The Meroitic Origin of the Oromos, and the Christianization of Africa
The Meroitic Origin of the Oromos, and the Christianization of Africa
By Prof. Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis
Fresh post-colonial approaches to African History focus on the early stages of Christianization of Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia (: Sudan) and Abyssinia (fallaciously re-baptized as Abyssinia in the middle of the 20th c.), and find there the reasons of the Meroitic emigration to present day (Biyya) Oromo land.
Past theories on the origin of Oromos, and their refutation
Fresh approaches suggesting that the Oromo people may have moved south from Meroe are in direct opposition to past theories, according to which the Oromos came from Asia or Madagascar, and that they have Caucasian trace. Other scholars had suggested in the past that the Oromos emigrated from south to north in Africa, pulling even several Oromo historians and intellectuals to accept such theory.
Contrarily to all the past arbitrary approaches, the recent post-colonial reconstruction of the Oromo past relates to real historical events that corroborate the entirely fresh approach; they are not just hypotheses.
According to this reconstruction, the interest is not in just selecting a land of eventual origin somewhere in the north, the east or the south; the fresh academic approach addresses key points of African History and attempts to offer answers to yet unanswered mysteries and inexplicable facts of the Ancient Sudanese History, i.e. the History of the land, the nation and the kingdom that the Ancient Greeks and Romans named “Ethiopia”.
In fact, there has long been attested a very scarce population in the Nile valley, south of the second cataract (around modern Wadi Halfa), and more particularly in the heartland of the defunct Meroitic kingdom, during the period that follows the Abyssinian invasion of the 2nd half of the 4th c. CE.
Many Meroitic sites seem to have been abandoned – even those located in parts of the Meroitic kingdom that were certainly not attacked by Ezana of Axumite Abyssinia, i.e. between the second and the fourth cataracts of the Nile. Furthermore, if in some archaeological sites we find a certain continuity, this is with few or new people and with low level or non-Meroitic material culture.
As per the new approach, the mysterious phenomenon can be explained in the following manner: the ‘missing’ population very possibly moved away, rejecting the Christianization evangelized by Ezana. In their emigration, they took a destination that would offer them safe survival far from Axumite Abyssinia, and in a rather similarly green environment of cultivated lands and pasturelands as that of old Meroe. They could not cross the jungle that was extended until far more in the north than the areas it reaches nowadays; so they advanced the Blue Nile valley upstream and, after a certain point, instead of proceeding toward the river’s source and the area of Lake Tana, they advanced further to the east, towards the present day Oromo country.
According to this reconstruction, which attempts to interpret what was called an enigma of the Meroitic History, it happens that the need for survival and Cushitic culture preservation led the fleeing Meroites to the south. South, north and the other cardinal points mean nothing by themselves. What ultimately counts is the environment, the natural setup and the possibilities it offers to the emigrants. Whether this is in the north or the south it matters not.
In the case of the eternal enigma of the Meroitic studies, namely the question about the direction that the fleeing Meroites took and the location of their final settlement, there are important parameters to take into consideration. As a matter of fact, the entire valley of the Nile from the area of Wadi Halfa down to Shendi and Khartoum seems to have suddenly depopulated and almost totally emptied,
Fleeing Meroites could not leave the valley and go to find shelter in the desert! It is obvious that there they would not have the means of survival; they did not have anything in common with the then existing nomads of the desert, and they could not apply to themselves such an unfamiliar life organization and social system. That is why the modern Beja and Hadendawa cannot originate from the ancient Meroites, although they are also Kushitic in origin.
On the other hand, the fleeing Meroites could not have attempted to cross the African jungle, since that was impossible even for strong armies in the Antiquity. So, there is no way for us to try to find their descendants among the Nuer and/or the Dinka of the modern Sudanese extreme south. In addition, these people are clearly of Nilo-Saharan, not Cushitic, origin.
There are also other issues that we have to take into consideration: the social structures, the beliefs, the anthropological data, the movements from place to place, and so on. Someone who studied carefully the geography of Sudan and Abyssinia cannot end up indicating the Nuer or the Dinka as descendants of the Meroites.
At this point, I must underscore that professional historians must not accept preconceived schemes or highly ideologized ‘historical’ interpretations; History did not happen according to the wishes of today’s miserable politicians, diplomats and statesmen. If historians write to please various governmental and other propagandas and agendas, they lose totally their credibility.
It is therefore necessary at this point to take position against the extremist theories about the hypothetical Oromo coming from the south; these hypotheses are historically irrelevant and politically motivated. The only way for this to have possibly occurred is the highly improbable Bantu origin of the Oromos. The Bantu family effectively constitutes the bulk of Sub-Saharan peoples of Africa. But we know that in the Antiquity, the Bantu nations were confined in the extreme South of the African continent and that they moved northwards at a later date until they reached the equatorial zone in Africa. Contrarily to the Ancient Cushites, Bantu peoples did not develop any writing system of their own.
