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ETHIOPIA AND THE RED SEA

By MORDECHAI ABIR
FRANK CASS AND COMPANY LIMITED

1980 Ethiopia was not considered part of DAR-al- HARB and thus was not subject to JIHAD, because, according to the Muslim tradition, the Ethiopian King had granted refuge to the persecuted followers of the Prophet. Although just across the sea from Arabia. Islam made little headway in the Ethiopian plateau until the fall of the Axumite kingdom, and the process of islamization of the costal pastoralist tribe was still far from complete at the end of the tenth century. Muslim communities gradually emerged, however, in different part of northern Ethiopia, mainly along caravan routes, and these became caravan stations or centers of trade in their area.

 

The Muslim trading principalities which gradually developed along the Ethiopian-Somali coast remained divided and of little consequence. In fact these principalities, including Zayla, were tributary to the Christian kingdom until its final collapse. Nevertheless, some minor trading sultanates were already established by the Arabs and costal Muslim on the eastern verges of the Showan escarpments by the tenth century. Such, or instance, was the Makhzumite sultanate of Showa.

The Christian kingdom’s relations, mainly commercial ones, with neighboring Arab countries and specially Yemen, were on the whole friendly. In addition to the usual Ethiopian products thousands of slaves were exported annually to this country. The offspring of these slaves became an important factor in the composition of Yemen’s population and Habasha slave-soldiers even produced dynasties such as the Banu NAJASH of ZABID (1022-1150), which took an active role in Yemen’s politics.

Ethiopian society, made up of nobles, soldiers, priests and agriculturists, maintained old taboos concerning mercantile activities and handicraft. Thus, trade in the Ethiopian region during the Axumite period was left, invariably, to foreigners. Byzantine merchants were replaced, however, after the seventh century by Arab Jews, Armenian and Ethiopian Muslim. The latter became increasingly more important as Ethiopia’s caravan trade continued to develop. Slaves were an important component of Ethiopia’s commerce. Yet although slavery was an accepted institution in Christian society. Christians were not supposed to trade slaves. Consequently the Muslims had an important advantage over their Christian rivals. The Muslim merchants, moreover, enjoyed hospitality and co-operation in Muslim communities along the caravan route and were also welcomed in trading centers on the Uthiopian coast and in the Arab world. Thus, just before the final collapse of Axum, Muslim Ethiopian merchants and their Arab counterparts import activities involved travel to and from Aden , Zabid, Jeddah, Suez, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and even Persia.

COMMONLY CALLED IN A LATER PERIOD JABARTIS, (after a Muslim district of Jabara or Jabarta in eastern Showa) Ethiopian Muslims generally enjoyed religious toleration and were economically and culturally better off than the average Ethiopian. Respected for piousness and Muslim scholarship in the Muslim countries, JABARTIS established a college (RIWAQ) in AL-AZHAR. The mosque of AL-MADINA and the great Umadyyid mosque of DAMASCUS. (Al-Umari, pp. 2-3,716; Ibn Batuta, Rihla, Vol. 1 p. 73; Perruchon, J., ‘Notes sur l’Historie d’ Ethiope. Le regne de Lebna-Dengel’, Revue Semitique, I, 1893, pp. 77-8; Maqrizi p. 15).
Being literate, well traveled and connected in the Red Sea countries, their services were often used by Ethiopian Kings of different dynasties in trade and for diplomatic missions to neighboring Muslim rulers.

