By Paulos Milkias
In my book review of Dr. Fikre Tolossa’s published work, I asked proof for 13 questions regarding the most difficult conundrums his monograph has generated due to its obscure setting between fiction, fact, religion and astrology. However, in the author’s last posting, not a single “proof of scientific nature” was presented to cement its claimed factual underpinning. Instead of taking responsibility for the dubious sources he liberally used and involving in plain levelled intellectual discourse, Dr. Fikre delves into self-serving vituperation and defensive rant and attempts to pass the buck. The burden of the proof does not lie with me because I did not introduce strange views and unheard of realities: he did. So, he can’t wiggle out: it is his duty to render iron-clad verifiable proofs for what he claims to be historical facts.
All I asked for is present plausible proofs. Dr. Fikre points to the 45 references he has listed at the end of his book as researched proofs. He says: “I didn’t make up the Ethiopian history I enshrined in my book. I used literature available on the book market, which can be easily verified, as I have listed them as bibliography.” Unfortunately, far from being reliable proofs, many of the sources in the bibliography are suspect. Without further ado, I will quote several more statements of his and ask if he can provide reliable proofs for them as well.
One concerns the statement he makes that “God ordered Melchizedek to send his son Ethel who was named …Ethiop later on by God, to go and settle in Ethiopia at the islands of Lake Tana.” Second he says “the Amara and the Oromo are the descendants of one man – Melchizedek, King of Salem the highest priest of God on Earth, founder of Jerusalem to whom Abraham and other kings bowed and paid tithes to receive his blessings.” Third he says: “The Agazi, tribe [those who spoke Ge’ez] who were brought from Gaaza (here enter the Palestinians!) by Menelik I fought for him when Ethiopian tribes warred against him, treating him as a Jewish “keles“ [Interesting that they would use such Amharic pejoratives 3,000 years ago!] And fourth, he says: “Ethel went to Ethiopia and settled in what is today known as Gojam; God changed his name from Ethel to “Ethiop” meaning ‘the gift of yellow gold to God’; thus, not only Ethel became Ethiop, but the land in which he settled also started to be called “Ethiopia”; He mentions 9 children born to him by name one of them being Tola and adds the comment, “by the way, the name of my uncle, the brother of my father Tolossa, was Tola.)” Dr. Fikre: Congrats for finding a name sake for your uncle but do you really consider what are quoted above as historical facts? Or are these passages from the scriptures or other religious texts? This work is not history at all; it is a melange of religion and mythology. If not, I ask you to prove otherwise.
You ask how history can be science. Yes, it can and it is science for it lends itself like all other social science disciplines to rigorous human effort to comprehend the history of the natural world and the way in which the natural world functioned in the past with reliable evidence as the basis of that understanding. Science varies from religion or mythical lore in that it has an exit clause for its propositions. If evidence or a set of data cannot support their postulate or if they do not correspond closely with the conjectures that they have come up with, scientists alter their views completely. It is this methodological commitment to accepting the implications of evidence that is consistent with the suppositions or to rejecting one that is contradictory to it that forms the foundation of social science enquiry.
Indeed, there is a striking contrast to verifiable truth on the one hand which, in Aristotelian syllogism can be arrived at through inductive logic as it pertains to the physical sciences, and religion or mythical lore which are based on blind belief or faith which lend themselves only to deductive logic – the kind that Dr. Fikre presently expounds based on an arcane manuscript. But for deductive logic to be accepted at face value, there is one basic requirement: the universal i.e. the major premise has to be full proof. Metsafe Dejan Shewa on which Dr. Fikre depends for most of his conclusions has not been proven to be authentic. Therefore, it cannot be the basis of any valid major premise. In this, the author is committing the fallacy of Begging the Question. An argument begs the question when it employs a premise that no one who didn’t already accept the conclusion would root for. The individual employing it presupposes the truth of the very thing he is trying to prove. In brief, it is a form of argument in which the conclusion appears an identical twin of the major premise. In both cases, the verdict is that if the major premise has not been proven to be accurate, then the conclusion is also not accurate.
