From a Kingdom to a Minority in the Diaspora
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
The Beta Israel village of Balankab, from H. A. Stern, Wanderings Among the Falashas in Abyssinia, 1862
Beta Israel represents one of the oldest stories of Jewish diaspora, entailing all the familiar tropes to be found within such a narrative, aspects of triumph, adaptation, and as always constant tests of loyalty to living a life of Torah. Many theories are held as to the origins of Beta Israel in Ethiopia; they are the lost tribe of Dan, descendants of the Agaw people in the Cush region who adopted some form of proto-Judaism, the list goes on and on.
For the last 2000 years Ethiopian Jewry has safeguarded a Judaism descending from the days of the First Temple. After the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, a group of Jews left the holy city and travelled south to the land of Egypt. There they remained for an undisclosed period of time and then continued south following the Nile till the reached the mouth of the river in the Cush Region. There the community remained cut off from Jerusalem and the rest of the diaspora communities of Judaism and formed the people we know today as Beta Israel. This historical timelines does not have any first hand records that originate from the community itself, nevertheless many would agree that there has been a strong Judaic influence in Ethiopia for the better part of 2000 years.
Well before Christian influence arrived and dominated the region the Jewish presence in Ethiopian society, culture, and politics was quite strong. The first known record of the presence and power of the Jewish Kingdom appears in the 10th century when Beta Israel rebelled against the King of Abyssinia. However according to Ethiopian historical tradition the golden age of the Jewish Kingdom began sometime during the 9th century and lasted all the way until Christianity conquered the region.
During this period the fabled Queen Judith rose to power as the leader of the Jewish Kingdom. During the time of her reign around 960 CE she managed to form a large tribal confederation comprised of the pagan Agaw tribes and Beta Israel. With this force she invaded the capital city of Axum, conquering and destroying it (including many churches and monasteries which were burned) and imposed the Jewish rule over Axum.
Over the next 300 years the Jewish Kingdom enjoyed a great amount of autonomy within the greater nation, but this peace and prosperity was short lived. Starting in the 14th century (1320), brief wars were fought between the Christian kings of Ethiopia and those of the Beta Israel, which finally resulted in the loss of Ethiopian Jewry's independence in 1620. After this the remainder of Jews who had avoided conversion retreated to the Highlands of the Amharic and Tigre regions. There the majority of the community remained and as the years progressed through civil wars and national unrest their rights as citizens continued to wane as a minority until their eventual exodus began to return to the Land of Israel.
Information taken from: