History of Ethiopia

From Academic Kids

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. It has long been an intersection between the civilizations of North Africa, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.


Earliest History

Ethiopia has seen human habitation for longer than almost anywhere else in the world, with modern homo sapiens perhaps evolving here. Although skin pigmentation and hair texture of modern Ethiopians are Negroid, Ethiopian craniometry tends towards the Caucasoid Race (see Caucasoid).

There is some confusion over the usage of the word Ethiopia in ancient times and the modern country. The ancient Greeks used the word (Αιθιοπία) to refer to the peoples living immediately to the south of ancient Egypt, specifically the area now known as Nubia; modern usage has transferred this name further south to the land and peoples of the nation with that name, but known until the early 20th century as Abyssinia. As a result, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica states the connection between Egypt and Ethiopia is at least as early as the Twenty-second dynasty of Egypt was very intimate, and beginning with Piye, a ruler of the Twenty-fifth dynasty, occasionally the two countries were under the same ruler; however, the capital of these two dynasties was in the north of modern Sudan, at Napata.

It is now known that in ancient times the name Ethiopia was used to refer to the nation based in the upper Nile valley south of Egypt, also called Cush, which in the 4th century CE was invaded by the Axum from the highlands close to the Red sea.

The first records of Ethiopia proper come from Egyptian traders from about 3000 BC, who refer to lands south of Nubia or Cush as Punt and Yam. Detailed information about these two nations is sparse, and there are many theories concerning their locations and the ethnic relationship of their peoples.

The state of Sheba mentioned in the Old Testament is sometimes believed to have been in Ethiopia, but more often is placed in Yemen. Others believe it covered parts of both the Yemen and present-day Ethiopia. According to legend, Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, founded the Ethiopian Empire.

Under the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt the arts as well as the enterprise of the Greeks entered Ethiopia, and led to the establishment of Greek colonies. A Greek inscription at Adulis, no longer extant, but copied by Cosmas of Alexandria, and preserved in his Topographia Christiana, records that Ptolemy Euergetes, the third of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, invaded the countries on both sides of the Red Sea, and having reduced most of the provinces of Tigre to subjection, returned to the port of Adulis, and there offered sacrifices to Jupiter, Mars and Neptune.

The Axumite Kingdom

Main article: Axumite Kingdom

The first verifiable kingdom of great power to rise in Ethiopia was that of Axum in the first century CE. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time. The origins of the Axumite Kingdom are unclear, although experts have offered their speculations about it. Even whom should be considered the earliest known king is contested: although C. Conti Rossini proposed that Zoskales, mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, should be identified with one Za Haqle mentioned in the Ethiopian King Lists (a view embraced by later historians of Ethiopia such as Yuri M. Kobishchanov1 and Segrew Hable Sellasie), G.W.B. Huntingford argued that Zoskales was only a sub-king whose authority was limited to Adulis, and that Conti Rossini's identification can not be substantiated.2

Inscriptions have been found in southern Arabia celebrating victories over one GDRT, described as "nagashi of Habashat [= Abyssinia] and of Axum." Other dated inscriptions are used to determine a flourit for GDRT (interpreted as representing a Ge'ez name such as Gedur, Gadurat or Gedara) around the beginning of the 3rd century. A bronze sceptre or wand has been discovered at Atsbi Dera with in inscription mentioning "GDR of Axum".

Christianity was introduced into the country by Frumentius, who was consecrated first bishop of Ethiopia by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria about 330. Frumentius converted Ezana, who has left several inscriptions detailing his reign both before and after his conversion. One inscription found at Axum, states that he conquered the nation of the Bogos, and returned thanks to his father, the god Mars, for his victory.

From the scanty evidence available it would appear that the new religion at first made little progress. Towards the close of the 5th century a great company of monks known as the Nine Saints are believed to have established themselves in the country. Since that time monasticism has been a power among the people and not without its influence on the course of events.

