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Ethiopian Medieval Islam.
Towards a Documentary Revival

Introduction to the thematic issue*
Amélie Chekroun
p. 9-20

Texte intégral

  • * * This paper is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC (...)
  • 1 In medieval times, sources referred to the entire Horn of Africa as “Ethiopia”. Today this area cov (...)

1Historical research on the Horn of Africa1 has experienced a significant revival over the past quarter century with archaeological and historical studies gaining new autonomy in a field long dominated by a philological approach, resulting in a finer, better-defined periodization of the history of the region. The new work underscores the extent of the rupture (social, cultural, memorial) that occurred in the second half of the 16th century, following the war that opposed Christian and Muslim powers in the years 1530-1540 (Chekroun, 2023), the profound territorial reorganization of the entire region that ensued, the massive settlement of Oromo populations on former Christian and Muslim territories, and also the founding of an Ottoman province in the 1550s on the Eritrean coast (Chekroun & Hirsch, 2020b). As a result, the historiography devoted to the so-called medieval period, more clearly distinguished from the study of later centuries, has acquired new coherence and visibility, as evidenced by the publication in 2020-2021 of a book, Companion to Medieval Ethiopia and Eritrea (ed. S. Kelly, 2020), a special issue in the journal Antiquity devoted to “The archaeology of Cosmopolitanism in Medieval Ethiopia” (Insoll, 2021) or even the first History of Ethiopia under the Salomonians (1262‑1521) in Amharic (Ayenachew, 2021).

2In general, the medieval historiography of the region has long been dominated by the “grand narrative” developed from the Middle Ages by Christian scholars commenting on their own history and the constructions of the Menelikian period of the end of the 19th century. The latter rewrite the history of ancient times in particular to justify the forcible integration of peripheral regions into the Ethiopian space. The idea of “exceptionality” of the Christian Ethiopian state and the marginalization of surrounding societies, particularly Muslim societies, has been contested for several decades. This contestation has emerged both from populations descended from those who saw the imposition of Christian power at the turn of the 20th century and from researchers working on these regions. It is now a question of considering the whole of the region and its history in a polyphonic way. It is by connecting the history of the western high plateau of the Rift Valley, dominated by a Christian kingdom since the 4th century, with that of the lowlands, of the eastern high plateau with their more distant horizons, that this period of the Ethiopian history can appear in all of its singularity.

3Yet, highlighting the regional connections of the medieval Horn of Africa places at the center of the investigation a heretofore marginal actor in modern Ethiopian representations of its past since the 19th century: Islam itself. Caught between the traditional story of its introduction into the kingdom of Aksum before 622, during the “hegira in al-Ḥabasha,” and observations of its privileged position in the eastern lowlands later incorporated into the Christian kingdom, Ethiopian Islam has for long remained without history. In a national narrative that is still largely based on the cultural hegemony and historical continuity of Christianity on the western high plateau, Islam hardly appears except as the figure of a foreign merchant, a nomadic warrior or as an “escort” for Christian pilgrims. Islam has thus long been considered a phenomenon outside of the history of Ethiopia, an imported product introduced through trade, but which nonetheless remained foreign, even sometimes threatening its very existence. The scarcity of written pre-19th century Ethiopian Islamic sources and the use of external Yemeni and Egyptian testimony to compensate, have reinforced this conception of an allochthonous Islam, peripheral to local Christianity: on the western high plateau, a Christianity resembling a besieged fortress; on the lowlands and eastern high plateau, an Islam open to the world but always foreign; the roles have long appeared static. No doubt it is significant that the only historical syntheses on the subject published thus far do not study Ethiopian Islam, but Islam in Ethiopia (J. S. Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia, 1952; J. Cuoq, L’Islam en Ethiopie, 1981), it is as if the Muslim tradition of “hegira in al-Ḥabasha,” the long history of Islam in the region had been limited, on either side of the Great Rift, to a simple face to face with Ethiopian Christianity.

