An African safari

Like the first European to write about them in the 1520’s, I have to say: “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more.”

(Published in Daily Times, 31 October 2012)

Africa beckoned me, sub-Saharan Africa to be precise.  Or what is more commonly and historically known as “black” Africa.  Although I have lived in Morocco and also travelled to Egypt, neither country feels or looks African.  Both countries are geographically in Africa and yet they are not “African” in the sense that the rest of the world knows or understands that continent.  Clearly, there is a distinction between the Arabicised, predominantly Berber north Africa and the “black”, sub-Saharan, “real” Africa.

And it is amazing how many people think of Africa as if it was one big country inhabited by “black” people of similar looks and features. By contrast, everyone knows that Koreans and Japanese, for example, are a world apart from Jordanians and Pakistanis, although they are all Asians. Chinese are very different from Indians, although the two countries are not just in Asia but they also share a vast common border, all of 3,225 kilometres.  Or, for that matter, how different south Indians are from the people of northern or eastern India.

Like Asia, Europe or South America, Africa is neither homogenous nor monolithic.  It is vast, the second largest continent after Asia.  With a total area of over 30 million square kilometres, the continent is nearly three times the size of Europe and larger than China, USA, Western Europe, India and Argentina combined, or about ten times the size of India.  Of the six inhabited continents, Africa also has the highest number of states, a total of 54, more than a quarter of the total number of states in the world.

Given the size of Africa, I had to satisfy myself with only a part of this vast continent, visiting eight countries of eastern and southern Africa, from Ethiopia in the north to South Africa in the south, from the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela to the spectacular Cape Peninsula.

Lalibela in Ethiopia is the site of about a dozen churches from the 12th– 13th centuries.  Like the first European to write about them in the 1520’s, I have to say: “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more.”  Suffice it to say here that these churches were not “constructed”; rather, they are the remnants of hills and escarpments which were deliberately hewn or chipped away slowly and skilfully by human hands with very rudimentary tools.  Only Petra in Jordan has comparable structures, standing monuments which bear testimony to human application, commitment and patience.

Some below ground level, others above, these amazing churches are the site of constant bible recitals and prayers by the highly hierarchical Orthodox Christian priesthood. Their robes, which are predominantly white, indicate their respective positions in the hierarchy.  After the recitals are done by the high priests, the bible is passed around to be kissed by the numerous lesser priests.

This ancient civilization clings to an ancient calendar derived from the Egyptian-Coptic.  According to the Ethiopian calendar, the current year is 2005, which began on 11 September 2012 of our (Gregorian) calendar.  Ethiopians reckon their time in two 12-hour cycles of dawn to dusk (day cycle) and dusk to dawn (night cycle), as opposed to our midnight to midday (noon) and midday to midnight cycles. Although it appears bewildering at first, in fact it is more logical than the system the rest of the world follows, in which the new day starts not at dawn but at midnight.

Ethiopia is not just one of the most ancient civilizations in the world.  The earliest “Homo Sapiens” may have set out from this region to populate the rest of the world.  The skeletal remains of “Lucy” were unearthed here in 1974.  She is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago and may be one of our biological ancestors.

Muslims know Ethiopia as Habsha, the land of the first emigration of Muslims. Fleeing from persecution in Mecca, some of the earliest Muslim converts had sought refuge across the Red Sea from Hejaz, in the Christian kingdom of Aksum about 400 km north of Lalibela. By all accounts they were very well treated and some settled in the area for good.

The Kingdom of Aksum was one of the major powers in the 3rd century, besides Rome, Persia, China and India.  The origin of the Ethiopian monarchy goes back to the 2nd century BC.  Also known as Abyssinia, Ethiopia has had the distinction of being the only country in Africa (besides Liberia) not to be colonised by the European powers, except for a brief occupation by Italy (1936-41). Ethiopia also has the honour of having defeated a European power (Italy) in the Battle of Adwa in 1896 at a time when European military might appeared invincible. 

