Ethiopia and Ethiopians in the Middle Ages

Participants :

Alessandro Bausi, Claire Bosc-Tiessé, Antonella Brita, Amélie Chekroun, Marie-Laure Derat, François-Xavier Fauvelle (organisateur), Emmanuel Fritsch, Margaux Herman, Bertrand Hirsch, Samantha Kelly (organisateur), Habte Michael Kidane, Denis Nosnitsin, Benjamin Weber, Deresse Woldetsadik

Ethiopia and Ethiopians in the Middle Ages
by Samantha Kelly and François-Xavier Fauvelle
19 – 24 March 2018


Despite the rich history of medieval Ethiopian Studies throughout the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the sole survey of the era remains Taddesse Tamrat’s 1972 monograph, Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527. An indispensable guide to the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia under the Solomonid dynasty that took power in 1270, it nevertheless offered little introduction to the Christian kingdom’s earlier medieval centuries or to the Muslim and non-monotheistic societies whose histories were deeply entwined with that of the Christian kingdom. In the nearly 50 years since that work’s publication, the discovery and edition of hitherto unknown or neglected texts, the creation of databases of Ethiopian manuscripts, and the genesis of new methodologies and new research questions have greatly enriched and revised our portrait of the later-medieval Christian kingdom surveyed by Taddesse Tamrat. At the same time, increased study of the earlier medieval centuries and of Ethiopia’s Muslim and non-monotheistic societies have made medieval Ethiopian Studies both chronologically fuller and broader in scope. However, the proliferation of findings and their dispersion across multiple disciplines has posed a challenge to Ethiopianists seeking the most up-to-date data in fields outside their own specialty. This seminar brought together leading researchers in diverse fields, including political, economic, and cultural history, philology, manuscript studies, art history, archeology, and liturgical studies, to share the most recent findings in their specialties and to outline a new synthesis of the Ethiopian Middle Ages that reflects the current state of the field.

Keywords: Ethiopia, Middle Ages, History, Christianity, Islam, Solomonid Dynasty


Several participants focused on the new research directions that have substantially revised and enriched our understanding of the Christian kingdom’s political history. Our knowledge of the kingdom prior to the advent of the Solomonid dynasty in 1270 has been impeded by a limited source base and the tendentious later accounts of the Solomonid dynasty itself. But Marie-Laure Derat illustrated that close attention to the era’s own documentary, literary, and archeological sources reveals considerable geographical and cultural continuity linking the early-medieval period both to the ancient Aksumite kingdom and to the succeeding Solomonid era. She also presented brand-new archeological findings regarding the chronological evolution of medieval Ethiopia’s most famous monuments, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Deresse Ayenachew complemented the better-known history of the Solomonid dynasty’s kings and their royal ideology with an account of their administration, underlining the political adaptability of its rulers as the kingdom expanded and incorporated new territories and subject peoples. Margaux Herman surveyed the burgeoning field of Ethiopian women’s studies, including its intersections with political and social history and its capacity to extend beyond the confines of the Christian kingdom.

Turning to the literary-cultural history of the Christian kingdom, Alessandro Bausi reviewed the advances in philological studies that have refined our picture of the kingdom’s translation and reception of foreign texts and the context of its own linguistic and literary history, with special emphasis on the relatively neglected question of texts’ circulation in and impact upon Christian Ethiopian culture. Antonella Brita discussed new work in hagiographical literature that, in its attentiveness to the historical context, textual evolution, and reception of hagiographical texts, sheds new light on its central social, liturgical, and historiographical roles. Claire Bosc-Tiessé, noting the lack of synthetic treatments of Christian Ethiopian art history, surveyed the state of the field in such genres as architecture, mural and panel painting, and manuscript illumination, with particular attention to the lesser-known objects such as hand-held crosses and to innovative recent analyses of inks and pigments. Emmanuel Fritsch and Habte Michael Kidane demonstrated how the close interrelatedness between the liturgical and the architectural developments within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church can be used to clarify the chronology of the church’s historical development and its relation to Egyptian Christian culture. A written contribution by Getatchew Haile, who could not be present, treated the complementary topic of Ethiopian monasticism in its cultural and political aspects. Denis Nosnitsin reviewed important work by himself and others in identifying, cataloguing, and digitizing previously unknown Christian Ethiopian manuscripts, as well as articulating the recent innovations in the study of manuscripts’ production and materiality.

While the Christian kingdom has long been the cornerstone of medieval Ethiopian Studies, several participants outlined the growing body of work that has vivified research into the Christian kingdom’s Muslim and non-monotheistic neighbors, who were also its religious rivals, commercial partners, and at times its vassal states. François-Xavier Fauvelle drew attention to recent archeological work on sites of non-monotheistic Ethiopian settlements, synthesizing these findings with previous archeological and written data to delineate characteristics of such societies and outline the mutual influences between them and Christian and Muslim cultures. Bertrand Hirsch, with assistance from Amélie Chekroun, drew upon recent archeological findings as well as extant written sources to provide an updated account of the Muslim sultanates’ political history and material culture. A written contribution by Alessandro Gori, who could not be present at the seminar, synthesized the disparate sources shedding light on Islamic religious and intellectual traditions in the Ethiopian sultanates. Amélie Chekroun, with assistance from Bertrand Hirsch, surveyed recent findings on the epochal transformations of the first half of the sixteenth century, including the devastating Christian-Muslim wars of the 1530s to 1550s, the intervention of Portuguese and Ottoman powers in the region’s politics, and the first stages of the Oromo expansion into both Christian and Muslim territories.

In addition to the crucial interactions among the constituent Muslim, Christian, and non-monotheistic societies within medieval Ethiopia, several contributions stressed Ethiopia’s integration into larger religious, cultural, and commercial networks, especially with regard to Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. Two contributions elaborated further aspects of this integration. Samantha Kelly brought together data on Christian and Muslim Ethiopian settlements abroad, as well as on the displacement of enslaved Ethiopians around the eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, to trace a broader phenomenon of medieval Ethiopian diasporas. Benjamin Weber presented on behalf of himself and Robin Seignobos regarding received ideas or ‘myths” about medieval Ethiopia in Latin Christendom and around the eastern Mediterranean.

Taken together, the participants’ contributions reaffirmed the importance of certain historical moments, such as the well-known reigns of Amda Ṣǝyon in the fourteenth century and Zär’a Ya‘ǝqob in the fifteenth, in terms of administrative reform, relations with powerful monasteries, and literary and liturgical innovations. At the same time, they suggested new turning points and convergences across multiple fields. Recent findings in church architecture, homiletic texts, and diplomatic contacts with the Egyptian patriarch point to the eleventh century as the start of a “renaissance” in the Christian kingdom. The collation of literary and archeological evidence regarding Islamic settlements now suggests a parallel southward movement of Christian and Islamic societies in close proximity to each other, as well as their encounters with non-monotheistic peoples in this heartland. Looking to the end of our period, the seminar occasioned much useful discussion of the appropriate chronological ‘end’ to the Middle Ages, in light of the comparative chronologies of the Christian, Islamic, and non-monotheistic societies here surveyed.

Alessandro Bausi Claire Bosc-Tiessé Antonella Brita Amélie Chekroun Marie-Laure Derat François-Xavier Fauvelle Emmanuel Fritsch Margaux Herman Bertrand Hirsch Samantha Kelly Habte Michael Kidane Denis Nosnitsin Benjamin Weber Deresse Woldetsadik Ethiopie et Ethiopiens au Moyen-Âge - Ethiopia and Ethiopians in the Middle Ages - Fondation des Treilles
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