- The Oromo and the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia 1300–1700 by Mohammed Hassen
In his now-classic book, The Oromo of Ethiopia 1570–1850: A History,1 Mohammed Hassen stated that incontrovertible historical evidence attested to the presence of settled agricultural Oromo communities within the territories of the medieval Christian kingdom of Ethiopia. The statement contradicted a standard narrative in Ethiopian history that the Oromo were newcomers who invaded Ethiopia in the sixteenth century. Reputable historians of Ethiopia rejected the assertion swiftly and vociferously as an invented account of a fictitious nation that never existed in history.2 Focused at the time on the history of the Oromo between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Hassen promised to follow up his assertion with another book on the subject. The Oromo and the Christian Empire of Ethiopia 1300–1700 is Hassen’s fulfillment of his promise of two decades ago.
It is well worth the wait. The book is a meticulously documented account of the pre–sixteenth-century history of the Oromo. It establishes that the Oromo are an indigenous people in the Horn of Africa who have always lived in the region as one of the Cushitic-language-speaking [End Page 143] peoples. The notion that the Oromo came to Ethiopia in the sixteenth century, according to Hassen, is a groundless concoction that originated with a single erroneous report that the Oromo were warlike people who “entered” Ethiopia through the historical province of Bale around 1522.3 In the subsequent period, Ethiopian court chroniclers and ecclesiastical scribes kept on parlaying error as factual history. European missionaries and diplomats who arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries uncritically adopted the negative accounts in Ethiopian sources and spread the theme of Oromo “savagery” to Europe. In time, the themes of the Oromo as newcomers and warlike people became a primary staple of Ethiopian historiography, despite the existence of numerous sources that contradicted this view. This book goes to great lengths to refute the misconception and set the record straight.
Thematically, most of the chapters in the book describe long-standing interaction among the Oromo, Christian, and Muslim communities in the central and southeastern region of today’s Ethiopia. The first chapter looks at the pre–sixteenth-century tripartite interactions in the Shewa and southern Wallo region. It describes indigenous Oromo institutions, beliefs, moiety systems, and social organization. Similarities between the religious institutions and practices of the three faith groups are offered as evidence of interaction and religious exchanges.
The second chapter presents evidence about the presence of the Oromo in the Christian kingdom and in the territories of the Muslim principalities of southern Ethiopia prior to the sixteenth century. Hassen posits that the Oromo had lived in what is presently the central part of Ethiopia prior to the beginning of the fourteenth century, but the available sources are too scanty to establish this fact conclusively. By 1300, Hassan states, an Oromo presence in the heart of the Christian empire is irrefutable. He cites court chronicles that mention such common Oromo personal names as Challa, a military commander, and a church site named Galla Gurr during the reign of Yekunno Amlak (r. 1270–85), the first emperor of the Solomonic dynasty. The chronicle of Amde Seyon (r.1314–44) states that the king led an expedition to “Hagara Galla” (the Oromo country), which is an unmistakable reference to the Oromo presence. He also states that fourteenth-century Christian and Muslim sources mention such Oromo gosa (descent group) names as Galan, Yayya, Lalo, Liben, Rayya, and Jimma referring to the Oromo in central and southern Ethiopia. To substantiate [End Page 144] this, Hassen cites European and Arabic sources, Oromo and Amhara oral literature, and other Ethiopian sources that refer specifically to the Oromo presence in the region.
Despite the existence of varied historical sources, many historians of medieval Ethiopia ignored them or deliberately suppressed them for political reasons. Hassen argues that the extensive reference to Oromo gosa (descent group) names in the fourteenth century provides...