Book Review: Fikre T. Jigsa, ‘The True origin of the Oromo and Amhara” (Addis Ababa: 2008 E.C)
by Daniel Ayana (Professor)
According to some reports “The True Origin of the Oromo and Amhara, has broken publishing record in Ethiopia, Last summer, it was published three times. The book’s popularity is in the timing, yearning for solidarity, and the topic, connecting the Oromo and Amhara in origin. In the preface Dr. Fikre declared to overturn the hitherto received historical knowledge about the origin of Oromo and Amhara (p.8). He then introduced his sources: Mariras Aman Balay’s books published in Addis Ababa in recent years. In return Mariras Aman’s books were reportedly based on a new Geez manuscript discovered in an ancient Nubian Church about fifty years ago and subsequently translated into Amharic. A quick search suggests Mariras Aman is a theology scholar and wrote many books on the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in addition to the five books Dr. Fikre used here as his main source. As such Dr. Fikre is a popularizer of Mariras Aman’s findings: a new Geez manuscript about Oromo and Amhara, some ancient books supposedly written in Suba, s pre-Geez language and alphabet (p.83).
The book is mainly about the Oromo in Ethiopia before the sixteenth century, focusing on a least known Oromo section, known as the Madabay in Geez sources or the Maadillee among the Oromo. The book also claims that the Oromo and Amhara had one ancestor in the distant past. However, before discussing the merits of Dr. Fikre’s book, the chain of custody of the newly discovered manuscripts, the sources of the stories, should be clearly established and authenticated. We are told about the unearthing of a Geez manuscript near an ancient Church in Jebel Nuba, Sudan. We are not sure who discovered the document, whether there are copies in Ethiopian monasteries or how the manuscript returned to Ethiopia. One reads that the Geez manuscript was composed sometimes before 879 E.C, the year, one Sirak Za-Aksum, fled Yodit’s wars with a copy to Egypt and then later donated it to an ancient Nubian Church. The manuscript was allegedly found hidden under a rock surviving church burning. In Dr. Fikre’s book we also read that copies of the manuscript returned to Ethiopia during the Zagwe dynasty. The Emperors Lalibela (r.1185-1225) and Amde-Seyon (r.1314-1344) reportedly distributed copies to the monasteries. Egyptian-born EOC Patriarchs allegedly destroyed most of these copies (p.9). But are there be some more copies of the manuscript? Alternatively one also reads that the manuscript might have been composed during the reign of the Emperor Iyasu (r.1682-1706) and somehow found its way to Jebel Nuba. Are there more copies of the manuscript and if so which one is the original and which ones are derivatives? The date of the manuscript’s composition as well as the context of its return to Ethiopia should be established. How did experts in Geez manuscript assess Mariras Aman’s findings? Without establishing this chain of custody issues, the authenticity of the manuscript and its content remains problematic. Until such time, instead of historic source, they remain collection of folk stories containing some critical information. But the stories were woven together creatively.
Dr. Fikre also claims he introduced a new discovery about a past Suba alphabet, which is a combination of Latin and Geez features, and some rare Suba books (p.86). Dr. Fikre reports that the Suba, a section of an ancient Oromo, were massacred, expelled, and their language and books banned. Which monastery or individual collector owns these rare books? Dr. Fikre compared the reported Suba alphabets with Geez, and Latin alphabets (pp. 84-89). But where is the key converting the unknown ancient Suba alphabets to the known equivalents in Geez and Latin characters? Why did the discovery of the ancient Suba books fail to make any news?
The central idea of the book is that the Oromo and Amhara originated from a common ancestor, Dashat/ Daset, who lived in Gojjam in antiquity (pp.68, 139). Ironically at the bottom of this idea is the Oromo belief that “moisture is the source of life.” This basic environmental principle was twisted to assert that the Oromo emerged from water/Indian Ocean etc. Now the Oromo and Amhara were born on an island in Gojjam. Since sections of the Gujii and Boorana claim their origin back to Gojjam and Raayyaa, there is an overlap on both the Oromo and Amhara claims of origin.
Dr. Fikre weaves stories of Menilek I and Queen of Sheba. For scholars the lady queen and Menilek I belong to legend, not history (T. Tamrat 1972, 249-250). Dr. Fikre wrote that King Magaal, an Oromo, went to Jerusalem to pay homage to the baby Jesus. As a source for Dr. Fikre’s book, I wonder when this piece was first written. I am not interested in its literal truth and the authenticity. The alleged Jerusalem trip should be seen in its symbolism. The idea expressed is the opposite of religious bigotry that is extant in the history of world religions. The ideas are formulaic and aspirational; indicating understanding diversity, universalism, and inclusiveness by religious teachers. Reference to King Magaal’s trip to Jerusalem contradicts the pre-sixteenth century literature that depicts the Karayyuu,Dabassoo, Marsoo, and the Gumuz as the devil incarnate or those burning in hell.
Two points are worth stressing about the mythological genre. Most of the stories coming from ancient Geez manuscripts are wrapped in fables. However, we can situate the stories in modern geographic boundaries; date them to pre-Aksumite, Aksumite or post-Aksumite times in relation to known historical events of the times. Since pre-historic population movements followed major rivers, their watersheds, and tributaries, placing ancient Oromo-Amhara homeland close to major water sources is plausible. Second, for many readers, Dr. Fikre’s book about Oromo and Amhara’s common ancestor appeals to their own pre-existing confirmation bias. They knew their Oromo lineage; now their ancestors were not immigrants from Asia, Madagascar, Zimbabwe or Kenya.
