The Ethiopian Borderlands

Historians of Ethiopia have rich sets of materials to work with from the empires of the highlands, however the relative abundance of literature from the highlands results in comparatively limited literature on the the other areas (that would become part) of Ethiopia. Pankhurst writes: "Historical studies of Ethiopia, like those of other countries, often tend to concentrate on events at or near the centre of political power, and devote far too little attention to other areas" (p. ix). Richard Pankhurst, a prolific and leading historian of Ethiopia, wrote "The Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to the End of the 18th Century" (1997) to address some of these knowledge gaps. 

The book follows Pankhurst's typical, time-structured way of writing. At times this makes for jumpy reading; chapters based on regions over time might offer more of a readable book than all regions within time periods. Nonetheless, this is an excellent resource that should be read by all interested in Ethiopian history. The book emphasizes the interrelationship between centre and peripheries, the importance of the peripheries, and many changes of power within the centre and peripheries. He concludes with these remarks:

"The borderlands and central core, for all their differences of geography, tradition and culture, were thus economically linked. They were heavily dependent on each other, and the prosperity, and paramountcy, of any area was often determined not so much by local events as by ones in distant parts of the region. Commerce was based very largely on long distance caravans, which travelled regularly between the periphery and the interior, as well as on numerous markets, great and small, at which peoples of different areas exchanged their wares, and doubtless shared some of their experiences good and bad" (p. 432-433)

"The peoples of the periphery were involved moreover in most, if not all, of the great migrations, as well as the major political and religious conflicts of the time. Many inhabitants of the borderlands as of the central core travelled widely, in peace or war, as soldiers on campaign or garrison duty, itinerant merchants, officers of state, tax-collectors, refugees, petitioners, prisoners, priests, monks, wandering students, pilgrims or slaves. Innumerable social, linguistic, and cultural differences between the various peoples of the region of course remained, but there were also important points of contact, both peaceful and warlike. These resulted in a vast amount of assimilation of populations, both slave and free, very considerable adoption of languages, innumerable conversions from one faith to another (and often back again!), and extensive inter-marriage, often, but by no means only for dynastic reasons. The borderlands therefore deserve a major place in the history of the region as a whole" (p. 443).

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