Writing ‘History’ With Vengeance, Silencing Voices And Erasing Memories: A Review Essay

By Guluma GemedaSilencing Voices And Erasing Memories

Source: Oromo Commentary

በራራ፤ ቀዳሚት አዲስ አባባ/ Barara—Qadamit Addis Ababa (1400-1887): Development, Destruction and Rebirth,  by Habtamu Mengistie Tegegne. Trenton, NJ, The Red Sea Press,2020. XVII + 503 pp.ISBN: 978-1-56902-669-4 PB.

Recently, some Ethiopianists and the Amhara elite are publishing and disseminating social media messages, essays, and books that misrepresent scholarly works on the Oromo people. Their critiques go beyond normal academic debate to total rejection and direct attack on, both the person and the works, of Oromo scholars. The purpose of such style of ‘history’ writing is aimed at not only suppressing dissenting voices and alternative interpretations of history, but also erasing historical memories of the people whom they consider pose a threat to their personal interests. Unfortunately, by ignoring standard professional methodologies, and challenging the veracity of other scholars’ works, they are undermining the value of professional history as a source of reliable knowledge. The subversive ideas which are disseminated through social media, conferences and other outlets are contributing to the escalation of tensions between peoples. This review article considers Habtamu Tegegne’s በራራ፤ ቀዳሚት አዲስ አባባ/ Barara—Qadamit Addis Ababa (in Amharic) as an example of writing a history that misrepresents the Oromo people and attacks the works of Oromo scholars unfairly.

Until recently, if at all mentioned, Oromo history was limited to the post-fifteenth century. Based on a narrative of an Abyssinian monk, Abba Bahriy and without any critical examination of its contents, Ethiopianist scholars have accepted a narrative of ‘sudden appearance’ of the Oromo on a historical landscape in Ethiopia. But recently, documentary, and linguistic sources indicated the presence of the Oromo in northeast Africa for thousands of years.[1] Linguistically, the Oromo are part of the Eastern Cushitic speaking peoples who had been living in the Horn of Africa for over seven thousand years. As will be explained below, the Cushitic settlement in this region had also preceded the appearance of the Ethio-Semitic speakers by thousands of years.  For example, by the time the southern Ethio-Semitic speakers (Gurage, Gafat, Harari, Argoba and Amhara) arrived south of the Jama River, the central Shawan plateau was fully occupied by the speakers of the Eastern Cushitic people, especially the Oromo.[2] Secondly, recent archaeological research also suggests that the development of an early cultural groups who had created a thriving civilization before arrival of the Ethio-Semites in the south.[3] Third, a closer reexamination of early written Christian and Muslim sources show the presence of the Oromo in the central Shawan plateau at least before the tenth century.[4]

But some Ethiopianists and the Amhara elite vigorously contest these facts. Influenced by the work of Abba Bahiry, History of the Oromo,[5] Ethiopianists had ignored the presence of the Oromo north of the middle Awash before the sixteenth century. Bahiry indicated that the Oromo entered the territories then controlled by the Abyssinian kings in the early sixteenth century. However, although he provided names of many Oromo clans and their socio-political system, gadaa, Bahriy did not know the origin of the Oromo and where they lived before the sixteenth century. But following him, Ethiopianists continued to portray the Oromo as ‘intruders’ into the Ethiopian state after the devastating wars of Ahmed ibn Ibrahim (Gragn) in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. For example, a typical Ethiopianist scholar, Edward Ullendroff, not only considered the Oromo as newcomers, but he blamed them for the political turmoil of the Zamana Masafint in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In his book, The Ethiopians (1960), he said, the Oromo “had nothing to contribute to Ethiopian civilization; they possessed no material or intellectual culture, and their social organization was at a far lower stage of development than that of the population among whom they settled.”[6]

In short, Ethiopianists argued the Oromo disrupted Ethiopia’s great civilization. The Ethiopianist historical narrative about the Oromo had been solidified between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries when the Oromo were militarily powerful and were able to seriously threaten the Abyssinian kingdom. After Menelik’s conquest in the late nineteenth century, the Amhara elite tried to disguise their narrative of history as the ‘great Ethiopian tradition’ and history. But essentially, it was an exclusivist single narrative of a predominantly Amhara ethnicity and Orthodox Christianity. It was a history framed by the reign of kings, based on chronicles recorded by the clergy, and informed by the Orthodox church ideology. It was a monolithic history that privileged the Amhara ruling elite, and Semitic speaking Abyssinian Christians. This remained a dominant historical interpretation of Ethiopia until the 1960s and 1970s before independent Oromo historical writing began.

The monolithic historical narrative is now challenged. By the 1970s, young Oromo scholars confronted Ethiopianists who continued to advance the ‘great tradition’ of imperial Ethiopia. Then, the blatant misrepresentation of Oromo and culture by Ethiopianist scholars such Edward Ullendorff and others were no more tolerated by Oromo intellectuals.[7] A new generation of Oromo scholars in the 1970s and 1980s went on to write senior essays and scholarly articles on Oromo history and culture; and with advanced training in research methodologies, they produced pioneering research works which are now foundational studies for Oromo scholarship. Today, some of the senior scholars in the field—for example, Mekuria Bulcha, Mohammed Hassen and Asafa Jalata—are the product of the 1970s generation. In the 1980s, Oromo scholars launched a systematic inquiry into their history and culture both as part of their graduate work and advanced professional research. It was also at this time that the Oromo Studies Association was initiated by scholars in diaspora. By the 1990s, although some Ethiopianists continued to insist on the metanarrative of Ethiopian history as uninterrupted, three 3000-year single story, Oromo history was no more neglected. The predominately Semitic speaking and Orthodox Christian ‘great tradition’ has been effectively challenged by scholars who successfully reconstructed the rich Oromo history and cultural traditions. In this regard, scholars of the Oromo studies have contributed a lot. As the result of such scholarship in the last four to five decades, the Oromo are no more confined to the post fifteenth century. Gadaa is now recognized by the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNSECO) as one of the intangible achievements of humanity. There are so many things humanity can learn from the Oromo people and their institutions. Such knowledge cannot remain hidden from the world anymore.

