From Ethiopia To Yemen

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Ethiopia’s Historic Ties with Yemen

By Richard Pankhurst

Ethiopia and Yemen, two historic countries on either side of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, have been in contact since almost the dawn of time. This is scarcely surprising. The intervening strip of sea between South Arabia and the Ethiopian Horn of Africa is at its closest little more than fifty miles wide, and is believed ten thousand years ago to have been only eleven miles wide. This narrow stretch of water could be crossed, throughout the historic period, by the simplest of vessels, including rafts, within little more than a day.

The highlands of the Yemeni and Ethiopian regions, as the archaeologist David Phillipson notes, have “much in common physically and environmentally”. They form part of a wide region which, Walter Raunig observes, has “not only very close geographical, climatic, zoological and botanical connections”, but also “cultural links [which] have always been equally, at times exceptionally strong”.

The Queen of Sheba

The antiquity of Ethiopian and Yemeni history is apparent from the fact that traditions in both countries go back twelve centuries to the time of the renowned Queen of Sheba. It is not the object of this article to examine her life, or to enter into the debate as to whether she was the ruler of Ethiopia or Yemen, or whether her government, as is often suggested, extended over both lands. It is sufficient to note that traditions associated with her are common to both, and point to the existence of an at least partially shared culture, dating back to early antiquity.

The Habashat, and the Origins of Ethiopian Civilisation

An intimate relationship between Ethiopia and Yemen in ancient times has also been postulated from the fact that several place and clan names, as well as inscriptions in the South Arabian language Sabaean, are found in both countries.

The existence of shared names on either side of the Red Sea caused the Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini to postulate, however somewhat simplistically, that the very name of Abyssinia was of Yemeni origin. The word is generally believed to be derived from the name Habashat, used to designate a people which lived in the north of historic Ethiopia, in what are now the highlands of part of Eritrea and Tigray.

Land on both sides of the Red Sea, according to the ancient geographer Ptolemy (AD 150)

Conti Rossini assumed that the Habashat actually originated in Yemen, and later established themselves, as colonists, on the Ethiopian side of the Red Sea, where, he believed, they introduced their name. It was his belief, furthermore, that the South Arabian language, and writing, represented the origin and basis of the Ethiopian tongue and script Ge‘ez.

These suppositions were once widely accepted. The British Arabist Spencer Trimingham for example wrote, in 1952, that the Habashat, or “agriculturalist mountaineers” of Yemen, faced with population pressure, and the failure of their irrigation system, crossed the intervening sea, and, after leaving the “inhospitable coastal zone” of Ethiopia, “found a country [in the Ethiopian interior] which possessed the same climate and vegetation as their own land”. The Habashat, he claims, thereupon “assumed a predominance over all the other tribes, and its chief took the title of negus nagasti (chief of chiefs)”. As a result, “the kingdom of Habashat consolidated itself about the third century B.C., when its rule extended over the plateau region of Eritrea and northern Tigrai”.

“Settlers and Colonizers”

Elaborating on this supposed migration, Trimingham claimed that the Yemeni migrants “came as settlers and colonizers”, “brought their regional names with them”, settled in the plateau regions “most suitable for agriculture”, and “brought the fully developed civilization of the Sabaeans”. The Yemenis, he claims, “introduced the use of metals, certain domestic animals, new plants, advanced systems of irrigation and agriculture, new forms of communal organization, and the art of writing”.

Conti Rossini’s thesis, which was based largely on conjecture, was, however, subsequently undermined by the work of a number of other scholars approaching the question from different disciplines and interests. One of the first of these scholars was Joseph Greenberg, whose Studies in African Linguistic Classification, appeared in 1955. In it he argued that the Semitic languages, found on both sides of the Red Sea, were in no way unique to the region, but formed part of a very much wider Afroasiatic language family scattered over much of Africa, as far as Chad in the west.

Jacqueline Pirenne

In the following year, 1956, Jacqueline Pirenne, a scholar of early Arabian history, drastically revised South Arabian chronology. Her new dating was significant to the question of Ethiopian origins, for it indicated that Sabaean immigrants to Ethiopia did not live in Ethiopia for centuries, as Conti Rossini had postulated, but only for no more than a few decades.

Six years later, in 1962, the Dutch linguist A.J. Drewes, published his important Inscriptions ie l’Ethiopie antique. It revealed the existence in Ethiopia of Ge‘ez graffiti, and other inscriptions, which were quite as old as the South Arabian inscriptions in Ethiopia. This discovery showed that Conti Rossini had been mistaken in assuming that Sabaean inscriptions in the country represented the prototype from which Ge‘ez had later developed.

