Abyssinian presence in the Arabian Peninsula was so visible and the two cultures saw times of peace and war. Racially, both people claimed ancestry from Shem son of Noah (Semites) but in time, even that didn’t serve them.
After creating the Kebre-Negest myth in 1270 AD, the Abyssinian ruling class became a theocracy and all racial, culture and politics relations were made to serve the Church. Incidentally, the writer of the Kibre-Negest fables was Ibn Al-Assal. Another book that still shapes the Abyssinian Islamophobia is the narration of the 16th century conquests of Ahmed Gragn, is also written by Embaqom, Arab widely believed to a Muslim convert to Christianity. Today, most of the venerated saints of Abyssinia hailed from the Arab lands, including Abba Salama the most famous Egyptian Patriarch of Abyssinia.
Until European missionaries arrived, and later the Ottomans occupied the Red Sea shores, Abyssinia and the Arabs had a fair relation even when the Red Sea Dahlak Archipelago was under the Arab Umayyad rule. Arabic was visibly present in the Abyssinian the culture and the seals of the kings of the time carried Arabic inscription. Even King Yohannes’ seal had an Arabic inscription, and his governor of the Eritrean highlands had no qualms wearing an Arab garb.
In Eritrea, Muslims do not have as many saints but a few notable religious families, revered Sufis like Abdelkader Jelani, and the Quiraishi Mirqaniya family to whom Stti Alewiya, the black African belonged—she was the spiritual leader of the Eritrean Red Sea coast.
Axum was mainly destroyed by a queen named Yodit (aka Gudit, Esatu, Ga’aw, and many other names). The ruthless queen destroyed what little was left of the Axumite Kingdom.
Between 900 – 1137 AD, the Zagwe dynasty ruled the Abyssinian highlands Abyssinia; the dynasty ended when its last king Za-Ilmaknun the last Zagwe King was killed in battle by the forces of the Abyssinian King Yekuno Amlak, who claimed to be a descendant of Menelik, thus of king Solomon, and established the 2nd Solomonic dynasty. Abyssinian kings had to prove a Solomonic blood runs through their veins before they can be crowned, and most of the time, the church came up with fantastic stories to crown the powerful contenders. So did Yohannes claim a Solomonic ancestry and wreaked havoc in the region. But finally, the rule of the 2nd Solomonic dynasty ended in 1974 when the Derg overthrew king Haile Selassie.
Yohannes seal carries an inscription in Geez and Arabic. King of Kings Yohannes of Tsion and of Ethiopia. He was a bigoted and cruel ruler who cut the tongue of a theologian who contradicted him in a debate and ordered the blinding of king Tekhlegiorgis with a hot wire put on his eyes. Ras Alula was the absolute governor of Eritrea under king Yohannes.
The Conference of Buru Meda
Yohannes wanted to convert the entire country to one faith. To this end, in 1878 he held a theological council at Buru Meda, Wollo region of Abyssinia. Then he delegitimized all other sects and religions except his church which was known as Karra. Yohannes was so obsessed with the Christology debate of the time and the Buru Meda proclamation ordered the other Orthodox churches of Abyssinia (Sgga and Qbat), the Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim faith, as well as the Pagans, and others to covert and accept the Karra doctrines. If they refused to convert, they must either leave the territories he ruled over and go into exile or face the sword.
The proclamation was hard on Muslims, while most others could easily blend in and hide their faith, the Muslims had difficulty in hiding their faith due to some noticeable cultural traits that they couldn’t hide. They changed their names, their manners, and clothes to hide their faith—It was the time compound names became popular, Mohammed Berhan, Mohammed Hagos, Mohammed Saeed, Mohammed Saleh, Mohammed Nur, etc. And the women were given faith neutral names like Lemlem, Mebrat, and the like.
That was the time Ras Alula ruled the highlands and two of his deputies established camps carrying their names: The plateau of Adi Tekhlai and plain of Adi Gebru which today are large villages. As for the Tsegga and Qbbat, though they were forced to accept the decrees of the council, even today they still exist in small pockets in the region and to this day the Tewaḥdo faction dominates life in Abyssinia.
Complaining to the Naib
Abyssinian warlords travel with their pack animals, retinues, slaves, women, and children. When the men go to invade and pillage, their families are left in camps with a few guards and soon they established themselves where they settled. Until then, for instance, Adi Teklai and Adi Gebru served as internment camps for Muslims rounded up from their farms in the surrounding villages.
