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Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Ethiopia in the seventh century
Every now and again, I see reference to the influence "Ethiopia" had on the Red Sea edge of the Arabian peninsula. I have recently needed to read up on what this means.
"The Ethiopia" is one of those Graeco-Latin-Semitic terms that, ultimately, means the land of the Aethiopes. An Aethiops means in turn, from Greek, "he with a charred face". The term "aethiops" is, then, shorthand: applicable to anyone south of Egypt. Likewise "the Nubia" would be Copto-Latin-Semitic for the land wherein gold is found. The Arabs meanwhile knew of "Habesha", which has no known etymology, albeit here was at least a political linkage with the South Semites. Ultimately "Ethiopian" like "Nubian" tells us little about which sun-tanned people, which language.
Before 600ish, though, the Ethiopia-Nubia did achieve, on occasion, a civilisation or three. This was achieved by way of empire. In Biblical times one such empire had taken over even Egypt, the so-called 25th Dynasty (which dynasty incidentally makes many of my fellow race-realists look silly, since it was stronger than most native Egyptian dynasties in history, but that's a side-issue). More relevant to our purposes is Axum.
Axum's ruling caste spoke Ge'ez. This language belongs to the Eritrean family, itself a branch of South Arabian - so, Semitic. Axum's kings in the 300s AD had converted to Christianity. Axum remained the powerhouse of the region for many centuries - and what Taharqa was to Egypt and Judah, Kaleb was to Christendom in Arabia Felix. (Other South-Semites also lived in the Ethiopia at this time, including the ancestor to Amharic; as did several Nilo-Saharan groups. These were not prestige-tongues, though, so their state as of this moment is largely unknown.) Among Axum's achievements was literacy. What survives to us has passed through two monuments: royal stelae, and translations of holy literature from Egypt.
It would appear that over the Dark Ages, literacy receded to the monasteries in the Ethiopia as it did in Britain. Except that even annals were not kept. And, unfortunately for us students of Late Antiquity... the Ethiopian Dark Age commenced at the same point as did Europe's. So we have nothing on Khusro II's invasion - and nothing on Islam.
As for what we know of the Ethiopia during this time: we're stuck with Arab sources. It seems that the northernmost successor-state of Axum's decline was "Makuria". This Christian and Mahasi (Nilo-Saharan) nation maintained its independence by signing a "pact (baqt)" with the Arabs. Beyond Makuria: Wikipedia tells me that there existed Alodia. To be more precise again - that Alodia would later coalesce into a kingdom. We have absolutely nothing from this region AD 600-900.
So, when we hear of "Ethiopian" influence on the Qur'an, and the reference is Semitic: we need to understand this as a philologer might understand it, as a parallel to Old South Arabian. When we read of a "Habashi" raid along the Red Sea, it's probably the same bunch; but we cannot rule out others dark of skin south of Makuria.
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