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An obvious correlation exists between the final triumph of the Red Sea trade route and the new political and economic dynamism in the Horn of Africa from the beginning of the second millennium A. D. The intensification of mercantile activities in Aden and the Red Sea ports and the influx of many foreign merchants inevitably led to a substantial growth in the demand for Ethiopian products. The trading communities and principalities of the Plateau immediately responded to this challenge. JABARTIS IN THE NORTH EXPANDED THEIR ACTIVITIES, DESPITE POLITICAL INSTABILITY, AND ORGANIZED TRADING CARAVANS WHICH PENETRATED DEEPER INTO THE INTERIOR AND ON THEIR RETURN SOLD THE PRODUCTS OF THE INTERIOR TO THE MANY FOREIGN MERCHANTS, ESPECIALLY FROM ADEN AND YEMEN, WHO TRADED IN THE AREA (“On Egyptian caravans with many Jews Adeni merchants entering Ethiopia from Sudan – Adler, Jews Travelers, Benjamin Metudela, p. 30. On Jewish merchants at the beginning of the Zague period in Amhara – Tamrat, p. 66.”).

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CHAPTER II

ETHIOPIA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS 1500

Ethiopia’s the Red Sea and Christian Europe – early contacts

New of Amda Siyon’s victories aroused the interest of Europe’s rulers. By this time it was generally assumed that the revenue derived fro the Indian Ocean trade was the backbone of the Muslim, especially Egypt’s economy and power, and plans were hatched in Europe to undermine it The strength of Christian Ethiopia, strategically situated south of Egypt and near the Indian Ocean, was greatly exaggerated. Some European monarchs began to contemplate an anti Muslim Christian alliance in which Ethiopian was assigned a major role. Interested in Ethiopia’s conversion to Catholicism, the Pope also became involved in the attempt to develop relations with the Solomonic rulers.
Notwithstanding the prohibition on European to trade beyond Egypt, a few Italian merchants and adventurers reached the Red Sea and Ethiopia in the fourteenth century. They, and emissaries from European rulers, were instrumental in encouraging the Ethiopian monarchs to initiate, on their part, relations with Europe.
Probably informed of this development by JABARTI merchants, the Mamluk sultans of Egypt became apprehensive by this turn of events. With Red Sea trade having a most beneficial impact on their country and just when Islam had triumphed in Sudan, Egypt’s rulers believed that despite the Crusades a junction between European and Ethiopian interests could prove most detrimental to their interests. The abortive crusade king of Cyprus against Egypt in 1365 only served to increase Egypt’s concern regarding a possible linkage between Ethiopia and the Europeans.

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Zara Yaeqob’s ruthless campaigns against ADAL and the coastal pastoralists should be completely dissociated from his religious policy and attempts at administrative and military reforms. If Muslims were forcibly converted in the process, it was in a way an extension of Ishaq’s determined policy to uproot the Muslims from the eastern escarpments which were of immense strategic and economic importance. Generally speaking, the HIGHLAND MUSLIMS WERE EXCLUDED from the Kingdom’s coerced evangelism drive and monarch continued to use the services of ETHIOPIAN JABARTIS for trade and ‘foreign relations’. Zara Yaeqob realized however, that the seemingly unequal struggle of ADAL and its satellites against Ethiopia was perpetuated, and had an importance far beyond its dimensions, due to the emotional, economic and political ties between the HORN’S MUSLIMS and their brethren in ARABIA and elsewhere and the importance of the READ SEA trade to the economy of the Muslim world.

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The revival of the Red Sea trade from the middle of the century. Accompanied by Ottoman attempts to capture Ethiopia, enhanced the importance of the trade route between the latter and Egypt by way of Sennar. Merchants from all over the Muslim world, sometimes accompanied by European and Armenians (not to mention the Ethiopian JABARTIS), exploited the favorable circumstances and traveled beyond DEMBIYA as far as Sidama principalities of the southern plateau. Even after the Galla had overrun the corridor between GOJJAM and ENAREA caravans from the north continued to reach the remote markets of the OROMO-GIBE basin. The inevitable risk on this route markets of the OMO-GIBE basin. The inevitable risk on this route was undoubtedly compensated for by immense profit made on Ethiopian luxury products and slaves.

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Ethiopia’s vast MUSLIM population became increasingly apprehensive over the religious-oriented civil war by the FERENGIS. The JABARTIS FEARED their religious zeal and fanaticism and the socio-political reforms which the monarch wished to institute.

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