Ancient Ethiopia

The Ancient Ethiopians lay claim to having the oldest continuous Kingdom in the world, starting over four thousand years ago with the Kingdom of Axum.

Painting of Warriors – Ura Kidane Mehret Church Lake Tana, Ethiopia.
The Ancient Kingdoms of Abyssinia

Axumite Head; Falasha Artist Terracotta, 4th to 7th Century

In East Africa, the Nile vanishes into the highlands of Abyssinia, into an ancient land that may be the place of origin of all human beings. Ethiopia is a country with an rich diversity in people, culture and religion, with a history that dates back as early as the 8th Century B.C.E. The Axumite Kingdoms that rose in the first century can be considered the first line in a series of successor Kingdoms that remained uninterrupted until modern times. Even so the traditional cultures of Ethiopia retain much form their ancient past, including the founding of one of the first Christian Kingdoms in the world, and possibly retaining a form of Christianity very similar to the early Judeo-Chrsitian traditions that have since changed tremendously elsewhere, yet remain vibrant in Ethiopia today.

Early Beginnings

On of the many large Obelisks at Axum

Around the eighth century BC, a kingdom known as D’mt was established in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with its capital at Yeha in northern Ethiopia. Most modern historians consider this civilization to be indigenous, although Sabaean-influenced due to the latter’s hegemony of the Red Sea,while others view D`mt as the result of a mixture of “culturally superior” Sabaeans and indigenous peoples. a very small minority even views the kingdom as wholly Sabaean and Ethiopians as the descendants of ancient Sabaean immigrants . However, there is archaeological evidence to prove that at one point in time a region in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea was called Saba. However, most modern scholars often refer to it as Ethiopian Saba since it had a separate entity than the Saba in Yemen.

After the fall of D`mt in the fifth century BC, the plateau came to be dominated by smaller successor kingdoms, until the rise of one of these kingdoms during the first century BC, the Axumite Kingdom, ancestor of medieval and modern Ethiopia, which was able to reunite the area. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time.

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The Rise of the Kingdom of Axum

A map showing Ancient Axum on the horn of Africa

The Axumites lived in the Ethiopian highlands near the Red Sea, and so enjoyed a strategic position in the trade routes between Yemen (in the south of the Arabian peninsula) and the cities of Nubia. They spoke a strongly Semitic language and wrote in Semitic characters; Ethiopia, in fact, has one of the longest continuous literate traditions in Africa.

We know very little about the early Axumite kingdom. Roman and Greek sources indicate that an Axumite kingdom was thriving in the first century AD; the city of Adulis is frequently mentioned because it had become one of the most important port cities in Africa.

Axum lay dead in the path of the growing commercial trade routes between Africa, Arabia, and India. As a result, it became fabulously wealthy and its major cities, Adulis, Axum, and Matara, became three of the most important cosmopolitan centers in the ancient world. Although they were off the beaten path as far as European history is concerned, they were just as cosmopolitan and culturally important in that they served as a crossroads to a variety of cultures: Egyptian, Sudanic, Arabic, Middle Eastern, and Indian. Perhaps an indication of this cosmopolitan character can be found in the fact that the major Axumite cities had Jewish, Nubian, Christian, and even Buddhist minorities.

In the second century AD, Axum acquired tribute states on the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea, conquered northern Ethiopia, and then finally conquered Kush. The downfall of the Nubian powers led to the meteoric rise of Axumite imperial power. The Axumites controlled one of the most important trade routes in the world and occupied one of the most fertile regions in the world.

The Axumite religion was actually derived from Arabic religion. It was a polytheistic religion which believed that the gods controlled the natural forces of the universe. However, in the fourth century, Ezana, who was a follower of Axumite religion, converted to Christianity under the tutelage of a Syrian bishop named Frumentius. Ezana declared Axum to be a Christian state , thus making it the first Christian state in the history of the world, and began actively converting the population to Christianity.