The Muslims could not bear the injustices and sought help from the Naib of Massawa who came to their rescue. He threatened Yohannes he will block Abyssinian access to the port unless he treated the Muslims nicely. Alula convinced Yohannes the matter was serious, and he devised a plan. Alula arranged for the Degiat of Tsazega to sponsor the Muslims so that they can have some freedom to move around and attend to their farms and houses, though most were taken by the hordes. Thereafter, the Muslims got a little relief. However, when Alula’s soldiers found Muslims moving freely, they harassed them: ‘You Muslim guy! Why are you moving around?’ The person would reply, “I am Aslamay Degezmati (Sponsored by the Degezmatch of the village of Tsaazega).
Why the Islamophobia
And that is the inspiration of the Islamophobia adopted by the bigots, the fascists who threaten Muslims: we will intern you; we will kill you; we will own you, etc. It’s that tradition they are dreaming of reviving. It’s probable they are children of the marauding peasant soldiers who arrived in the place with Alula and owned the land that earlier belonged to other people who were dispossessed of their lands. And they are not ashamed of referencing Israel as model of a religious state where they rule the rest. It’s the unjust anti-peace belief of “we own everything, and you do not exist.”
The mentality of intolerance and fanaticism of Yohannes is inherited by a segment of Abyssinian elite who never failed in agitating the masses using the language that Yohannes used in rallying his subjects. It’s even worse because unlike Yohannes whose agitation was spread through word of mouth at a very slow pace, todays sectarians use the internet to cover the world with their hate filled, bigoted messages. Still, they do not know what is behind the never-ending conflicts in our region or pretend not to know it. But it’s a conflict between hegemonic segments who come in different forms equipped with different reasoning fit for the time. But they are always true to their hegemonic aspirations. It’s the usual shifting alliances between the Abyssinian elite of the Amhara, Tigrai, and the Eritrean highlands with a little tweaking depending on the situation. The ruling elite have always abused their monopoly of power and they have nothing to show for it except ignorance, destitution, poverty, and bloodshed.
So, those dream of converting others or interning free citizens to appease their sick ego need to ask their Ancestors (abowatom and emowatom), to which sect their ancestors belonged before Yohannes forced them to convert.
NB: The above is a close translation of the content of Negarit 130 and is the 3rd part of a four-part series
About Saleh « Gadi » Johar
Born and raised in Keren, Eritrea, now a US citizen residing in California, Mr. Saleh “Gadi” Johar is founder and publisher of awate.com. Author of Miriam was Here, Of Kings and Bandits, and Simply Echoes. Saleh is acclaimed for his wealth of experience and knowledge in the history and politics of the Horn of Africa. A prominent public speaker and a researcher specializing on the Horn of Africa, he has given many distinguished lectures and participated in numerous seminars and conferences around the world. Activism Awate.com was founded by Saleh “Gadi” Johar and is administered by the Awate Team and a group of volunteers who serve as the website’s advisory committee. The mission of awate.com is to provide Eritreans and friends of Eritrea with information that is hidden by the Eritrean regime and its surrogates; to provide a platform for information dissemination and opinion sharing; to inspire Eritreans, to embolden them into taking action, and finally, to lay the groundwork for reconciliation whose pillars are the truth. Miriam Was Here This book that was launched on August 16, 2013, is based on true stories; in writing it, Saleh has interviewed dozens of victims and eye-witnesses of Human trafficking, Eritrea, human rights, forced labor.and researched hundreds of pages of materials. The novel describes the ordeal of a nation, its youth, women and parents. It focuses on violation of human rights of the citizens and a country whose youth have become victims of slave labor, human trafficking, hostage taking, and human organ harvesting–all a result of bad governance. The main character of the story is Miriam, a young Eritrean woman; her father Zerom Bahta Hadgembes, a veteran of the struggle who resides in America and her childhood friend Senay who wanted to marry her but ended up being conscripted. Kings and Bandits Saleh “Gadi” Johar tells a powerful story that is never told: that many « child warriors » to whom we are asked to offer sympathies befitting helpless victims and hostages are actually premature adults who have made a conscious decision to stand up against brutality and oppression, and actually deserve our admiration. And that many of those whom we instinctively feel sympathetic towards, like the Ethiopian king Emperor Haile Sellassie, were actually world-class tyrants whose transgressions would normally be cases in the World Court. Simply Echoes A collection of romantic, political observations and travel poems; a reflection of the euphoric years that followed Eritrean Independence in 1991.