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The Zagwe period re-interpreted: post-Aksumite Ethiopian urban culture
By Tekeste Negash
Published Online (2008)
Introduction: The history of Ethiopia from the decline of Aksum until the early sixteenth century is commonly divided into three periods. The first period begins with the Arab occupation of the Aksumite port of Adulis c. 640 AD and ends with the establishment of the Zagwe Dynasty in the end of the tenth century or, according to other sources, in the middle of the twelfth century. The Aksumite kingdom, known after the capital city Aksum in northern Ethiopia, was at the height of its power recognized as one of the powerful states of the ancient world. It coined its own currency of gold, copper and silver. Aksum had diplomatic relations with the Roman Empire and could undertake military and colonization expeditions across the Red Sea.
The second period is the history of the Zagwe Dynasty proper. The Zagwe kings had their capital at Ad„ffa, about 200 km southeast of Aksum. The Zagwe kings were further distinguished from the Aksumite kings in that they did not belong to the same ethnic and linguistic group as the Aksumites. These kings were, therefore, described in Ethiopian traditional historical documents as usurpers and their dynasty (the Zagwe Dynasty) as illegitimate.
The third period begins with what is commonly known as the period of the ‘Restored Solomonic Dynasty’, i.e. 1270. According to a well developed myth, few survivors from the violent uprising of the pagan or Jewish queen, locally known by the name of Judith, had migrated to the country of the Amharas from which they continued to challenge the Zagwe usurpers.