The History of Oromo

Courtesy of Ethiopia Herald

The Oromo people is the largest of the Cushitic speaking groups of people in Africa and also the largest ethnic group of Ethiopia. The Region has a common border with all Regional States of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, except Tigray National Regional State. The Oromo people, like the other peoples and nationalities of the country, have immense tangible and intangible heritages which have been created over centuries in the interactions of the people with natural and social environments and which stand as the manifestations of the identity of the people. The traditional view held that the Oromo had occupied most of the Horn of Africa until around the 10th century when the Somali moved in from the south and forced the Oromo out of this area and toward the area that makes up the modern state of Ethiopia.

This view provided an explanation for the movement of the Oromo into this area in the 16th century. Most recent research contends that both the Somali and Oromo lived in southern Ethiopia and that the Oromo moved further into the area that makes up the modern state of Ethiopia beginning in 1532. Whichever viewpoint is taken sufficient historical documentation exists to date their movement into Ethiopia in the mid 16th century. The critical and comprehensive understanding of the classical Oromo civilization requires studying the historical, cultural, political, philosophical, religious, linguistic, and geographical foundations of Oromo society. This is a monumental task that cannot be adequately achieved at this historical moment.

The Oromo who lived within the borders of modern-day Ethiopia used elements of their own culture to maintain their distinct identity in spite of the influence of non-Oromo religions and they molded these religious systems to accommodate their cultural identity between the 16th and 19th centuries. The diverse history of Ethiopia provides a unique venue for studying cultural change. Ethiopia had global connections throughout Asia and the Middle East, maintaining strong trade relations with Egypt, Arabia, the Mediterranean, and Eurasia. These trade relations were an important element in the spread of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism into the area that comprises modern-day Ethiopia. The culture of the Amhara which inhabited northern Ethiopia was dominated by religious interests. Abrahamic religions have had a strong presence in this area; Judaism from the 10th century BCE according to the Kebra Nagast, Islam since the 7th century, and Christianity from the 4th century, making Ethiopia one of the oldest centers of both Christianity and Islam on earth. Besides the influences of these religious systems, ethnic groups in this region had a diversity of religious belief systems.

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The image is taken from Herbert S. Lewis,  Ethiopia, and Somalia.

In an early map completed by Fra Mauro in 1460, there is a reference to a river, which he named the Galan river. Due to the description, this river is believed to be the Wabi Shebelle River (identified on the map located here as the Webi R. and then lower the Shebeli R.). This information is significant to Oromo history in two ways, first, it is one of the earliest uses of the term “Galla” and second, this river holds significant importance to the early Ethiopian kingdom. According to Hassen, this river was the boundary between the Christian kingdom and . . . the Oromo. This information indicates that the Oromo were present in or near the Abyssinia kingdom from a very early date. The early inhabitants of northern Ethiopia are believed to have been a fusion of Cushites, who were indigenous to the area and Semitic peoples from Arabia.

Pankhurst provides a basic overview of the distribution of the linguistic groups in the region of Ethiopia. The Semitic languages dominated in the north including Ge’ez, the ancient ecclesiastical language. In the south, the eastern Cushitic languages discussed by Ehret are spoken. Omotic languages are found in the south-west and Nilo-Saharan languages are more common on the western periphery of Ethiopia. The language of the Oromo has been identified as eastern Cushitic by numerous linguists, including Christopher Ehret.

The oral traditions of the Oromo hold that their homeland is south-central Ethiopia, in or near the Borana area. Other traditions place their origin in the area of Mount Wolabo, thirty miles east of Lake Abaya and north of Borana, while yet another place of origin is Bergamo, identified as the region around Lake Abaya. As can be seen from the accompanying map these locations are all very close to one another, indicating a consistent identification with south-central Ethiopia. The difficulty that arises in establishing a definite location for the origins of the Oromo is that scant evidence exists concerning them and their movements prior to the 16th century. Beginning in the 16th century there is a considerable amount of material that refers to the Oromo.

The Oromo occupied a large geographic area and lived in smaller community groups, but they still share a common linguistic connection. There are numerous branches of people that are self-identified as Oromo. This name means “brave men” which as will be discussed later in this article provides a clue to the way the Oromo identified themselves and the way they were perceived by outsiders. The Oromo descended from an ancestor named Oromo. Descent from this family is a treasured part of the oral tradition of the Oromo. Two descendants of Oromo are part of this genealogy, Borana and Barentu. According to Hassen the separation of these two groups probably occurred during the 14th century with the Borana moving to the area west of the Ganale River and the Barentu remaining east of the river. There is no documentation that establishes exactly why this movement occurred.

