Interview with Bar Kribus about his research for the Beta Israel project
Bar Kribus has been a fellow researcher of CERES for the Beta Israel project until 1st of October 2022 . Right before he left to continue his research at Tel Aviv University, we asked him a few questions about his last years at CERES and his journeys to find out more about Beta Israel life.
Welcome, Bar! Can you tell us how long you have been at CERES and tell us some facts about yourself?
My name is Bar Kribus, I am an archaeologist by training. I specialise in Late Antique and medieval Ethiopian archaeology, and especially in the history and material culture of the Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews.
I have been in CERES for four years now. Two of them in the JewsEast project and two of them as a post-doc of the Minerva Stiftung.
What in general are your research topics about?
In the last few years, I've been doing research on two specific topics. The first is the material culture and way of life of the Beta Israel Mäloksewočč. Now, in the past, in scholarly and popular literature, the Mäloksewočč have been referred to as monks. But since the Beta Israel community doesn't like this terminology, at the request of the community, I'm using the terminology used by the community. My research was aimed at understanding the way of life of the Mäloksewočč and looking into their material culture. And as part of that, we conducted an archaeological survey aimed at finding and examining the places where the Beta Israel Mäloksewočč lived.
My second topic, the one which I've been doing research on the last two years, is Beta Israel political autonomy in the Semien Mountains. Now, most Jewish groups in the Middle Ages and in Early Modern times lived as a minority under either Christian or Muslim rule. But the Beta Israel had their own political autonomy, and between the 15th and the 17th century, they waged a series of wars against Christian Solomonic Ethiopia.
My research was focused at understanding the geographical-historical aspects of these wars and of Beta Israel political autonomy, to try to map it out, and to examine the sites associated with it. Part of the research was supposed to have been an archaeological survey in the Semien Mountains aimed at locating and examining Beta Israel strongholds in this region. But because first of COVID and later on of civil war in Ethiopia, we couldn't go to the field just yet.
What is the main conflict between Jews and Christians in the East?
The East is a very broad area. In the JewsEast project which I was a part of, different scholars addressed different regions within it. And there are very different contexts of Jewish-Christian interaction, conflict being only one of them. I can talk about Ethiopia specifically.
As I said earlier, when we think about Jewish Christian interaction in the Diaspora, we're used to thinking of Jews as a politically subjugated group living under either Christian or Islamic rule, in some cases also under Polytheistic rule, and subject to various restrictions that have to do with life under Christian and Islamic rule. But in the Semien Mountains, there was a unique case of Jewish-Christian interaction in which the Beta Israel had their own political leadership. They were nominally subject for most of the time to the Christian Solomonic kingdom, but they were also at war periodically with this Kingdom. And sources indicate that there were also other populations living in the Beta Israel politically autonomous region. There were Christians under Beta Israel rule or Christians living near the Beta Israel government area, which leads to a whole different dynamic of Jewish-Christian interaction than the one that we're used to.
Why did you focus on the area in the Semien Mountains?
What fascinates me about Beta Israel material culture in the Semien Mountains is the fact that the Beta Israel were politically autonomous there, hence, they had their own strongholds and sites which were the seat of their political authorities. The wars between the Beta Israel and the Christian, Solomonic kingdom are described in detail in different written sources, most importantly in Ethiopian royal chronicles. And using the information in the sources and what we know about the Semien Mountains, it was possible to pinpoint some of these sites and shed light on their characteristics.
How did you proceed in your research?
My research these last two years involved reading through these sources, focusing on the geographical information and then trying to pinpoint the locations and understand the nature of the sites. Through that, we were able to identify for the first time the precise location of Beta Israel strongholds in the Semien Mountains and of other sites related to Beta Israel political autonomy and the Beta Israel-Solomonic wars.
One fascinating aspect of the research which I conducted together with Sophia Dege-Müller, had to do with holy sites, some of them Beta Israel holy sites, others Christian holy sites dedicated to the same holy man, a man by the name of Yared. Through understanding the nature of these holy sites and where they were located, we could better understand some aspects of Beta Israel and Ethiopian Orthodox dynamics in the Semien Mountains.
Can you tell us about your journey in 2017?
