Map showing Ethiopia and Prester John.
The fabled wealth of Ethiopia pre-dates the medieval Prester John legend by many centuries. The Pharoahs of Egypt obtained myrhh from this area as long ago as 3000BC and it was known to the ancient Greeks: Homer, in the Iliad, tells of Zeus departing for the country of ‘the blameless Ethiopians’. Some sources credit the Greeks with giving Ethiopia its name: ‘the land of people with burnt faces’ — though Ethiopians themselves believe the name is derived from Ethiopic, Noah’s great grandson. The Axumite kingdom was described by a third century Persian writer as one of the four great kingdoms of the world, the others being Persia, China and Rome. It traded with Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India and Ceylon. It issued its own currency and was a literate society with a unique language and script based on the Sabaean alphabet, related to that used in South Arabia and hence to Hebrew. A sixth century saint is said to have devised the first system of musical notation in Africa and to have composed the formalised sacred mu sic and dance still in use today.