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Authors: Dervla Murphy

In Ethiopia with a Mule

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In Ethiopia with a Mule


A diversification among human communities is essential for the provision of the incentive and material for the Odyssey of the human spirit. Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends. Men require of their neighbours something sufficiently akin to be understood, something
different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration.

A. N. Whitehead:
Science & the Modern World


‘They tell us this is a table land. If it is, they have turned the table upside down and we are scrambling up and down the legs’ –
A British soldier’s comment on Ethiopian scenery, during the Napier Expedition
, 1867–8.

HEN I AM ASKED, ‘Why did you go to Ethiopia?’ I find it
to give a short, clear answer. From earliest childhood the romantic names of Prester John, Rasselas, the Queen of Sheba and the Lion of Judah are linked with Abyssinia and, in one’s reading, occasional references to the country build up a picture of some improbable land of violence and piety, courtesy and treachery, barrenness and fertility.

Ethiopia has always been difficult to explore and much of it remains so; yet for centuries it was less inaccessible than most parts of Africa and, since the early sixteenth century, a sufficient number of travellers have visited the highlands to maintain Europe’s interest. Latterly these travellers had commercial or political motives, but the earliest European explorers were Portuguese missionaries, whose excessive zeal inspired an era of xenophobia that is only now coming to a close.

Most of the Europeans who were lucky enough to return from Ethiopia wrote wondrous accounts of the mountain empire, and gradually the name of Ethiopia or Abyssinia became synonymous with beauty, danger, solitude and mystery. Often the lure of such places operates subconsciously. Then one fine morning the traveller wakes and surprises himself by saying – ‘I’m going to Ethiopia’.


Modern Ethiopia is about five times the size of Britain. Its southern tip is 250 miles from the Equator and its coastline on the Red Sea is 500 miles long. The region generally known as ‘the highlands’ is a vast, fissured plateau between the Upper Nile valley and the Somaliland desert; this plateau lies six to ten thousand feet above sea level, rising in certain areas to twelve to fifteen thousand, and its height gives it – despite the nearness of the Equator – a climate said to be the healthiest and one of the most agreeable in the world.

The country is divided into fourteen provinces, inhabited by people of many different races, religions and cultures – among them the Danakils, the Falashas,
the Gurages, the Somalis, the Konsos, the Waytos and the Wollamos. But the true Abyssinians are the Amharas and the Tigreans, who form almost the entire population of the six highland provinces through which I travelled – Eritrea, Tigre, Begemdir, Gojjam, Wollo and Shoa. Until the latter half of the nineteenth century the eight other provinces were either completely independent of or only vaguely associated with the Amharic Empire.

It is thought that the original highlanders were of the same Hamitic stock as the Danakils, Somalis and Nubians. Then, probably between 1,000 and 500 BC, tribes of Yemeni Arabs began to cross the Red Sea to settle in the fertile northern highlands, where the ruins of large cities indicate that their civilisation thrived during the centuries immediately before and after the birth of Christ. One of these tribes was called the Habashat and from this derives ‘Habesh’ – by which name Ethiopia is still known in Muslim countries – and from ‘Habesh’ European tongues produced Abyssinia. However, the highlanders now resent being called Abyssinians and their wish to be known as Ethiopians creates a complication. All the Emperor’s multiracial subjects are legally Ethiopians, so it would be inexact to write ‘Ethiopians’ when one is referring specifically to Amharas or Tigreans, who have nothing in common with their non-Abyssinian fellow-subjects. Therefore I avoid ‘Ethiopians’ for the sake of accuracy and ‘
’ for the sake of politeness and refer to ‘Amharas’, ‘Tigreans’ or ‘

Following the Arab migrations the Semitic language and culture replaced the old Hamitic civilisation, of which nothing is definitely known, though some scholars believe it to have been highly developed. The newcomers also
with the indigenous population and, though the Hamitic strain remained dominant, the Semitic influence is still obvious and this cross has produced a race of outstandingly handsome men and beautiful women.

