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Tudor Parfitt's Remarkable Quest

  • Posted 02.22.00
  • NOVA

Once described as "a sort of British Indiana Jones," University of London scholar Tudor Parfitt, in this interview with NOVA producer David Espar, recounts his fascinating odyssey on behalf of the Lemba. A southern African tribe with tantalizing claims to an ancient Jewish heritage, the Lemba dispatched Parfitt on a journey of discovery that would take him halfway across Africa and into a remote desert valley in southern Arabia, where he stumbled upon what he believes may be the lost city of the Lemba.

Tudor Parfitt initially found the Lemba's claim of a Jewish heritage hard to believe. But that changed. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Cicada Films

Meeting the Lemba

NOVA: How did you come to hear about the Lemba and their story?

Tudor Parfitt: I first heard about the Lemba when I was in South Africa. I had been asked to give a lecture there on the Ethiopian Jews, the Falashas, because I'd just written a book on the exodus of the Falashas from Ethiopia to Israel. The lecture was mainly attended by white South African Jews, but at the back of the hall I noticed some black people wearing yarmulkes, the Jewish skull cap. That was rather intriguing, so at the end of the lecture I went across to say hello.

I wanted to know where they were from. They said that they were Jews and that they'd come from the Middle East centuries if not millennia before. I found this rather intriguing but very difficult to believe. They didn't look Jewish, and nobody at that time knew that there was any sort of Jewish penetration into black Africa. It seemed absolutely mythic.

They said, "You don't seem to believe what we're saying. Why don't you come spend a weekend with us? We'll show you our fellow Jews and introduce you to our elders, so you'll see that what we're saying is true." So off I went to the northeast corner of South Africa in the area of Venda. And in the course of the weekend, I could see that it was almost certain that they must have some kind of Semitic connection, because all of their pre-modern religious and social practices seemed to be imbued with a quality that was essentially Middle Eastern, essentially Semitic.

So I went back to England and, thinking that this would make a great research project, returned the following year and spent many months living with the Lemba in Africa.

Parfitt's journey took him from South Africa to Zimbabwe and other parts of southeast Africa and finally on to Yemen. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Tantalizing hints

What is the Lemba's oral tradition as you've come to understand it?

It's complicated, because for the last hundred years their oral and other traditions have been contaminated by Western traditions, Western religious practices—in other words, modernization. Now, insofar as one can reconstruct genuine Lemba traditions, what they say essentially is that they came from the North, possibly from Judea. They subsequently went to a place called Sena, then they crossed from Sena to Africa via Pusela. We don't know what that is, and they don't know what that is, but they say, "We crossed Pusela and we came to Africa."

"I was very moved to be charged with the responsibility of trying to find Sena for them."

Then they say, "We rebuilt Sena, and then we went inland and had something to do with the construction of the Great Stone City." [See Mysteries of Great Zimbabwe.] "At that point, we broke the law of God and we ate mice"—which were not ritually fit for Lemba consumption. And then they were scattered, as they put it, among the nations in Africa.

The Lemba believe their ancestors helped build the enigmatic stone structure known as Great Zimbabwe. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Cicada Films

So when you went to the Lemba for the first time, what was it that you observed that made you think that maybe there was something to the story of their Semitic roots?

I think what really made me feel that there was something to the story, that is to say that there was something Semitic about them, was the amalgam of traditions and perhaps specifically two things. One was the fact that, unlike other tribes, they refused to intermarry and they had a good Semitic disdain for all other people that they referred to as wasenzhi, the gentiles.

The other thing was the extraordinary importance they placed upon ritual slaughter of animals, which is not an African thing at all. Of course, it's Islamic as well as Judaic, but it's certainly from the Middle East, it's not African. And the fact that every lad was given a knife with which he did his ritual throughout his life and took to his grave. That seemed to me to be remarkably, tangibly Semitic Middle Eastern.

One of the many Lemba customs that Parfitt believes indicate a Middle Eastern ancestry is the ritual slaughter of animals, which is not an African tradition. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Cicada Films

A quest begins

The Lemba believe they originally came from a place called Sena. Where is that?

In the oral history, which is really a rather ambiguous story, they don't know where Sena is. It acts as place of origin but also the place to which they go. They refer to Sena in the same way that we would refer to paradise or heaven. And they say, "We'll meet again in Sena" and things of that sort. It seemed to me that the whole story was magical.

Of course, it was a fascinating journey going from village to village, picking up oral traditions from old men and going a little further along the path until finally I was stuck. I got as far as the Indian Ocean, having successfully followed clues across Africa, and then somehow in the Indian Ocean there was nothing. All of a sudden there was just a sea and various ideas floating around in my head.

It was only later when I was doing a book on the Jews of the Yemen that I picked up the trail again in southern Arabia. It was a wonderful, wonderful quest, and it was very meaningful for me—the whole idea of this terrestrial paradise that they had lost contact with. And I was very moved to be charged with the responsibility of trying to find Sena for them.

