Origins of the Ethiopian Jews

April 2013
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The Forgotten Origin of the Ethiopian Jews; from Northern Sudan

By Ibrahim Omer copyright 2012

What triggered my interest to study the connection between the Ethiopian Jews and the Sudan, are the portraits of Ethiopian Israelis displayed on the book The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land, by Lyons and Ossendryver. Generally speaking, to someone from Sudan, the variation of facial features between Ethiopians and Northern Sudanese are instantly recognizable. The first thing that caught my attention was that the Ethiopian Israeli faces shown on the portraits are hardly distinguishable from Northern Sudanese. It is not only the physical facial features that make them identifiable as distinctly Northern Sudanese, but also the cultural characteristics sensed through the expressions and overall gestures.

Examining the geographical setting and the history of the Ethiopian Jews, I have come to realize that the relationship between the Ethiopian Jews and their Sudanese neighbors is far much closer than what is generally believed. This paper seeks to prove that the Ethiopian Jews of today trace their history to what is today Northern Sudan, or Kush, before that of present Ethiopia. This argument is grounded on a wide range of historical evidence and geographical information.

Yet, the paper does not attempt to elaborate on the cultural traditions or religious practices of this community-for such a topic is beyond my knowledge; rather it pin points to the large sum of evidence that establishes the Ethiopian Jews as having originated from a Jewish community coming from what is today Northern Sudan.

The content of the article is arranged into seven sub-headings: in The Beta Israel, a brief overview of the Ethiopian Jews is presented; in Ancient vs. modern Ethiopia, a distinction between the ancient and present day locations of Ethiopia is drawn to avoid terminological confusion; in Theories on the origins of the Beta Israel, scholarly arguments regarding the origin of the Beta Israel are overviewed; in Biblical sources, ancient references that indicate ancient Jewish presence in Kush are presented; in From Kush to Aksum, contacts between the Kushite and the Aksumite kingdoms are described; in Medieval sources, traditions that stress the historical relationship between the Beta Israel and Kush are brought to light; and finally closing remarks are made in Conclusion.

The Beta Israel:

Prior to their uplifting to Israel, the Ethiopian Jews occupied the northwestern corner of the Ethiopian plateau, concentrated in the mountainous region north of Lake Tana, west of which are immediately the flat lands of the Sudan. The Ethiopian Jews referred to themselves as the Beta Israel (or the House of Israel), a term that is used throughout the rest of this article to label the community. The Beta Israel lived in villages in close proximity with the Christian and Muslim populations (Salamon 17). To the non-Jewish Ethiopians, the Beta Israel are also known as the Falasha, meaning strangers in the ancient and local language Ge'ez. The Beta Israel are primarily considered to be part of the Habasha society, which compromises a number of ethnically related populations that occupy the northern part of modern Ethiopia and are also considered to be descended from the ancient Aksumites.

A number of Jewish traditions claim the Beta Israel to be the descendents of the lost Tribe of Dan, one of the lost twelve tribes of Israel. Yet, since the Beta Israel are Jewish, more than anything else, scholars have treated this affinity with the Tribe of Dan with great suspicion.

Ancient vs. modern Ethiopia:

Before proceeding farther in the course of this argument, it must be noted that the location of present day Ethiopia is different from that of ancient Ethiopia. This duality in terms has lead to a lot of confusion among scholars and has unfortunately distorted much of very popular research findings.

Virtually no evidence exists as to validate the assumption that modern day Ethiopia was referred to as Ethiopia in ancient times. The same applies for the name Kush (or Cush), i.e. the other ancient name for Ethiopia, which also has no connection with modern Ethiopia. It must also be noted that all of the Biblical and most of the non-Ethiopian written references to Kush/Ethiopia, predate the appearance of the Aksumite civilization in what is today Ethiopia (Kaplan 21), which rose as a recognizable kingdom only in the first century AD.

Ethiopia in ancient sources referred to what is today Northern Sudan. Aksum, on the other hand, defined the geographical realm of modern day Ethiopia. As Kaplan states: "Unfortunately, some scholars ignore this usage and seriously confuse matters by simplistically identifying ancient Cush/Ethiopia with present day Ethiopia" (20). Historical and archeological sources, with all their different types, leave almost no room to question the location of ancient Ethiopia/Kush; that is in what is today Northern Sudan.

