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A History of Africa


664 B.C. to 641 A.D.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Egypt: The Late Period
The Persian Conquests
Alexander's Victory Tour
The Good Ptolemies
The Bad Ptolemies
The Queen of Kings
Kush: The Meroitic Phase

Part II

The End of Pharaonic Egypt
Roman Africa
North African Christianity
The Vandal Kingdom
Meanwhile, Below the Sahara
Africa's Population In Ancient Times
Ancient African Explorers
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The End of Pharaonic Egypt

Under Roman rule, Egypt lost its 3,000-year-old civilization, becoming just another part of the classical world. The Ptolemies had at least lived in Egypt; the money they extracted had gone to strengthen the country, and in return they gave Egypt the latest Western technology and culture. By contrast, the Romans were absentee landlords, whose governors mercilessly milked Egypt. Because of that, the sullenness of Ptolemaic days was replaced with despair, and the Egyptians, like many other Roman citizens in the first century A.D., began turning to new religions for hope and comfort.(23)

One of these religions wasn't really new if you were an Egyptian. The age-old myth of Osiris, Isis and Horus was introduced to the rest of the Roman Empire, and its emphasis on love, faithfulness, and victory over death appealed everywhere. Under the Ptolemies Isis became the most popular member of this Egyptian trinity, so temples to her sprang up all over the Empire, from the Middle East to Britain. And because the main center of worship for Isis was now at Philae, Diocletian, one of the last pagan Roman emperors, built a gateway there (285-305 A.D.).

Despite its success, the "Isis cult" collapsed in the fourth century, because there now was a creed with a more powerful message: Christianity. Since Egypt was next to the Holy Land, the first Christians could not fail to notice it, and many of their early missionaries, especially the Apostle Matthew, concentrated their activities there, knowing that Egypt had lots of spiritually hungry people. By the end of the first century Cyrene had a church, too, though we don't know whether Simon of Cyrene (the man who helped carry the cross of Jesus), one of the Apostles, or somebody else was responsible for this congregation. Gradually a group of Christian thinkers arose in Alexandria, and through them the ancient and exhausted land helped to develop Christian theology. Three of them--Origen, Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria--are now considered important early Church fathers. In the third and fourth centuries monasticism got started in Egypt, and the monk's custom of shaving the head is a carryover from the practices of ancient Egyptian priests; to the Egyptians being bald just seemed natural for clergymen.

Because it was a Greek city, Alexandria also produced stormy intellectual controversies. The most serious of these, the Arian heresy, denied the divinity of Jesus, divided Christians for three hundred years and caused considerable violence. Arius, the clergyman who started it all, came from Alexandria, but so did Athanasius, the bishop who defended the doctrine of the Trinity; after all, in the past the Egyptians had viewed God and their king as the same person, so why should they feel differently about Jesus? After this was settled another dispute arose, this time over the personality of Jesus (Monophysitism). Again the Egyptians took the uncompromising view, insisting that Jesus was 100 percent divine. This prompted Egyptian monks--many of them wild-eyed and illiterate--to come out of the desert and argue the issues in the towns with fists and clubs. It also alienated Egypt from the rest of the Empire when the emperor, now based in Constantinople, accepted an opposing viewpoint, and regarded those who disagreed with him as disloyal. The nastiest episode in the whole controversy took place in 415 when a mob of Christian fanatics went after a pagan philosopher named Hypatia, who was famous for her beauty and her skill in mathematics, and tore her limb from limb.

Sometimes the early Christians chose to recycle pre-Christian places of worship, rather than build new ones. At Wadi al-Sebua in Lower Nubia, for example, they converted a temple built by Ramses II into a church. As part of the remodeling job, they removed an idol from its niche in the wall, and painted a picture of St. Peter in the empty space, but they left the paintings of Ramses holding bouquets on each side of the niche, so now it looked like the mighty pharaoh was offering flowers to the Apostle! Then late in the fourth century, Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) ordered the closing of all remaining pagan temples. However, with Philae this decree wasn't enforced, due to the large number of Nubians going there. The old-time paganism lingered on at Philae until 535, when the temple of Isis was finally closed by order of Emperor Justinian.(24)

Egyptian Christians did away with the old styles of writing, too. Hieroglyphics did not appeal to them, because these were now associated with pagan temples, nor were they interested in using simpler ancient Egyptian scripts (Hieratic and Demotic). The last hieroglyphic inscription was carved at Philae in 396; the last example of the other scripts is on a Demotic papyrus, dated to 425. In its place they now used the Greek alphabet to phonetically spell Egyptian words, and this became the language we call Coptic.

Egypt's involvement with Christianity ended in 641, when it was conquered in the first wave of invasions out of Arabia by the successors of Mohammed. Arabic became the official language, and Coptic was relegated to liturgies in the Egyptian Church. The Nile grain and Nubian gold that once went to Rome and Constantinople now went to support the cause of Islam. The Arabs ruled Egypt for most of the next six centuries, during which they completely transformed the land into part of the Arab world. They were succeeded in turn by non-Arab rulers converted to Islam; the Kurdish family of the famous Saladin, the slave dynasty of the Mamelukes, the Ottoman Turks, and finally Mohammed Ali, a soldier of fortune from the Balkans who founded a dynasty that lasted until 1952. In the nineteenth century Egypt went broke and went to one of its creditors--Great Britain--by default. Not until Gamal Abdel Nasser took over, in the mid-twentieth century, did the Egyptians regain their long-lost independence under a native.

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Roman Africa

The Romans didn't have a plan for conquering Africa, and they passed up the first opportunities that came their way. After the First Punic War, they took nothing for themselves except Sicily, satisfied that Carthage had been cut down to size. It was the same case following the Second Punic War; they took over Carthaginian land in Europe, while in Africa, they broke off Numidia (Algeria) and Mauretania (Morocco) from the Carthaginian state, turning them into independent kingdoms. However, the client kings of those states were expected to act like the governors of Roman provinces, and Rome would not hesitate to respond if they behaved otherwise. Finally, with the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C., they acquired a foothold on the continent, turning the Carthaginian homeland (northern Tunisia) into the Roman province of Africa.

In 118 B.C. the king of Numidia died, and he willed that the kingdom be inherited by both of his sons. A nephew of the late king, Jugurtha, had one of the princes assassinated, and when the other, Adherbal, fled to Rome and came back with an army to enforce his claim, Jugurtha killed him too, after defeating his Roman benefactors. This marked the beginning of the Jugurthine War, and it dragged on for six years (112-106) because Roman leadership was incompetent for most of it, and because Jugurtha used guerrilla warfare, wasting the villages and forts under Roman control; this was the type of warfare the Romans least understood. Finally, an able commander, Gaius Marius, took charge of the Roman army; Jugurtha's father-in-law, the king of Mauretania, treacherously handed over the Numidian to the Romans, and Marius went home in triumph with Jugurtha as his prisoner. A son of Adherbal now became king and returned Numidia to its protectorate status.

We already saw that Rome got its second African territory, Cyrenaica, when the Egyptian prince Ptolemy Apion bequeathed it in 96 B.C. This brought the land between Tunisia and Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, into the Roman sphere of influence, but because the Romans were slow to act, it went to Numidia first. The Romans got it in 46 B.C., when Numidia's King Juba I backed the wrong side in the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Juba had teamed up with Quintus Metellus Scipio Marcus Portius Cato, one of Pompey's generals, presumably because people had come to believe that a Scipio could not be beaten in Africa (e.g., the battle of Zama in 202 B.C. and the siege of Carthage in 146). Caesar defeated him anyway, and annexed half of Numidia, adding it to the province of Africa. The king's son, six-year-old Juba II, was taken to Rome to be displayed in Caesar's triumph, but fortunately was spared; the Romans would find a use for him before long. As he grew up, Juba became a close friend of Octavian/Augustus, and went with him on his military campaigns. Shortly before his assassination in 44 B.C., Caesar ordered Carthage rebuilt, as part of his program to resettle Rome's surplus population outside of Italy.

Caesar left Mauretania alone because its king, Baccus II, supported him, and when Baccus died in 33 B.C. he willed his kingdom to Rome. However, the Romans weren't ready to take on a territory that large, so when Augustus was finished with the task of annexing Egypt, he gave Mauretania to Cleopatra VII's daughter, Cleopatra Selene. Then in 25 B.C. Juba II inherited the throne of Numidia. Five years later he married Cleopatra Selene, thereby uniting Numidia and Mauretania. However, Juba was also a Roman citizen, so the Numidians rioted, feeling that their king was no longer one of them. Juba and Cleopatra abandoned the rest of Numidia to the Romans, who subsequently annexed it, and built a new capital for themselves on the site of the Carthaginian city of Iol, calling it Caesarea (modern Cherchel in Algeria). From there they jointly ruled Mauretania and lived together happily until Cleopatra Selene's death in 9 A.D., a remarkably quiet end for a dynasty whose motto seems to have been, "When in doubt, snuff them out."

