Saturday, June 16, 2007

'Lost' towns shed light on Ethiopia's Islamic heritage

The discovery of three old Muslim towns in Ethiopia has put a question mark on the history of a nation which prides itself on its overwhelmingly Christian heritage dating back to Biblical times.

The first known civilisation in Ethiopia was that of the mighty Aksumite kingdom which was established in 1000 BC in the country's north. Its best known figure was the Queen of Sheba who is said to have borne King Solomon a son named Menelik, who became the first emperor of Ethiopia and the founder of its ancient Christian dynasty which only ended when Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled in 1974.

But the discovery last year of three Muslim medieval towns by French experts and archaeologists has finally helped scholars locate a legendary Islamic kingdom which flourished between the 10th and 16th centuries."It is a surprising discovery because we generally say that Islam came to Ethiopia late and had a marginal role," said
Yonas Beyene, head of paleontology at Ethiopia's culture ministry.

The article goes on to describe the towns Nora, Asbari and Masal which are located 1300 metres above sea level on a rocky outcrop. They were organized on a grid layout, with domestic buildings, mosques facing mecca, and cemeteries. Nearby agricultural features (terracing and irrigation) also survive, as do some Arabic inscriptions.