Theories on the origins of the Beta Israel:

A modern popular theory among scholars, maintains that the Beta Israel have originated and developed within the political boundaries of what is today Ethiopia.Kaplan, the leading historian in the field, after a detailed research reaches a problematic conclusion. He writes:

As we shall discuss in greater detail below, prior to the twentieth century, the history of the Jews in Ethiopia is the story of their life in Ethiopia. Events outside that country and in particular developments among other Jewish communities had virtually no impact on their condition. (3)

Such conclusive theory is problematic for three main reasons:

First, scholars who advocate this perspective (e.g. Solomon) fail to explain as to why Christians would become Jews; it assumes that the reader would merely accept that no justification is available. Teferi rationally criticizes this theory stating: "To go from Judaism to Christianity one needs to accept Jesus as the Messaiah. The reverse requires the denial of the very foundation of Christianity, which is Jesus" (179). Teferi continues to elaborate indicating that the only examples from history of such a conversion phenomenon are of gentiles who essentially came in contact with Jews.

Second, the theory fails to justify the great number of sources that show strong evidence for the migration of Jewish populations into East Africa, or possible connections with other Jewish communities.

Third, supporters of this argument fail to remember that the modern geographical boundaries of the Federal Democratic Republic Ethiopia, and for that matter all the countries of Africa, were only fixed by colonial powers in the twentieth century. As Phillipson (1998) explains: "Names of countries or provinces often provide a convenient means of geographical reference, but to consider the distant past within the framework of recent politics can only be misleading" (37). To restrict the historical research of an ancient/medieval society to contemporary geographical boundaries, as Kaplan has done, demonstrates a deficient approach in historical scholarly research.

Another prominent, yet less supported, theory suggests that the Beta Israel have originated from a South Arabian Jewish population. The major historical evidence for this theory is the Aksumite defeat of a Jewish king in Arabia in the sixth century. This theory is weighed down by two major problems. First, there is evidence that the Jewish cultural presence in Aksum predates the sixth century by hundreds of years (Kaplan 32). Second, there are virtually no authentic references that indicate a direct connection between the Jews of Arabia and those of Aksum.

Interestingly enough, a third theory suggests an Egyptian origin of the Beta Israel. Despite its highly theoretical nature, this argument sounds more convincing than the other two discussed earlier. While this third argument cannot be simply dismissed, it lacks actual evidence. The argument maintains that a population from the Elephantine Jewish garrison, which was stationed at southern border of Egypt in the fifth century BC, had migrated southward into Kush and thereafter into Aksum. Yet, the big hole in such a theoretical claim is that there are no references that support such a move by the Jews of Elephantine. Also, the culture of the Jewish garrison community is distinct and is very different from that of the Beta Israel (for more on this see: Erlikh and Gershoni 60; Porten).

Sorry to say that, despite their weaknesses, these three arguments have gained significant popularity and widespread recognition among historians. Ironically, the wide range of evidence that indicates the presence of an expanded Jewish community in Sudan, that is directly connected with the Beta Israel, have not been investigated and have even been rejected with a little effort for justification. Kaplan, dismisses the possibility of migration of a Jewish population from the Mediterranean to Aksum via Sudan explaining that "the Nile, from Egypt to Ethiopia, has never been navigable" (27). While it is true that the Nile valley between Egypt and Sudan is interrupted by cataracts, travel between Kush and the Mediterranean was never hindered by that and has always been extensive all through history. Archeological and historical evidence leave no need to stress this fact any farther.

Biblical sources:

A wide collection of Jewish traditions refer to a Jewish population in the land of Kush, also spelled Cush, and referred to as Ethiopia. As indicated earlier, these ancient geographical terms referred to what is today Northern Sudan, and not present Ethiopia. Kush represents one of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world; The Kushites developed several kingdoms through history and in the eighth century BC built an expansive empire that extended all the way from central Sudan to central Palestine, which they eventually lost for the Assyrians.

Unlike all forms of contemporary literature, the Bible ranks the Kushites equally with, if not higher than, the major nations of the Bible world (i.e., the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Persians). In Genesis 10:6, Cush (or Kush, i.e., who is ancestor of the Kushites) is listed as the first son of Ham before his brothers, Mizraim (ancestor of the Egyptians), and Put (ancestor of the Libyans), and Canaan (ancestor of the Canaanites). Also, the Bible attributes famous characters to Kushite ancestry including Seba (or Sheba) best known for her encounter with King Solomon (1 Chronicles 1:9), Moses Kushite wife Zipporah (Numbers 12:1), and the legendary Mesopotamian epic hero Nimrod (Genesis 10: 8-9). This is just to cite a few.

The Bible presents some of the earliest written evidence for the possible existence of Jews in Kush:

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. (Isiah 11:11)

I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me-- Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush- and will say, 'This one was born in Zion.'(Psalm 87:4)

From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings. (Zephaniah 3:10)

References to Kush in diverse contexts appear in various Biblical and extra-Biblical narratives and traditions, such as the elaborate narrative of Moses journey in Kush presented in the Book of Jasher, of which analysis would exceed the possible length of this article.