Unfortunately, as the subaltern Oromo studies have become successful, the response from the old Abyssinian establishment has not been encouraging. Normally, scholarship is a collective endeavor where practitioners in all fields, individually and collectively, strive to expand the frontiers of knowledge by testing new hypotheses; debate and reinterpreting old ideas; refine their research; and disseminate their findings to the public for the benefit of humanity. Scholarship is not a win or lose enterprise, but a win-win collective endeavor. On the contrary, Ethiopianist scholars have responded to the emergent scholarship of the Oromo Studies rather negatively. They not only shy away from it or do not recognize its existence, but even worse, some are making it their mission to smear and undermine the scholarship and reputation of Oromo scholars.

Habtamu Tegegne’s Barara—Qadamit Addis Ababa

The following section will focus on Habtamu M. Tegegne’s በራራ፤ ቀዳሚት አዲስ አባባ/ Barara—Qadamit Addis Ababa (in Amharic) as an example of writing history with vengeance. Habtamu’s book shows the unfolding crisis in Ethiopia in writing and teaching history. Barara is a book that stands out as propaganda piece with misquoted, misused, and apparently intentionally ignored sources. It especially targets Oromo history viciously. The author is unrestrained in his attack of Oromo scholars and in denial of the presence of the Oromo in the central Shawan plateau before the sixteenth century.

Surprisingly, Habtamu Tegegne is a well-trained historian who received his education at Addis Ababa University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He completed his Ph.D. under the mentorship of the late Professor Donald Crummey who was highly reputed scholar of African and Ethiopian history. As one of Professor Crummey’s students, Tegegne is a promising researcher who is expected to continue the legacies of his mentor. Unfortunately, his recent publication, Barara – Qadamit Addis Ababa is a very disappointing book. As the title suggests, the book promises to offer the history of Barara, a short-lived medieval town in the central Shawan plateau. But a reader who picks the book to learn about Barara and the history of urbanization in medieval Ethiopia would be very much disappointed.

Although the author devoted a lot of pages to prove Barara was the first Addis Ababa, the modern city established by King Menelik II in 1886, the book reads as a political manifesto of the Amhara elite rather than a scholarly endeavor. Besides the numerous errors, distortions, misinterpretations of facts—it is very difficult to list all theme here—Barara offers very little evidence that is accurate about the town that once existed in the central Shawan plateau. The balk of the research material that the author collected to reconstruct the history of Barara came from Alessandro Zorzi’s Ethiopian Itineraries.[8]  Zorzi, an Italian writer, supposedly collected information about Ethiopia in Venice from Ethiopian priests between 1515 and 1525.[9]

Researching about the little known Barara is, indeed, fascinating. But, besides the limited information available in Zorzi’s Itineraries, very little is recorded about the town in medieval Ethiopian history.  Surprisingly, Barara was rarely mentioned in the chronicles and hagiographies of fourteenth and fifteenth century Ethiopian kings and saints. G.W. B. Huntingford, who exhaustively examined the topographies and place names of Ethiopia from the first to the early eighteenth centuries, says that “in spite of the importance attributed to it in Zorzi, [Barara] does not appear in any Ethiopic documents known to me.”[10] Zorzi’s informants told him that Barara was located in the region of Warab, a territory west of the upper Awash River, in Meetta and Bacho areas of today. Another source that provides some information about Barara is Futuh al Habasha.[11] Shihab ad-Din Ahmad (Arab Faqih), however, indicates that Barara was on the eastern or northern side of the Awash River—thus, not in Warab. On the other hand, hagiographers and royal chroniclers of the time did not pay much attention to this town.

The puzzle is, if Barara was such ‘large city’ as Zorzi’s informants and Tegene depict it to be, why was this town so obscured in the fifteen and sixteenth century Ethiopian sources? There could be several explanations for such confusion. First, it is possible that the town was not that much significant. Second, the authenticity of Zorzi’s informants could be questionable.  Third, it may have been a small market town which was not visited by the kings and their entourages frequently.

Tegegne has used a very limited information to reconstruct an extensive history of Barara. He depicts the town as a huge city, the seat of the bishops and kings, with their cathedral and palace, respectively. In the process, he makes Barara an East African metropolis whose commercial networks extended from northeast Africa to the Middle East, India, China, and Europe. But the sources do not support such an overarching conclusion. Tegegne could not produce any evidence except the “white tent” pitched on “large uninhabited meadow” for religious event, noted by Francisco Alvarez during his visit to Ethiopia in 1520-1526.[12]  Of course, like all medieval temporary royal camps, the tent was removed when the king or the bishop moved to another site or monastery. Thus, Tegegne’s portrayal of Barara as a medieval metropolis is, an exaggeration. The author’s main effort was finding any plausible argument that the Amhara elite can use to claim the present city of Addis Ababa (Finfinnee) as the town of Barara built by and Abyssinian king in the fifteenth century.