An Egyptian trader named Cosmas travelled from the Red Sea port of Adulis to Aksum in about AD524, shortly before the decline of the Aksumite Empire. This Empire had been founded by the Semitised Hamitic peoples of the
provinces of Eritrea and Tigre, but neither Cosmas nor anyone else is very informative about it and little is known of its six hundred years of glory. It was the centre from which the Semitic language and culture and the Christian religion seeped south until, by the thirteenth century, the provinces of Begemdir, Gojjam and Shoa had ceased to be pagan.

The rise of Islam quickly isolated these Christian highlands and, after Cosmas’ departure, a thousand years passed before the arrival at Massawah of
the next foreign visitor to give an account of Ethiopia. His name was Francisco Alvarez, and he spent six years in the country as chaplain to a diplomatic mission sent by King Manoel I of Portugal to the court of the Emperor Lebna Dengel – whose grandmother, while ruling as regent during the Emperor’s minority, had appealed for Portuguese aid when Ethiopia was being threatened by the Ottoman Empire.

This millennium of isolation inspired Gibbon’s frequently quoted – ‘
on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten’. But, in fact, the Ethiopians were much more wide awake then than they are now. During these centuries they produced their finest paintings and illuminated manuscripts, many extraordinarily beautiful rock-churches, of which Lalibela’s eleven examples are the most famous, and the best of what little original literature they possess.

Alvarez is the only European to have described Ethiopia as it was before the terrible Muslim invasions, which began in 1527 – a year after the departure of the Portuguese mission. The invaders were led by Mohammed Gragn, a
able general who took full advantage of the firearms which had recently been made available by the Turks, from whom he also obtained a small corps of about two hundred matchlockmen. ‘The effect produced by this tiny body of
regulars, skilled in the use of firearms, was catastrophic. The Abyssinian armies broke and fled like chaff before the wind. The whole of
was overrun. … The treasure fortresses were captured and the accumulated wealth of the Kingdom was carried off. The churches and monasteries were looted and burnt … and the princes of the Solomonian line put to the sword. In the words of the Abyssinian chronicles, nine men out of ten renounced the Christian faith and turned Muslim. Only the King with a scanty band of faithful followers maintained the struggle … in the mountain fastnesses of the interior’.

In about 1535 Lebna Dengel succeeded in sending an appeal for help to the Portuguese and six years later four hundred Portuguese troops landed at Massawah, commanded by Christopher da Gama, a son of the navigator. In the fighting that followed the Portuguese and Muslim leaders were both killed, and without Mohammed Gragn the invaders faltered and were expelled from the highlands during the reign of Lebna Dengel’s son, Claudius.

By then the Empire had been miserably weakened, and immediately there was a new threat from the Galla. These pagan nomadic tribesmen, being harried
by the Somalis, began to invade the southern region of the Ethiopian plateau; and when they had acquired horses from the highlanders they soon became formidable cavalrymen, penetrating as far north as Begemdir. ‘The Galla came to the highlands not as raiders alone, but also as settlers. Wherever they settled, they made travel dangerous and uncertain for the Abyssinians, isolated entire provinces from one another, and broke up the empire. The Abyssinians fought many battles against the Galla, but though individual groups were defeated, the force of the Galla migration could not be stopped. … Many of them, because of their warlike propensities, were recruited into the armies of the Abyssinian rulers … [and] … it is said that during this period only the sacred character of the Abyssinian monarchy preserved the dynasty from extinction, so that the Galla, even though they wielded great power, never took over the throne itself.’

During the ninety years or so between the expulsion of the Muslims and the beginning of the Gondarine era there was yet another disruptive element in highland life, which briefly threatened ‘the sacred character’ of the monarchy. This was the excessive missionary zeal already mentioned. In 1632 the
, by Jesuits, of the Emperor Susenyos, and the Catholics’ intolerant attempts to convert the whole Empire, led to the banishment from Ethiopia of all
and was followed by a relapse into isolation. However, Ethiopian history since 1632 is reasonably well documented, and in my diary I have referred to some of the main characters and events.


There is a certain similarity between the developments of Ethiopian
and Tibetan Buddhism. In both cases, when alien religions were brought to isolated countries the new teachings soon became diluted with ancient animist superstitions; and so these cuttings from two great world religions grew on their high plateaux into exotic plants, hardly recognisable as offshoots of their parent faiths. But there the similarity ends. Of the two religions Tibetan Buddhism is much more advanced philosophically and has a far greater civilising influence on the peasants. Lamas rarely encourage bigotry and racial arrogance – as Ethiopian Coptic priests frequently do, by teaching that Ethiopian Christians are the only true Christians in the whole world. This defect is not exclusive to Coptic priests, but it is extra-pernicious in such a remote land, where a pathetic national superiority complex tends to run wild for lack of sobering comparisons with other nations.