The Axumite Kingdom is recorded once again as controlling part -- if not all -- of Yemen in the 6th century. Kaleb invaded Yemen about 520 in order to depose the Jewish king Dhu Nuwas, and appoint Sumuafa' Ashawa' as his viceroy. Procopius records that after about five years, Abraha deposed the viceroy and made himself king (Histories 1.20). Despite several attempted invasions across the Red Sea, Kaleb was unable to dislodge Abreha, and acquiesed to the change; this was the last time Ethiopian armies left Africa until the 20th century when several units participated in the Korean War. Eventually Kaleb abdicated in favor of his son Wa'zeb and retired to a monastery where he ended his days. Despite this reverse, under Ezana and Kaleb the kingdom was at its height, benefitting from a large trade, which extended as far as India and Ceylon, and were in constant communication with the Byzantine Empire.

Details of the Axumite Kingdom, never abundant, become even more sketchy after this point. The last king known to mint coins is Armah, whose coinage refers to the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614. An early Muslim tradition is that the negus Ashama ibn Abjar offered asylum to a group of Muslims fleeing persecution during Muhammad's life (615), but Stuart Munro-Hay believes that Axum had been abandoned as the capital by then3 -- although Kobishchanov states that Ethiopian raiders plagued the Red Sea, preying on Arabian ports at least as late as 702.4

The end of the Axumite Kingdom is as much of a mystery as its beginning. Lacking a detailed history, the kingdom's fall has been attributed to a persistant drought, overgrazing, deforestation, plague, a shift in trade routes that reduced the importance of the Red Sea -- or a combination of these factors. Munro-Hay cites the Arab historian Abu Ja'far al-Khuwarizani (who wrote before 833) as stating that the capital of "the kingdom of Habash" was Jarma. Unless Jarma is a nickname for Axum (hypothetically from Ge'ez girma, "remarkable, revered"), the capital had moved from Axum to a new site, yet undiscovered.5

The Ethiopian Dark Ages

About 1000, a Jewish princess, Judith, conceived the design of murdering all the members of the royal family, and of establishing herself in their stead. During the execution of the nobles, the infant king was carted off by some faithful adherents, and conveyed to Shewa, where his authority was acknowledged, while Judith reigned for forty years over the rest of the kingdom, and transmitted the crown to her descendants.

At one point in the next century, the last of Judith's successors were overthrown by an Agaw named Mara Takla Haymanot, who founded the Zagwe dynasty. One of the lights of this dynasty was the reign of Gebra Maskal Lalibela, in whose reign the stone churches of Lalibela were carved.

In about 1270, the kingdom was restored to the royal house in the person of Yekuno Amlak, who deposed the last of the Zagwe kings.

Portuguese Influence

Under the Solomonid dynasty, the chief provinces became Tigray (northern), Amhara (central) and Shewa (southern). The seat of government, or rather of overlordship, has usually been in Amhara, the ruler of which, calling himself negus negusti (king of kings, or emperor), has exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. The title of negus negusti has been to a considerable extent based on the blood in the veins of the claimant. All the emperors have based their claims on their direct descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba; but it is needless to say that in many, if not in most, cases their success has been due more to the force of their arms than to the purity of their lineage.

Some of the rulers of the larger provinces have at times been given, or have given themselves, the title of negus or king, so that on occasion as many as three, or even more, neguses have been reigning at the same time; and this must be borne in mind by the student of Ethiopian history in order to avoid confusion of rulers.

Towards the close of the 15th century the Portuguese missions into Ethiopia began. A belief had long prevailed in Europe of the existence of a Christian kingdom in the far east, whose monarch was known as Prester John, and various expeditions had been sent in quest of it. Among others who had engaged in this search was Pedro de Covilham, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1490, and, believing that he had at length reached the far-famed kingdom, presented to the negus, or emperor of the country, a letter from his master the king of Portugal, addressed to Prester John.

Covilham remained in the country, but in 1507 an Armenian named Matthew was sent by the negus to the king of Portugal to request his aid against the Muslims. In 1520 a Portuguese fleet, with Matthew on board, entered the Red Sea in compliance with this request, and an embassy from the fleet visited the negus, Lebna Dengel, and remained in Ethiopia for about six years. One of this embassy was Father Francisco Alvarez, who wrote one of the earliest and not the least interesting account of the country.

