Home African Development African Education Theories & Empirical Data
FundraiseScholarship Awards Links Contact Us Contact Us

            Rediscovering Ethiopian History and African Wisdom

Compiled, edited and translated by IDEA Staff, 10/13/2004

IDEA likes to introduce its readers to a piece of Ethiopian history not so well known in the academic community and scholarly discourse, and an African wisdom that was literally obscured and buried. This is an attempt to excavate and revive some objective facts of the remote past that may well serve the present generation of Ethiopians and enable them to rediscover their past experience and subsequently formulate policies in the political and cultural realms.

In the present rediscovery, Tigray, the quintessentially Ethiopian northern state throughout history represents the piece of Ethiopian history; and the wisdom is an extraction from the literary works of Bilatin Geta Hiruy Woldeselassie. 

The map of Tigray, as shown below, is entirely different from the current diminished size of the State. This map (to view the map, please click on the original title of the book) is taken from a 17th century book entitled Tractatus Tres Historico-Geographici (1634) or A Seventeenth Century Historical and Geographical Account of Tigray, Ethiopia, authored by Manoel Barradas, a Portuguese missionary who was stationed in Tigray in 1624. The book was translated from Portuguese into English by Elizabeth Filleul and edited by Richard Pankhurst and republished in 1996 after 362 years of its original publication.

IDEA is not responsible for the contents of the map and the citations that are made available for our readers. The relevant themes are directly quoted from the book so that our readers benefit from the original account of Barradas.

Barradas writes about the “Kingdom of Tigray,” but throughout the book he portrays Tigray as part of Ethiopia. With respect to the size and territorial integrity of Tigray, he puts it as follows:

“Among all the kingdoms that the Emperor of Ethiopia possesses today one of the greatest and most important is the Kingdom of Tygre. From north to south, that is from the limits of the Amacens to Enderta, it covers an area of from ninety to one hundred leagues; and from east, which is beside Dancali, located at the entrance to the southern end of the Red Sea, to the west, bounded by the Tacasse River beside the Semen, it covers an area of similar size, so that the kingdom has a nearly circular shape; unless we wish to extend it, some maintain should be done, as far as Lamalmon mountain range…”

And regarding seasonal variations, crops, meat, salt, mules, seaports, and justice in Tigray, Barradas’ account is very interesting:

“ In this Kingdom, there are two winter seasons and two summers which make the land more fertile and abundant, even though the seasons do not occur at the same time throughout the Kingdom but only in parts of it. The first winter comes from the sea and affects the interior to a distance of only two days journey starting from Massua and ending beyond the monastery of Bizan, near the famed church of Asmara… Beyond that area, toward the interior, it is summer. The second winter begins in the same area near Asmara where the first one ended and covers all Ethiopia; it starts in June and is the same as the one in India and along the Arabian coast, such as in Dofar, although it is gentler and lacks the constant, copious rainfalls found in India; because in Ethiopia, particularly in this Kingdom of Tygre, it does not rain in the mornings nor at night but only in the afternoons after mid-day.”

“The Kingdom has a great abundance of crops, both of the types found in Portugal and in India as well as some peculiar to it, for it has a large amount of good quality wheat in various places, barely, grains, lentils, beans, smaller varieties of beans and an abundance of masturcos; it produces sesame, nachenim, sorghum, and a variety of ordinary; linseed which they only use as a starch. Native to the land is tefo, which is even smaller than the nachenim and the maize of Portugal; this seems why insects never enter it and why it lasts for many years; old and young delight in eating it; normally it is black or dark but some white varieties are also found. They have a seed, which is called nuga, from which they extract oil…Another fruit grows there which is similar in its long shape, but is white; it too is used for oil and its starch is far better; its flower is reddish like the saffron of Portugal and it also is used to make an ink which is employed to dye cloth, turning it a charming colour: it is called sufo.”

“There is no less of abundance of meat, in fact cows and oxen are so plentiful that it is in cattle that the people of Ethiopia measure their happiness and wealth. There are many men who have two or three thousand cows, and sometimes many more, because they can reach ten thousand, according to possibilities of each person, without speaking of the oxen with which they plough, which are not counted. And this, besides being common to all Ethiopia, is particular to this Kingdom, especially among the Amacens who, because they are near the sea, enjoy two winters and, taking advantage of both, always herd their cows in fresh and verdant pastures, easily moving them from one to another.”

“ As there are so many cows there is a great abundance of butter, which is why it is taken to Massua in vast amounts to be bartered, quite apart from the amount that is locally consumed, eaten and drunk and used to treat their hair of both men and women, which for them is a glory and a pleasure. This Kingdom is also very rich in very good honey: the best is from Enderata and from Agamea, as it is very flavourful and as white as snow.”

