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Medieval Ethiopia

  • Anaïs WION, Laure Sigalla, 1 October 2018

    This directory, which is in the process of being put online, indexes and describes the locations and actors in the research on “medieval” Ethiopia.
    Entries pertaining to documentary resources and to research tools are in progress.

    What does one mean by “medieval times” when talking of Ethiopia? And of which Ethiopia? Any periodization is a consensual creation, an arrangement with time to define fields of study. We will try to answer briefly to these questions that spare no cultural area.

    A “medieval and modern” Ethiopia

    According to commonly admitted criteria, the Ethiopian Middle Ages cover the times from the 13th to the early 16th century. The “classic” period sequencing of ancient Ethiopian times distinguishes a belated Antiquity, named the Aksumite period, from the 4th century C.E. to the 8th century approximately. Two centuries follow, called Dark Ages due to a lack of sources. From about the 11th century up to 1270, we have the Zagwe period, named after the then ruling dynasty about which few contemporary sources have reached us. The year 1270 is a turning point in historiography with the advent of the so-called “Solomonic” dynasty. With a relative political and territorial continuity, one sees a strong Christian State building itself up, gaining in power through the Middle Ages to reach its climax in the 15th century.

    The 16th century is viewed as a century of breakdowns. A djihad war is launched in 1531 by the Ethiopian imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim. This conquest war ravaged the Christian kingdom and deeply changed the geopolitical structures of the area. Simultaneously, the arrival of the Oromo people and the confrontation with catholic powers transformed the Christian kingdom. Starting from this pivotal point, Ethiopia is considered to be entering a new phase of its history. This is were it is therefore agreed to halt the Ethiopian Middle Ages.

    However it is delicate to not also take into account the next period, called “Gondarian” and lasting up to the end of the 18th century. Indeed the nature of sources produced by Ethiopians, especially handwritten, remains unchanged over both of these periods. The printing press’ very late appearance as well as the remarkable stability of the structures of power should be factored in this inclusion of the “modern” period in a research outlook common also to the “medieval” times.

    There is thus a cohesiveness of the 11th-18th centuries period which makes it appropriate to examine a “medieval and modern Ethiopia” on a length of time.

    A Christian and Muslim Ethiopia

    One sees how the abovementioned period sequencing was built upon the frame of the history of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia. Yet the best-know history, that of the Christian kingdom, is inseparable from that of the Muslim sultanates which border it to the East. That is why it has not seemed relevant so far to portray them separately here, all the more since there has been up to now an over-representation of studies pertaining to Christian sources. The build-up of the directory of documentary resources might one day require a division between the Muslim and the Christian worlds in the future.

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