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Interview with historian Jean Doresse about ancient Ethiopian civilization

Time Zone: EST (New York, Toronto)
Messenger: Eleazar Sent: 1/15/2012 4:18:27 PM

I found this interview with Jean Doresse about ancient Ithiopian history.

Interview with historian Jean Doresse about ancient Ethiopian civilization

Ato Akalu W. Mariam took the opportunity during his recent visit to France to find J. Doresse in his house in Fayance, about 926 km from Paris, and conduct an interview with him. J. Doresse, 85, is a renowned historian specializing on Egyptian and Ethiopian history. He had published a number of books on ancient and medieval history of Ethiopia including ''Ethiopia under the Kingdom of Queen of the Sheba'' and ''The Prester John of Ethiopia''. J. Doresse, who has spent much of his life time in Ethiopia, pioneered the French Archaeological study on Ethiopia and the center for the Ethio-French studies. He was also Editor-in-chief of the first French newspaper in Ethiopia "L'Ethiopie d'Aujourd'hui". J. Doresse is currently writing a book on the people of southern Ethiopia. He lives in Fayance, France, with his Ethiopian wife and his Ethiopian adopted son. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Would you make a comparison between ancient Greece, Egypt and Ethiopia? How ancient are these countries?

When I went to Ethiopia I found the life, the ancient culture which was at the origin of ancient Greece. I found this in the vein of people more than the excavations. I found there the exact way of thinking, the clear mentality of ancient Greece. I am very much fond of reading Plato and some of his dialogues but I could not understand those dialogues until I visited Ethiopia. This is because Greek literatures were translated into different languages including French. But while translations were being made, there were always distortions in meanings. When I visited Ethiopia, I found ways of thinking and ideas that made me very clear with my Plato's readings.

How ancient are these civilizations of Greece, Egypt and Ethiopia?

Ethiopia is older than pharaonic Egypt. We have some proofs for this. People working on Ethiopia did not find the language of ancient Egypt in Ethiopia. But in ancient Egyptian we found many words which are in Ethiopia, both in Amharic and even more in Oromiffa. So, the conclusion is that Ethiopia is the birthplace of ancient civilization which developed later in Egypt and much later on in Greece and other countries.

Would you justify this argument by giving us some archaeological evidences?

Formerly I was an Egyptologist with knowledge of the hieroglyphics system. But when I was in Ethiopia I found that there are the same names, the same appelations for so many things that appeared at the beginning of pharaonic language. For instance, there is a word "Oromo" in Ethiopia which appeared in ancient Egypt referring to the same subject, with consonants only, without using vowels. It would have been good for a person who is an Egyptologist to study Amharic and Oromiffa and try to list out words that were in use in both countries.

Some people who went through your books like the Ethiopian historian Dr Lapisso G. Delebo claim that your work is an authoritative source regarding the ancient civilization of Ethiopia. Do you have any concrete findings that supports their statements?

First we have proof that in Ethiopia there was a very very ancient civilization.

In Aksum, the fallen obelisk is 37.5 meters high. It is extraordinary, it is taller than the greatest Egyptian obelisks. And we do not know from where they took this stone. It was not certainly from Aksum. They had to transport this monolithic obelisk. This is a task as important as the building of the Egyptian-pyramids.

In Ethiopia we started studying archaeology only fifty years ago. In Ethiopia there were stone carvings that have helped the birth of ancient civilizations. This had developed later in Lalibela and many other places.

The other justification relates to the birth of languages. Historians argue that the first language was Sabean. But Oromiffa, Somali and Afar languages use words whose origin is earlier than hieroglyphic Egyptian. They are the most ancient spoken languages. It was later on that Amharic was born and developed with Semitic characteristics. We have exactly the same thing in Egypt for hieroglyphic. Egyptian hieroglyphics was Semitic, if not completely. It is a mystery. Therefore, we have to make a parallel between the ancient Egyptian and Amharic languages. The Sabean language, which is purely a Semitic language, gave birth to Geez in the northern part of the country when Ethiopia accepted Christianity.

Contrary to conventional belief, my own opinion is that all the Horn of Africa and South Arabia are the places of birth for the history of mankind rather than Egypt and the other parts of the world. These are the birthplaces of man, the birthplaces of languages and civilization, though perhaps there was no idea of religion at the beginning.

Would you tell us briefly about your books, the contents and the paradigm you used?