In 17 A.D., Tacfarinas, a Numidian who had served in the Roman army, launched a revolt that seriously threatened Roman rule in Africa because of its location, in southern Tunisia. To his cause he won over a Berber tribe called the Mauri, from which we get both the names of Mauretania and the Moors. Against this the Romans only had one legion on the scene, and though it won the first set battle, Tacfarinas prolonged the rebellion by resorting to guerrilla warfare, as Jugurtha had done. Finally the Romans brought in a second legion from Spain, and after some more defeats, Tacfarinas committed suicide in 24.

Juba and Cleopatra had a son named Ptolemy (no surprise there), and a daughter named Drusilla; Ptolemy succeeded Juba as king in 24 A.D. Sixteen years later the Roman emperor Caligula invited Ptolemy to visit Rome, but on the journey he was treacherously seized and executed, and the annexation of his kingdom announced.(25) The people of Mauretania reacted predictably, and it took two years of fighting (40-42) before the new province could be declared pacified. That completed the Roman conquest of North Africa, and behind the legions now came the civilizing agents that would tie the North African provinces to the rest of the Empire. Some new cities were built, like Timgad in Algeria and Volubilis in Morocco, while existing ones were revamped to include all the elements of Roman life (aqueducts, streets in a grid pattern, forums, basilicas, temples, bathouses, and amphitheaters). In addition, the famous Roman roads went between the cities, ships transported raw materials and manufactured goods across the Mediterranean, and the Latin language and Roman system of currency were introduced. Under this onslaught, the indigenous cultures all but disappeared, and the typical Roman could travel to any city in the provinces with the confidence that his destination would look like, as one Roman wrote, "a small image and copy of Rome."

Augustus set the European and Asian frontiers of the Roman Empire on three rivers--the Rhine, Danube and Euphrates--and few of his successors ventured beyond them. It was a similar story in Africa, where the Sahara Desert became the empire's southern frontier, and for that matter, the southern frontier of the classical world, since the only way to get through the desert at this stage was by following the Nile valley. Augustus did send a military expedition to the Fezzan oases, but like the expedition that he sent to Nubia, it didn't find anything that was worth the trouble to keep, so he left the desert to local tribes like the Mauri and the Garamantes.

The empire's Saharan frontier proved to be the most stable; in fact, it didn't change much until the Vandals arrived in the fifth century A.D. It also was the easiest to defend, requiring about a tenth of the Roman army. Augustus stationed three legions in Africa, basing them in Egypt, Cyrenaica and the Maghreb. One hundred years later, when Emperor Trajan conquered the nearest part of Arabia, he transferred the Cyrenaican legion there, to guard the more dangerous Asian frontier, leaving only two for Africa. Nevertheless, Africa was critical to the Empire, because Egypt provided, as we noted earlier, the largest and most reliable harvest in the known world. Egyptian farms were given the task of keeping the city of Rome fed, and if the grain ships were delayed or kept from sailing for any reason, the farms of the Maghreb, which produced half as many bushels, had the job of filling up the granaries.

The system carefully worked out by Augustus, called the Principate and the Pax Roman, ran smoothly for him and his immediate successors, but started coming undone in the last years of the second century A.D. In 193 Septimius Severus, a native of Leptis Magna in Tripolitania, became emperor, founding a dynasty that would last until 235. Because he was an ethnic Carthaginian, you could say that the ruled now became the rulers.(26)

Africa played a part in the Roman drama again just a couple of years after the end of the Severan dynasty, when Maximinus, the first of the "Soldier Emperors," put a seventy-eight-year-old official, Gordian I, in charge of the province of Africa, giving him the job of collecting an oppressive new tax. The previous governor had been lynched by the local nobility when they refused to pay the tax, and soon they persuaded Gordian that if he knew what was good for him, he would try to become emperor instead of collecting the money. However, Gordian was too old to lead the rebellion himself, so his son (Gordian II) took charge of the troops. To most Romans, Gordian I looked like a more acceptable candidate for the throne, because he was a respectable aristocrat, while Maximinus was a Thracian soldier of obscure birth with no government experience, so most of the provinces switched their allegiance from Maximinus to Gordian, with the exceptions of Pannonia, Dacia, Spain, and most importantly, Numidia. Numidia's governor controlled the closest legion to Carthage, and the hastily recruited Carthaginian militia of the Gordians was no match for it; Gordian II was killed in the resulting battle, and Gordian I hanged himself around the same time. Together they had reigned for only twenty-two days (238).

Meanwhile in Italy, soldiers killed Maximinus and the two senators who tried to succeed him. Thus, 238 became the year in which five emperors died violently. There was one other candidate for the throne living in Rome--a nephew of Gordian II and the grandson of Gordian I--so both the soldiers and the Senate proclaimed him emperor. However, this Gordian (III) was only thirteen years old, meaning that he could not rule with adult supervision, so although his six-year reign was longer than most in the mid-third century, he didn't do it alone. One of his first acts was to disband the North African legion, since it could no longer be trusted; henceforth the emperors would rely on diplomacy and treaties to keep the Berber tribes peaceful. In 243 Gordian III and his best advisor, Gaius Furius Sabinus Aquila Timestheus, went east to deal with an invasion from Shapur I, the vigorous new king of Persia. They won the war, but Timestheus died on the front, and a year later Gordian also died. Shapur claimed that he had killed Gordian in battle, but he gained nothing beyond the city of Hatra, so we now believe that both Timestheus and Gordian were done in by the Roman general on the spot, Marcus Julius Philippus, better known to us as Philip the Arab, so that he could become the next emperor.

More emperors rose and fell, barbarian attacks grew stronger and more frequent, and the Empire nearly collapsed. The low point came in the 260s, when Gaul and Britain were under a rebel leader named Posthumous, and the eastern provinces were under another, the Arab Queen Zenobia. Most of the African provinces remained loyal to the emperor in Rome (except Egypt, which briefly fell to Zenobia), but they were nearly defenseless; in 257 a raiding party of Vandals came across the Straits of Gibraltar, while Mauri raids from the desert became a serious problem. Finally order returned when Diocletian seized power in 284. A year later Roman soldiers and administrators abandoned Volubilis; it remained a Roman town for at least another century, but henceforth the only part of Mauretania/Morocco that the Romans tried to defend was the Mediterranean coast.

Diocletian also divided the Roman Empire in two. At this point it was for administrative purposes; though the Empire was divided more often than not after this, Romans still saw themselves as citizens of one state. The Eastern Roman Empire got Egypt and Cyrenaica, while the Western Roman Empire got Tripolitania and the Maghreb. The Egyptian breadbasket made the East richer than the West, guaranteeing that when the barbarians attacked the Empire after that, the West would go down and the East would weather the storm.

Late in the fourth century, North Africa was destabilized for a generation by a strange conflict involving a group of brothers, sometimes called the Gildonic War. Their father was Nubel, a Mauri prince who happened to be both a Roman military officer and a Christian. When Nubel died in 371 or 372, one of the sons, Zammac, inherited Nubel's estate, and his half brother Firmus killed him. Firmus had a better claim to the property because Zammac was illegitimate, but Zammac was also preferred by Romanus, the comes Africae (field commander of Africa). What's more, Romanus had a reputation for being corrupt; he had refused to defend Tripolitania against raids from the desert because its cities, especially Leptis Magna, didn't send him enough "protection money." When the Tripolitanians complained to the current emperor, Valentinian I, Romanus used his connections to transfer the blame, resulting in the execution of many prominent Africans.

Firmus raised the banner of revolt, and Valentinian sent his magister militium Theodosius the Elder (the father of the future emperor Theodosius I) to investigate. Upon arrival in Africa, he arrested Romanus. That ended the reason for the revolt, and Firmus offered peace to the newcomer three times, going so far as to send Christian priests as his envoys. But Firmus had already been proclaimed emperor by the troops under him, and had begun wearing a purple cloak and a neck chain as symbols of his new status (the chain acted as a substitute for a crown), so Theodosius saw him as a traitor, and refused to negotiate. By sending his brothers Mascezel and Dius and his sister Cyria to the tribes of Mauretania, Firmus was able to recruit an army many times larger than the one Theodosius had. When the two sides met in battle, Theodosius was forced to withdraw, but in the end Firmus was betrayed and captured by Igmazen, a chieftain who sided with the central authority. Not wanting to fall into the hands of Theodosius, Firmus committed suicide.

