In the Shadow of the King:
the Hunter-gatherer, the Livestock Breeder,
the Metallurgist, the Artist, …
Toward the first third of the 4th century AD, in the far north of what is now Ethiopia, King Ezana of Aksum ordered a stone engraved giving thanks to his gods. The stone bore a long bilingual inscription in Greek and Ge’ez in which the king told of the victorious expedition led by his brothers against the Bougaeitai tribe. The Bougaeitai had revolted, but were subdued, following which 4400 of them were brought to the capital, along with their livestock – cattle and sheep – and their draught animals – probably camels and donkeys and for four months sustained upon spelt bread and wine. The king then transferred them to another location, establishing them permanently and endowing each kinglet (basiliskos in Greek, which we are here translating as “chief”) with a much greater number of cattle than had been taken as the spoils of war. We recognise the name of the Bougaeitai; they are the Beja, a nomadic pastoral population that live, now as before, in the lowlands of Sudan and Eritrea. We are not certain whether a population displacement conceived by the king (basileus in Greek) and the plan – which we deduce by implication – of more or less “subsidised” settlement succeeded, but there are grounds to believe that it did not. For many centuries, the Beja remained what they were at the time of the kingdom of Aksum: troublesome nomads on the outskirts of the major political formations dominating the Nile valley and the Horn of Africa, creating sufficiently constant and insidious embarrassment to require the regular dispatch of troops.