Category Archives: Historical Notes

Historical notes

Exhibit of Ethiopian icons

iconJohn Barnes (Addis 66–68) wrote:

I would like to publicize an upcoming exhibit titled,

“The Vibrant Art and Storied History of Ethiopian Icons”

at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass.
The exhibit runs from January 23 through April 18, 2015.
The hours are 11 am- 3 pm on Tuesday – Friday, and 9 am – 3 pm on Saturday.


Historical Notes

Picture Puzzle

The death of Sargent Shriver in January jogged loose memories — and old pictures. And we all know old pictures can be puzzling

Name the PCVs, left to right, at the mystery location.

THE DAUGHTER OF Joe Kaufmann, Peace Corps/Washington’s first Director of Training, has been in touch with Ted Vestal (Staff 64–66) recently about some Peace Corps celebrations she’s been involved with. She sent Ted a photo that was taken in Addis Ababa in October 1962. That’s her father in the center. Sarge is unmistakable on the right. But is that young Harris Wofford second from left? She asked Ted if he could identify the PCVs in the picture. He can’t, nor could he figure out where it was taken. Does anyone recognize the young men or the locale? The picture must have been taken was during the Shriver visit that included his famous dinner with Haile Selassie when he petted the Emperor’s pet lion, Tojo. If anyone can help, we’ll forward the info to Kaufmann’s daughter, Marcia Krasnow, who lives in the Boston area.

Historical Notes

The Land of Punt update

New research confirms that the ancient Land of Punt was located in Ethiopia. But the HERALD told you that two months ago. Still the new details are fascinating


In March the HERALD ran an article by old Peace Corps friend Jon Kalb suggesting that the Land of Punt, mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts, may well have been Ethiopia. Now an article in the British newspaper The Independent, says that new research on — of all things — baboon mummies long stored in the British Museum also shows that Punt may have been Ethiopia. Several ancient Egyptian texts record trade voyages to the Land of Punt, dating up until the end of the New Kingdom, 3,000 years ago. But scholars did not know where Punt was. Ancient texts offer only vague allusions to its location and no ‘Puntite’ civilization has been discovered. Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and even Mozambique have all been offered as possible locations.

However, new research claims to prove that it was located in Eritrea/East Ethiopia. Live baboons were among the goods that the Egyptians got from Punt, and a research team have been studying baboon mummies in the British Museum, and by analyzing hairs from these baboons using oxygen isotope analysis, they were able to work out where they originated. Working on a baboon discovered in the Valley of the Kings, the researchers compared the oxygen isotope values in the ancient baboons to those found in their modern day brethren. The isotope values in baboons in Somalia, Yemen and Mozambique did not match, but those in Eritrea and Eastern Ethiopia were closely matched. The team concluded that “Punt is a sort of circumscribed region that includes eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.”

The team also thinks that they may have discovered the location of the harbor that the Egyptians used to export the baboons and other goods back to Egypt. One member of the team, Professor Nathaniel Dominy of The University of California, Santa Cruz,  points to an area just outside the modern city of Massawa: “We have a specimen from that same harbor and that specimen is a very good match to the mummy.”  So Jon Kalb seems to be on the right track.  And you read it first in the HERALD.

Historical Notes

Politics, Ethiopia and Eritrea Style

As an election approaches in Ethiopia and Eritrea faces international sanctions, a RPCV and former diplomat offers a bit of background and some careful reflections on what makes these two countries tick

by Dane Smith (Asmara 63–65)

(Editor’s note: Dane Smith joined the Foreign Service in 1967 specializing in African affairs. Dane has served as ambassador to Guinea and later to Senegal. In September 2009 Dane spoke to a reunion of his fellow Ethiopia II Volunteers in Denver. What follows is an edited version of that talk.)

I am not an expert on Ethiopia and Eritrea, but I do try to follow developments there. These are my impressions about the political situation in both countries.