Taken from Oromia & Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict, 1868-1992 by Asafa Jalata

There are numerous groups of Oromo which live in different geographic areas and speak different dialects of Oromo. These include the Arssi, Wallo, Tulma, Kaffa, Jimma, and many others. Their names are derived from either the geographic location in which they resided or from their “clan” or family name. To further confuse matters these groups are often called by different names depending on the source being used. This is especially relevant in the primary sources. Some groups that are identified as being of major importance at one time in history will have little importance at a later time. For the most part, the groups identified specifically in this paper can be placed geographically or by using the genealogy included. There specific significance of each sub-group to Oromo identity cannot be addressed in this article because of length and complexity.

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Although these groups often act independently and sometimes fight as siblings do, they share their Oromo identity including language, culture, and religion. The Oromo language is in the Afro-Asiatic language family and is a branch of the sub-group of Cushitic languages. Enrico Cerulli pointed out Ethiopian Oromo languages are divided into three main dialects that of the -Tuluma, spoken in Shewa; and Eastern Oromo, which is spoken near Harar, Arusi, etc. The Wallo dialect is somewhat like that of the Eastern Oromo with slight variations. Oromo, also known as afaan Oromoo or Oromiffa, is closely related to the Somali and Konso languages. According to Gene Gragg “Oromiffa is considered one of the five most widely spoken languages from among the approximately 1000 languages of Africa. It is spoken by approximately thirty-four million Oromo and is the lingua franca in southern Ethiopia.

The image is taken from Herbert S. Lewis, Eastern Cushitic languages of southern Ethiopia.

Between the 13th and 16th centuries, Islamic states dominated a large part of central Ethiopia whose ethnic core were Hadiya-Sidama-speaking peoples. Christianity during this period tended to expand along a north-south axis, while Islam expanded in an east-west direction. The zones of convergence resulted in areas of mixed adherence to Islam and Christianity. After the establishment of the Solomonic kingdom in 1270, tensions between the Muslim community and the Christian community increased. The Solomonic kingdom expanded into the lowlands and took control of the port of Masawa on the Red Sea in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Ottoman expansion into Egypt and the Red Sea in the early 16th century also raised tensions between the local Muslim communities and the Solomonic kingdom. As a result of Ottoman expansion and the expansion of the Solomonic kingdom into Masawa and other areas that were Islamic territories, local Muslim leaders moved to stop Christian expansion and exact revenge for encroachment into their territory.

Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim Gran was the match that lit the fire of conflict between the Solomonic kingdom and the Ethiopian Muslims. From 1527 to 1543 he and his followers won battle after battle against the Christian Ethiopian kingdom. The Christians called on the assistance of the Portuguese and killed Ahmad. As Robinson points out Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim Gran’s campaigns did threaten the integrity of the Christian state and drove it into the alliance with the Portuguese missionaries and military advisors. But the Solomonic rulers then formed enduring relations with the Ottomans, who were ready to accept the religious status quo in Ethiopia and encourage the growth of trade.” Militancy and conflict often characterized relations between the Christians and Muslims, but at other times they lived in relative peace and participated in lucrative trade with one another. It is at this point that the Oromo are first acknowledged as such in a written text.  

The area that comprises modern-day Ethiopia provides the historian with an intriguing mix of landscapes when looking at concepts of identity and power including the impact religion has had on these concepts over time. Some Oromo have chosen to adhere to Islam or Christianity while including elements of Oromo religion into their cultural identity. Ethiopian nationalism is an important part of Ethiopian culture, but the Oromo strongly identify as Oromo. Although this article focuses on Oromo identity, between the 16th and 19th centuries the Oromo were identified primarily by their interaction with the ruling Solomonic kingdom. A discussion of the Amhara and the general history of Ethiopia are necessary to historically contextualize the Oromo.

The image is taken from Herbert S. Lewis, Ethiopian provinces and kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

Although there is no known recognizable reference to the Oromo before the middle of the sixteenth century, their record is relatively full from then on. The first written references to the Oromo are contained in several contemporary Ethiopian and Portuguese accounts of the wars between the Oromo and the peoples of southern, eastern, and central Ethiopia. When Emperor Galawdewos took over as emperor of Ethiopia in 1541, he wrote in his chronicle his encounter with the Oromo, which is one of the first written sources of information about the Oromo. Prior to the reign of Galawdewos, the war between Ibn Gran and the Ethiopians had significantly depleted their resources and weakened the state. With the help of the Portuguese under the command of Cristovao da Gama, the Ethiopians were able to defeat Ibn Gran. The decisive battle on February 21, 1543, effectively put an end to the Gran’s campaign. It was near this time that the Oromo began to expand into the territory claimed by the Solomonic Emperor. According to the chronicler of Galawdewos, the glorious King Galawdewos devoted all his time to building a town of refuge entirely for believers who had been driven from their lands by the Oromos, and he provided them with all their needs.

