“History” in Ethiopia

One thing that is very clear to me as I travel in Ethiopia is that the people here have a very strong sense of being a part of ‘history’. And it’s a long, long history. From pre-biblical times, their kings ruled the entire area of Sudan, Yemen, parts of Somalia and present day Ethiopia and Eritrea. They also claim to be one of the first Christianized cultures and have a Holy Land pedigree, as their first king, Menelik I was the son of King Solomon; his mother the Queen of Sheba. Menelik is said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant to Axum from Israel, (along with thousands of Jews, whose mixed decendents are now called the fallasha), which still rests in a secret chapel in Axum to this day, and is seen only by one monk, chosen to guard it with his life.

The land is full of reminders of thousands of years of powerful kingdoms — ruins litter the land in the far north, from the Axumite stele and palaces in the north from the pre-Christian era, to the rock-hewn churches in Tigrai and around Lalibela from the 6th through the 13th (?) centuries, and the castles built by Fasilides in the 17th century. More recently, they are the only African nation to have resisted European colonization (despite a brief occupation by Italy, which is still evident in some of the food, architecture, and pasta on most menus that serve foreign (farengi) food). I get the sense that during the rule of the last king, Haile Selassie, Ethiopia saw many improvements and began to be modernized. Much of the modern architecture we’ve seen in cities was clearly built in the 60s and early 70s. One gets the sense that after Selassie was overthrown in 1974, and a Communist government called “the Derg’ took over (until 1991), things went downhill fast and are not really recovering very well.

That these histories are Ethiopia’s is not in dispute. But the specifics of the histories–how they play out over time and the details of why and how, are not clear at all. We have been hearing contradictory stories continually. The Ethiopian version of the history sometimes is doubted by European scholars. When I listen to Ethiopians tell their story, it is clear that they have a very strong faith about and certainty about their version, which has been passed down from generation to generation, and is often tinged with Christian prophecy. The most famous of these is the story of the Queen of Sheba and the ark of the covenant. Is the real ark in Axum? Did the Axumite kings bring Christianity to the horn of Africa peacefully, willingly abandoning their pagan beliefs? In Axum, we saw so many ruins built by unquestionably powerful cultures. But many of  the sites are un-excavated, or only partially investigated. Scholars have been slow to spend time here to explore the history of this land, which I think must have rivaled that of the greatest cultures of Europe and the Middle East. I suppose there will be some more unfolding of the story in the future….

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