A scientific historical analysis is like the one Dr. Getachew Haile recently wrote on Ethiomedia under the rubric: “Sample Notes on the Oromo Migration to Central and Northern Ethiopia and their Contribution to the History of their Country.” This piece has all the ingredients of scientific historical research with reliable primary and secondary sources. Dr. Fikre has to try to emulate Dr. Getachew if he wants to make veritable scholarly research. If not, he will continue to wallow in a world where reality is distorted and nothing can be proven to be deductively trustworthy.
One should keep in mind that researching the past is not just a blind pursuit of forgotten people and events surrounding them. Researching the past should withstand the tests of rigour and an iron clad backing of reason, a rebuttal of myth, a way of looking at the past with the same exactitude that we require when we analyze present political figures and events. They should also be inherently compatible and non-contradictory. In connection with this, it is quite amusing that in a major twist of logic, Dr. Fikre says: ‘it is absurd to characterize historical evidences as “scientific”’ and then claims that he has presented a “scientific” proof. These dual statements are clearly contradictory and paradoxical.
A scholarly book is only as good as the sources used in it. To be reliable, it must be based on trustworthy, academic sources. A scholar’s major responsibility in eliciting scientific results is to fathom the variance between fact and fiction as well as differentiating reliable from unreliable sources. Far from being scientific, D. Fikre’s sources are terribly weak. He has provided two sets of endnotes to support his claims. In the first set, 31 out of 63 are based on the assumed scholarly authority of Meriras Belai (aka Aman Belai) the “discoverer” of Metsehafe Djan Shewa. In the second set, he has quoted 56 sources out of which 30 are again attributed to the assumed scholarly authority of Meriras Belai. It is clear that to a large extent, Dr. Fikre depended on Meriras’ document which makes it incumbent that for the bizarre claims he makes to be accepted, the authenticity of the manuscript has to be ascertained before everything else. Worse still, among the 45 bibliographical references he proudly quotes as his scientific proofs, there is Wikipedia that anybody can write and anybody else can edit. So, for Dr. Fikre, no matter the motive for writing this book, the sources he used remain his Achilles heel.
Regarding the manuscript, Metsehafe Djan Shewa, Dr. Fikre has written: “as for bequeathing the ancient manuscripts found at Jebel Nuba to the Ethiopian National Museum, their discoverer is willing to do so, if Dr. Paulos can guarantee their safety.” Please note that I shall make sure that the Ethiopian National Museum would give it the same protection it gives to the fossil of Dinkinesh (aka Lucy.) I shall also make sure that a specialist scholar examine the integrity of the manuscript and the whole story behind it because my enquiry to the Nubian antiquities has yielded a negative response. They say that they have never heard of the discovery of a manuscript called Metsehafe Djan Shewa in Gebel Nuba (Nuba Mountains) or any other locality in Sudan or the Aswan region of Egypt.
To simplify matters, why wouldn’t Dr. Fikre and Meriras temporarily entrust the manuscript to the care of Prof. Getachew Haile who is a world renowned expert in deciphering ancient manuscripts so that he can provide his professional judgment regarding its authenticity? One needs to look closely at the time and place of Meriras’ major find, Metsehafe Djan Shewa was said to have been discovered, that its dating is ascertained to be of the said time by the characters used in the Ge’ez syllabary it was written in, that the materials used in the manuscript date to the period it is said to have been inscribed, and that UNESCO has a record of this major finding and its location at present.
Why worry about the integrity of Metsehafe Djan Shewa? Because the genesis of Dr. Fikre’s assertions is almost exclusively dependent on this uncanny manuscript. That being the case, what if it is specious not bona fide? Consider the following example: in 1983, it was announced that “Hitler’s Diary” covering the years from 1932 to 1945 was discovered and was subsequently hailed by major world media as the most important historical find of the time. But in less than 15 days, it was dismissed by specialists as being fake. It was found that some of the materials used to make them were not invented until after the demise of Hitler, and that modern optical brighteners were noticed in the paper when the pages were examined under ultraviolet light. Furthermore, when samples of the binding of the diaries were inspected under polarized light microscope, it was determined that they contained modern synthetic substances. Therefore, I only want the Meriras text to pass the scrutiny of other manuscripts of similar importance to merit quoting as a reliable source.
