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HISTORY: Ancient Ethiopia – Part V

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By Getachew Mekasha, Ph.D.

Dark Ages in Ethiopian History
The 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon Wrote: “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Chapter XLVII).

In this telling statement Gibbon was only expressing the prevalent view of Ethiopia in Europe in his days. He was describing in rather colorful terms what Europe regarded as Ethiopia’s “Dark Ages,” the period from the 7th century to the 16th century AD – i.e., the period which saw contact between Europe and Ethiopia dwindle to a vanishing point.

But the Ethiopian point of view is somewhat different. As the flurry of activities during the Zagwe Dynasty under Lalibela, and the exciting times of Amde Tseyon, Dawit I, Yishak and Zara Yakob showed clearly, Ethiopia was anything but asleep during those centuries. It only shows Gibbon was not informed about it. It is true, however, that Ethiopia was relatively isolated from Europe during this period. But that fact in and of itself did not make it a “dark age” for Ethiopia. Rather, what turned some of those 1000 years into dark ages for Ethiopians was not the isolation per se, but the intermittent periods of trials and tribulations the nation had to go through on account of cataclysmic internal upheavals. The Yodit era (858-898 AD), the Ahmed Gragn uprisings (1527-1542), followed by the Zemene Mesafint, “Age of Princes” (1781-1855) constitute the real “dark ages” for Ethiopians.

There are also many Ethiopians who strongly believe that the country at the present time is going through another dark age, starting from 1974. So, we are talking not of just one dark age, but of at least three or even four dark ages in Ethiopian history!

It then becomes a matter of definition as to what constitutes a “dark age.”

Here, we have to go by the European model where the term was first used. With regard to Europe the term “Dark Ages” covered the whole period between the end of classical civilization and the revival of learning in the 15th century. The use of the term implied the decline of culture, and of the work of scholars, writers and artists, when life was insecure and its environment discouraging to thought. It is a period in which Europe suffered an economic and demographic decline and experienced considerable repression, persecution and barbarism. It was also “dark” because so little documentation has survived to tell us about those obscure times.

Viewed from this angle, the Yodit, Ahmed Gragn and the Zemene Mesafint eras in Ethiopia, though more or less shorter in duration, all three definitely qualify as prime candidates for the description of “dark ages.”

In her zeal to restore Judaism by eradicating Christianity, Yodit reduced Axum to rubble, leaving only some huge monoliths which she was unable to demolish. In the 9th century, for 40 long years she burned down churches, books, works of art and anything of value to Christians, killing them and laying waste the land. Similarly in the 1530s, for full 15 years Ahmed Gragn led a great revolt in the name of Islam which shook Ethiopia to its very foundations.

To quote Jean Doresse from his book, “Ethiopia”:
Ahmed Gragn began a holy war which was to last until 1542, completely laying waste large areas of the highland plateau in one campaign after another. The onslaught began in 1528 with a decisive victory at Shambera-Kure which enabled [him] to occupy Dawaro, Shoa, Amhara and Lasta, subduing Bale, Hadya and Sidamo on the way, and wiping out the Christian population of Kambata. After this he destroyed one by one the treasures of Ethiopia accumulated over the centuries by her great rulers, monuments and priceless objects whose magnificence was never to be known to Europe except from accounts written in haste and wonder by Moslem chroniclers who witnessed their destruction. If we turn up one of these accounts we find, for instance, that after pillaging Debra-Libanos and halting for a while at Lalibela, the invaders turned to go south again, discovering all too soon the mountainous region of Biet-Amhara – now Wollo – where numerous sanctuaries had been built by the Ethiopians, housing priceless treasures belonging to Church and State. The Moslem chronicle states that from afar they could see the gleaming gold that covered the tall church of the Holy Trinity, Makana-Selassie. There is no adequate description left to us of the architecture of this church, but it appears to have been a hundred cubits long, and broad by as much again, its summit being more than 130 feet from the ground. The whole of the interior, up to the ceiling, shone with gold and silver plaques inlaid with pearls and decorated with figures of various kinds. Not a moment was lost; the whole place was plundered and then burnt to the ground. [Ahmed Gragn], who was resting quietly in one of the three palaces close to the sanctuary, gazed upon the ruin with evident admiration: ‘Is there anywhere’, he asked his retinue, ‘in the Byzantine Empire, in India, or in any other land, a building such as this, containing such figures and works of art?’ Further on, the army reached the church of Atronsa-Maryam, ‘Throne of Mary’, which was empty. The four monks on guard were massacred. But everything had been hidden in a house nearby; it was quickly located and an entry forced, and soon the prayer-books, brocades, velvets and satins were being brought out, followed by more precious items such as censers and vases of gold. The plunderers seem to have been somewhat taken aback by a ‘book of gold’ which had figures of men, birds, and wild beasts. They went on to loot Ganata-Maryam, ‘Paradise of Mary’, where the royal insignia and treasure had been concealed, including contemporary crowns and the diadems of ancient kings, ceremonial mantles, girdles and daggers. They also found a number of tabots, a type of altar peculiar to the Ethiopian Church, which were made of gold and were so heavy that five men together were unable to carry them. In short, they plundered the entire area from Lake Haik to Aksum and across to Lake Tana, killing as they went or converting by force, never stopping until the day their leader was slain and they fled; but by then there was nothing left to destroy.