4For twenty years, the subject of medieval Islam in the Horn of Africa has been reinvested, philologically, as well as historically and archaeologically. Regional Islam is no longer considered exclusively foreign, nor cut off from the Christian world, nor completely evanescent. The different Islamic states that followed one another in the region between the 12th and 16th centuries, as well as the Muslim communities of the Christian kingdom, are beginning to be better known and revealed in all their complexities. This methodological and historiographical renewal is mainly, but not exclusively, driven by French research, and is illustrated by several collective publications, including the work edited by F.-X. Fauvelle and B. Hirsch, Espaces musulmans de la Corne de l’Afrique published in 2011, a special issue of Northeast African Studies edited by J. Loiseau, “Ethiopia and Nubia in Islamic Egypt: Connected Histories of Northeastern Africa” published in 2019 or the special issue of the journal Médiévales edited by R. Seignobos and N. Bouloux, “Ethiopia, Nubia, Egypt. Christian and Muslim Powers (11th-15th centuries)” published in 2020. The present bibliography will provide the reader an inkling of the considerable research contribution over the past decade.

  • 2 I would like to warmly thank all the anonymous reviewers who have greatly contributed, through thei (...)

5This thematic issue thus aims to collectively present a picture of the many historiographical approaches currently in development, and which already enrich and diversify the documentary corpus on the Muslim communities of the Horn of Africa in medieval times. This collective,2 multidisciplinary and decompartmentalized approach is the only one able to allow knowledge of Ethiopian Islam to go beyond the frozen syntheses of the last century. Four major avenues emerge: archaeological research, Christian sources in Geʿez, exogenous Arabic sources (mainly Yemeni and Mamluk), and finally memorial traces and rewritings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

6A fifth track could be mentioned, even if it has not yet brought any new elements: the historical texts written in Arabic produced within these Muslim communities, limited, to date, to the number of three for the period prior to the second half of the 16th century: the Dhikr at-tawārīkh, the Futūḥ al-Ḥabasha and the Taʾrīkh ʿUmar Walasmaʿ (cf. Chekroun, 2020, 2023 and forthcoming). The ERC project IslHornAfr led by Alessandro Gori (2013-2018) has catalogued several hundred Arabic manuscripts from the Horn of Africa preserved by public institutions (the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, the Abdullahi Sharif Museum in Harar and various European libraries; see Gori, 2014) or in private collections in different regions of Ethiopia. Most of these manuscripts are now listed in an online database: [​]. However, no manuscript seems to predate the 17th century, and no new text from the medieval period has been identified. This observation should not, however, interrupt or discourage the search for new texts and we can hope that the current boom in Ethiopian medieval studies on Islam will soon be accompanied by new written sources, probably leading to a re-evaluation of the current corpus.

Fig. 1 – General map of the places mentioned in the issue

Fig. 1 – General map of the places mentioned in the issue

Fig. 1 – General map of the places mentioned in the issue

S. Dorso, 2022

Archaeological research still in progress

  • 3 The “Archeology of Islam in the Horn of Africa” project (MAE, CFEE, ANR) led by F.-X. Fauvelle and (...)

7In Ethiopia as elsewhere and perhaps more because of the specificities of local written sources, it is largely material sources that shed light on the Islamic past. The potential for archaeological research is illustrated here by several articles which, while adopting different approaches, show how complementary and necessary these are. Over the past twenty years, four major European projects3 have identified many major sites of regional medieval Islam (Fauvelle-Aymar & Hirsch, 2011; Mire, 2015; Fauvelle, Hirsch & Chekroun, 2017; Insoll et al., 2021; Gonzalez-Ruibal et al., 2021; Loiseau et al., 2021). However, many regions have not yet been prospected and others, better known, continue to reveal new sites which constitute as many new avenues for exploration.