In medieval times, until the foundation of Gondar in 1636, Ethiopian kings were not interested in building permanent structures and large cities. The state was predatory; and the kings lived in tents. Rulers frequently moved from place to place to find resources for their huge camp followers, and to project their power over the subject populations. Royal mobility served political and economic purposes. Mobile courts also served the necessary environment to sustain the monarchy.[13]  Chroniclers and hagiographers often documented the location of the mobile royal courts, churches, and monasteries, but they were less interested in recording commercial towns, except in passing.

On the other hand, the Ethiopian kings’ approach to trade was also predatory. Christian monarchs did not actively promote business, urbanization, and architectural works outside the building of churches. They collected taxes from merchants and used the income to maintain a huge army that protected their power. They used traders, especially foreign merchants, as commercial and diplomatic agents. However, despite the rulers’ lack of interest in protecting traders and commercial towns, many active market towns developed along long-distance trade routes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Barara was apparently one of them. Some foreigner merchants passed through it or stayed there temporarily, while kings or the high clergy hovered around the town to take advantage of the abundant food supply of the fertile Shawan plateau. Barara disappeared after it was burned down by Ahmed Gragn’s army in 1531.[14] No lasting ruins of the town had survived.[15]

No doubt, Barara was commercially a very strategic local marketplace, but not a metropolis. Located in the central Shawan plains, north of the middle Awash River, it was connected to the trade routes that came from Zeila in the east and Massawa in north. To the west, it was connected to Warab and Damot, fertile regions with abundant agricultural products and centers of trade.  It also served as a link to trade routes to south along the Rift Valley. If not built on the same ground, Barara apparently shared the same geographical advantages with the modern city of Addis Ababa/Finfinnee, which from its inception served as political and commercial center. Like Addis Ababa, Barara depended on the abundant food supply form Ada’a and Bacho/Warab areas.[16]  It was in the cool, middle range, altitude between the mountains of Garmama in the north and the Awash lowlands in south and southeast. For this reason, it is important to investigate the history of Barara in depth to shed light on the economic processes and population dynamics of the medieval period.

But lacking any direct evidence on when and how Barara was established, the size and the composition of its population, Tegegne decided to fill his book with speculations and interpolations from other medieval towns or modern cities. He cites the description of the roving capitals of medieval times which does not explain the history of Barara. Tegegne confidently argues Barara was located on the same ground or was a precursor of Addis Ababa. He even claims its “center was around the present Kolfe Qaranyo area” of the Addis Ababa sub-city; and “ten percent of the town’s population were elite, royals and the nobility. . . [while the rest consisted of] priests, merchants, bar owning women, and craftsmen.” [17]  Yet none of these claims are supported by evidence.

Instead of discussing the history of Barara in a proper historical context, Tegene veered off into political propaganda in the name of scholarship. Thus, to its core, the book is an anti-Oromo propaganda piece intended for the current political consumption than promotion scholarship. Consequently, a substantial part of the book is devoted to an attack on Oromo scholars, the Oromo people, and their institutions. The book also focuses on the continuous campaigns of Abyssinian kings to ‘reclaim their rist lands’ (chapters 8 & 9) that the Oromo occupied since the sixteenth century. The Oromo are regarded as ‘newcomers’ who invaded the land of the ‘indigenous peoples’ (ነባር፤ ቀዳሚ ህዝቦች) through their ‘expansion’ in the sixteenth century. But Tegegne dismisses or ignores the sources and interpretations that contradict his arguments.

Identifying Barara, a medieval town of local significance, with the modern capital city of Addis Ababa/Finfinnee, which was founded four hundred years after the disappearance of the former, the author turns the book into the current political debate instead of the past. As indicated above, Barara was neither a permanent capital of the Christian kingdom nor a major trading center of global importance. Additionally, although it was apparently located closer to modern Finfinnee, it was not Addis Ababa.[18]

Another point that needs to be pointed out is the literature that the author refers to on the classification and distribution of language in Ethiopia. It is now well known that, with exception of few languages along the Ethio-Sudan borderlands, most of the modern languages in northeast Africa belong to the Afroasiatic language family. But Tegegne distorts the origin and chronology of the distribution of Afroasiatic languages in northeast Africa. Citing Martin Bernal, he argues,

Proto-Afroasiatic speakers left southern Ethiopia and migrated to the Sahara Desert, north Africa, Egypt, northern Ethiopia, and South Arabia, as well as different parts of northeast Africa due environmental changes. The sub-families of the Afroasiatic languages such as Berber, Chadic, [ancient] Egyptian, Cushitic, Omotic, and Semitic are the result of this migration. This happened during the 10th and the 9th century BC.[19]

This argument, however, contradicts the consensus arrived at by leading linguists. First, Bernal was not a linguist; he was a political scientist and classicist who studied ancient Egyptian and Semitic civilizations.  So far, only a minority of linguists, especially Ethiopians, who are influenced by Grover Hudson, argue that Afroasiatic languages originated in south-central  Ethiopia.[20]  Majority of leading linguists such as Christopher Ehret, Harold Fleming, M. Lionel Bender, Robert Hetzron, and others argue that proto-Afroasiatic originated in the territory between the middle Nile and the Red Sea hills.[21]  From there, the major subfamilies (Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Semitic) moved out to the west, east and south. Only Ancient Egyptian speakers and a branch of the Cushitic subfamily (Beja, which some also argue forms another sub-family) remained closer to place of origin. Many linguists also believe that the Semitic group moved to Asia where many of its descendants still live. Only Ethio-Semitic languages (Geez, Tigrigna, Tigre, Amharic, Gurage, Argoba, Gafat and Harari) later had recrossed the Red Sea pack to Africa and settled in Ethiopia during the last three thousand years.[22]

