CNRS Ministère des Affaires Etrangères


Accueil > Research at CFEE > Research axes > Theme 2. Materialities, written cultures, and oral history

Writing of History and writing practices in the Horn of Africa : strata, intersections, openings

Among African states, Ethiopia is a good example of a country that thinks of its national, religious, cultural, and linguistic History over a long period of time. Nowadays, all Ethiopian -national and regional- discourses regarding identity try to argue that they find their roots in a distant and ‘legendarised’ past. As such, they follow a long-time trend (the kings David and Solomon are the self-proclaimed ancestors of Ethiopian Christian dynasties since almost one thousand years) that regained importance at the end on the XIXth century when Ethiopia needed to show the world that it was a fully-fledged Nation with a past that could be used against western imperialist discourses. The discourse of the Orthodox Christian and imperial Nation-State has long been the only one available, leaving aside the History of many other populations living in the current ethnofederal Ethiopia. The transformation of the State’s structure entailed the emergence of many thoughts and analyses regarding centres and peripheries andthe publication of new historiographies, in the international scientific community as well as within Ethiopian communities (as can be seen from the fact that more and more monographs relating local and regional History are being published). In this context, we also find (usually idealised) re-written versions of the past that are based on old historical works and insist on legendary and/or identity features. These historiographies additionally do not take into account the complexity of Ethiopian societies’ structure. To be a historian in Ethiopia usually means that you have to deal with censorship, political correctness, race for primacy, communitarianism, nationalism, and heritage making to meet the current issues. Ethiopian historians are, of course, affected the most by all this, and working on Medieval or Modern times requires tremendous devotion and commitment. It is thus crucial to mobilise in favour of the possibility to work freely, disseminate outcomes, and train new researchers.

While the present intellectual climate is difficult among the Ethiopian society, asignificant collective scientific effort has been made to open up Ethiopian historiographies during the past decade. ‘Ethiopianists’ still need to master a number of skills necessary to the understanding of ancient written sources (the knowledge of Ge’ez, Arabic, and Amharic) and carry out fieldwork (the only way to understand the complexity of the Horn of Africa). Researchers of this sub-axe have managed to combine written sources and fieldwork by expanding their research interests and creating new collaborations. From this viewpoint, the CFEE has played a key role, in partnership with the CEMAf (now IMAf), by supporting projects like the ACI-Espaces et Territoires (2003-06), the ANR Cornafrique (2007-10), as well as numerous other international and interdisciplinary collaborations. Many researchers work together in order to interpret the various discourses based on sources andproduced by a local historiography eager to give a new meaning to ancient material. For several years, the History seminar of the CFEE has gathered historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, philologists and linguists to discuss their current research on a monthly basis.

Members of this team have organised many joint scientific events. Many collective panels in conferences (ICES, ECAS, conference on Christian and Muslim manuscripts in December 2014 in Paris), seminars and workshops have been organised. For more than ten years, joint projects have been carried out in order to update the corpus of documents (search for new texts and manuscripts in conservation places, monasteries, churches, mosques, and private archives). There are also joint publications (the issue of North-East African Studies 2011 on old Ethiopian archives ; Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies : An Introduction, 2014 ; or the forthcoming collective monograph about the site of Yemrehanna Krestos in Lasta ; for instance).

It is important to keep on working together for a better understanding of the Ethiopian pasts and their diversity. The main interests of this sub-axe revolves around the following themes and goals, all dealing with the ways in which written sources are produced, as well as the participants involved in/contexts of written materials dissemination :

Writing of administrative and legal documents

In Ethiopian corpus, there are many administrative documents produced by Christian or Muslim societies. Paying attention to this type of documents raises many fundamental questions regarding the access to written materials in Ethiopian societies, the role of written material as proofs, and the introduction of the use of Amharic as a written language (in the case of Christian societies) or of the Ajami script (in the case of Muslim societies). Our aim is to analyse the waysto access legal and economic power as well as related social structures. Our approach is enriched by comparisons with other African cases and collaboration with medievalists working on the West or on other cultural areas.

The making or archives

In order to locate, describe, and analyse the existing literature, the work on archives in crucial. Researchers who have been appointed to the CFEE for the past years as well as researchers associated to this institution always favour fieldwork and the knowledge of textual corpus kept in Ethiopian religious and patrimonial institutions (Wion, 2012). An online edition tool, Ethiopian Manuscript Archives (EMA), has been created as a result of this approach. The program ‘Endangered Archives’ of the British Libraryadditionally funded projects for the digitalisation of collections of Christian and Muslim manuscripts in Ethiopia. The project ErC Open Jerusalem focuses on Ethiopian documents partly produced and entirely kept outside of Ethiopia. Globally, our aim is to question the way societies, institutions, or families organise the remnants of their past. The inventory, description, and accessibility of documents identified as ‘archives’ must continue and go hand in hand with a reflection regarding the way collections have been constituted.