In the following decade the Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich, working in Nubia, unearthed ancient pottery virtually identical to that which had been produced in Ethiopia prior to the founding of Aksum. This evidence suggested that the early material culture of Aksum was of essentially African origin, and had thus developed entirely independently of South Arabian immigration.

Roger Schneider

This thesis was further spelt out, in the following year, by the epigraphist Roger Schneider. Emphasising the entirely unproven character of Conti Rossini’s suppositions, he pointed out for example that the people of northern Ethiopia, living as they did in a rocky environment, did not have to wait for the arrival of the Sabaeans to erect houses built of stone. He argued further that Sabaeans who came to Ethiopia “did not arrive in a cultural vacuum”, but that, on the contrary, a significant Ethiopian state, people, and language had existed well before their advent. He contended further that Sabaean settlement was restricted to a few localities, and did not impinge greatly on Northern Ethiopia as a whole.

Schneider’s final conclusion was that similarities between South Arabian and Ethiopian civilization had in fact existed long before the coming to Ethiopia of the Sabaeans.

These and other arguments in support of Ethiopian origins independent of South Arabia were subsequently supported by other scholars, among them three linguists, the Ethiopian Abraham Demoz, the American Grover Hudson, and the Englishman David Appleyard, at a Conference on Ethiopian Origins, organised by the present writer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in June 1978.

Standing Conti Rossini on his Head

The result of such convergent investigations by scholars working in different fields was that Jacqueline Pirenne, basing herself on the area’s material culture, as well as on linguistic and paleographic data, stood Conti Rossini’s thesis on its head. She argued that migration was “not from Yemen to Ethiopia, but rather in the opposite direction: from Ethiopia to Yemen”.

Whatever the direction, dating, and details of such migration, there can be no denying that northern Ethiopia and Yemen, in the half millennium or so prior to the Christian era, shared a related civilisation, or civilisations. This is evident from the at least limited use in Ethiopia of the Sabaean language and script, as found on ancient Aksumite inscriptions and coins, and an apparently identical religion. The latter centred on the worship of the sun and moon, and the local god Almaqah. The logo of the sun and moon, used at that time in Yemen, appears for example on an ancient Aksumite obelisk at Matara, as well as on virtually all pre-Christian Aksum coins, which began to be struck in the first century A.D. Reference to Almaqah is likewise to be seen on many Sabaean inscriptions on both sides of the Red Sea.


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6 thoughts on “From Ethiopia To Yemen”

  1. Taking Stock: A Few Ethio-Yemeni Conclusions

    By Richard Pankhurst

    In this series of articles, which comes to an end in this issue, we have attempted, dear reader, to look outside Ethiopia, and to review the country’s historic contacts across the Red Sea with one of its neighbours: Yemen.

    Prehistoric Links

    We have seen that Ethiopia and Yemen were neighbouring countries actually linked by land in prehistoric times, and thereafter divided only by a narrow strip of water, quick as well as easy to cross by the simplest of traditional vessels.

    The two countries or regions had geographically much in common, and, because of this similarity, as well as their earliest contacts, almost identical flora and fauna, not to mention numerous cultural similarities in the human field.

    Separate but Intertwined

    The histories of the two countries were doubtless closely connected in prehistoric times, but were thereafter essentially separate, though at times intimately intertwined.

    Connections perhaps over a millennium prior to the birth of Christ led to the diffusion of related Semitic languages on both sides of the Red Sea. Such connections also led to the construction of the famous temple at Yeha, in northern Ethiopia, which was erected in honour of the sun and moon gods also worshiped in Yemen, and in fact to adherence on both sides of the Red Sea to a similar religion based on the worship of the sun and moon.

    Cross-Continental Trade

    The early Christian period subsequently witnessed considerable cross-continental trade across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, particularly between the Aksumite kingdom and Yemen, which is well documented in the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”. We have likewise to take account of at least two Aksumite military occupations of Yemen. These were followed by the temporary circulation of Aksumite currency in the latter area, as well as by the extensive diffusion of Christianity on both sides of the Red Sea.

    Islam and Christianity

    The two countries, dear reader, were thereafter divided by Yemen’s conversion to Islam, on the one hand, and by Ethiopia’s adherence to Christianity, on the other.