Tegegne, however, not only glosses over this fact without any explanation, but introduces a controversial linguistic hypothesis that is not accepted by many linguists. Curiously, he makes an unconfirmed claim that the specific place of origin of the Afroasiatic language families was ‘especially southern Ethiopia.’[23] He cites distinguished scholars such as Martin Bernal and Christopher Ehret. But, although these scholars support the African origin of Afroasiatic languages, they did not refer to southern Ethiopia as its specific birthplace. Second, Tegegne claims environmental changes caused early migration of the proto-Afroasiatic speakers from southern Ethiopia. Yet, he does not explain what kind of environmental changes triggered these migrations. Third, he also argues that the Semitic speakers, as a branch of Afroasiatic family, originated in southern Ethiopia before they expanded throughout northeast Africa.

Concerning the southern Ethiopian origin of Afroasiatic as well the early history of Semites, especially Ethio-Semitic (ES) languages, however, Tegenge’s argument is based on a controversial linguistic hypothesis not supported by majority of scholars in the field. The main proponent of the Ethiopian origin of Afroasiatic languages and the early separation of ES from the rest of the Semitic languages are Grover Hudson and a younger generation of Ethiopian linguists.[24] Contrary to the widely accepted scholarly literature on the early history, and classification of Semitic languages, Hudson, emeritus professor of linguistics at Michigan State University, has been arguing since the late 1970s that Semitic languages originated in Ethiopia and ES languages, had never left Ethiopia.[25] But his thesis has not received traction among well-established Semitic studies scholars and other linguists. The hypothesis is also contradicted by the foundational narrative of Ethiopian civilization, which earlier generation of Ethiopianists proudly associated with South Arabia.[26]  Only recently, after the fall of the monarchy and the debunking of the Solomonic myth, did Ethiopianists start to shift away from the Asian origin of Ethio-Semitic languages and Ethiopian civilization. Now, apparently in response to the current debate on ethnicity in Ethiopia, the southern Ethiopian origin and the ‘Africanness’ of Ethio-Semitic languages have gained special emphasis by Ethiopian politicians and scholars. Contrary to long settled linguistic debate, some Ethiopian specialists now make three arguments: 1) Afroasiatic languages, including Semitic languages originated in southern Ethiopia; 2) The Ethio-Semitic languages (those spoken in Ethiopia) separated from other Semitic languages at an early period and did not move out of Ethiopia at all; and 3) one major evidence for the origin of Ethio-Semitic languages in Ethiopia is the large number of Semitic languages in the region. They try to justify this by reclassifying the Gurage language group into several branches.[27]

The argument that the Afroasiatic languages originated in Africa is correct, but not in southern Ethiopia. Second, as a branch of Afroasiatic family, Semitic languages also originated in Africa. According to Christopher Ehret, Semitic language branch emerged later than Omotic and Cushitic, and it first spread to Western Asia through the Sanai desert before its Ethio-Semitic branch reentered into Africa through Yemen at a later stage.[28]  This happened during the early first millennium BC. Until recently, this interpretation was accepted favorably by Ethiopian Semites, whose ruling elite traditionally reckoned the beginning of Ethiopian civilization to be 3000 years ago. But recently Ethiopianists have shifted away from the South Arabian origin of Ethiopian civilization to an indigenous setting. In this context, besides his obvious concern about current politics, Tegegne’s argument largely reflects the reorientation of Ethiopian religious and political affiliation from the Mediterranean region and Middle East to Africa. It also reflects the reinterpretation of Ethiopian history in response to the current debate on ethnicity. The reclassification of the Gurage languages is still unsettled debate among linguists. But on political grounds, Ethiopian linguists have jumped on the thesis that classifies the Gurage language into several branches because it ultimately increases the number of the Ethio-Semitic languages and justifies their origin in southern Ethiopia.

Another unexplained issue in Tegegne’s argument is what kind of environmental factors forced the early Afroasiatic speakers from apparently wet and fertile southwestern Ethiopia into the Sahara Desert and South Arabia which were less fertile than southern Ethiopia even at that very early period?  Second, what is the time frame for the migration of those groups who left northeast Africa early. If not very specific time (usually, linguists have fairly a very well-developed dating system} for the evolution and spread of language groups. Surprising, the linguistic literature developed by Christopher Ehret and Harold Fleming on language dating are not utilized by Tegegne in his work. Similarly, other Ethiopianist linguists such as Girma Demeke also ignore glottochronological dating and linguistic relationships.

The political overtone Tegenge’s enthusiastic endorsement of the southern Ethiopian origin of Ethio-Semitic languages is clear from his treatment of the topic in Barara.  For example, accusing Oromo politicians of claiming the indigeneity of Cushitic speakers in northeast Africa, he doubts the validity of linguistic evidence that establishes the relationship of languages. He says it is based on ‘what scholars agreed upon’, therefore, ‘not scientific’. On the other hand, he claims the South Ethio-Semitic languages such as “Argoba, Gurage, Gafat and Amhara are children of the same father.”[29]  This shows how he chooses only the linguistic hypothesis that locates the origin of Semitic languages in southern Ethiopia because it supports his claim that they are indigenous to the region, but he ignores other hypothesis without any explanation because it undermines his thesis.

