Much of the art and architecture of eastern Africa is religious in nature. Islam is the main religion in the northern part of the region, and mosques to house worshipers are a major architectural form there. Mosques in eastern Africa tend to be simpler in … Continue reading
Africa has huge sparse of highland vegetation. In Africa’s discontinuous areas of high mountains and uplands, altitude plays a significant role in determining climate and vegetation. On high peaks such as Kilimanjaro, vegetation changes as altitude increases: savanna vegetation near the base, … Continue reading
The highland and mediterranean climate of Africa can be best described as mild. Tropical highland climates are common in much of East Africa. Temperatures in the highlands of Ethiopia and Kenya average 16° to 21°C (60° to 70°F), on average about 5 … Continue reading
Ethiopia became victorious during the scramble for Africa at Adwa. Ethiopia stands as the exception to the rule in the Scramble. Menelik II became emperor in 1889 and proceeded to use the powerful, well-equipped Ethiopian army to expand south, east, and west, incorporating … Continue reading
Ethiopia is a Christian kingdom that developed in the Ethiopian Highlands after 800 and was controlled by an aristocracy. The local Agaw peasantry owned and worked the land in the fertile valleys, but paid a tax from their produce to their governing … Continue reading
Eastern Africa stretches from Sudan in the north to Mozambique in the south, taking in Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and the island nation of Madagascar. This vast region encompasses a diverse range of peoples, environments, and historical experiences. They include seminomadic herders, ancient kingdoms, coastal trading ports, and even a few isolated communities of hunter-gatherers. An extremely wide range of art and architecture in the region reflects this diversity. Trade with Arabs and other groups along Africa’s east coast also introduced a strong foreign influence.
Conquest of a Continent: Africa
In 1877 Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley emerged at the mouth of the Congo River, completing an arduous, three-year transcontinental trek and proving the Congo’s navigability for thousands of kilometers above the rapids near its mouth. Ambitious Europeans, led by King Leopold II of Belgium, recognized the river as a major potential trading artery. By the early 1880s Belgium and France had competing claims to territories on either side of the lower Congo. Territorial acquisition quickly became competitive and strategic, as Europe’s major powers decided that their future economic prosperity depended on their seizing as much of the continent for themselves as possible. The biggest players were Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, with Spain and Italy playing lesser roles, and Portugal maintaining its claims to its longstanding colonies. The process was already well under way by the time the European powers met at the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-1885 to lay down the ground rules of the Scramble. The principal of these was that European claimants to any part of Africa had to prove their presence in the area by getting the signed agreement of a local African ruler or—if that was not possible or convenient—by military conquest.
Europeans frequently tricked illiterate African rulers into signing documents under false pretences. For example, in 1888 Ndebele king Lobengula inadvertently gave British businessman Cecil Rhodes and his private mining company the right to take over the whole of what is now Zimbabwe. The British government ignored Lobengula’s subsequent protests and approved Rhodes’s colonization of the country. Some African rulers, more experienced in European ways, willingly agreed to “protection” before the arrival of European military forces, and in this way managed to obtain some concessions. Lozi king Lewanika achieved better treatment for Lozi than the rest of what is now Zambia by agreeing to an 1889 British treaty of protection which left him with some power and kept the British from seizing Lozi land.
European armies eventually occupied most of the continent, brutally conquering most African states that resisted. African powers lost virtually every conflict for two main reasons: the age-old principle of divide-and-conquer and the superior weaponry of the European armies. Europeans were able to play one African ruler against another because a ruler’s first duty to his people was to protect them from their traditional rivals or enemies. Up to this point, Europeans had been trading partners and not necessarily rivals or enemies, roles more likely to be played by neighboring African states. Therefore, neighbors of West African slave-trading states were often prepared to help Europeans overcome their traditional enemies, who had long raided them for captives to sell into slavery. Many African states even provided military support for European colonizing armies.
Despite trading firearms into Africa for more than a century, Europeans were much better armed. European armies had access to the latest weapons technology, which was developing rapidly in the final decades of the 19th century. Some African armies possessed breech-loading rifles (loaded through the rear of the barrel rather than through the muzzle), but none had the newly-developed machine gun and, with almost the sole exception of Ethiopia, none had artillery with explosive shells. African bravery and strategic skill resulted in a few memorable African victories, such as the Zulu victory over the British in the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. However, with huge resources of equipment and soldiers at their disposal, European imperial victory was virtually inevitable. Often it was a very one-sided fight: In 1898 at Omdurman, Sudan, the British killed 20,000 Sudanese fighters in a matter of hours.