“…In this Kingdom…its salt mine would be sufficient to make it master of a good portion of the gold that comes into the Empire, because as there is no salt in Ethiopia other than what is cut in the mines that lie between Dankali and Senafe it is used throughout the entire Empire and even beyond as currency…It is also used in broken form as they also have ground salt, as well as pieces that crack when they are being cut in the mines; not to mention what is made from sea water along the beaches from Massua to Defalo, from whence it is carried inland by oxen; and all this and more comes to the Kingdom, be it to Endereta and Tamben or to Maigoga: for regardless of the route taken this kingdom controls all the salt it uses as well as that which goes to Dambia, Gojao, Amara, Agaos, Damotes and even Narea and to many other neighboring areas.”

“The breeding and raising of mules of all sorts is very widespread and abundant throughout this realm. Those that are most valued for their strength are from Agamea; they are commonly used by all sorts of people and are reasonably priced…”

“Along the coast of the ocean, Ethiopia does not have, and at no time had she had, any port, because as far as is known here power never extended that far. Starting from the area of the straits of the Red Sea inward, all the southern land that run the length of the coast as far as Suaquem, which on the marine map measure some eight leagues more or less, should be called the Ethiopian coast, for she owns all the land in the interior along its entire length… Years ago it was taken from them by the Turks…It happened when I was traveling to Dambia, a certain important gentleman from Seraoe, a good and powerful leader who had many people backing him, asked me to speak to the Emperor on his behalf so that he might be given permission to take Arquico and Massua. He said that from His Highness he asked nothing, not even the rank of Barnagaes, a post he had already held on occasion: all he asked for was his permission.” 

“But coming to the laws of this Kingdom in detail: there are no specific judges named by the King, as in our lands, regardless of the nature of the case; only in the Umbares, who are the appellate judges, who normally live in the catamas of the Viceroys or the great Xumos. They are held to be like the King, as some are, because all are appointed by their leaders, who always live in the King’s court. But these Umbares are only there to hear the magabeas which are the appeals.”
“Apart from the so-called ordinary judges, there are other judges called kinsman judges, who are an ordinary recourse and normally form a final court of appeals. They are of two types. They can have a permanent appointment and still have and retain the name of Xumos…the second kind of judge, among the kind known as kinsman judges, is resorted to when the litigants themselves select someone to judge them, even if he is a stranger (what we would call arbitrators). They cease to be judges once the case is resolved. The reason for choosing them and having them be accepted as judges is so as not to be obliged to go to the Umbares and pay the large danhanetas which are imposed left and right. For this reason, when the judges are selected both the plaintiff and defendant swear to uphold whatever the judge orders and decides.”

“The litigants and their accompanying lawyers stand before, relatives and allies, stand before the judge. The plaintiff is the first to speak, either representing himself or speaking through his lawyer. While he speaks the other party remains silent, and vice versa, for the first to interrupt is fined, and bail is kept for this purpose. The verbal dexterity, eloquence, energy, and strategies employed by certain of them are something to hear and see. The power of persuasion that some have is such that not even Cicero could have outdone them, especially as some of them take on the role of lawyer with no preparation. As I have often seen happen, after having heard only a summary of their affair at issue. Yet they managed to defend it with so many well-reasoned arguments that it is as if they had examined and studied the case thoroughly. As everyone, even the women and children, knows the terms and arguments, all make suggestions and respond to them as though they were literate. But this is not surprising to those who know that they practice from childhood and often litigate over any issue at all, even quite minor ones, for among this people everything ends up in court.”
“Even the servants and slaves, in the same household, should differences arise among them, will call for a trial to be held before the Adexim of their household.” 

1. IDEA would like to extend its heartfelt gratitude to Elizabeth Filleul for translating this enormously important book. IDEA also acknowledges the indefatigable Professor Richard Pankhurst for his lifetime commitment to Ethiopian scholarship. 
2. On top of the editor’s explanatory footnotes, IDEA has made the following interpretations of some concepts employed by Barradas in the text of the Book: Amacen refers to Hamassien & Amacens to the people of Hamassien; Lamalmon is Limalimo; Massua, Massawa; Mastercos, cress; Nachenim, Dagusa in Amharic or Dagusha in Tigrigna (finger millet); Nuga, Nug in Amharic or Nihug in Tigrigna; Tefo, Teff in Amharic or Taff in Tigrigna; Sufo, Suf in Tigrigna, literally ‘wool’ and refers to fabric of a cloth; Agamea should be Agame; the spelling of Enderta is not consistent in the text; Gojao should be Gojjam; Seraoe is Seraye; Arquico is Hirgigo; Barnagaes is Bahri Negash (“lord of the sea,” a title); Umbares, Wonber in Amharic, Menber in Tigrigna (literally, chair) and refers to an authoritative seat; Magabeas, although it refers to ‘Megbea’ literally ‘entrance’ in Amharic, the figurative meaning is ‘the courtyard where appeals are heard’ ;Catamas, Ketema in Amharic and Tigrigna for city; Xumos is Shum, literally ‘appointment’ but it is an official title as in Shum Agame or Wag Shum; Danhanetas could most likely refer to Dagnatat (plural of Dagna, or judge in Tigrigna); Adexim could be Addi Shum, place or country of the dignitary in Tigrigna; Narea is Enarea. 

Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2004