon close inspection, 13 small crosses emerge from a seemingly unbroken weave of tiny interlocking circles in a 15th-century staff.

Ideally situated near the Red Sea, and encompassing one of the branches of the Nile river, Ethiopia was able to establish strong ties in both trade and religion with nations around the Mediterranean Sea. A prayer book with its worn leather satchel, a parchment scroll in its leather carrying case, folding icons (diptychs) and small books speak to the benefit of a portable gospel faith in a cosmopolitan center of trade.

Learn More at The Museum of Biblical Art

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