Ironically, while arguing the indigeneity of the Amhara in south-central Ethiopia, Tegegne attempts to erase the history of Oromo people, the largest population constituting the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic languages, from the same space. Throughout the book, he refers to the Amhara as indigenous people (ቀዳሚ ሀዝቦች) who preceded the Oromo on the central Shawan plateau, the territories the latter had lived on for thousands of years and still live on today. The campaigns of Abyssinian kings against the Oromo between the sixteenth and the end of the nineteenth century are presented as a war to ‘restore their rist’ lands (ርስት ማስመለስ), a term we lately hear often on the media in connection with the war in Tigray, especially over the contested areas between Amhara and Tirayan States. Menelik’s conquest of the south in late nineteenth century was, therefore, the climax of these Amhara campaigns to ‘reclaim’ land.

Tegegne intentionally ignores historical facts about Oromo presence in the region and utilizes contested linguistic theories to frame the Oromo as newcomers, and the Amhara as indigenous people to justify the current Amhara claim of the lost ‘ancestral lands’ (አጽመ–ሪስት), especially near and over Addis Ababa/Finfinnee. Additionally, depicting Barara as a town built by an Amhara king in the fifteenth century, he attempts to justify Menelik’s conquest of the Tuulama Oromo in late nineteenth century. But when the linguistic argument does not support his case, Tegegne dismisses it and reverts to ‘state formation and civilization’ as reliable criteria to establish precedence on the land.[30]

Furthermore, the author’s argument gets even twisted and mean when it comes to Oromo institutions such as gadaa and mogassa, which he characterizes as ‘repressive’ systems that caused cultural ‘genocide’ of many peoples in the region.  He argues, gadaa was a militaristic institution that contributed to the destruction of populations, while mogassa was assimilationist that boosted Oromo population at the expense of others. He claims both institutions were created to commit cultural genocide of non-Oromo people. But while demonizing gadaa and gudifacha/mogassa as coercive, Tegegne does not say anything on how the Abyssinian kings and the Orthodox clergy violently imposed their faith and culture on the southern peoples in medieval period and since the mid-nineteenth. Obviously, he also does not understand the nature of the Oromo gadaa and mogassa institutions. Unlike the Abyssinian coercive and assimilationist policy, these Oromo institutions focus on peaceful and voluntary acculturation. As the poet and literary critic Solomon Deressa said: “In a sane world, it would be the duty and privilege of the outsider to beg to be included, and force would have no place. [But] to convert anyone but oneself to anything is . . . to teach the other to despise that he/she is [evil].”[31]  Deressa was obviously referring the Abyssinian system which he had observed very closely with the critic’s eyes. But those who have not been exposed to the coercive assimilation of the Abyssinian state and Orthodox Christianity, such as Tegegne, do not understand the difference between the voluntary acculturation of the Oromo and the coercive assimilation of the Abyssinian type. For this reason, he has no right to intentionally misrepresent the nature of Oromo institutions.

Using academic forum, unfortunately, Tegegne directly assaults Oromo scholars for writing, what he calls, ‘fictional’ history that is not supported by credible sources. He singles out some of the most senior, highly respected, and most visible scholars Oromo studies. For example, he accuses Mohammed Hassen and Asafa Jalata. Others are ignored probably not to publicize their scholarship or intended to make it appear that there are not that many scholars working on Oromo history and culture.

Reasons For Attacking Oromo Institutions And Scholars

Why do the author of Barara and other Amhara commentators attack Oromo institutions (gadaa and mogassa), Oromo scholars and their works? First, branding Oromo institutions as tools of genocide is intended to deflect the atrocities that the Amhara ruling elite had perpetrated on the Oromo for centuries. By portraying the Oromo and their sacred and historical institutions as genocidal, they are trying to silence the people, force them into submission, and protect their dominant position in the Ethiopian state and society. Attacking Oromo scholars and their works is also intended to confuse legitimate historical debate and suppress alternative voices, and to silence new interpretations. By attacking Oromo scholars and their works, they are trying to isolate these scholars and suppress memories, new interpretations, and the production of historical knowledge from the authentic voices of the people. If new interpretations are discredited and rendered unbelievable, the facts can be denied, and history can also be silenced easily. That means, the Oromo did not exist before the sixteenth century; they are latecomers to the places their descendants currently occupy, and they do not have the rights to these lands. By cutting off the people from their history, rendering them as people without institutions and history, they are trying to make it easier to erase memories of the past and undermine the sense of oromummaa, Oromo identity.

Second, they deny the Oromo presence on the land before the arrival of Christian Amhara population in the south-central regions mainly to justify Menelik’s conquest of the late nineteenth century and to legitimize his land alienations. More importantly, this prepares the ground for the denial of the Oromo historical claims over Finfinnee.  In short, it is an attempt to confuse scholarship with political rhetoric and rewrite history. In this context, Tegegne’s book is a politically motivated diatribe in its worst form.  By presenting Barara as the precursor of Addis Ababa, Tegegne’s goal is to undermine the legitimate claim of the Oromo farmers to their lands from which they were evicted since the foundation of the city hundred and thirty years ago.

