European fascination with a submissive Africa and its people has led to centuries of misguided and misinformed details of the precolonial continent. Even in its attempts at telling the real story of Africa it has never been able to avoid falsehoods, hyperbole and the perpetuation of myth, as is the case with the legend of the Priest King Prester John of Ethiopia. MR SIBUSISO MNYANDA explains, in our ongoing positive revisionism series.
To this very day, Africa’s story is yet to be told with accurate and sincere narratives, apart from being a footnote of ‘Great Civilisations’ of Europe. From the barbaric age; to medieval, dark and right through to so-called enlightenment ages, Africa had its own existence. It sometimes paralleled or coincided with the rest of the known global civilisations, but definitely had an a priori establishment and development.
Clear evidence of this is the history of an African metropolis in modern day Spain, that stretches some 800 odd years of recorded culture and history of Africans in that region. Modern scholars will record these Africans as Moors – a derogatory term referring to Africans of Muslim religion. A deliberate misconception over time is that Muslim Africans were all Arabs. The emergence of the history of Mansa Musa of the Keita house, Emperor of Mali in the late 13th century (c. 1280 – c. 1337), debunked this falsehood to contemporary academic hierarchies. He is now a known Negroid man, arguably the wealthiest of all time when it comes to wisdom and material possessions.
One of the most detrimental misconceptions however, is the one that hovers over the ancient nation of Abyssinia or modern day Ethiopia. It is widely known that the ancient lad was never colonised, with a culture and traditions preserved to this very day. Pre-biblical and pre-Christian, they have the most pure version of Nazarite law practice, independent of any western civilisation. If anything, the western world adopted a lot from them. Despite this, the nation’ s independent, ancient religious practices and figures have been conflated with the story of Christianity, and much myth, designed to deflect from the true glory of its unhindered self-development.
Long before the time of Christ, Asia had trade relations with Africa; much of the commerce between the Orient and the Mediterranean civilisations (including Egypt, Greece, and Rome) passing through the ‘Horn of Africa’ or the Sub-Sahara. It’s true its existence – this ‘civilised’ Africa – was not known to Europe till the beginning of The Crusades. A letter emerged in the 12th century dated 1165, addressed to then Emperor of Roman Empire Manuel I Comnenus, detailing the European fixation with Abyssinia and offering descriptions of the vast wealth of the nation: “Our land streams with honey and is overflowing with milk. All riches, such as are upon the world, our magnificence possesses in superabundance’’, it pronounced, detailing a rich, dynastic history covering centuries.
As many expeditions of exploration sprouted after the Crusades – or as European colonialist coined them the ‘Voyages of Discovery’ – mystery and myth grew around an ancient nation that provided Solomon with his gold and worshiped the sun, Ra. Fables and tales of this land, its resources and its strange creatures, spread like wild fire and inspired the awestruck colonialists to go on a prospective hunt for riches and souvenirs. The Western world was in such shock to learn of such a civilisation during a time when they were in darkness, that the myths they created about a certain Priest-King were so ‘far-fetched’ that for a long time the Kingdom’s location was said to have been in the Middle East or Asia, an attempt to nullify African sophistication.
Sometimes, this same character was misrepresented as Genghis Khan. The truth is, he was an Ethiopian King in an unbroken lineage from Judaic Solomonic dynasty. Emperor Gebre Mesqel Lalibela – also known as Prester John or the Latin Presbyter Johannes – was son of Emperor Jan Seyum and succeeded Na’akueto La’ab Laibela (built the stone-carved Church of St George Bete Giyorgis in Lalibela, Ethiopia). He was the mysterious Emperor that wrote the letter to the European monarchs.
