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The Horn of Africa - from Ethiopia to the Red Sea
Responsible Team-Members: Sophia Dege-Müller, Verena Krebs, Bar Kribus

State of the Field

The Jewish population of Ethiopia has attracted scholarly attention in three major phases. The first, beginning at the turn of the 19th century until the 1950s, focused on the linguistic analyses of a number of Betä Isra'el religious texts, while specifically emphasizing their differences from Christianity on the one hand and Jewry on the other.  The second phase in research followed the three large waves of Aliyot (migrations to Israel) from the 1980s-2000s, during which almost 70,000 Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel.  The third, modern phase of research is mostly concerned with questions of ethnicity and the emergence of the Betä Isra'el as a new social group in contemporary Israel.  Comparatively little has been done on the cultural history of the Betä Isra'el from Late Antiquity to the 13th century, in large part due to the dearth of contemporaneous sources. Nearly nothing is known about the actual advent of Judaism in the Horn of Africa, but since the ancient kingdom of Aksum and its eponymous capital were a well-known hub within the Red Sea trade, it has been assumed that it was also home to a Jewish Diaspora community even in pre-Christian times. Moreover, the geographic proximity to the Yemenite coast, with its long-standing Jewish population and the latter’s major role in the Himyarite Yemeni Kingdom, are taken to be further indicators of an early presence of Jews in Ethiopia.  Sources on the Betä Isra'el become quite abundant in the Solomonic dynasty (13th -18th centuries), although they remain little studied apart from the extensive efforts of Steven Kaplan. The emergence and genesis of the Betä Isra'el as a unified group is usually dated to this period, when extreme decisions by the Christian monarchs forced dissident groups to consolidate their own Jewish identity.


















Regions inhabited by the Betä Isra'el prior to the immigration to Israel


While many Ethiopian sources have been translated into European languages and recent major digitizing projects of Ethiopian manuscripts have made a whole new corpus of Ethiopian literature available to scholars, a comprehensive evaluation of the Betä Israʾel as part of the Solomonic Ethiopian Empire, their medieval self-perception and their treatment by their Christian sovereigns has yet to be conducted. No direct Betä Isra'el historical sources such as chronicles have come down to us but plenty of Christian, and Muslim, sources, especially from the 15th century onwards, are available. These include both the so-called “short chronicles” and the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles as well as for instance the writings of the Ethiopian emperor Zärʾa Yaʿeqob. The latter produced a large number of texts to underline Christian church reformations and provides a varied source for the contemporary image of Jewish customs in Ethiopia.


Furthermore, a comprehensive associated inquiry into the perception of the medieval Betä Isra'el by their contemporary Solomonic Christian sovereigns appears long overdue. Curiously similar to the Armenian and Georgian Bagratuni/Bagrationi dynasties, the rulers of Ethiopia too traced their ancestry to ancient Israel and Jewish kings, namely the House of Solomon, through Menilek, the son born out of the union of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. Also intriguing and specific to the Ethiopian case is the tradition that this theft and relocation of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia marks also the origin of the Ethiopian Jewish population.  This may be based on indigenous Betä Isra'el oral traditions; the first reliable reference to the Danite ancestry of the Betä Isra'el is given by the early 16th century Egyptian Talmudic scholar David Ben Abi Zimra.  Therefore, both the Christian rulers of Ethiopia and its Jewish population traced their roots back to the same event and the same geographic region; indeed to the people of Israel. Moreover, the Christians of Ethiopia maintained or adapted several “Jewish” religious practices over the course of the 14th and 15th century – while occasionally persecuting groups of Betä Isra'el within the Empire. Similarly, contradictory attitudes toward Jewish identity – both claiming and accepting it, and yet persecuting some who also did - continued into the 16th century. On the one hand, in the mid-16th century, Betä Isra'el woman named Harargo was the mistress of Christian Emperor Särsä Dengel and bore him four sons, one of whom succeeded his father to the throne. At the end of the 16th century, Betä Isra'el craftsmen were sought-after and employed by the Christian royal family to build castles in the city of Gondar. Yet on the other hand, the Ethiopian Emperor simultaneously also revoked all Betä Isra'el right to possess land.  Thus, the intersections of “rhetorical Judaism” with issues of personal and political interactions between Jews and Christians in Ethiopia are equally, if not more, complex than those in Armenia and Georgia.

The meanings of Jewishness in Solomonic Ethiopia are further complicated by the need to examine the influence of external texts and motifs. For example, in the 15th century, an important, lengthy, early Byzantine polemic against the Jews – Doctrina Jacobi – was translated from Arabic into Ge’ez.  It was translated during the period of Christian expansion, which began in the 13th century, and which caused the Betä Isra'el to be surrounded by and eventually subject to Christian rulers. The timing raises the question whether there was an active search for anti-Jewish polemic during this period.  It is surprising that this and other translations, like those of tales of the finding of the true cross mentioned above, have not received greater attention or been analyzed within the context of Jewish-Christian relations within Ethiopia.


Outside influence also came due to contact with Western Europe, as well as from Byzantium and the Middle East. Ethiopian ambassadors in late medieval Europe were proud to pronounce the Solomonic descent of their sovereign at European courts, and they were questioned about the ‘Jewish’ traditions in Ethiopian faith (as the Saturday Sabbath, circumcision of boys on the 8th day, or dietary laws). 

