As societies began to expand trade routes and cultures through migration and conquest, they were simultaneously affected by the spread of language, religion, and most importantly, ideas. With the development of technological resources came the rise of civilizations and empires which later contributed to the varying ideas of race and what a civilized society should be. With the growth of empires in West Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Antiquity’s ideas of race and civilized people began to evolve and later influence the treatment of many.
Historically, religion has acted as a unifying device by many religions, allowing for a growth in economies and shaping social classes. Religious exchanges were a major part of trading and conquest and the overall spread of Christian ideas strongly impacted the worldview on what exactly race is and what it means for various skin tones. With the Bible being a major unifying device, Africans and darker skin tones were strongly targeted to be utilized as slaves seeing that the Bible was often times perceived to defend slavery. Africans tended to be targeted more based negative scripture interpretation on the Hamitic curse found in “The Table of Nations” (Genesis 10) and further explained in the fourth chapter of The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. After Ham had sinned, Noah declared ‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:20-25). Given that Ham, Canaan’s son, was seen as the progenitor of Africans, the enslavement of Africans was seen to be divinely ordained. Prior to the fifteenth century, slavery would have been viewed as fit for any race, but with the spread of religious texts, such as the Bible, a clear concept of “race” began to evolve. Further affecting the expansion of empires, the Bible and the Christian religion became a staple in many societies. The Bible was a major factor in conquest of states and the evolution of “civilizations” and the state buildings ruling them. With Egypt being a major world empire, the crossroads connecting to Mesopotamia further influenced the effect that varying religious ideas would have on growing civilizations and the manner in which Africans were perceived.
Relationships between the Classical Islamic World and Africans strongly influenced how different races were eventually perceived. The rise of Islam strongly influenced how civilizations began to revolve and the social hierarchies within them. In the Islamic faith, it is strongly believed that members of Islam should not be enslaved, which eventually led to the enslavement of those within close proximity, which happened to be those in Africa. The Islamic World quickly evolved as a result of technological and scientific innovations, making them one of the most influential empires in the region during that time. With the desire to spread the religion, came the spread of the empire. As Dar-al Islam spread into Africa and India, there was a developing view of the different skin colors that were encountered and how Islam would influence these civilizations. With the Classical Islamic World becoming one of the most prominent regions, above Ethiopia, Nubia, and Egypt, they began to have strengthened control over Africans due to the views that Islam placed on the expectation of civilizations and race.
Further impacting the views on race and civilization, especially in Africa, was the Kebra Negast. The Kebra Negast was the beginning of when Ethiopia had a strong sense of culture, faith, and wisdom while the surrounding areas began to develop civilizations. As viewed in “Wonders of the African World,” the Kebra Negast and the belief in the Ark of the Covenant strongly reinforced Ethiopia’s culture and later there idea of how their civilization will be formed, strongly based on the idea of religion. As the Islamic World began to spread into Africa and as Europe began to develop its empires, Ethiopia’s sense of unity was developing. Before its neighboring areas were building empires, Ethiopia did not have a strong sense of race, given that that term “ethiopian,” meaning “burnt skin,” was not coined by them or used by them. They mostly viewed themselves as members of the same society, however once they began forming their civilization, largely due to the unification of the Kebra Negast, they began to form a strong sense of identity and eventually race (Gomez). Their idea of race during the fourteenth century has evolved, however, many sentiments remain the same. In the present, Ethiopia’s civilization and idea of race remains strongly influenced by the Kebra Negast. Although Ethiopia’s society struggles on certain issues, mostly all of them are still unified by their Christian values and the belief that they possess the Ark of the Covenant. With the Kebra Negast uniting them under these beliefs, they strongly view themselves with a strict Ethiopian identity, meanwhile outsiders, regardless of race, are viewed to be “other” who do not share the same culture or religious values as them.
When empires in East Africa began to interact and create trade relations with empires in the Mediterranean, ideas of what a “civilization” should be quickly began to form. East African Empires, such as Egypt and Nubia, were two of the most influential empires in their region and in Mediterranean trade. In Egypt and Nubia , race was not what distinguished people in the society, it was more the acceptance of the culture and social class that classified people as Egyptians. Egypt’s and Nubia’s relationships with Greece strongly impacted the civilization and the ideas of race because as their interactions became more frequent, Greece further realized the technological advancements that they based their civilizations off. These advanced societies in Africa were sought after by Greece and Rome as it became clear how useful they were to trade with and eventually conquer. In contrast, the relationships that Egypt and Nubia had with the Graeco-Roman world strongly impacted the idea of race back then and to this day. When Egyptians and Nubians began to travel to the regions in the Mediterranean, Europeans were shocked by the color of their skin. While they did not look at Africans as inferior, they were able to distinguish them by the color of their skin, even coining the term “ethiopian” standing for “burnt skin.” Although they were clearly seen differently while in the Mediterranean, Africans were seen as leaders given the impact that Egypt had in Europe due to their technological advancements and philosophy that would strongly impact Greek culture and philosophers. Ancient Egyptian-Nubian relations and the Graeco-Roman world shaped how the world viewed Africans and their achievements along with what makes different people “civilized” based on their differing cultures (Gomez 12-13).
Throughout time, the ideas of civilization and race have changed immensely, however it is clear that they started forming as civilizations became empires and started trading with nearby regions. Religion has acted as a unifying device throughout many different civilizations and has clearly influenced social classes, views on slavery and racial gradation. Egypt and Nubia were two very advanced African empires that strongly fascinated nearby regions in the Islamic world and in the Mediterranean. Africa’s trading relationships and interactions with the rest of the world was one of the most strongly impactful factors on the varying ideas on race and what makes a society “civilized.”
- Gomez, Michael A. Reversing Sail: a History of the African Diaspora. Cambridge University Press, 2008. “4/ Perceptions of Africans in Some Arabic and Turkish Writing.” The African Diaspora in the
- Mediterranean Lands of Islam, by John O. Hunwick and Eve Troutt. Powell, Markus Wiener, 2010.
- Gomez, Michael. “Egyptian Dawn/Nubian Ascendancy/Graeco-Roman World.” Lecture, New York City, NY, September 4
- Gomez, Michael. “Classical Islam, Africa, and Africans in the Islamic Imagination.” Lecture, New York City, NY, September 18
- Hausman, Gerald. 1997. The Kebra nagast: the lostBible of Rastafarian wisdom and faith from Ethiopia and Jamaica. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Colton, Nicola, director. The Slave Kingdoms: Wonders of the African World, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. PBS, 1999.