Furthermore, we have an approximately good textual documentation on the History of Eastern Africa particularly starting with the 2nd half of the 1st millennium BCE and later periods. Especially from the Ptolemaic times (330 – 30 BCE) down to the Colonial expansion, we have Ancient Greek, Latin, Yemenite, Medieval Greek texts, and of course for Islamic periods we have Arabic and Farsi texts. Nowhere do we find a mention of an eventual movement or an emigration of Cushitic populations from the south; and there is no reference to an event that could be interpreted as such. No historical and no archaeological evidence supports the theory of an Oromo emigration from the south to the area where they live now. In addition, the number of the population matters to some extent too. The great number of Oromo people testifies to a long past, and to long centuries of relative isolation.
Retracing the Oromo past back to Somalia (or Azania as the Eastern Somali coast was called in Ancient Greek and Latin texts during the Late Antiquity) would contradict all historical sources that provide no reason for, and no information of, this eventuality. Discussing about Madagascar as an Oromo-origin option would rather be relevant of fiction! In either case, it would imply a completely different natural environment and this would entail a radical change of social habits, which is not easy to happen; and again, when such a colossal transformation happens, it is duly confirmed by various combinations of sources. A dramatic social-cultural change almost never happens, except within micro-systems. In those cases it leaves traces that we can retrace one way or another.
Among inland villagers of the Moluccas islands in Indonesia we attest to popular nuptial songs referring to arriving ships for the collection of spices; this proves that these villagers were living a coastal life before the arrival of the Dutch, who pushed the indigenous population towards the inland in order to control trade and customs. But it is a micro-system, not the coast of Azania and the south of Abyssinia, which would imply a complete and absurd socio-cultural disfigurement.
Present day Abyssinian Amhara ‘academics’ are taking politically motivated positions that deprive them from any serious background in their bogus-historical argumentation. The level of the dogmatic Amhara-patronized universities of Abyssinia is worse than that of the universities in Sudan and Egypt. To speak frankly, the entire Eastern Africa has long been academically patronized by colonial powers and therefore doomed.
Oromo historians noticed in the past that the Borana branch of the Oromo people who live in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya (so the southernmost parts of the Biyya (land) Oromo) still practice non-withered Oromo culture. On the contrary, in areas where the Oromos came in wide contact with Amhara and Tigray Abyssinians or foreign missionaries, Oromo cultures have been weakened. This approach may be correct, but relates rather to Social Anthropology; it basically analyzes and interprets recent data and history. If taken and projected on a millennia long historical evolution, it would drive us to wrong conclusions.
The Meroitic emigration to Oromo land and the Christianization of Eastern Africa
It has to be stressed that, according to the recent reconstruction of Meroitic – Oromo History, the fleeing Meroites did not move away from their homeland ‘because of the Abyssinian influence’; they abandoned Meroe in order to escape the forced Christianization that would be the result of king Ezana’s victory over Meroe and destruction of the capital city of Ethiopia.
Since that Axumite Abyssinian king usurped the name of Ethiopia in order to offer himself the basics of a royal propaganda justifying the christening of Abyssinia, it was obvious to the subjugated Ethiopians, the Meroites, that they would be forced to accept Christianity. The foreign invader had found in the famous Biblical excerpt about Cush which is rendered as ‘Ethiopia’ in the Septuagint Greek translation effectuated by the 70 Jewish elders invited by Ptolemy II in Alexandria during the 1st half of the 3rd c. BCE.
The said excerpt about Ethiopia (i.e. Sudan – not Abyssinia!) contained a supposed prophecy about Ethiopia accepting the Christian faith. This hinges on mere early Christian interpretation and propaganda, and it is not a fact; it is therefore irrelevant. However, one can understand that what mattered to the Meroites – Ethiopians at that time was to reject a faith that had already been imposed with disastrous impact in Egypt, which was part of the Roman Empire. Christianity, as Roman religion imposed on Egypt, was well already known to the Meroites of Ancient Ethiopia through the dense contacts that they always had with Egypt.
We actually know that the acceptance of Christianity by mainly low social level masses in Rome, in Egypt, in Greece, in Anatolia, in Syria, in Judea and elsewhere throughout the Roman Empire had basically an eschatological and soteriological character; it was not the only religion to have a mainly messianic aspect. Numerous Gnostic systems, Mithraism (the 3rd c. CE official religion of the Roman Empire), Zurvanism and Manichaeism were effectively eschatological and soteriological religions.
It was only normal for this type of religion to prompt the rise of religious fanaticism, intolerance, and barbarism. The imposition of Official Roman Christianity across Egypt actually caused the destruction of thousands of temples, sanctuaries, libraries, scientific laboratories (of those days), observatories, museums, palaces, theaters and all sorts of centers of culture, education, knowledge and erudition.
The rise of Christianity brought about an unprecedented racial discrimination and an ulcerous Anti-Semitism; for three hundred years of Christian rule over Aelia Capitolina – Jerusalem not a single Jew was allowed to enter that city! It is only normal that the highly civilized Meroites – Ethiopians of the Ancient Sudan, who were still building pyramids at Meroe, present day Bagrawiyah near Atbarah in Sudan, wished to escape the fanatic and intolerant rule of the Abyssinian king Ezana.