Unfortunately, while attempting to erase Oromo history by undermining Oromo scholarship, the author attacks the historical profession itself. For example, even Abba Bahriy, Aleqa Taye and Getachew Haile are not spared. Surprisingly, Taddesse Tamrat, the distinguished historian and long-time director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, is criticized for writing about the conquests of Amda Tseyon (r. 1313-43), the medieval Amhara king who conquered the people the territories in the central Shawan plateau and across the Awash River and annexed them the Abyssinian empire. Unlike Taddesse Tamrat, who was a historian dedicated to the highest standards of the historians’ profession, Tegegne is unscrupulous in using any source that advances his preconceived narrative and in rejecting those that contradict his thesis. His careless handling of historical sources, for example, is clear from his claim that there were Axumite era churches in Damot when Amda Tseyon invaded the territory in 1310s. The main evidence for this claim is the king’s land grant document that indicates a tablet (tabot) the king reportedly brought from Damot. But except a brief quotation referring to this incident, where and when this document was written is not identified.

Since most of the Christian documents from 13th century did not survive the Wars of Ahmed Gragn (d. 1543), it is not clear how and where this document was preserved. At least these are some of the questions that professional historians ask before they use such documents. But without explaining how the tabot that Amda Tseyon ‘recovered’ from Damot got there, the author rushes to say: “maybe it was a tabot that the king of Damot brought for the campaign [against Amda Tseyon!].”[32]  But the king of Damot was not a Christian until the mid-fourteenth century, as clearly indicated in the hagiography of St. Takle Haymanot.[33]

Since there are too many inconsistencies and unprofessional use of sources, it is difficult to indicate all of them here.  Although he appears to be extremely critical of other historians’ use of sources, methodological weakness is, by far, the major failure of this book. Tegegne is totally uncritical on his use of hagiographical materials and royal chronicles. For example, when he discusses the spread of Christianity and the expansion of the Christian State to the south during the fourteenth century, he argues that medieval expansion and consolidation of Christianity happened because evangelization was conducted on the ‘ancestral lands’ of the Amhara, Gurage, Argoba, Gafat, where Amharic was widely spoken. Based on an obscure traveler-account, he also refers to a church at Goba, in Bale, that was built during the Zagwe period. He also suggests that Christianity was accepted peacefully in these territories. But none of these assertions is supported by historical evidence and the available sources prove otherwise.[34] A cursory reading of Ethiopian history shows that Dawaro, Ifat, Damot and the whole Shawan plateau were not the ancestral lands of the Amhara, and that Amharic was not the vernacular language in these areas until after colonization and evangelization.

Contrary to Tegegne’s claims, only minor signs of Christianity existed south of the Jama River before the end of the thirteenth century. Available sources, including hagiographical and royal chronicles, indicate that missionaries and Christian soldiers met strong resistance from Muslim communities along the middle Awash River, and from the predominantly ‘pagan’ populations throughout the Shawan plateau when they arrived in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. These sources indicate that the spread of Christianity to the Shawan plateau and to its west and south was extremely limited before the early fourteenth century. The early Amhara settlers, not all of them Christians, started to arrive in the Shawan plains only after the tenth century.[35] Until the fourteenth century, however, they were still scattered and thinly distributed among their non-Christian Oromo neighbors on whom they relied for their safety. Steven Kaplan, who carefully examined the hagiographical sources of medieval Ethiopia, argues that Shawa “contained only scattered Christian settlements at the end of the thirteenth century,” while the fertile regions of Waj, Endagabtan, Warab and Damot were targeted by major Christian settlements only in the early fourteenth century.[36]  In fact, at that time, Amhara settlers had no ancestral land to claim in this region. Nor was Christianity firmly established there before fifteenth century. Although Christianity was not totally unknown in the area when Takle Haymaont, who later became a celebrated saint of the Ethiopian church, established his monastery at Debra Asbo (now called Debra Libanos) in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, his small community was considered to be odd and rumored to have been eating “human beings.”[37]  In Warab, around the source of the Awash River, Anorewos, the first missionary in the area, encountered a hostile religious leader—whom the Christians considered as a magician—and her followers “bowed at her feet and sacrificed twelve cows to her.” [38]

Even after the military victories of the Christian kings and the collaboration of the monastic clergy with state in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both church and state faced strong resistance from the indigenous people. The monastic clergy and Christian kings used force to convert the people to Christianity. King Amda Tseyon and his successors used conquests, roving royal camps, settlement of military colonies and harsh administrative measures to ‘christianize’ and ‘Amharanize’ the people in the region of Shawa and its surroundings in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. On the other hand, the monastic clergy also did not hesitate to use force and destroy indigenous religious leaders and their places of worship. Sacred trees such as Odaa were destroyed by Christian missionaries because these trees served as religious and political symbols of the non-Christian Oromo society. The destruction of these sacred trees strongly angered the indigenous leaders. The ruler of Katata, in eastern Shawa, for example, angerly confronted Takle Haymanot (the saint) when he ordered to cut down a tree that the community used for religious services. He said to the saint, “Are you the one destroying my city?”[39] In Warab, along the upper Awash River, Anorewos began his evangelical mission by killing local religious leaders and by destroying their sacred sites, on which he later built the first church in the area. The saint rejoiced when a newly converted chief

. . . found three men [apparently Oromo religious leaders] sitting at the foot of an oak tree . . . [and] shot one of them who failed and died; the second one fled away, and he captured the third, tied him up his hands backwards, and took him to the Abuna Anorewos. . .. At that time [the chief] took a knife and slew the captive at the feet of [Anorewos]. After some time [the saint] built a small church on the site.[40]