“The Western world was in such shock to learn of such a civilisation during a time when they were in darkness, that the myths they created about this priest-king were so far-fetched that for a long time the kingdoms’ location was said to have been in the Middle East or Asia, an attempt to nullify African sophistication”
He is said to be a direct descendant of Balthazar, one of the 3 Maji Kings mentioned in biblical texts. More precisely, non-biblical Judaic sources reveal he hails from a lineage of monarchs that ruled around the middle of the first millennium B.C., in an empire that stretched from Abyssinia across the ‘Horn of Africa’ peninsula to Yemen, and also south of the Sahara, all the way to the Tanganyika delta that irrigated the plains of the great Kingdom of Mapungubwe in the 11th and 12th centuries. Aksum/Axum was the capital of all Great Egypt and Nubia around this time. Its people were known as the people of the South Kingdom or Sa’ba often pronounced Sheba.
The great Empress Makeda, known to have had diplomatic and trading relations with Europe and Israel during King Solomon’s reign from 970 to 931 BC, is Prester John’s ancestor in this lineage. Its roots are recorded in the Kebra Negast – an Abyssinian Amharic narrative that details the glory of the Kings and Queens of Nubia. Makeda, together with a merchant under her envoy, are recorded to have travelled to Jerusalem. The fruits of this visit bore diplomatic strengthening and economic exchange. Makeda had a son by Solomon (Menelik or Bayna Lekhem, anointed and crowned Emperor by High Priest Zadok around 950 B.C.).
Solomon acquired artisans and building materials needed to finish his great temple, gold being primary, symbolising kingly virtue, and frankincense symbolising the priestly nature of the king. These same materials were to be gifts to the Messiah according to biblical texts, one of them presented by an Abyssinian Maji as mentioned before. As both these materials are found in abundance in Abyssinia, it follows that the lands of Sheba are said to have been King Solomon’s mines. It is this fact that Abyssinian monarchs have been identified as Priest-Kings, rather than the misleading Orthodox Christians they are seen to be today.
Baeda Mariam I was Emperor of Abyssinia when the Portuguese eventually arrived in the late 15th century, via the Congo River. He too was a king in the lineage of his forefathers and mothers. It was at Portugal’s trade depot in Benin – modern day Nigeria – that the explorers first came to hear of an emperor who inaugurated his lords by bestowing on them a helmet, a sceptre and a cross—all symbols of a Christian priest-king—and yet no local ever claimed to have seen him. Through Baeda Mariam I, the Portuguese and the rest of Europe under Roman rule were to learn the hidden arts of Astrology that the Maji were known for, and use that acquired skill for navigation.
This is but just a minor recollection of one of many misconceptions that footnote Africa and its historic splendour. There are various incidents and accounts of this. Like the glorious battle of Adwa in 1896 when the ‘scramble for Africa’ was heating up, where an ancient and ‘archaic’ Ethiopian army led by Emperor Menelik II, pulverised the colonial efforts through an Italian invasion. With all their might and military technological advancement, descendants of Roman gladiators were defeated by spear wielding warriors in one of the most comprehensive military defeats in history.
“an ancient and ‘archaic’ Ethiopian army led by Emperor Menelik II, pulverised the colonial efforts of an Italian invasion. With all their might and military technological advancement, descendants of Roman gladiators were defeated by spear wielding warriors in one of the most comprehensive military defeats in history.”
It happened again in 1939 when the fascist Mr Benito Mussolini tried to colonise Ethiopia. This time led by Time Magazine’s ‘Man of the year 1936’, Emperor Haile Selassie. The result was the same, only this time the whole world knew about it but chose not to record it in modern history because of the humiliation of a defeat by ‘uncivilised villagers’. Verily, it was an African woman who established first institute of higher learning, Al-Karaouine in Morocco. It was established in 859 by Fatima al –Fihri. But history ignores this, at least popular scholarly text and records. Emperor Gebre Mesqel Lalibela will forever just be Prester John to the West, a mythical figure shrouded in hubris and legend. The truth is he was ahead of his time.
Today, the church of Lalibela is one of the ancient wonders of the world, yet the identity of the people responsible for its existence are but tabooed whispers in academic corridors as mythical and fabled legends, mired in a cloud of deliberate misconception and misrepresentation. Mr Binyavanga Wainaina, in his satirical essay ‘How to Write About Africa’, explores this frustration by dissecting the clichés and preconceptions dear to scholarly text with ruthless precision. ‘Your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.’