Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University
On 30 September 2018, Addis Fortune published a letter written by Professor Samuel Walker titled “Entoto is Not Barara” in response to the recent social media buzz about the medieval Ethiopian city of Barara. Walker condemned the scholarly conclusion that modern Addis Ababa area, including Entoto, was the location of this city, saying such claims are “unfounded and disingenuous,” “uninformed speculation,” and “dangerous and foolish.”
I would like to address this allegation. A huge volume of incontrovertible documentary evidence describes the area around modern Addis Ababa as the location of Barara. Ethiopian oral tradition is also consistent in saying that Wechaha/Entoto was the site of a medieval capital before the jihad wars of Imam Ahmed Ibrahim in the 1530s. However, the purpose of my piece is not so much to debate whether Entoto is or is not Barara, nor to address the political subtext of Walker’s partisan letter. Rather, I would like to expose the larger problem inherent in Ethiopian and/or African studies manifested by carefree disdain for the basic facts of Ethiopian history that Walker and others exhibit.
Although Walker states that he is an authority on the subject and can condemn others’ research because of his expertise in archeology, he has not done his PhD and I could not find a single peer-reviewed article he has published in any reputable journal in his more than 24 years of academic career. As of now, the highest academic degree he has received is Master of Science in archaeology and heritage studies and in interdisciplinary education. Walker strikes me more like an academic tourist than a serious scholar committed to a sustained study and deeper understanding of the history and archaeology of a single country. Walker’s LinkedIn profile states that he was born in Congo, raised in Kenya and educated in the US and UK in remarkably diverse disciplines: comparative religion, earth sciences, history, biology, environmental science, archaeology and heritage studies. Walker says he has spent over fifteen years working as archaeologist, instructor, and researcher all at once in Yemen, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Early in this century, Walker’s restless mind took him to Micronesia (in the Western Pacific) where he says he spent seven solid years working as archaeologist and teaching environmental literacy, sustainability and climate change. Once again, in 2012, the ever-restless Samuel Walker discovered Ethiopia and has made it his temporary place of work and residence since then.
Characteristically, since his arrival in Ethiopia in 2012 Walker has changed his institutional affiliation many times even though he has spent barely six years in the country. Among others, Walker had worked as Professor at Saint Mary College in Addis Ababa, while he has been working as Ethiopia’s Chief Heritage Consultant for over five years beginning in 2013. Likewise, Walker has been working to establish the MA program in archaeology and heritage management at Aksum University with which he has been affiliated since 2012. Most recently, Walker has appeared as a researcher at Woldiya University. On paper, such diversity of experiences and over twenty years of research and teaching sounds quite impressive. Yet, such ease of traverse across Africa, the Middle East, and the Western Pacific, the sheer range of subjects he studied and the lack of publication to show for it indicate Walker’s lack of deeper understanding and expertise in any one field and locality and its history and archaeology.
When I read Walker’s letter and checked his restless academic credentials at his LinkedIn profile, I was powerfully reminded of the imaginary Professor Clegg in the short fictional chapter that opened Malawian historian Dr. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza’s magnum opus Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (1997). Professor Clegg is a charlatan, amateurish, sophomoric, and paradigmatic academic tourist, who never stays long in any one country and jumps on whichever bandwagon proves profitable for his academic career and lucrative consulting business. Clegg embodies the shallow and flitting nature of so much of African studies.
Clegg received his doctoral degree in political science and wrote extensively about west African politics and nation-building in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, when Nigerian politics went contrary to his predictions and prescription, he quickly abandoned West Africa for East Africa, ‘falling in love with Tanzania’ and writing profusely about its politics. But it was not long before Clegg got tired of Tanzania and left it to study first socialism and state building in neighboring Mozambique and then Zimbabwe. Finally, Clegg briefly abandoned his academic pursuits and opened a richly rewarding consultancy office. After a stint in the world of consultancy, Clegg soon returned to academia in the late 1980s, flirting with first Sovietology by studying Gorbachev’s reforms and eventually Mandela’s South Africa. It was with such nonchalance that Clegg approached his entire academic career. Academic tourists never study Africa for its intrinsic value. Typically, academic tourists are drawn to African studies mostly because of a tale their eccentric missionary uncle or grandfather had told them about the exotic customs of the ‘half-child and half-devil’ Africans, whose souls they sought to save from eternal damnation. In the view of Zeleza, the field of African studies has been plagued by a practice subsumed by the phrase ‘academic tourism.’
Returning our attention to Samuel Walker, his impatient and restless hopping across Africa, the Middle East and the Western Pacific is emblematic of academic tourism. Walker’s CV lists his specialization in numerous fields and countries spanning three continents as well as his work in consultancy. However, it takes a lifetime to specialize in any one field and country noted on Walker’s C.V. And just like Professor Clegg, who shifts his academic interest and region seamlessly, Walker changed his research turf persistently. Walker’s recent foray into consultancy work constitutes the logical conclusion to his career as an academic tourist. One must bear in mind this background information about Walker’s schooling and experience as an academic tourist while evaluating the veracity of his provocative statements about medieval Barara and its link or lack thereof with modern Entoto.