Another text that mentions the Oromo was a work produced by an Ethiopian priest named Bahrey. His text was written in the 1580s or 1590s and he spoke at length about the movement of the Oromo into the Gamo region on the shores of Lake Abaya in southern Ethiopia.  Bahrey was a witness to the expansion of the Oromo in southern Ethiopia and he provides some of the first descriptions of the Oromo. He identifies two main branches the Baraytuma and the Boran. The expansion of the Oromo is well documented by the chronicles of the Ethiopian kings as well as by Bahrey.

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Bahrey’s home was in the region of Gamo, on the shores of Lake Abaya (Margherita) in southern Ethiopia, which was one of the earliest areas where the Oromo started moving. He was an eyewitness of the expansion of the Oromo, and his remarkable curiosity about, and knowledge of, the conquests, customs, and political organization of the Oromos demand that serious consideration is given to his text. According to Bahrey, the Oromos came from the west and crossed the river of their country, which is called Galana, to the frontier of Bali. Since the word Galana means ‘river’ in Oromo one cannot be definite about which river was meant, but two major rivers of southern Ethiopia, known today as the Galana Sagan and Galana Dulei, seem to be good candidates. Both are close to Gamo, to Lakes Abaya and Shamo, and are south-west of Bali. Even if the Dawe or Ganale rivers were meant, however, the Oromo could still have moved from the west into Bali, and come from the same general area.

But Bahrey gives further clues to pinpoint the original area of the Oromo and to place this area closer to the Sagan or Dulei than to the other rivers. He tells us that some Oromo groups ‘came out of their country by way of Kuera’ and that they then attacked Gamo and Waj. Since Kuera, known today as Koyra, is located just east of Lake Shamo and south of Gamo, this argues that their origins, according to Bahrey, were south of Lake Shamo and Koyra and in the Sagan-Dulei region. This region fits all of Bahrey’s statements. It is also the exact area which linguistic data point to as the probable Oromo homeland. Bahrey indicates that there were two major Oromo divisions and that each took a different route. The Baraytuma (Barentu, Bareituma, etc.) went west to Bali and then, by the 1580s or 1590s, into Dawaro, Adal, Fatajar, Gafi, Angote–all on the eastern side of the Ethiopian empire and largely Muslim-and even as far north and west as Amhara, Begemder, and Dembea. The Borana went through Koyra, Gamo, Waj, and Damot. Within fifty years the Oromo were waging war against organized states and conquering land as far as 500 miles away from their original homeland. These movements are well documented in the chronicles of the Ethiopian kings, the accounts of the Portuguese Jesuits, and the traditions of the Muslim state of Adal as well as by Bahrey.

These movements have generally been regarded as only the last in a series of similar movements which began much earlier. The crucial question is, however, when the Oromo and Somali first arrived in those regions. We have seen that the Somali were evidently there from the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, but there is no documentation of the presence of the Oromo in southern Somalia before the seventeenth century.  The archaeology of Gedi and the oral traditions of the coastal Bantu argue that the Oromo were attacking and moving into the coastal areas as far south as Malindi at just about the beginning of the seventeenth century. The sudden appearance of indications of the Oromo in southern Somalia and north-eastern Kenya at the very time that other Oromo were moving towards vast areas to the north.

The Oromo began to move north into Ethiopia after fighting between the Sultanate of Adal and the Christian Solomonic kingdom, in the 16th century, weakened both groups and gave the Oromo an opening to relocate. The Oromo chose different religious identities to define themselves and to gain power in their new homes. The Oromo identify as a single ethnic group but are also subdivided into smaller groups related to their families of origin. The Oromo practice Islam, Christianity, and traditional Oromo religion. Even though they have adopted diverse religious beliefs systems, these systems all bear distinct Oromo cultural elements. The Oromo exercised power over their own identities, defined their own cultural and religious character, and have maintained their ethnic distinctiveness. The agency that has been exercised is evident in the different paths that ethnically similar groups have taken depending on specific needs.

Bahrey’s testimony that the Oromo moved from west to east and his failure even to mention the Somali or any people pressing upon the Oromo renders most unlikely the hypothesis that the Somali were pushing the Oromo from the east. In the I500’s and I6oo’s the Oromo were an expanding people, moving north, north-east, east, and south-east, and it was undoubtedly at this period that contact between the easternmost Oromo and the westernmost Somali began. The contacts have continued over the centuries across a wide front, from Ifat and Adal in the north, through the Ogaden in the center, and as far as the Juba and Tana rivers in the south. There is no written evidence for any earlier conflicts between these peoples.

