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Western relation with Ethiopia during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period
By Hailu Kifle-Egzi
Master’s Thesis, McGill University, 1962
Introduction: The Roman Empire extending from the pillars of Hercules to the Aegean Sea, from the shores of North West Africa and Egypt to those of Spain, Gaul, Italy and Germany had dominated and united the entire basin of the Mediterranean Sea which it called “Nare Nostrum.” It had also evolved around this sea an Empire and a civilization with Mediterranean characteristics. This politico-cultural unity further reinforced by Christianity was preserved through all the civil wars and invasions of the later Empire. Even the barbarian invasion which ended with the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410.A. D., had not altered in its essentials the basic Roman and Mediterranean characteristic of this civilization.
During the centuries preceding the rise of Islam, the Roman Empire had extended its influence by means of commerce with the lands bordering on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Through the influence of (the Christian) Mediterranean merchants who visited the Aksumite port of Adulis the Christianization of Ethiopia was gradually effected. With the conversion to Christianity of King Ezana in 324 A. D., Christianity became the official religion of the Aksumites who in turn transmitted this nascent and budding faith to the people bordering their kingdom.
Furthermore, the Roman Empire either by conquest, as in the case of the Nobataea, or by alliance and negotiation as in the case of the Himyarites, the Blemmyes and the Aksumites kept the trade routes and communication between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean safe. This trade and communication brought in turn further Mediterranean influences. Such influence, even if it did not completely alter the way of life of these people, had at least the effect of orientating the countries bordering the Red Sea towards the Christian Mediterranean civilizations.
At the beginning of the seventh century, there was no indication that this peaceful evolution was suddenly to be interrupted. However, the unpredictable rise and rapid expansion of Islam marked a turning point not only in the history of the Roman and Persian Empires but also in that of Ethiopia and the other Christian communities bordering on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. With the rapid emergence and permanent expansion and dominion of Islam as a religion and a political power over parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, and over the territories which had been part of the Christian Roman Empire, Mediterranean unity was shattered. The syncretism of the Roman Christian civilization on these regions was shattered too. The Arabs, because of the new religion they professed, were not absorbed by the Empire they conquered as the Germans had been before them. Instead, after the seventh century two rival faiths, supported by organizations of Empires, stood facing each other across the Mediterranean. Instead of a highway of trade and cultural influence, the Mediterranean became a frontier – a sea of war. Mare Nostrum became “no man’s land”.