Walker evidently demonstrates the same lack of attention to detail as Clegg does. As he himself admits, he has only “visited” Entoto, and has never conducted even rudimentary archaeological excavations there. Neither does he cite any sources from those who have done excavation work there nor any reports submitted to the Ethiopian Antiquities Board if there is one. Thus, despite his claims to professionalism and objectivity, his statements lack any scholarly or historical basis. Space prevents me from addressing each of his claims, so I have selected a few topics and points for the reader’s special attention.
First, Walker claims that the ruins at Entoto post-date the destruction of Barara by a century. This ignores the basic facts of the chronology of Ethiopian history. Arab Faqih, who served as the campaign chronicler of Imam Ahmed Ibrahim’s jihad, dates the destruction of Barara to 1530/1; this, we are all agreed upon. However, Walker implies that the ruins at Entoto were constructed in the 1630s, which historically is impossible given that the Ethiopian state had lost control of the area around Entoto by the 1580s. In addition, there is no documented presence of the royal court in the area around Entoto after the destruction of Barara in 1531. By contrast, we have contemporary documentary evidence that King Galawdewos (d. 1559), King Minas (d. 1563), King Sarsa Dengel (d.1597) and King Susneyos (d.1632) all settled elsewhere after the jihad. In short, given a lack of royal presence in the area after 1531, a seventeenth century dating is a historical impossibility.
Second, Walker’s proposition that Barara, which was described as a commercial center, could not have been located at Entoto because the latter’s topography was not easily accessible to merchant caravans, reveals his deep ignorance about Ethiopia. As any Ethiopian can tell you, steep mountains have never arrested development of any sort in the highlands, with multiple commercial towns and capitals situated on Ethiopia’s highest peaks. The vibrant commercial towns of Aleyu Amba, Ankober, Gondar, Yerer/Roge and Wasel (modern Desse) are famous examples. Indeed, highland Christian Ethiopians and their kings had a strong attachment to higher ground and mountains, based on biblical attachments to such. The assumption that flat topography is a precondition for the existence of a commercial town is founded on Walker’s preconceived Eurocentric notions of the relation of geography and trade.
Third, Walker’s claim that there is no tradition associating the location of Entoto with a medieval Ethiopian capital shows a shocking lack of knowledge of even the most basic historical literature related to the area. Almost all European missionaries, diplomatic emissaries, military officers, merchants, and adventurers who visited and traveled through Shawa in the nineteenth century write about the area around Addis Ababa being the location of Ethiopia’s medieval capital. One source is Johann Krapf, the German missionary who extensively traveled throughout Shawa in the 1840s, who records an oral tradition current in the period that the areas around modern Addis Ababa had been the capital of King Lebna Dengel (d. 1540) and several other medieval Solomonic kings of Ethiopia. The French traveler and diplomatic emissary, Théophile Lefebvre, reports that King Sahle Sellase (d. 1847) of Shawa was attracted to modern-day Addis Ababa areas because of its known medieval history. Although not archeologists themselves, many European travelers write that they have seen the ruins of churches and palaces around Addis Ababa, including the one at Entoto and described these ruins as medieval. Indeed, Théophile Lefebvre extensively writes about ruins of a medieval church he himself saw at a place ten minutes ride by horse from today’s Fel Weha in 1840s.
Another source is the chronicle of the reign of Emperor Menilek II (d. 1913). The emperor’s royal chronicler, Sahafe Tezaz Gabra Sellase, records that both Menilek II and his grandfather Sahle Sellase, especially the former, were actively searching for the city of King Dawit (d. 1412) during their respective reigns as Shawan kings. When they found the ruins of Entoto, Menilek II and his entourage believed they had found the city of King Dawit and settled there in deliberate fulfilment of a long-held prophecy dating from the sixteenth century. A final source is French scholars research on the rich local tradition about the special connection of the archangel Raguel, the church of Raguel in Entoto, Entoto, and the Shawan dynasty. Finally, there was, and still is, a strong and living tradition which describes Entoto as the location of the city of King Dawit, which is Barara. In other words, Walker’s claim that there is no historical tradition linking Entoto to any medieval occupation and city shows an utter ignorance of the historical sources.
Fourth, Walker’s statement that the area around the ruins of Entoto lack any construction debris, ceramics, or soil transformation is based on not a single archeological study. How Walker could draw such sweeping conclusions based on his own brief eyeball study about there being no evidence for a medieval city, whereas evidence would surely lie mostly underground, defies understanding. Further, even if he had done an archaeological dig and found a lack of the above, his conclusions would be based on his universalizing western archaeological theory and methodology. At Lalibela, for instance, the builders of the rock churches systematically removed the construction debris. The lack of it is no proof that there was no medieval settlement there. Likewise, lack of ceramics would not be evidence of no medieval city. Far from being interested in finding out what people actually used back in the days, he assumes what the residents of a medieval Ethiopian town ought to have used and what archaeological remnants they should have left behind! Finally, Samuel Walker’s statement that “all ceramics or other cultural material found around Entoto indicate a period over a century after the destruction of Barara” is factually incorrect because his dating does not match with the basic chronology of Ethiopian history for the reason stated under the first point above.
