Ancient Ethiopia or Kush

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Ancient Ethiopia or Kush


The term "Ethiopia" was first used by Ancient Greek writers in reference to the east-central African kingdom that they believed to be not only culturally and ethnically linked to ancient "Egypt" (Kemet), but the source of such civilization as well. Contrary to popular belief, the term was not exclusive to the landlocked modern country of Ethiopia. According to early Greek writers, Ethiopia was an empire originally situated between Ta-Seti in Lower Kemet and the confluence of the White and Blue Niles. Centuries later, however, the name became synonymous with a much larger region that included the present-day countries of South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Central African Republic, Chad, etc.

Ethiopia is the English transliteration of the Greek word "Αιθιοπα" (or Aithiopia) which originates from the Greek word "Αιθιοψ" or "aithiops" which literally means "charred or burnt." "Aithiops" is in fact composed of "αιθιω" (meaning "I burn") and "ωψ" (meaning face or complexion).

Prior to Greek history, Ethiopia was known as "Kush" by the ancient "Egyptians." The Buhen stela (housed in the Florence Museum), which dates from the reign of Sety I (1294-1279 BC), refers to this region as "Kas" and "Kash." Kush is also mentioned as "KSH" in other texts dated between 1550 - 1069 BC.

History of Early Ethiopia or Kush (13,000-7500 BC)

The region known as Kush has been inhabited for several millennia. Royal Ontario Museum and University of Khartoum researchers found a "tool workshop" south of Dongola, Sudan with thousands of paleolithic axes on rows of stones, dating back 70,000 years. As early as 13,000 BC, ceremonial burial practices were taking place at Jebel Sahaba and Wadi Halfa in the northern part of modern-day Sudan (known to archaeologists as the "Qadan" period, 13,000-8,000 BC). At the Toshka site in modern-day "Lower Nubia," archaeologists have uncovered tombs where domesticated wild cattle were placed above human remains, indicative of the use of cattle in a ceremonial fashion. Circular tomb walls with above-ground mounds are further evidence of the beginnings of ceremonial burials.

At other sites nearby, we can see the development of Ethiopian (better known as "Egyptian") civilization. At the Kadruka cemetery, spouted vessels were found, and the tombs at El Gaba were filled with jewelry, pottery, ostrich feathers, headrests, facial painting, etc.--all of which were present in "dynastic Egypt," and are still used today amongst different peoples of modern-day Ethiopia. The neolithic Sabu rock paintings even depict dynastic Egyptian-style boats.

Just west of the city of Kerma lies the site of Busharia, where shards of pottery dating from 8000 to 9000 BC have been found. A nearby discovery at El-Barga shed light on foundations of round buildings, graves and pottery shards from 7,500 BC.

Therefore Kushitic civilization began on the banks of the Nile over 15,000 years ago and was settled at least 55,000 years prior.

Furthermore, based on the traditions of the first settlers and the artifacts found in this region, Kushitic civilization gave birth to that of so-called "Egypt" (see also: Nile Valley Civilization).

Ethiopia in Hebrew History (1200 - 500 BC)

The Torah (Old Testament of the Bible) mentions Ethiopia in its first and oldest book, Genesis (chapter 2, c. 1400 BC), and puts Ethiopia in a geographical context:

"And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.... And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia."

In the Hebrew book of Numbers (chapter 12, verse 1, c. 1200 BC), Moses, who was born and educated in Egypt, married an Ethiopian woman:

"And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman."

By the 740s BC, the Hebrew prophet Nahum said, "Cush and Ethiopia were her [Nineveh's] boundless strength, and it was infinite; Put and Lubim were thy helpers" (chapter 3, verse 9).

Emperor Taharqa, the most famous Kushite leaders who ruled Egypt and beyond (photo courtesy of David Liam Moran)

Ethiopia's King Taharqa, who also ruled Egypt (690-664 BC, 25th dynasty), is mentioned in Hebrew texts as having saved Jerusalem from Assyrian destruction (Isaiah, chapter 37, verse 10-11, c. 687 BC):

And when he heard say of Tirha'kah [Taharqa] king of Ethiopia, Behold, he is come out to fight against thee: he sent messengers again unto Hezeki'ah, saying, Thus shall ye speak to Hezeki'ah king of Judah, saying, Let not thy God in whom thou trustest deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria."

