As you travel through Ethiopia, you’ll discover that the country’s many historical sites are just as impressive as its landscapes, wildlife, and culture. Ethiopia’s history stretches back into the distant past, all the way to humankind’s prehistory. You’ll experience this impressive heritage through the many art and artefacts on display in the country’s museums, churches, and galleries. This summary will help you put what you see into context.
The east African Rift Valley (including present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania) is considered to be “the cradle of humankind” – the region where modern human beings and their ancestors evolved. Many astonishing archaeological discoveries have been made in Ethiopia, but probably the most notable occurred in 1974 in north eastern Ethiopia, when a set of 3.5 million year-old bones was unearthed. The assembled skeleton, nicknamed Lucy, provides a magnificent example of Australopithecus afarensis, an early hominid. You can see the remains on display at the National Museum in Addis Ababa.
Axum: from the 1st century BC to the 7th century AD
Ethiopia was also an early seat of human culture and is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with historical remains stretching back to the era of ancient Greece and Rome. At that time, the Axumite empire (so named because its capital was in the northern city of Axum) was one of the most important and technologically advanced civilizations in the world, and it remained a major force in world trade until the seventh century AD. The kingdom’s origins remain obscure, but its links with Ancient Egypt and its trade with Mediterranean cultures are evinced by pottery, coins, and other artifacts discovered in various sites in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Axum’s rulers adopted Christianity in the early fourth century and cultivated a unique language (called Geez), and her skilled masons designed the first of the many rock-hewn churches and catacombs that have made the country famous.
The decline of Axum and the growth of the Ethiopian Church
Axum declined in the seventh century due to its great geographical distance from the Mediterranean and the difficulty of maintaining its patterns of trade after Muslims came to dominate the Red Sea following the spread of Islam to North Africa and southern Arabia. The relative isolation of the Ethiopian lands during the following five centuries meant that Ethiopian Christianity largely developed in isolation from Roman Catholicism. This resulted in a unique set of canonical texts, liturgical practices, hymns, and customs that can still be seen and explored today, along with the roughly 300 rock-hewn churches that date from this period.
Yodit and the Zagwe Dynasty: from the 10th to the 16th century
As the Axumite empire lost its trade routes, retreated from the coast, and expanded southward, it came into increasing conflict with Jewish communities from which it demanded taxes and tribute. Finally, during the tenth century, Queen Yodit (or Judith) succeeded in uniting the Jewish groups and led a devastating campaign against Axum, culminating in the destruction of the royal city and dozens of churches and Christian settlements. Following her death several decades later, Christian heirs to the throne at Axum reasserted themselves and established the Zagwe dynasty. Several centuries of stability and growth followed as the Zagwe kings rebuilt their capital city and consolidated their rule.
Religious conflicts erupts in the 16th century
For several centuries after the introduction of Islam to Ethiopia in the seventh century, Muslims and Christians coexisted peacefully, but as the number of Muslims increased, first in the eastern part of the country and then along the coast and into the western portion of the kingdom, competition for territory grew. Several minor wars were fought beginning in the thirteenth century as the Christian rulers sought to expand southward, and then in 1528 an all-out war began that lasted 32 years. Muslim armies were almost successful in ending Christian rule, but in the end an appeal by the emperor to western Christendom was answered by the Portuguese, who sent a contingent of soldiers who turned the tide of battle and pushed the Muslims back to their previous territories. However, the weakness of the two forces after more than thirty years of intense armed conflict enabled the Galla – a stateless and pagan people based in the southern part of the country – to expand northward. This led to tension and open combat between Christians and Galla, further fragmentation of political control, and the rise of regional princes at the expense of central authority. As a result of Galla threat, the emperor returned the royal capital (which had shifted southward) to northern Ethiopia in 1636, constructing a vast complex at Gonder.
19th century consolidation
This political fragmentation lasted until the mid-19th century, when emperors Tewodros II and Yohannis IV finally succeeded in centralizing power and re-established a united Ethiopia just as European powers began to convert independent African states into colonial territories. Great Britain entered into Ethiopian affairs, but only briefly as it sought to secure its interests in Egypt. Instead, it was Italy that posed the greatest threat to Ethiopian sovereignty. Beginning in 1884, Italian forces began occupying ports on the Red Sea, and for the next twelve years intermittent combat continued, culminating in the Battle of Adwa in March 1896 and a decisive victory for Ethiopian troops. The ensuing peace settlement ensured that Ethiopia was the only part of Africa to survive as an independent state during the late 19th century “scramble for Africa” by Europe’s great powers. Ethiopia then experienced seventeen years of peace and development (with sizable investments in education, infrastructure, and health care) until the death of Menelik II, who had succeeded Yohannis IV during the long struggle against the Italians. Menelik II moved the capital of the empire from Gonder to Addis Ababa, the previous regional Showan capital.
Haile Selassie, World War Two and postwar restoration
The next chapter of Ethiopian history is dominated by Ras (Prince) Tefari Mekonnen, later to become Emperor Haile Selassie. The son of the governor of Harar, Ras Tefari served as regent to Empress Zawditu from 1916 to 1930 and then became emperor following the empress’ death. His first achievement was to redraft the constitution to create a unified political system, albeit one that continued to concentrate power in the hands of the emperor and the nobility. However, an expansionist Italian state under Mussolini renewed hostilities with Ethiopia and succeeded in occupying the country from mid-1936 until liberation by Allied troops in January 1941; during this period, Haile Selassie went into exile. After the war, the most important developments were the UN-backed inclusion of Eritrea in Ethiopia, which was opposed by many Eritrean and resulted in a long-simmering independence movement; close relations with the United States government, which absorbed much of US military aid for Africa; high international status for Haile Selassie as a leader of the newly-independent states in Africa; and simmering discontent internally due to the lack of economic development, an antiquated political system, and the oppressive measures taken against opponents of the regime. Discontent surged in the wake of a devastating famine in 1973 that claimed 200,000 lives, and following several months of strikes and protests, a socialist government took power. The emperor was killed, and his body was buried on the palace grounds.
Socialism in Ethiopia
The Derg, as the new government was called, followed the typical course of action in other socialist states: led by Mengistu Haile Maryam, it installed a new government, focused its foreign relations on the Soviet Union and its allies; confiscated property belonging to members of the previous ruling class, outlawed private ownership of land, and collectivized agricultural production. It also rejected calls for Eritrean independence and ruthlessly imprisoned, tortured, and killed those whom it saw as enemies of the state. But like the government that it had replaced, it faced increasing opposition from within, exacerbated significantly in 1985 by a horrible famine that took a staggering one million lives. With the demise of European socialism after 1989, the Derg lost its international support, and in 1991 it collapsed as popular opposition movements overtook it.
The government that succeeded the Derg finally brought multi-party democracy to Ethiopia. Led by Meles Zenawi, the government set about the difficult tasks of post-Communist transition, remaking the civil service administration, building infrastructure suited to a globalized world, and fostering private investment. As a result of these reforms, since 2004 Ethiopia has had one of the highest rates of economic growth in the world, although it still remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. The untimely death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in September 2012 was mourned throughout the country, and the Vice Premier, Hailemariam Desalegn, took over the leadership of government. The next national elections are scheduled for 2015.