Wednesday, September 12, 2012

EASTERN BERBERIA, or The East African Roots of the Original Berber Peoples

     "I then went from Aden by sea, and after four days came to the city of Zayla.  This is a settlement, of the Berbers a people of Sudan, of the Shafia sect. Their country is a desert of two months extent; the first part is termed Zayla, the last Makdashu..."   Ibn Battuta 14th century (Richard F. Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa , Or an Exploration of Harar

Women of Harar of modern Ethiopia - ancient town of the "Eastern Berberia"

"…most African authors say that the first inhabitants of the eastern deserts of Berberia and Numidia, called African Berbers, were five peoples of Sabas who came with Melec Ifriqui, king of south Arabia, from whom was taken the name 'Africa', as stated in the first chapter of this book. These people still maintain that their ancient names were Zinhagia, Alucamuda, Zeneta, Haoara and Gumera. From them descend six hundred heritages of African Berbers, and from them come all the noblest kings of all Africa...      

       "These five peoples first populated eastern Berberia, and afterward spilled over into different habitations, making themselves lords of most of Africa. They were collectively called African Berbers, because they first lived in Berberia.”  Luis del Marmol Carvajal, 1520A.D. - Spanish traveler and chronicler from Granada.

      “Clearly, for six centuries Greeks and Romans consistently and regularly described a Barbaria on the east coast of Africa.” (R. Rouighi, "The Berbers of the Arabs", Studia Islamica, nouvelle édition/new series, 1, p. 71)

Colonialist rendition of Berbera warriors of Zeila, Somalia

       One of the so-called "enigmas" of African history is the origins of the peoples and culture named Berber in the early world. Because colonialists have indiscriminately used the name Berber for peoples of North Africa regardless of their cultural affiliation some have been confused over the terminology of “Berber” wrongly thinking it bore some relationship to the Greek word “barbar first meaning to babble or speak some incomprehensible dialect, and hence the term  “barbarian”. Fortunately, more erudite historians had concluded that the term Berber was and is from the root of an African word still used by certain Africans peoples for themselves, and was separate from the early Greek or European designation  “barbarus” or “barbarian” (Lonis, 1996 p. 289).
       Among the earliest known references to the Berbers is in the text - Periplus Mare Erythraean (Periplus of the Eritrean Sea) dating to around the 1st century A.D.. Writes one historian, “Although the PME does not mention the name Trogodutai, it does refer to peoples near Berenike, and Adouli and along the coast as far as the Spice Mart near Gardafui as Barbaroi and calls the country Barbaria, which we should translate as Berbers.” (Page 146,  Periplus of the Erythraean Se,  G.W. B. Huntingford in 1980 wrote Vol. 2, part 4 The Hakluyt Society, 1980)
       Although very ancient writer’s such as the Roman Josephus had spoken of the Saharan Gaitules or Getuli as being from Hevila of Kush or the Evalioi (Avalites) of the Blue Nile (Astaboras), it has often been doubted in modern times that the “Berbers” of Nubia and East Africa had any direct relationship with those of the Maghreb. Today some scholars, geneticists in particular, have also been inclined to assume that early Berbers have been a population that was indigenous to North Africa and that all modern Berber-speakers were somehow descended from and representative of the early Berbers.
        In fact many modern Berber-speakers have very little connection either genetically or historically to the ancient Berbers who once dominated the coasts of northern Africa, and for that reason many of their modern Maghrebi historians don’t recognize the origins of the word Berber (nor do they even acknowledge the word Berber as being of indigenous origin), which only has meaning within the context of black Afroasiatic culture. .
      Archaeology, however, does not support the origins of the Berber culture referred to by many Middle Eastern writers of the Islamic Middle Ages as having been indigenous or present “since time immemorial” in ancient North Africa, nor do any of the indigenous traditions of the Berber people.  Almost all historians have recorded their arrival from the east as a people of exceedingly black complexion.
     Although the name Berber appears to date from thousands of years ago in the Nilotic and East African area, among the earliest mentions of the people by the Greeks was in the region of Somalia and the Horn. According to certain more recent historians the name "Berber" in Horn of Africa  probably included the ancestors of the Bejas between the Nile and Red Sea, the Danakils between the Upper Nile, Abyssinia and the Gulf of Aden and the Somals and Gallas” (Schoff, 1912, p. 56).  Certain of the populations in that ancient country or region in east Africa - known as Bilad al-Barbar or land of the Berbers - apparently continued to use their native designation and moving westward at an early period came to be known Mauri or Mauri Bavares (Babors or Babars).  
     European colonialists were in fact well aware of the word Berber as a name for a rather large portion of northeast Africa south of Egypt,  