Between 1528 and 1540 armies of Muslims, under the renowned general Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, entered Ethiopia from the low country to the south-east, and overran the kingdom, obliging the emperor to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses. In this extremity recourse was again had to the Portuguese. John Bermudez, a subordinate member of the mission of 1520, who had remained in the country after the departure of the embassy, was, according to his own statement (which is untrustworthy), ordained successor to the abuna (archbishop), and sent to Lisbon. Bermudez certainly came to Europe, but with what credentials is not known.

Be that as it may, a Portuguese fleet, under the command of Christovão da Gama, was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in February 1541. Here he received an ambassador from the negus beseeching him to send help against the Moslems, and in the July following a force of 450 musketeers, under the command of Christopher da Gama, younger brother of the admiral, marched into the interior, and being joined by native troops were at first successful against the enemy; but they were subsequently defeated, and their commander taken prisoner and put to death (August 1542). On February 21, 1543, however, Ahmad was shot and killed in the Battle of Wayna Daga and his forces totally routed. After this, quarrels arose between the negus and Bermudez, who had returned to Ethiopia with Christopher da Gama and who now wished the emperor publicly to profess himself a convert to Rome. This the negus refused to do, and at length Bermudez was obliged to make his way out of the country.

The Jesuits who had accompanied or followed the da Gama expedition into Ethiopia, and fixed their headquarters at Fremona (near Adowa), were oppressed and neglected, but not actually expelled. In the beginning of the 17th century Father Pedro Páez arrived at Fremona, a man of great tact and judgment, who soon rose into high favour at court, and gained over the emperor to his faith. He directed the erection of churches, palaces and bridges in different parts of the country, and carried out many useful works. His successor Alfonso Mendez was a man of much less conciliatory manners, and the feelings of the people became strongly excited against the intruders, till at length, on the death of the negus Sissinios, and the accession of his son Fasilidos in 1633, the Jesuits were expelled.

The Period of the Princes

This bitter religious conflict contributed to hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans, which persisted into the 20th century and was a factor in Ethiopia's isolation until the mid-19th century, when the first British mission, sent in 1805 to conclude an alliance with Ethiopia and obtain a port on the Red Sea in case France conquered Egypt. The success of this mission opened Ethiopia to many more travellers, missionaries and merchants of all countries, and the stream of Europeans continued until well into Theodore's reign.

This isolation was pierced by very few European travellers. One was the French physician C.J. Poncet, who went there in 1698, via Sennar and the Blue Nile. After him James Bruce entered the country in 1769, with the object of discovering the sources of the Nile, which he was convinced lay in Ethiopia. Accordingly, leaving Massawa in September 1769, he travelled via Axum to Gondar, where he was well received by King Tekle Haymanot II. He accompanied the king on a warlike expedition round Lake Tana, moving South round the eastern shore, crossing the Blue Nile (Abay) close to its point of issue from the lake and returning via the western shore. On a second expedition of his own he proved to his own satisfaction that the river originated some 40 miles southwest of the lake at a place called Geesh (November 4, 1770). He showed that this river flowed into the lake, and left it by its now well-known outlet. Bruce subsequently returned to Egypt (end of 1772) by way of Gondar, the upper Atbara, Sennar, the Nile, and the Korosko desert.

During the 18th century the most prominent rulers were the emperor Dawit III of Gondar (died May 18 1721), Amada Iyasus of Shewa (1730-1755), who consolidated his kingdom and founded Ankober, and Tekle Giyorgis of Amhara (1779-1799). The first years of the 19th century were disturbed by fierce campaigns between Ras Gugsa of Begemder, and Ras Wolda Selassie of Tigray, who were both striving for the crown of Gugsa's master, the emperor Egwale Seyon. Wolda Selassie was eventually the victor, and practically ruled the whole country till his death in 1816 at the age of eighty.

Sabagadis of Agame succeeded Wolda Selassie in 1817, through force of arms, to become Ras of Tigre.

Leaving the Medieval World

Under the Emperors Tewodros II (1855 - 1868), Yohannes IV (1872 - 1889), and Menelik II (1889 - 1913), the kingdom began to emerge from its medieval isolation.

