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SocietyUncovering Ethiopia's Storied Past

Uncovering Ethiopia’s Storied Past

Tracing the footsteps of the Prophet’s companions in Afar Region

For centuries, travelers have been drawn to the rugged landscapes and ancient sites of Ethiopia’s Afar region, captivated by its natural wonders, archaeological treasures and deep spiritual significance. Though the concept of “tourism” as we understand it today has evolved over time, the region has long welcomed visitors from across civilizations.

The term “tourist” has been in use since as early as 1172, according to research, while “tourism” was coined later in 1811. Yet there remains an ongoing debate about whether spiritual journeys should be categorized as tourism, given their ancient roots and distinct motivations.

In tracing the origins of tourism in Ethiopia, historians point to notable events like Queen Sheba’s journey to Jerusalem. While pinpointing exact dates is challenging, evidence suggests people have been traveling far from their localities and across seas for various purposes throughout history. Visitors from ancient civilizations like Greece, Rome, China and the Arab world have left their mark, underscoring the region’s long history of welcoming travelers.

Today, the Afar region stands out as a prime destination, with natural wonders, fossil sites, ancient cities, palaces, mosques and spiritual landmarks captivating visitors from near and far. These diverse attractions offer experiences ranging from adventure and exploration to cultural immersion and reflection.

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The region is divided into five zones, each with its own unique draws. Zone Two, also known as KilbatiRusu, encompasses districts like Arho, Dalol and Kuneba, the latter of which holds particular historical significance.

Islamic Influence in Kuneba

The influence of Islam in the Afar region is profound, with the religion entering Ethiopia through the province’s ports even before its expansion reached Medina. In Kuneba’sDallol district, sites like Efiso, Issi and Lelegadi have yielded tombs of the Companions, the earliest followers of Prophet Muhammad.

These discoveries authenticate the presence of Islam in this area, marking it as a significant historical and spiritual landmark.

Before reaching Kuneba, travelers can follow a historical trail about 30 kilometers east of Negashi. This 12-kilometer path leads through sites like the ancient city of AtbiDera, where remnants of great churches stand as testaments to the region’s religious past.Among the ruins lies evidence of an ancient city, providing insights into the societal structures and lifestyles of bygone eras.

Visitors can appreciate Queen Sophia’s palace, a significant historical site linked to AbrahaWaAtsbeha, her son. Particularly notable is the area known as Sefer, where the palace and adjacent tombs are located. Local narratives emphasize AtsibiDerana and its surroundings as the former seats of kings, offering insights into the region’s royal history and cultural significance.

Farther east, the lowland Afar district of Kuneba sits at the mountain’s foothills, located between the Ephiso and HanabiDeira rivers. Local narratives speak of the Companions of Prophet Muhammad residing in areas like Lelegedi and Belbel, along the banks of the Efiso River, leaving behind graves, ruins and enduring traces of their presence.

The oral tradition among the local residents paints a vivid picture of the revered figures who once walked these lands. Sheikh Muhammad Salih Ahmed, the religious leader of Kuneba, further corroborates this narrative by identifying graves of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers in areas known as Ubuk and Isi, situated northeast of Kuneba, just outside Lelegedi.

Atop the summit of Mount AtsibiDera, in a place known as Sefer, lies a significant tomb of the followers of Prophet Muhammad. This sacred site, reachable by a three-hour drive from Efiso, holds immense significance for the local community.

Residents say the walking distance from Sefer to Negashi does not exceed four hours, indicating the relative proximity of these revered locations.

Similarly, the distances from Efiso to Kuneba, from Kuneba to Lelegedin, and from Lelegedi to Issi are each estimated at 5-6 kilometers, underscoring the interconnectedness of these sacred sites. Consequently, it is surmised that the camps of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers were no more than an hour’s journey from one another, fostering a close-knit community united in faith and reverence.

According to historical accounts, the Prophet’sfollowers embarked on their journey from Shuaiba, situated south of Jeddah, eventually arriving in Kuneba via Midir. In their sojourn to the land of Abe, it is said that the group experienced hospitality and acceptance without encountering any adversity or coercion regarding their faith.

The group consisted of either 11 or 12 individuals, including four or five women, with notable figures such as Ayman Barakah of Habshawan among them, according to historical accounts. This migration marked a pivotal moment in the region’s history, heralding the beginning of a lasting bond between the followers of Prophet Muhammad and the land of Kuneba.

Ahmad Bini Zaini’s detailed account, documented in his book from 1983, sheds light on this migration and their journey to the land of Kuneba. Among these devout individuals were notable figures such as Abdul Rehman Bini Ouf, Zuber Bini Awam, and Usman Bini Affan, accompanied by his wife Ruqiya, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad.