Instead of scientifically proving a point and building a rigorous argument, Dr. Fikre uses an appeal to popular assent through the mechanism of arousing positive feelings and enthusiasm of a multitude. This however is committing the fallacy of Argumentum ad Populum. In the author’s view, as long as the majority of people do not question the proposition and are happy with it no matter its validity, the point presented as fact must be accepted as a truism; fatal error in reasoning. For example, prior to Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, religious leaders taught people to accept the idea that the Earth which is flat is stationary and is at the centre of the universe and that the Sun goes around it as it seems to our senses; that is why in religious allegories, Joshua was said to have succeeded to supplicate and get the permission of God to stop the sun and when on the orders of God, the sun stood still, the people of Israel were able to take revenge on their enemies. One can easily assume that over 90% of the people at that time believed in this theory and were happy with it. But that majority belief didn’t mean the earth was flat and is at the centre of the universe or that the sun went around it. So, people being happy with Dr. Fikre’s propositions does not make the off the mark explanations in his book valid.
Dr. Fikre says that scholars have considered the appearance of his book as a milestone. In fact he has the audacity to claim that “genuine scholars” have reacted to his book as “a paradigm shift in Ethiopian history.” Is he really serious? If indeed anybody has called it a paradigm shift, then it is a “paradigm shift from history to fiction.” I challenge Dr. Fikre to find any support for his ideas from well-known Ethiopian historians and antiquarian scholars including Profs. Getachew Haile, Bahru Zewde, Ephraim Isaac, Messay Kebede, Mohamed Hassan, Tesema Taa, and Bahru Tafla among others. At this juncture, I invite, nay urge these same scholars to break their silence and comment on this pedagogical iniquity. It is their responsibility too. Mark that the only thing necessary for the triumph of any canard is for educators of good conscience to fail to do something about it.
Dr. Fikre claims that I have lived outside Ethiopia for ages and am far removed from the present reality in Ethiopia. To put the record straight even though, I have been away from my country for many years, as I think he did, I have taught and done research there since 1998 when I was sent by the United Nations to teach at Addis Ababa University as visiting professor. I have also been assigned under the auspices of the Swedish government to teach at the same university as visiting professor in 2011. For the last 20 years, I have conducted a lot of research in Ethiopia. To fulfil the purpose, I have gone to Ethiopia for a minimum of 3 months every year and in 2016, I was in Addis for four months where I presented a paper at Western Michigan University sponsored conference at Addis Ababa University and was actually discussing research work at the Forum for Social Studies with Prof. Bahru Zewde, the very hour Dr. Fikre was engaged in his book signing elsewhere. So, I am not as far away from the reality in my country any more than he is.
As for my advice to our young and burgeoning scholars not to quote from your book, yes, I have decided to be paternalistic by choice in order to protect them against being victims of unverified information. I have not been a teacher for so many decades to shirk my pedagogical responsibilities at this stage. When I speak of teaching mark that I am talking of teaching youth in any area. My late Somali friend, Prof. Said Samatar of Rutgers University used to insist that we, Ethiopian educators, should try hard to stop our youth from chewing qat which, he used to say, has already destroyed the brains of many Somali men. Scientific studies show that chewing qat may lead to brain cancer as happened, as some suspect, in one celebrity case in Ethiopia. But more importantly, because appropriate precaution was not demanded by educators, there are already multitudes of hard core qat chewers, whose brain wiring has been damaged and who have as a result degenerated into schizophrenics. Some of these are crowding mental hospitals in Ethiopia while others are at large wreaking havoc. Such people do not realize the condition they are in because they live in an entirely different world, a world of illusions where they hear voices. We, as educators should work hard go guard our youth against such grave dangers. It is our duty to do so.
