In broadest sense, diplomacy is the making and execution of foreign policy through standardized communications and interactions with other states. The form and modalities of diplomacy may have changed over time. However, diplomacy has been practiced since an-cient times. Diplomats now and diplomacy then are in the practice of negotiations with regard to issues of peace, culture, trade and war. It is now a well established fact that Ethiopia was one of the four key international diplomatic players right at the start of the CE. Here in this piece, it is hoped, readers will appreciate how Ethiopian diplo-macy during those days was independent, dignified and effective.
We go back and trace the nature and extent of Ethiopian diplomacy in antiquity, walking through the ancient diplomatic activities of Ethiopia. While Ethiopia’s diplomatic history may go back to the time of dynastic Egypt, this piece will focus on the time of the an-cient Aksumite in Ethiopian history. Ancient in this paper is a refer-ence to the time period from first to the seventh centuries CE. How did diplomatic activities of Aksumite emperors, such as Ezana and Caleb look like when revisited from here now?
The Greek word diploma was initially used to describe court-approved travel documents. Nonnosus, who inherited his envoy po-sition, carried one when he travelled from Aden to Aksum with doc-uments of Emperor Justin of Byzantium written by by hand in 527 CE.
Ethiopian diplomacy in antiquity was deployed to advance the eco-nomic interests of the country and to protect the country’s subjects or allies abroad. The practice then involved trade relations and/or religious solidarity.Religious and commercial interests were intertwined and both determined the foreign policy of Hatse Ezana in the fourth century CE and Emperor Caleb in the sixth century CE. For instance, Emperor Caleb in the 6th century CE led his army into the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea pri-marily for religious reasons. Attached to it, he had additional motives as well. While he felt obliged to stop the massacre of Christians by followers of Judaism at Zafar and Najran in southern Arabia, his sacred duty was interlinked with his desire to control trade over the Red Sea. His ac-tion was also a way to consolidate his rela-tion with Constantinople. His alliance with Constantinople was countered by the Ara-bians, alliance with the Persians who sought control of the trade in the region.
Later, the notion of diplomacy shifted its focus to diplomatic agents or ambassadors, who appeared in palaces and government houses with diplomatic credentials. According to the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, “peoples of all nations from ancient times have recognized the status of diplomatic agents to resolve issues and to advance interests.” Diplomatic missions and tasks in ancient times were assigned to trusted individuals who would serve as diplomatic agents. Sometimes the agents come from the same renowned family. A family who specialized in the art of diplomacy and who made it a family tradition continued to provide diplomatic services to the mon-archy. The roles often passed from father to son, as if there was a diplomatic dynasty.
In ancient times, the Ethiopian state was inseparable from the institu-tions of religion. Even the forces that challenged the state utilized religion as the basis of their diplomatic activities. Religious and com-mercial interests were intertwined and both determined the foreign policy of Hatse (meaning Emperor) Ezana in the fourth century CE and Emperor Caleb in the sixth century CE, Of course, many aspects of that inseparability continued until modern times.
Ancient Ethiopia had no cabinet posts. Diplomacy was conducted directly by the royal or sultanate courts. The emperors or sultans would pick their delegates or emissaries to handle their international affairs. Merchants were by far the most preferred ambassadors of the royal courts. Even in the time of the legendary Queen of Sheba, the fertile and popularly romanticized relationship with the King of Israel was facilitated by a merchant named Tamrin, according to Kebra Negest, the book that no emperor could live or govern without.
Munro-Hay said “the Aksumite state bordered one of the ancient world’s great arteries of commerce, the Red Sea, and through its port of Adulis, Aksum participated actively in the then contemporary events. Its links with other countries, whether through military cam-paigns, trading enterprise, or cultural and ideological exchange, made Aksum part and parcel of the international community of the time.” In other words, Ancient Aksum was actively involved in international diplomacy in congruence with its cultural and trade interests.
The vast international trade the Aksumite Empire used to command necessitated the establishment of embassies and diplomatic venues. Aksum had diplomatic relations with the Roman-Byzantine Empires, the Meroitic Kingdom and other states in the region. She had also maintained contacts with the Persian Empire.
Munro-Hay also notes that, in the context of the history of civiliza-tion in Africa, the position of Aksum in international terms followed directly on that of Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt and Meroe – inter-nationally recognized independent African monarchies of important power status in their age.
With regards to the events of the Aksumite period Touraiev writes: "A great power took form, in the 3rd century CE in the world next to the empires of Rome, Persia, and Greece - the 'king of Kings (Neguse Negest)' of Aksum is the head of a powerful state, equal to the Roman Emperor or the kings of Persia, with whom he communi-cated at the same level. He minted coins bearing his own effigy...."
The main commercial port of the country, Adulis, was the merging point for trade routes of the Red Sea, India, and Prthean. This port was located on the waterway from Egypt to India. In the 6th century CE, Aksum reached the climax of its political power and Adulis ac-quired an enormous importance on sea-based trade with India. Ac-cording to Kobishanov, the Straits of Bab-el-Mandab, which, like the Straits of Malacca and Gibraltar, constituted one of the three main sea highways of the ancient world, also came under Aksumite con-
Refined Diplomatic Power of Ancient Ethiopia trol.
The distinguished historian and Geographer R. Henning, talking about the middle of the 6th century, writes: "When the power of Ak-sum spread over the two sides of the southern part of the Red Sea, its ports were important than the Egyptian ports. Even Alexandria which occupied a dominant position in the Euro-Asian trade, was apparently forced back; and one could have expected a long predom-inance of Adulis had it not been for the rebirth in the 5th century of the Sassanid (Persian) state, which put an end to the omnipotence of Aksum after its conquest of the happy Arabia." From the end of the 3rd century CE to the middle of the 4th, Aksum was economically and culturally strong. And it was not without good reason that the Byzantine emperors (eastern Roman Emperors) talked to the "Negus" as their equals in power and splendor." Emperor Constan-tine writes in 357 CE to the Negus (King) of Aksum about the cleri-cal troubles caused by Bishop Athenasius of Alexandria, Egypt; and he calls Ethiopians his Christian brothers."
Here we learn about the independent diplomatic stance Ethiopia took, when she refused to comply with Emperor Constantine and formed ecumenical solidarity with Bishop Athanasius, who conse-crated Frumentius as the first Bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church.