*** Ethiopian history Ethiopian history

Ethiopian History

Ethiopian history
Figure 1.--Christianity has played a major role in Ethiopian history. The Axum Empire adopted Christianity and made it the state religion (4th century). This image (I think a fresco) is from a monastery church on an island in the middle of Lake Tana. The picture shows an unusual scene. The Virgin Mary is punishing Jesus, something you will not see in Western art. (There are apocryphal books which were very popular before the early chirch cannonized the modern Bible. Some of these books describe Jesus as a child being rather naughty.) Jesus here is clothed in contemprary Ethiopian clothing, but the individuals do not have African features. We are not sure when this was painted. The monastery may date to the 16th or 17th century, but of course the picture could have been painted later.

Ethiopia is sub-Sahara Africa's oldest independent nation. Most other countries in Africa are creations of European colonial era. The first known kingdom developed around Axum (3rd century BC). Axum developeed from the Semitic Sabeam kingdoms in southern Arabia. Here geography was a factor. The Horn of Aftrica shoots out into the Indian Ocean toward Arabia. This provided a natural channel for trade and commuication. Axum came to control the ivory markey in northeast Africa. The earliest written information on Ethiopian history comes from the Bible when it was reported that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1000 BC). Axum gradually encroached on the Meroe kingdom in modern Sudan, eventually conquering it. A Syrian, Frumentius, grew up in Axum and converted the King and Christianity became the state religion. Frumentius became the first Bishop of Ethiopia (330 AD). Ethiopia was the one African country to defeat a European army during the Scramble for Africa--an Italian army. The Italians invaded again in a prelude to World War II.


Ethiopia is the northerrn Africa terminus of the Great Tift Valley which cintinues up the Red Sea into Israel. This is where nany of the earliest evidence of early humans have been found. Many scholars are convinced that modern Ethiopia is where early Homo sapiens emerged in the middle Palaeolithic (about 150–200,000 BP). This is because the earlies hominid fossils were discovered in Ethiopia (1994) and date to (4.2 milliom BP). This is '“Ardi' (Ardipithicus ramidus). The better known 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afarensis) discovered (1974) date to (3.2 mmiilion BP). The oldest stone tools ever discovered were found in Etiopia (2010). They date to (3 million BP). Fossilised animal bones associatioin wuith homonids becyse they have tool inflicted marks have also been found in Ethiopia dating to (3.4 million BP). .

Punt (3000 BC)

Egyptian chroniclers descrtibe the wealthy 'Land of Punt'. Scholars bekieve that this was what is modern Ethiopia/ The Egyptians began trading with Punt (3000 BC). It was a source of myrrh, ivory, animal skins. The trade was cionducted up the Nile, but of cvourse Kush stood in the way. There was also trade along the Red Sea coast. Punt left no written evidence.

Yeha (1000 BC)

The kingdom of D’mt with its capital at Yeha was the first kingdom known to have existed (10th century BC). A Sabean style temple has been fiund (800 BC). It is the oldest standing structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Sabean culture is associated with southern Arabia (modern Yemen).

Axum (3rd Century BC)

The most imprtant ancient Ethiopian kingdome developed around Axum (3rd century BC). Axum emergedf from the Semitic Sabeam kingdoms in southern Arabia. Here geography was a factor. The Horn of Aftrica shoots out into the Indian Ocean toward Arabia. This provided a natural channel for trade and commuication. Axum came to control the ivory market in northeast Africa. Axum conquered most of Yemen and southern Arabia. The earliest written information on Ethiopian history comes from the Bible when it was reported that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1000 BC). Axum gradually encroached on the Meroe kingdom in modern Sudan, eventually conquering it. A Syrian, Frumentius, grew up in Axum and converted the King and Christianity became the state religion. Frumentius became the first Bishop of Ethiopia (330 AD). Axum survived as an important regional power until the rise of Islam.

Rise of Islam (7th-8th Century AD)

The rise of Islam had a powerful impact on Ethiopia (7th century). Ethiopia was not Islamicized, but the Islamic conquest of North Africa (8th century) cut Ethiopia from the rest of the Christian world. This isolation was especilly effective as it would be centuries before Europeans would round the Cape of Good Hope and enter the Indian Ocean. Ethiopia wascut off from its Mediterranean trading partner. Trade would have to be conducted through Arab intermediaries. Arabs replaced the Egyptians in Red Sea ports. Arab authorities did allow Ethiopians to consecrate their Bishops in Cairo. Egyptian Christian Pilgrims were allowed to travel to Jerusalem.

