- The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia, 1300–1700 by Mohammed Hassen
Prominent Ethiopianists such as C. Conti Rossini, Enrico Cerulli, and Taddesse Tamrat analyzed Christian and Muslim sources of Ethiopia—the sultanates of Shawa, Ifat, and Harar—without noticing the presence of the Oromo in the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia before the sixteenth century. With better knowledge of Oromo culture and language, Mekuria Bulcha, in Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation (CASAS, 2011), argued convincingly for the presence of the Oromo within the Christian kingdom and the Muslim states along the middle Awash Valley before the sixteenth century. Mohammed Hassen hinted at this thesis in his first book (The Oromo of Ethiopia: A History, 1570–1860, Red Sea Press, 1990), but provided no details. In his new book, The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia, he offers a careful reevaluation and reinterpretation of the history of medieval Ethiopia that includes the Oromo.
The book is divided into eight chapters with narratives that shift between the sedentary and pastoral Oromo and the exploits of the Christian kings. The first two chapters focus on the sedentary Oromo and their contacts and interactions with the Christian and Muslim populations in medieval Shawa. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the dramatic population movements of the pastoral Oromo into the Ethiopian highlands. Chapters 5–8 recount the struggle of the Christian kings and their unsuccessful efforts to stop the spread of the pastoral Oromo into the Ethiopian highlands. Reexamining available traditions and written sources, Hassen argues that the Barentu, one of the two Oromo moieties, were more numerous than the Borana during the sixteenth century. Although one could argue that the population size and distribution of the Borana and Barentu are less conclusive than Hassen asserts, and that the two groups were more dispersed than he suggests (as the distribution of the names of their sub-moieties indicates), the book nevertheless provides a valuable portrait of the two groups. Divided into seven full-fledged moieties and thirty sub-moieties, the Barentu spearheaded the northward [End Page 239] movement and successfully spread from the headwaters of the Wabi Shebelle in the south to Bagemeder and Tigray in the north. The Borana, by comparison, with only three sub-moieties, made very little progress during the first half of the sixteenth century. Ultimately they spread to the central Shawan plateau and across the Gibe Valley to the west.
The book argues convincingly for the presence of sedentary Oromo within the medieval Christian kingdom, but the question remains as to how they got there and how long they had lived in the region before they came under the administration of the Christian polity. Hassen points out that as “part of Cushitic-language speakers, the Oromo have always lived within Ethiopia” (234); according to Mekuria Bulcha’s research, they had lived in the Shawan plateau for many centuries before Ethiopia itself existed as a country. Ethiopian boundaries were imposed, partially in the fourteenth century and extensively in the late nineteenth century, on the people who had lived in the area for a long period of time. It is not clear, in Hassan’s account, what happened to the sedentary Oromo after the jihadic wars (1529–43). How did they react to and become integrated into the migrating pastoral group? Similarly, the fate of the Barentu, who moved to the east toward the city of Harar, is not explained fully, and the transition of the pastoral Oromo to sedentary farming in the eighteenth century is beyond the scope of this book.
Finally, a note on sources. Hassen uses different sources, including Ethiopian chronicles, Muslim sources, Oromo and Christian traditions, myths and legends—a hallmark of erudite scholarship—and he variously critiques, questions, accepts, or rejects the conclusions of the scholarly works he consulted. But the book does not offer any discussion of the nature of Christian sources, except for the works of Abba Bahrey...