That wasn't the end of the matter because a few years later, Theodosius I became the Eastern Roman emperor, while Magnus Maximus, an officer who had served under Theodosius the Elder in Africa, was proclaimed emperor of the West by his troops. To command the soldiers in Africa, Magnus chose Gildo, a brother of Firmus who had fought on the side of Rome in the recent rebellion, as the new comes Africae. Then in 395 Theodosius I died, and each half of the Empire went to one of his sons. Gildo was technically under the new ruler of the West, Honorius, but he thought he might have more independence under the emperor of the East, Arcadius. The Western Empire couldn't accept the loss of its African territory, with its vital granaries, so when Gildo ordered African ships to stop sailing to Rome in 397, Honorius took this as a declaration of war.

It was Stilicho the Vandal, Honorius' general, who saved the day for the West. He arranged an alternate food supply to get the Western Empire through the winter and persuaded the Senate to raise an army of 10,000, under the command of the last son of Nubel, Mascezel. Against this Gildo had 70,000 men, but they put up little resistance, so Gildo tried to escape, only to be caught and killed.

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North African Christianity

Earlier in this chapter we noted the arrival of Judaism and Christianity to the Nile valley. West of Egypt the picture isn't so clear. There were very old Jewish communities in the Atlas mts. and the caves of the Libyan desert, but we don't know how long they had been in existence before the Romans took over. With Christianity, Simon the Zealot is the only first-century missionary reported in the Maghreb. After that, the next reports of Christian activity come from 180 A.D., when two groups of Christians were martyred in the Numidian cities of Scillium and Madaura. Apparently the African Church was growing very quickly, because around 197, Tertullian wrote in his Apology that it was just yesterday when the Christians "have filled every place among you [the pagans] -- cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palaces, senate, forum; we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods." Consequently, when a formal organization was set up for the Church, the bishop of Carthage became one of its original four leaders (the other top bishops were in Antioch, Rome(27), and Alexandria). Like Egypt, North Africa was the home of several important theologians, especially Tertullian, Cyprian, Donatus and Augustine.

North Africa saw much spiritual turmoil after Christianity arrived. Manicheism, a new Persian religion, was introduced late in the third century, and despite being banned in 297, it gained many converts because it resembled Gnosticism; even St. Augustine subscribed to it at an early stage of his career. The last great persecution of the Church under Diocletian hit Africa particularly hard; for example, in Abitna, a town southwest of Carthage, all forty-seven Christians were martyred. This led to a radical movement among those remaining; they took a hard line against Christians who had compromised in order to survive. They excommunicated all lapsed and gross offenders, asserted that the effectiveness of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's supper) depended on the worthiness of the one who gave them, and like the Novatians in Rome, they even re-baptized Christians who left mainstream churches to join theirs. Martyrs were seen as ideal Christians, and the North African Church emphasized purity to the point that many of its members forgot they were reformed sinners.

In 311 Carthage got a new bishop, Caecilian; the radicals rejected him because he was too moderate for their tastes, and because he had been ordained by a bishop accused of traditio, the handing over or "betrayal" of Holy Scriptures to the authorities during Diocletian's persecution. Then 70 bishops, led by the primate of Numidia, got together and elected one of their own, Majorius, and when he died soon after, they elected Donatus of Casae Nigrae; he led the radical movement long enough (313-355) to give his name to it. Thus, Carthage had two bishops, and the North African Church split even as the Roman emperor Constantine legalized it.

Constantine got involved because he saw Church schismatics as rebels against the state, and he didn't want to bring down the wrath of God on himself and the people entrusted to his care. An investigation found the bishop who ordained Caecilian innocent of the traditio charge, and Constantine sided with Caecilian's faction. The Donatists refused to accept this ruling and those of the subsequent Church councils, so Constantine threatened to go to Africa and set things right himself:

"I am going to make plain to them what kind of worship is to be offered to God . . . What higher duty have I as emperor than to destroy error and repress rash indiscretions, and so cause all to offer to Almighty God true religion, honest concord and due worship?"

Constantine didn't go, but he declared Donatism a heresy, and ordered their churches to be confiscated and their leaders exiled. The result was a round of anti-Donatist persecution, which stopped when Constantine realized that it was only making the Donatists even more intransigent. His successor Constans also tried to destroy the Donatists by force, prompting this famous quote from Donatus: "Quid est imperatori cum ecclesia?" (What has the emperor to do with the church?) Then they got a reprieve in the 360s when Julian, the last pagan emperor, restored the Donatist churches and reinstated their bishops, because his enemies were the same as their enemies. The sect peaked in the last years of the fourth century; at a council in 394 the Donatists assembled 310 bishops.

If you think the Donatists were extreme, well, one of the characteristics of religion and politics is that every fringe group can produce its own fringe groups, super-radical folks who believe the radicals they are splitting from didn't go far enough. In the case of the Donatists, their extremists have the dubious distinction of being the dumbest Christian sect of all time. These were gangs of Berbers, usually illiterate peasants, called Circumcellions ("guys who hang around villages") or Agonisticis ("antagonists"). They believed that the only way they could be certain of going to Heaven was by becoming martyrs. Ignoring what mainstream Christianity said about chastity, sobriety, humility, and charity, they lived irresponsibly, and attacked people on the roads with wooden clubs (for reasons unknown, they called their clubs "Israelites"), while shouting "Praise God!" The goal of these attacks was to provoke the victim to fight back and kill them, thus making them martyrs. If they could not die in this way, they might commit suicide by crashing a pagan sacrifice, drowning themselves, or jumping off cliffs.

Because the Circumcellions rejected all authority, they felt they somehow earned extra points if the people they ambushed with their clubs were Catholic clergymen, soldiers, or government officials. Like anarchists in other times and places, they called for the abolition of slavery, and the cancellation of debts. On a positive note, they took good care of the graves of Christian martyrs, which included their own graves, of course. The Circumcellion movement hung around until the 430s, and then withered away, partly because most of them had achieved "martyrdom" by this time, and partly because even the regular Donatists no longer wanted anything to do with them.

In the 390s, the Catholics gained two leaders who were a match for the Donatists, Aurelius of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo. In 405 Emperor Honorius issued an edict commanding the Donatists, under the severest penalties, to return to the Catholic church. When this didn't work, Augustine arranged for a great conference between the Donatists and the Catholics, which was held at Carthage in 411; 286 Catholic and 279 Donatist bishops attended the affair. Augustine took part in the discussions, maintaining a moderate view that unworthy members should be allowed to remain in the church, as tares among wheat, until God's final judgment. In the end, the Catholics had their way: Donatism was classified as a heresy against the one true Church. The bishop of Carthage was demoted--henceforth no Church patriarchs would come from there. In addition, Donatists were fined according to their rank and station, they were deprived of all civil rights in 414, and their buildings became the property of the Catholic Church. One year later, their assemblies were banned under penalty of death. Whole communities of bishops and laymen returned to the official Church, but a few extremists remained, so the movement didn't disappear completely. For the rest of the fifth and sixth centuries, Donatism gathered up the most discontented folks in society without becoming a nationalist or revolutionary movement, allowing it to survive until the Moslems arrived and eliminated all sides in the doctrinal dispute.

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Ethiopia's involvement in world history began with a Semitic invasion across the Red Sea, some time around 500 B.C. Coming ashore in Eritrea, the Arabs founded Adulis, the first seaport in Black Africa whose location is known to us. Then they continued into the Ethiopian highlands, intermarrying with the local population and displacing the Nilotic groups that had lived in the neighborhood previously: the Beja/Blemmyes, the Oromo/Galla and the Afar/Danakil. Not only did the highlands provide a ready-made defense for the newcomers, but the different elevations of the mountains created several climates, allowing for a more diverse agriculture. In addition to the crops we're familiar with from elsewhere, early Ethiopian farmers grew teff, a grain found nowhere else, and coffee trees. Coffee may be Ethiopia's biggest contribution to the world at large (it still accounts for at least a fourth of Ethiopia's income today), but until it was introduced to the Middle East, sometime between 1200 and 1500 A.D., it was only grown here.

