Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Echoes of Aksum in the alleys of Sana'a?

A New York Times travel article inspired me last March to write about the late antique history of Yemen, which saw the Abyssinian Christian empire of Aksum (located in what's now Ethiopia) displace Yemen's Jewish rulers, only to be overcome by Sassanian Persia and, finally, the first Islamic caliphate.

Today, the Times's Robert Worth writes about the plight of the Akhdam, a hereditary Yemeni underclass whose origin dates at least to medieval times. What caught my attention was the popular Yemeni conception of their background:
They are reviled as outsiders in their own country, descendants of an Ethiopian army that is said to have crossed the Red Sea to oppress Yemen before the arrival of Islam.
I think that sort of folk wisdom is too often dismissed out of hand. One has to be careful, of course, because the solutions offered by such sources can be very convenient, and one only has to consider the many competing folk origins of Ireland's Traveler people to see how quickly the historical yarn can become hopelessly tangled.

Sometimes, though, the oral traditions coalesce around a kernel of truth, as Tudor Parfitt demonstrated with the Lemba of South Africa.

Could the Akhdam be descended from the remnants of Yemen's 7th-century Aksumite Christian community? Here are a few things to consider. When the Persians came to oust them, the Aksumites in Yemen had, in living memory, broken away from the kingdom of Aksum under Abraha, a renegade Aksumite general. It's reasonable to speculate that the surviving ruling class regarded the acceptance of second-class citizenship under Sassanian rule as preferable to an awkward or even dangerous homecoming. In any case, there was almost certainly a sizable Christian community when the forces of Islam arrived a few generations later. At that point, they would have become the conquered people of a conquered people, which probably meant very bad things for their standard of living. Lastly, though the article translates "al Akhdam" as "the servants," I can't help but notice the similarity between "Akhdam" and "Aksum."

At least one local sociologist doesn't think much of a potential link:
The popular notion that the Akhdam are descendants of Ethiopian oppressors appears to be a myth, said Hamud al-Awdi, a professor of sociology at Sana University. Most of them have roots in villages in the Red Sea coastal plain of Yemen, and many of them may have African origins, he added. Little else about them is clear, despite a number of academic studies.
Those coastal village origins are presented here as evidence against Aksumite origin, but as it happens, that's the part of Yemen that was most frequently and permanently in Aksum's area of direct control. If one were looking for evidence that an ostracized remnant of Yemen's erstwhile Christian conquerers managed to hang on somewhere, the ancestral land of the Akhdam perhaps wouldn't be a bad place to start.