Professor Mathsaya Mathiva, the Lemba's spiritual leader, convinced Parfitt to search for the lost city of Sena. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Cicada Films

How were you chosen to find Sena?

I became very friendly with the spiritual head of the Lemba, Professor [Mathsaya] Mathiva, whom I met right at the beginning of my research. He specifically asked me on one occasion to go and find Sena. He could see that I was looking forward to a long journey and was excited by the prospect, and so it was a kind of commission. I was very pleased at the end of my journey to be able to offer at least a version of where they may have come from. I think it holds water. I think one can probably say that they do indeed come from the Sena which I located.

Finding Sena

The Sena you discovered lies in a remote valley in southern Yemen. How did you find it?

I was talking to an imam in the holy town of Terim, and it was he who first spelled out the possibilities of this Sena, which I had never even heard of. I had been thinking that the Lemba's Sena might be Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, or some other place, possibly even Sayhut, which is one of the adjoining towns that sounds rather like Sena. He said, "Oh, no no, there's actually a place at the end of the Wadi Masilah that is called Sena to this day."

"There was the extraordinary finding of the Cohen modal haplotype."

When you got to Sena, what about it made you feel that this was it, as opposed to Sanaa or somewhere else?

Well, quite a number of things seem to pull together. The old tradition of the Lemba that they crossed Pusela seems very similar to the Masilah, which they would have to cross in order to get from Sena down to the sea. The camel trains went down the Masilah river valley to the port town of Sayhut. The fact that Sayhut on the southern coast of Arabia was a port par excellence for the Arab exploration of Africa. From there they could go to Mombasa or Zanzibar or down as far as Sofala in Mozambique in a matter of days.

Genetic studies done on saliva samples taken from the Lemba reveal a possible link with peoples living in southern Arabia. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Cicada Films

It wasn't a difficult journey because of the precise conjunction of tides and winds. They couldn't have done the same journey from, let's say, Aden, which is a bit farther west towards Africa. Then there's the fact that within the area of the eastern Hadramaut [a valley in southern Yemen where Sena is located], so many of the tribes had precisely the same tribal names as did the Lemba—the Sadiki, the Hamisi, and so on.

And then there's the story of the dam. At one point in the past Sena was a considerable town, which was supported by a mighty stone-built dam that permitted intensive irrigation. We know that at a certain point in history, perhaps around about the 10th or 11th century, this dam cracked and thereafter the area wasn't able to sustain a large population and people left, as the legends there have it.

Clues in the genes

And you returned later to get DNA samples for a Y-chromosome genetic study?

Yes, [genetic anthropologist] Neil Bradman and I went to the Hadramaut and collected DNA samples over a number of days. I'd already collected large DNA samples of Lemba, and these went back to the lab in London. Once the analysis had been done, it seemed to show that there was something of an overlap, not specifically with Sena but with the general area of the Hadramaut. It looked entirely plausible that the Lemba Y chromosome and the Y chromosome that we collected in the Hadramaut area had similar features.

In addition to that, there was the extraordinary finding of the Cohen modal haplotype. This is the element in the Y chromosome that appears to be a signature element, if you like, for the Cohanim or Jewish priesthood. The fact that we found this marker in such high concentrations in one of the Lemba subclans, the Buba—much higher, incidentally, than the general Jewish population—seemed finally to provide a real, useable link between the Lemba and Jews.

Do the Lemba have a Jewish ancestry, as they claim? The evidence is mounting in their favor. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Cicada Films

What are the implications, and questions, raised by this finding?

Well, it was very exciting that the Cohen modal haplotype was there in such high quantities in the Buba subclan. I wasn't quite clear what it meant, and common prudence dictated that we deal very carefully with the material. But it did seem on balance that, even though it was impossible to say when this element got into the Lemba genetic stream, it was more probable that it had come from south Arabia simply on historical grounds.

"As we speak, some North American Jews are arriving among the Lemba to bring them mainstream Judaism."

We know, for instance, that there was no white or Jewish penetration of Africa until very recent times. But we do know that there was a Semitic population on the east coast of Africa, and we do know that Jews had lived in south Arabia. So the balance of probability is that the Y chromosome came, let's say, a thousand years ago from south Arabia rather than, I don't know, from some wandering Jewish peddler of whom we've never heard.

What was the most amazing thing to you about all this?

Well, in a way I suppose it's the old adage that the observed interacts with the observer, so the Lemba today are completely different from the Lemba that I first met when I started on my journey several years ago. And as we speak, some North American Jews are arriving among the Lemba of South Africa on a two-year mission to bring them mainstream Judaism, complete with a library and with Torah scrolls and everything else. So as a result of my work, though it was in no sense intended, they have become, if you like, properly Jewish and recognized as such by quite a number of people, particularly in America.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Lost Tribes of Israel.

Interview of Tudor Parfitt conducted by David Espar, coproducer of NOVA's "Lost Tribes of Israel," and edited by Peter Tyson, online producer of NOVA

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