Defining Ethiopia, Nubia, and India in Medieval Europe

Defining between Ethiopia, Nubia, and India in medieval European sources has been seen to problematic in scholarship for decades. This is highlighted no better by the late antique ethnonyms for Aksum and Nubians and the later medieval, post 12th century, ethnonyms of Abyssinia and Nubia, with Ethiopia being a vague catch-all term in the centuries in between. India, on the other hand, had never been a united land area to name as Ethiopia and Nubia had been. India was divided into numerous kingdoms at any one time throughout the medieval period, such as the Western and Eastern Chalukya Empires, the Chola Empire, the Delhi Sultanate, and the Vijayanagar/Karnata Empire to name a few. Is it, though, such a problem to determine which peoples Europeans are referring to as most recently highlighted by Camille Rouxpetel in numerous recent articles, notably in volume 27 of the 2012 edition of Annales d’Éthiopie, and her 2015 book, L’Occident au miroir de l’Orient chrétien : Cilicie, Syrie, Palestine et Égypte (XIIe-XIVe siècle).

So, let’s begin with a brief run through a quick history of ethnonyms for the 3 regions. Firstly, Nubia. Nubia can be roughly divided into a development of 4 primary ethnonyms. The first, Kush, lends itself to the Greek confused translation of the Hebrew word Cush of the Old Testament in the 3rd century BC Septuagint. Cush had long been the ethnonym used for the ancient Sudanese empire which also became known to the Egyptians for its abundance of gold which begins to process of Nub-ia, i.e. the land of gold. Whilst the empire of Kush, centred on Meroe, still existed, ancient authors began to label peoples of the region as Nubae and Noubades, both in Latin and Greek. It was not until the collapse of Meroe in the 4th century AD that these groups began to be lend their name to the new kingdoms – though Noubades/Noubadia was the primary designation. Following the 7th century, except a few mentions, such as in a 10th century Byzantine encyclopaedia, Nubia does not appear to be used. It reappears in works of the 12th century and authors keep to this single ethnonym rather multiple as they had in antiquity. However, what about all those references to Cush being in Ethiopia? This problem can also be potentially seen in Sanskrit as well as throughout Europe.

How can Ethiopia be such a fluid term? It’s first found as a word in Linear B and subsequently absorbed into Greek as the land of the ‘burnt-faces’. Arguably, Ethiopia was never intended to be a specific kingdom or region. Generally speaking, Ethiopia can be seen as being a synonym for Africa prior to the Crusades, or at best depending on the content within the passage, meaning north east Africa more generally. If it is attributed with Cush, I would argue that it should then mostly be seen as a synonym for Nubia in that context. During the era of the Crusades Nubia and Ethiopia begin to be separated in European writings and it is not really until the 13th century that Ethiopia/Abyssinia become a fixed region for the kingdom proper.

India appears to share its route it in just about every major language or the period, all of which name India after the river Indus. This remains the toponym throughout the medieval period and no references begin to be found highlighting particular dynasties or kingdoms until the very end of the period and into the early modern. It is just too diverse for writers to keep track. Even the appearance of multiple Indias, or indeed Ethiopias, does not necessarily hinder location when content is taken into consideration e.g. which one contains the Nile, Indus etc., of which authors definitely did not mistake, especially those who had travelled or traded. However, one interesting note to make is that no medieval authors appear to make any indication towards labelling India as Bharata. Bharata is the mythical emperor who according to Hindu scriptures created the dynasty that ruled what has now become much of modern India and is the official modern name of India in Sanskrit.

The problems posed by these toponyms and ethnonyms are strengthened when they bare no relation to their indigenous counterparts. For example, no European word begins to reflect the Old Nubian ethnonym Niejosh to describe its people. Neither does any European word begin to show any influence by the Ethiopian ethnonym of the Agazi. However, Habasha, whether in Ethiopic or Arabic, does though form the route for Abyssinia and the Solomonids do, seemingly from the start, begin to refer to their kingdom as Ethiopia. This is further highlighted, though I am more than open to be corrected on this, that as far as I can tell the infamous line from Psalms 68:31 in Ge’ez originally was translated as ‘Kush shall stretch out its hand to God’, but later seems to have been translated as ‘Ethiopia shall stretch out its hand to God’. I have chosen not to include similar ethnonyms in India as it would not be representative due to the variety of languages and the diverse nature of Indian kingdoms.

Interestingly, though, Nubians, Ethiopians, and Indians do appear to have a unified ethnonym for Europeans and do not share the same perceived confusion. Both Ethiopic and Sanskrit share similar ethnonyms for Romans, and then later Europeans, similar to Arabic. Romans appear as Romya or Romaka and Europeans, based on Franks, appear as Firanji or Phiranga. Old Nubian is unique in this context as no comparative ethnonyms or toponyms are known to date. It is important to remember though, that Nubians had knowledge of many languages, e.g Coptic, Greek, Syriac, Arabic and most likely would have known Europeans through the ethnonyms and toponyms found in those more international languages of trade and diplomacy – only 2 Old Nubian texts have been found outside of the Nile valley: in Kordofan, Central Sudan, and by the Atbara River in Eastern Sudan. I just wanted to highlight these interesting comparisons, but I do not want to dwell too long on them. Presuming that this knowledge transfer of geography was two-dimensional, should we see the European words as so confused in light of this?