Ethiopian Christianity was slightly different from its Greek origins. Under the influence of Egyptian Christians, the Axumites believed that Christ had a single rather than a double nature (man and god): this is called Monophysite (mono=single, physis=nature) Christianity and was considered heretical in the European churches. In the fifth century AD, the Axumites replaced Greek in the liturgy and began using their own native language, Ge’ez. Finally, because of their Semitic origins, the Ethiopians believed that they were descendants of the Hebrews, who were also Semitic. They traced their origins all the way back to David. So the Ethiopians, unlike other Christians, really saw themselves as inheriting the covenants that Yahweh entered into with his chosen people (as a side note, the Ethiopic Church claims to have the Ark of the Covenant which is the chest in which the Decalogue was kept by the Hebrews).

Axum remained a strong empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the seventh century AD. However, because the Axumites had sheltered Muhammed’s first followers, the Muslims never attempted to overthrow Axum as they spread across the face of Africa. Even though Axum no longer served as a center or hub of international trade, it nonetheless enjoyed good relations with all of its Muslim neighbors. Two Christian states north of Axum, Maqurra and Alwa, survived until the thirteenth century when they were finally forced by Muslim migration to become Islamic. Axum, however, remained untouched by the Islamic movements across Africa. Because of this, the Ethiopic (or Abyssinian) Church has lasted until the present day. It is still a Monophysite church and its scriptures and liturgy are still in Ge’ez.

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Invasion of Egypt

Another foreign invader appeared, to ride in triumph over the helpless Egyptians. This new power was Ethiopia or Nubia, the state lying to the south of Egypt far up the course of the Nile. Most of the history of Ethiopia is lost. Vague glimpses that we catch of kings and temples there fill us with curiosity.

They suggest an ancient civilization different from that of Egypt, an art and culture acquired only in part from the lower Nile, partly from Asiatic sources, and partly attained as the native development of an aboriginal negroid race. Thus the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia represents what was probably the highest civilization ever attained by a negro race, or rather by a mingling of negroes and Egyptians. After a while this mixed Ethiopian race seems to have lost its progressive vigor, perhaps under the influx of masses of the wild central African negroes, and sank back into decay. The Ethiopians became once more semi-barbarians, little better than savages.

About eight hundred years before Christ, the Ethiopian armies began invading Egypt. They were not powerful adversaries, but there was no united power to oppose them. Year after year they won their way further down the Nile, re-assimilating the Egyptian culture as they advanced. They became the chief rulers of upper Egypt. And at length we find the proud record of their king, Piankhi, stating that the princes of lower Egypt, who were at war among themselves, appealed to him as a protector. He assumed the title of Pharaoh, and marching from end to end of the land reduced it all to obedience (727 B.C.). Even the priesthood thankfully accepted him as the one man who could bring order out of all the turmoil. He was crowned at Thebes with all the ancient ceremonials. A Libyan captain had already sat upon the proud throne of the ancient gods; now it was held by an Ethiopian.

More than one of the Pharaohs of this Ethiopian dynasty are mentioned in Bible history. The most important of them after Piankhi was Taharqua, the Biblical Tirhakah. Neither he nor any other ruler succeeded in establishing much authority over the fighting princes, Libyan and Egyptian, who dwelt in the Nile delta, but Tirhakah did gather them all for an incursion into Palestine. There he made alliance with King Hezekiah of Judah and with King Luliya of Tyre, and defeated and plundered the cities which opposed him. He thus brought down upon himself the wrath of the conquering Assyrians, who had seized Syria and Israel, and who objected to having any one but themselves thus snatch the spoils of Asiatic war.

Of the Assyrian victory of Sennacherib over Tirhakah we have already told, and of the subsequent mysterious destruction of the Assyrian army before Jerusalem. As a result of this struggle came the invasion of Egypt by Esarhaddon, mightiest of the Assyrian monarchs. Tirhakah, unable to oppose him, was now defeated within the borders of Egypt itself, and fled up the Nile to safety in distant Ethiopia. The vassal princes transferred their easy allegiance to Esarhaddon, and he returned to Assyria. Then Tirhakah marched back with a fresh army from Ethiopia, and was again accepted as Pharaoh, in his turn.

