HomeAethiopicaETHIOPIA: TABLE MOUNTAIN OR TABULA RASA?

{This is a piece I wrote a few years ago – and just like the castle location in Gojjam, and the site of Nora (‘where the mule is unloaded to the camel’) in the foothills of the Eastern Escarpment underneath Debre Sina – I find myself constantly returning to the story itself – a castle built up in the air.

Yesterday, I was flying back to Addis Ababa from Bahar Dar where I had been interpreting for SOS Children’s Village . I fell into conservation with the gentlemen next to whom I sat –  a handsome man of good build, he explained he was a doctor who often traveled between the Lake Tana shore city and the capital as he was a medical doctor with practices in both towns. Indeed he has opened a medical college and a school for children – besides still practising as a doctor. We fell into conversation about Ethiopia, recent events and the current development of the country.  It was a good conversation as he had a lively intelligence and a deep understanding of both countryside and city. When I asked where he came from he chuckled and told me he was sure I’d never heard of it: Feras Bet – or, the House of Horses. But I have! I exclaimed (Feras Bet is a locality on the flanks of Mount Choke, just a few hours of solid walking from the castle mentioned here below, near the springs of the River Nile… the good doctor not only told me that a new dirt road has been opened, from his home village to Bahar Dar, but also tantalizingly told me that the origin of the place name fell to it having been the training ground for ‘the king’s horses…’

The close proximity of the castle, atop mountain ridges difficult to reach makes this a probable explanation. The king in his castle perched in a safe place, and the cavalry at close hand.  And when you look at Francisco Alvarez’ True Relation of a Travel of Discovery to the Lands of the Prester John of the Indies, in which he relates that Agew Meder paid a tribute of up to ’17 000 horses per annum’ this makes this whole story at least likely (Agew Meder was the then name of the regions of western Gojjjam).

And so it is that I learned some more details about the castle… up in the sky! You can also read more about Ethiopia’s equestrian tradition here if you like.}

 

 

Mind the Gap – Amhed’s Cleft, near Debre Sina

 

There’s nothing left to explore, bemoan –Indiana- Johnny-come-latelies. We’d have to go to other planets, they continue, or inhabit a parallel Phil K. Dick world to find unexplored realms today. The age of explorations is dead… That these people have never set foot in Ethiopia is quite obvious. A couple of years ago, an archaeological team led by François-Xavier Fauvelle and Bertrand Hirsch, from the Centre Français des Etudes Ethiopiennes, discovered a lost, or better said, hidden, Muslim city –but aren’t all lost cities waiting to be rediscovered?- on the escarpment between the high plateau and the Danakil Depression.

The archaeologists used long forgotten texts, such as a medieval compendium of Ethiopian routes and place names recorded by Zorzi, a Venetian scholar, in order to narrow down the geographical location of cities that we knew of through Ethiopian royal chronicles and the scarce writings of a few Arab travellers who tell of the ‘Seven Muslim Kingdoms’ of ‘Al Habeshat.’ Ethiopia’s history, if we are to believe its own canon and foreign writers –starting with Gibbon- goes something like this: valiant table mountain Christian kingdom resists obliteration by manifold Muslim enemies against the odds. That this version of the story makes of Ethiopia’s complex and long Muslim history a tabula rasa is becoming more and more apparent.

But this story really starts six years ago, in the heart of Ethiopia’s highlands, when I stumbled upon a lost castle and understand for the first time what a wondrous land I had chanced upon. I had come to drink my fill from the crystal springs of the Blue Nile only to find that in Sekela the great river surges in a quagmire muddied by cows in the midst of a meadow that rather resembles Scotland. James Bruce, the –Scottish- explorer who claimed to be the first to reach the headwaters of the Nile at the end of the 18th century, felt at home here and recounts how he got merry drinking these strong waters from a coconut shell.

As I rose, a bearded priest –who looked neither particularly benign, servile or evil pace the conventions of the adventure story – but then neither do I wear a fedora- greeted me and asked in a muted whisper –more true to style- if I would like to discover a forgotten castle. Hum, castles lost in the mists of Ethiopia… As I said, the waters had been muddied here and I had nothing to lose so I followed the priest. We walked over high slopes bathed in clouds and forded strong streams –it was the middle of the rain season- and came to the top of a mountain which I am not quite sure I could find again.

And on this mountain top there really was a castle, complete with battlements, turrets and a three arched cistern waterproofed with lime. The mists came and went and a sudden hail shower covered the facing mountain in white. Macbeth, let alone James Bruce, wouldn’t have felt out of place and I myself felt like a king atop of his mountain. In the distance one could just make out a squall brewing on Lake Tana. All around this interior sea there were the ruins, more or less extent, of castles built in the Gondar period, after the Portuguese had been expelled by Emperor Fassil in 1632. But what is the connection between Portuguese inspired castles and lost Muslim cities?