ON A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

First let me deal with Ethiopia
In defeating the Derg in 1991 Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Tigre Peoples’ Liberation Front engineered an important change in direction in Ethiopia. Since his leadership was rooted in the Tigre minority — a mere seven per cent of Ethiopia’s population — he had to find a way to exercise political leadership in a highly diverse country. He created a broad movement uniting different ethnic leaders with his Tigre Liberation Front and called it the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is now the ruling party of Ethiopia. He announced the creation of a multi-party system and put in place a state formally comprised of units defined by ethnicity. Today the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has nine semi-autonomous administrative regions, including such regions as Afar, Amhara, Harar, Somali, Tigray and the Southern Nations, and the two special federally administered cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. This arrangement is a special band of federalism in which small jurisdictions like Tigray have as much weight as populous ones like Amhara and Oromiya. That arrangement is not a coincidence.

The experiment came to a climactic test in the 2005 elections, the first relatively free and fair polling in the country’s two thousand year history. To its great surprise, the coalition of Opposition parties won 172 seats in parliament, nearly one third of the total, and scored a crushing victory on the Addis City Council winning 137 out of 138 seats. Instead of accepting that strong minority role and building on it, the Opposition Coalition claimed fraud in election and insisted that they had won an outright victory. They began boisterous demonstrations. Meles’ government, instead of relying on the courts to sort it out, came down hard. Police and troops killed at least 300 demonstrators. Opposition leaders were arrested and charged with treason. Many were given life sentences in noisy show trails. After a time in jail, they were released with “pardons” after they signed paper admitted their crimes. The pardons were mediated by a self-appointed Council of Elders, led by our friend Ephraim Isaac.

Since the election, there has been increased autocracy and repression. Some key developments:

  • Birtukan Mideksa, an Opposition party leader – and considered by some the leading opposition politician – was among those arrested in 2005. She was pardoned but rearrested 2008 supposedly for violating the terms of her pardon. Her supporters, aided by the international community, continue to press for her release, but her party has weak outside leadership and is facing internal revolt.
  • In 2008 Bekele Jirate a leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, a party which has struggled to work within the political system, was arrested and charged with conspiring with the separatist Oromo Liberation Front.
  • In May 2009 Addis announced that former and current army personnel had formed a “terror network” aiming at selected assassinations and overthrow of the government. More than 40 people were arrested. The government claimed that they were led by Berhanu Nega, an Ethiopian-American professor living in Pennsylvania and one of the Opposition politicians who was arrested in 2005 and released in 2007.
  • A recent law designates any NGO receiving more than 10 percent of its funding from abroad as “foreign.” This means these NGOs are ineligible to work on issues relating to ethnicity, gender, and conflict resolution. An anti-terrorist law proposed this year could define criticism of the government as a “terrorist act” and become a tool of further repression.
  • Some parts of the country are afflicted with endemic violence. The worst is in the Ogaden, which is largely ethnic Somali, where a rebellion led by the Ogaden Liberation Front continues. In 2007 more than 70 workers at a Chinese petroleum drilling site were killed. The Ethiopian army has been accused of atrocities. Human Rights Watch in 2008 charged that the Ethiopians were following the same course as the Sudanese in Darfur.

Behind a façade of multi-party democracy there is Leninist democratic centralism. At the center of Meles’ ruling party is the central committee. It and the Prime Minister and his advisors run the show. And, in fact, the concept of ethnic nationalism or self-determination goes back to Lenin and Stalin, who set up the units of the USSR to reflect such divisions, but gave them no power to act on that self-determination. In Ethiopia, according to the International Crisis Group the government’s “ethnic federalism has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups that vie over land and natural resources, as well as administrative boundaries and government budgets.” It has promoted ethnic self-awareness among all groups. But thus far the parties which have carried the banner of ethnic self-determination are weak and have little life outside Addis.

A few words about Ethiopia’s relations with the US. Ethiopia is an important strategic partner of the United States in the war on terrorism. This partnership, which has deep roots in U.S. foreign policy since World War II, is today built on the need for a strong military ally in the Horn of Africa, where chaos in Somalia provides a potential continuing platform for al-Qa’ida. What Ethiopia, in fact, contributes to dealing with that issue is, of course, problematic. Although the U.S. carries on a dialogue with Meles about his democratic deficiencies, there is little evidence he takes American chiding seriously. Hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance continue to pour into the country.

