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  • “Listening for History” in an Amharic Histoire Universelle: Gabra Krestos Takla Haymanot, Cosmopolitanism, and World Historiography, 1892–1932
  • James De Lorenzi (bio)

In 1924 Gabra Krestos Takla Haymanot produced a remarkable text that looked far beyond his home in Ethiopia. His ‘Acer ya’alam tarik bamerena (Short History of the World in Amharic), which he subtitled Histoire Universelle, concisely surveyed two millennia of human history for his imagined Northeast African reader—all in a single panoptic text. Beginning with a chapter on ancient history titled “The People of India,” and ending with the contemporary “Ethiopia of Queen Zewditu’s Time,” Gabra Krestos attended along the way to diverse subjects such as “The History of Japan,” “The Roman State in the Time of Christ,” “The United States,” “The Vast Wisdom of the Last One Hundred Years,” and “How the French Became a Mob.” It was an ambitious project, one that departed from local genres of historiography and the forms of knowledge underpinning them to articulate a distinctly non-Western vision of historical progress. And as one of the first works of history to be printed and bound for an Amharic reading public, the Short History radically redefined both the production and meaning of history for nationalist purposes. Like intellectual reformers throughout the imperial world of the early twentieth century, Gabra Krestos sought to reconcile modernity and cultural authenticity by rewriting history.1

Gabra Krestos and his now-obscure text bear directly on current debates about the effects of empire on global conceptions of the past. Dipesh Chakrabarty and Ranajit Guha have recently pointed to the shared historical vision of colonial rulers and postcolonial nationalist intellectuals, suggesting that each of these groups took Europe as “the silent referent” of historical progress by universalizing the history of the nation-state and rejecting alternate conceptions of the past.2 Both these scholars remind us that historicism only became a global [End Page 342] ideology through colonialism. In a more radical argument, Ashis Nandy has proposed that “cultures tend to be historical in only one way, whereas each ahistorical culture is so in its own unique style.”3 All historical consciousness, in his view, began with the global hegemony of Europe and cannot be located outside it. Using Gabra Krestos and his intellectual universe, I intend to challenge Nandy’s argument by demonstrating how history can indeed possess multiple styles and, moreover, that while nineteenth-century European imperialism did include the concept of historicism among its exports to peripheries like Northeast Africa, this migration neither inaugurated historical consciousness nor eliminated its alternatives. Succinctly, while historicism and European textual forms began to dominate global intellectual discourse during the imperial age, alternate historical modes continued to provide many intellectual reformers with a dynamic means of ordering the past and understanding the present.4 Thus the Short History—a printed book with a distinct historicist veneer—retains many of the textures of the local Orthodox Christian intellectual universe, though these are radically transformed in scope, content, and form. Uncovering this conceptual framework requires that we follow a recent admonition to “listen for history,” even where it seems most elusive.5

Scholasticism and Cosmopolitanism in the Red Sea World, 1892–1932

Gabra Krestos and his reformist historical project emerged from the deeply cosmopolitan culture of turn-of-the-century Northeast Africa, an imperial periphery in which local Muslim sheikhs and Orthodox Christian scholars increasingly encountered Italian colonialists,Ottoman traders, and a variety of European missionaries. The legacies of this diverse intellectual landscape suffuse Gabra Krestos’s text—as he candidly noted in his introduction, “I listened to what my teachers at school told me, [and] wrote what I collected . . . this short history did not simply emerge from my head.”6 Reconstructing this intellectual genealogy can tell us much about his eclectic approach to the printed word and production of knowledge and, in particular, why his ideas about global past differed so dramatically from the local traditions of historiography and scholasticism that surrounded him.

We can sketch the contours of his early life through his entry in Heruy Walda Selase’s biographical dictionary Yaheywet tarik (History of Lives) and his lavish public obituary in the Ethiopian newspaper Berhanna Salam.7...


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