Another prime candidate for the title of “Dark Ages” is the period known as the Zemene Mesafint, or “Age of Princes,” which lasted 74 years from 1781 to 1855.

The powers of the monarchs had been usurped by the feudal lords and centralized government had been replaced by the autonomy of the various provinces whose rulers warred among themselves. Ethiopia was now beginning to break up into a series of states which were largely independent: Begameder, Gojjam, Tigre, Lasta, Harar,
Jimma, Kaffa, Walamo, etc.

Ethiopia had fallen on evil days. Law and order had broken down, and public and private morality was at the lowest ebb. Corruption in high places, even amongst the clergy, had brought about general decadence. In the words of the chronicler: ‘The clergy were reduced to a state of ignorance. The priests were wholly taken up with earthly pursuits. Debauchery, witchcraft, and drunken orgies were their chief preoccupation…’

Out of the midst of war and everlasting strife which ravaged the greater part of the country there slowly emerged the figure of a man destined to restore ETHIOPIAN unity, and bring an end, once and for all, the utter confusion of the “Zemene Mesafint.” That man was Tewodros II, whose brilliant conquests, and bright vision of a strong reunified Ethiopia were like a whiff of fresh air, which brought new life and vigor to the nation in 1855, and ushered a new age of unity and hopes of prosperity. The infectious exceptional personal bravery, courage and heroism of Tewodros worked miracles on his followers in battle after battle, and brought all the powerful feudal war lords to their knees. He paved the way for the ingathering of the hitherto arbitrarily, unjustly and artificially divided and scattered regions of Ethiopia. The process he began was to be carried further successfully and brilliantly by Emperors Yohannes IV and Menelik II who came after him.

Now, it is true there is a new breed of men and women who have chosen to bang their heads against the wall by denying that Ethiopia ever existed. In their zeal to deny anything and everything Ethiopian, they claim that Ethiopia began not with Menelik I but with Menelik II!

They are simply casting aside history, and all the evidence to the contrary. These are what we call modern day nay-sayers and detractors of Ethiopia, who are suffering from a chronic denial syndrome, for which there is no cure. But, be that as it may.

The name “ETHIOPIA” appears at least 50 times in the Bible, one of the oldest sacred books of humanity. Even though those suffering from a denial syndrome try in vain to relocate the Ethiopia of the Bible somewhere else for their own peculiar reasons, it is an undeniable fact that the “Ethiopia” of the Bible fully encompassed present day Ethiopia both geographically and politically. It only shows the country had been shrinking in size, until it has been reduced to its very core which we see on the maps today, through the vicissitudes of time.

In fact, there was no time when Ethiopia was not an active player in history to a lesser or greater degree. When the Psalmist said, “Ethiopia stretches out her hands to God,” he knew exactly what he was talking about 3000 years ago.

Thus, with more than 3000 years of recorded history behind her, Ethiopia is not only one of the oldest nations of the world, but one which has also made her own distinct contribution to human civilization and culture. But, as Gibbon concluded in his “Rise and Fall,” Civilizations wax and wane. They have their ups and downs. Even the sun and the moon have their periodic eclipses. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ethiopia had, not just one, but many dark ages in her long and checkered history.

