HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Modern Ethiopia occupies a large part of the Horn of Africa. Several fossil hominins dating back 3 or 4 million years, including Ardipithecus ramidus (‘Ardi’) and Australopithecus afarensis (‘Lucy’, known in Ethiopia as Dǝnqǝnäš, meaning ‘You are wonderful’), have been discovered in the Ethiopian rift valley, earning it the title of ‘cradle of humankind’. Homo sapiens has now lived in the area for more than 200,000 years.

The historical period in the region begins with references to Ancient Egyptian trade with the land of Punt around 3000 BCE. Some 2000 years later the kingdom known as D‘mt (possibly pronounced Da‘ǝmat) arose in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with some influence from what is now Yemen across the Red Sea.

D‘mt was succeeded by the Kingdom of Aksum, which had its origins in the final centuries BCE and became a significant regional power in the 1st century CE. For several hundred years, Aksum played an important role in the Red Sea trade between the Byzantine Empire and India. Successive monarchs extended their control north into Sudan, east into Yemen and south into more central parts of present-day Ethiopia. They minted their own coins and developed a distinctive style of architecture, reflected in the stelae that still stand in the city of Aksum today. Gǝ‘ǝz, a Semitic tongue, was the state language. King ‘Ezana converted to Christianity in around the 330s, after which the new religion spread slowly among the people. Aksum declined once control of the Red Sea trade fell into Muslim hands after the rise of Islam in the 7th century, and there are few records that attest to its final years.

The centre of power then shifted some 250 km south from Aksum to the highlands of Lasta, an area inhabited by Agäw-speaking people. There, the Zagwe dynasty ruled for some 300 years from the late 10th century until 1270. They retained many aspects of Aksumite civilisation, not least their Christian faith, the use of Gǝ‘ǝz as their administrative language and many elements of architectural style. One of the early rulers was the saint-king Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos, who is buried at the church bearing his name, half a day’s journey north of the Zagwe capital Roha. The capital was later renamed after the 12th–13th century saint-king Lalibäla (often spelt Lalibela), who is credited in local tradition with hewing out a large cluster of churches from the solid rock there in imitation of the heavenly Jerusalem. Archaeologists now suggest, however, that these churches were carved out progressively from the 10th century onwards.

Conflicts over succession left the Zagwe kingdom vulnerable. In 1270, Yǝkunno Amlak, the grandson of a chieftain from the southern fringes of the Zagwe kingdom, is believed to have defeated Yǝtbaräk, the last Zagwe ruler, and established the Amharic-speaking Solomonic dynasty. This dynasty was to survive until the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974. It justified its coup d’état by claiming direct descent from the last king of Aksum and, through him, from Mǝnilǝk (Menelik),the son of the Queen of Sheba and the biblical King Solomon, whereas the Zagwe rulers were alleged to be non-Solomonic and therefore usurpers. 

The early Solomonic kings had no capital but ruled from peripatetic royal camps. Yǝkunno Amlak and his successors, particularly kings ‘Amdä Ṣǝyon (14th century) and Zär‘a Ya‘ǝqob (16th century), conducted numerous military campaigns to consolidate their hold over the northern highlands of Ethiopia and to conquer and convert many neighbouring areas to the south-east, south and west that either followed Islam or professed local religions. They also sent ambassadors to Rome and elsewhere, including Portugal, resulting in Portugal sending them military support in 1541–43 to fight the invading army from the Sultanate of ‘Adal, led by Imam Aḥmad bin Ibrāhīm al-Ġāzī (known as Graññ). Jesuit missions remained in the country until they were expelled by King Fasilädäs in 1633.

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Fasilädäs also made the city of Gondär the capital of the Ethiopian kingdom, and a period of stability ensued during which intellectual life and the arts flourished. In the mid-eighteenth century. however, bitter conflict between ethnic, religious and feudal factions plunged the country into turmoil for around 100 years. With the accession of King Tewodros II in 1855, the country emerged into its modern era, but a dispute with Britain led to the British sending a punitive expeditionary force, which defeated Tewodros at the siege of Magdala in 1868.

Soon afterwards, Emperor Menelik II granted Italy control over Eritrea in return for modern weapons, but he quashed Italy’s designs on the whole country by defeating its army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. He then expanded Ethiopia’s territory to its current borders by incorporating the southern and eastern lowlands inhabited by Somali, Oromo and other peoples.


The last emperor, Haile Selassie (ruled 1930–74) set about modernising Ethiopia, although he was forced into exile during the Italian occupation of the country in 1936–41. After World War II he re-annexed Eritrea, leading to its struggle for independence, which it formally achieved in 1993.

In 1974 the communist Derg regime toppled Haile Selassie and imposed a totalitarian, militaristic government that had a profound impact on the traditional religion-focused way of life of the majority of the population. The famine of the early 1980s increased support for opposition groups, which finally ousted the regime in 1991.


The new constitutional government under Meles Zenawi re-aligned with the Western powers and kept tight control over dissident groups. However, its perceived bias towards Tigrayans led to widespread dissatisfaction among other groups. The current prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to redress the balance have not yet met with the success hoped for, and sporadic unrest still occurs.

© 2020 by SolZag Project

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