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A Tale of Three Cities

a tale


The Mäsal cemetery.


Thirteen hundred meters above the Ethiopian Rift Valley, researchers found the ruins of three medieval cities that may have belonged to the Kingdom of Shewa, a near-mythical Muslim power that stood at the seam of two cultures between the 10th and 16th century.

At this altitude, the arid escarpments of the Ethiopian highlands cascade down to the Red Sea in a tangle of thorns and yellow grasses. Among the brush, a team of researchers1 led by CNRS historian and archaeologist François-Xavier Fauvelle2 unearthed the ruins of three medieval African cities named Asbäri, Mäsal, and Nora. These unique vestiges are believed to be the first concrete clue to the existence of the elusive Kingdom of Shewa (or Shoa), a Muslim dominion whose exact location has stumped researchers for years.

Though the kingdom's origins are woven with myths and legends, researchers believe it controlled one of the most important trade routes of the time, linking the Christian-populated highlands to the Muslim ports of the Red Sea. “What's interesting is that the cities we found were literally at the hinge of these two worlds,” explains Fauvelle. While Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia in the 4th century, it was later challenged in the 7th century by the rise of Islam. Several centuries later, however, under the rule of Shewa, both religious groups coexisted rather peacefully and traded agricultural goods for access to the sea “in a sort of cultural and commercial symbiosis,” says Fauvelle.

As often happens with great discoveries, the researchers were originally looking for something else. The team had embarked on an expedition to locate a 15th-century city called Gendebelo, an important market where Christians and Muslims traded items as varied as clay pots and human slaves.

Gleaning information from Muslim and Christian texts, as well as ancient Arab and Italian maps, the researchers were able to narrow down the area to a 20 km-long strip of land, 45 km southeast of Choa Robit. With no running water or electricity on site, the team then hauled their own computers, generators, and water tanks on the long day's ride from the capital Addis Ababa.

From the window of a plane, the archeological site itself is invisible, buried under a thick bed of brambles. But on the ground, a network of walls, studded on the landscape like fading blueprints, delineates the three medieval cities. Among ruins that sometimes still rise one or two meters above ground, researchers uncovered fortifications, mosques, and living quarters, as well as cemeteries containing thousands of graves. The number and size of the ruins suggest that at least one of the cities was a densely-populated medina veined by winding paved streets and staircases.

Spectacular finds give evidence of a thriving urban center and an influential regional power. In Asbäri, the team stumbled upon a mosque bearing Arabic graffiti, possibly the largest one of its kind ever found on Ethiopian soil. They also uncovered a royal tomb carved from a single monolith that bears a star of Solomon on each of its four sides. A significant discovery, since, in Ethiopia, several rulers have claimed to be the descendants of a mythical love affair between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

And how did people survive in such arid parts? Judging by the large number of obsidian3 tools–mostly scrapers–found among the ruins of Nora, many of its inhabitants were tanners, artisans who pound and scour animal skins to make leather. Outside the city walls, evidence of terraced agriculture as well as the remains of an irrigation system (watercourses, wells, dams, and a hydraulic system designed to collect rain water) indicate that some were also seasoned agriculturists. “We still don't know why the agricultural communities abandoned the area,” says Fauvelle. “Maybe it was a sudden change in the climate. But once they left, the irrigation systems collapsed and the region returned to its arid, semi-desertic state.”

Fauvelle believes that some of the remains found on the site could even predate the Islamic era. His team found artificial mounds piled over a tomb (called tumuli) possibly dating from the High Middle Ages, a period between the 7th and the 13th century. No archaeological remains from this period have ever been found in Ethiopia before. When the team starts excavating in 2008, Fauvelle intends to dig under the mosques to see if more ancient floors lie below. “We might even prove that the original inhabitants of this region were not migrating Arabs, as is often thought, but local populations that only later converted to Christianity and Islam,” enthuses the archaeologist. In the meantime, three additional expeditions will try to ascertain whether the site truly holds the key to the Kingdom of Shewa.


Lucille Hagège

Notes :

1. Including researchers from CNRS, Université Paris-I, CEMAF, INRAP, ARCCH, and the Oriental Institute of Beyrouth.
2. CEMAF, Centre d'Etudes des mondes Africains (CNRS / Université Paris-I / Ecole pratique des hautes études / Université Aix-Marseille I).
3. Obsidian is a type of naturally-occurring glass whose blade edge can reach almost molecular thinness.

Contacts :

Francois-Xavier Fauvelle
Centre Français des Études Éthiopiennes
CEMA, Addis Ababa.


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