I recently stumbled upon some interesting facts about the name Azania, while delving into the puzzling history of the ancient Indian (Dravidian) goldminers and the possible impact they had in southern African places such as MaShonaland in Zimbabwe, - in preparation for an article I’m busy drafting. I unfortunately cannot say when the article will be ready for posting, as I’m still waiting for some info.
In the meantime, while readers are waiting for the main course, allow me to share some interesting facts about the name Azania, seeing that the vast majority of South Africans believe the current name of the country should be replaced with this name, or a corupted version Mzansi – derived from the isiXhosa term “Mzantsi Afrika”, which has today become a common term, mainly among black Africans, when referring to “South Africa”. Incidentally, uMzantsi in Xhosa means "south".
Note: This posting mentions terminology and place names which will, no doubt, feature later in future articles. It can thus rightly be considered as a preamble to future postings related to this topic.
On a large continent like Africa “south” covers an enormous region and includes numerous countries. I’m sure there’s no need to list them all, but the point is - the country called “South Africa” is only one of them, and it happens to be called as such because it is the most extreme, last, southern country on the continent.
The first mention of the name Azania with a South African connection appeared in a 1930s archaeological report of excavations at Mapungubwe in the northern Transvaal (now Limpopo province). The skeletal remains were referred to as "ancient Azanians" (source). Archaeologists of the 1930’s must surely have known far more about Azania and its location than what is presented in this posting, which means the possibly exists that the excavated remains were probably identified as settlers from the northern African Great Lakes region – in the vicinity of ancient Azania. Yet, despite this possibility the old 1930’s excavation report is often utilized by leftist-Marxist groups as one of the motivational factors for renaming South Africa to “Azania”.
Future articles on this topic will speak of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which was abandoned in the late 13th century (about 1290 AD). It was a region south of Great Zimbabwe – beyond the northern borders of South Africa.
Incidentally, Azania also popped up in the proposed renaming of South Sudan recently when it carried out a referendum on seceding from the Arab north. Due to popular vote the country was eventually renamed the Republic of South Sudan upon independence on 9 July 2011.
In modern-day South Africa, Azania regularly features in the description of numerous political (liberation) movements or so-called Black consciousness movements, for example: Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA), Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, Azanian National Youth Unity, Pan-Africanist Student Movement of Azania, Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA), which dissolved into the Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO) - to mention a few. The earlier founders of these organisations, whose motto was (and still is) “Africa for the Africans” were (and still are) obsessed with the fact that all Black Africans are Azanians.
In reality it is a rather fitting description, for it clarifies the true origins of the South African black majority, in the exact same fashion white settlers of South Africa are categorized as European colonists – often in a demeaning manner, thereby implying that white people do not belong here.
Most modern-day digital sources will, rather nonchalantly and impassively, state that the name Azania has been applied to various parts of south-eastern sub-Saharan Africa, and that the earliest attestations for the name do not explain it. Other sources mention that in Roman times—and perhaps earlier—the name referred to a portion of the Southeast African coast extending from Kenya, to perhaps as far south as modern Tanzania.
I was more interested in finding out where exactly the southern boundary of this ancient region ended, and if it were anywhere near South Africa. My search lured me to a 1st century document, written sometime between 40 and 70 AD, called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The document describes, in vibrant detail, navigation and trading opportunities from various Roman Egyptian ports along the coast of the Red Sea, and other places along Northeast Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The original was written in Greek, but various English translations abound. One translation, freely available online - with full text, can be found here. A hardcover translation by Wilfred H. Schoff, is available from Amazon.com.
The name Azania features in paragraphs 15, 16, 18, 31, and 61 of The Periplus.
The map below, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows locations, names and routes of The Periplus, and helps to sketch a mental picture of what is described in this 1st century document.
Click here, or on the below image to download a larger version of the map.
Paragraph 16 describes the very last (most southern) market-town of Azania as a place called Rhapta, which is today non-existent. Dr Felix A. Chami, an archaeologist from Tanzania and a professor at Dar es Salaam University, found archaeological evidence indicating that Rhapta was probably near the coastline of the Indian Ocean at the mouth of the Rufiji River, in modern-day Tanzania. This places ancient Rhapta about 125 km south (as the crow flies) from Dar es Salaam, where one of today’s leading government schools in Africa is called, “Azania Boys Secondary School.”