Now let me deal briefly with Eritrea
The Eritrean Government has been obsessed with the failure of Ethiopia to implement the 2002 finding of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission that Badme, the desolate scrap of land which was a cause of the war, fell under Eritrean sovereignty. The Commission was constituted by the Algiers Agreement ending the war; both sides had agreed to be bound by its decision. When the international community did not act to enforce the decision, the Eritrean Government, in effect, declared war on the U.N. and the West. It forced the U.N. peacekeepers to withdraw in 2008. It began supporting the radical Islamist faction in Somalia with arms shipments. It made border incursions into Djibouti, where French and U.S. forces are based. The U.N. and the European Union have both imposed sanctions of Eritrea.

RUNNING THE SHOW: President Isaias Afwerki

The war with Ethiopia had a deforming effect on the Eritrean political system. When in 2001 senior members of the government sent a letter to President Isaias Afeworki, criticizing his approach to the war, he arrested all those in the country. They have never been seen since. The group includes my most outstanding student, Mahmud Sharifo, previously Minister of Territorial Administration. No one knows whether he’s alive or dead.

Eritrea makes Ethiopia look like a liberal democracy. There is no constitution, no freedom of speech, press or assembly. The courts don’t operate with any independence. Freedom of religion has been sharply abridged. International NGOs are not permitted to work in Eritrea. It maintains a huge standing army.

During the liberation war the Eritrean insurgents depended on voluntary contributions from the diaspora. After independence they were able to develop a financing system based on a “voluntary” tax of 2% of income from Eritreans living abroad. Despite increasing dissatisfaction with Isaias, the government is still able to rely on these contributions. All payments to families go through the government. Remittances actually increased in the past decade.

Over half of Eritrea’s people are dependent on food aid. Per capita income is $130, or $.36/day. Eritrea appears on the list of countries with the highest rate of child mortality under five years.

In August there was a report of an assassination attempt against Isaias by a member of the Eritrean military who was shot dead. External opposition elements exulted, but there has been no further reporting on this episode. The Obama Administration is trying to decide whether to place Eritrea on the list of countries facilitating terror.

Historical Notes

Awsa and the Puzzle of Punt 

We all knew that Ethiopia was the mythical land of the Queen of Sheba and Prestor John, but did you know that it may also be what the ancient Egyptians called the land of Punt? A respected paleontologist — and long time friend of Peace Corps — explains

By Jon Kalb

John Kalb in Ethiopia – 1973

One of the greatest mysteries of African archeology is the location of the fabled land of Punt, an important trading partner with ancient Egypt from at least 4888 to 3167 years ago. Much attention has focused on countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but with little conclusive evidence. I propose that Punt was in Ethiopia, centered in the area of Awsa — as it is known geographically — in the lower Awash Valley. This hypothesis draws from pictorial and hieroglyphic records of a trading expedition sent to Punt 3495 years ago by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt. The expedition was equipped with five ships with sail and 210 men, including 30 rowers.

The major objective of the mission was procurement of myrrh incense, considered vital to Egyptian religious ritual. In previous years myrrh was obtained from Punt through intermediaries, an added expense the Egyptians were determined to avoid. As a result, the expedition was instructed to take the most efficient route to Punt and trade directly with the myrrh sellers. In previous years the Egyptians traveled to Punt many times along a well-established route. The most expedient way would be sailing to the southern end of the Red Sea, then to the western end of the Gulf of Tadjura, then walking overland through a series of east-west basins to Lake Abhé, the southern boundary of Awsa. The route was direct and the Gulf offered a protected and secluded harbor for the Egyptian ships. Most importantly, the journey led to established myrrh growers.

The expedition records reveal that the Puntites, like their Afar counterparts, raised cattle and lived among a diverse African wildlife. In the mission records Punt is depicted as forested with “inaccessible” channels and dome-shaped huts with stilts. The combination of flooded stream courses and stilts indicate a period of high water levels, although at the time of the Hatshepsut mission waters levels were falling. The more solidly built Punt houses reflect a more permanent livelihood, perhaps greater attention to trade, in addition to livestock, whereas traditionally the Afar are more mobile and exclusively pastoralists. Climatic conditions today in Awsa are characterized by “accessible” channels, shallow lake-levels, reduced forests, emerged marshes, and dome-shaped huts without stilts.

