How Idiots Who Don’t Read Fail Ethiopia
A Rant. With Facts.
I was hoping to have a nice break. You get tired yelling into a hurricane.
It’s no big secret that the Movement, if we can call it that, has splintered for the moment over how much or how little Abiy’s government is doing to support and protect Afar and Amhara, who are still besieged by terrorists and psychopaths (how severe the disagreements may be is for others to say, and I would humbly suggest we keep our eye on the ball, driving Evil back to its cave, but that’s me). And then there’s the bizarre support by some in our camp of a Russian dictator invading an innocent country. Well, I’ve made a few arguments over that on Twitter and in my speech to the Ethiopian Association of Toronto, but I’m not getting through, and I’ll just say this will come back and bite you in the ass. I promise. And we’ll leave it at that. For now.
I thought, Okay, I’ll shut up for a while because sometimes that’s what good friends do while still being supportive. I’ll go back to working on books, including a new history of Ethiopia, but no… There are idiots popping up again. Happy morons who write and yet don’t seem to read. I have a lot of dome but I can only slap my palm into my forehead so far and so many times. Ugh.
So let’s do this, please, and then I can go back to the Zagwe Dynasty and combing through footnotes and occasionally drooling over my nice new copy of Ethiopia: The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom, which my gawd, is so gorgeous and chock full of cool facts, and everybody should get a copy. I will “retire” for a little while. But this —
Can’t let this nonsense pass.
First, let’s talk about the appalling insult and unethical practice of using Jemal Countess’s photo of the TPLF destruction at the museum in Dessie. Yes, it uses Jemal’s caption but nowhere in the article will you find any discussion at all of this incident, which by the way was appalling, and I was there with Jemal and reported on the extensive damage.
The entire article is focused on alleged looting of artifacts from Tigray — for which we still don’t see any compelling evidence of this being a serious problem.
In fact, when a diaspora researcher at the University of Hamburg tried to claim there were photos of alleged plundered antiquities, folks quickly noticed the “antiquities” looked suspiciously like the kind of bric-a-brac stuff you can pick up in ordinary markets or at the airport gift shops.
And where is discussion of how TPLF soldiers parked their artillery near the great churches of Lalibela? The priests there, as Jemal and I discovered, were highly concerned that the concussive booms could have damaged the structural integrity of the buildings, which by the way, make up a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right.
Where was this concern for heritage when the TPLF threatened Gondar? Once the seat of the Ethiopian empire in the medieval period and home to stunning castle complexes? Or are we supposed to believe that history just stops at the edge of Tigray?
But what drove me to write is the appalling ignorance over Tigray itself in the article, and it seems to be willful ignorance at that, as if the writer Lenin Ndebele took on faith whatever he was told from others and couldn’t bust his ass to do the simplest historical fact checks. He wrote this: “Tigray has a rich footprint of ancient history. It is regarded as one of the earliest ancient world civilisations, the Aksumite Kingdom, which stretched from Tigray to the Middle East around the third and fourth century.”
First of all, No, it is ridiculous to conflate Tigray with Aksum. While yes, Aksum is in what is now modern Tigray, that doesn’t mean the people were Tigrayans. And in fact, the Aksumite Kingdom extended into southern Sudan, Eritrea, a good portion of northern Ethiopia, and all the way to the coast of Djibouti. So to imply that only Tigrayans are the descendants of the Aksumites or have a stake or claim in this ancient culture should be hugely offensive to other Ethiopians and Eritreans.
No, the empire didn’t stretch into the Middle East, which implies conquest, and this is disingenuous to say the least, as the empire’s relationship with most of the Middle East was mainly through trade; what it did conquer was a portion of Yemen. And then there’s this ludicrous line, that Tigray “is regarded as one of the earliest ancient world civilisations” — except it isn’t, because it can’t possibly be.
Because if you’re going to conflate Tigray with Aksum then you should learn that people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about put the real rise of the empire at around 100 BCE. By then, ancient Egypt was thousands of years old. The Assyrians had their ancient empire. Then we can talk about the Greeks, who already had Alexander the Great go up against the Persians a couple of centuries before.
So this statement is incredibly dumb, because the real flourishing of the Aksumites a couple of centuries later made them contemporaries and rivals of Rome. The article can’t even hint at the true zenith or end of the Aksumite empire, casually referring with little apparent reason behind it to the “third or fourth century.”
Aksum, however, went on for centuries after that. One of the most inspiring episodes in Aksumite history comes from the seventh century when King Armah took in the refugee followers of Muhammad, fleeing persecution of Muslims back in Arabia. When the bad guys showed up, trying to persuade him to hand over the Prophet’s group, Armah replied, “If you were to offer me a mountain of gold, I would not give up these people who have taken refuge with me.”