Oromo presence in the present-day Ethiopia long before the sixteenth century looms large in Dr. Fikre’s stories. Dr. Fikre included, from known historical sources, personalities such as Doori Tulu, brother of the Emperor Lebna Dengil’s queen mother, and his son Bula as the two Bahra Nagashs. Historians have long denied this historical fact to fortify the sixteenth century Oromo entry into Ethiopia and their being nomadic pastoralists. A new historical information is about the Emperor Lebna Dengil’s losing support from the Abba Gadaas of Tulamma on the eve of the Battle of Shimbra Kure in 1529 (p.81). Taddesse Tamrat included the Galaan and Yaayaa residing on Shawan plateau in medieval times (1972, 184). Abuna Anorewos, one of the medieval saints during the reign of Amde-Seyon, (1314-1344) was born in Matige, Mugar, and spoke afaan Oromo. Yet various proposals are suggested to explain his Oromo language ability short of admitting Oromo presence in today’s Tulammaa areas. Dr. Fikre’s sources suggested Tulammaa’s discontent and its political consequence. The existence of these Geez sources is significant in itself.
Another story that has significance for the pre-sixteenth century history of Oromo is the assertion that the Queen of Sheba was an Azabo lady. There is a reference to the pagans of hagara Azabo and the [Afar] in the hagiography Gadla Marqorewos. In Gadla Aron, the daughter of an Azabo king is depicted as a saintly character in paradise. References to Ethiopis, Median, Melke-Tsedik etc can be disregarded as a heritage of past uprootedness initiated with the The Glory of the Kings. Even in this book, where the Ethiopian Empire extended from Egypt to India, the mythical Menilek I allegedly waged the first war against, among others “the… cities of… Gerra and districts of Hadiya… for enmity had existed between them from olden times.” (Budge, The Queen of Sheba, p. 165). Place names mentioned are significant.
On the Suba people or the Madabay, the Geez reference is interesting. These were a group of ancient Oromo named variously as the Madibe, Madille, Matite by ancient Greco-Roman sources, coastal east African and Boorana arga dhageettii. (On Arga Dhageetti see Chikage Oba-Smidt, The Oral Chronicle of the Boorana… 2015). Greco-Roman sources documented the Matite presence in northeast Africa about the first century A.D. East African sources referred to the Madille/Matite as the giants: builders of megalithic structures, water wells, and subterranean structures. Boorana sources remember the Maadillee as master builders. From about 376-736 C. E (nine cycles of 40 years) the Abbaa Muudaas from the Maadillee served as guardians of pan-Oromo culture and unity. (Gemechu & Kassam 2005). (Chronology extrapolated from Gadaa power transfer cycles of 8 years and 40 years; and 9×40= 360 years and Oba-Smidt’s date for Boorana Gadaarenewal date of c 1456). Dr. Fikre’s sources referred to the mythical Menilek I massacring and expelling the Madabay/Maadillee to east Africa and identified them with the Aba Subain Kenya and Uganda today. The Maadille probably formed part of the Oromo speaking Bantu groups in east Africa before the fifteenth century Orma arrival. Their presence is marked by Oromo technical terms about marriage, iron works etc. The Madibe, Madabay/Matite/Maadillee existed historically; but the Suba alphabet and their rare books have yet to be authenticated.
Finally four remarks to conclude this review. First, Dr. Fikre suggests Wikipedia as a reliable source of information. Wikipedia is not a dependable source; it is a nest for half-truths, quarter-truths, and sometimes an outright misinformation. Second, Dr. Fikre’s sources suggest the presence of Geez documents to elaborate more on Oromo-Amhara relatedness and long relationship. Three, the Oromo were known in primary sources with their sectional names such as Galaan, Marsoo, Azabo, Warra Qaallu, Arsii, Karayyuu etc, and researchers should look for such names not a later name. This is a universal historical truth. Abba Bahriy’s assigned a pejorative nomenclature relatively recently for political purpose. Fourth, for those who disregard Dr. Mohammed Hassen’s latest book, The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom… 1300-1700, and Tabor Wami’s Yewugana Dersatochna Yetarik Ewenatoch, there are two scientific findings about Oromo ancestors from disinterested researchers. First, genetic research traced Oromo ancestors to a group that inhabited the present day region some sixty thousand years ago when few Africans first migrated to all continents. Second, twenty thousand years ago when the global climate changed and Africans gathered in the Nile Valley and then wet Sahara, these Oromo ancestors moved to southern Egypt and left a genetic material there which subsequently spread to Europe. This same gene is also discovered in the Boorana mirroring their return trip. These scientific findings confirmed an ancient Oromo saying about their present homeland: the Waataa are the first, the Oromo the second in the region. The Waataa or Twa /San were the first Africans trekking out of eastern Africa to populate the globe. Dr. Fikre’s Geez sources point us in the right direction suggesting the importance of additional Geez primary sources for the shared heritage in antiquity and for a new history. Although Dr. Fikre does not tell us enough about his sources and their provenance, but the book should not be dismissed out of hand.This book will remain around and probably inspire similar topics.