Helpless Egypt had become a mere see-saw upon which Assyrian and Ethiopian rose in turn. The next Assyrian sovereign, Assurbanipal, sent his forces once more to the attack. Tirhakah was again defeated and again fled. Says Assurbanipal, “The might of the soldiers of Asshur, my Lord, overwhelmed him and he fled to his place of night.” Such of the Egyptians as had been most active in supporting the Ethiopian were carried off to Assyria as prisoners.

Tirhakah died; but his son, Tanutamen, came back in his stead from that dark and mysterious Ethiopia, “the place of night.” For a third time, he re-established his country’s power over Egypt. Assurbanipal drove him away again. Thus the two foreign powers exhausted each other. Ethiopia sank back into feebleness; Assyria had to meet the invasion of Asia by the barbarian Scyths. Egypt was left once more to her own Egyptian and Libyan chieftains. Of these the one who ultimately seized the chief power was Psamtek, the Psammetichus of the Greeks.

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The Archeology of Meroe: The Meroe Mystery

The Pyramids of Meroe

For an ancient city and civilization that flourished for nearly a thousand years, Meroe is one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries. It is unknown where the people of Meroe originated. An even greater mystery is where these Meroitic people are today and why these unconquerable ‘Masters of Africa’ left their ancient city, and seemingly vanished.

From the sixth century B.C. until the fourth century A.D., the city of Meroe lay on the banks of the Nile River, between present day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. The first outsider to mention Meroe specifically was Herodotus, a Greek, in approximately 430 B.C. Herodotus visited Africa, and although he never made it as far south as Meroe, he was told by the natives about the existence of a magnificent city to the south. Herodotus later wrote about his travels on the Nile River. The Persians, led by their ruler Cambyses, had once attempted to conquer Meroe. Although few Europeans had ever even seen the city, the possibility of finding great riches there prompted Cambyses to send an army to take it over. His army turned back far before ever reaching Meroe due to the harshness of the African terrain and hostile locals. For the next 400 years, Meroe was only spoken of sparsely, mainly in stories. During this time, Meroe was thought by most to be an island on the Nile. This misperception may be justified by the fact that the city was surrounded on three sides by water.

After these few, faint accounts of Meroe, no additional information of the city was recorded and it was virtually forgotten about until recent times when European travelers and archaeologists explored this region. This is mainly due to it’s geographical remoteness. Now, all that remains of the once great city are hundreds of mounds of brick and stone, and many temple ruins and pyramids. A small town now stands next to the ancient site. While there are only speculative reasons for the fall of the city, one of the main theories is that a group of Axumites to the north, overran the city sometime around the second half of the 3rd century.

It is unknown how the Meroitic rulers were able to maintain control over, what at the time, was a massive population. We can only be certain that there was a working monarchy in order. Such a monarchy was able to establish 72 generations of rulers, composed of a mixture of kings and queens. The exact social organization of Meroe is also still unknown, but there was definite social stratification between nobles and commoners. Kings and royalty lived in palaces while ordinary people lived in straw and brick huts. Everything from the activities of these people’s daily lives, to historical events within the city are also mysteries. The reason there is still so much uncertainty surrounding the Meroians, is mostly due to the fact that their language and writing are indecipherable. No one knows for sure what their language sounded like or what their Egyptian resembling hieroglyphic writing stands for. The pictures closely resemble those of ancient Egypt, but we have thus far been unable to decode the Meroitic scripts. A lot may be understood about the Meroans in the future when their language can be decoded.

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The Tombs of Meroe

An interior view of one of the Tombs

Some writers have described Meroe as one of the largest archeological sites in the world. The actual settlement of Meroe is just about one half mile east of the river and its cemeteries lie in the desert somewhat farther east.