      "The country designated as Barbara was situated between Upper Egypt and Abyssinia, or accoring to Wilford it included all the country between Syene and the confluence of the Nile with the Tekazze which is generally called Barbara or Barbar at the present time...In this name we perhaps see the origin of the term Barbary which has been applied to Northern Africa, and also of the term Berber used to designate all of the tribes of the interior of northern Africa (Baldwin, pp. 279-280).

      The name "Berber" was in fact well known as the name of a people of ancient Nubia south of Egypt even before the Greek writers, and more recent European colonial administrators have claimed the dialect of the Berber  traders from Maghreb was comprehensible to the speakers of Barabra in Nubia. Thus one 19th century encyclopaedia states "Seetzen was assurred by one of the Barabra pilgrims, that the Berbers of the Nile understand the dialect of the Berbers of Moghrib, or Marocco, who come with their caravans through Nubia on their way to Mecca." It was the notable 19th century British adventurer and "Orientalist" Richard Francis Burton quoting the 14th century Ibn Battuta, who wrote the following:
       I then went from Aden by sea, and after four days came to the city of Zayla. This is a settlement, of the Berbers, a people of Sudan, of the Shafia sect. Their country is a desert of two months' extent; the first part is termed Zayla, the last Makdashu.”

Camels without number led by young man near in Mogadishu, Somalia

      Ibn Battuta is well known to historians of North Africa as a worldly Moroccan traveler who visited different regions of Africa and in fact journeyed as far as Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Central Asian steppes.
      On page 17 of the book, Travels of Ibn Battuta of the Oriental Translation Fund is found  a notice written by one colonial observer on the people referred to by Battuta. “The Berbers are another people whose country is situated upon the southern sea, between the districts of the Abyssinians and those of the Zanj, they are called Berbera. They are blacks, and are the people who make the dower for wives (this) that they …shall cut off the virilia of a man (perhaps an enemy), and also steal. They are more like animals than men.”

    (This rather ancient practice of removing the sexual organs of men from enemy clans continues among such Cushitic-speaking clans known as Ilm Oromo (Galla) and Somali.) 

       Again for Ibn Battuta “Berber” was the name of a people of the Sudan. “Again in Sudan Ibn Batuta, who travelled in the fourteenth century, found a tribe of Berbers in the kingdom of Wadai or Bergu, which lies west of Darfur and the king of the country was then of Berber race.” (Page 263 of the 1835 reference book, Penny Cyclopaedia for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge)
        The Borghu region was a significant area stretched between Sudan and Chad, the Tibetsi mountains of southern Libya. The early Muslim merchants of Borghu (also written Bergu, Borku and Borgu) were called Wangara or Wa’N’garawa “speaking as their first language the Dendi dialect of Songhay”.  (Haviser, 2008, p. 97). These Songhai or Takrur (also found transliterated as Sughai, Zoghoy (Cooley) or  Zaghai (Laya,1992,  p. 454 fn. 7) were evidently known as Berbers from very early times, and as mentioned in previous pages on this blog were also known to Arabic observers as “al–Barabir”.
       Al-Idrisi, another Moroccan and geographer of the 9th century also mentioned the Abyssinian merchants of Philae and the camel men of Zeila in Somalia wearing veils typical of the peoples called Tuareg or Imoshagh (Mazigh) essentially verifying the Berbers of coastal North Africa and those of the Horn whatever their previous origin were essentially one and the same people (Palmer, 1970, p. 79).  The Tuareg whose men have worn veils since pre-Islamic periods were people who along with the Zaghawa and related Chadic peoples had comprised a large part of the groups called Sanhaja and Zanata, while the Kutama and Hawara Berbers of North Africa and Sahara were also apparently exclusively Tuareg. 

