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Ethiopia’s numerous tribes joined together in a culture of unity can be said to be very much Habesha. The term has many connotations, depending on who is asked. Habesha ultimately comes from a place other than Ethiopia. For this reason, it could be said Ethiopia’s culture found in religion, art, and politics also has been imported. It is diverse, mixed, debated, and held together in power by those who take what is foreign as their own. This paper will discuss the strong influences brought by outside people to Ethiopia, and the hidden diversity and disputes with Habesha views and power. What does it mean to be Habesha? Brief Summary on Ethiopia Today, Ethiopia is a nation with a defined border in Africa. It has the largest land-locked population globally, and second largest population in Africa. With so many people it is not surprising that at least 80 different unique cultures exist within its borders (Balisky & Oladipo, 2015). Within Africa, Ethiopia has influence through the African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa (the Capitol of Ethiopia). Additionally, as an African nation to avoid colonization during the European Scramble for Africa, they hold a certain continental pride. Yet going back many centuries, one can see that Ethiopia has had foreign influence long before the current world super powers existed. Habesha Meaning and History While shopping in the largest open-air market in Africa, located in Addis Ababa, one may find numerous items with the phrase የሀበሻ ልጅ (ye Habesha lij) translated loosely as children of Habesha or Habesha children.
The simple translation to foreigners would be that it means “Ethiopian. ” This would explain why it is printed and plastered alongside the Ethiopian flag on a variety of items. A further press for a definition from locals will result in the explanation that “Habesha” is an Arabic word for “mixed” (Local North Shoa Ethiopians, personal communications, November 2006 – July 2007). Some will explain that the Arabs gave the Ethiopians this title since they are a mixed people, meaning there are many tribes (Saleh, 2016). Other Ethiopians will explain that Ethiopians are mixed biologically with Arabs, which is how they received this title (M. Teferi, personal communications, August, 2018). In one sense they are correct, however there is a glaring discrepancy. Habesha is not Arabic for the word mixed. Habesha comes from the Habesh tribe, which originated in the Arabian Peninsula (The true origin of Habesha, 2013; Saleh, 2016). Some archaeologists suggest that the tribe arrived in Ethiopia across the Red Sea early in the common era, or perhaps even earlier (Saleh, 2016). This Arabic tribe mixed with the local population. Brought with them was their worship of a moon god and a Semitic language, unlike the Afro languages spoken in the south (Hammond, 1999). This historical relation to the Arabian Peninsula, though often misunderstood by locals, is vital to Ethiopian culture. The original relationship may not be entirely understood or agreed upon by archaeologists, but the fact that there was a relationship is undeniable. Even the word Habesha confirms this. During the fourth century CE, the kingdom on Aksum, which could be considered an empire, stretched its influence across eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Through this joined region, Aksum, had close relations with Arabs (Saleh, 2016). In short, the term Habesha has Arabic origins and is not strictly “Ethiopian” or even “African” at its roots. To be Habesha, then, is the result of regional coexistence with other ethnicities and tribes. Religion Besides the linguistic origin of a word, to be Habesha cuts deep into the historical and religious underpinnings of Ethiopian culture. Not only Arabian, but also Jewish, Egyptian, and Byzantine influence shifted the way Ethiopians lived, thought, and believed. Early on, Judaism was practiced in Ethiopia (Balisky & Oladipo, 2015), possibly from Jewish tribal contact, Egypt, or travel and trade. Later, the introduction of Christianity was received from foreigners.
