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ERC HornEast – Horn & Crescent. Connections, Mobility and Exchange between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East in the Middle Ages

The ERC HornEast project aims to document the relationships between Christian societies of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Nubia) and their Islamic environment, at local and regional scales (Egypt, Palestine, Arabic Peninsula), in order to better understand the Islamisation process happening in the region during the Middle Age millennium (7th – 15th centuries).

Illustration : Arabic funerary stela found during excavations of the Muslim cemetery of Bilet (Eastern Tigray) in December 2018.

The ERC COG project HornEast (Grant Agreement no 726206) offers the first comprehensive study of medieval connections between Christian societies of Nubia and Ethiopia on the one hand, and their Islamic environment on the other, in both local and regional contexts, ie. within the Horn of Africa as well as in the Middle East. It pursues the hypothesis that mobility and exchange along trade and pilgrimage routes, on both sides of and across the Red Sea, were not only vectors for the spread of Islam but also factors of African Christianities’ resiliency and reconfiguration in the Middle Ages.

Apart from their relationships with other Eastern Christian churches in Egypt and Palestine, Ethiopian and Nubian Christianities have long been considered as isolated islands, cut off from the world by the Arab conquests of the Seventh century and later on by Islam’s expansion in the Horn of Africa. In this perspective, Islam was regarded as a foreign import in the area, playing a marginal role in the history of local societies. By reassessing the connections of Ethiopian and Nubian Christianities with their medieval environment, mainly governed by Islamic powers, this project provides the opportunity to reconsider the place and role of Islam in the Horn of Africa which remain poorly known. Islamic communities and polities might have locally emerged in medieval Nubia and Ethiopia in symbiosis with Christian societies. Along with their conflictive relations, the former would therefore have acted as brokers between the later and the rest of the world.

HORNEAST has the following objectives :

1. Providing a comprehensive survey of connections between Christian societies of Nubia and Ethiopia and their Islamic environment (places, individuals, contexts) supported by a database.

2. Analyzing human mobility in the whole area within different configurations : Christian and Muslim pilgrimages in the Middle East, long-distance trade from and towards the Horn of Africa, more specifically slave trade and slavery of Nubian and Ethiopian individuals, attractiveness of major cities such as Cairo.

3. Exploring cultural transfer and dissemination in the whole area within Christen- and Islamdom, as well as between them, through the circulation of artefacts, books and letters, models and narratives.

4. Evidencing local connections and Christian-Muslim relations in Eastern Tigray (Ethiopia), a central area of the medieval Christian kingdom related to the Islamic narrative of the « First Hijra », where Muslim communities are documented between the Tenth and the Thirteenth centuries, through archaeological survey, excavations and a geographic information system.

5. Expanding the corpus of Arabic inscriptions from medieval Ethiopia, Nubia and Sudanese Eastern desert through the survey of museum collections and archaeological fieldworks, providing a geographic information system of this corpus along with a scientific edition of the artefacts previously unknown.

This project is groundbreaking in rallying around its PI archaeologists and historians working on the area’s various realms in their several written languages (Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, Old Nubian, Coptic, Ge’ez, Latin, Roman languages), in both Christian and Islamic contexts, from the Arab conquests until the eve of the Ottoman era. It ultimately aims to reconnect the Horn of Africa to the global history of the area by connecting disjoint fields of research.

For more information, visit the blog of the ERC

ERC members :

- Julien Loiseau, Principal investigator of the ERC project HornEast, Professor in Islamic History (IREMAM, Aix-Marseille University)
- Martina Ambu, PhD candidate in Ethiopian History (Paris 1-Sorbonne University)
- Deresse Ayenachew, Associate professor in History (Debre Berhan University), Associated researcher at the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE, Addis Abeba), HornEast Research fellow in Ethiopian History (IREMAM, Aix-Marseille University)
- Sobhi Bouderbala, Associate professor in Islamic History (University of Tunis)
- David Bramoullé, Associate professor in Islamic History (Toulouse Jean-Jaurès University)
- Giuseppe Cecere, Associate professor in Arabic language and literature (University of Bologna)
- Amélie Chekroun, Research fellow in Ethiopian History (CNRS, IREMAM, Aix-Marseille University)
- Marie-Laure Derat, Research professor in Ethiopian History (CNRS, Orient & Méditerranée, Paris 1-Sorbonne University)
- Simon Dorso, PhD candidate in Medieval Archaeology (Lyon-2 University)
- François-Xavier Fauvelle, Research professor in African Archaeology and History (CNRS, TRACES, Toulouse Jean-Jaurès University)
- Yves Gleize, Research engineer in Archaeology and Anthropology (INRAP, CNRS, PACEA, Bordeaux University)
- Bertrand Hirsch, Professor in Medieval History of Africa (Paris 1-Sorbonne University)
- Damien Labadie, HornEast Research fellow in Philology of Oriental languages and literatures (IREMAM, Aix-Marseille University)
- Lamia Mellal, junior project coordinator, Graduated in Modern History of the Arab World (IREMAM, Aix-Marseille University)
- David Ollivier, Research engineer in Archaeology and Topography, CNRS (LA3M, Aix-Marseille University)
- Shahista Refaat, PhD candidate in Islamic History (IREMAM, Aix-Marseille University)
- Robin Seignobos, Post-doctoral fellow in Islamic History and Nubian Studies (French Institute for Oriental Archaeology, Cairo)