Emperor Tewodros II was born Lij (= Mr) Kassa in Kwara, a small district of Western Amhara, in 1818. His father was a small local chief, and his uncle Ras Kinfu was governor of the districts of Dembea, Kwara and Chelga between Lake Tana and the undefined northwestern frontier. On the death of his uncle he was made chief of Kwara. He turned his attention to conquering the remaining chief divisions of the country, Gojjam, Tigray and Shewa, which still remained unsubdued.

On February 11, 1855, Kassa was crowned negus negusti of Ethiopia under the name of Tewodros II. He soon after advanced against Shoa with a large army. Chief of the notables opposing him was Haile Melekot, a descendant of Asfa Nassen. Dissensions broke out among the Showans, and after a desperate and futile attack on Theodore at Dabra Berhan, Haile Melekot died of exhaustion and fever, nominating with his last breath his eleven-year-old son Menelik as successor (November 1855). Darge, Haeli's brother, took charge of the young prince, but after a hard fight with Angeda, one of Theodore's rases, was obliged to capitulate. Menelik was handed over to the negus, taken to Gondar, and there trained in Theodore's service. Theodore afterwards devoted himself to modernizing and centralizing the legal and administrative structure of his kingdom, against the resistance of his governors.

In 1865, Menelik, now a desjazmach of Tigray, arrived in Showa, and was there acclaimed as negus. On the death of Tewodros, many Showans, including Ras Darge, were released, and Menelik II began to feel himself strong enough, after a few preliminary minor campaigns, to undertake offensive operations against the northern princes. But these projects were of little avail, for Kassai of Tigre, had by this time (1872) risen to supreme power in the north. Proclaiming himself negus negusti under the name of Yohannes or John, he conquered Menelik and Shoa.

In 1867, when Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, did not answer a letter King Theodore sent her, he took it as an insult and imprisoned several British residents, including the consul. An army of 12,000 was sent from Bombay to Ethiopia to rescue the captured nationals, under the command of Sir Robert Napier. The Ethiopians were defeated, and the British stormed the fortress of Magdala (now known as Amba Mariam) on April 13, 1868. When King Theodore heard that the gate had fallen, he fired a pistol into his mouth and killed himself. His son was taken to England to be educated at the expense of the nation. He died there in 1879, at the age of 17. Sir Robert Napier was raised to the peerage, and given the title of Lord Napier of Magdala.

The Italians now came on the scene. Assab, a port near the southern entrance of the Red Sea, had been bought from the local sultan in March 1870 by an Italian company, which, after acquiring more land in 1879 and 1880, was bought out by the Italian government in 1882. In this year Count Pietro Antonelli was despatched to Showa in order to improve the prospects of the colony by treaties with Menelik and the sultan of Aussa.

In April 1888 the Italian forces, numbering over 20,000 men, came into touch with the Ethiopian army; but negotiations took the place of fighting, with the result that both forces retired, the Italians only leaving some 5000 troops in Eritrea, as their colony was now called.

Meanwhile Yohannes had not been idle with regard to the dervishes, who had in the meantime become masters of the Egyptian Sudan, continued, and in 1887 a great battle ensued at Gallabat, in which the dervishes, under Zeki Tumal, were beaten. But a stray bullet struck the king, and the Ethiopians decided to retire. The king died during the night, and his body fell into the hands of the enemy (March 9, 1889). Immediately the news of Yohannes's death reached Menelik, he proclaimed himself emperor, and received the submission of Begemder, Gojjam and several other provinces.

The conflict with the Italians came to head with their defeat at the Battle of Adowa on March 1, 1896. On October 26, 1896 a provisional treaty of peace was concluded at Adis Ababa, recognizing the absolute independence of Ethiopia.

Regarding the question of railways, the first concession for a railway from the coast at Djibouti (French Somaliland) to the interior was granted by Menelik to a French company in 1894. The railway was completed to Dire Dawa, 28 miles from Harrar, by the last day of 1902.

When Menelik II died, his grandson, Lij Iyassu, succeeded to the throne but soon lost support because of his Muslim ties. He was deposed in 1916 by the Christian nobility, and Menelik's daughter, Zauditu, was made empress. Her cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was made regent and successor to the throne.