    Emperor supervising road-building at the Blue Nile

    The resultant difference of religion was to prove a greater obstacle to friendly relations between the two countries than were the intervening seas. The Ethiopian Emperor Yekuno Amlak, soon after his accession in 1270, nevertheless wrote to Sultan Al-Malik al-Muzeffar, of Yemen, requesting the latter’s help in approaching Sultan Rukn ad-Din Baybars of Egypt, with a view to obtaining a new Coptic bishop. This initiative was, however, essentially unfruitful.

    Medieval Trade

    Trade across the Red Sea, and Gulf of Aden, was, as we have seen, well documented in Arab and subsequently in Portuguese and Italian sources. They indicate that commerce across the Red Sea continued to be important, and had indeed significant consequences. These included the possible introduction into Yemen from Ethiopia of the spear, as well as of two commercially and culturally significant plants: coffee and chat. The slave trade, from Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa to Yemen, dating back to ancient times, and the movement of merchants, mainly in the opposite direction, led meanwhile to a significant inter-blending of population.

    Emperor Tewodros’ mortar sebastapol


    Despite the religious divide between the two countries, many conversions took place. One of the most notable was that of Yaq’ob, a Yemeni Arab, who travelled to Ethiopia, in the late fifteenth century, was converted to Christianity, and, assuming the name of Embaqom, became head of the monastery of Dabra Libanos, and a scholar, and translator, of distinction.

    Early sixteenth century fighting in the Horn of Africa, associated with the wars of Imam Mahfuz, ruler of Zayla‘, and later of the more famous Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, had a significant Yemeni dimension. This warfare was accompanied by the capture of numerous Ethiopian slaves. Many were exported to Yemen, and other parts of the Arab world, and were converted to Islam. The supply of arms to Yemen was important in helping to finance the Imam’s import of fire-arms.

    Fasilidas and Al-Mu’ayyad

    Hopes, a century later, of the possible conversion of the Ethiopian Emperor Fasiladas played an important part in the correspondence, which that monarch initiated, for entirely other purposes, with the Yemeni ruler Amir al-Mu’ayyad, in 1642. This led to the subsequent important, but abortive, Yemeni mission to Gondar, led by the Yemeni envoy al-Haymi.

    More Recent Contacts

    Age-old commercial contacts between Yemen and Ethiopia, across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, continued into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This period witnessed the modernisation of trade, resulting from the coming of the steamer, the telegraph, and later the radio. Other important developments of these years included the founding of a new Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, site in its day of extensive Yemeni migration, and the advent of Aden-based Indian, and European, merchants in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden area.

  2. “The slave trade, from Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa to Yemen, dating back to ancient times, and the movement of merchants, mainly in the opposite direction, led meanwhile to a significant inter-blending of population”

    Are you sure about that? It sounds like colonial propaganda

    1. How about instead of resorting to calling names, you back up your claim with solid historical evidences?

  3. Mark

    Sure you are right. It is some example of the type of idiocy perpetuated by Richard Pankhurst. He is a white boy who has lived in itiopia since world war II. This is not our own opinion.


  4. There were greater Amhara civilzations in today’s Ethiopia starting from Yotor, Moses’ father in law, in Gondar. Yemenites only came recently.

  5. Queen Sheba of Abyssinia is not Sabaean from Yemen
    The old and existing associates of Sabaeans (or Sabeans) and ?imyarite are descendants of a Turkic Mongolian gangster nicknamed Saba’a (means captor or slaver who claim to be Sun worshiper Saba’a ibn Yishgub bin Yarub bin Qahtan). They were and are the remnants of Turkic Mongolian looters and colonizers, together with their slaves and collaborators.
    After their destruction and erasing the long ancient history of Yemen and Arabs which existed until their invasion of Yemen they invented and imposed fake history made up by Persians, Romans and Jews.
    The new history gave them an Arab origin and claimed that the Arabs before them became extinct. The invented history is still hostile to genuine Arabs, Israelite, and Yemenis.
    They are also malicious towards the civilizations of Abyssinia, Kemet (ancient Egypt), Kerma (ancient Nubia), and all other Africans.
    One of the biggest frauds in history was made by confusing and blurring the history of the Abyssinian Queen Sheba and the Hebrew King Solomon with that criminal regimes of Sabaeans (or Sabeans) and ?imyarite.
    Certainly, the Abyssinian Kingdom of Sheba is totally different from the regime of Turkic Mongolian Sabaeans.
    The Old Testament does not mention the founding person of the Sabaeans (or Sabeans) and whether they were in Yemen or Abyssinia. It does not help in resolving the confusion between Saba’a and Sheba.

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