Such violence and destruction of non-Christian religious symbols and populations took place not only on the Shawan plateau and southern regions, but also in Agaw, Qimant and Bete Israel territories of the Lake Tana region in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The ruler of the Agaw people, Jay Chuhay, for example, quarreled with Za-Yohannes, an early evangelist in western Gojam, The Christian leader killed the serpent at whose shrine the Agaw ruler prayed and sought guidance from his god.[41]  Thus, resistance to Christianity was very strong in the newly conquered regions of the Semitic Gafat, west of Shawa, the Cushitic Agaw in Gojam, and the Muslim, ‘pagan’ and Waaqeefa Oromo groups in Shawa and beyond the Awash River in the south and east. In the fifteenth century, King Zar’a Yaqob (r. 1434-68) took violent measures to suppress a strong resistance to Christianity.[42]  Exacerbated by the ‘pagan’ resistance, the king ordered violent extermination of the people who refused to convert to Christianity. In one of his edicts, for example, the king declared:

  If a Christian kills pagan, either with a spear or with another weapon, … he shall become a martyr, and the pagan whom he kills shall be considered for him as an offering to God. … Whoever kills pagans has committed no sins.[43]

Tegegne, however, argues conversion was peaceful. Here, the problem is, the author cites hagiographical sources and royal chronicles of the medieval period selectively without the historian’s critical lens and with prime political objective. But historians have long identified that, unless used carefully, Ethiopian hagiographies can lead to biased interpretations because they are full of praises of saints who performed “abundant miracles”, and they are full of   and anachronisms.”[44]  Historians (for example, Conti Rossini) had emphasized that the date of composition of a hagiography can help to determine the historical value of the document.[45]  But, as both Taddesse Tamrat and Steven Kaplan had pointed out, it is not easy to establish the time of the composition of most of these manuscripts [46] Additionally, the Ethiopian Church did not have a tradition of preventing distortion of manuscripts and protection of the authenticity of documents as they were copied by generations of scribes who preserved the documents for posterity. Since hagiographies were not regarded as scriptures, “they were constantly revised in light of changing religious, political and educational needs.” Very often, the scribe copying from the original manuscript “revised it in light of the changing needs of the religious community.”[47]  Some manuscripts were destroyed during wars and new versions were reconstructed later from memory. Unfortunately, many original copies of manuscripts before the early sixteenth century were destroyed during the wars of Ahmed Gragn (1529-43). Thus, using them as sources requires careful examination of the surviving documents.


The current writing of a vicious ‘history’ with vengeance and critiquing Oromo scholarship beyond normal academic standards are undermining the value of professional history as a reliable knowledge. The subversive ideas which are disseminated through conferences and social media outlets in the name of history are contributing to the escalation of social tensions between peoples and undermining the historical profession. Unfortunately, the book reviewed here does this. For this reason, it can only be read as a political polemic rather than as a historical text.