8The Spanish team of the ERC project StateHorn presents its first reflections on the mosques of medieval Somaliland. This team, led by Jorge de Torres, has since 2015 carried out several prospecting and excavation campaigns on around thirty Islamic sites in Somaliland. One of the main markers – if not the main marker – of the Islamisation of these sites is the presence of mosque ruins, easily identifiable by the presence of miḥrāb in the qibla wall. Carolina Cornax-Gomez and Jorge de Torres offer a first architectural and spatial analysis of the corpus of medieval mosques in Somaliland, paving the way for a comparative approach with the few known medieval mosques in Ethiopia. This is a first milestone in ongoing research, since the corpus is still under construction and is expected to expand with the opening of the Hendoga archaeological site in Djibouti. Research on medieval mosques in Ethiopia is still in its infancy both in the East (see Chekroun et al., 2011; Chekroun, 2015; and in 2022 surveys in the Djijiga region by the StateHorn team and those in north of Dire Dawa by the HornEast team), and in the more central regions. With the exception of those of Norā (Pradines, 2017), the mosques of Ifāt have been limited to preliminary remarks. The article on the market town of Gendabelo bears witness to the work that remains since it is partly based on data collected in 2009 during a brief field work in Ifāt, on the archaeological site of Asbari, which had not been published. This site, spectacular, preserves three mosques, one of them of monumental dimensions (28 m x 29 m) for which the material collected on the surface shows remarkable diversity, including imported ceramics dating from the late Middle Ages. When the security situation permits, the Asbari site should be thoroughly investigated.

9The Islamic sites of southern Wallo identified by Deresse Ayenachew and Assrat Assefa in 2012 and described in their field report published in this issue, are located in the direct extension of the Islamic sites of Ifāt. The latter, on the eastern escarpment of the Ethiopian central high plateau, was the heart of the Sultanate of Awfāt in the 14th century, and were studied between 2007 and 2010 as part of the pioneering project led by F.-X. Fauvelle and B. Hirsch (Fauvelle, Hirsch & Chekroun, 2017). The article on the sites in Wallo is only a brief description, but these unpublished data are valuable for completing the map of Muslim settlements around the territory of the Christian kingdom in medieval times. The “Muftī” mosque, a few kilometers from that of Faqi Dabbis in Ifāt (Poissonnier et al., 2011), like that of “Jé’értu”, a hundred kilometers further north, can probably be attached to the corpus of the medieval mosques of Ifāt, significantly extending the historical geography of territories populated by Muslims. This article also invites us to pursue archaeological prospection in the region.

10Participating in this dynamic of openness towards areas that have not yet been studied much or not at all, the 2018-2019 research by the ERC project HornEast team in southern Təgrāy thus made it possible to precisely locate and partially excavate the site of Bilet, on the edge of the village of Kwiha, known since the beginning of the 19th century for concealing funerary stelae bearing Arabic inscriptions. The broadening of surveys in the area also led to the discovery, some thirty kilometers further south, of a group of Muslim cemeteries dated by their funerary inscriptions to the 12th-14th centuries (Loiseau et al., 2022; Loiseau & Dorso, forthcoming). These sites in Təgrāy, the cradle of Ethiopian Christianity and heart of the Zagwé Christian kingdom (11th-13th centuries), yielded the most important Arabic epigraphic corpus in the Horn of Africa, behind that of the Dahlak Islands which covers a longer period, from the 10th to the 16th centuries (Schneider, 1986). In their article, Simon Dorso and Anna Lagaron present these recent discoveries as reflections on the materiality of these cemeteries. The resolutely new approach they adopt is intended for study of such funerary inscriptions, not only for their textual content, the publication of which is also in progress (Loiseau & Dorso, forthcoming), but for their materiality especially their lapidary and architectural aspects.

The challenge of the Geʿez documentation of the Christian kingdom

11Paradoxically, in the context of growing tensions and competition which was that of Christian expansion and the affirmation of neighboring Muslim states, the sources produced within the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia are relatively silent about the presence of Islamized populations within the kingdom or in bordering regions. Before the 15th century (see in particular Hirsch, 2020), documentation in Geʿez (the liturgical and historical language of Ethiopian Christianity) is extremely laconic, even sibylline on these questions, even if archaeological sources as well as Yemeni and Egyptian written documents leave no doubt about the importance of this Muslim presence in the region. Even if only allusive, the rare mentions of Muslims in Christian documentation deserve to be analyzed in detail, sometimes proving decisive for a more global contextualization of the relations between communities in Ethiopia and beyond, between Christian sovereigns and Cairo (Derat, 2020).

