Glories of Ancient Aksum to the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt: A Tale
of Two Memorable Scholarly Events’
On October 24, 2009 the curtains went down on one of the most memorable
events of the year, for those who took the time to view the exhibition,
‘Lucy’s Legacy, the Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia,’ hosted by
Discovery Times Square Exposition. The exhibit provided an evolutionary
narrative of our ancestral family tree, ranging from the seven million
year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis to Ardipethecus
kadabba, Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus
anamensis, and, the star of the exhibit, Australopithecus
afarensis, Dinkenesh, alias Lucy. We were reminded
during the exhibit that the discovery of the skeletal remains of Dinkenesh took
place the very year that Haile Selassie was overthrown. The 1974 discovery
marked the end of an era, and the start of a new episode in Hominid history
which propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of research in this field. Most of the
fossils discovered to date, have been found in Ethiopia, considered by
some scholars to be‘ the cradle of mankind.’ Most instructive, for scholars
of ancient northeast Africa, were the numerous artifacts on display from
Aksum, including some of the world’s earliest coins in silver, copper and
gold. The coins represented several Ethiopian monarchs, including
King Endubis (270-300AD), King Kaleb ( 520 AD), King Wazena (6th
century), King Halaz (575 AD), King Gersen (600AD), and King Armah
(614 AD). On display were medicinal scrolls, book stamps, pens and locally made
ink, and processional and hand held crosses, representing
everlasting life. There were diverse swords, spears and daggers of various
dimensions, with and without sheaths, one of which was about 6 feet in length.
Also on display were board games, and musical instruments such as the
bagana, an 8 or 10 string lyre, and the sistrum, an ancient
musical instrument still used in the Ethiopian orthodox church and also used by
the Egyptians. An exquisite outfit of velvet and silk, traditionally worn
by Oromo horsemen, was also on display. One of the cherished items for
viewers was a replica of the remarkable Church of Beta Giyorghis, or, St.
George’s Church, chiseled and sculptured in the shape of a cross,
being one of eleven churches attributed by some scholars to the era of King
Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty. Lalibela, the city, previously known as
Roha, was Ethiopia’s capital in the 12th and 13th century. The Aksumites
were associated with Christianity from its early inception, according to
Biblical references. The kingdom later adopted Christianity
officially, just about a decade after Rome. Ethiopia is believed to be
th host of the Ark of the Covenant, and to date has the largest Christian
Orthodox Church, built by Emperor Haile Selassie before his assassination in
The Ethiopian Aksumites constructed the largest stone monument in the world, a carved stone monolith, weighing 500 tons and 100 ft high, taller than the Egyptian pyramid of Giza, and one of the eight UNESCO heritage sites of Ethiopia. The largest existing stela is 68 feet tall and ten stories high, inscribed with false windows and doors. Emperor Fasilidas is credited with the establishment of Gondar in 1636, in the post -Aksumite era. Monasteries, baths and a series of castles are among the attractions of this city, located south of Aksum and north of Lalibela. There were ample illustrations of this wondrous monument in the exhibit.
Ethiopia is also home to the third largest Muslim population in Africa. Ethiopia’s Harar hosts the fourth most important Islamic center after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Ethiopian contact with Islam dates back to 615 AD when King Armah, provided protection for exiled supporters of the Prophet Mohammed, including one of his future wives. Four Korans from Harar were on display. There were some illustrations related to Ethiopia’s Jewish population, or Beta Israel, 20,000 of whom remain in Gondar. The interconnections between Emperor Haile Selassie, Rastafarianism and Marcus Garvey were commented on in the exhibit, and attracted the attention of several visitors.