Two Arabian tribes, the Banu Habesh and the Banu Ag'azi, were involved in the migration to the highlands, and both of them lent their names to the place where they settled. From the Banu Habesh we get the name of Abyssinia, applied both to the country as a whole and the mountains where they lived, the Abyssinian Massif. The name of the Banu Ag'azi comes down to us as Ge'ez, the name of the ancient language used by the Ethiopian church; modern Amharic and Tigrinya, also Semitic languages, are derived from Ge'ez.

Ge'ez (also known as Ethiopic) did not have a written script until the fourth century A.D., so we can't be sure about what the Ethiopians were doing before that time. However, the Ethiopians themselves are confident about their origins, and will tell you that their kings are descended from Israel's Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. According to them, the king and queen didn't simply exchange questions and gifts, as the Bible tells us. The Queen of Sheba (called Makeda by the Ethiopians) was so impressed by what she saw that she converted to Judaism, while Solomon was charmed by her beauty and intelligence, and plotted a trap to get her into his bed. When a banquet was held in her honor, Solomon told her to enjoy herself, but she must not take anything without his permission. However, he also made sure that the meal served was salty, and before going to bed after the meal, the Queen went to get a drink of water; Solomon accused her of breaking his rule, and demanded that she spend the night with him as payment. As a result, she went home pregnant with a son, Menelik I.

The legend goes on to state that when Menelik grew up, he came to Israel to study the Torah and Judaism. Solomon offered to make Menelik his heir, but the young man refused, because he already had a kingdom he was responsible for. Then Solomon gave him gifts for the trip back to Ethiopia, the main one being a full-size replica of the Ark of the Covenant. However, somebody switched the duplicate with the original (versions of the story disagree on whether the Queen, Menelik, or the Queen's vizier did the switching), so Menelik went home with the real Ark! Today in Axum (also spelled Aksum), the oldest inhabited city of Ethiopia, visitors can see the tomb of Menelik, and the locals assert that the Ark is hidden in Axum's Church of St. Mary of Zion, though no one is allowed to see it except for the monk who keeps vigil there, night and day. Whenever a new king was crowned, he would go to Axum for the coronation, and under a Coptic cross he would declare, "I am the son of David and Solomon, and Ibna Hakim (Menelik)." The late Haile Selassie was the last king to do this, in 1930.

The above story comes from the Kebra Negast, or Glory of the Kings, a book compiled by an Ethiopian monk named Yetshak in the early fourteenth century. How much of it really happened is almost impossible to verify. Skeptics suggest that the story was compiled sometime after Abyssinia became Christian, to give its kings a more glorious lineage. Most Bible scholars will tell you that Sheba is another name for Saba, which would put the queen's home in Yemen. The possibility of an African origin for the queen, however, won't go away; Josephus, for example, in his Antiquities of the Jews, insisted on calling her "the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia." Perhaps in the tenth century B.C. there was a kingdom that controlled both shores of the Red Sea, the way Abyssinia would in the sixth century A.D.; that would resolve the geography issue. The author has seen a list of early Ethiopian kings, drawn from the Kebra Negast, that records seven generations of otherwise unknown kings after Menelik, before reaching Piankhy and his XXV dynasty successors. Thus, if any part of the legend is true, it means that the Kushites, and not today's Ethiopians, are the Queen of Sheba's descendants. At any rate, the dynasty that ended with Haile Selassie can be traced as far back as the fourth century A.D., so whether or not there is a Solomonic connection, it is one of the world's oldest royal families, at least as old as the Yamato family of Japan.

Dates for the founding of Axum range from 300 B.C. to 100 A.D. An older community named Yeha, with a temple to Almaqah, the Sabaean moon-god of pre-Moslem Arabia, once existed between Axum and Adwa (Adowa) in Tigre province; we don't know if its abandonment was directly related to the founding of Axum. In the early days, Ptolemaic Egypt sometimes formed an alliance with the Abyssinians, to check the power of the Nubians in-between. By 200 A.D., if not earlier, the kingdom of Abyssinia was fully established, using the port of Adulis to trade its agricultural products, gold and ivory for Roman and Indian goods. Ethiopian literature lists the names of seven kings from the third century, and then comes a king we know something about, Ezana II (ca. 303-356). At Axum he left an inscription describing his campaign against the Nobades, who he calls the Red Noba and the Black Noba. According to this, the tribesmen were interfering with the king's agents and messengers, and had broken a treaty by fighting among themselves. Ezana marched to the junction of the Nile and Atbara Rivers, which put him a few miles downstream from Meroë, and there he defeated the nomads. Then he pursued them for another twenty-three days, reached the "towns of masonry" of the Kushites, pillaged them, and did the same when he got to the Noba "towns of straw." Whether or not he was the one who destroyed the kingdom of Kush, he didn't stay to occupy the territory. Another inscription states that he brought back to Axum 3,112 head of cattle and 6,224 sheep. Then he started a tradition that would be followed by his successors, by constructing a forest of obelisks in Axum; the largest stood 78 feet high and weighed 517 tons. In Chapter 8, footnote #10, you will see how this obelisk became a bone of contention between modern Ethiopia and Italy.

Ezana's other important achievement was his conversion to Christianity in 330. The rest of the kingdom quickly followed, making Abyssinia the third Christian nation, after Armenia and the Roman Empire. The first archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (also called the Coptic Church because of its connections to Egypt) was Frumentius, a Syrian who had lived at the Ethiopian court for some time and was sent to Alexandria by Ezana to ask for a bishop; tradition asserts that St. Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria in the mid-fourth century, appointed Frumentius, figuring that he was the best man for the job (ca. 340). After that the Ethiopian Church was officially under the authority of the Egyptian Church, but because of the distances involved, Alexandria had no direct control over the Ethiopians, aside from choosing who would lead their clergy. Alexandria's influence also made sure that Greek would be widely used at the Abyssinian king's court, at least until the Bible could be translated into Ge'ez. When Islam conquered Egypt, the tenuous connection with the Ethiopian Church was broken, and not until the twelfth century could Alexandria make appointments again. Without exception, Alexandria always selected an Egyptian monk; not until 1945 did an Ethiopian get the top ecclesiastical job.

Once Egypt and Abyssinia were converted, pressure increased to bring salvation to the Nubians, but as we noted before, they were reluctant to adopt any form of monotheism if it meant compromising their independence. The first reported missionary to Nubia was a monk named Julian; he went there in 543, and his activities were written down by another monk, John of Ephesus. Julian found his biggest challenge to be one that all visitors to Africa have to deal with--the heat. John wrote that Julian "used to say that from nine o'clock until four in the afternoon he was obliged to take refuge in caves full of water, where he sat undressed except for a linen garment such as people in the country wear."(28) There seems to have been a competition of sorts between the Orthodox Church of Constantinople and the Monophysite Churches of Alexandria and Axum, with each trying to convert as many Nubians as possible. In the end the Nubians finally came around; by 600 the inhabitants of Nobatia and Alodia were Monophysites, while those of Makuria were Orthodox. This was the beginning of the Christian Nubian culture that would produce many glorious works of art in the Middle Ages.

While missionaries were active on Abyssinia's western frontier, the king's soldiers were active in the east. In 523 news came from Arabia that Dhu Nuwas, the Jewish king of Himyar (Yemen), was inclined to massacre Arab Christians. The Eastern Roman Empire was too far away to intervene on behalf of the Christians, so it asked the king of Abyssinia to do it; he obliged by sending an army across the Red Sea. This army drove out Dhu Nuwas by 525, and its commanding general became the puppet king of Himyar; in 533 he was succeeded by another pro-Abyssinian Christian, Abraha.

To the north of Yemen, the city of Mecca was a trading rival, and the home of the Kaaba, Arabia's greatest pagan temple, so both God and Mammon gave Abraha compelling reasons to take it out. First, he built a cathedral to compete with Mecca's religious traffic, in the hope that pilgrims would visit Yemen instead. Then in 570, he sent an army against Mecca; Abyssinia helped by contributing a war elephant. The leader of Mecca, Abdul Muttalib, tried to negotiate with the Christians, and Abraha told his representatives that he had come to destroy the Kaaba; the only way the Meccans could save themselves and their city was by getting out of the way. Abdul Muttalib didn't think he could defend the Kaaba, so he prepared to evacuate Mecca, but the invaders never arrived. Arab legend claims that a flock of birds dropped stones on the army, until only one soldier was left alive; it's more likely that an epidemic stopped the troops, since outbreaks of disease were a major problem in sixth-century cities. The fate of the elephant is unknown. Abraha died very soon after that, and in 575 the Persians conquered Yemen, bringing an end to Abyssinia's Arabian adventure. 570 went down in Arab history as "the Year of the Elephant," but it was for reasons that had nothing to do with the invasion; later in the same year Abdul Muttalib became a grandfather, when the future prophet Mohammed was born.

