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Caste and Class in Historical North-West Ethiopia: The Beta Israel (Falasha) and Kemant, 1300-1900

James Quirin
The Journal of African History
Vol. 39, No. 2 (1998), pp. 195-220
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/183596
Page Count: 26
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Caste and Class in Historical North-West Ethiopia: The Beta Israel (Falasha) and Kemant, 1300-1900
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Abstract

This article compares the histories of two small groups in north-western Ethiopia between about 1300 and 1900. It explores the development of separate identities by the Beta Israel (Falasha) and the Kemant peoples from an original common Agaw-speaking base during three time periods in Ethiopian history: the centralizing state to 1632; the urban-centered state, 1632-1755; and the regionalized but re-centralizing state, 1755-1900. It argues that the key variable in explaining the historical development of these two groups was their differential relationship to the Ethiopian state. During this six hundred year period, Beta Israel resisted conquest, were partially incorporated into the broader society, but ultimately maintained a high degree of social separation in an essentially caste relationship with the dominant society and state. This separation allowed the group to refashion their identity again in the twentieth century: between the 1970s and 1991 virtually all Beta Israel separated completely from Ethiopia by emigrating to Israel. In contrast, Kemant did not resist the original royal incursion into the region beginning in the fourteenth century. Unlike Beta Israel, they tried to maintain their identity through a process of accommodation and withdrawal up to the midnineteenth century. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, however, their society has experienced strong pressures from the dominant society and state, leading to the loss of their cultural distinctiveness and their incorporation into the overall class system of the region. These two cases, thus, illustrate some of the processes by which north-western Ethiopia became a 'traditional Amhara area'.

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