The exhibit was not flawless. The timeline on display at the entrance to the exhibit could have included more references to the rest of Africa, to situate Dinkenesh (Lucy), and Aksum, for that matter, in the wider African story. Yeha was founded around 900 BC, but about 10,000 years before Yeha, Malian and Nubian pots were being fashioned in the West African and northeast African regions. About seven thousand years before Yeha, Nigeria’s famous Dufuna boat would have been constructed. One hundred thousand years before them all, artifacts would have been created by early South Africans at Blombos. Aksum must therefore be placed in a wider context of African historical growth. Another observation is that during the exhibit, the use of the Ethiopian name Dinkenesh was half hearted, with insufficient attempt to truly redefine the naming process, in the interest of Ethiopian realities.
One area for improvement in museums and exhibits in general is in the area of
donor acknowledgement. Where possible, the original source of the object
should be identified, in addition to the gift donor. The glorification of
gift donors should not be done at the expense of the original village or town
from which the object came. Finally, the exhibit’s representation
of Homo sapiens sapiens attempted to reflect diversity but failed. African
representation was inadequate, weak, subdued and peripheral. The image was
a vast improvement on the old Eurocentric image of Homo sapiens sapiens,
which used to be exclusively Caucasoid in appearance, but this present image is
not inclusive enough.
Three weeks before the closing of the Discovery Times Exhibition, the University of Manchester hosted a conference of great significance to scholars of Ancient Northeast Africa. The goal of the conference was to situate Egypt in its African context, and for that purpose, several scholars were invited. The conference was opened by the Curator, Egypt and the Sudan at the Manchester Museum, Dr. Karen Exell. This was followed by an excellent presentation by Dr. Shomarka Keita of the National Human Genome Center, Howard University and the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Keita presented an illuminating powerpoint presentation on the peopling of the Nile Valley, making reference to linguistics, archeology and human biology. Dr. Amon Saakana proceeded to point to the pictographic, petroglyphic and other forms of writing as they illuminated the role of Nubia in shaping the emerging Egyptian state. He emphasized that by 7000BCE, in Nubia, there was the cult of cattle, incised drawings on rocks, and megalithic structures mapping the Orion constellation, all predating later Egyptian adoptions. Saakana’s arguments basically correlated with those of Dr. Alain Anselin whose main argument was that Egyptian civilization originated in Naqadan cultures which were basically derived from an early African pool of cultures. Muzzolini (2001), Wendorf (2004), Friedman (2002), Le Quellec (2005), Hassan (2002) and Kobuciewicz (2004) have provided relevant scholarly research related to the Chadic, Nilo-Saharan and Nilotic foundations of Ancient Egyptian civilization, according to Dr. Anselin.
Dr. Ana Navajas-Jimenez of Oxford University looked at the African context of pharaonic power and kingship, with emphasis on the predynastic cattle culture from which it emerged, while Dr. Kimani Nehusi of the University of East London focused on similarities in libation practices in ancient Egypt, and other parts of Africa and its Diaspora. He raised the issue of cultural continuity and interconnections between the ancient northeast and the rest of the continent. In similar vein Dr. Abdul Salau would explore the linguistic interconnections between the Yoruba language and ancient Egyptian, developing farther some arguments made by J.O Lucas a few decades ago. Dr. Sally -Ann Ashton of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, wondered whether there was the fear of a Black land, and so did Robin Walker of Black History Studies, London. Ultimately Western scholars decided to sacrifice Nubia to save Egypt from ‘Afrocentric heresy’ but the Egyptologists were prepared to compromise on Dynasty XXV and perhaps on Dynasty X11, but that was all, according to Walker, in his incisive critique of Eurocentric methodology with respect to Egypt. The present writer, in her presentation, concluded that out of 20
World History textbooks examined, six models emerged with respect to the identity of ancient Egypt, inclusive of Isolationist, Eurasian, West Asian, Aegean, Afro-Eurasian and African centered models. She concluded that authors of World History Textbooks in the United States must ultimately situate their discussion of ancient Egypt squarely in ancient Africa for a more logical and intelligible analysis of ancient Egyptian society.
These memorable events represented two positive scholarly initiatives on Ancient Africa, on both sides of the Atlantic.