Origins of Ethiopian Civilization (Ephraim Isaac)

As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be providing more frequent updates here, followed by a summary/commentary on books/articles concerning either the Ethiopian Orthodox Church or veterinary medicine in Ethiopia. I’ll use headings so that readers can quickly skim the portions that interest them (if any). 🙂


We were notified this morning that we have a court date where E.’s adoption will be finalized! I’ll definitely be giving more details in my next post! The baby’s still due June 13. If the baby comes early enough, we’ll try to get into the summer session of MTI in Colorado Springs, but it seems unlikely that the baby will come early enough (although you never know) and that there will be an opening (these courses tend to fill up pretty far in advance).

Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time at DoubleShot Coffee, trying to write and keep up with the day to day recurring tasks associated with our work. I rarely spend a full day working on these things, though, as doctor’s appointments, E.’s counseling appointments, and Charlie’s pre-K schedule require lots of breaks most days. I try to take advantage of this time in our lives in which I’m able to spend this much time during the day with the boys, and with my mom. Honestly, though, my first reaction when I’m pulled away from my “work” is usually to be grumpy and resentful. Thank God that Kristen is patient and willing to put up with me.


Ancient stelae from the Axumite empire. 

Chapter 1: Origins of Ethiopian Civilization

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ll be working through Ephraim Isaac’s The Ethiopian Orthodox TäwahĂŻdo Church, published in 2013 by Red Sea Press.

Front Matter

Before I summarize the first chapter, I’ll mention a couple of things about the front matter of the book. In the preface, Isaac states that the book is “a modest attempt to give a brief and purely objective description of the interesting history of the Ethiopian Church, its beliefs and practices.” Now, I’ve spent enough time studying hermeneutics to know that there’s no such thing as a purely objective description. It’s apparent in how Isaac approaches his topic that it’s driven by his interests and priorities. There’s no problem with this approach (in fact, it’s unavoidable), but it shouldn’t be called purely objective.

Isaac writes a personal note along with his acknowledgements that sheds light on his credentials in terms of writing about a church of which he is not a member. He discusses how, when growing up in Nedjio, Wallaga, Ethiopia, Orthodox clergy would often visit his father (a Jew from Yemen) and offer praise and admiration for his Jewish heritage. He goes on to say that as an adult, he was blessed with close relationships with a number of Ethiopian Orthodox clergy, many of whom he worked with in a professional capacity (as a Semitic language scholar), and that he even served as a mediator when a number of bishops disagreed about an administrative matter. He also emphasizes the doctrinal, liturgical, and historical unity of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, and indicates that nearly of what he writes applies to both.

Chapter One

Isaac’s goal in this initial chapter is to demonstrate that while Ethiopia and South Arabia share a “common cultural sphere” since prehistoric times, the assumption made by many Western scholars that Ethiopian civilization is the result of South Arabian influence is based on “erroneous historical, linguistic, and archeological assumptions.” He then goes one to address five areas in which these assumptions have been made.

First, he argues that it cannot be assumed that Semitic languages (the language family that includes Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and several Ethiopian languages) originated in the Near East. There is an assumption that the Ethiopian Semitic languages were brought to Ethiopia from South Arabian conquerors. He states that some, including Russian Assyriologist Diakonoff, propose an African origin for Proto-Hamito-Semitic (from which Semitic languages hypothetically derive), and that it is therefore possible that some Semitic languages may be indigenous to Ethiopia.

Second, he claims historical difficulties in the suggestion of a South Arabian migration into Ethiopia – primarily that during the time period in which this is suggested to have happened, there is clear evidence that different languages were spoken on the eastern and western sides of the Red Sea. If there had been a mass migration, the language would have been the same.

He also discusses here an important term in Ethiopian (and Eritrean) culture and history: habasha. This term refers to Ethiopians and Eritreans who share a number of cultural features, including Semitic languages (today, primarily Amharic and Tigrinya), religion (the Orthodox TäwahĂŻdo Church), and food (e.g., injera). Habasha is word that gave rise to the Western term Abyssinia. There is a popular hypothesis that the name “hbst,” which appears in some ancient Sabaean scripts, is the name of the South Arabian tribe that migrated to Ethiopia; Isaac argues that this hypothesis is purely speculative. Interestingly, I was told by a tour guide in northern Ethiopia that the term “habesha” actually means “the color of coffee when milk is added,” indicating that Habesha have a lighter skin color than surrounding peoples (which tends to be true).

Third, he addresses evidence gleaned from ancient inscriptions found in both Ethiopia and South Arabia. Essentially, he argues that while these inscriptions share “a common cultural heritage,” there is no evidence that this indicates a South Arabian origin for the inscriptions found in Ethiopia.

Fourth, Isaac addresses the nature of the Ethiopic script, which he says is “a cursive form of monumental Sabaean.” His key point for this argument is that while South Arabians did not adapt and adopt the Sabaean script, adopting instead the Arabic script after the rise of Islam, “the manner in which the Ethiopians used Sabaean, with freedom and originality, hardly betrays the behavior of borrowers.”

Finally, Isaac spends the second half of the chapter addressing ancient literary references to the Sabaeans, especially the Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba. I don’t have space to discuss the significance of the Queen of Sheba for Habesha culture; for those who aren’t familiar, take a look at this. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary states that the most plausible location for Sheba is the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula (present day Yemen). Isaac argues that this does not preclude the possibility that the Queen of Sheba was African. He provides arguments that show that Sheba may have been in the Horn of Africa from the book of Genesis. He points out that Yemen was “an Ethiopian domain over two thousand years ago,” noting that Homer’s Odyssey refers to Poseidon’s journey to “Ethiopia, divided in two” (i.e., by the Red Sea). He suggests that the mention of “all the kings of Arabia” in 1 Kings and Jeremiah suggest that there were no queens in Arabia at this time (one of my least favorite of his arguments). He points out that “Josephus, a number of the Church Fathers, and the Ethiopians themselves” claim that the Queen of Sheba was African.

He concludes: “serious methodological questions must be raised concerning theories that seek to reconstruct the origins of the Ethiopian civilization from South Arabia. . . . we would prefer to view, at least hypothetically, South Arabia as a common cultural sphere with Ethiopia from prehistoric times, and nothing more.”