Lecture Summary, Leeds IMC, 2017

I introduced eight years of research in central Shoa in a twenty minutes lecture (Comparing Fra Mauro’s Depiction of Medieval Ethiopia to Sites Discovered via Satellite Archaeology in Modern Shoa, Ethiopia – see here for the programme: https://africana.hypotheses.org/27).

Over forty sites found via satellite views and visits have been named and put in context thanks mostly to a Venetian map designed for the zone we study, as well as for vast parts of Africa, by visiting Ethiopian monks from the Zuqwala and Barara areas, in 1439.

The Map and Us, Ambanegest and Sadai

The first section presents the map and the basics of the research, focusing on the twin cities of Barara and Sadai, below two opposite sides of Mt. Wechacha, then called Mount Ajos, according to the map.

On Wechacha lies, now like then, a massive top fort named as Ambanegest, “The Kings’ fort” as well as other lower fortifications, Sadai has recently been rediscovered. Barara whereabouts are clear, but, in the midst of NW Addis Ababa, its vestiges have not been found so far.

Addis Ababa as a 600 years old Capital

The second section demonstrates thus how we can affirm with confidence Addis Ababa is no one hundred years old town, but its extent covers a set of major medieval settlements that included at least seven forts, thirteen Churches and some seven villages, aside from Barara, the capital. Not all the settlements are named on the map as the monks designed it. Fra Mauro, the whole planisphere’s author regrets he could not record all the names, for lack of space on the map. He writes so in the same note where he acknowledges Abyssinians hand drafted the hitherto unknown African parts for him.

Detail of the Fra Mauro map. Source: WikiCommons (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/95/Fra_Mauro_World_Map,_c.1450.jpg).

So we see today that Barara, Tich, Amagie and the Yekka complex (Badeqqe?) lie within Addis Ababa, like other forts on Entoto, while Sadai, Vuicie, and Masin towns are in the vicinities, or just South.

I briefly present the Entoto Pentagon, a one hectare wide strong fort with internal bastions and structures, protected by a triple trench system. Gebre Selassie Wolde Aregay, Minilik’s chronicler, indicated it as the work of Lebna Dengel Emperor, around 1515. West of it lie over thirty ha of ruins.

Just North and South of Barara

Twenty five chilometres North of the Gojjam pass in Addis, the map shows the town of Badabedi, just where a set of large megalithic settlements and a stelae site are found along river Sibilu. Very recently Bedi has also been recovered, on a hilltop that had been terraced in the middle ages. The two settlements are characterized by very large stones structures. Bedi’s fine and decorated pottery lets us suppose their singular architecture corresponds possibly to a first expansion South, at the end of the post Axumite period, prior to the forts and towns we find within Addis Ababa. South of Addis, a tall, crossed pillar on the map appears to correspond with exactitude to the Abba Nebero rock hewn monastic complex and the adjacent Wagidi and Dubeto churches. In the area also lie the late medieval Churches of Adadi Mariam, by its aspect an isolated, as usual for their communities, Estawosean or Stephanites monastery, and a few more rock hewn chapels like beautiful Kistana. Further South a fictitious limit indicates the end of the lands controlled by the Solomonic dynasty, as well as of the geographical detailed knowledge passed to Mauro by the visiting Ethiopians. Similarly, the Awash basin and a ridge next to Vuicie signal the western limits of the detailed map.

The Preste and The Sultan                         

The last section presents finds in the Hararge and in the Harari State. They are forts and differentiated medieval towns and villages of the same kind of those of the Christian camp. The Adal and Solomonc state lond traded and long fought over the lands and trade routes of central and Eastern Ethiopia. The Ethio-Adal war of the fifteen hundreds is the reason behind the destruction and abandonment of the massive and numerous found sites.

Like Voddomaredeg was the European, distorted name of Wedem Arad, early thirteen hundreds emperor of Ethiopia as reported by voyagers -most likely, by a vast mission of his diplomats to Europe in 1306- the 1450 Borgia map now in the Vatican Library represents the Adal Sultan. He appears like a monster with a people of dog like followers. His name, Abinichibel, appears to correspond to Sultan Ahmed bin Bedlay yeAdel. Depicted by the Christians as a monster or a snake as on the map, is just a further proof of repeated contacts between medieval Ethiopia, Europe and the Ottoman world. I debate the vast trenches prepared by the Christians to defend their massive forts, “le grandi forteçe” of the map, and how they proved useless facing the first, Adal sultanate, introduction of matchlock guns. The Ethio-Adal war became extremely bloody as a consequence of the intervention of the Ottoman and Portuguese powers. The destroyed forts and towns were soon forgotten, they find names only thanks to the map as we find them, and remain –unfortunately- unprotected. Misunderstood in their enormous touristic and historical value, they are being obliterated these last years, by different developers and… developments. It is easy yet to demonstrate from more recent maps and their unequivocally medieval styles, as well as from the cultural materials found on the sites that they are not, evidently, at all the negligible and neglected fascist eighty years old structures locals tend to believe they are.

Nor, as others put it, the base of a logically never existed one hectare wide Minilik’s palace, I demonstrate this with maps from the first years of last century and three 1897 photos. They simply are, instead, the most impressive medieval fortified ruins discovered in Africa during the last century.

The finds appear to be totally unexpected to those I happen to cross, know or meet in ten million strong Addis Ababa, today’s Africa’s capital much as it was on Fra Mauro’s map. They all stand still convinced Addis was Minilik’s temporary, camp like capital, rapidly risen in an unbeaten, unknown and undeveloped bush, sure not, never the focal area of Prester John’s civilization as medieval Europe saw, visited it and whence twenty two official missions to European courts stemmed, from 1380 to 1530 alone.

That Myth was behind much of the drive to European late medieval explorations. Understanding the Prester myth had a real base in Abyssinia, a medieval factual world power has convinced me personally that five hundred years of Eurocentric historical narrative have limited us so much only a new, scientific and Afrocentric approach can allow history and heritage studies in Africa advance swiftly: do not take any assumption for granted, challenge it from our perspective, to proceed from here on.

Cite this article as: marcovigano, "Lecture Summary, Leeds IMC, 2017," in Africana, 24/10/2017, https://africana.hypotheses.org/359.


Ass. Professor, Addis Ababa University, researcher, Medieval Shoa, Medieva Ethiopia, Indian Ocean Africa trade, Ancient African navigation.

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