The first known, major king to build his tomb at Meroe was Arkamaniqo (sometimes referred to as Arikakaman, known to Diodorus as Ergamenes). He ruled at about the same time as Ptolemy II in Egypt. His pyramid was built in the South Cemetery, which had actually been in use since the time of Piye. There were as many as three kings buried here, including Yesruwaman and Kaltaly, as well as six queens, but the crowding caused by more than 200 individual graves prompted future royalty to move across a narrow valley to a curving ridge, where they initiated a North Cemetery. As many as 30 kings may have been buried in the North Cemetery. A third cemetery at Meroe, known as the West Cemetery, includes brick-faced and rubble pyramids of lesser royalty surrounded by a host of graves, many of which are well furnished, belonging to important private households of Meroe.

Like Nuri, these pyramid are fairly standardized. They are all steep-sided pyramids built of sandstone, with a height between ten and thirty meters. As at Nuri, they are stepped and built on a plinth, though here each triangular face was framed by smooth bands of raised masonry along the edges where the faces meet. Note that the pyramids at Gebel Barkal also have this feature.

Where the upper parts of the pyramids are preserved, these lines are rounded, like the torus moldings on the corners of Egyptian temples, for the upper fourth of the total pyramid height. Against the eastern side of the pyramids was situated a chapel, often fronted by miniature pylons.

Towards the end of the Meroitic period, the pyramids are no longer stepped, but smooth and the casing blocks become much smaller laid on a poorly constructed core. In fact, the last of these pyramids were built of rubble and brick and had a plastered surface.

For the substructure, they have an eastern stairway descending to a blocked doorway in front of usually three adjoining chambers. Normally, two of the chambers had square pillars carved from natural rock, with a third, innermost smaller chamber. Ceilings were slightly vaulted in earlier chambers and more roughly hewn, round vaulted in later ones.

At Meroe, the body of the deceased was buried in the innermost chamber in a wooden anthropoid coffin placed on a raised masonry bier. The finer ones were carved with divine figures. Relief scenes in the chapels attached to the pyramids, including depictions of mummies and the remains of canopic equipment, suggest that at least the royal bodies were still mummified. Excavations unearthed bodies that were adorned with gold and silver jewelry, along with bows, quivers of arrows, archers’ thumb rings, horse trappings, wood boxes and furniture, bronze lamps, bronze and silver vessels, glass bottles and pottery. The chamber nearest the entrance often contained wine amphorae and food storage jars.

Here, and elsewhere in Nubia, kings and even wealthy commoners also took with them to their graves servants who were apparently sacrificed at the time of their master’s funeral. Animals, including yoked horses, oxen, camels and dogs were also slaughtered and interred outside the entrances of the burial chambers.

A famous treasure, known as the Ferlini Treasure named for its discoverer, the Italian explorer, Giuseppe Ferlini, was unearthed in 1830 in one of the North Cemetery Pyramids (Beg. N.6). This was the pyramid of Queen Amanishakhto who lived during the late 1st century BC. Ferlini reported that this cache of gold rings, necklaces and other ornaments was found in a secret chamber at the top of one of the pyramids, with obvious results. Soon, other treasure hunters were lopping off the tops of the other pyramids. In fact, the treasure was almost certainly found in one of the subterranean chambers.

The re-emergence of the royal pyramid after some 800 years is an interesting case of the transfer of an architectural, as well as a religious idea from one region and culture to another. It seems that the Nubians, for a considerable period of time, probably had a rather high regard for their neighboring culture to the north. When Egypt floundered, the earlier Nubian kings who took control of Egypt sought to turn back time to a more classical Egyptian past, and they took some of this past home when they left Egypt.

The Nubian pyramids are characterized by smaller scale, with steeper slopes, but they are far more numerous, considerably more standardized and owned by more members of the royal households (and probably non-royals as well) than the classical Egyptian pyramids. When the Nubians stopped building them, the pyramid as a marker for a royal tomb would be no more.

