Our ancestors evolved in East Africa, and “Lucy,” that three-million-year-old hominid discovered in 1974, lived in the Awash valley. So it is fair to say that few regions can boast a longer (pre)history than Ethiopia. The country has been the crossroads of human evolution, the spread of Christianity, and the end of colonialism, and has played a decisive role in each.
To the east of Ethiopia lies the Red Sea (and, beyond that, the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia), and to the west, the Nile River. With such proximity to the earliest of human civilizations, it is no surprise that a kingdom, “Punt,” rose as a wealthy trading post in Ethiopia in early antiquity. Punt produced and exported valuables such as gold, myrrh, frankincense, ebony, and ivory – valuables that earned the kingdom the name “God’s Land” amongst Egyptian traders.
A series of independent kingdoms followed. Of these, Axum became one of the most powerful polities around the 1st century BC, spanning the Red Sea to southern Arabia and extending inland to the Nile valley in what is now Sudan. For the next few centuries, while Egypt fell to Rome, Axum prospered. The kingdom lay at a trade crossroads, dealing in gorgeous dyes, iron for making weapons, and glassware – a Roman account devotes a page just to listing all the different goods one could trade in Axum, with networks as far as India.
In the 4th century AD, Christianity was introduced to Axum, making it one of the first Christian kingdoms in the world (just after Armenia, but before Rome). Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) historians describe how the king captured a Syrian Christian and then, in the process of long conversations with his captive, became a Christian himself. While royal coins were subsequently emblazoned with a cross, the religion did not permeate the entire kingdom, staying a religion of the elite (unlike in Rome, where Christianity was more associated with commoners). But during one of the purges of Christians from Rome, many Christian holy men sought refuge in Ethiopia, and gradually converted much of the populace (traditional religions as well as Judaism persisted, and persist to this day). At this time, too, a group known as the Nine Saints came to Axum and translated the Bible from Greek into Ge’ez, the local language and established a monastic order.
But power shifts. Rome fell, Muslim rulers came to dominate the Red Sea region, and Axum’s own subjects over-worked fragile arid land. Ethiopian power drifted southward and turned inwards.
All was not lost during this moment of isolation. The traditions established by the Nine Saints continued and are preserved in the time-frozen churches of Lalibela, constructed during the Zagwe dynasty (900s-1200s). They remain an established World Heritage site today and still see active visits by pilgrims.
Ethiopia was not to remain dormant forever. A new emperor, Yekuno Amlak eliminated the last of the Zagwe kings and, to solidify his rule, married one of those king’s daughters. In addition, he spread a legend to help shore up his legitimacy, claiming to be the descendant of the ancient king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba —hence the name of this new dynasty, the Solomonic dynasty.
Under the Solomonic dynasty, Ethiopia started to ascend once more, climbing out from its historical dark age. Although they still lacked a fixed capital (the empire moved around in mobile camps), the empire progressed in other ways. They achieved military success and controlled most of the Horn of Africa. The religious fervor of the region remained, and facilitated contact with European powers, particularly during the late 1400s through the early 1500s. Artists and writers also flourished during this time and created great works, including the epic, Kebra Nagast, a Ge’ez epic that retells the story of the Queen of Sheba, her relationship with King Solomon, and how the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia with their son, Menelik.
Unfortunately, the mid-1500s brought conflict to Ethiopia. The Abyssinian-Adal War between Christian Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Muslim Somalia (Adal) lasted from 1528 to 1543 AD, leaving Ethiopia in a bloody and drastically weakened state. Churches and manuscripts burned, and many lives were lost in the fighting. The Ethiopian Emperor Lebna Dengel reached out to Portugal, who responded by sending a fleet complete with musketeers to Massawa in 1541. Even with the aid of the Portuguese fleet, Ethiopia still had trouble fending off “the Conqueror” Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi. Emperor Galawdewos joined with the surviving Portuguese forces and marched west to confront the Conqueror once again. Al-Ghazi was finally defeated in the Battle of Wayna Daga, and his armies retreated from Ethiopia. Skirmishes continued, however, through 1559 until Galawdewos foolishly attacked the city of Harar with a skeleton force. He was executed, leaving the monarchy devastated.
A permanent capital wouldn’t be established again until 1636. The founding of Gonder helped bring consistency back to Ethiopia (even if it also brought court turmoil that led to Shakespearean levels of political intrigue and drama). It again became the center of trade, and Gonder was able to build a substantial infrastructure. The Ethiopian nobility built new palaces and beautiful gardens, drawing in philosophers and artists once again.
By the late 1800s, Gonder declined, leaving behind a medley of combative provinces. Three emperors worked to unite Ethiopia during their respective times. Emperor Tewodros II went from being a chief’s son, to a local monastery to be educated, to eventually become the leader of a group of bandits. He was a smart leader and capable warrior, which gained him followers until his group of bandits became the size of a small army. He became so well known, that to try and appease him, Empress Menen Liben Amede arranged a marriage between him and her granddaughter. For a while, this worked, until Tewodros decided he was done with his new relatives and wanted more power. He took over and through conquest, unified a large portion of the region. He wasn’t without some compassion, though. He took in the son of a prince he killed and eventually married that boy to his daughter Alitash. The boy, now a young man, escaped Tewodros and went on to become Emperor Menelik II, who cemented Ethiopia’s fame as a bastion against colonialism.
Colonialism had spread like a fever throughout Europe, and those powers late to the game - Italy, specifically - sought their own chance to build an empire. In Ethiopia’s region, the Ottoman Empire had reigned for years. But, through force and cunning, the English had managed to gain control over Egypt, and the French over Somalia. A strip of land on the Red Sea between British and French dominions – what is today Eritrea – became a vital beachhead into the African highlands, and the English, fearing French domination and not trusting Ethiopian rule, “gave” it to the Italians. Thus began the first Italo-Ethiopian War.
It did not end well for the Europeans. Vastly outnumbered and fighting far from their home turf, the Italians were slaughtered and returned home in defeat. And, suddenly, the world heard about an African ruler who dared to stand up to Europe, and who won. The Italians were to strike again, just before World War II, and were this time victorious. Like Menelik, the emperor who stood up to them, Haile Selassie – born Ras Tafari Makonnen (yes, the “Ras Tafari” that present-day Rastafarians identify with) became famous as a hero who stood up to European domination.
Today, Ethiopia is a populous country in East Africa. Like many other countries in Africa, it faced division and bloodshed in the Cold War, and the line of Solomon fell to a Communist coup in 1974. In the 1990s, facing the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Eritrea (the former Italian colony, and Ethiopia’s Red Sea port), Ethiopia has again warmed to the West.