The string of Muslim settlements the French archaeologists have found –at least four to date: Asbari, Masal, Ali Amba and Nora, which they have excavated thoroughly, finding four mosques, thousands of tombs and a medina type habitat comparable to that of Harar in east Ethiopia- underlie a simple truth: Islam is a well established indigenous cultural force in Ethiopia, and has long held close symbiotic ties with the Christian culture, quite far from the divided and clean cut warring divisions we have been told of.

Islam was present at the heart of the old Aksumite world from the very beginning, when followers of Mohammed fled from Arabia to escape persecution and the Emperor granted them asylum in his realm. Islam didn’t come by the sword but disseminated along trade routes. Muslims thus established themselves in much of what now constitutes modern Ethiopia well before Christianity –especially in the south-west and east.

The relationship was on the whole peaceful and of mutual benefit: Nora –or one of its many sister cities- is mentioned as ‘the place where mules unload and camels are loaded.’ The Christian highland kingdom controlled much of the rich produce of the interior; the Muslim states of the periphery, lying in-between, ferried slaves, gold, incense and ivory, to the coast. Taxes were levied, transport paid for and everyone profited –except perhaps the slaves.

All this changes in the 15th century when a ‘jihad’ is called by Imam Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim il Gazi –much better known under the derogatory nickname ‘Ahmed Gragn’ –the left handed one, in the Ethiopian –Christian- canon. Federating vast armies of semi-nomadic people, the Imam will sweep year after year into the highlands, plundering and converting in his sweep. But what the sanctioned historiography often fails to mention, is the plundering and pillaging the more unified Christian state wreaked on the lowlands –Emperor Dawit even reaching the Somali port of Zeila which he is alleged to have put to the sword and burnt in 1402 (the Portuguese will ransack the town again a little later).

Was it demographic pressure or ideologically minded disputes that upset the subtle balance? The winds of globalisation had began to rise: Vasco de Gama had passed The Cape and the Horn of Africa had become the stage for a war by proxy – déjà – between the Portuguese on the one hand, supporting and abating the Abyssinian Kingdom, and the Turks on the other, sending detachments to Harar and whipping up religious sentiments for their own political ends. Be what it may, the Christian kingdom had bitten off more than it could chew and was soon in complete disarray, its Emperor chased from one end of his realm to the other, and it looked likely that Ethiopia’s original Christian experiment was to come to an end.

And come to an end it probably would, if, in a wholly unlikely fashion, the Portuguese had not responded to a letter from Empress Eleni asking for their help in 1541. The Portuguese musketeer charged into the country, valiantly fought Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim il Gazi’s numerous troupes, had their commander himself, Dom Christovao de Gama, son of the famous Portuguese explorer, beheaded, finally killing the Imam on a mountain slope not far from where I stood gazing out from my battlement at Lake Tana’s choppy waters, and re-established the Negus on his God given throne.

The Portuguese then become kingmakers, name catholic bishops, convert the Emperor to catholicity and help to build pretty little castles with more than a passing resemblance to Goa and western African architecture, and get their comeuppance in 1632, when Emperor Fassil gives them the boot, otherwise massacres those that remain and generally proceeds to erase their memory as much as possible from Ethiopian history – tabula rasa once again: all things are back in order and the descendants of Solomon reign supreme, as they should.

We do not know how Nora disappeared –desertification, even a volcanic ash shower are possible- but we do know that two significant events were to shape Ethiopia with lasting effect. The first was the Muslim Jihad that must have had immense repercussions on what had mostly been peaceful commercial trading between the two cultural entities –to this day the Gragn (the left-handed one) is used as a bogeyman to frighten misbehaving children- the other were the great Oromo migrations, which reached full swing while the Muslim and Christian kingdoms were at each other’s throats. The pagan Oromo move into vast territories, amongst which the Chercher Mountain range lying between Nora, Asbari, Masal and Ali Amba and the route to the port of Zeila by way of Harar… To this day, all along the Chercher Mountains there are the ruins of mosques –now attended to by the islamisised Oromo, and strange tumuli and ruined fortresses said to have been built by ‘the Harla,’ a race of giants about which little is known…

Today, Nora lies silently on its rocky outcrop, only disturbed by a few camels and warthogs. A stone’s throw from its walls starts the Danakil Depression, behind it lies the bluish highland escarpment which beckons rather than forbids. The mosque is still used once a year by the local Argobba people –a Semitic language speaking people, now only remaining in a few pockets from Wolo –on the escarpment below Tigray- to Harargue, on the route to Zeila. That they claim their forbears built these cities comes as no surprise. Whether these ranges were inhabited by the giant Harla, whether rains of ash, or desertification were responsible, or the changing trading patterns brought about by the upheavals of history, time and more explorations will tell. What we can already say is that Ethiopia’s mountain table is no tabula rasa. I should go looking for that castle again some time: it has excellent perspectives.

 

 

 

The main mosque of Nora

 

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