So first, 2017 was one out of three field seasons that we had, but it was the one that was the most exciting. As part of the research on the Beta Israel Mäloksewočč, we conducted an archaeological survey aimed at locating, finding, and exploring the places where the Beta Israel Mäloksewočč lived for the first time. Now, this was not an easy thing to do, first and foremost because in the second half of the 20th century, the entire beta Israel community immigrated to Israel. The Beta Israel are no longer present in Ethiopia as a community. And the places where the Mäloksewočč lived had never been pinpointed on a wide scale with accuracy before. Therefore, it was a big challenge finding these places.
The way we would do it is we would start with the information that we could find in the written sources and interview people who either remember these places before they were abandoned, or have heard about these places from other people, say, from their parents or other more elderly acquaintances. We would then go to Ethiopia and seek out elderly people who remember these places from before they were abandoned and ask them to lead us to them and point out their features. Now, in 2017, we conducted our first proper archaeological survey season, and we managed to reach several very important sites having to do with the Beta Israel Mäloksewočč. The most important one was Semien Minata, the last centre of the Beta Israel Mäloksewočč and the most important religious site of the Beta Israel in recent generations.
In one picture and in the film “JewsEast” you were riding donkeys. What’s it all about?
The picture of us riding donkeys has to do with our journey to Semien Minata, which is located deep in the Semien Mountains, the highest mountains in the Horn of Africa. We made a lot of very exciting discoveries there. And the picture shows us riding the donkeys on the way back, which was also a very challenging walk.
To get there, we first drove for a day and a half in a jeep into the Semien Mountains. We camped out there and then we had to walk for several hours. And because we were a research team, we had a lot of equipment. We also had to have people carry some of the equipment and donkeys. We were told that it would only be a four hour walk, but by that time, based on our experience in this survey, we understood that it would be a very long time. And this is indeed what happened. Our departure was delayed. We started walking.
It was, of course, much more than 4 hours, and at some point, the sun was already setting, and we still had a mountain to climb. Before reaching the valley, we reached the top of the mountain and it was completely dark, but our guide insisted that we make our way to the village rather than spend the night on the mountaintop. And we barely made it down there alive. But in the end, we did manage to make it down there and we had, of course, our team with us, the donkeys with us as well, and it was well worth the journey. It's an amazing site.
What do you think is so important to be discovered in the Semien Mountains and in Beta Israel culture?
What amazes me about research on the Beta Israel is that there is so much about their history, religious life and material culture that is still undocumented and undiscovered and there is so much work still to be done. Their material culture in Ethiopia is almost completely unstudied. And our archaeological survey is the first archaeological survey in the Semien Mountains in general, also in their vicinity in general.
Most of the research done on the Beta Israel community and its dynamics with Christian Solomonic Ethiopia has focused on the Gondar area. Gondar is the main town in the region. But some of the rural areas that are further away from Gondar, had unique characteristics which had a direct impact on interreligious interaction, and they have been much less of a centre of attention up until now.
What are you planning to do next?
The research which I've been privileged to do as part of the JewsEast ERC project, and in the post doc, only scratched the surface of what can be done on these topics. There were many places that we wanted to reach, and we couldn't because of the security situation in Ethiopia. There are still many super-important sites left to be discovered in other regions. I feel that the research which I've managed to do so far in the post-doc is largely preparatory, because I've examined the sources, I've pinpointed the sites. But the most exciting part of the research – uncovering their remains in the field, has yet to be done.
So, in the next few years, I'm going to be at Tel Aviv University, and I'm going to be doing research on two additional topics. One is comparative research on prayer house architecture in the northern Ethiopian highlands. Northern Ethiopia was home to several religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Kemant, followers of other religious traditions. I'm going to compare the different prayer houses and try to understand the interplay of elements between these different religious groups in association with prayer house architecture. That's one thing that I really want to do.
And I want to place a focus on Beta Israel synagogues and on Kemant religious sites, because specifically, these two religious traditions have not been studied or documented as much as they should be.
The second thing that I'm going to be doing is a historical study on the relations between the Beta Israel and the Christian Solomonic authorities and society in the last 200 years. And I'm going to focus on regions which have not yet been subject to intense study.
Thank you very much for the interview and all the best for your upcoming plans. See you in Bochum!