Ruins of ancient Zeila (Somalia)

      Thus, properly speaking the word Berber was used for the descendants of certain Nubian and east African people who extended to the deserts of the Sahara and mountains of North Africa, but included many peoples of the Sudan, and east Africa -including Cushitic-speakers of the Horn and certain Nilo-Saharan peoples across the Sudan and Sahel.   Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam (d.871)  “… mentioned a Barbar market (sūq Barbar) in the Egyptian city of Fustat. The absence of the definite article indicates that it was the market of the people of Barbar (āl barbar) not the Barbar (al-barbar). Again, the Barbar in question is the east African region to the south of the city of Fustāt. Thus, one may safely conclude that the name predated the Arab conquest of northwest Africa” (Roughi, 2011, p. 7).
     Djehutmuse I of the 18th dynasty supposedly named the Barbara as one of over 113 tribes that he conquered and also mentioned in the time of Ramses as Beraberata. The early name of this population appears to have been Nobatae or Noubai and the latter name may have been related to that of Napatans (Keane, 1920, p. 73 and see fn. 1). 
       Properly speaking, the word was used for certain Nubian and east African people who extended to the deserts of the Sahara and mountains of North Africa.  It was used most specifically for the Marisi, Kenuz and early Dunqalawi, and like the latter, early Berbers were known for their horses and chariots.
             Francis Wilford had noticed that certain early books of the Hindus such as the Puranas had at times mentioned the Berbers as a people of what was termed Cusha-Dwipa (Kush).  Baldwin noting what Wilford wrote for the Calcutta Society wrote: “The country designated as Barbara was situated between Upper Egypt and Abyssinia, or according to Wilford, it included all the country between Syene and the confluence of the Nile with the Tecazze which is generally called Barbara and Barbar at the present time.”
      The name “Berber” was surmised by Wilford to have been  brought from the Red Sea or Eritraean region because of  the Hindu Puranas, sacred compilations written between the 4th and 9th centuries that speak of a rather large region called Berbera-desa, including the region of the Tekaze river valley in modern Ethiopia. In the 1865 “Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society” page 86 is found the following:  “Berbera-desa of the Puranas is the same with the Berber of the present day, which includes all the land between Syene and the confluence of the Nile with the Tecasse, which is the Asthimati or lesser Chrishna of the Puranas, and the Sanchanaga or Mareb.” ( Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, Vol.
      The earliest Puranas are thought to date from probably the 4th century or thereabouts.

Ruins of Adulis ancient and medieval capital of the eastern Berbers

        The name Berber was thus known not only in Africa, but throughout “the Orient” as a name that applied to certain populations of Africans of the Horn, the Sudan and Sahel from an ancient period.  It is also a fact that Berbers and other Africans in fact stretching to the Atlantic in the ancient world were often indiscriminately referred to as Indi, Arabians, Ethiopians and thus “according to Isidore in the ninth book, there are three principal tribes of Aethiopians, the Hesperi, Garamantes, and Indi” (Burke, 2002, p. C-331). Thus, also certain peoples of Nubia and Abyssinia were at times known as Indians such as the Blemmyes of Nonnus text, Dionysiaca.  Meanwhile Abyssinia was referred to as “the third India” well into the medieval period (Pankhurst, 2003, p. 8; also seep. 87 of the  “Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society”) and southern and northern Arabia called “India Minor”and Kus or Kush or Ethiopia by Greeks, Syrians and others.  In fact the original eponyms Hind and Sind in Arabian lore were peoples of Kush from Kuth or Phut son of Ham, while for earlier writers such as Strabo the region of Abyssinia and everything east of the Nile in Africa is referred to as “Arabia”. 

Women of the country of Djibouti in the Horn of AFrica

           These same Berbers or Berberia of Cusha-Dwipa were identified as Kushites in Arabic texts from Kush who is either said to be  “son of Canaan”, or else son of Ham.   But more of this subject of the Berber Kushites as Canaanites and the “Indians” as “Ethiopians”, and vice versa, will be discussed in future postings - as the Canaan spoken of in recent Western legend is not the early Canaan of early Berber or Afro-Asiatic tradition. 


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Harper & Brothers.Cooley, W.D. (1841). The Negro land of the Arabs, examined and explained: Or, an inquiry into the early history and geography of Central Africa, London: J. Arrowsmith.

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Lonis, R. (1996). North Africa: The Libyco-Berbers. (In Siegfried De Laet, Ed.) History of humanity from the seventh century BC to the seventh century AD.  Volume III.  UNESCO.  Routledge.

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Palmer, H. R. (1970). The Bornu Sahara and Sudan.

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Schoff , W. H. (1912). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and trade in the Indian Ocean by a merchant of the first century. NY: Longmans Green and Company.

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