Is Ethiopia Going Through Another Dark Age Right Now?
But the question remains, what about now? What will historians write about the present era, say a hundred years from now? Here, we have to be careful since we are only speculating, and making an educated guess, and go only by the record, and the tangible evidence available to us. Without going into much detail, in examining the record there are certain salient features about this era which stand out like sore thumbs, and cannot escape the notice of future historians.

Does the period which opened in 1974 with such high hopes and expectations, with promises of an era of great reform and peaceful change, but turned out instead to be a long nightmare, deserve to be called a “dark age”?

If we go by the terms and conditions of the European model and the definition mentioned above, everything certainly points towards that inescapable conclusion. Ever since 1974, in Ethiopia there is general insecurity to life and limb, and the hold of law and order has been tenuous, to say the least. There is widespread destruction of assets, and looting of national treasure in all shapes and forms, including national legacies and heritage. Human life has lost its worth and value, not to mention its meaning. Both man-made and natural disaster have combined to make life in Ethiopia as Thomas Hobbes says, “nasty, brutish and short.” There is general dislocation, civil war, and a serious threat of a national breakup.

The human spirit is fettered, and the sorry state of affairs in the decline of the creative arts, literature and religion is more than noticeable.

In 1974, as had been pointed out by many journalists and political commentators at the time, there has never been a more ill-equipped or ill-prepared “bunch of soldiers” to have taken over the reins of power in Ethiopia. Mediocre men like Mengistu Hailemariam, totally bereft of vision. From the outset, their repressive rule was characterized by the denial of human rights, governmental lawlessness and the shedding of innocent blood. They were the direct cause of the largest exodus of Ethiopians to foreign lands in history, similar to the Jewish diaspora.

By sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss of unbridled despotism, after 17 years in power, these men, instead of growing in stature on the job, were generally looked down upon with contempt as vicious little dwarfs. Now that their fraudulent Marxist bluff was called, they were left with nothing to hide their nakedness. Driven by the
basic animal instinct of fear and survival, they had put self before everything else, and were totally paralyzed and blinded by the excesses of their own cynicism, cowardice and cruelty to do anything positive or constructive for the country. For all these years in power, they had little or nothing to show by way of achievement. The moral
decay and material ruin they had brought about was incalculable. And in the process, they had dragged in the mud the historically hard-earned, age-old reputation and prestige of the nation. They had even attempted to insult and inflict grievous wound on national pride by desecrating the memory of celebrated national heroes, while at the same time glorifying foreigners and erecting monuments to alien personalities whose work, fame or notoriety bore no relevance whatsoever to Ethiopian life or history.

Their misguided myopic policies brought only suffering and general stagnation. Rejected by the people, whose mandate or confidence they never had in the first place, and abandoned by friends both at home and abroad, at last, in desperation, they were left with no choice but to publicly admit their monumental mistakes. But by that time, not only progress was at a standstill, but that the country’s economy and development had been put backwards at least 50 years.

Yet, they lacked the courage to resign, and in a smooth and peaceful transition, hand over power to its rightful owners, i.e., the sovereign Ethiopian people. Instead, true to form, they literally remained stuck to their guns. In effect, this was a clear signal from them, which said: “What we had taken by the gun, we would only relinquish by the gun!” And, sure enough, the moment of reckoning did not take long after that. Like their contemporaries, Samuel Doe of Liberia, and Siad Barre of Somalia, they chose to go down fighting, and in the process take the whole country down with them, rather than give up power voluntarily.

This can be a typical scenario which a future historian will paint about the Mengistu era. And he will be right because the facts support it.

As Edmund Burke says, “without vision the nation perishes.” This is exactly what is happening to Ethiopia right now. The last 17 hellish years of the Mengistu era, therefore, definitely qualify for that dubious distinction of a “dark age.May be this time it will be dubbed “Zemene Derg”, Dark Age, or simply “Derg Age.”

But, history takes a much longer view of things. A people passing through a certain period in history, be it a time of hardship or prosperity, “dark age” or “golden age”, are hardly the best judges to objectively evaluate, and come to a satisfactory conclusion about that period themselves. Their own involvement and the lack of the perspective of time make that impossible. The discipline of history is quite strict about this rule. So, about the dire predicament in which Ethiopia finds herself today, and whether to call the present trying period a “dark age” or not, one can only say: The Jury is still out. A verdict is being awaited.

Dr. Getachew Mekasha is a contributing editor of ER. Los Angeles.

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