We have to add to the above that the Meroites may also have known in detail the real circumstances under which the christening of Axumite Abyssinia took place and how that neighboring country was forced to abandon its earlier religion. No textual, epigraphic or archaeological documentation about this topic survived until today, but similar developments usually trigger extreme fanaticism, terrible social clashes and tribal divisions. It is possible that these developments, which preceded Ezana’s invasion of Meroe, were also an alarming waning for the fleeing Meroites!
Modern scholarship is aware of the famous story about the Syrian monks Edesius and Frumentius, Keddous Faramanatos (the ‘holy Frumentius’ in Gueze), who traveled, accompanying their uncle Metropius to Abyssinia, and when their ship stopped at one of the harbors of the Red Sea, supposedly Adulis, nearby the present day Eritrean harbor-city of Massawa, people of the neighborhood massacred the whole crew, with the exception of those who were taken as slaves to the King of Axum. By then, they were young boys, but they managed to gain the favor of the king, who made them free citizens of his country.
After the death of the last pre-Christian king of Axumite Abyssinia, the widow queen convinced them to remain at the court and look after the education of the young prince Ezana. This was done, and especially Frumentius used his influence to spread his Christian beliefs and ideas. They built the first Christian churches to address the needs of the Christian merchants who were coming to Axum. Following the young prince’s accession to the throne, Frumentius became even more eager to convert Abyssinia to Christianity, and ultimately moved to Alexandria, and requested Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, to send a bishop and priests to Abyssinia.
St. Athanasius considered Frumentius as the most suitable person and consecrated him as bishop of Abyssinia. Then, Frumentius returned to Abyssinia, built up the first cathedral of Axum, baptized King Ezana, around 340 – 345 CE, and spread Christianity throughout Abyssinia. All this is a nice Christian legend, i.e. a myth that we cannot accept at face value, since we have no other non-Christian documentation left, and we are not able to crosscheck it with other historical sources for a better understanding.
It may well have been a more brutal and excruciating reality, with palatial plots, patricide, conspiracy, bloodshed across the country, with the involvement of foreign merchants and sailors of Christian faith. All this may well have been known to the Meroites of Ethiopia as an evil and atrocious act, and they may have wished to avoid such disastrous adventures, by abandoning their country and moving to quasi-uninhabited areas that would permit them to preserve their culture, faith and traditions, limiting themselves to the basics of life around arable lands, and keeping themselves busy with agriculture, cattle keeping, and limited trade. This implied also a stressed isolation far from their old fatherland.
At this point, it must be stated that modern scholarship has good reasons to believe that the Christianization of Abyssinia involved a lot of blood and even terrible fights among opposite religious – theological fractions and conflicting tribal groups. Just before the attack against Ethiopia and the destruction of Meroe (370 CE), the Roman Emperor Constantius addressed a letter to King Aeizanas and to his brother Saizanas that dates back to 365 CE.
With the existing textual documentation, we certainly find ourselves on historical ground, taking some distance from the otherwise pleasant Christian myth and the propaganda about the ‘peaceful’ christening of Abyssinia. In his letter, Emperor Constantius demanded Ezana to substitute the Arian bishop Theophilus for Frumentius (Athanasius, “Apol. ad Constantium” in Patrologia Graeca, vol. XXV, 631). This is quite enough for us to get an approximate idea!
Now, if we only transpose at the area of the Axumite Abyssinia the virulent and venomous fights and polarizations that occurred between Arians (the followers of Arius who rejected Official Roman Christianity) and their opponents (the supporters of the official Roman Christian dogma) across the Roman Empire, we realize that terrible fratricide fights took place in Axum as well, at the eve of Ezana’s attack against Meroitic Ethiopia. The clashes between the Arians (considered as heretic Christians by their opponents) and the supporters of the official Roman Christian dogma are very well documented; they were frequent in many parts of the Roman Empire and remained legendary for their ferocity.
It is even possible that the Roman Emperor sent a letter to ask Ezana to attack Meroe in the hope of consolidating the situation in the southern part of Egypt. In the middle of the 4th century CE Christian power in Egypt resided mostly in the north, in Lower Egypt; contrarily, non-Christian Egyptians and Christians, who rejected the official Roman Christian dogma, were predominant in Upper Egypt: in Thebes (Luqsor), Syene (Aswan) and further on to the Dodekaschoinos and the Triakontaschoinos buffer zone areas.
Still following their millennia old religions and traditions, the Nubians and many desert nomads, like the Blemmyes (the ancestors of today’s Beja Nation in Eastern Sudan), made the Christian Roman rule even more unsure and unstable throughout Upper Egypt. All anti-Christian elements could find an excellent shelter in Meroe – Ethiopia, the vast area of the present day Sudan. So, the Romans had to eliminate the Meroitic kingdom of Ethiopia, which was not yet Christianized. Acting so, they would prevent it from becoming the abode where all types of opponents of the official Roman Christian dogma would find a shelter to later counterattack Roman provinces.
Busy with their inner problems and with incessant wars with the Sassanid Empire of Iran, the other superpower of those days, the Roman Emperors may have demanded Ezana to do the ‘job’ at the local level. If this was the case, again the Meroites knew that they had to move away, if they were to avoid forced christening at the hands of the Abyssinians.