Modern History

In 1930, after the empress died, Ras Tafari Makonnen, adopting the throne name Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor. His reign was interrupted in 1936 when Italian Fascist forces invaded and occupied Ethiopia (they first invaded on October 2, 1935, took the capital Addis Ababa on May 5 and formally annexed Ethiopia on May 9). The emperor was forced into exile in England despite his plea to the League of Nations for intervention. Five years later, the Italians were defeated by British and Ethiopian forces, and the emperor returned to the throne.

Over the following decades, Emperor Selassie exerted numerous efforts to promote the modernization of his nation. The country's first important school of higher education, University College of Addis Ababa, was founded in 1950. The Constitution of 1931 was replaced with a new one in 1955, which expanded the powers of the Parliament. While improving diplomatic ties with the United States, he also sought to improve the nations' relationship with other African nations in helping to found the Organisation of African Unity in 1963.

Despite these attempts at modernization, by the early 1970s the advanced age of Emperor Selassie was becoming a major problem for the future of his nation. As Paul B. Henze explains, "most Ethiopians thought in terms of personalities, not ideology, and out of long habit still looked to Haile Selasie as the initiator of change, the source of status and privilege, and the arbiter of demands for resources and attention among competing groups."6 Ethiopians worried for their future following his impending death, and whether his successors would continue his campaigns for modernization and economic development.

After a period of civil unrest which began in February 1974, the aging Haile Selassie I was deposed on September 12, 1974, and a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the Derg ("committee") seized power from the emperor and installed a government which was socialist in name and military in style. The Derg summarily executed 59 members of the royal family and ministers and generals of the emperor's government; Emperor Haile Selassie died on August 22, 1975, allegedly strangled in the basement of his palace.

Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed power as head of state and Derg chairman, after having his two predecessors killed. Mengistu's years in office were marked by a totalitarian-style government and the country's massive militarization, financed by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and assisted by Cuba. In December 1976, an Ethiopian delegation in Moscow signed a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. The following April, Ethiopia abrogated its military assistance agreement with the United States and expelled the American military missions.

In July 1977, sensing the disarray in Ethiopia, Somalia attacked across the Ogaden in pursuit of its irredentist claims to the ethnic Somali areas of Ethiopia (see Ogaden War). They were assisted in this invasion by the armed Western Somali Liberation Front. Ethiopian forces were driven back far inside their own frontiers but, with the assistance of a massive Soviet airlift of arms and Cuban combat forces, they stemmed the attack. The last major Somali regular units left the Ogaden March 15, 1978. Twenty years later, the Somali region of Ethiopia remains under-developed and insecure.

From 1977 through early 1978, thousands of suspected enemies of the Derg were tortured and/or killed in a purge called the "red terror." Communism was officially adopted during the late 1970s and early 1980s; in 1984, the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was established, and on February 1, 1987, a new Soviet-style civilian constitution was submitted to a popular referendum. It was officially endorsed by 81% of voters, and in accordance with this new constitution, the country was renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on September 10, 1987, and Mengistu became president.

The regime's collapse was hastened by droughts and famine, as well as by insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled the country and was granted asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.

In July 1991, the EPRDF, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and others established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) which was comprised of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution. In June 1992, the OLF withdrew from the government; in March 1993, members of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples' Democratic Coalition also left the government.

A border war with Eritrea (which separated from Ethiopia following the fall of the Derg in 1992) erupted in May 1998, lasting until June 2000. While this has hurt the nation's economy, it has also strengthened the ruling coalition.

See also : Ethiopia


  1. Yuri M. Kobishchanov, Axum, Joseph W. Michels, editor; Lorraine T. Kapitanoff, translator, (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 1979), pp.54-59.
  2. As expressed, for example, in his The Historical Geography of Ethiopia (London: the British Academy, 1989), p.39.
  3. Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), p.56.
  4. Kobishchanov, Axum, p.116.
  5. Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum, pp.95-98.
  6. Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000.), p. 282.

External links

fr:Histoire_de_l'Éthiopie pt:Editando História da Etiópia sl:Zgodovina Etiopije


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