Ongoing and Planned Research

In addition to Ethiopian Christian sources and Betä Isra’el religious texts, a collection of a wide body of source material on Ethiopian-Jewish relations was left behind in European sources, including contradictory testament and apologia of Christian Ethiopian ‘Jewish’ traditions made in front of European courts as well as declarations on the Betä Isra’el.  An assessment of these multiple external influences on Jewish-Christian relations and identity constructions in Ethiopia is very much needed, and is one of the goals of the proposed project. Lastly, contemporary studies of oral history show that it is possible to safely trace back roughly 400 years of Betä Isra’el history.  Leaving aside the historical validity of such stories, they should definitely be incorporated in our quest for source bases for Jewish-Christian relations in Ethiopia.

It stands to reason that a wealth of medieval relevant material culture can be found in monasteries established by the Betä Isra’el in the Semien and Gondar Regions of Ethiopia; however, no fieldwork investigation has been conducted and subsequently published to this point. Such fieldwork could produce unprecedented insight into issues of literary production, networks of patronage religious practice, beliefs, material culture and everyday life of the Betä Isra’el in the Ethiopian Middle Ages.

The Betä Isra’el monastery of Qolqwaloč in the Semien Mountains

Part of the task of the project will be to investigate the ways in which such claims and accusations of Jewish identity were used within Ethiopia, as well as to attain a deeper and more precise understanding of the lived realities of the Betä Isra’el and the developments within their culture, especially within the monastic tradition that developed from the 14th century onwards.  Additionally, we will investigate the possibility of a historical connection between these Armenian, Georgian and Ethiopian conceptualizations of royal Jewish ancestry, given the indications of contact between Ethiopia and Armenia, or whether the similarities are merely coincidental.

Further Reading

  • Abbink, J., The Falashas in Ethiopia and Israel: The Problem of Ethnic Assimilation (Den Haag, 1990)

  • Bassett, E., Études sur l’Histoire d’Éthiopie (Paris, 1882)

  • Ben-Dor, Sh., “The Holy Places of Ethiopian Jewry,” Pe'amim 22 (1985), 32-52 (Hebrew)

  • Biondo, F., Scritti inediti e rari, (Rome, 1927)

  • Bowerstock, G., The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford, 2013)

  • Bustorf, D., S. Dege-Müller and A. Mecklenburg, Oral Tradition in Ethiopian Studies (in preparation).

  • Dagron, G. and V. Déroche, Juifs et Chrétiens en Orient Byzantin (rpt. Paris, 2010)

  • Dagron, G., “Judaizer” in G. Dagron and V. Déroche in Travaux et Mémoires, 11 (1991) 359-80

  • Dillmann, A., Über die Regierung, insbesondere die Kirchenordnung des Königs Zar’a-Jacob (Berlin 1884)

  • de Gois, D., Legatio Magni Indorum Imperatoris Presbyteri Ioannis, (Antwerp, 1532)

  • Idem, Fides, religio, moresque Aethiopum, (Louvain, 1540)

  • Flad, J.M., The Falashas (Jews) of Abyssinia, trans. by S.P. Goodhart (London 1869)

  • Goldman, I.M., The Life and Times of Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (New York, 1970)

  • Gruber, R., Rescue: the Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews (New York, 1987)

  • Halévy, J., Tĕ'ĕzâza sanbat (Commandements du Sabbat), Accompagné de Six Autres Écrits Pseudo-Épigraphiques Admis par les Falachas ou Juifs d'Abyssinie (Paris, 1902)

  • Hatke, G., Africans in Arabia Felix: Aksumite Relations with Himyar in the Sixth Century, 2 vols. (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 2011)

  • Kaplan, S., The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia. From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century (New York, 1992)

  • Idem, “Themes and Methods for the Study of Conversion in Ethiopia: a Review Essay”, Journal of Religion in Africa 34 (2004), 373-92

  • Kessler, D., The Falashas: The Forgotten Jews of Ethiopia (New York, 1982)

  • Krempel, V., Die soziale und wirtschaftliche Stellung der Falascha in der christlich-amharischen Gesellschaft von Nordwest-Äthiopien (PhD thesis, Freie Universität Berlin, 1972)

  • Leslau, W., Falasha Anthology (New Haven, 1951)

  • Leslau, W., “A Falasha Religious Dispute,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 16 (1947), 71-95

  • Idem, “Taamrat Emmanuel's Notes on Falasha Monks and Holy Places,” in Salo Wittmayer Baron Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem 1974), 623-637

  • Marrassini, P., Lo Scettro e la Croce. La Campagna di ‘Amda Seyon I contro l’Ifat (1332) (Naploi 1993)

  • Parfitt, T. (ed.), Jews of Ethiopia: the Birth of an Elite (London, 2005)

  • Perrouchon, J., Les Chroniques de Zar’a Ya’eqob et Ba’ede Maryam. Roi d’Ethiopie de 1434 a 1478 (Paris 1893)

  • Quirin, J., The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews (Philadelphia, 1992)

  • Shelemay, K.K., Music, Ritual, and Falasha History, 2nd ed. (East Lansing 1989)

  • Trasselli, C., “Un italiano in Etiopia nel XV secolo: Pietro Rombulo da Messina”, Rassegna di Studi Etiopici 1 (1941) 173-202

  • Wajnberg, I. “Das Leben des H.L. Jafqerena’ Egzi”, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 106 (1936)

  • Weil, S. (ed.), Beta Israel: the Jews of Ethiopia and Beyond; History, Identity and Borders (Venice, 2011)

  • Winter Jones, J., The Travels of Nicolo Conti in the East in the Early part of the Fifteenth Century (London, 1857)

Regions inhabited by the Beta Israel wid
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