So far we’ve seen ancient Ethiopia (Part I) and the Aksumite Kingdom (Part II). In this final part, we will look at Ethiopia in the Middle Ages up to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 1500s.
A Strange Story Ark!
Writing about Middle Ages Ethiopia is a little awkward as many of the perceived ‘important events’ aren’t contained within the borders of continental Africa. It seems to be very important to the Ethiopians, however, and at the end of the day that’s the key to these sorts of endeavors – telling the story the people you are talking about would want known.
Aksum’s decline came while it was largely a Muslim nation despite having a nominally Christian ruling class. In 980, Queen Yodit, a woman of some undiscerned ethnicity, led an army that laid waste to what remained of Aksum. She claimed to be descended from the Hebrew warlord Gideon. She ruled the area for 40 years and handed the crown down to her descendants. At some point, one of Yodit’s descendants marries into the old Axumite ruling family, restoring what was traditionally seen to be a Solomonic lineage for the Axumite rulers.
The Ethiopians feel a particularly strong kinship with the Jews. The Kebra Nagast is an Ethiopian holy text explaining the full story of the meeting of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba. The Ethiopians claim the Queen to be one of theirs and that the start of their royal dynasty, Menelik I, was Solomon’s son by the Queen. (This was in fact written into the official Ethiopian Constitution, up to the time of the end of the reign of emperor Haile Selassie) Other parallels exist as well. The language of the Ethiopian regions are mostly Semitic like Hebrew, Arabic, etc. There is a community of Jews in Ethiopia sometimes referred to as Beta Israel who claim to have come back to Ethiopia with Menelik I and practice a pre-Talmudic variant of Judaism. (Queen Yodit may have been one of these Beta Israelites or possibly part of the indigenous people known as the Sidamo.) The historian Josephus records tales of Moses fighting against the Ethiopians and marrying an Ethiopian princess. Even the very Ark of the Covenant may have made its way down to Ethiopia, brought by Jews fleeing the Babylonians; it is said to rest in the cathedral of Maryam Tseyon (Mary of Zion) to this day. I’ve even heard arguments that Judaism’s seemingly aberrant monotheism amongst a sea of polytheism in the Sinai peninsula indicates that it is truly an African tradition that wound up far, far from home!
What arises then in the post-Aksum Ethiopian empire is a form of Christianity (via the Aksumite lineage) that remains largely a branch of Judaism and doesn’t inherit the hierarchy or theological culture of the Roman or Orthodox traditions. It is surrounded on all sides by Islamic nations but doesn’t seek to convert them. Additionally, because it is mostly cut off from the rest of the Christian world except for a small persecuted group of Coptic Christians, it adds different books to its canon. The Orthodox Tehwado tradition (Ethiopian Christianity) recognizes almost every Old Testament book used by every other major Christian tradition and then adds on the Paralipomena of Jeremiah (4 Baruch), Jubilees, Enoch, and the three books of Meqabyan. Its New Testament canon adds another 8 books, one of which is purely Ethiopian in origin. In short, Ethiopian Christianity at the time looked almost nothing like the Christianity of the Western world, yet had grown from the same roots.
Middle Ages Ethiopia can be seen for our gaming purposes as an excellent model destination for standard faux-medieval adventuring games. (Can’t do a gaming series without a nod to D&D, right?) On one level, it’s not too far from what we’re used to. There’s a king and a feudal system. Standardized coinage is being minted. The gods worshipped in your home are the gods worshipped here. They’re people just like you, really. Then again, they’re using texts and tomes you’ve never heard of. Their images of the gods don’t look like yours (or you!), but you can see the important similarities if you look closely. Questing knights might end up here looking for assistance against a terrible foe from a dynasty of wise regents who aren’t already caught up in the petty wars and politicking of home. Sure, they have their own petty wars and politicking, but there’s a fresh perspective . Clerics can look for lost artifacts or texts that have been kept safe by an isolated group of faithful. In a modern setting, your Farewell to Fear characters (Archaeologist, I’m looking at you) might consider proving or disproving the royal lineage as one of their cultural revolutions.
Ethiopia serves for us as an image of a far-off exotic land that, upon arrival, turns out not to be so exotic or different after all. That’s how these things tend to turn out, isn’t it? The bigger the world is, the smaller we find out it is as well.