Incidentally, Dr. Chami has also discovered, on the island of Mafia and Juani, artefacts that revealed East Africa as being integral to the Indian Ocean trade – (Tanzanian dig unearths ancient secret – BBC News)
Another interesting little fact is that Roman coins have been found on Pemba island, just north of Rhapta – Source: Miller, J. Innes. 1969. Chapter 8: "The Cinnamon Route". In: The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire. Oxford: University Press. ISBN 0-19-814264-1
Paragraph 16 is the only paragraph that mentions Rhapta. For the sake of relevance I’ll quote the entire paragraph, as it contains titbits of other interesting info:
“Two days' sail beyond, there lies the very last market-town of the continent of Azania, which is called Rhapta; which has its name from the sewed boats (rhapton ploiarion) already mentioned; in which there is ivory in great quantity, and tortoise-shell. Along this coast live men of piratical habits, very great in stature, and under separate chiefs for each place. The Mapharitic chief governs it under some ancient right that subjects it to the sovereignty of the state that is become first in Arabia. And the people of Muza now hold it under his authority, and send thither many large ships, using Arab captains and agents, who are familiar with the natives and intermarry with them, and who know the whole coast and understand the language.” - Source: W.H. Schoff (tr. & ed.), The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century (London, Bombay & Calcutta 1912).
It is worth mentioning that Azania was known to the Chinese as Zésàn and is mentioned in a 3rd century Chinese account, from the Weilue by Yu Huan, composed between 239 and 265 AD. A draft English translation by John E. Hill is available online here. The relevant text is in Section 15 - The Kingdom of Zesan (Azania). The first note in this text links to such an enormous amount of additional information on this topic that one can hardly call it a note.
The note referred to above also contains some info provided by Professor Felix Chami, who specifically mentions that Azania had nothing to do with the colour of people or even slavery. He states:
“What is in those words is the word ‘za’ or ‘zi’ an ancient Bantu word for waters-oceans or lakes, and another word ‘nchi’ or ‘nji’ another Bantu word meaning country or settlement respectively. The people of the coast of East Africa identified themselves with the ‘Indian Ocean’ which was then known as ‘za’ and hence the people of the country or settlement of ‘za’ and hence ‘Zanchi’ or ‘Zanji’.”- Professor Felix Chami - Email dated 22 July, 2003.
For purposes of this posting we will focus on a mere handful of facts dealt with in The Periplus, as it provides the most detailed information about trade with Azania, and confirms what was mentioned in other records such as Ptolemy - that Rhapta was the (southernmost) most remote and the largest of four ancient east African trading ports.
Who ruled the people of Azania?
The Periplus (paragraph 31) explicitly states that Azania was subject to Charibael and the Chief of Mapharitis, who, according to paragraph 16 - "governs it under some ancient right that subjects it to the sovereignty of the (Arabian) state." In paragraph 23 we read:
“And after nine days more there is Saphar, the metropolis, in which lives Charibael, lawful king of two tribes, the Homerites and those living next to them, called the Sabaites; through continual embassies and gifts, he is a friend of the (Roman) Emperors." - Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Paragraph 23.
Now this is where things get rather interesting, because the Homerite Kingdom was an Arabian kingdom in ancient Yemen, established in 110 BC. It was the dominant polity in Arabia until 525 AD - (before Islam). The ruler Charibael is listed, in a reconstruction of the lineage of the rulers of Saba and Himyar (based on the work of Dr. Javad Ali), with an Arabic title, Karab Il Watar Yuhan'em II (son of Zamir Ali Bayin III) -- List of rulers of Saba and Himyar.
The “Mapharitis’’ mentioned in paragraphs 22 and 31 was a region in the interior of the south western Arabian Peninsula. Paragraph 22 mentions a city called “Saua” in the midst of the region called “Mapharitis”, and where the vassal-chief named Cholaebus lived. The city was three days inland from the port of Muza. Paragraph 31 indicates that Azania was also subject to this same chief, who, according to several other sources, was also the Sheikh of the South Arabian Ma'afir tribe.
The Sabaites (Sabaeans or Sabeans) spoken of in The Periplus were conquered in the 1st century BC, by the Himyarites. They are referenced in the Book of Job for slaughtering the livestock and servants of Job:
 And there came a messenger unto Job, and said, The oxen were plowing, and the asses feeding beside them:  And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. – (Job 1:14-15 KJV)
The local community of Azania
From the text in The Periplus it can be deduced that the locals, particularly along the coastline of Azania and all the way south to Rhapta, were a multiethnic group who blended mainly with Arabs. The men living along this coastline are described as having “piratical” habits. From the term “piratical” one can then deduce that they plundered without paying commission or tax, a trivial fact that doesn’t surprise me in the least, as today we have plenty of those types now living here in South Africa.
A comprehensive description of the inhabitants of Azania, compiled by John Hilton, can be read at this link.
In conclusion - A long documentary silence follows the ancient texts mentioned in this article, but by the time documentation resumed through Arab geographical treatises, the name Azania had completely disappeared from the scene. Azania is dead, and if the southern Sudanese people were unable to resurrect it I cannot see on what grounds South Africa’s name will ever be replaced by it… South Africa is NOT Azania!!!