My first publications about Ethiopia were papers about our discoveries in Yeha where we found the ancient Sabean temple at the time of Christianity, where they conducted baptistry. And then my second paper was on Hawlti Melazo of Achibidera [now in Eritrea]. We found at Achibiera a statue in bones, and objects of a king called Gedera and Egyptians bones and vessels which were brought certainly from Egypt. My discoveries in Axum were in fact never published.

I spent two years excavating and I found, indeed, the tombs corresponding to the erected stelae, but since my time as an archeologist was terminated, I couldn't continue with it. I had also found the stairs going down to the tombs where other archaeologists found plenty of objects.

My first book was entitled "Ethiopia under the Kingdom of Sheba," which was published immediatly after I left Ethiopia and was translated into English in England, in the United States and Canada. After that I published two books on ancient Ethiopia and medieval Ethiopia with the title "Prester John of Ethiopia." This one was never translated.

What about your latest book?

The one I am writting now?

No, the one before, the one on the life style of Ethiopians.

They are not in books. They are long papers published on " Le Monde" during the Silver Jubilee of His Majesty Emperor Haile-Selassie. Added to this there were others that came out in "annale d'Ethiopie" in French. I was also writing frequently on Ethiopia in French newspapers. I could have written so much during the time. I was then called to manage and run "Ethiopia Today" in French in the Ministry of Information, but I was instructed to focus on the newspaper. In fact that was the happiest time of my life (1960-1962) because, though I couldn't write a book I had the chance to publish on the issues related to pertaining problems of the time and Ethiopian history.

I tried to upgrade the quality of the newspaper I was in charge so that it could be kept in libraries abroad. Until now, I am using some of these papers as a reference. It was a weekly newspaper.

Some historians say that some of the languages and the people of Ethiopia are not indigenous to the land. What is your opinion on this?

This is completely false. All of them are indigenous to Ethiopia. If you take the South and the East, it is the cradle of mankind. To this, one can attest the discovery of Lucy. It was an expansion of humanity, indeed. There has been a belief that it started from Yemen. But it is the reverse. The Sabeans in Yemen and Arabia were the extensions of the Sabeans in Ethiopia. In fact it is completely parallel to their argument. South of Arabia was part of the kingdom of Axum. Ancient Ethiopia was more wider as to incorporate many different people than under the Sabean hegemony. Ethiopia's territory was extended to the Sudan. It was a large country having international significance. Historians understand ancient Ethiopia as only having relations with countries on the Nile basin, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean world.In fact my belief is that Ethiopia had relations with the regions adjacent to the Indian Ocean, the remaining of Africa and up to China.

What was the geographical extent of ancient Ethiopia?

During the Axum time we have inscriptions describing that Ethiopia's territory was even wider than Ethiopia under Emperor Haile-Selassie and Emperor Menilik II. The problem is some people understand Ethiopia only in terms of Ethiopian Christianity limit. Muslim Ethiopia was highly related to Christian Ethiopia. There was a good relation between the Christian Ethiopia and Muslim Ethiopia which was in total called Ethiopia and was under the same rule. The Jews, the Muslims and other non-believers believe that they were Ethiopians. Then where is the limit of Ethiopia? I feel that the limit of Ethiopia was the necessary part of the whole part of the Horn of Africa. The other countries on the border of Ethiopia in the north and south would never have a modern life if they were not connected to the central part of Ethiopia. Once an Ethiopian scholar asked me the same thing. I told him that the geographical limit of Ethiopia included all the coastal areas. But since Emperor Haile-Selassie was interested in the Christian highlands, he couldn't restore the historical Ethiopia with all its aligned coasts. In this regard, the fact that the French Government had promised to restore Djibouti but failed for unknown reasons on the Ethiopian side could be cited as an example. Still there are cultural ties between all of them and will remain so.

The territorial extent of ancient Ethiopia is also mentioned in the Old Testament. Since it is vast to cover, I have dedicated a chapter in my future book to this issue.

Would you please brief us about your upcoming book?

Well, I started it some 30 years ago. My focus is on people of the southern part of Ethiopia who are outside Christianity and who have their own very ancient beliefs and practices which are very intelligent ones. They had concepts of man, of fun and life, of the surrounding nature which are related to my reading of Plato. In this same book I have tried to reinterpret the real mind, knowledge and practices of the people of Ethiopia against those artificially interpreted by foreign scholars. This is because I believe deep in my heart that I was an Ethiopian, having an Ethiopian family, which helped me to deeply understand the real life of Ethiopians to describe it clearly.

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