Our objective was ambitious – to scale the 3099 metre high Mount Yerer and locate two significant, though largely undocumented archaeological sites, once vital constituents within a wider ranging network of medieval establishments positioned throughout medieval Abyssinia’s southern Shoa province.
First stop: a sizeable walled complex situated midway up the mountain, which the professors speculated might be remains of a mysteriously ‘lost’ 15th century capitol called Barara. Then, time permitting we hoped to hike a further six kilometres to the site of a medieval church called Ginbi, possibly built by Emperor Na’od bin Admas (1495-1508).
A recent archaeology journal essay titled Barara The Royal City of 15th and Early 16th Century Ethiopia had awakened interest in these landmarks. The composition, co-authored by renowned English scholar Richard Pankurst and a German researcher named Hartwig Breternitz, drew upon clues found within the Mappa Mundi, a 15th century Venetian triumph of cartography within which Barara is illuminated with distinction.
Fra Mauro based Barara’s coordinates on testimonies gathered from Abyssinians who chanced to be travelling through Venice, and extraordinarily considering that Mauro produced this epic work from a desk in Italy, his portrayal nonetheless offered what remain steadfastly distinct landscape features – specifically four fundamental bearings that cordon-off a 300 square-kilometre zone into which Mount Yerer elegantly fit. These four bearings, I should note, are the Debre Libanos Monastery to the north, the Mount Zuquala Monastery to the south, the Awash River to the east, and Managesha Hill to the west.
The essay cited two other medieval documents. One of which was a series of interviews conducted by fellow Venetian Alessandro Zorzi, who like Fra Mauro also interviewed Abyssinian travellers, some of whom in fact hailed from Barara and spoke of it as the chief city and official residence of the emperor – a capitol, where the patriarch kept a mountain castle, as well as a very great church.
The most illuminating references however come to us not from a wandering Ethiopian or a deskbound Venetian, but from a Yemeni writer named Arab-Faqih, who in 1531 witnessed the city’s violent destruction first hand and recorded that occurrence in a narrative titled the Conquest of Abyssinia (Futuh al-Habasa). This extraordinary document chronicles a succession of jihads now referred to collectively as the Adel-Abyssinian War (1529-1543) led by a charismatic young imam named Ahmad bin Ibrahim al-Gazi (1506-1543). Imam Ahmad, as I will refer to him, hailed from what is now Somalia, and is praised within Arab-Faqih’ flowery text as, “the star of Islam, from the stock of the lords of the mujahidin.” And who would, “make the infidels [Abyssinians] drink deep from the cup of death; and sprinkle upon them the dust of calamity.”
The Conquest of Abyssinia reveals that Imam Ahmad was perhaps no more than nineteen at the time of Barara’s 1529 sacking. Surprisingly moreover, he is oblivious to the degree of this city’s imperial and administrative importance, learning of it instead only after his soldiers chanced to stumble upon it while out searching for food and supplies. The text records the discovery thus:
“There was a church there [in Barara] that belonged to the former [Abyssinian] king whose name was Na’od bin Admas (1494-1508), and of which the Muslims had no knowledge. They had gone there looking for cattle and provisions. When the Muslims reached the church they found it stacked with gold. There was gold plate in the church, gold and silver bowls, and silken furnishings.”
“They [the soldiers] took vast booty [from the church], and turned around and returned to the imam who was then upstream from the river Awash. He [Imam Ahmad] questioned them about the district and whether they had encountered any resistance. They replied: ‘the infidels [Abyssinian forces] are on the other bank [impassable due to seasonal flooding]. The whole countryside is brimming over with gold and silver, all its mountains and valleys and its churches are filled with gold, silver and silk.”
Seeking confirmation of this report Imam Ahmad summoned a recently captured Abyssinian from Barara, who’d undergone what the medieval Yemini author referrers to as a ‘sincere conversion’ to Islam. Accordingly the convert testified:
“Your soldiers have spoken the truth … the whole countryside [of Barara] is rich in gold and silver. All the wealth of the Christians is in this district because they had never heard of any Muslim arriving in this area, and for this reason they [Abyssinians] felt confident about leaving their wealth there.”
Secure with the understanding that the Abyssinian army was helplessly stranded on the other side of the impassably flooding Awash River, and that seizing Barara and its spoils could therefore proceed unopposed, Imam Ahmad then instructed his men:
‘Whatsoever each one takes is his.’ And with this the Muslims raided the district, killing the people and the monks. Afterwards the soldiers plundered a vast booty of gold, silver and silk: the Muslims split up around the region plundering. As one came back with booty another set out to plunder. This pattern of behaviour went on for quite some time. [They] plundered an unaccountable quantity of gold, silver and silk over twenty days of Ramadan. Small and great among the Muslims became wealthy.”
Imam Ahmad’s conquest was a turning point that saw the destruction of innumerable churches, monasteries and imperial palaces. His forces were eventually defeated in 1544, but not until after they’d reeked their violence throughout the empire for twelve years. Today, some five-hundred-years later, Christian Ethiopians still refer to this jihadist as Ahmad Gragn, an unceremonious epithet that roughly translates to Lefty Ahmad. So comprehensive and exhaustive was his carnage that vast regions of Abyssinia were left vacant, only to be repopulated by waves of northward migrating Oromo pastoralists. As a consequence the whereabouts of many of Shoa’s medieval sites remain unknown unto this day – of these, perhaps none is more captivating than Barara.
In their conclusion Breternitz and Pankhurst cautiously abstained from positively identifying the site upon Mount Yerer as Barara. Instead they suggested that a more thorough investigation was required. Shiferaw, Berhanu and I hoped that after examining these ruins with our own eyes we might gain understanding that would enhance clarity. We were on to something – something big – something that promised to add to, possibly even redefine, what had been a superior episode in African history.