The confrontations between Galawdewos and the Oromo in the 16th century continued for two centuries. According to Pankhurst, this Oromo migration north resulted in the separation of the Christian Ethiopian Empire from the Muslim emirate of Adal, which had been its former rival. It also caused a major decrease in the revenues and territory of the Christian Ethiopian Empire. In the latter half of the 16th century, the Oromo controlled most of south-eastern Ethiopia. Bahrey points out one aspect of Oromo culture that aided their military success that of riding horses, as his history recounts this Luba [age-set] Mesle, in the 16th century, began the custom of riding horse and mules, which the Oromo had not done previously. This use of horses made the already formidable Oromo warriors even more successful. Another aspect of their method of military engagement is related by Manoel d’Almeida, who wrote of his visit to Ethiopia in the 1620s. He points out one method used by the Oromo to deal with their enemies.

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“The fact that they do not sow is of great use to them in that the Abyssinians cannot penetrate far into their country; when the Oromo know that they are invading with a strong army, they retire with their cattle many days’ journey into the interior. The Abyssinians therefore never seize, or can seize supplies, and are thus compelled to withdraw to their own territories, often with heavy losses of men from sheer hunger.”

By denying their enemies sustenance, they forced them to retreat from Oromo territory.

From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century the Oromo were dominant on their own territories; no people of other cultures were in a position to exercise compulsion over them. There is adequate evidence that indicates the Oromo people dominated the areas from Abyssinia, the Amhara-Tigray homeland, to Mombasa and from Somalia to Sudan (albeit there were no well-demarcated boundaries) before they were partitioned and colonized during the Scramble for Africa. The classical Oromo civilization is necessary to demonstrate the connections among Oromo peoplehood, culture, worldview, philosophy, religion, and politics. 

By the 17th century, a change began to take place in the interaction between the Solomonic empire and the Oromo. Gondar became the capital of the Solomonic dynasty in 1636. Gondar was a wealthy capital with a cosmopolitan population. This period lasted until the death of Iyasu II in 1755 and was characterized by stability and prosperity. During the reign of Emperor Iyasu I (1682-1706), the import of firearms increased and, as a result, the Ethiopians were better equipped to mount an assault on the Oromo. As Iyasu’s chronicler pointed out “When the Gallas come against you do not allow them to fight in small battles, but fire rifles so that we can hear your shots and we will at once come to help you; this noise of rifles will be a signal between you and me. Be on Guard!”

In the formation and development of individual or collective identity, the social condition is an objective agent, arising from economic, political, social and cultural aspects which are characteristic of the growth and history of the society in question. If one argues that the economic aspect is fundamental, one can assert that identity is in a certain sense the expression of an economic reality. This reality, whatever the geographical context and the path of development of the society, is defined by the level of productive forces (the relationship between man and nature) and by the means of production (the relations between men [and women] and between classes) within this society. But if one accepts that culture is a dynamic synthesis of the material and spiritual condition of the society and expresses relationship both between man and nature and between different classes within a society, one can assert that identity is at the individual and collective level and beyond the economic condition, the expression of culture.

As the power of the Ethiopian state grew, some Oromo allied themselves with the Ethiopians. It was during this time that the Oromo became more integrated into the Christian Ethiopian state and the Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace. By the reign of Iyasu II (1730-1755), the Oromo played a significant part in the Ethiopian administration. According to Pankhurst, Iyasu II was succeeded by his half Oromo son in 1755. The influence was so strong that Bruce recorded “nothing was heard at the palace but Galla.” In the 19th century, changes would occur and hostilities would once again be renewed.

The Oromo have a significant presence in the written history of the area that includes the modern state of Ethiopia, even though most of the scholarship focuses on the Amharic kingdom. The Oromo at one time ruled much of Abyssinia under Ras Guksa (c.1790-1825). The dynasty of the Yadjow Oromo lasted for over sixty years and ended with the death of Ras Ali ( 1831-1854) in 1866.  In numerous primary documents of the 16th to 19th centuries, written by European travelers, government officials, Portuguese monks, and Muslim traders among others, given considerable attention and it is because of their relationship with the Abyssinian state that the history of Abyssinia is important to any discussion of Oromo identity. The solidarity of Oromo identity was influenced by their combined resistance to Amhara control. The European travelers and military personnel this period provide the bulk of documentary evidence concerning Oromo identity. In order to provide historical context for the Oromo, the history of the area which is now Ethiopia will be addressed.

Historians have traditionally identified the homeland of the Oromo as the Horn of Africa. Christopher Ehret places their homeland in the Ethiopian highlands, while Herbert S. Lewis situates it in southern and eastern Ethiopia. Asafa Jalata points out that caution must be used in attempting to situate a homeland for the Oromo because of the colonial influences of both the Amharic state and Europeans. The importance of the discussion of the location of an Oromo homeland is based on scholarship that supported the identity of the Oromo as interlopers— invaders into Amhara territory. The location of the linguistic homeland of the Oromo in the Ethiopian highlands establishes them as inhabitants of this area for at least as long as the Ethiopian Kingdom.

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