[1] See Mekuria Bulcha, Contours of the Emergent & Ancient Oromo Nation: Dilemmas in the Ethiopian Politics of State and Nation-Building, 2nd rev. ed. (Cape Town, Center for Advanced Studies of African Society, 2016; Mohammed Hassen, The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia, 1300-1700 (Woodbridge, UK, James Currey, 2015).
[2] See M. Bulcha, Contours of the Emergent & Ancient Oromo Nation; M. Hassen, The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia. On the settlement of the Ethio-Semitic speakers in south-central highlands, see Harold Fleming, “Ethiopic Language History: Testing Linguistic Hypotheses in an Archaeological and Documentary Context,” Ethnohistory, 15: 4 (1968), pp. 353-388; Taddesse Tamrat, Charch and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527, 2nd reprint (Hollywood, CA, 2009), pp. 34-41.
[3] François-Xavier Fauvelle & Bertrand Poissonnier, “The Shay Culture of Ethiopia (Tenth to Fourteenth Century AD): ‘Pagans’ in the Time of Christians and Muslims, African Archaeological Review, 33:1 (2016).
[4] Mekuria Bulcha, Contours of the Emergent & ancient Oromo Nation; Mohammed Hassen, The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia.
[5] Getachew Haile, Yeabba Bahriy Dirsetoch (Avon, Minnesota, 2002).
[6] Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: Introduction to Country and People (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 76.
[7] When Ullendroff lectured at Addis Ababa University in 1973, after receiving the Haile Selassie I Trust prize for his scholarship on Ethiopian history, an Oromo student confronted him on his views about the Oromo. The incident was long remembered by students and faculty who attended that event.
[8] O.G.S. Crowford, ed., Ethiopian Itineraries circa 1400-1524 (Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, 1958).
[9] A. Zorzi had not visited Ethiopia. The nearest he got to Ethiopia was probably Alexandia, Egypt, which he visited during his travels to north Africa. He claims to have collected information about Ethiopia, including Barara, from Ethiopian priests—Zorgi, Raphael, Thomas (of Ganget), Antonio, and Thomas (of Barara). These priests provided a very sketchy information about place names, trade, and trade routes in Ethiopia. But the poor quality of their geographical and political knowledge makes their information a suspect. Even Brother Thomas who was identified as a native of Barara did not provide any clear information about his hometown (see Crowford, Ethiopian Itineraries, pp. 100-104, 182-194).
[10] W. G. B. Huntingford, The Historical Geography of Ethiopia, From the First Century AD to 1704, ed. by Richard Pankhurst (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 198)9, pp. 73, 127-8.
[11] Shihab ad-Din Ahmad Futuh al- Habaha – The Conquest of Abyssinia [16th Century], trans. by Paul Lester Stenhouse (Hollywood, CA, Tsehai Publishers, 2005), pp. 165, 185-9.
[12] F. Alvarez, The Prester John of the Indies: A True Relation of the Lands of the Prester John being the narrative of the Portuguese Embassy to Ethiopia in 1520, rev. & ed. by C. F.Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford, Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, 1961), pp. 349-350; Tegegne, Barara, p. 116.
[13] R. Horvath, “The Wondering Capitals of Ethiopia,” Journal of African History, 10: 2 (1969), pp. 205-219; Richard Pankhurst (1979) Ethiopian Medieval and Post-Medieval Capitals: Their Development and Principal Features, AZANIA: Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, 14:1, 1-19; Tadesse Tamirat, Church and State, pp. 105, 152.
[14] Shihab ad-Din Ahmad, Futuh al- Habasha, pp. 165.
[15] Samuel Walker has made some searches recently to find the ruins of Barara.  But his final report has not been widely circulated.
[16] See Tekalign W. Mariam, “A City and its Hinterlands: the Political Economy of Land Tenure, Agriculture and Food Supply for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (1887-1974),” Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston University, 1995.
[17] Tegegne, Barara, p. 122.
[18] I have argued this elsewhere. See Guluma Gemeda, “Barara is not Addis Ababa,” November 22, 2018. https://ayyaantuu.org/?s=Barara+is+not+Addis+ABaba
[19] Tegene, Barara, p. 80.
[20] Grover Hudson, “Language Classification and Semitic Prehistory of Ethiopia,” Folia Orientalia, 18 (1977), pp. 119-166. Idem., “Ethiopian Semitic Overview,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 33: 2 (2000), pp. 75-86; idem, “Agaw Words in South Ethiopian Semitic?” in New Trends in Ethiopian Studies: Papers of the 12th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, vol 1, ed. by Harold G. Marcus, (Lawrenceville, NJ, The Red Sea Press, 1994); Girma A. Demeke, The Origin of Amharic, 2nd ed. (Trenton, NJ, The Red Sea Press); idem, “The Ethio-Semitic Languages (Reexamining the Classification),” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 34:2 (2001), 60-70.
[21] Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2002), p. 36; Harold Fleming, “Ethiopic Language History”; Robert Hetzron, Ethiopian Semitic: Studies in Classification (Manchester, Manchester University Press 1972).
[22] Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa, pp. 38-39.
[23] H. Tegegne, Barara, p. 80.
[24] Grover Hudson, “Ethiopian Semitic Overview,” pp. 75-86; idem, “Agaw Words in South Ethiopian Semitic?”; Girma A. Demeke, The Origin of Amharicidem, “The Ethio-Semitic Languages (Reexamining the Classification).”
[25] Grover Hudson, “Language Classification and Semitic Prehistory of Ethiopia,” pp. 119-166
[26] For example, see Taddesse Tamirat, Church and State, pp. 5-20.
[27] Girma A. Demeke, “The Ethio-Semitic Languages (Reexamining the Classification).”
[28] Christopher Ehret, History and the Testimony of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); See also Harold Fleming, “Ethiopic Language History.”
[29] Tegegne, Barara, 79-82.
[30] Tegegne, Barara, p. 81.
[31] Solomon Deressa, “Review of Walaloota Zalaalam Abarra,’ p. 262.
[32] Tegegne, Barara, p. 89.
[33]   The Life and Miracles of Takla Haymanot, ed. and Trans. by E. A. W. Budge (London, 1898).
[34] Tegegne, Barara, pp. 90-92.
[35] Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State, pp. 37-38
[36] Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia, Wiesbaden, Steiner, 1984), pp. 27-28.
[37] Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State, p. 172.
[38] C.  Conti Rossini, Acta S. Basalota Mika’el et S. Anorewos (1905), p. 76, cited in Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man, p. 97.
[39]  Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man, p. 22.
[40] Gadle Anorewos, cited in Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State, p.179.
[41] Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man, p. 122.
[42] Taddesse Tamrat, “A Short Note on the Traditions of Pagan Resistance to the Ethiopian Church in the 14th and 15th Centuries,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 10 (1972), pp. 137-150.
[43] Taddesse Tamrat, “A Short Note on the Traditions of Pagan Resistance,” pp. 148-49.
[44] Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man, p. 1.
[45] C. Conti Rossini, L’agiografia etiopica de gli atti del santo Yfqiranna-Igzi (1937), cited in Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man, p. 1.
[46] Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man, pp.1-2; Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State, pp. 2-4.
[47] Steven Kaplan, The Monastic Holy Man, pp. 4-5.

Guluma Gemeda, PhD, Associate Professor of History, University of Michigan, Flint, USA.

1 Comment

  1. Obo Guluma,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article! I am not a Social Scientist or a
    Historian, so when I find some well researched and concisely written material about and of the Oromo people, I become like the proverbial kid in a candy store!LOL

    Yes, we Oromos are blessed by some current brilliant writers & scholars: Prof/s Mohammed Hassan Ali, Mekuria Bulcha, Gammachu Magarssa come to mind. You are on your way to joining my list up there. Keep up with the great work! Looking forward to reading more of your work in the future!

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