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The Vandal Kingdom

While North Africa was arguing the fine points of theology, the rest of the Roman Empire suffered from a new wave of barbarian invasions. This time the barbarians weren't looking for loot so much as they were looking for land to permanently settle in. In 409 four of these tribes--the Asding and Siling Vandals, Alans and the Suevi--migrated from Gaul, the province they had recently ravaged, and settled in Spain. The Roman army wasn't up to dealing with this challenge, so the Empire persuaded another invading tribe, the Visigoths, to go after the intruders. The Visigoths struck in southern Spain first, hitting the Alans and the Siling Vandals so hard that the survivors fled to Galicia in the northwest, where they joined the Asding Vandals and recognized the Asding king Gunderic as ruler of all the Vandals and Alans (416). Two years later the Visigoths withdrew, to accept the kingdom that had just been granted to them in Gaul by the nervous Romans. Then in 422, the Vandals parted ways with the Suevi and returned to the south (consequently southern Spain would be known as al-Andalus to the Arabs and Andalusia to modern geographers). After they settled there, they seized the Balearic Islands (426) and began to launch raids into North Africa.

King Gunderic fell in battle with the Franks in 428, and the merged Vandal-Alan tribe elected Gunderic's illegitimate half-brother, Gaiseric (also spelled Genseric), to succeed him. In an age when leaders were known for their treachery, Gaiseric proved to be the cleverest, most treacherous leader of all. Once in charge, he convinced his subjects that they ought to abandon Spain for Mauretania. Roman politics made this possible; Boniface, the governor of Carthage, invited them because he needed allies. Aetius, the commander of the Roman army, was plotting against him from Italy, so Boniface offered to provide transport for the Vandals across the Straits of Gibraltar. To find out how many boats were needed, Gaiseric counted his people just before the crossing; they numbered 80,000.

Coming ashore at Tingis (modern Tangiers) in 429, the Vandals found that Mauretania was a less appealing piece of real estate than the one they had just left, so they moved east. This made Mauretania an abandoned province, because the Romans couldn't administer it with the Vandals blocking the way; like Britain in Europe, it saw its provincial government devolve into a confederation of native tribes and chiefs. In 430 the Vandals took Caesarea, followed by Hippo Regius; the latter was the home of St. Augustine, and he died of a fever during the fourteen-month-long siege before that city fell. Boniface couldn't stop the Vandals, and ended up signing a treaty with them in 435, which recognized Vandal rule over everything west of Carthage. However, Gaiseric only kept the treaty while he regrouped and consolidated his gains, and in 438 he advanced on Carthage again. The second largest city of the Western Roman Empire finally fell on October 19, 439. Gaiseric was now master of the western Mediterranean's largest fleet and its only reliable source of surplus grain; with these he could blackmail the Romans at will, because they would be doomed if anything cut off Rome's grain supply. To keep the grain coming in, the Romans allowed Gaiseric to exchange Mauretania and Numidia for Tunisia, which was definitely a province worth keeping.

Whereas the Vandals had made their name a byword for destruction in western Europe, they did not act like "Vandals" in North Africa. Here they left the Roman farms, orchards, and infrastructure intact, simply putting themselves in charge of everything as the new aristocrats. Still, their arrival was bad news for everybody, because in the fourth century the Vandals had converted to the Christian heresy known as Arianism, making them enemies of both the Catholics and the Donatists. Churches were razed and assemblies by Catholics forbidden; priests and bishops were rounded up, deported, and replaced by Arian clergymen. This went on until 449, when the Roman emperor, Valentinian III, made a plea for tolerance, and Gaiseric responded by allowing a bishop in Carthage and relaxing the persecution.

Besides making Carthage his capital, Gaiseric also followed Carthaginian tradition by building a fleet, the greatest in the western Mediterranean. However, he didn't use it for trade; every year for the rest of his reign, the Vandal fleet brought back plunder and/or ransom money from the coastal cities of both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. When Valentinian III was assassinated in 455, a Vandal force went to Italy and plundered Rome for fourteen days, only stopping when Pope Leo I personally implored Gaiseric to spare the city from further acts of murder and arson. When the bishop of Carthage died in 458, Gaiseric left the office vacant (it wasn't filled until 481) and resumed the persecution of non-Arian Christians.

By now it was clear to everyone that the Western Roman Empire was on its last legs. In 460, the Vandals destroyed the Roman fleet off Cartagena, confirming their mastery of the Mediterranean. The Western Roman emperor found himself signing a treaty that handed over the entire Maghreb (not just Tunisia) to the Vandals. By 462 they had also captured all the islands in the western Mediterranean (besides the Balearics, this amounted to Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily). Then they started raiding Dalmatia and Greece, threatening even Constantinople, the Eastern Roman capital. At this point both emperors (Leo I in the East and Anthemius in the West), agreed to pool together their forces for a counterattack against the Vandals. A fleet of 1,000 ships, financed by the East, set sail in 468 to capture Carthage, but the three-pronged attack launched by Leo's brother-in-law, the incompetent Basiliscus, was poorly coordinated and ended in an embarrassing and costly withdrawal. In 474 the new Eastern emperor, Zeno, negotiated a peace treaty with Gaiseric to prevent further raids. Two years later, Gaiseric sold eastern Sicily to Odoacer, the new king of Italy who had just deposed the last Western emperor, since fighting other barbarians promised far less profit than fighting Romans.

Gaiseric's death in 477 ended the glory years for the Vandals.(29) His successors proved that competence isn't a hereditary trait. The first, his eldest son Huneric (477-484), listened too much to his Arian bishops. Huneric called a conference the kingdom's Catholic bishops, made them listen to pro-Arian arguments, and when they refused to convert, he decreed that the Roman laws against heresy would be applied to the Catholics who made up the majority of his subjects. The bishops were then exiled to work in the timberlands on Corsica or on farms in the interior of Africa; other Catholics had to show certificates of conformity before being allowed to hold a job. More cruel martyrdoms and apostasies resulted.

The last Vandal kings got even less done; Gunthamund (484-496) left the churches alone, while Thrasamund (496-523) exiled Catholic bishops to Sardinia. By this time the Vandals were no longer vigorous and warlike, having become soft from the easy Mediterranean life and preoccupied with religious and political issues. Then came Hilderic (523-530), who was the son of Huneric and a captive daughter of the former Emperor Valentinian III; he promptly ended the persecutions, recalled the bishops and restored the churches. This, along with an alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire, alienated most of the Vandal nobility and military; they detroned and arrested Hilderic, and installed his heir Gelimer in his place.

In Constantinople, Justinian was now the Eastern Roman emperor, and he had a dream to reconquer the lost western portion of the Empire; the coup which replaced the pro-Roman Hilderic with the anti-Roman Gelimer gave him the excuse he needed to get started. In September 533 Justinian's best general, Belisarius, sailed to Africa with 500 ships and 16,000 men, defeated the half of the Vandal army that was defending Carthage, and captured the city. It went so easily because recent Mauri raids had weakened the Vandal kingdom, and because Gelimer was away with the rest of the army on Sardinia. Three months later Gelimer and his soldiers came back, and Belisarius engaged them ten miles south of Carthage; it ended in a Roman victory when Ammatas, the brother of Gelimer, was killed, and the Vandal army disintegrated as it fled. Gelimer fled to Numidia, was pursued and captured there in 534, and taken to Constantinople; he eventually was settled in the Asian province of Galatia. Another year of mopping up ended all revolts, and the Vandals, never more than 5 percent of North Africa's population, quickly disappeared as a distinct people.

In 535 Justinian captured the Moroccan ports of Tangiers and Ceuta, to gain control over the Straits of Gibraltar. Still, the restored African provinces had lost much of their population, and were smaller and poorer than the provinces of pre-Vandal North Africa. In the years following Justinian's death, raids from Visigoths, Lombards, Avars, Slavs and Persians wasted the European and Asian provinces of the Empire, and the African provinces were too far away to send much help, either in food, money or men. On the other hand, North Africa was left untouched in those conflicts, so one could argue that this was the safest place to live in the late sixth-early seventh century. What North Africa did provide was the person who saved the Empire--Heraclius, the son of the governor of Carthage. When Constantinople came under siege from both the Avars and the Persians in the 620s, Heraclius considered moving the capital to Carthage, and probably would have done so if it looked like Constantinople's defenses weren't going to hold out. For details on the civil war that brought him to power, his war against the Persians, and his overhauling of the imperial government, see Chapter 6 of my European history.