Ethiopia in Greek History (800 BC-200 AD).

Few other nations are mentioned in ancient European literature as much as Ethiopia, and even fewer as highly esteemed. Ethiopians are first mentioned in the oldest of Greek texts, Homer's Iliad (circa 800 BC), as a place frequented by the Greek gods. Homer states, "...twelve for Jupiter's stay with the Ethiopians, at whose return Thetis prefers her petition" and "Zeus is at Ocean's river with Ethiopians, feasting, he and all the heaven-dwellers."

In Homer's Odyssey (c. 800 BC), Poseiden also spends time in Ethiopia: "But Poseidon, the earthquake lord, making his return from Ethiopia where he had visited for a celebration in his honor..."

Homer also tells us that an Ethiopian ruled Troy and Arabia:

"Tithonus was the son of Laomedon, king of Troy and the Nymph Strymo. He was an extremely handsome youth, and when Eos (Dawn) first saw him, she fell in love with him and brought him to her palace by the stream of Ocean in Ethiopia. They had two children, Memnon and Emathion. Emathion became a king of Arabia...Memnon took a force of Ethiopians to Troy and died while fighting the Greeks"

Herodotus (Histories, Book II, c. 440 BC) informs us that Ethiopians also jointly ruled over the Siwa Oasis:

"Ammonians [Siwa Owasis], who are a joint colony of Egyptians and Ethiopians, speaking a language between the two..."

Pyramids in Meroe, the capital of Ethiopia in Herodotus' time (photo courtesy of Petr Adam Dohnalek)

The so-called "father of (European) history," Herodotus (490-425 BC), spoke often on the subject of Ethiopia, and places it in geographical context:

"Beyond the island [Elephantine] is a great lake, and round its shores live nomadic tribes of Ethiopians. After crossing the lake one comes again to the stream of the Nile, which flows into it... After forty days journey on land along the river, one takes another boat and in twelve days reaches a big city named Meroe, said to be the capital city of the Ethiopians." and

"...Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Ethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony..."

Herodotus describes their physical characteristics and provides great detail about the traditions of Ethiopians in his era, stating,

"...and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else. The Ethiopians were clothed in the skins of leopards and lions, and had long bows made of the stem of the palm-leaf, not less than four cubits in length. On these they laid short arrows made of reed, and armed at the tip, not with iron, but with a piece of stone, sharpened to a point, of the kind used in engraving seals. They carried likewise spears, the head of which was the sharpened horn of an antelope; and in addition they had knotted clubs. When they went into battle they painted their bodies, half with chalk, and half with vermilion... and

"The inhabitants worship Zeus and Dionysus alone of the Gods, holding them in great honor...Among these Ethiopians copper is of all metals the most scarce and valuable....Also, last of all, they were allowed to behold the coffins of the Ethiopians, which are made (according to report) of crystal, after the following fashion: When the dead body has been dried, either in the Egyptian, or in some other manner, they cover the whole with gypsum, and adorn it with painting until it is as like the living man as possible. Then they place the body in a crystal pillar which has been hollowed out to receive it, crystal being dug up in great abundance in their country, and of a kind very easy to work. You may see the corpse through the pillar within which it lies; and it neither gives out any unpleasant odor, nor is it in any respect unseemly; yet there is no part that is not as plainly visible as if the body were bare. The next of kin keep the crystal pillar in their houses for a full year from the time of the death, and give it the first fruits continually, and honor it with sacrifice. After the year is out they bear the pillar forth, and set it up near the town..."