The narrative also highlights the presence of Ja’farbini Abu Talib, AbdullahibiniJahsh, and Umm Habiba, the daughter of AbiSufyan, among the refugees.

Further insights emerge from the writings of the author of JawahirulHabshan, particularly in his discussion of Ahmad Al-Najashi’s country. Situated at a distance of four or five days’ journey from the city of Miedir, Najashi’s domain held significance as a refuge for those seeking solace and religious freedom.

The city of Miedir, nestled on the coast of Afar, served as a pivotal waypoint along the route traversed by Abu Musa al-Ash’ari and others on their pilgrimage to Najashi’s realm. The proximity of Miedir to Najashi’s grave underscores the pivotal role played by this region as a gateway for the spread of Islam from Arabia to the western shores of the Red Sea, thereby facilitating its diffusion into Africa.

The Afar region’s rich Islamic heritage is not only profoundly significant in history, but also offers immense potential for Islamic tourism and economic development.

The migration (Hijra) of the early followers of Prophet Muhammad to the land of Habsha, or Ethiopia, holds significant prominence in the annals of Islamic history. The country has long stood as a beacon of hospitality, welcoming adherents of various faiths throughout its storied past.

There are three primary directions through which these early migrants entered Habesha, according to historical texts.

The first route extended from the Dahlak Islands to the city of Zeilaa, serving as a crucial corridor through the Afar Triangle. The strategic location and historical ties to trade routes in the Afar region provided a conducive environment for peaceful coexistence and cultural exchange.

Another path led through Mitswana and Dekenu, known today as Hargigo, facilitating the migration of individuals and families seeking refuge from persecution and strife, further enriching the region’s cultural fabric.

Kuneba also emerged as a significant entry point for the migration of Prophet Muhammad’s followers into the Afar region. Its geographical position and historical significance made it an attractive destination for those fleeing civil unrest, famine, and other challenges in Arabia. The civil war following the assassination of the 3rd Caliph, Usman IbniAffan, left a profound impact, leading to widespread unrest and upheaval known as the “Alfituntul Kubra” or the Great Terror.

This period of turmoil compelled many Arabs to flee their homelands in search of safety and stability, prompting a significant wave of migration to neighboring regions.

The spread of Islam in the land of Afar can be attributed, in part, to the peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance fostered by the region since the first Hijra. The followers found solace and security in Afar, contributing to the region’s cultural diversity and religious pluralism.

The presence of Arabs in the Afar region and other parts of the Horn of Africa is not only intertwined with the historical events of civil strife, but also with religious propagation, and economic exchange. Their migration and settlement have left a mark on the region’s social fabric, enriching it with diverse traditions, languages, and customs.

Among the landmarks in the Efiso River that bear witness to this history are grave site, an ancient mosque, irrigated farms, and a perennial water source that sustained the early inhabitants.

At the heart of this centuries-old narrative stands an ancient marketplace, a bustling hub that served as a vital arena for economic exchanges and interactions among diverse communities.

These sites represent sacred spaces where spiritual devotion, community gatherings, and cultural traditions have intersected for generations.

The Afar people’s seafaring prowess has also long been integral to the region’s maritime history. Renowned for their navigational skills, the Afars established Red Sea ports where they constructed vessels for fishing, trade, and even military expeditions. These ships not only facilitated commerce and transportation, but also projected the Afars’ power and influence across the seas.

Parallels can be drawn between the Afar civilization and ancient maritime powers like the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, underscoring the Afars’ position as seafarers in the region.

This shipbuilding legacy is further corroborated by historical accounts, including references to warships constructed in their ports and deployed to strategic locations like Yemen, Arabia, and Persia. The Qur’aneven mentions Emperor Caleb’s construction of hundreds of warships in various Afar ports, exemplifying the naval strength and expansionist ambitions of the region’s rulers.

This tradition of maritime trade and shipbuilding flourished in the region until the late 19th century, when external influences like the 1874 Turkish occupation of Harare disrupted the industry. Yet, the legacy endured, sustained by the region’s abundant natural resources, particularly the revered olooito tree.

From the sturdy hulls of warships to the graceful lines of trading vessels, these trees formed the backbone of Afar maritime heritage, symbolizing the ingenuity and craftsmanship of its seafaring communities.

Today, the Afar region’s rich Islamic heritage and maritime legacy offer immense potential for cultural tourism and economic development. The presence of sacred sites and the region’s seafaring history can attract Muslim pilgrims and tourists seeking spiritual enrichment and cultural immersion.

As stakeholders invest in infrastructure, hospitality services, and cultural preservation initiatives, the Afar region stands poised to emerge as a vibrant hub for Islamic tourism and economic prosperity, unlocking the full potential of its culturally rich and historically significant heritage.

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