12As part of the ERC project HornEast, the philologist Nafisa Valieva, for example, worked on a mention of a Muslim population in a land donation charter from the Christian king Ṭanṭawәdәm in favour of the church of ʿUrā Masqal (Təgrāy, Ethiopia) probably dating to the 12th century (Valieva, 2021). The translation of this Geʿez text, which has come down to us via an 18th-century manuscript copy, is complicated by difficult reading (see Derat, 2018: 266-271; Valieva, 2021: 1). Moreover, this very brief reference to Muslims of the Christian kingdom of the Zagwé period (11th-13th centuries) mentions only the “land of the Muslims (tanbāl)” transferred to a “Church of the Cross” for its maintenance. If this reading is correct, it confirms the existence of a Muslim population dependent upon Christians in Təgrāy in the 12th century. Unfortunately, current knowledge does not allow to identify the location of this church or the land in question. The recent identification of several Muslim cemeteries from the same period, mentioned by S. Dorso and A. Lagaron in this dossier, not far from Maryam Nazret, a center of Christianity during the Zagwé period, also confirms this religious cohabitation in the Təgrāy in the 12th century.

13Martina Ambu’s contribution to this dossier illustrates all the complexity, but also the potential, of searching Geʿez texts written in the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia for mentions of the Horn of Africa Muslim communities in an effort to understand relations between Christian and Muslim populations. By reviewing from the beginning the hagiographic dossier on the struggle of Takla Haymānot monks with the Christian king of Ethiopia, ʿAmda Ṣәyon (r. 1314-1344), this article proposes an innovative and stimulating hypothesis: these conflicts could have been caused, not so much by the Christian matrimonial practices condemned by the monks, but by the sovereign’s refusal to send evangelizing missions to the land of Islam as a result of a policy of tolerance towards Muslim communities of the Sultanate of Darā, which could have led to the expulsion of the Coptic Metropolitan Yāʾәqob by King ʿAmda Ṣәyon in 1344. This hypothesis is based on only two documents: a passage from the Life of Baṣalota Mikāʾel, whose M. Ambu shows that it is the oldest hagiographical account of the cycle, and a mention by Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī of a secret conversion of the king to Islam. But it is precisely the exceptional character of these two texts, escaping the hagiographic doxa, which requires taking them seriously. This is what Martina Ambu does, contrary to the dominant literature (for example, among many references, Trimingham, 1952: 71), by inviting us to reconsider the relationship between ʿAmda Ṣәyon and the Muslims, which was far from being a state of perpetual war.

The richness of Yemeni sources

  • 4 I am currently preparing a cross study of these two texts, based on the Arabic texts and proposing (...)

14The third part of the documentary corpus is that of Arabic sources from the Islamic world which evoke the Muslims of the Horn of Africa. This project was for a long time partially restricted to two Mamluk texts which dominate the corpus: chapter 8 of Masālik al-abṣar fī mamālik al-amṣar (“Way of gazes on the kingdoms of the great cities”) of Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ʿUmarī (d. 1349) and the Kitāb al-Ilmām bi-akhbār man bi-arḍ al-Ḥabasha min mulūk al-islām (“Book of perfect knowledge on the stories of the kings of Islam in the land of the Ḥabasha”) by Egyptian author Taqīy ad-Dīn Aḥmad al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442). These two texts, a century apart, devote an entire chapter or complete booklet to the Horn of Africa and more particularly to the Muslims of the region. They are well known, even if al-Maqrīzī’s work has not been fully translated.4 Other brief mentions in Yemeni and Mamluk documentation have also long been noted (Cerulli, 1931). However, Yemeni, Egyptian and Hejaz corpora mention a large number of Horn of Africa Muslims who have yet to be identified as noted in recent research (see Vallet, 2010; Tamon, 2017; Loiseau, 2019; Chekroun, 2020; Moorthy Kloss, 2021; Mohamed, forthcoming). Two articles in this dossier testify to the contribution of Yemeni sources to the history of medieval Ethiopian Islam.