So how do we address these issues and put these confusions to the test? We should first begin to look wider at the passages in which they appear. Let’s take some examples:

1. Russian Chronicle Ethiopia

To the lot of Ham fell the southern region, comprising Egypt, Ethiopia facing toward India, the other Ethiopia out of which the red Ethiopian river flows to the eastward, the Thebaid, Libya as far as Cyrene, Marmaris, Syrtis, and other Libya, Numidia, Massyris, and Mauretania over against Cadiz’

(The Povest’ vremennykh let (Primary Russian Chronicle) c.1116, 1.10-2.5)

2. Pope Alexander III had initially begun papal correspondence with this mysterious king in 1177, though calling him the ‘illustrious and magnificent King of the Indians’. If we take into the founding of Santo Stefano degli Abissini in Rome, though traditionally said to have been established in the 1480s, an account from 1632 suggests that these very ‘Indians’ are more likely to have been Ethiopians. Francesco Maria Torrigio wrote that the church of Santo Stefano was renovated (it had been an established church previously) and housed Ethiopians following the 6th year of the pontificate of Alexander III.

3. Since Enrico Cerulli in 1944 translated ‘Avesguia’ as ‘Abyssinian’ it has been repeatedly translated as such. However, Abasgia is a well attested toponym neighbouring Georgia. Moreover, Abkhazia still exists in modern day Georgia. This translation should be relooked at.

In 1172 – Rex quoque de Avesguia et rex Nubianorum, sicut audivimus, hoc idem faciunt…

The King of ‘?Abyssinia?’ and the King of Nubia, as we have heard, [make war on their pagan neighbours]

(Richard of Poitiers, Chronicle c. 1174)

4. Finally, in the mid 1380s, Simone Sigoli makes note that Prester John of India can open the floods of the Nile onto Egypt. India can clearly be said to have been mistakenly used for Ethiopia – the myth of Nubia controlling the Nile did not exist to my knowledge) as, regardless of the confusion in toponyms, knowledge of the Nile, Cairo, and Alexandria would not be so readily mistaken.

Signore Presto Giovanni abita in India ed è cristiano… Presto Giovanni facesse aprire certe cateratte di un fiume allagherebbe il Cairo e Allessandria e tutto quel paese; e dicesi che questo fiume è il Nilo, il quale corre allato al Cairo.

´Prester John lives in India and is Christian… Prester John would open the cataracts and the river would flood Cairo and Alexadnria and all that country. I say that this river is the Nile, which flows past Cairo.

(Simone Sigoli, Viaggio al Monte Sinai c.1384-5)

Utilising sources in other languages can also aid any confusion we may believe to exist. For example. Nubians are mentioned in a single Latin document to be amongst a long list of Christian pilgrims who regular make the trip to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in the early 12th century. I was always inclined to have believed that as it was but then I found an Arabic text from 1312 which always mentioned al-Nuba (Nubians) as going on pilgrimage to Santiago. These texts were completely unrelated and although the confusion might not have been so prevalent here, this example bears witness to the positive impact other languages can have to solve any issues.

In a way to conclude. Although what I have highlighted can always be tested individually, the overall ethnonyms for these regions should be so questionable. I would like to put forward the suggestion that the confusion we perceive was not actually a medieval notion and in fact is based on a post 16th century problem at the earliest. Similarly to how Emperor Tewodros II invoked the Crusades in the 19th century, despite Ethiopia never being actively involved in the medieval expeditions, could our understanding of Ethiopia meaning Ethiopia proper be a product of the Solomonid dynasty, who as I’ve said did begin to refer to themselves as Ethiopia, seeking to legitimise their standing to the potential aid to Europeans when they deemed fit? It’s Ethiopia itself with has elevated the problem, for example for claiming Queen Candace when on all accounts Candace must be based on a Meroitic queen, not only because of the route of Kush I’ve highlighted, but because of the title of Kandake given to Meroitic Queens or Queen-mothers. Daniel Seldon has recently discussed the idea that Aksum assimilated the use of ‘Ethiopia’ in order to get its place within wider Mediterranean history. However, the use of Ethiopia does not appear to have been consistent until the Solomonids – whether this is obscured by the surviving evidence or truth is up for debate. Nubia and India, on the other hand are less problematic, though India is primarily geographical rather than a political entity. Here, I’ve hoped to stimulate some thought into how we perceive these ethnonyms and toponyms and that when taken into wider consideration, whether that be the context of the author’s sources/education or the place names given within these areas these regions can be given more definitive geographical locations in the meanings of medieval authors.

Cite this article as: adamsimmons, "Defining Ethiopia, Nubia, and India in Medieval Europe," in Africana, 09/12/2017,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *