Let's Look Across the Red Sea, I

Ethiopia’s Historic Ties with Yemen

By Richard Pankhurst


Ethiopia and Yemen, two historic countries on either side of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, have been in contact since almost the dawn of time. This is scarcely surprising. The intervening strip of sea between South Arabia and the Ethiopian Horn of Africa is at its closest little more than fifty miles wide, and is believed ten thousand years ago to have been only eleven miles wide. This narrow stretch of water could be crossed, throughout the historic period, by the simplest of vessels, including rafts, within little more than a day.


The highlands of the Yemeni and Ethiopian regions, as the archaeologist David Phillipson notes, have “much in common physically and environmentally". They form part of a wide region which, Walter Raunig observes, has “not only very close geographical, climatic, zoological and botanical connections”,  but also “cultural links [which] have always been equally, at times exceptionally strong”.


The Queen of Sheba


The antiquity of Ethiopian and Yemeni history is apparent from the fact that traditions in both countries go back twelve centuries to the time of the renowned Queen of Sheba. It is not the object of this article to examine her life, or to enter into the debate as to whether she was the ruler of Ethiopia or Yemen, or whether her government, as is often suggested, extended over both lands. It is sufficient to note that traditions associated with her are common to both, and point to the existence of an at least partially shared culture, dating back to early antiquity.


The Habashat, and the Origins of Ethiopian Civilisation


An intimate relationship between Ethiopia and Yemen in ancient times has also been postulated from the fact that several place and clan names, as well as inscriptions in the South Arabian language Sabaean, are found in both countries.


The existence of shared names on either side of the Red Sea caused the Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini to postulate, however somewhat simplistically, that the very name of Abyssinia was of Yemeni origin. The word is generally believed to be derived from the name Habashat, used to designate a people which lived in the north of historic Ethiopia, in what are now the highlands of part of Eritrea and Tigray.

  Land on both sides of the Red Sea, according to the ancient geographer Ptolemy (AD 150)


Conti Rossini assumed that the Habashat actually originated in Yemen, and later established themselves, as colonists, on the Ethiopian side of the Red Sea, where, he believed, they introduced their name. It was his belief, furthermore, that the South Arabian language, and writing, represented the origin and basis of the Ethiopian tongue and script Ge‘ez.


These suppositions were once widely accepted. The British Arabist Spencer Trimingham for example wrote, in 1952, that the Habashat, or “agriculturalist mountaineers” of Yemen, faced with population pressure, and the failure of their irrigation system, crossed the intervening sea, and, after leaving the “inhospitable coastal zone” of Ethiopia, “found a country [in the Ethiopian interior] which possessed the same climate and vegetation as their own land”. The Habashat, he claims, thereupon “assumed a predominance over all the other tribes, and its chief took the title of negus nagasti (chief of chiefs)”. As a result, “the kingdom of Habashat consolidated itself about the third century B.C., when its rule extended over the plateau region of Eritrea and northern Tigrai”.


"Settlers and Colonizers"


Elaborating on this supposed migration, Trimingham claimed that the Yemeni migrants “came as settlers and colonizers”, “brought their regional names with them”, settled in the plateau regions “most suitable for agriculture”, and “brought the fully developed civilization of the Sabaeans”. The Yemenis, he claims,  “introduced the use of metals, certain domestic animals, new plants, advanced systems of irrigation and agriculture, new forms of communal organization, and the art of writing”.


Conti Rossini’s thesis, which was based largely on conjecture, was, however, subsequently undermined by the work of a number of other scholars approaching the question from different disciplines and interests. One of the first of these scholars was Joseph Greenberg, whose Studies in African Linguistic Classification, appeared in 1955. In it he argued that the Semitic languages, found on both sides of the Red Sea, were in no way unique to the region, but formed part of a very much wider Afroasiatic language family scattered over much of Africa, as far as Chad in the west.


Jacqueline Pirenne


In the following year, 1956, Jacqueline Pirenne, a scholar of early Arabian history, drastically revised South Arabian chronology. Her new dating was significant to the question of Ethiopian origins, for it indicated that Sabaean immigrants to Ethiopia did not live in Ethiopia for centuries, as Conti Rossini had postulated, but only for no more than a few decades.


Six years later, in 1962, the Dutch linguist A.J. Drewes, published his important Inscriptions ie l’Ethiopie antique. It revealed the existence in Ethiopia of Ge‘ez graffiti, and other inscriptions, which were quite as old as the South Arabian inscriptions in Ethiopia. This discovery showed that Conti Rossini had been mistaken in assuming that Sabaean inscriptions in the country represented the prototype from which Ge‘ez had later developed.


In the following decade the Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich, working in Nubia, unearthed ancient pottery virtually identical to that which had been produced in Ethiopia prior to the founding of Aksum. This evidence suggested that the early material culture of Aksum was of essentially African origin, and had thus developed entirely independently of South Arabian immigration.


Roger Schneider


This thesis was further spelt out, in the following year, by the epigraphist Roger Schneider. Emphasising the entirely unproven character of Conti Rossini’s suppositions, he pointed out for example that the people of northern Ethiopia, living as they did in a rocky environment, did not have to wait for the arrival of the Sabaeans to erect houses built of stone. He argued further that Sabaeans who came to Ethiopia “did not arrive in a cultural vacuum”, but that, on the contrary, a significant Ethiopian state, people, and language had existed well before their advent. He contended further that Sabaean settlement was restricted to a few localities, and did not impinge greatly on Northern Ethiopia as a whole.


Schneider’s final conclusion was that similarities between South Arabian and Ethiopian civilization had in fact existed long before the coming to Ethiopia of the Sabaeans.


These and other arguments in support of Ethiopian origins independent of South Arabia were subsequently supported by other scholars, among them three linguists, the Ethiopian Abraham Demoz, the American Grover Hudson, and the Englishman David Appleyard, at a Conference on Ethiopian Origins, organised by the present writer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in June 1978.


Standing Conti Rossini on his Head


The result of such convergent investigations by scholars working in different fields was that Jacqueline Pirenne, basing herself on the area’s material culture, as well as on linguistic and paleographic data, stood Conti Rossini’s thesis on its head. She argued that migration was “not from Yemen to Ethiopia, but rather in the opposite direction: from Ethiopia to Yemen".


Whatever the direction, dating, and details of such migration, there can be no denying that northern Ethiopia and Yemen, in the half millennium or so prior to the Christian era, shared a related civilisation, or civilisations. This is evident from the at least limited use in Ethiopia of the Sabaean language and script, as found on ancient Aksumite inscriptions and coins, and an apparently identical religion. The latter centred on the worship of the sun and moon, and the local god Almaqah. The logo of the sun and moon, used at that time in Yemen, appears for example on an ancient Aksumite obelisk at Matara, as well as on virtually all pre-Christian Aksum coins, which began to be struck in the first century A.D. Reference to Almaqah is likewise to be seen on many Sabaean inscriptions on both sides of the Red Sea.


Next Week: Yemen and Early Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Trade