NEGASH—In 615, when the Prophet Mohammed was attacked by his own people, he had to flee Mecca. His sermons were threatening the power of the Quraysh, so the tribe wanted him, his family, and his followers killed. Mohammed fled to the Arabian town of Yathrib, 210 miles from Mecca. Today, the town is known as Medina, the Prophet’s city.
Mohammed also sent a small number of his devotees, including his daughter Rukiya, to Ethiopia. He asked the Christian king of Abyssinia, as it was then known, to keep his family safe. He trusted the African king because the two men, like the Jews before them, shared a belief in one god. Mohammed hoped this tie would prove more powerful than those of blood or nation. It did. When these first Muslims in Africa were brought before the king of Abyssinia to explain their newfound faith, the expedition’s leader told the king a story from the Quran. It was the story of a virgin named Mary giving birth to a baby boy named Jesus. The Christian ruler allowed the Muslims to stay in his kingdom. The king of Abyssinia granted what has come to be known as one of the earliest cases of political asylum. He even gave them a small plot of earth in northeastern Ethiopia, in a place called Negash. To reach Negash, I hopped a predawn flight north from the capital of Addis to the trading town of Mekele, renowned for its salt market. Ethiopia once supplied much of East Africa with salt. The Afar people—Muslim nomads who manage to survive in one of the hottest places on earth, the Danakil Depression in northeast Ethiopia—have traveled to Mekele for centuries with salt strapped to backs of their camels. Having never seen a salt caravan, I’d looked forward to the romance of miles of salt-encrusted beasts. Mekele is also the place where I am to meet a driver who will ferry me 50 miles north to meet whoever is left of the seventh-century settlement at Negash.
To my disappointment, on arriving in Mekele I learned that the salt caravans I’d imagined are largely a relic of the past. Thanks to the newly built Chinese road, the Afar people now truck their salt most of the way to town from the Danakil Depression. Yonas, the driver I’d hired through a Roman hotelier (who owns the stunning stone Gheralta Lodge, where I will be staying) feels my disappointment keenly. To cheer me, he insists we visit the palace of the 19th-century Emperor Yohannes, a precursor to the most famous and final of Ethiopia’s kings, Haile Selassie.
Thanks to its European architect, the palace looks and feels like a Swiss hunting lodge, except for mud crenellations, a mahogany throne, and the emperor’s leopard skin. The latter functioned as the emperor’s cloak in times of peace; his saddle in times of war, I am told. We marvel at a musket with a golden trigger, a gift from Queen Victoria. The massive bronze head of Mussolini sits in an upstairs window as a nod to the fascist’s brief flirtation with Africa.
“May I show you the emperor’s personal toilet?” The guide asks in a hushed tone. He opens a door in the throne room onto a second-story wooden privy. We peer into the seat’s 20-foot drop. In glass cases, there are thousands of Ethiopian hand crosses: elaborate latticework crucifixes that priests and kings carry to show their devotion and legitimize their power. Most of the crosses are marked conspicuously with typed index cards naming the European museum that has recently returned them to their rightful owners in Ethiopia.
On our way out of town, Yonas, a spindly ethnic Tigrayan, begins to shout, “A salt caravan!” He gestures madly as I scan the horizon for the stenciled shapes of the hundreds of beasts I’ve been waiting to see. Instead, about 500 feet ahead of us on the road, two dozen tired camels lope forward, bound to one another by a length of dirty rope. Knee-high donkeys swarm around them, bucking like rambunctious schoolboys walking home. The camels and donkeys carry white flour sacks stuffed with grass: their food.
The camel driver is not Afar, I can see, because he is not a Muslim. From the silver cross that flashes on his neck when he waves at our passing truck, I gather that he is a Christian.
“Oh, everyone has camels nowadays, Christians and Muslims, the people of Tigray, and the Afar people,” the driver says.
We drive on, heading north on the China Road, toward Ethiopia’s war-torn border with its enemy Eritrea. The latter is a relatively new country; Eritrea only declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a bloody civil war. Although the two nations are still fighting over the border between them, there’s no evidence of strife: no soldiers, no checkpoints.
Instead, the land around us is biblical: smudged, pastel escarpments with an occasional handful of whitewashed houses to suggest the passage of the last 2,000 years. Then ahead of us, I see a single, 30-foot-high minaret shingled in green tile.
Here is Negash, but the place looks deserted. We park and wonder for a moment where everyone is. Then I notice thousands of shoes on the mosque’s porch. It’s Friday, of course, and I’d forgotten that the residents, who still trace their lineage back to Mohammed’s first followers, would be engaged in midday prayer. We have to wait. Finally, men stream from the doors of the large, shining mosque. Two elderly gentlemen approach. After visiting hundreds of mosques over the last seven years, I am used to all manner of greetings. Not all have been warm, but from the smiles on the faces of the approaching men, this one promises to be. The first introduces himself as Sheik Ahmed Adam, the leader of this community of 600 Muslims. He is 58 but looks much closer to 90.
The sheik is accustomed to unexpected visitors. He welcomes me into the large, glittering mosque, which was built in 2003 by an Ethiopian billionaire, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi. Then we cross the dirt compound, passing through a yard of ancient-looking gravestones, toward another, smaller mosque. Who is buried here? Oh, the early followers, he replies.
Yes, the sheik says, some of his people can trace their lineage to the first 15 followers who arrived in Africa during the seventh century: 14 men and one woman, the Prophet’s daughter. I remove a palm-size Flip video camera from my purse and begin to record their stories. Yet when I ask who among them has such a family, the story quickly grows vague. I don’t think he’s lying. We’re just suffering the shared muddiness of memory and translation.
My mind is starting to feel like a failing butterfly net; trying to follow story lines is proving elusive. No matter, I think, I’ve come to write poems. The men and their histories muddle on. I grow frustrated. For better or for worse, I am trained to experience places by recording information. I am trained to write things down, to assess through the frame of a notebook. I’m trying to rely on this stupid camera—a tape recorder and camera all in one—but without a notebook open before me, I feel naked and woozy. So I pull out the notebook and pocket the Flip camera, knowing the video will be no good anyway. The sheik’s head keeps bobbing out of frame. For an old man, he moves fast.
Has there been trouble here with Christians? He looks bewildered. None, he says, thanks to the express directions of their Prophet. According to the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet, there’s an injunction against attacking Christians here. Tradition has it that Mohammed told his followers, “Leave the Abyssinians alone unless they take the offensive!” The sheik says, “In Mecca, the Prophet, peace be upon Him, had a great, great, great, war with his own people, but not here. Because he blessed us, we have had no problems. We have weddings and funerals together. We are one community.”
The gentle afternoon serves as a reminder of the more than 1,500 years of peaceful history Islam and Christianity share in Africa. As we return to the car and continue north to the Gheralta Lodge, I feel my brain stretching itself around this new history. No, I think, it’s hardly new. This is ancient history new to me because much of it lies outside the American history books I was raised reading.