The role of oralities

The role of orality in writing practices is always an important issue, especially since the theoretical literature on the matter has significantly increased in recent years. Many genres exist : formal oral texts that carry a historical message, secular or religious songs, comments on written texts, etc. All these questions are dealt with in a forthcoming joint publication initiated by German anthropologists. Once again, the importance of the conservation of and access to collected sources in accordance with the informants’ rights should be emphasised in this case.

Reconsideration of regional histories of the Christian kingdom

A recent movement focusing on the analysis of regional histories allows us to consider the formation of political, religious and economic powers in the Horn of Africa in Medieval and Modern times from a new perspective.Begwana/Lasta (see theAnnales d’Éthiopie24 for example), Damot (PhD of A. Bouanga defended in 2014), Ifat (works of F.X. Fauvelle, B. Hirsch, Deresse Aynatchew, and A. Chekroun), Begamder and the area of Aksum (A. Wion), Gojjam (M. Herman, C. Bosc-Tiessé, and A. Wion), for instance, can now be conceived as entities which have their own specific historiographies and interact with other areas. This new perspective on marginal forces is consequently preferred to a global historiography of the Christian kingdom, though the latter is still interesting to study.

Connected histories

Recent research focuses on the (sometimes long-time) relationships between different areas of the Horn of Africa : relationships with Egypt (work of E. Fritsch ; the Coptic-Arabic and Ethiopian historiography of R. Seignobos, M.-L. Derat), with Nubia (R. Seignobos), with the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea (PhD thesis of Sana Mirza ; work of A. Chekroun), and with Jerusalem (S. Ancel for the Opening Jerusalem Archives - ErC project). The circulation of persons and ideas across different areas, observable through texts as well as artworks or commercial products, remains an inexhaustible topic of research that requires efforts in terms of knowledge acquisition and fieldwork mastery. To exchange information and expertise within a team whose members have various skills is a real asset for this kind of research ; it allows us to go beyond the boundaries of individual disciplines.

Understanding and deconstruction of the modern strata of Christian historiography (1870-1930)

Paradoxically, activities related tothe creation and modification of old corpus of documents have increased at the beginning of the XXth century. Regional historians such as the alaqa Takla Iyasus in Gojjam and then the scriptorium of Menelik (1882-1913) have produced texts that review, transform and update Ethiopian History. To sort out and understand this particular moment of the Ethiopian historiography (C. Bosc-Tiessé, M. Herman, B. Hirsch) is necessary to better comprehend the previous stratum.

Finally, the important question of the accessibility of corpus of documents, including the the digitalisation of written and oral heritage, the edition of texts, as well as descriptive inventories and tools, remains a key one that requires our collective attention.


Follow the news of this sub-axe on the blog of the CFEE

Funded research programmes

 ANR EthioChrisProcess - Christianization and religious interactions in Ethiopia (6th-13th century) : comparative approaches with Nubia and Egypt

 Project ERC HornEast – Horn & Crescent. Connections, Mobility and Exchange between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East in the Middle Ages

Bibliography (since 2016)

Ancel, S. (2016). A Muslim Prophecy Justifying the Conversion of Ethiopian Muslims to Christianity during Yoḥannǝs IV’s Reign ? A Text found in a Manuscript in East Tigray. Annales d’Éthiopie, 30, p. 315-334.

Bosc-Tiessé C. (dir.) (2017). Dossier « Cultures manuscrites d’Éthiopie. Rencontres entre mondes islamique et chrétien ». Afrique. Débats, méthodes et terrains d’histoire.

Bosc-Tiessé, C. (2018). Comment écrire l’histoire de l’Afrique ancienne avec de l’art ? in Fauvelle, F.-X. (ed.). L’Afrique ancienne. De l’Acacus au Zimbabwe. 20000 avant notre ère – XVIIe siècle (p. 608-625), Paris, France : Belin.

Bosc-Tiessé C., Mark P. (dir.) (2017). Dossier « Pour une histoire des arts d’Afrique pré-contemporains ». Afrique. Débats, méthodes et terrains d’histoire.

Chekroun, A. (2016). Ottomans, Yemenis and the “Conquest of Abyssinia” (1531-1543). in E. Ficquet, Ahmed Hassen Omer, T. Osmond (dir.), Movements in Ethiopia, Ethiopia in Movement : Proceedings of the 18th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (vol. 1, p. 163-174), Addis-Abeba, Los Angeles, CFEE / AAU / Tsehai.

Chekroun, A. (2018). Conquête(s) et conversions religieuses en Éthiopie du XVIe siècle. Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 182, p. 149-166.

Derat, M.-L. (2017). The Zagwe dynasty : sources, historiography and history. in Balicka-Witakowska, E., Gervers, M. (dir.). Yemrehanna Krestos, Milan, Skira.

Derat, M.-L. (2018). L’énigme d’une dynastie sainte et usurpatrice dans le royaume chrétien d’Éthiopie du XIe au XIIIe siècle. Turnhout, Brepols, collection Hagiologia.

