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Did Ethiopia fight in the crusade wars? And were the Sacarens black Africans or Arabs?

Charles E.




Dear Charles E.,

The term “Saracen,” derived from the Greek “Sarakenoi,” was a collective European term for anyone practicing Islam at the time of the Crusades, applying equally to Semitic Arab or Turk. Although Spain had contact with various Moorish people, black Muslims were a relative rarity, though their religion would probably have lumped any who turned up into the same category.

During the Crusader era Ethiopia was under the Zagwe Dynasty (about 960 to 1270), which was mostly involved in domestic affairs. The Zagwes did maintain contact with the Christians beyond their borders via Cairo’s Coptic population and Jerusalem, where they maintained a few chapels and an annex. They never forged any alliances with the Crusaders, however, and it is a measure of how much of a threat they constituted to the Muslims that Saladin, after retaking Jerusalem in 1187, expressly invited Ethiopian monks to return to the city and even exempted their pilgrims to the tax usually levied on visiting Christians.

The Solomonids who took (or, according to their version of history, restored) control over the Ethiopian empire in 1270, sent out feelers to the Europeans regarding the possibilities of alliance, but nothing came of it. They did some expanding into the Horn of Africa, but that campaign was strictly meant to secure the empire’s eastern flank and gain more access to the Red Sea. Otherwise Ethiopia, then surrounded by Islamic states and isolated from European Christendom far to the north, had its hands full enough defending and maintaining its sovereignty as a Christian nation.



Jon Guttman

Research Director

World History

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