Justinian's reconquest of North Africa gave the non-Arian Christians a new lease on life, but this time they didn't quarrel. Instead, both the Catholics and the Donatists opposed Monophysitism in Egypt, as well as the emperor's attempt to impose a compromise doctrine (Monotheletism). Time and mutual exhaustion had given a "live and let live" attitude to North African Christians, just as later on, Catholics and Protestants would learn to accept each other's existence after they wore themselves out from fighting. In fact, Pope Gregory I (590-604) repeatedly rebuked the African bishops for too much slackness in opposing the Donatists; what a change from the day when North African Christians were the strictest members of the Church!

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Meanwhile, Below the Sahara

So far, there hasn't been much to say about Black Africa in this work, except for Nubia and Ethiopia. The reason is the lack of written records; Nubia and Ethiopia were the only places south of the Sahara where people could read and write, and very few literate folks from other civilizations visited Black Africa. Some African tribes have a professional storyteller (called a griot in Senegal), who commits the history of his people to memory, but these oral histories seldom go back more than two hundred years. Thus, we have to fall back on archaeology to get an idea of what was going on earlier than that.

When they excavate the sites of ancient civilizations, archaeologists use a relative dating system involving styles of pottery and the material used to make tools. From the latter we get the terms "stone age," "bronze age," and "iron age" to describe how advanced the people were at any given site. This system works fine for sites in Europe and much of Asia, but not so well in Africa. First, a rating system for artifacts only looks at one aspect of a culture--technology. The Egyptians were technologically behind Mesopotamia, for example, but their art and literature were at least as good and their political system was superior, in that it produced a larger state and fewer wars. Second, the only people in Africa who had a bronze age at all were the residents of the Nile valley, and possibly the tribes around Lake Chad. Elsewhere cultures went straight from the stone age to the iron age, without somebody introducing bronze at an intermediate date.

We noted earlier that the Egyptians were familiar with iron at least as far back as the New Kingdom, but didn't have many opportunites to use it. The Nubians learned ironmongery from the Assyrians, in the seventh century B.C. South of the Sahara, the first people to use iron are called the Nok culture, after the name of the present-day village where their artifacts were first discovered. Dating from 900 B.C. to 200 A.D., the Nok people lived on the Jos plateau in central Nigeria, just north of the junction of the Niger and Benue Rivers. Their oldest known iron-smelting furnace has been dated to the fourth century B.C., and we believe the Nubians taught them the secrets of iron production, when they traveled along the Sahel corridor to reach West Africa. Alternative theories are less realistic; few people, if anybody, crossed the Sahara Desert at this early date, so the Nok people couldn't have learned about iron from the Carthaginians, and it would be a remarkable coincidence if they developed the techniques on their own, right when the Nubians arrived on their doorstep.

Aside from ironworks, the Nok left us finely crafted terra cotta sculptures, which compare favorably with African-style works in any museum of modern art. Then they disappeared, and except for the founding of Kano in the seventh century A.D., we won't hear any more from Nigeria until the first millennium A.D. is almost over. Some scholars have noted similarites between Nok and Yoruba art, and have suggested that the Yoruba are present-day descendants of the Nok.

With the introduction of iron, the inhabitants of the upper Niger also began to climb toward civilization. Around 250 B.C., they founded West Africa's first city, Jenné-jeno, near modern Jenné in Mali. This community was discovered in the mid-1970s by Roderick and Susan McIntosh, two graduate students from Rice University, and they have been excavating it since. Its location on the Niger's inland delta provided plenty of fish and waterfowl, and a floodplain suitable for farming, so it could support a large population. From the beginning there was an iron-smelting industry here, even before mud-brick buildings replaced huts on the site. However, iron ore was not available locally, so the blacksmiths probably got it from Benedougou, fifty miles to the southeast, trading their surplus food for the raw material.

To West African farmers, iron was more valuable than gold, because you can't make strong tools with gold. Consequently, at places like Jenné-jeno, the techniques used to extract and shape iron were well-guarded secrets, and blacksmiths occupied a very important place in West African society. Tribes living in the area have often credited the blacksmith with the power to see the future, and West African blacksmiths have been known to act as political advisors to kings, or as judges over village disputes. Sometimes they were even doctors, performing circumcisions and successfully vaccinating patients against smallpox--using the tip of a red-hot poker, dipped in a sample of the live virus--at least a millennium before European doctors tried their own innoculations.

Jenné-jeno peaked between 800 and 1000 A.D., when it had 50,000 residents, and then began to decline. Part of the reason for harder times was competition from other trade centers, but Islam was also a factor, because Moslems did not rate their blacksmiths so highly. The city was abandoned in the fourteenth century, its final residents moving a few miles away to build Jenné, thereby making a clean break with their pagan past.

Still more evidence of West Africa's development comes from hundreds of burial mounds in Mali and Senegal, dating from 500 to 900 A.D. The contents of these tombs contain grave goods made from gold, copper and iron--and also sacrificial victims. Evidently these were important individuals, buried with much ceremony, hinting at increasing wealth and the rise of powerful kings. It was around such figures that the great mercantile states of the next chapter, such as Ghana and Mali, would arise.

Once the tribes of West Africa had both iron and agriculture, they were able to begin their expansion into the rest of the sub-Saharan portion of the continent. The first phase of the Bantu migration got started by 1 A.D., and involved crossing the Cameroon mts. to enter the Congo basin. From there they spread out, heading south along the Atlantic coast, and east until they reached the mountains and lakes at the headwaters of the Nile. This region--modern Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi--was more fertile than surrounding areas, and consequently became more densely populated.

East of the lakes were open plains dotted with trees--the savanna that appears so often in movies featuring African wildlife. At a glance this place would seem perfect for the Nilotic tribes, which were closer than the Bantu and lived by herding, but thanks to the tsetse fly, the Nilotics had to leave most of East Africa to the Bantus, only moving there in limited numbers after they gained some immunity to the sleeping sickness (see Chapter 6).

By the third century the Bantus around the lakes had the strength and numbers to move again. They reached the east coast around 220 A.D., at Bombo Kaburi in Tanzania. Other iron age sites which mark the path of the Bantu migration are Urewe on Lake Victoria (270); Ndora, Kalumba and Urinza, around Lake Tanganyika (250-450); Phopo Hill, Kamnama and Nkope Bay, all in Malawi (300); Ziwo in Mozambique (300); and Kansanshi and Kapwirimbe in Zambia (400-450). Against this, all the indigenous races could do was retreat; the pygmies withdrew to the deepest jungles of the Congo basin, while the Bushmen were forced southwards. The Bantus, with their crops, iron weapons and professional warriors, operated at a higher tech level than the Pygmies and Bushmen, who were simply too primitive and too few in numbers to resist. However, in the end they fared better than those native American tribes who encountered a similarly advanced enemy in the conquistadors from Spain; neither was hunted to near-extinction. The Pygmies managed to survive with their new neighbors after they learned Bantu languages, while with the Bushmen, the language-borrowing went in the other direction--the southernmost Bantu group, the Nguni, added clicking sounds to their vocabulary. By the end of the period covered in this chapter, the Bantus had pushed as far as Angola on the west coast, and Mozambique in the east; the Kalahari desert and surrounding areas (modern Namibia, Botswana and South Africa) were left to the Bushmen for the time being.

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Africa's population In Ancient Times

Five thousand years ago, the population of the world was very small, no more than five million. Of this number Africa's share was about one million. Farming can feed many times the number of people that hunting/gathering can, so when the Egyptians tamed the lower Nile valley with irrigation, Egypt's population took off, allowing it to catch up with the rest of Africa within a millennium. By 2000 B.C. Egypt had gone from a hundred thousand to two million people, a twentyfold increase, while the rest of Africa only doubled its population. The most crowded, urbanized area was the apex of the Nile delta, around Memphis and Heliopolis; up to half the country's population may have lived here, ensuring that Memphis would remain the largest city, long after it stopped serving as the capital. Over the next two millennia the number of Egyptians continued to grow, but not at such a drastic rate; there were probably between three and four million of them in 1000 B.C., with another doubling (up to seven million) under the careful administration of the Ptolemies.