Indeed, one has to give warnings regarding Dr. Fikre’s book. No sane learned scholar will pass a student in a history class who quotes the countless misleading information he provides in his book. Let me give Dr. Fikre just a few examples as to why as a pedagogue, I would rather be labeled paternalistic than leave young Ethiopians eager to learn their country’s history confused and in limbo after reading his monograph. Would one expect any Ethiopian historian pass a student in his class who quotes from his book and claims that “Humans originated in Gojam near Lake Tana” while scientific enquiry has proven unequivocally that based on the theory of the Eve Hypothesis and mitochondrial DNA (See Alison Jolly, Lucy’s Legacy, Harvard University press – Jun 30 2001) as well as the lesson from the fossil of the first human: Homo sapiens Idaltu (see Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Random House, 2014.) homo sapiens evolved in Afar 200,000 years ago strengthening the theory that modern humans came into being in the Afar depression and then spread across the rest of the planet?
Prof. Fikre: do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that there was “an Oromo Solomonian Dynasty?” in existence in Ethiopian history? Was this phenomenon ascertained outside the Meriras manuscript you swear by or was it conceived in a dream? To get your facts straight regarding the origin and subsistence of the Solomonian Dynasty in Ethiopian historiography, read Mamman M. Adamu “The Legend of Queen Sheba, the Solomonic Dynasty and Ethiopian History: An Analysis,” African Research Review, Vol. 3 (1), 2009 ISSN 1994-9057 (Print) ISSN 2070-0083 (pp. 468-482) and Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia and the Red Sea: The Rise and Decline of the Solomonic Dynasty and Muslim European Rivalry in the Region, Routledge, 2013.
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that “an Oromo person called Medebay, faced with his book being confiscated and burnt by Ethiopia’s first Solomonian dynast, Menelik l, let a cow eat his book and later when the cow was killed and quartered, parts of the writing of the book were found inscribed in its stomach?” Indeed, it would be a serious transgression to teach this conjured up fable as fact to our impressionable young people. (See detailed history of all global writing systems, in Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Editors) The World’s Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, 1989. If you want to understand the background history of the Ethiopian writing system, read in-depth the work of a genuine Ethiopian scholar of Oromo ethnicity, Dr. Ayele Bekerie, (whom you quote elsewhere,) Ethiopic: an African Writing System: Its History and Principles, Red Sea, September, 1997.)
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that “The Jamaicans of the West Indies were captured by Ahmed Gragn as they fought the invader fiercely in the 16th century, and were sold as slaves in the Western Hemisphere” confounding the well documented history of the transatlantic slave trade that traces the roots of all Jamaican slaves to West Africa? (See Klein, Herbert. The Atlantic Slave Trade. USA: Cambridge University Press, 1999; Audra A. Diptee From Africa to Jamaica: The Making of an Atlantic Slave Society, 1775-1807 University of Florida Press – Jul 18 2010.}
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that the so called “Deshet” designated as the forefather of the Amharas and the Oromos also doubled as “a major prophet who designed the Zodiac which was taken out of Ethiopia and spread around the world” when all specialists in the field agree that the zodiac was originally conceived of as an idea in ancient Egypt and was then embraced by the Babylonians and the Greeks who designated specific animal names to each lunar cycle and suggested that heavenly bodies can indicate a plan of the future of a person in helping him make important decisions in life. When you speak of Deshet as a prophet who according to your book developed the zodiac, you are actually jumping into the field of astrology. What does astrology have to do with history? Nevertheless, if you are interested for all that it is worth, there is a rich literature that gives you the roots of the Zodiac. (See Rupert Gleadow’s The Origin of the Zodiac, Dover Publications Nov. 2 2011.)