During the fourth century CE,new coinage was minted, churches were built and practices surrounding death changed all toward a Christian theme (Finneran, 2012). Historical accounts differ on how Christianity took hold in the area, however, a strong tie to Egypt and Syria was recognized very early on, as Alexandria was a center of Christianity at that time (Balisky & Oladipo, 2015). Likewise, as a major stakeholder in the Red Sea, Aksum had regular relations with the Byzantines through trade. Commercially in that region, it would benefit Aksum to convert to Christianity (Belcher, 2008). One account claims two young Syrian survivors from an exploration group were taken to the Aksumite king’s court. When they were older, and the king died, he left his sons in their care. It is claimed these two, Edesius and Frumentius, converted the heir, King Ezana, to Christianity. The foreigners also organized other Christians in the area and created the first church in Ethiopia. They later returned to Alexandria (in Egypt) and told of their missionary accomplishments. From there Frumentius returned to Ethiopia, consecrated as a bishop of Aksum by the head of the church in Alexandria (Balisky & Oladipo, 2015). The tradition of sending a Coptic bishop from Egypt remained a strong part of the Ethiopian Church’s tradition into the twentieth century (Fokes-Jackson, 1924). The influence of the Church spread into daily life in Ethiopia. Dietary patterns, holidays, and even the day of the year is related to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), which has its roots in Syrian foreigners and Coptic religion. Approximately half of Ethiopians today associate with the EOC (Balisky & Oladipo, 2015).
According to the Church’s beliefs, meat and animal products are forbidden to eat every Wednesday and Friday, as well as saint’s days, holidays, and preparation days, including Lent. Due to the restriction on animal products of a large portion of the population, it is difficult for non EOC members to eat meat of animal products on fasting days, which account for more than half the year. Holidays that are celebrated most actively in Ethiopia are religious and political holidays. Up until the twentieth century, the EOC was the state sponsored religion, imposing itself on each citizen. Yet, even today it is the primary religion and holidays can disrupt every day life for the non-believer. Large gatherings in the city streets, festivals and loud celebrations all accompany the EOC holidays. One such holiday is the Finding of the True Cross (Meskel), held in September. Entire communities gather together in a large square or public place to light large beams of standing wood on fire after dark. The event is very celebratory in mood as women and men alike shout, trill, and dance around in one large crowded unit. The Christian holiday is celebrated by many branches, including Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, however the unique practice of creating a large bon fire appears to be uniquely Ethiopian. So important is this particular holiday that it has its own central location for celebrating in Addis Ababa- Meskel Square. It is possible this unrelated act of setting a large fire transitioned from earlier traditions connected to the end of rainy season. Within the strong Christian tradition in Ethiopia, other holidays have a unique flavor. Christmas, called Ledet in Ethiopia, is commonly referred to as “Gena,” which is the name for a popular traditional ground hockey sport (Balisky & Oladipo, 2015). The tradition within Ethiopia is that the shepherds were out in the fields playing gena when the baby Jesus was born. To that end, it is common to have boys play field hockey on Christmas day along with eating plenty of spicy chicken stew (doro wot) with flat sour pancake, called injera. With religion playing a central role in Ethiopian life, and the ancient tradition of keeping holidays holy, it is not surprising to see that Ethiopia chose to keep the Julian calendar when much of the world switched to the Gregorian calendar.
They had this opportunity, perhaps, since they were not colonized. However, Ethiopia maintained the older Julian dates which Coptic churches use for religious dates (Milkias, 2016). Within this calendar, there are 13 months. The first 12 months of the year are 30 days long, while the last is merely 5 days or 6 for a leap year. Thus, Ethiopian tourism touts “Thirteen months of sunshine. ” Of course, this is inaccurate since there is an entire rainy season with very little sun shine. While this date system is uniquely Ethiopian, it is also inherently Coptic. While this antiquated calendar system allows for keeping traditional holidays, it effects international relations. For approximately half of the nation which is not Ethiopian Orthodox, this calendar serves no purpose except local culture and tradition. Artistic Accomplishments Stemming from the Coptic Christian ties brought into Ethiopia came the Coptic cross, religious paintings, architectural churches, and church music. Before the transition to a Christian nation, however, Aksum was already a powerful force with written language and impressive structures. Large stelae erected Aksum still stand, one is 68 feet tall (Hammond, 1999). The language, as mentioned previously, was potentially not native, but an imported Semitic language. Archaeologists and anthropologists are sensitive to claim if the Ethiopian natives, or the Arabians influenced the other (Belcher, 2008), however the link between the two is undeniable. The Habesha link is a distinct difference between the Semitic based language speakers and Afro-centric languages found elsewhere in Ethiopia and Africa(Belcher, 2008). Almost immediately following the mass conversion to Christianity, all scriptures were translated into Ge’ez, the language of Aksum, and the basis for the Habesha languages (Belcher, 2008; Foakes-Jackson, 1924).