Muhammad was so impressed that even after Armah died, he offered prayers for the king’s soul, and he ordered his followers, “Leave the Ethiopians in peace.”
Note that he referred to them as Ethiopians.
So much for the BS that Aksumites were forerunners of only Tigrayans.
Now there is much to appreciate in the Aksumite culture, and another one of the painfully ignorant statements in that article is this: “Reverential monuments like giant obelisks (also found in Egypt), tombs of various kings, musical notes and literature are found alongside the historical traditions of Tigray.” Again, not the historical traditions of Tigray but of Ethiopia. And to make a fleeting comparison to stelae in Egypt is just downright inaccurate to the point of callous lack of appreciation for what’s right in front of you.
Paul Henze put it this way in Layers of Time:
“Early travelers related the stelae to Egyptian obelisks, but there is no affinity. They have been related to South Arabian architectural styles — e.g. the great mud-brick buildings of the Hadhramawt which rise to eight and ten stories — but there is little real similarity and high mud-brick buildings were not constructed in northern Ethiopia. Stone was too plentiful. The carved stelae are unique [emphasis added].”
To walk near these obelisks, to note their amazing, sculpted doors and windows, is yes, to understand that here was a culture of fascinating ingenuity, but if you’re going to try to shoehorn it into the revisionist propaganda of a terrorist group, try being less lazy about its actual background.
Especially when works are still available on the real deal: scholarship by Henze, Pankhurst, and while the most seminal book on Aksum is now uber-expensive and hard to get, even a bootleg PDF of Stuart Munro-Hay’s Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity is floating around (and note the term “late antiquity”).
The problem is this is par for the course. We have idiots online still pushing the fiction that the Battle of Adwa was only a Tigrayan achievement, that it was all the work of Ras Alula and I guess we’ll just forget that Makonnen Wolde Mikael, Haile Selassie’s father, was there, fighting furiously and earning his own legend — because that wouldn’t fit. Never mind all the lying about Menelik, even though we know his movements during the battle almost down to the hour. It’s just easier to spout bullshit than pick up a book.
Robbie Corey-Boulet, with typical malice, tweeted on Wednesday what reads like a peculiar accusation: “Russian flag spotted at this morning’s ceremony commemorating the 1896 Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopia defeated Italian would-be colonizers.”
Well, one guy with a flag is… what, exactly?
And my support for Ukrainians aside, it would be perfectly natural for a Russian flag to be waved at any Adwa commemorations. Menelik had secured Russian weapons for the battle (and weapons from other countries, including the Italians — “D’oh!”). There were Russian medical missions and the Russian Red Cross in Ethiopia, attending to wounded Ethiopian soldiers. Raymond Jonas points out in his landmark history that the Ethiopians were appalled, in fact, that they wouldn’t take care of the Italians. As Menelik’s minister of justice put it, “Aren’t you whites all brothers?”
So if any nation has earned its right to have its flag next to the tricolor during Adwa celebrations, it’s Russia. All of this could have prompted Corey-Boulet to think twice, but then again, sigh, probably not.
Mere days before, a guy named Paul Massaro, an advisor to Congress, tweeted, “I’m racking my brain for a historical parallel to the courage and fighting spirit of the Ukrainians and coming up empty. How many peoples have ever stood their ground against an aggressor like this? It’s legendary.”
Face palm time again. Instead of racking his brain, he could have used his eyes. On pages. In books. The responses to him were deliciously withering, and yes, someone put in Adwa near the top.
But it’s also depressing. I used to find it demoralizing though understandable that folks had given up on watching or reading the news. But if you give up reading physical books — and reading many books to get multiple viewpoints, instead of quoting just one — and if you only resort to the occasionally toxic teat of the Internet for your understanding of how the world used to be, you’re in big trouble.
I’ve written how historians and journalists have failed Ethiopia through their biases and personal agendas, but my gawd, we have politicians and journalists who can be weaponized by terrorists just through their appalling ignorance.
There is only one way to fight that. Read when the idiots won’t, read what the idiots won’t read, read even more when you think you know enough.
Idiots aren’t humble. And you can only have curiosity if you’re humble, if you realize you don’t know everything. Reading is an active choice. Books offer an empire of knowledge far greater than the mythological realm of “Tigray-Aksum” pushed by a terrorist group, but if you want to enter it, you’ve got to pass through the gates — they’re called covers. You lift the first one and begin.