Herodotus informs us that he is aware of the cultural similarities between the ancient Ethiopians and the ancient Egyptians:

"For the people of Colchis are evidently Egyptian, and this I perceived for myself before I heard it from others. So when I had come to consider the matter I asked them both; and the Colchians had remembrance of the Egyptians more than the Egyptians of the Colchians; but the Egyptians said they believed that the Colchians were a portion of the army of Sesostris. That this was so I conjectured myself not only because they have black skins and curly hair (this of itself amounts to nothing, for there are other races which are so), but also still more because the Colchians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians alone of all the races of men have practised circumcision from the first. The Phenicians and the Syrians who dwell in Palestine confess themselves that they have learnt it from the Egyptians, and the Syrians about the river Thermodon and the river Parthenios, and the Macronians, who are their neighbours, say that they have learnt it lately from the Colchians. These are the only races of men who practise circumcision, and these evidently practise it in the same manner as the Egyptians.

Diodorus Siculus (60 BC), however, tells us that Ethiopia is the origin of Egyptian traditions and civilization (consistent with modern archaeological discoveries) and that Ethiopians colonized as far as India:

"Now the Ethiopians, as historians relate, were the first of all men and the proofs of this statement, they say, are manifest. For they did not come into their land as immigrants from abroad but were natives of it"

"We must now speak about the Ethiopian writing which is called hieroglyphic among the Egyptians, in order that we may omit nothing in our discussion of their antiquities..."

"They [the Ethiopians] say also that the Egyptians are colonists sent out by the Ethiopians, Osiris ["King of Kings and God of Gods"] having been the leader of the colony . . . they add that the Egyptians have received from them, as from authors and their ancestors, the greater part of their laws."

"Osiris being come to the borders of Ethiopia, raised high banks on either side of the river, lest, in the time of its inundation it should overflow the country more than was convenient make it marish and boggy; and made flood-gates to let in the water by degrees, as far as was necessary. Thence he passed through Arabia, bordering upon the Red sea as far as to India, and the utmost coasts that were inhabited; he built likewise many cities in India, one of which he called Nysa, willing to have a remembrance of that in Egypt where he was brought up...he planted ivy, which grows and remains here only of all other places in India..."

Like Herodotus, Siculus described Ethiopians as Black and their empire as vast, from central and East Africa to the Arabian penninsula. However, by Siculus' time, the capital had moved away from Meroe to the East where Ethiopians mined gold. This was the same time period in which the ancient Aksum leaders thrived:

"But there are also a great many other tribes of the Ethiopians, some of them dwelling in the land lying on both banks of the Nile and on the islands in the river, others inhabiting the neighbouring country of Arabia, and still others residing in the interior of Libya [the Greek term for interior Africa west of the Nile]. The majority of them, and especially those who dwell along the river, are black in colour and have flat noses and woolly hair...we feel that it is appropriate first to tell of the working of the gold as it is carried on in these regions...At the extremity of Egypt and in the contiguous territory of both Arabia and Ethiopia there lies a region which contains many large gold mines, where the gold is secured in great quantities."

Strabo (63 - 24 AD) provides even further detail on the extent of the Ethiopian empire, which included not just Arabia, but Europe as well:

"However, Sesostris, the Egyptian, he adds, and Tearco [Taharqa] the Aethiopian advanced as far as Europe; and Nabocodrosor, who enjoyed greater repute among the Chaldaeans [in modern day Iraq] than Heracles, led an army even as far as the Pillars [Gibraltar]. Thus far, he says, also Tearco went..."

Ethiopia in Roman History (1 - 200 AD)

Later the term "Ethiopia" would become synonymous not just with the Kushites, but all Africans. Unlike the earlier Greek writers who distinguished Ethiopians from other Africans, Claudius Ptolemy (90 - 168 AD), a Roman citizen who lived in Alexandria, used "Ethiopia" as a racial term. In his Tetrabiblos: Or Quadripartite, he tried to explain the physical characteristics of people around the world saying, "They are consequently black in complexion, and have thick and curled hair...and they are called by the common name of Aethiopians."

Ethiopia in Byzantine History (c 700 AD)

Stephanus of Byzantium (circa 700 AD) wrote, "Ethiopia was the first established country on earth; and the Ethiopians were the first to set up the worship of the gods and to establish laws." Read more:

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