Awsa lies just above the Horn of Africa and due west of Djibouti, crossed by ancient trading routes. It is drained by the lower Awash River in the area between Tendaho and Lake Abhé. Some 6000 square kilometers of sedimentary lowlands are surrounded by desert, towering volcanic cliffs, basalt plateaus, and volcanoes. Awsa is unique for its location at the triple junction of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and East African rifts. It is also known for its water level fluctuations, cluster of lakes (the “Awsa Lake District”) fed by the Awash, and its fertile wetlands. Early Arab writers note that the Afar nomads occupied northeastern Ethiopia by at least the 13th century, no doubt drawing on the traditions from earlier settlers. Crude earthworks and primitive irrigation methods suggest Awsa was cultivated to some degree by at least the 16th century.

The largest town in Awsa is Aysaita situated on the banks of the Awash River in the middle of the Depression. Given its strategic location, Awsa has long served (and levied) traders and others passing to and from the African hinterlands, the coast, and the neighboring highlands. Archeological excavations may one day reveal Aysaita was built on top of earlier (Puntite?) settlements.

The importance of myrrh to the Hapshepsut mission is referred to repeatedly in the expedition records, particularly the acquisition of 31 “fresh myrrh trees.” In return for the myrrh and other goods the Puntites received items such as  daggers, hatchets, and jewelry. The Egyptians succeeded in trading with Punt without intermediaries; however, it is unlikely they reached the area where myrrh is grown and obtained seedlings directly from the sellers, as claimed by Queen Hapshepsut. Also, it would not be surprising if the Puntites showed some reluctance to hand over to their trading partner such a commercial item as myrrh seedlings, since it’s apparent the Egyptians would use them to grow their own myrrh. Ultimately, this could undermine Punt’s lucrative trade in that product. On the other hand, by trading seedlings perhaps the Puntites were gambling that the Egyptian agriculture experiment would fail, which apparently it did, since future expeditions to Punt continued to purchase large quantities of myrrh. Overall, it is apparent the Puntites themselves invested little in this commodity; rather, acting as middlemen they obtained the plants from the growers, which presumably they sold to the Egyptians at a profit. A nearby source of myrrh would be the neighboring Somali lands known since antiquity for its high-quality myrrh.

At this stage we can say that Awsa fits a number of criteria — historical, geographical, and geological— favoring the Punt/Awsa hypothesis. In the mission record, the Egyptians treat Punt (Awsa) as the source of the myrrh; instead, it is apparent that Punt served as the intermediary between the Egyptians and the myrrh sellers. Although the Egyptian plan to trade directly with the myrrh sellers was unsuccessful, and the attempt to use seedlings to grow their own myrrh on a large scale in Egypt failed, the Hatshepsut mission succeeded in renewing its ties with Punt and returning to Egypt with ample stores of myrrh and other products from the African interior.

Until archeological evidence or some other unequivocal documentation places the land of Punt in the land of Awsa, a case for Punt’s location in the central Afar Depression remains speculative. Nevertheless, the above scenario linking the Gulf of Tadjura with the Africa mainland serves as an analog to other trading missions, such as those from southern Arabia that likely developed ties with Awsa. It would certainly be worth surveying select areas in Awsa for such evidence of commercial interchange. In 1971 on the margin of Lake Abhé I found a site littered with the cumulative debris of past visitors: cowrie shells, pottery shards, obsidian microliths, vertebrate fossil fragments, and donut-shaped stones used on digging sticks on nearby stone agricultural field grids, all situated to document traffic coming and going from the Gulf of Tadjura.

• This article was adapted from an article by Jon Kalb published in Nyame Akuma , a publication of the Society of African Archeologists, Number 71,  June 2009.  The author was a resident of Ethiopia from 1971-1978, where he was director of the Rift Valley Research Mission, and a friend of many PCVs who served in the area.  He is author of Adventures in the Bone Trade: The Race to Discover Human Ancestors in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression and is a Research Fellow with the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory of the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at

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