Some of the longest struggles for political survival occurred in what was to become French West Africa, where Samory Touré’s Mandinka state fought off French incursion from the early 1880s until 1898. Sudanese military leader Rabih al-Zubayr, using a disciplined and well-armed cavalry, waged a jihad in the Chad region and conquered Bornu in 1893. There he set up a militaristic empire that held up French conquest until 1900, when two French armies converging from north and the south finally overcame Rabih.
In many parts of Africa, rural people were initially unaware of the fact that European powers had, on paper, taken over. Rural resistance to European presence, when it came, was often small in scale but long in duration.
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By World War I (1914-1918) Ethiopia and Liberia were the only independent nations left in Africa. France and Britain held the most African territory: French colonies stretched across almost all of West Africa, while Britain held an almost unbroken string of colonies from Egypt to South Africa.
The city of Aksum is famous for the large stone stelae that were erected to mark royal burial places. These enormous single pieces of stone, weighing hundreds of tons each, were quarried a few kilometers away from Aksum, brought to the burial sites, and raised into place—a process that would have required an enormous amount of labor. The largest stele was 33 m (108 ft) long. This stele fell in antiquity and still lies where it fell, broken into several pieces. Of the stelae still standing, the tallest is 24 m (79 ft) tall. Some stelae were carved to represent the facades of palaces, with false windows and doors and other decorations. The earlier, smaller, stelae were left plain. All the stelae were erected before the introduction of Christianity in the mid-4th century, although no exact dates can be attributed to them.
The language of Aksum was Ge’ez, which was written with characters derived from alphabets in use in southern Arabia for related languages. Writing from the Aksum period is known only from official inscriptions in stone. Aksumites may have used other materials, such as papyrus or parchment, for less formal purposes. Aksumites likely translated the Bible into Ge’ez, but no period Bibles have survived. Some royal Aksumite inscriptions were in Greek, a language commonly used for trade as well as for official purposes. Ge’ez, the basis for the modern Amharic script of Ethiopia, is now used only in the rituals of the Ethiopian church.
Although no longer the seat of kings, Aksum is still regarded with veneration in Ethiopia and is the subject of numerous legends that contain elements of historic truth. One legend calls Aksum the home of the Queen of Sheba. According to Ethiopian national tradition, the Queen of Sheba is said to have married King Solomon of Israel and given birth to Menelik, the legendary first emperor of Ethiopia. Another legend claims that Aksum is the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, which Menelik is said to have taken from the Temple in Jerusalem. While such legends are difficult to verify, there is no question that Aksum was an important political and cultural center in ancient times, and one whose influence is felt to this day in Ethiopia.
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Very little is known of the social hierarchy of the kingdom of Aksum. Scholars believe that a class of nobles surrounded the king. Beneath the nobles were merchants, artisans, and villagers who grew crops and tended animals. Aksumites owned slaves, many of whom were prisoners of war, but it is not known how they were employed. Wealth was probably derived from ownership of land.
The kingdom of Aksum contained a number of important towns in addition to Aksum. The Red Sea port of Adulis was one of the largest. It contained stone churches and houses, the latter probably belonging to prosperous merchants. Other towns were located along the route that led from Adulis to Aksum. Many stone buildings have been found away from the towns; these may have been the residences of rich local landlords. Wealthy Aksumites lived comfortable lives and used luxury domestic items—such as ceramics, glassware, and fabrics—imported from abroad. The dwellings of town and rural workers were likely round huts made of stone or mud with conical thatched roofs, similar to rural houses in Ethiopia today.
The Aksumite diet would have varied, depending on social class. The staple was likely a cereal dish, but the upper classes also would have had such imported luxuries as wine and olive oil. The alcoholic honey drink tej (mead), a common beverage in modern Ethiopia, would have been available to everyone. Workers and rural people would have eaten injera (flat, unleavened bread) and porridge made of local cereal, probably wheat or barley.
Aksum is said to have imported cloth and ready-made garments, but almost nothing is known of the styles of dress. The cloth was linen, wool, or cotton. Archaeologists have found loom weights in Aksum, suggesting that Aksumites wove their own cloth as well. People in rural areas may also have worn leather.