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that “when Axumite of Ethiopia was a little boy he was crowned as Ramses in Egypt” when all historian agree that Ramses, son of Seti I and Queen Tuya of Egypt known for constructing the famous Abu Simbel temple complex in Nubia was the third pharaoh of the 19th Egyptian Dynasty – 1292-1186 BCE- (See Zahi Hawass, The Mysteries of Abu Simbel: Ramesses II and the Temples of the Rising Sun, Oxford University Press, Feb 15 2001.)
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that it was the Amaras who accompanied Axumite (later to become the king of Egypt as Rasmses) all the way from Ethiopia to Egypt about 2,850 years ago to protect his throne and that about 350,000 Amaras went with him some returning to Ethiopia “only” after 1,850 years of stay in Egypt and accompanying King Lalibela” when the history of Ramses who died at the ripe old age of 95 as written in Egyptian hieroglyphics does not at all raise this issue in any shape or form? If one were to follow your story, what can one attribute to the Tigrés of Axum and the Agaws of Roha in the meantime? While it is the history of their place of birth that is being discussed how come their names have faded into oblivion? (See Wilfred C. Griggs, Ramses II: The Great Pharaoh and His Time, Denver Museum of Natural History, 1985,
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that when Axumite founded the city of Axum and became Emperor of Ethiopia, he gave his daughter Ribla in marriage to King Nabukadenesor of Babylon (today’s Iraq} and that the Amara soldiers who accompanied Ribla to Iraq founded a city called “Amara” in Iraq after their own name? Research shows no Ethiopian connection to the founding of Amara in Iraq. In fact the city of Amara was founded in the 1860’s as an outpost of Ottoman military forces from where the Turkish Sultanate enforced its suzerainty on the warring tribes of Al Bu Muhammad and Banu Lam. (See Nikolas Gardner The Siege of Kut-al-Amara: At War in Mesopotamia, 1915-1916 Indiana University Press, Sept. 16 2014) Side comment: Simply because one finds the same name in another place, one cannot latch historical references to it to boot with a distance in dating of some 3,000 years! There is also a town called Amara in the State of Arizona in the United States. May be you will now claim that the Amharas invaded the country of the first nations and founded a city in their name during antiquity. I have observed that when you see a proper noun such as Ophir you jump to tie it to Afar. A proper noun, Mali which in AfanOromo means “why” shows that the Oromos migrated to the African country of Mali, Nagran, a city in South Arabia that you consider the old name of Yemen is according to your book derived from the Amharic “Na-gra” (come left), the country of Yemen was named by the Amhara designation Ye-man (whose,) Meqdish for you, is presto Mogadishu. You mention that “ancient towns in Egypt carry Amharic names and give the example of Amarna which you translate to be ‘konjo honin’ and Delta which you say means ‘“we are comfortable, we are doing fine.’ [Don’t tell us that the U.S. State of Aizona is also derived from Amharic Aryizona!
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that “a nun and prophetess named Shemshel conceived Deshet the father of the Oromos and the Amhars while she was taking a bath in the river Ghion, (Blue Nile) from a sperm in the river that made its way into her uterus?” The notion that a woman can be impregnated by a sperm floating free in a river fits the bill of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Just ask any fertility doctor today and you will find out that even with advanced scientific techniques, it is extremely difficult to incubate a child in-vitro from a petro dish let alone from an accidental sperm drifting freely in a river. For the formidable hurdles faced by scientists in conducting genetic engineering in humans and achieving success with impregnating a woman in-vitro, see Kay Elder, Brian Dale and Yves Ménézo In-Vitro Fertilization, Cambridge University Press, Dec 2, 2010.)
Do you expect any Ethiopian historian to pass a student in his class who quotes from your book and claims that “an ancient Ethiopian monarch by the name Isiael “lived for 480 years” and during his reign doubled as an engineering scientist who experimented with the process of recombinant DNA and evolved Ethiopians by intermarrying Arab and Middle Eastern prisoners of war to evolve our distinct skin colours and body types. Not only is it a long shot for anybody in ancient times to isolate, characterize, and manipulate genes to evolve specific characteristics of humans, the science of genetics was not even conceived of until the works of Gregor Mendel appeared in the mid-19th century. (see Evelyn Fox Keller, The Century of the Gene, Harvard University Press, April 2002.)