15Sobhi Bouderbala takes up the documentary file concerning the Najāḥids, a line of princes of Ethiopian and servile origin who became masters of the Yemeni region of Tihāma and its capital Zabīd in the 11th-12th centuries. The history of the Najāḥids is intertwined with that of their adversaries, the Ṣulayḥids who ruled in the name of the Fatimid Caliph of Cairo over large parts of Yemen. The power of the Najāḥids was essentially based on an army of slaves recruited in the Horn of Africa, an area with which they seem to have kept strong ties and where they sought refuge from the attacks of the Ṣulayḥids. If this dynasty of Ethiopian origin is known from historiography, the author breaks with an approach dependent on the study of the Ziyādites, their predecessors, and the Ṣulayḥids, their competitors. He endeavours to reread the corpus concerning them, Yemeni chronicles and ṭabaqāt, and especially the Mufīd fī akhbār Zabīd, a work written by one of the Najāḥids, Jayyāsh b. Najāḥ, in order to better understand the narrative construction of the political and Islamic legitimacy of the dynasty founder.

16In an overflowing article, Zacharie Mochtari de Pierrepont delves into the Yemeni documentation of the 12th-15th centuries in search of Ethiopian scholars or scholars of Ethiopian origin. The wealth of largely unpublished data that he mobilizes allows him to shed light on the scholarly circulations on both sides of the Red Sea, between Rasūlid Yemen and the Ethiopian sultanates, first and foremost among which, Awfāt. Mochtari’s article shows, for example, the growth of the community of scholars from the Horn of Africa in Yemen throughout the period studied, as well as the role of Yemeni scholars in the process of Islamization of the Horn of Africa. The author shows a real community of culture between the two shores of the Red Sea with sustained dynamic religious and scholarly exchanges. His conclusions echo those of the art historian Sana Mirza about the early 18th century Harar Korans. In an article in the special issue that I edited for the Annales d’Éthiopie devoted to the history of the city of Harar, the author identifies a regional style for Islamic manuscripts produced in the Red Sea, based on the artistic forms shared between the Egyptian, Yemeni and Harari manuscripts that suggest complex relationships that span from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period (Mirza, 2022).

Memories and rewritings of the contemporary era

17Writing the history of medieval Ethiopian Islam has often relied on the rewritings and reinventions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, as the work of Héloïse Mercier shows, several major texts written in the 20th century endeavor to anchor the Islamization of certain regions in a medieval past, to give the phenomenon a fantasized antiquity. This is particularly the case for the Fatḥ madīnat Harar and the lists of Ahmed Shamie from the middle of the 20th century, which construct accounts that trace the history of Harar and its rulers back to the 13th and sometimes even to the 10th century (Mercier, 2022), despite the fact that textual sources and archaeological data agree that Harar only became an important urban center in the 16th century (cf. Chekroun, 2022). The narratives presented by these 20th century texts are subsequently found in numerous academic writings, considered reliable sources on the medieval period. More currently, they also play an essential role in identity and political claims, like UNESCO’s discourse in favor of the classification of Harar as “World Heritage” [​en/​list/​1189/​]. A necessary work of deconstruction and meticulous study of these texts is therefore essential both for research on the medieval period and for research on the populations of the contemporary period. In her contribution to this issue, Héloïse Mercier examines a well-known text in Arabic and Geʿez, featuring the Emir Nūr of Harar (r. c. 1552-1567) and the Christian king Zarʾa Yāʿәqob (r. 1434-1468). She shows that this text from the end of the 19th century calls on these two great figures of regional medieval history to deal with contemporary issues following the conquest of Harar by the Christian troops of Menelik II, King of Ethiopia, in 1887. Contrary to other researchers before her, such as Getatchew Haile and Ewald Wagner, the author shows that it is useless to seek a substratum of medieval “historical reality” in this text, but that it must be considered in its context of writing, and that it allows above all to take the measure of the “tilting of the world” that the Muslims of the region of Harar, newly colonised by Christian Ethiopia, then experienced.