By 200 A.D., world population had climbed to 190 million. More than half of this lived in India and China, where census takers counted about 50 million in each. In the West, population was divided almost equally between Europe (18 million, mostly in the Roman-ruled portion) and the Middle East (16 million). Africa had an estimated 20.25 million, meaning its portion of the world total had fallen from 20% to just under 11%.

After 1000 B.C. the arrival of first the Phoenicians, and later the Romans, brought the rest of North Africa into the pale of civilization, meaning that now the population of the Maghreb could rise to respectable levels. As a result, by 200 A.D. there were as many people between Libya and Morocco as there were in Egypt--a balance that has been approximately maintained ever since--and Egypt & the Maghreb together contained about half the African total. However, that was the crossover point, for though the harsh climate and primitive lifestyle caused it to get off to a sluggish start, Black Africa was now growing, too. This began with the introduction of agriculture to Ethiopia and, more importantly, to West Africa, in the first millennium B.C.; the subsequent Bantu migrations meant that someday the rest of sub-Saharan Africa would also be involved in the process.

World population growth leveled off after 200 A.D. Overall, it continued to grow, but very slowly; in the main civilized zone it actually declined. There was not one culprit behind this slump but several: politics (the collapse of the Roman, Persian, Kushan, Gupta and Chinese empires), some really bad epidemics in the second, third and sixth centuries, and a possible climate change. Egypt was probably one of the first areas to suffer, due to Roman exploitation, while bad land management caused similar results in the Maghreb.(30) In both areas nomadic expansion became a visible sign that the Roman emperors weren't as competent as they used to be. During the Pax Romana (27 B.C. to 180 A.D.), desert nomads were on the periphery of the known world, restricted to land that no city-dweller or peasant wanted, and making virtually no contribution to civilization. However, that situation changed as the amount of land that could be cultivated (and the population it could support) decreased; when life got tougher for the farmer, the nomad's standing improved. In the late Roman Empire, military tactics switched from a reliance on infantry to cavalry, and because traveling and fighting while riding horses and camels was already second nature to them, the nomads gained even more of an advantage. After the battle of Adrianople (378 A.D.), the nomads who used to wait for peasants to abandon their fields began to actively drive them off, and the farms became pastureland for their animals. Thus, the provinces of the Roman Empire that had once required the least amount of attention from the emperors were steadily whittled down, first by Saharan tribes like the Blemmyes, then by the Vandals, and finally by the Arabs.

What all this means is that between 200 and 650 A.D., the population of North Africa shrank from approximately ten to eight million (four million in Egypt, four million in the Maghreb). Because most of Black Africa did not yet have contact with the outside world, it escaped the influences that were contracting other communities, so its population would have continued to grow; an increase from ten to fifteen million is as good an estimate as any. However, there was an exception at the East African port of Rhapta (see below), which was temporarily depopulated and abandoned in 536. Here the culprit was bubonic plague, the first outbreak on record. We used to believe the plague originated in the equatorial jungle, and it got out when traders from Rhapta made contact with the jungle tribes. However, a recent study of the remains of sixth-century plague victims suggests that bubonic plague traveled the same way in the sixth and fourteenth centuries; in both cases rats carrying infected fleas stowed away on ships traveling from Asia. Other traders took the plague bacillus to Egypt in 541, and from there it spread across Europe and the Middle East, becoming "Justinian's Plague."

The above figures do not include the Pygmies and the Bushmen, whose numbers never increased past 200,000 for each group, because they were still stone-age food-gatherers. Total for the continent: probably 23.5 million when the warriors of Islam arrived.

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Ancient African Explorers

The first explorers of Africa were probably Sumerians, sailing around Arabia and up the Red Sea to trade with Egypt in the fourth millennium B.C. While making the trip they must have learned the geography of Africa's northeast coast, at least as far as Cape Gardafui, the easternmost point. In the third millennium they were joined by other traders: Arabs, Indians, and possibly the Egyptians themselves. The Indus valley civilization grew beans and millet grains native to northeast Africa (modern-day Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia) during what we call the Middle Harappan period, meaning that no later than 2000 B.C., traders introduced those crops to India. In the Mediterranean first Minoan, then Phoenician traders, also started coming to Egypt. The Arabs brought frankincense and myrrh, the Phoenicians brought cedarwood, and the Egyptians were soon offering to buy all of those goods that could be shipped to them.(31)

In the tenth century B.C. Phoenician merchantmen, known as "ships of Tarshish" in the Old Testament, started sailing in the Red Sea. Their home port was Ezion-Gebir, modern Aqaba (in Jordan), and they were hired by King Solomon to handle his Indian Ocean commerce. Usually they went to a mysterious place the Bible calls "Ophir," and they brought back such luxury items as gold, ivory, apes and peacocks. Modern scholars cannot agree on where Ophir was; conservatives call it some place in Arabia, most locate it in India or East Africa, and a few bold spirits put it as far away as Australia! The last ships of Tarshish were sunk in a storm nearly a century after Solomon's death, and the Arabs took up the slack from there. We do have a good idea of how far the Arabs went; the ivory they traded in came from a place called Rhapta, twenty-three days sailing south of Cape Gardafui. Rhapta probably was modern Zanzibar, which has been an ivory trading post ever since.

Some wondered if it was possible to sail all the way around Africa. According to Herodotus, one who thought so was Pharaoh Necho II; around 600 B.C. he hired a Phoenician ship & crew and sent them down the Red Sea. Three years later they returned through the Pillars of Hercules. Herodotus didn't believe the story because the sailors claimed they had the sun on the starboard side of their ship, everywhere they sailed, meaning that on the westward leg of their journey, the sun was shining from the north. Ironically, this may be the best evidence that the story is true; such an occurrence would have only happened if the explorers crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.(32) Whether or not the trip took place, it was too long to be practical, and it was not followed up.

Herodotus also told about an expedition that went the other way. At some point between 485 and 465 B.C., a Persian prince named Sataspes was charged with rape, a crime punishable by death. The mother of Sataspes appealed to King Xerxes, and persuaded him to modify the sentence: now he would earn a pardon if he sailed all the way around Africa, going out through the Straits of Gibraltar and coming back by the Red Sea. Sataspes went ahead and tried it, first going to Egypt to hire a vessel and a crew; since the Egyptians didn't sail much these days, it's a safe guess that the crew was Phoenician. Unfortunately for us, Herodotus preserved no details of the expedition for us; the only thing we know for sure is that Sataspes made it past the southern edge of the Sahara. At his last landfall he saw Pygmies wearing clothes made out of palm trees; they abandoned their villages and ran to the hills when the crew came ashore. Then he turned around and went home. When he got back to the Persian Empire he defended his behavior by claiming that he had reached a point where his ship was brought to a standstill and could not make any headway (the equatorial doldrums?). Xerxes didn't buy the story, and imposed the original sentence, by having the prince impaled.

Around 450 B.C., the city of Carthage decided to explore and colonize the continent's Atlantic coast. The expedition took about 30,000 colonists, was escorted by sixty warships, and led by a Carthaginian named Hanno. As he went down the coast of Morocco and Mauretania, Hanno dropped off batches of colonists who founded half a dozen settlements. Then he kept going until provisions ran out and forced his return. Along the way he recorded the sorts of things that became commonplace in the reports of later African explorers: the jungle, the beating of drums, natives practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, and some wild animals he called gorillas.(33) But how far did he get? Once again we have scholars arguing: most believe he stopped at Sierra Leone; some assert he went as far as Cameroon or even Gabon. Afterwards an account of Hanno's voyage(34) was inscribed on a bronze tablet in Carthage, and an inquisitive Greek made a copy which has come down to us. Hanno's colonies are mentioned as late as 350 B.C. and then they disappear from history, their final fate unknown to us today. At this time, the furthest Phoenician/Carthaginian settlement that we have located was at Essaouira, on the Moroccan coast near Marrakesh.

