Very recently, in June 2017, archaeologists uncovered a ‘forgotten city’ in eastern Ethiopia, dating back to the tenth century. The city seems to have been a centre for trade in the region, and reminds us how Africa’s history has still not been fully discovered.
THE FORGOTTEN CITY AS A TRADING CENTRE
The city was found in the Harlaa region of Ethiopia. Researchers discovered artefacts from all over the world, including China, India, Yemen, Madagascar and Egypt. The lead archaeologist, Professor Timothy Insoll from the University of Exeter, said that the city must have been a major trading centre. It was also an important site for jewellery-making.
This places Harlaa in the context of East African trade with Asia. This was not limited to Ethiopia, but also took place in Madagascar and the Swahili Coast, among other places. African ivory, gold, copper and other commodities paid for textiles, metals and consumer goods from Asia. This placed Africa at the centre of an international trading network, which went all the way back to the third century, when bananas were introduced to Madagascar from India.
The city was a cultural crossroads as well as a commercial centre. The archaeologists also discovered a twelfth century mosque which is similar to mosques found in Somaliland and Tanzania, suggesting that Islamic communities across Africa were connected. Islam was introduced to Ethiopia in the seventh century by Muslim refugees from Mecca.
ETHIOPIA’S LONG HISTORY OF CIVILISATION
Many historians and archaeologists think that the first human beings lived in Ethiopia – nearly three million years ago. Since then, Ethiopia has seen several civilizations. The Da’amat was the first kingdom in Ethiopia, lasting from 980 BC until 400 BC. Its people grew millet and made iron tools, as well as weapons. They also traded gold, silver, slaves, ivory and tortoise shells with South Arabian merchants. According to tradition, the Queen of Sheba established her palace in Ethiopia in 950 BC. Her power and her visit to King Solomon are legendary: she is mentioned in the Bible, the Qu’ran, some Jewish sources and paintings of Turkish and Persian origin.
The Aksumite Empire (100-940), also known as the Kingdom of Axum, was described by the Persian prophet Mani as one of the four greatest powers in the world at its time – the other three being Persia, Rome and China. The Empire lay on the major trade route connecting India and the Roman world, while the high level of rainfall on the mainland made the soil fertile for agriculture. It had its own currency, made of gold, and its people followed many different religions including Christianity and Islam. The Aksumites were succeeded by the Sultanate of Showa, an early Muslim kingdom which lasted from 896 until 1285/86.
THERE IS EVEN MORE TO DISCOVER
But even though we know a lot about Ethiopian civilizations, the discovery of Harlaa shows that there is still a lot which we have not found yet. This is the case both in Ethiopia and across the rest of Africa, where archaeologists and historians are trying to uncover more and more of the past.