According to Foakes-Jackson (1924), the Ethiopians did such an impressive job collecting and maintaining scriptures that “we owe the recovery of the Book of Enoch… Greek and Latin versions have since been discovered, but the Ethiopic is the only one which gives the entire text, and that in its most trustworthy condition” (p 558). But perhaps their most crowning piece of writing is the Kebra Nagast, which was originally written in Coptic by unknown authors, later to be translated to Arabic, and finally from the Arabic to Ethiopic in the 1300s CE (Belcher, 2008). The fact that this famous piece of Ethiopian writing was written originally in Coptic and then Arabic before Ethiopic is interesting since it is a detailed history of Ethiopia and her kings. More specifically, Ethiopia’s “King of Kings” as the title suggests. The importance of this piece of writing cannot be measured, as it has been the foundation of education and understanding by all Ethiopians of their high calling and rich history. Not only does this emphasize the Arabic and regional influences on Ethiopia, but it also buoys up the importance of the Habesha line of rulers. Focusing on the divine lineage of Isreal’s King Solomon and the visit of the Queen of Sheba is a primary purpose of the Kebra Nagast. All Ethiopians learn this story as fact. By the early twentieth century many leaders from Europe and abroad requested to see and translate the work, as it was thought to have great value (Bulge, 2000). With the help of both traditions found in the Kebra Nagast and the devotion to the EOC, King Lalibela began an impressive building project in the twelfth century. Numerous churches were carved down out of single stone blocks in the shape of crosses. Yet, unlike some carved buildings, these 40-foot structures have their tops at ground level.
They are marked as a world heritage site and remain standing today and in use. One of the churches is the largest of such structures in the world. It is clear that in religion, history, art and writing, Ethiopia has had a great deal of Coptic and Arab influence. This is addressed and confirmed also in their own accounts in the Kebra Nagast (Belcher, 2008). It reveals that to be Habesha is clearly influenced by the surrounding region, particularly the Arabian Peninsula and the Coptic. This point gives evidence to the explanation that Habesha means mixed in Arabic, meaning a mixed people. Yet, this does not explain the vast diverse people mixing into a unified society. That also relates to Habesha, but in a different way. As the King of Kings, Menelik, claimed son of Solomon and Sheba sat on the throne, he was more than a king. He was more than an emperor- or king of kings. Menelik was a divine ruler of Biblical proportions ushering in a new promised land. Two millennia later, Menelik II claimed heritage to this line of supposed kings and began ruling Abyssinia. Whether by divine right, military power, or economic strength, the kings of Ethiopia ruled over vast and diverse people groups. Yet, if the tales of Menelik are to be believed, the king himself was a mixed person ruling on the throne of these diverse Africans. The majority of rulers have come from the Northern Ethiopian and Eritrean peoples, yet they ruled over those who lived further south with different cultures, languages, and origins. From those who wrote the history- the Habesha in the north – there was a unity among the empire. They were a mixed group of people, but they were one united under the king of kings. The history of Aksum reveals this fact as the cities were vast cosmopolitan centers of trade which converted to Christianity while a large portion of subjects were pastoralists with various religious beliefs. Eventually, elites from the cities went into the rural areas under Aksumite rule to convert the people to Christianity. It took some work but succeeded in time. It is not clear how the capital converted all the subjects, but there were accounts of violence on both sides. Up to this point in history, the leaders of the empires were from the northern tribes, or those who are today referred to as Habesha. This trend continued through the years while the majority tribe, the Oromo, did not have a king on the throne. Along with tribal rule came dominant language among the people.
