"Interpretation of the Past"

Editor's Reflection - Tsegaye Tegenu


Q1. When did the word "Ethiopia" start to be associated wit the 14 provinces? Who was the first king who ruled all the 14 provinces of Ethiopia? How and When?

Q2. Did the failure of the Coptic Church to support Haile Selassie during WW-II helped Italians in their aggression against Ethiopia?

Q3. I would like to get your opinion of how the Fetha Negest may be used to make up a constitution of Ethiopia. Of course with synthesis of modern ideas into it but limited monarchy, is this workable?

Q.4. Who is Aste Theodros? What is his last name?

Q.5. How will history judge H/Selassie? Was he a progressive and visionary monarch who did the best he could until his nobility and bureaucrats and eventually old age got into his way or was he a shrewd power-hungry king who thrived in the fear and mistrust he created among his subjects and the status- quo? What are his most important legacies to contemporary Ethiopia and Ethiopians?

Q.6. I would like to know more about Zemene Mesafint. What was the source of this dark age of our history. What impact did this period have on the political and social process of Ethiopia. And finally, given the current events unfolding in Ethiopia, would it be justifiable to say that we are yet to recover from the effects of this period.

Q.7. I have always been interested in finding out more about Etege Taitu Bitul, Negist Zewditu and Etege Menen. I wonder if you could discuss who these women were and what , if any thing, these three women contributed in Ethiopian history? Another thing that has always intrigued me is the battle of Segele, what was this battle about, who was involved, where did it happen and when?

Who was Ras Gobena (1821-1889)


Q. 8. How does History judge Atse Theodros and his administration?

Q. 9. "What is the Wichale Sememenet? Did Menelik sell or lose Eritrea, as they say? or did Menelik save Ethiopia becasue of it?

Ethiopian Philosophy

Q.10. The Aksumite civilization was founded by people who had crossed the Red Sea from South Arabia. But various historians have pointed out that there was a thriving civilization present in the highlands of Northern Ethiopia by the time the Semitic people of South Arabia arrived. Who were these people? And what impact did they have on the kingdom of Axum?

Q.11. What is the Gada system? Was it a system used through out Oromia or was it prevalent in one region of Oromia only? and the follow up question is politically speaking, was there an Oromia nation before Menelik?

Q.12. What is Gebar System? What is Gebar? What makes Gebar a system?

Before I proceed to preparing for questions raised by readers, I felt the need to explain the sprit behind this column and thereby to make clear certain doubts entertained by some of us. I have presented this concern by way of discussing on themes of History and Knowledge.

The activity of mankind takes place in time and space. History is the study of the activity of mankind in the past. It is not as such a study of time. As one American philosopher wrote, a Historian can ask what has happened at certain time in the past, while a philosopher asks what is time?

The work of a Historian and questioning of human past activity is analogous to an episode described by one saxophonist: "when you hear music after its over, it's gone in the air, you can never capture it again". A Historian tries to reconstruct what has "gone in the air" with the help of tracts, just like as you try to re-experience a by gone music concert by listening gramophone records. Can a Historian "capture it again" using documents left behind? Yes, but what he writes is not the recreation of the past, rather creation of meaning, knowledge of the past.

The question is what kind of Knowledge? How is it different from other knowledge? All knowledge in the past is not History, and all History is not knowledge. History should be a scientific knowledge, and what makes it scientific is the use of a correct method. This method is controllable, free from internal contradiction, and based on critical observation of documents. For instance, fictional portray of a case history is different from the one portrayed by a discipline of History. As one British Historian wrote "Historian is tied and bound by respect for his archival data. The novelist is free to create events". Can we say that History written with the ideal respect to evidence scientific? This brings us to another level of argument often discussed in the academic circle. I shall try to discuss this issue by looking at Ethiopian Historiography.

At the risk of generalization and simplicity, it can be said that social History has come now to displace political History, particularly since the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. In the tradition of political History, we have literature on biography of emperors, and its method was source critic aimed to decide whether each assertion made was right or wrong. Chronicles, narrative account of kings, have made their imposition on such type of Historical research, besides to the contemporary environment that surrounded the Historian himself. The Ethiopian student movement, the spread of left ideology, and finally the revolution, among other things, brought about change from political to social History. "One-man History" began to be replaced by a construction of a bigger social History: the question of class, study of social institutions, etc. (in an article Crummey, D. has made a review of literature on state and society in Ethiopia, unfortunately this material is not at my reach for identification). Research on social History is compounded with different perspectives such as a History from below (on peasant class), as opposed to History of the ruling class, and History of an ethnic group. To come back to my question, does social History written with such perspective as ethnic and based on the Historical method mentioned earlier represent scientific knowledge?

I think there are two rules that are central and general to all sciences. First science should be communicative, and secondly, science should be (new) creative. Scientific presentation makes for any one possible to criticise and take a reasonable stand. Its language and definitions are clear, its observation are controlled and free from internal contradiction. A Historical research carried in such productive, communicable way has little problem to give us new knowledge. I have in mind social History that is written on such factors as wishful thinking, that foster emotional commitments say to an "imagined community" raises the problem discussed above on scientific knowledge.

The column, Interpretation of the Past has an ambition to adopt system analysis perspective. By system is meant a group of elements that are inter linked by certain rules and principles. Accordingly, social system has two parts: resource system and control system. The former deals on the acquisition, distribution and use of social surplus, while the later (control system) deals on set of ideological representation, administrative relation and the like. The two parts are an articulated set, and the logic of articulation is treated concretely through identification of the principles, the causal links, that combined and related the two set of elements. Well, I know this is abstract, the argument behind is that the column, Interpretation of the Past is not a tool designed to serve this or that political and/or ethnic group. It is a discussion forum which looks after communicative and creative knowledge that is needed to understand our current problem. An illustrative case is our rooted problem of poverty. It is a question that has to be addressed by three basic major fields, History of Environment (use of natural resources), demography (population) and institutions (such as state and law). It is such type of interdisciplinary approach that enable us to understand problems of "development or underdevelopment" in Ethiopia, in Africa as well.

Narrow perspectives which foster feelings and ideology, even if they use a correct method, may not be useful and interesting for our time. I think I have gone far to explain the sprit behind the column: Interpretation of the Past. With this understanding, we hope to continue our effort. At the personal level, I have really enjoyed all the questions and I would like to thank all who participated in formulating questions, sharing of feelings and views.

Before departing, I have a message: the column will not appear in the coming two weeks as I have planned to participate at XIIth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies to be held at Michigan State University from 5th to 10th of September 1994. The general theme chosen for the conference is "Rethinking Ethiopian Studies". I will let you know if I have news on what lines we are going to "rethink". In the meantime, you can send questions and messages if you have any.

My Best Greetings!

Tsegaye T.