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The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela

The Church of St. George

Francisco Alvarez was the first European to describe the rock churches of Lalibela, who came to this holy city between 1521 and 1525 praising it as a “New Jerusalem”, a “New Golgotha”, the “Christian Citadel in the Mountains of Wondrous Ethiopia”. The inhabitants of the monastic township of Roha-Lalibela in Lasta, province of Wollo, dwelling in two story circular huts with dry stonewalls, ascribe their creation to one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, Lalibela, who reigned about 1200 A.D.

The Zagwe dynasty had come to power in the eleventh century, one hundred years after Queen Judith, a ferocious woman warrior had led her tribes up from the Semyen mountains to destroy Axum, the capital of the ancient Ethiopian empire in the north. The charming Ethiopian folklore pictures telling the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which are sold in Addis Ababa, give a popular version of how not only the dynasty of ancient Axum (and present day Ethiopia) descended from King Solomon, but also the medieval Zagwe dynasty. The Queen of Sheba gave birth to Menelik, who became the first King of Ethiopia. But the handmaid of the Queen, too, gave birth to a son whose father was King Solomon, and her son was the ancestor of the Zagwe dynasty.

The Zagwe kings ruled until the thirteenth century, when a famous priest, Tekla Haymanot, persuaded them to abdicate in favour of a descendant of the old Axumite Solomonic dynasty. However, according to legend before the throne of Ethiopia was restored to its rightful rulers, upon command of God and with the help of angels, Lalibela’s pious zeal converted the royal residence of the Zagwe in the town of Roha in to a prayer of stone.

The Medhane Alem Church

The Medhane Alem Church

The Ethiopian Church later canonized him and changed the name of Roha to Lalibela. Roha, the centre of worldly might, became Lalibela the holy city; pilgrims to Lalibela shared the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem, while the focus of political power drifted to the south, to the region of Shoa. Legends flower in Lalibela, and it is also according to legend that Lalibela grew up in Roha, where his brother was king. It is said that bees prophesied his future greatness, social advance and coming riches. The king, made jealous by these prophecies about his brother tried to poison him, but the poison merely cast Lalibela into a death like sleep for three days. During these three days an angel carried his soul to heaven to show him the churches which he was to build. Returned once more to earth he withdrew into the wilderness then took a wife upon God’s command with the name of Maskal Kebra (Exalted Cross) and flew with an angel to Jerusalem. Christ himself ordered the king to abdicate in favor of Lalibela. Anointed king under the throne name Gare Maskal (Servant of the Cross) Lalibela, living himself an even more severe monastic life than before, carried out the construction of the churches. Angels worked side by side with the stone masons, and within twenty four years the entire work was completed.

Walking through the village you will see the mountainous landscape of the region of Lasta, where the peasants labor to cultivate their patches of stony fields with the traditional hook-plow. Strolling across a gently undulating meadow, you will suddenly discover in a pit below you a mighty rock – carefully chiseled and shaped -the first rock church. None of these monuments of Christian faith presents itself to the visitor on top of a mountain as a glorious symbol of Christ’s victory, to be seen from far away by the masses of pilgrims on their road to the ‘Holy City’, they rather hide themselves in the rock, surrounded by their deep trenches, only to be discovered by the visitor when standing very close on top of the rock and looking downwards.

In Lalibela itself you will find two main groups of churches, one on each side of the river Jordan and one other church set apart from the rest. The town of Roha-Lalibela lies between the first and the second group of churches. It is situated on the higher part of a mountain-terrace on a vast plateau of rock. At Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany. ca. January 19) a vivid ritual unfolds before the spectator: here the dances of the priests take place after the annual repetition of mass baptism in the river Jordan. There are twelve churches and chapels, including various shrines. Four churches are monolithic in the strict sense; the remainder are excavated churches in different degrees of separation from the rock. The walls of the trenches and courtyards contain cavities and chambers sometimes filled with the mummies of pious monks and pilgrims.

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