A human being living for 480 years! Are you out of your mind? Even with the advance in reproductive science today, since there is no verified instance of a person having lived 150 years, scientists for purposes of illustration, have arbitrarily accepted 150 as the maximum limit of the span of human life. You may try to quote the Old Testament life of Methuselah (969 years) but that is religion not science! Re. human lifespan, see Robert V. Kail and John C. Cavanaugh Human Development: A Life-Span View Wadsworth Publishing, January 1, 2015.
Dr. Fikre’s work is in league with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865.) and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997.) He has already vowed to reserve [his ] time and energy to write [his] next book. The sequel to Dr. Fikre’s book on the origin of the Amharas and the Oromos would, I surmise, be akin to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Both are sequels to fairy tales though written 145 years apart.
In all of the assertions enumerated above, Dr. Fikre Tolossa has attempted to replace fact with fiction, history with religion, and reality with fantasy leaving a bitter pill to swallow for any serious Ethiopian scholar; he has also tried to bequeath a legacy of one of the most difficult conundrums for our youth to cope with. With just a stroke of a pen, the Dr. has surrendered a dispassionate search for truth with a fool’s paradise. To do this, no matter how many people get resolution for their confusion and alienation, and however enjoyable and soothing they are, is to embed a dangerous and misleading historical precedent that one has to make a stop to before it spreads like a plague throughout Ethiopia and the Ethiopian diaspora.
Dr. Fikre revels at what he says is the success of his book, in achieving its goal that the Oromo and Amara in particular “demonstrate a stronger sense of understanding, peace and love towards each other ever since the release of my book.” He claims that the book has a mission of “healing their soul” which he asserts it did. He contends that his monograph rectifies the ills of identity crises and dispels misunderstanding. In that sense then, over all, Dr. Fikre’s book is not a book of history but rather a book in the genre of Ethiopian Debteras’ ልሳነ ሰብ and ሐጹረ መስቀል that are supposed to protect people against malevolence and provide them with peace and love towards one another and ልፋፈ ጽድቅ that is supposed to have the power to protect their soul. In fact I would not be surprised if he entertains the ambition to get the present book or its planned sequel inscribed on Debtera magic scrolls so that the Ethiopian people can hang them on their necks like an amulet (ጠልሰም) for protection against all adverse episodes.
In fact Dr. Fikre is not very far off the mark in his observation the popularity of his book, because I have recently encountered Ethiopians from all walks of life – Oromos and Amharas included – commenting: “if you filter out the drivel, Dr. Fikre’s message in the book is benevolent.” He clearly has a strong following and a Neo-Pentecost may be on the horizon. Due to the alienation that has permeated the Ethiopian society in the last few decades, the author may succeed to be a cult guru like Jim Johns, Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh and Sun Myung Moon, with laymen to Ivy League educated intellectuals acting like zombies and following their maharishi’s orders without question. Do not consider this possibility far-fetched. In fact there is a precedent from Ethiopian history. In the 17th century, there was an unhinged Gondaré ecclesiast named Ze-Christos who claimed divine origin, established a church separate from Tewahedo Christianity’s and appointed his own bishops, priests and deacons. When upon the orders of Emperor Susneyos, Ze-Christos was thrown into a dich and stoned to fulfill the imperial orders of capital punishment, he defiantly went to his death crying at the top of his voice: ምንአለ ጋሼንም ሰቀላችሁት!
To return back to the main point, as far as rigorous historical treatment is concerned, Dr. Fikre’s book is completely outside the realm of objectivity: it is fantasy, pure and simple. How do I know it is fantasy? Because the assertions made in the book have not been supported by valid evidence and as the saying goes, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck. All I can say to Ethiopian compatriots regarding Dr. Fikre’s published historical allegory and its promised sequel is that if you are looking for plausible history in them, caveat emptor!
Professor Paulos Milkias teaches Political Science at Concordia University in Canada.
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