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Notes on Cinnamon Country and the “Peace of Jamjam”: Towards a Reconstruction of Ancient Oromo History September 9, 2015

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Notes on Cinnamon Country and the “Peace of Jamjam”: Towards a Reconstruction of Ancient Oromo History

Daniel Ayana PhD & Professor

This article is a summary of my presentation at a recent OSA conference. It is posted here in response to requests from the audience. The topic attempts to answer two interrelated questions: what do ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabic sources say about the Oromo? When did a written source first report a functioning Gadaa System? Keywords: Bia-Punt, Harusi, Jamjam, cinnamon, Cinnamon Country, Ilmawaaq, social construction, harusi ada, mna daho A variety of sources indicated the Oromo played a significant role in the ancient world, dating back to Egyptian New Kingdom times (1570-1069 B.C.E.) and here we refer to them as Proto-Oromo. Greek and Latin sources emerged following Alexander the Great’s conquest from the Mediterranean Sea to India (336-323 B.C.E). The nineteenth century classist Sir Harry Johnston has posited that first Egyptian Pharaohs, then the Persians and finally the Greeks ruling Egypt relied on the ancestors of the Oromo for information on the sources of the Nile River. The desire to learn the source of the Nile was not a mere curiosity. The Greeks in particular were interested in gathering commercial and geographic intelligence about African coasts of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden for two reasons. The first was the search for the origins of spices: frankincense, myrrh and cinnamon. These spices were expensive as gold because they were in high demand for uses in religious rituals and to fumigate the homes in the crowded ancient cities. While frankincense and myrrh were obtained from ancient South Arabia (today’s Yemen) and northern Somali maritime zone, the source of cinnamon, burguda, was a mystery. This is because the South Arabian intermediaries concealed the sources of cinnamon to maintain a monopoly on its commerce. Alexander’s successors in Egypt were naturally interested in finding direct access to the source of cinnamon. The second was to capture live elephants to use in warfare, just as the Indians did against Alexander and the Greek army. Thus, the Greeks ruling over Egypt established trapped-elephant collecting stations along the African Red Sea littoral, today’s northern Somali coast, as far as Cape Guardafui. The geographic and commercial intelligence gathered in these projects provided new information that shed light on the regional environment, resources, cultural and political situations. This information were subsequently compiled into books. Many of these books were lost but some have survived. In the surviving sources today’s Oromo land is referred to as the Cinnamon Country.