18If the pseudo-medieval texts of the 19th and 20th centuries must be deconstructed, the memory of certain figures, major events or important places, linked to the medieval history of the Muslim communities of the Horn of Africa, can sometimes be found in contemporary documents. This is the case of the market town of Gendabelo, which is discussed in the article that I wrote with Ahmed Hassan and Bertrand Hirsch. We edited and translated three documents from 1863, 1876 and 1941, in Ajami and Amharic, which evoke with nostalgia the past grandeur of the Gendabelo market in the Ifāt region. The evocation of this market which seems to lose its influence after the 16th century invites us to reread the relevant sources of the 15th and 16th centuries that confirm its past grandeur, the memory of which has persisted to this day. Finally, this article allows dialogue between the different documentary categories mentioned in this issue (archaeology, Ethiopian texts, exogenous sources and 19th and 20th century memoirs) and ends with a proposal to identify the Gendabelo market as the Asbari archaeological site in Ifāt.

19On this model, and taking the necessary precautions when using different documentary regimes, the next step will therefore be to establish a dialogue within this corpus in full revival. The contributions in this issue show the need for interdisciplinarity to address these questions : data from archaeologists makes it possible to better understand medieval texts – e.g., the image of the Muslim cemeteries of Təgrāy help understand the mention of Muslims in a donation charter of land of the 12th century –, just as written sources can lead to the identification of archaeological sites – as is the case for the sites of Ifāt or those of Somaliland, which only written sources can link to the sultanates of Awfāt and of the Barr Saʿd ad-Dīn. Moreover, this dossier illustrates the importance of working with specialists from other regions, and not only with the few specialists of Islam on the African shore of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The contributions of Sobhi Bouderbala and Zacharie Mochtari de Pierrepont, two historians who do not work on the Horn of Africa but on the Arabian Peninsula, are good examples of this and highlight the connections of Ethiopian societies with the rest of the Islamic world. A dialogue with the specialists of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia is only in its infancy. To take just one example, the study called for by Martina Ambu on the hagiographies of Tādewos and Qawǝsṭos, two Christian missionaries in territories with a Muslim majority in the 15th century, can only be done in collaboration between this specialist in Ethiopian Christianity and specialists in the Muslim regions of the Horn of Africa. The decompartmentalization of historiographies and disciplines reveals here all its richness and relevance and will undoubtedly lead to significant advances in the study of Muslim communities and the Islamization of the Horn of Africa in Medieval times.

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* * This paper is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant agreement No. 72620).

1 In medieval times, sources referred to the entire Horn of Africa as “Ethiopia”. Today this area covers several contemporary independent states, including Ethiopia, but also Somaliland, Djibouti and Eritrea. For this reason, the present special issue speaks of “Ethiopian Islam” even though it covers a wider geographical area.

2 I would like to warmly thank all the anonymous reviewers who have greatly contributed, through their rich and constructive comments, to enriching this dossier. Thanks to Martina Ambu and Simon Dorso for their valuable proofreading of this introduction.

3 The “Archeology of Islam in the Horn of Africa” project (MAE, CFEE, ANR) led by F.-X. Fauvelle and B. Hirsch, between 2006 and 2010; the ERC project “Becoming Muslim”, PI Timothy Insoll, between 2016 and 2021; the ERC project HornEast, PI Julien Loiseau, between 2018 and 2023; the ERC project StateHorn, PI Jorge de Torres, between 2020 and 2025.

4 I am currently preparing a cross study of these two texts, based on the Arabic texts and proposing new translations.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – General map of the places mentioned in the issue
Légende Fig. 1 – General map of the places mentioned in the issue
Crédits S. Dorso, 2022
Fichier image/jpeg, 91k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Amélie Chekroun, « Ethiopian Medieval Islam.
Towards a Documentary Revival »
Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 153 | 2023, 9-20.

Référence électronique

Amélie Chekroun, « Ethiopian Medieval Islam.
Towards a Documentary Revival »
Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 153 | 2023, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Amélie Chekroun

Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Iremam, Aix-en-Provence, France ; amelie.chekroun[at]

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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