Also, as mentioned, the Kushite civilization predates that of Aksum with very prolonged times. While the Aksumite civilization saw its early beginnings in the fifth century BC, and did not develop into an organized powerful kingdom until the first century AD, Kush flourished starting from the ninth century BC and was a was already a Mediterranean empire by the eighth century BC.

Furthermore, Kush retains a geographical location that is more accessible to the Mediterranean than that of the more southerly region of Aksum. The rugged and mountainous character of contemporary Ethiopia, as opposed to the flat lands of the Sudan, has always made communications with other civilization extremely difficult. Thus, a journey of a Jewish population from Palestine to Kush is much more reasonably suggestible than an exhaustive journey to the inlands of the mountainous plateau of today's Ethiopia.

From Kush to Aksum:

As pointed out earlier, Aksum did not spring as a strong autonomous state until the first century AD. But even after the first century, and despite the fact that the kingdom was located at a crossroad of trade routs, Aksum was comparatively small in population and in influence had so many limitations. Being blocked from the Mediterranean by both Kush and Egypt, and held back from the Indian Ocean by Arabia, geography has definitely been of a negative impact on Aksum's economic activity. Only in the fourth century, Aksum was able to exercise partial control over the central zone of the Red Sea and carry out a temporary raid on Kush.

Also, since its early beginning Aksum was not a homogeneous entity; the culturally diverse region was only united by a shared sovereign king (Omer 8-16). The early beginnings of the kingdom saw the coming together of a variety of South Arabian, indigenous, and Nile Valley cultures from Sudan. As evidence indicates and as Kaplan admits "the first carriers of Judaism reached Ethiopia between the rise of the Aksumite kingdom at the beginning of the Common Era and conversion to Christianity of King Ezana in the fourth century" (19). Kaplan explains that "there can be little question that prior to the introduction of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries, Judaism had had a considerable impact on Aksumite culture" (17). The character of the Old Testament as well as the genealogical affiliation with the Israelites is common to both the Christians and Jews of the Habesha populations. As Kaplan points out, some Ethiopian traditions claim that half the population of Aksum was Jewish before the coming of Christianity (17). The fact that Hebrew was deeply rooted in Ge'ez suggests that a Hebrew culture may have flourished in Aksum and in the course of time has penetrated into the Aksumite society sometime between the first and fourth centuries.

In the fourth century, King Ezana created the practice of setting bilingual inscriptions, in both Ge'ez and Greek. Most, likely, the Greek language was institutionalized as a way to strengthen economic ties with the Hellenistic world by attracting trade and merchants. On the other hand, the institutionalization of Ge'ez and Greek (McCrindle 139-47, 142), reflects an attempt by the Aksumite authorities to unite the multi-lingual population under a common national umbrella.

The archeological evidence of Kushite artifacts found in Aksumite sites provide an irrefutable indication for the strong presence of Kushite culture in the area (Fattovich "Archaeological", "Data", "Pre-Aksumite", "Some Data", "The Contribution", "The Problem", "Traces"). A recent archeological excavation at an Aksumite site, Mahal Teglinos, near the Sudanese town of Kassala at the Sudanese-Eritrean border, uncovered a farming settlement that dates to the second-third millennia BC (Fattovich, Marks, and Mohammed-Ali; Fattovich "Remarks"; Phillipson 37-38 ). The settlement appears to be large and its pottery shows a mix of Kushite and pre-Aksumite Red Sea cultures.

It was within these first few centuries that evidence for Aksumite contacts with Sudan has intensified. In the mid forth century Aksum invaded Kush passing through the city of Meroe. Two inscriptions set up by Aksumite King Ezana state a wide variety of enemy captured-nations, most of whom were probably nomads from western wildernesses in what is today Sudan. Communication and travel between Aksum and Kush seem to have occurred through both trade and pilgrimage (Phillipson 24). For the Aksumites, Kush provided the easiest in land travel routes to the Mediterranean world.

Medieval sources:

A number of medieval writers associate the Beta Israel with the land of Kush. Some of them identify the Beta Israel with the Israelite Tribe of Dan. Eldad Ha Dani, was a ninth century writer who identifies himself as being a citizen of an independent Jewish state that existed in Kush. According to Eldad, his tribe had to pass through Egypt, after departing from Israel (53-54):

And it came to pass, because they [the Egyptians] did not believe us, that all the Egyptians stood on their watch until we had passed through their land and reached the land of Cush, which we found to be a good fertile land, having fields, vineyards, gardens, and parks. The inhabitants of Cush did not prevent the children of Dan from dwelling with them, for we took the land by force. And it came to pass, because we wanted to slay all of them, that they became tributaries, paying taxes to the Israelites. And we dwell with them many years, until we were fruitfull, and multiplied exceedingly. And we had great wealth. (53-54)

The twelfth century Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, does not mention Kush or the Tribe of Dan, instead he refers to Lubia, which is obviously a misspelling of Nubia. The latter is another medieval name for Kush, or Northern Sudan. He writes about mountainous cities that existed somewhere in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean zone where "there are Israelites and the gentile yoke is not upon them." He then continues to elaborate on these Israelites indicating that they have cities and towers on top of the mountains from which "they go down to the plain-country called Lubia [or Nubia] which is ruled by Edomites [or Christians]".