While Amhara is not the largest tribe, it has been chosen as the official language by all rulers since the beginning of the era. The Southern tribes were ruled over but did not have power over their own government, language, or religion. As mentioned previously, the EOC is also strongly attached to the Northern tribes of Amhara and Tigray, the ruling people. In this way, the culture of the Habesha has become the culture of Ethiopia. A turn of events occurred in the seventh century when Muhammad and his followers were persecuted in Arabia. About 100 Muslims took refuge in Ethiopia under the king. This was the introduction of Islam to the country, but it also built a layer of respect for Ethiopian Christians as they protected the Muslims from their enemies. As fate would have it, the protection died with the prophet and Islam took hold of the Arabian Peninsula. As Islam pressed in, Ethiopia was determined to remain a Christian stronghold, believing they were chosen for this special task. Unfortunately, as the Ottomans took power, another threat to EOC authority presented itself, the Catholics. In 1648, Ethiopian Emperor Fasilada sought the aid of the enemy, the Ottomans, who had control of the Red Sea ports, to keep the Catholic missionaries out of Ethiopia. Catholics were converting orthodox Christians, causing political turmoil and a civil war (Shillington, 2004). Today, Ethiopia is about 40% Islam, yet the Northern tribes held power up until modern times. Dissatisfied with the empirical rule, in the 1970s a communistic military took hold of the country and held control for two decades, also led by Habeshas. They sought to remove empirical rule. During this time vast amounts of money were spent on the military, and the Soviet Union was a strong supporter. About half a million people, it is estimated, were killed during the Derg rule, as it was called.
The 1970s and 80s saw not only death of humanity, but of the EOC and culture. The church lost its power and recognition, and the vast texts were sought and destroyed. The faithful of the church hid and protected many ancient artifacts in the monasteries. On cue, a Tigray resistance group, inspired by Leninism, overthrew the communistic regime, and promoted strength in the diversity of all tribal people through a tribal based federal system. Yet again, the leader was from the North, Habesha people. However, the new government under the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) focused on unity in diversity and tribal autonomy. Each tribal area is recognized as its own state (Mikias, 2016; Orlowska, 2013). Muslim prominent tribes are permitted to follow Sharia guidelines for civil issues, such as marriage, polygamy, and divorce, while the EOC is able to dictate the civil laws over the people under its dominion. Through this system, of unity and autonomy of tribes, the Habesha government has strived to promote a strong Ethiopia. While the minority ethnic group leading the country of diverse peoples aims to promote diversity and unity, it may be promoting division and strife (Orlowska, 2013). Riots and protests mark the days in Ethiopia over the unfair treatment of majority tribes. Rural agricultural tribes have had their land taken and given to foreign investors, while a silent famine has ensued. Leaders have been forced to put Ethiopia under a state of emergency numerous times during the recent years. The common protest cry is that a minority group has ruled over the majority of Ethiopians for too long. While in the past the government has tried to promote the beauty of diversity through promoting cultural dress, dance, music, and art, the superficial forms of cultural diversity is not enough for the diversity in the tribes. Through the simplification of tribal differences, many mixed people were left to choose between tribal affiliation, disputes between tribal borders ensued, and the grouping of smaller tribes into larger regions for streamlined governance only added to the negative effects of diversity promotion.
The diversity, therefore has not promoted unity but prevents it. It is only through a strong show of force from the rulers that unity has truly been kept. This was proven again during the 2005 elections, which many believe was manipulated, and the leader remained, though illegitimate in many eyes. Protests were violently crushed by the government. Just this year, in an unprecedented move, the prime minister of Ethiopia resigned voluntarily after nearly constant civil unrest in the country. A new leader was chosen by the government, which is the first Oromo leader to rule Ethiopia. It is too early to tell if or how this will cause diversity politics or unity in Ethiopia to evolve. Yet for those in Southern and Central Ethiopia, the term “Habesha” has left a bad taste in their mouth. They are not a mixed people with Arabic roots, nor do they feel they are truly united in a mixed population. Rather they feel they have been forced into a culture, religion, and title not their own, that of the Habesha minority ruling class.
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