Winnipeg Free Press - - GPS YOU WORLD - PAUL SCHEMM

MENAGESHA, Ethiopia — On a wooded hill near Ethiopia’s cap­i­tal of Ad­dis Ababa, bits of red clay lit­ter the ground next to glit­ter­ing flakes of ob­sid­ian. Nearby, half-buried stones are ar­ranged in a line. On the other side of the hill, a rect­an­gu­lar stone slab ap­pears to have been bro­ken in half.

For arche­ol­o­gists like Sa­muel Walker and his col­league Ayele Tarekegn, it’s ev­i­dence that this was once the site of a me­dieval city. The bits of clay are shards of pot­tery, the flakes of ob­sid­ian were tools used by ar­ti­sans to work leather, and the stones prob­a­bly were once the walls of churches and palaces.

“It’s un­be­liev­able that it’s here,” Walker said. “When I saw this, I thought this is just the tip of the ice­berg — ev­ery­where we dig, we find stuff.”

Arche­o­log­i­cal digs are rare in Ethiopia, de­spite its wealth of po­ten­tial sites. “It’s a poor coun­try, and arche­ol­ogy is a very ex­pen­sive sub­ject,” said Ayele, who is try­ing to de­velop the field in the coun­try. “It’s all to do with money and de­vel­op­ing the ex­per­tise, the per­son­nel and the man­power.”

There are plans to or­ga­nize a con­fer­ence of donors in Jan­uary to de­velop Ethiopian arche­ol­ogy, pre­serve ex­ist­ing sites and maybe ex­plore new ones. More in­vest­ment in the field could shed light on lit­tle-known parts of the coun­try’s his­tory. Per­haps more im­por­tant, it may bring clar­ity to some of the mod­ern de­bates roil­ing Ethiopia as it tran­si­tions from op­pres­sive au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism to a freer so­ci­ety in which its many eth­nic groups can make their voices heard.

When re­formist Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed came to of­fice in April, he sought to open up the coun­try by invit­ing back ex­iled rebels, re­leas­ing po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and end­ing long-run­ning gov­ern­ment re­pres­sion.

His changes have been enor­mously pop­u­lar, but they have also been ac­com­pa­nied by un­rest. With more than 80 eth­nic groups com­pet­ing for land and in­flu­ence, an­i­mosi­ties sup­pressed by the old gov­ern­ment have risen to the sur­face, es­pe­cially be­tween the two main groups: the Oromo — the largest in the coun­try, but one that has long felt marginal­ized — and the Amhara, the his­tor­i­cal rulers of much of Ethiopia.

Both groups are spar­ring over which can lay claim to the cap­i­tal, Ad­dis Ababa. The Oromo say it was their land be­fore Em­peror Mene­lik II, the ruler of the Amhara-dom­i­nated Abyssinian Em­pire, took it away to found the city in 1887. The Amhara say it was part of their em­pire long be­fore the Oromo mi­grated there.

The rem­nants of the cities that Walker has found could help an­swer these ques­tions. Sud­denly, his­tory and arche­ol­ogy have be­come po­lit­i­cal.

While there are me­dieval ru­ins in Ethiopia, not much is known about the pe­riod. A map of the re­gion drawn in 1450 by a Vene­tian monk showed Ethiopia cov­ered in cities like the one Walker found. “The ma­te­rial cul­ture we have sur­viv­ing from that time shows sig­nif­i­cant di­rect im­port­ing of re­li­gious and cul­tural ma­te­rial from as far away as France and Flan­ders. It is in­cred­i­bly wealthy and ar­tis­ti­cally ar­tic­u­late,” said Ver­ena Krebs, an ex­pert on me­dieval Ethiopia at Ger­many’s RuhrUniver­sity Bochum.

But when the Por­tuguese ar­rived in the 16th cen­tury, they found a place with few per­ma­nent set­tle­ments. So what hap­pened in the in­ter­ven­ing years? War. To be pre­cise, re­li­gious wars.

In the 1520s, Ethiopia’s Mus­lim vas­sal states re­belled against the Chris­tian hege­mony. Their forces de­scended on what was then the Abyssinian Em­pire and sought to de­stroy it, burn­ing palaces, monas­ter­ies and trad­ing posts and car­ry­ing off un­told riches in gold and sil­ver.

With Por­tuguese help, the Ethiopi­ans de­feated the Mus­lims, but the two ad­ver­saries were left ex­hausted. The Ethiopian forces re­treated from the area around mod­ern-day Ad­dis Ababa; into the vacuum came the Oromo peo­ple from the south. They set­tled the area and worked the land as farm­ers and herders un­til most traces of the ru­ined cities had van­ished.

Walker, us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of an­cient maps, Google Earth and a knowl­edge of trade routes, is hunt­ing for those lost cities.

Such dis­cov­er­ies could re­mind mod­ern Ethiopi­ans of their coun­try’s past as a wealthy, cos­mopoli­tan trad­ing em­pire with con­tacts around the world. Abiy, the new prime min­is­ter, has said he wants to re­store the coun­try’s links with the out­side world, es­pe­cially its in­ter­na­tional trade.

As anger be­tween Ethiopia’s many peo­ples reaches a fever pitch — some 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple have been dis­placed this year by vi­o­lence across the coun­try — arche­ol­ogy may pro­vide a timely warn­ing about how war, fa­nati­cism and eth­nic ri­valry de­stroyed Ethiopia in the past.


A mu­ral in Dhahran, Saudi Ara­bia, dis­plays the like­ness of Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, who has ruth­lessly si­lenced crit­ics of the monar­chy.

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