Faü, J.-F. (2017). À propos du colophon d’un mushaf harari du XIXe siècle. Annales d’Éthiopie, 31, p. 323-331.

Fauvelle, F.-X., (ed.) (2018). L’Afrique ancienne. De l’Acacus au Zimbabwe. 20000 avant notre ère – XVIIe siècle. Paris, France : Belin.

Fritsch, E. (2016). A Fresh Look at Certain Aspects of the Ge’ez Liturgical Edition of the Anaphora of the Testamentum Domini as the Anaphora of Our Lord Jesus Christ. in Daniel Asseffa, Hiruy Abdu (eds.). Proceedings of the "First International Conference on Ethiopian Texts” organised by the Capuchin Franciscan Research & Retreat Centre, St. Francis Friary, Asko, May 27-30, 2013 (p. 21-53), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia : CFRRC Press.

Fritsch, E. (2016). New Reflections of the Image of Late Antique and Medieval Ethiopian Liturgy. in Berger, T., Spinks, B., (dir.). Liturgy’s Imagined Past/s. Methodologies and Materials in the Writing of Liturgical History Today (p. 39-92), Collegeville, MN : Liturgical Press.

Fritsch, E. (2018). The origins and meanings of the Ethiopian circular church : Fresh explorations. in Fernie, E, Griffith-Jones, R. (eds.) Tomb and Temple : Re-Imagining the Sacred Buildings of Jerusalem (pp. 253-279), Woodbridge, Suffolk : Boydell & Brewer.

Guindeuil, T., Herman, M. (dir.) (2017). Dossier "A Social History of Women in Ethiopia. The Dynamics of Emancipation and Social Control”, Northeast African Studies.

Herman, M. (2016). Figures féminines chrétiennes, exaltation de la dignité de roi et émancipation politique des reines (Éthiopie, XVe-XVIIIe siècle). Annales d’Éthiopie, 30, p. 71-118.

Herman, M. (2016). Rethinking the royal matrimonial practices in the 16th century and its consequences on the status of queen. in E. Ficquet, Ahmed Hassen Omer, T. Osmond (dir.) Movements in Ethiopia, Ethiopia in Movement : Proceedings of the 18th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (vol. 1, p. 149-162), Addis-Abeba, Los Angeles, CFEE / AAU / Tsehai.

Loiseau J. (2019). The Hati and the Sultan : Letters and Embassies from Abyssinia to the Mamluk Court. in Bauden, F., Dekkiche, M. (eds.) Mamluk Cairo, a Crossroads for Embassies, Islamic History and Civilization (p. 455-471), Leiden : Brill.

Regourd, A. (ed.), 2018, The Trade in Papers Marked with Non-Latin Characters / Le commerce des papiers à marques à caractères non-latins, Islamic Manuscripts and Books, 15, Leiden : Brill.

Smidt, W. G. C. (2016). Azmari, Ch’era wat’a oder ‘Artists’ - Fahrende Sänger in Tigray. in : Wenig, S. (ed.) In kaiserlichem Auftrag : Die Deutsche Aksum-Expedition 1906 unter Enno Littmann, Band 3 : Ethnographische und geschichtliche Untersuchungen, Nachträge und Indices, Aichwald : Verlag Lindensoft (Forschungen zur Archäologie Außereuropäischer Kulturen [FAAK] 3.3), Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.

Smidt, W. G. C. (2016). Der Einfluss der Deutschen Aksum-Expedition auf die politische Ikonographie Äthiopiens : Das Siegel des Gouverneurs von Aksum aus dem Jahre 1907. in : Wenig, S. (dir.) : In kaiserlichem Auftrag : Die Deutsche Aksum-Expedition 1906 unter Enno Littmann, Band 3 : Ethnographische und geschichtliche Untersuchungen, Nachträge und Indices, Aichwald : Verlag Lindensoft (Forschungen zur Archäologie Außereuropäischer Kulturen [FAAK] 3.3), Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.

Smidt, W. G. C. (2016). Zusammenleben von Religionen – Einige friedliche und kriegerische Geschichten aus dem Hochland Äthiopiens. SYM, Magazin der Evangelischen Akademie Bad Boll, 13 (2), p. 8-12.

Wion, A. (2016). Cinq cents ans de contrôle royal sur les produits agricoles tributaires d’Aksum). Etudes rurales , 197, p. 49-72.

Wion, A. (2016). De l’orgueilleuse geste royale au pragmatisme des bénéficiaires : les deux versions de l’acte du roi Iyasu I (1682-1706) en faveur de l’église d’Aksum. Annales d’Éthiopie, 30, p. 261-284.

Wion, A. (2017). Memory and oblivion in the history of Gonǧ Monastery (1670‐1750) : The paradoxes of Qǝbat historiography. in Bustorf, D., Dege, S., Meckelburg, A., (dir.). Oral Tradition in Ethiopian Studies, Supplement to Aethiopica – International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies Hambourg : Harrassovitz.

Wion, A. (2017). Quand l’Éthiopie réécrit son histoire, Libération, 25/10/2017.