Though so little is known about early Ethiopian history, the romantic story of the Empire’s conversion is believed by scholars to be substantially true. In the first half of the fourth century Meropius, a philosopher of Tyre, was voyaging in search of knowledge with two young relatives, Aedesius and Frumentius, who were being educated by him. Their ship put in for water at a port (Adulis?) where it was boarded by ‘barbarians’. These tribesmen massacred Meropius and his companions, but spared the boys – who were found on shore, studying under a tree – and brought them to the court of Ella Amida at Aksum. The King became very fond of both boys, and made Aedesius his cupbearer and Frumentius, who was already learned and wise, his secretary and treasurer; but before long Ella Amida died, leaving an infant son, Aeizaras, as heir. The Queen begged the young men to help her bear the burden of the regency and, during the years when he was virtual ruler of the country, Frumentius encouraged Christian Roman merchant settlers to spread their faith.

When Aeizaras had been crowned Aedesius and Frumentius handed over their trust and returned to the Roman Empire, though both the King and his mother implored them to stay. Aedesius hurried back to visit his family in Tyre, where he later became a priest, but Frumentius went direct to Alexandria and urged Athanasius to send a bishop to foster Christianity in Ethiopia. Athanasius decided to consecrate Frumentius himself and sent him back to his mission-field – where he converted countless pagans, ordained priests and after many years converted Aeizaras himself, thereby firmly establishing the Coptic Church in Ethiopia.

From the appointment of Frumentius by Athanasius until 1951 the Abuna (head of the Ethiopian Church) has always been an Egyptian monk, chosen by the Patriarch of Alexandria from the monastery of St Antonius. Inevitably there were long intervals – sometimes one or two decades – between an Abuna’s death and the arrival of his successor; and the suffragan bishops who were
appointed could not ordain. Moreover, as a solitary exile for life, with a language, training and background which completely isolated him from his strange diocese, the Abuna never formed a real link with orthodox Christian traditions – so there was no check on the uninstructed Ethiopians’ peculiar scriptural interpretations.

Many animist strands still run through Ethiopian Christianity, which also reveals a considerable Jewish influence. The Amharic words for ‘alms’, ‘idol’, ‘purification’, ‘Hell’ and ‘Easter’ are of Hebrew origin, though the only version of the scriptures ever known to the Ethiopian Church was a translation into Ge’ez
of the Septuagint. A. H. M. Jones thinks that before the rise of Islam Yemeni Jews may have been proselytising in Ethiopia, ‘which had at this time very close commercial and political relations with South-Western Arabia and was closely akin to it in language and culture. … The conversion of the royal house to Christianity … prevented Judaism from becoming the official religion of the Abyssinian Kingdom, but was not in time to prevent the conversion of various independent Agau tribes to Judaism, nor the adoption by the Abyssinians of certain Jewish practices.’

These aboriginal Agau converts are called Falashas (exiles) by the Coptic highlanders, and some of them still speak an Hamitic language as well as Amharic. Their traditional stronghold was in the Semien mountains and, though they now number only about 30,000, they were sufficiently powerful in the seventh century for Professor Simoons to suspect that they aided the collapse of the Aksumite Empire by blocking the southward spread of Christianity.

Among the Falashas, as among their Christian neighbours, isolation has led to various eccentric beliefs and practices, and a number of Coptic traditions – including a monastic system – eventually merged with their own archaic form of Judaism. Never having had a written language of their own they are dependent on the Ge’ez version of the Old Testament and they do not possess the Mishra or the Talmud. According to Wolf Leslau most of their laws and precepts are based on the apocryphal
Book of Jubilees
. These ‘Black Jews’ are now scattered throughout the provinces of Tigre and Begemdir, where they are not allowed to own land, but must rent it from the Christians, who despise them for being non-Christians – though this doesn’t worry the Falashas, who like to keep well away from unclean non-Falashas.

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