Fifth, Walker’s dismissive statement that the ruins of Entoto do not reflect any indigenous Ethiopian architectural tradition, and therefore do not “constitute a significant heritage,” is not just criminally ignorant but dangerously irresponsible. Such a reckless statement can be misconstrued as an invitation to destroy the ruins of Entoto and reuse whatever building material can be found. It is imperative that he does his job to protect and preserve the ruins at Entoto rather than encourage and justify its destruction by rejecting it as insignificant and foreign. Who decides what constitutes significant heritage? Walker the academic tourist? Or the Ethiopian Antiquities Department and local community? Needless to say, the ruins of Entoto do represent an impressive indigenous tradition. Two of the most remarkable features of the Entoto stonewall and fortress were an imposing stone tower (now non-existing) and a deep and wide trench cut from immensely hard rock. Lord Edward Gleichen, one of the several nineteenth-century European visitors to the Entoto fortress, was stupefied by the exquisite workmanship, labor-intensive ditch, and formidable fortress. Carving permanent structures down into solid rock is an indubitably ancient Ethiopian architectural and artistic tradition going back to the Aksumite period. Further, near the church of Entoto Raguel exists a church-like subterranean structure also carved out of the solid rock, not to mention Adadi Maryam and Yekka Mikael. The Entoto ruins cannot be studied in isolation from the rock-churches of Yakka Mikael and Adadi Maryam and without taking into account Ethiopia’s architectural tradition of carving and stone building. Walker’s claim that the Entoto fortress is not the product of indigenous architecture is outrageous.
Sixth, Walker’s statement that Barara could not have been located at Entoto because the area in and around modern Addis Ababa was marshland and “utterly uninhabitable” during the Ethiopian Middle Ages is not supported by the historical record. Abba Thomas, a native of the city of Barara who lived first in Jerusalem and then in Italy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, reported that Barara was located in a province called Warab, which included the area around Addis Ababa. Arab Faqih, who had himself seen Barara both before and after its destruction by the jihadists, also confirms that Barara was within Warab. Neither Abba Thomas nor Arab Faqih reports the existence of swampland in Warab, but rather as an area of dense human settlement. Arab Faqih’s account is reliable because he described swampy areas and he did not say the area around Warab was swampy.
Seventh, Walker’s statement that the fields around modern Addis Ababa could not have supported the population of the medieval town of Barara is pure speculation. Contrary to Walker’s assertion, the province of Warab was known in the Ethiopian middle ages for its remarkable fertility and productivity. Arab Faqih twice described it as the “Abyssinian paradise” on account of its productivity and riches. Warab was one of the richest provinces in Ethiopia and full of churches, monasteries and the center of grain production. In short, the agricultural fields around modern Addis Ababa were part of the province which was regarded as the breadbasket of medieval Ethiopia and would have easily supported the population of a substantial city such as Barara. Meanwhile, Walker does not even bother to offer proof for his conclusion that medieval Addis Ababa was swampy with puny agricultural fields.
Finally, Walker’s assertion that Entoto could not have been Barara because the ancient trade routes that passed through Shawa did not come close to Addis Ababa area is false. His bizarre evidence is that the ancient trade routes can still be seen on Google Earth, even though it is unlikely that most remained stable enough to be visible in the modern period. That is, Shawa was in the constant throes of radical transformation over the last millennium. The magnitude and rapidity of its historical changes is such that nothing was stable in Shawa, least of all ancient trade routes. In particular, because of the profound social, religious and political crises, the chronic violence and insecurity of life, and the massive population replacements and movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many ancient trade routes fell into disuse while new trade routes opened only later, in the eighteenth century.
The gist of Walker’s argument is that the area in and around Addis Ababa, including Entoto, was virgin land until the Oromo moved into the area. Further, since he dated the construction of the fortress at Entoto to 1631, during which the Oromo were firmly established there, his implication is that the ruins at Entoto could only have been built by the Oromo. However, the historical record shows that when the Oromo arrived in the Shawa area in the late 1570s, and for at least a century after, the Oromo remained essentially pastoral in their way of life. There is no record of them building cities or digging large structures into the rock during this period. There is no documented permanent structure remotely similar to the ruins at Entoto that the Oromo have built.
A confident scholarly conclusion about Barara could only be reached after exacting archaeological digs around Addis Ababa, responsible interpretation of the data generated, and a complete study of the rich documentation and tradition related to medieval Shawa. Walker has not done the former, but I have done the latter, studied the rich array of written evidence. Further, Walker’s baseless generalizations are the result of his belief in the universality and objectivity of the archaeological practices themselves. Walker’s letter is a form of epistemic violence against Ethiopian history and an attempt to silence the competing discourses surrounding Entoto. As hauntingly elaborated by the French scholar Michel Foucault, knowledge production and power relations are not a one-way vector of power imposition, one which we Ethiopians must resist. Then again, perhaps I have already spent way too much space and time on this rebuttal that could lead to “guilt by association” for taking him seriously.
Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University