As such, Ethiopia enjoyed great prestige in Africa, becoming one of only four African member-states of the League of Nations, a founding member of the United Nations and the headquarter of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union).  In 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor of this poor but proud country as Haile Selassie (“Power of the Trinity” in Amharic).  As if that was not enough, the Emperor also bestowed on himself the rather pompous titles of King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Elect of God.  The Rastafari religious movement, named after him, considers him to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

More recently, though, Ethiopia became synonymous with famine and starvation.  The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-92 killed a third of its population and a hundred years later, during the famine of the 1980’s, as many as a million Ethiopians may have lost their lives. Although the famine of the early 1970’s caused “fewer” deaths by Ethiopian standards, just about 100,000, it led to the downfall of one of the world’s oldest monarchies and a sad end to the long reign of the “Lion King”.

by Razi Azmi

 (To be continued)

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7 Responses to An African safari

  1. Razi Azmi,

    This is an excellent look into a complex slice of the world. Your pen is as engaging as your wit is in person. Perhaps several excerpts of these articles will find their way into history textbooks. Thanks for the diligence to capture these thoughts for us, and future generations. I’ve just left a week of meetings in Israel and now am on the front side of the same in Korea. Your glimpse of ethnic mis-groupings especially resonates. Jerry Pattengale, Indiana Wesleyan University and the Green Scholars Initiative

  2. Ishtiaq Ahmed says:

    You are the eternal traveller Razi and a global citizen. That is why nothing escapes your observation because you are genuinely at home wherever you are. I do hope that these travelogues will finally become one great book full of insights and sympathy for the humankind, notwithstanding its proclivity to act terribly from time to time as a tribal lot rather than one common family.

  3. Zulfiqar Ali says:

    Razi Azmi has combined intellectual rigor of a scholar with the keen insight of an explorer and traveller exhibited by travellers like Marco Polo in history. After reading this article, one feels that several of one’s myths and perceptions about African continent and African Peoples are almost shattered. I had read history of Africa several years back with reference to history of the Muslims in Africa, in which the authors had mainly covered only the Arabicized North African nations. During my college years, I had studied a lesson about the Great Sahara of Africa by an English explorer and writer. In my early schooling, I had read about Ethiopia because the noble king of Ethopia had treated the Muslim emigrants very well providing them safety from persecution of their enemies.But, after perusing through this piece of writing, I am awakened to the fact that I had only gone through only one part of the history of the People of of this vast and second largest continent, hosting 54 nation states even today.
    This study covers the Peoples inhabiting Africa both in Arabicized North Africa as well as real Sub-Saharan Africa, which is least known and explored by foreigners in existing literature. His mention of the dozen churches in Lalibela in Ethopia and how they were carved out takes the reader mentally in the 12th and 13th centuries in reality, where Bible is still read by the priests even today.

    Then, the article also presents an interesting account of the Ethopian calendar which considers the start of the new date and day with the dawn of the day, which seems more logical than our present day starting with midnight.
    Next, the story of the Ethopians love for independence, which never allowed this region to be colonized by any foreigners speaks volumes for the spirit and courage of these people.
    Moreover, Ethopia’s leadership role among African nations as exhibited through membership of League of Nations, UN and the African Union informs about the prominent role this nation played in world affairs in recent history.

    The prolonged story of this ancient civilization and one of the oldest monarchies of the world dating back to the second century rising to the glory through centuries finally kissing its downfall as result of 1970s famine, a part of over a century spell of famine leading to death of a third of its populations seems like a real-life tragedy.

    Azmi sahib has blazed this new trail for the future researchers working in this area. The author has raised several of the peculiar aspects and new dimensions about this vast continent and its ethnically heterogenous Peoples would help guide the future researchers about the future history of the African people. It is an excellent piece of research as well as highly informative and invaluable travelogue indeed.

  4. Jacob Kipp says:

    As always this is enlightening. You bring empathy and insight to wht you see. Thank you for sharing these insights with us.

  5. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib has now taken up the task of introducing Africa to us. We learnt a lot from his travel across America. His insights and the eye for detail and the unobvious is truly great.
    People with Razi Sahib’s abilities are difficult to find.

  6. Javed Agha says:

    Awaiting the continuation. Thank you Razi for the details in the article.

  7. Arif Hassan says:

    As always enjoyed reading your travelogues. Thanks for educating us on African anthropology, history, religion, politics, economy etc. etc. You are the modern day Ibn Batuta.

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