In the late 15th century, another scholar comments on the Beta Israel indicating that "They believe themselves to be descendents of the Tribe of Dan, and they say that the pepper and other spices which the Kushites sell come from their land" (Commentator on the Mishnah, R. Obadiah as cited in Abrahams, and Montefiore 195). Although by this time the Beta Israel were undoubtedly already established in the area of Aksum, probably long centuries before, however, their continued association with Kush points to this conclusion; Kush defined the cultural character of the Beta Israel, more than that of Aksum.

The most significant of these references is the writing of the sixteenth century Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra, also known as Radbaz, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, whose acknowledgment of the Beta Israel resulted in attracting the attention of the international Jewish community. Writing about the Beta Israel, Radbaz's writes: "these [Jews] who come from the Land of Cush are without a doubt of the tribe of Dan" (Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra as cited in Bleich 302). Although by the time of the Rabbi, as well the other Medieval scholars mentioned, the Beta Israel presence in what is today Ethiopia has already established, the Kushite connection he makes demonstrates the deep historical link that exists between this African Jewish community and Sudan.


Given the wide number of historical sources that confirms the presence of a Jewish community in Kush, which is in fact beyond the length of this paper-- and the strong historical connection established with the Beta Israel in other sources-- the case for the descendency of the Beta Israel from a Jewish community coming from Kush, becomes particularly strong. The historical traditions that associate the Beta Israel with Kush, more than that with Aksum or any other region in the world, outlays a solid ground for this argument.

Works cited:

Abrahams, Israel , and Claude Montefiore. The Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 1. D. Nutt, 1889. Print.

Bleich, David. Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol.1 HC. KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1977. Print.

Eldad Ha-Dani. "Eldad leaves His Native Place Beyond The Rivers of Cush." Eds. Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature: An Anthology. B. Halper. BiblioLife, 2009. 49-54. Print.

Erlikh, Haggai, and Israel Gershoni. The Nile: Histories, Cultures, Myths. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000. Print.

Fattovich, Rodolfo, Anthony Marks, and Abbas Mohammed-Ali. "The archaeology of the Eastern Sahel, Sudan : preliminary results." African Archeological Review. 2. (1984) 173-188. Print.

Fattovich, Rodolfo. "Archaeological Research in the Gash Delat Kassala Province 1980-1981." Society for Nubian Studies. (1982). Print.

---. "Data for the History of the Ancient Peopling of the Northern Ethiopian-Sudanese Borderland, Proceedings of the 7th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies." (1984). Print.

---. "Pre-Aksumite Civilization of Ethiopia: A Provisional Review, Proceedings of the Seminar For Arabian Studies." 7. (1977): 73-78. Print.

---."Remarks on the later prehistory and early history of northern Ethiopia." Journal of Ethiopian Studdis. 23. (1990): 1-33. Print.

---. "Some Data for the Study of the Cultural History in Ancient Northern Ethiopia." 10. (1977): 6-18. Print.

---. "The Contribution of the Nile Valleys Cultures to the Rising of the Ethiopian Civilization: Elements for a Hypothesis." Meroitic Newsletter. 16. (1975): 2-8. Print.

---. "The Problem of Sudanese-Ethiopian Contacts in Antiquity: Nubian Studies."(1982). Print.

---. "Traces of a Possible African Component in the Pre-Aksumite Culture of Northern Ethiopia , Abbay." 9. (1978): 25-30.

Kaplan , Steven . The Beta Israel: Falasha in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century. NYU Press, 1995. Print.

Lyons, Len, and Ilan Ossendryver. The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land. Jewish Lights Publishing , 2007. Print.

McCrindle, John . "Arabia and Abyssinia in Ancient Times." Scottish Geographical Magazine. 12. (1896): 139-47, 142. Print.

Omer, Ibrahim. "The Concept of Nation: Ancient vs. Modern (Case Study of Aksum)." thesis, 2009. 18. Print.

Phillipson, David. Ancient Ethiopia: Aksum, its antecedents and successors. British Museum Press, 1998. Print.

Porten, Bezalel. Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony. University of Cal. Press, 1968. Print.

Salamon, Hagar . The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia. University of California Press, 1999. Print.

Teferi, Amaleletch . "About the Jewish Identity of the Beta Israel." Eds. Jews Of Ethiopia: The Birth Of An Elite. Tudor Parfitt and Emanuela Trevisan Semi. Psychology Press, 2005. Print.


from the April 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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