Ancient Chinese Coins Discovered In Harla, Eastern Ethiopia

Ancient Chinese coins Ethiopia (1)
Chinese coins discovered in Harla

AFRICANGLOBE – The recent recovery of two ancient Chinese coins dated respectively 1080 and 1040 AD from Harla, the great ancient town near Dire Dawa poses an interesting question.How come coins from inner oriental China ever got there, about a thousand years ago?

One thing we deduce for sure: as people do not in general walk around for centuries with coins in their pockets, Harla is about a thousand years old, refuting a previous French dating to the 15th century. My dating appears compatible with a date engraved on a stone tomb inscription from VI century Egirah, 12th century found in Harla, Ahimed Zacariah, National Museum Curator, Addis Ababa. The coins were found by peasants in superficial soil in two different areas of Harla main village.

A visit by Cherinnet, around 1984, as some rescue archaeology was proposed pending the foundation of a local school overlaying a noted, but never excavated or properly surveyed area in Harla, brought to the finding of severla objects,including this coin and others, Arab coins, from a well filled by topsoil by local peasants at an unspecified period, according to Cherinnet. Locals recall instead attempting to redig a dry well, effectively landifllled to avoid accidents, during the Ethiopian 1984 great famine.

As I collected during my three visits between 2009 and 2011.This first recovered coin was identified in 2010 by Prof. Dashu Qin, Bejing University, at my request, as a II mint Yuan Feng Tong Bao bronze piece, 1078-1085. A low definition photogram from a video by ETV personnell ato Getu Temeghen ( Watch video 1) and (Watch video 2) shows locals metal smearing pots and Chinese coins, both found in Harla, together.

The original of the Tong Bao coin designed in Harla by Cherinnet Tilahun, ca 1984, coin of a considerable numismatic commercial value tied probably to the popularity of its minting sovereign ShenZheng of Song is now lost. This pushed meto look for further evidence and brought to the second, slightly older coin discovery. The second coin, the one I physically recovered in peasant’s hands has been identified again by prof. Dashu Qin as a HuangSong Tong Bao piece, 1039-1053, less valuable to collectors.

At the time of discovery I was accompanied by a chief explorer at British Gaz, Mark Tringham, who had joined me on a speleological mission to Mt. Kundudo and Hararge. He found a vein of quartzite he deemed to be likely to be auriferous in Harla itself, a datum worth further verification, as it may explain both the location and the sudden decline of the huge settlements of Harla in eight clustered villages. Further historic and numismatic clues hint at a trade route spanning from the inner Horn of Africa to the far east.

In 1949 J.J.L. Duyvendak had pointed out to Zheng-He travels, in his “The Chinese Discovery of Africa”, Richard Pankhurstcites a number of Axumite coins recovered betweend India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.”There was a road that went through Eritrea and to the port of Azab and Adule conducted trade with the Far East, Greece, Egypt and India. This trade consisted of commodities such as ivory, gold, rhino horn, hippo hides and teeth, wild animals, frankincense and Nubian emeralds.

The trade was wide and varied and skills employed in the manufacture of these goods were extensive. There were imports of silk, cotton, swords, wine glasses, silver and gold which were manufactured into plates as well as the creation of large gold and bronze statues. Trade links existed with Kush, Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean Basin, Arabia, India, Sri Lanka and China. Again the skills and knowledge employed to make these links possible was enormous.

Ancient Chinese coins Ethiopia (1)
Since ancient times Africans have traded across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans

This was a world which was connected and which carved out and developed trade routes some of which still are in existence today. The Straits of Bab al-Mandeb was one of the three major shipping routes of the ancient world. Ethiopia was the first country in the world to mint a coin with a Christian symbol and the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion.”Richard Pankhurst in R. Hopkins, “Trade”. It is no novelty that by the year one thousand the world power, China, had little or no interest in Europe. Three centuries before the celebrated Marco Polo voyages, China was instead, it would now appear, extensively trading with the African oriental coast.

Much as it is today. A ‘treasure’ including 105 pieces of gold coins from inner India was found, specularly, in the Debre Damo Monastry mountain fortress grounds, ca 1940 AD. Sada Mire, archaeologist, head of antiquities in the Somaliland Government, Hargeysa and a lecturer at the London SoAS, has found around seventy towns and trade posts that cover the north Somalia coast and point inland to eastern Ethiopia. Interestingly, she has also found beautiful Ming blue pottery shards and more ancient Chinese pottery in a mountain site excavation, at Fardowsa near Sheikh around 2010.

In October 2010 came news of an equally significant discovery. A team of Kenyan and Chinese archaeologists unearthed asmall 15th century Chinese brass coin on Kenya’s northern coast. According to Professor Qin Dashu of Beijing University, that type of coin was minted between 1403 and 1424 and carriedonly by envoys of Emperor Chung Zu. He surmised that the recent find was brought to the coast as a gift from the emperor– almost 100 years before the arrival in the region of the first European.

The coin, which came to light during a US33 million three-year expedition funded by Beijing University, follows the netting by Kenyan fishermen of 15th century Chinese vases and DNA confirmation of a long-held belief that some local villagers have Chinese ancestry. Conjecture links such fragmentary evidence of a distant Chinese presence in East Africa with the exploits of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who is said to have taken an enormous fleet of ships across the Indian Ocean in 1418.

The voyages are thought to have been attempts to increase recognition and tradefor the Ming Dynasty. Indeed, the DNA testing, carried out in 2006, was part of an event celebrating the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage and the larger aim of the joint archaeology project is to discover the remains of one of the admiral’s ships, said to have sunk off the Kenyan coast. No one knows how far Zheng He got. The Portuguese explorer Vasco DaGama, who arrived in 1499, was traditionally credited with being the first foreign trader to open up East Africa and laying the foundation of more than five centuries of European colonial power.

‘We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from theEuropeans to East Africa,’ archaeologist Herman Kiriama from the NationalMuseums of Kenya told a BBC interviewer.

‘Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals.’ A good start, after 500 years of Chinese absence on the African Coast.

Ancient Chinese coins Ethiopia (3)
Coins of Chinese mint recognised in Harla ina photogram from an ETV documentary

In 1414, an emissary from the town of Malindi, in modern day Kenya, paid a visit to the Chinese royal court. Ancient Chinese texts also testify that Admiral Zheng He visited thrice the Sultan of Malindi, the most powerful ruler on the Kenyan coast at the time. As DNA of Kenya Fang Mao Fishermen has been proven to show a Chinese descent, the DNA of an ‘Argobba’ man we collected from Aliyu Amba, Ethiopia, has distinctively proven him to be of Arab heritage. We are at present collecting a set of further samples.(Fulvio Cruciani, Rome Darwin Institute, personal communication).

My expectations are DNA testing of avery limited present day “Harella” or Harla population remnant may relate them directly to present day Hararis. A number of Chinese, Axumite and Indian coin, chinese porcelain shards from Kilwa, Tanzania to inner Ethiopia and inner Somaliland prove further a trade link about 2000 years old along the shores of the Indian Ocean, since well before ZhengHe’s famed fabulous voyages, until colonization tied to slave trade destroyed it for the interests of European new powers.

The Extended East Route for Sustainable tourism we are mapping now has shown a string of towns pointing from the main Somaliland-north Somalia ports of Zeyla and Berbera to the Ethiopian highlands, and is ever more producing finds that tie the medieval reigns of Christian and Islamic Abyssinia to far eastern powers, to Song dinasty China in particular.


By: Marco Vigano