The Greek contribution to the exploration of Africa came from Eudoxus of Cyzicus, the first European to sail across an ocean. One day in 120 B.C., a half-drowned sailor was found on Egypt's Red Sea shore, and brought to the court of King Ptolemy VIII in Alexandria. After he was nursed back to health and taught Greek, the sailor told his rescuers that he was an Indian, the sole survivor of his crew, and offered to prove it by guiding another ship to his home. Eudoxus got the honor of escorting him, and the voyage was an easy one, since the Indian knew how to sail with the monsoon winds (something Europeans didn't learn until the 15th century). The homeward leg of the trip was more exciting because Eudoxus got carried farther south than expected and ended up at a place he named Cape Prasum (Cape Delgado on the Tanzania-Mozambique border?), which was even south of Zanzibar. Here he met a local tribe and made friends with them by giving them strange delicacies (bread, wine and dried figs) before turning north again. Finally he got back to Egypt, only to see Ptolemy's customs agents confiscate his entire cargo of spices, perfumes and gems. He went to his Greek home and planned a follow-up voyage that would avoid Egyptian meddling; this time he would sail all the way around Africa from west to east and thus avoid Egypt. He took everything a sailor could ask for, even dancing girls (we don't know whether the girls were intended for an Indian rajah, or to while away the long hours at sea). He only got as far as Morocco before a mutiny forced his return. Undiscouraged, he equipped one more expedition just as carefully, shoved off into the Atlantic, and vanished without a trace.

The heirs to Greek civilization, the Romans, never had it in them to go exploring. What little exploring of Africa that they did was by land; the Roman navy went to seed after Carthage was destroyed. In addition, their explorers were also soldiers; in a previous section we mentioned the expeditions Augustus sent to Napata and the Fezzan oases, and how both turned back for the same reasons that the pharaohs did--the inhabitants were too poor and too few and communications were too difficult. Likewise, in 42 A.D. Suetonius Paulinus headed due south from the neighborhood of modern Melilla, in Morocco, and crossed the Atlas mts., but all he found on the other side was more desert, so this lead wasn't followed up.

In the course of their explorations the Phoenicians and Carthaginians visited the Canary Islands, but they only established outposts there, and these were abandoned by the time the Romans found out about the place. At first the Romans called this archipelago Fortunatae Insulae, the Fortunate Isles. Juba II, the king of Mauretania, sent an expedition that completely explored the islands in the first century A.D., and shortly after that, a Berber tribe, the Guanche, moved in from the mainland. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described the islands as the home of many wild dogs (canes), and thus named the place Canaria; from that we get the old saying about there being no canaries in the Canary Islands. Because the Romans didn't try to colonize the islands, and because we never hear them talk about anything beyond them, it's safe to say that to the classical mind, the Canary Islands marked the southwest corner of the known world.

In 62 or 66 A.D., Emperor Nero sent two centurions to see if Kush was worth conquering. They reported that it wasn't, and they also tried to find the source of the Nile, something the Egyptians had never discovered, despite millennia of attention given to that river. Their conclusion was that the source was the swamp we call the Sudd (see Chapter 1). Claudius Ptolemy included this information when he wrote his Geography, and since no white man got through the Sudd before 1842 A.D., Ptolemy made a remarkably accurate guess as to where the waters of the Sudd came from. His map showed streams beginning in a central African mountain range, which he called the Mountains of the Moon (the modern Ruwenzori?), and they collected into two large lakes; out of those lakes came two north-flowing rivers, which joined together to form one river, the White Nile, before entering the Sudd. Presumably this was what Arab traders had heard about Lakes Victoria and Albert, combined with Ptolemy's imagination.

This is the End of Chapter 4.


23. In 1999 Egypt's leading archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, reported the discovery of a vast cemetery at the Bahariya oasis. So far about 250 mummies have been found, buried during the Roman era (30 B.C.-395 A.D.), but it is estimated there could be 10,000. Many were richly decorated, the main feature being the so-called mummy portraits, strikingly realistic paintings on the bandages that show what the deceased looked like when alive. Other Greco-Roman decorations appear on the mummy wrappings, but Egyptian artistic styles are more common, a silent testimony to how the people at this remote oasis tried to hang onto the old customs that were dying out elsewhere. Since the Egyptians stopped practicing mummification when they became Christians, these are some of the last mummies they made.

24. I experienced a confrontation of sorts between Christianity and paganism, when I visited Egypt in 1979. One of the stops our tour group made was the Church of St. Sargios, built on the traditional site where Mary, Joseph and Jesus stayed while they were in Egypt. No service was taking place at the time, so we sat in the pews while our guide stood in the central aisle and talked about the architecture of the building. Unknown to her, but visible to the tourists, a little black and white cat came into the sanctuary and sat down behind the guide, where it could watch everybody, with its tail wrapped around its body. I recalled a picture of an Egyptian statue in the Louvre that represented the cat goddess, in exactly the same pose, and I had the eerie feeling that I was looking at Bastet herself.

25. We need one more footnote before we're done with the Ptolemies. The last Ptolemy, Cleopatra's grandson, had a daughter who was named Drusilla, like his sister, and this Drusilla married Antonius Felix, the Roman procurator (governor) of Judaea from 52 to 58. Here the trail of Cleopatra's family tree grows cold; if Cleopatra had any descendants after the first century A.D., they would have been from whatever children Felix and the younger Drusilla had. Felix appears in the New Testament, in the 24th chapter of Acts, but the Drusilla mentioned there was not the one descended from Cleopatra; this one is the daughter of King Herod Agrippa II. Before he met the Apostle Paul, Felix divorced "Drusilla of Mauretania" in order to marry the Herodian Drusilla, whom he found more attractive.

26. For more details about the Roman Empire in its latter days, read Chapter 5 of my European history.
Ironically, Leptis Magna has the best-preserved ruins from the Roman era, because Muammar el-Gaddafi (see Chapter 9) wasn't interested in Libya's history, and did nothing to promote tourism to the country. Much of the ancient city has not yet been excavated.

27. At least three bishops of Rome were natives of Africa: Victor I (189-199), Miltiades (311-314) and Gelasius I (492-496). Gelasius was also the first on record to be called "Pope," the Roman bishop's present-day title.

28. John of Ephesus had been to Africa before. In 531 the Eastern Roman emperor, Justinian, sent him to Axum with a trade proposal. Justinian wanted to cut his Persian rivals out of the lucrative east-west trade network, by sending ships from Adulis directly across the Indian Ocean to India and the Far East, rather than send caravans through the Persian Empire. Although the idea made sense, Constantinople and Axum never got around to carrying it out. Later on, however, Asian spices would be brought to Europe that way.

29. At Altava, near Oran in modern Algeria, an inscription has been found from a Christian Berber named Masuna, dated 508 A.D. Masuna called himself Rex Gentium Maurorum et Romanorum (king of the Roman and Moorish peoples). Apparently when the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, Masuna proclaimed himself ruler of an independent Roman-Moorish kingdom in western Algeria, and the death of Gaiseric allowed the state to exist without much Vandal interference. However, he did not claim to be a Roman emperor; his kingdom supported the Eastern Roman Empire when it invaded North Africa in 533, and thus was reabsorbed into the Empire by 535. The sixth-century historian Procopius mentions a North African ruler named Mastigas, who controlled most of the province of Mauretania Caesariensis in the 530s; this could be an heir of Masuna.

30. Silphium was a highly prized herb, used both as a spice and for medicines. It only grew in the hills and meadows near Cyrene, and resisted attempts to cultivate or transplant it, so in ancient times it was Libya's most important product. By the time the Romans took over, the supply of silphium was shrinking, either from overharvesting, overgrazing of the land by animals, the drying out of North Africa's climate, or all of the above. Pliny the Elder reported that in his generation, only one silphium stalk was found, and it was sent as a novelty gift to Emperor Nero. Presumably silphium became extinct after that, leaving us to speculate on what species of plant it might have been. Recently it has been suggested that silphium was the ancient world's "morning after pill," because when asafetida, a plant believed to be closely related to silphium, was fed to rats, it was nearly 100 percent effective at preventing rat pregnancies. Whew, if that is what silphium was good for, no wonder the Mediterranean basin's population stopped growing around the first century A.D.! For more on how climate change has affected African history, see Chapter 1, Footnote #6.

31. The Egyptians also ventured out to the lands of the traders; we hear of them visiting Lebanon as early as the IV Dynasty, and Crete in the IX.

32. Either Claudius Ptolemy didn't hear the story of Necho's expedition, or he didn't believe it. When he drew his map of the world in the second century A.D., he had the Malay peninsula stretch along the bottom of the world to join with southern Africa, making the Indian Ocean a big enclosed lake.

33. Hanno brought back the skins of three female gorillas to show off at home. Modern scholars believe, however, that he was talking about a smaller primate; baboons or chimpanzees, perhaps. It seems unlikely that a short Semite could have handled even the female version of Tarzan's companions!

34. It was a deliberately partial account--several important details, like mileage, were left out to keep the competition from discovering any trade secrets.

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