Southern Pagan Tribes

Ethiopia was not only pressed upon by the Arabs from the north. They also were confronted by the pagan tribes to the south. Ethiopian Christianity made a limited effort to prostelicze to the south. A factor here was the lack of military power which was a factor (but not the only factor) in Christiamizing the pagan tribes of Europe. Raids and conflicts with the tribes had a major impact on Ethioppian society. Ethiopian emperors had to adopt the culture of nomadic military commanders, force to live in makeshift cities. This of course limited the ability of Ethiopia develop culture and technology. The Christian Church was also affected. Priests became monks and hermits. Over time some of the pagan tribes were pacified. Ethiopia eventually conquered the provinces of Amhara, Lasta, Gojam and Damot. The capital was shifted to the south and located in Amhara province.

Muslim Expansion (12th Century)

Arab Muslims moved into Red Sea ports and dominated commerce in the Indian Ocean (7th and 8th centuries). Actualy political expansion did not begin until much later * In the 12th century Muslim expansion began. Independent Muslim trading kingdoms developed along the Red Sea. They gradually expanded their control toward the Awash Valley. The economy of these kindoms was based on trade with the interior. especially for slaves, gold and ivory.

Red Sea Vassal Kingdoms (13th and 14th Centuries)

Ethiopia turned the Muslim Red Sea kingdoms into vassal states (13th and 14th centuries). Notably this occurred when the Caliphate was destroyed by the Mongols. This affected the power of the Muslim states which survived.


Slavery in Ethiopia has existed since ancient times. Slavery has been an integral part of Afro-Asiatic-dominated Ethiopian society since its inception and contonues into the 20th century. The major source of slaves was Nilotic Shanqella people living in Ethiopia's southern interior. These were people with a lower level of development and technology and thus unable to defend themselves from slave rading. Another important source of slaves was captives taken in war. Slavery was not only an integral part of Ethiopian society, but a very complex social structure. The status of slaves as well as their treatment and duties varied in part on the source and how they were acquired. [Abir, p. 57.] Details on slavery in ancient times is limited. It is known to have existed. Little information is available on the extent and importance. We do not know about trade with the Roman Empire. We know they were African slaves in the Roman era, although the numbers seem limited. We believe they mostly came through Egypt, but some may have come through Ethiopia. Our impression is that Ethipoian slavery in ancient times was primarily domestic. More is known about the medieval era which essentially emcompses the era beginning with the Arab outburst from Arabia creating the Islamic era. Ethiopia participated in the Arab slave trade, but its role was different than in most of the rest of Africa. There were relatively powerful Ethiopian states that made the Arab slave trading that went on throughout the continent more difficult. It was Ethiopians who sold slaves to the Arabs. The numbers are unknown, but this trade went on for centuries. The Arabs used these slaves for a range of purposes, including concubines, bodyguards, servants, treasurers, and other duties. [Smith] As far as we can tell, the primary role of slavery in Ethiopia throughout the medieval era was domestic. There were major changes in the 19th century as Britain used the Royal Navy to end the slave trade, first the European Atlantic slave trade and than the Arab Indian Ocean slave trade. Thus with foreign markets severed, Ethiopian slavery thus became almost entirely domestic. Ethiopian emperors beginning in the mid-19th century began efforts to abolish slavery, but the institution was so ingrained that this proved difficult, but some progress was made. The firt emperor to ban slavery was Tewodros II (1855-68). There was in Ethiopia a complex slave system with both 'black' and 'red' slaves. Age and gender were also important. Younger boys like the ones seen here were often worth more than older slaves because they could be trained (figure 1). After about age 20 years becauses they began to see them as untrainable. Major efforts did not begin until Ethiopia joined the League of Nations (1923), but slavery was still a fact of life in many rural areas. The Italians also made some efforts after invading and seizing the country (1935), but again slavery persusted away from urban centers administered by the Italians ho were not aversed to using forced lbor themselves. The Western Allies which liberated Ethiopia durung World War II (1941), demanded that the country abolish abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Emperor Haile Selassie issued a proclamation outlawing slavery (August 26, 1942). This and subsequent enforcement finally forvall practical purposes put an end to the practice.

Ottoman Empire (15th Century)

the Ottoman Empire became a major force (15th century. The Bzantime Empire disappeard with the Fall of Constaninople (1452). The Ottomans also expanded into Europe and south into Arab lands. This mean that again a powerful Muslim force was interposing itself between Ethiopia and the rest of the Christian world. The Ottomans seized Egypt from the Mamelukes. The Ottomans then began supporting the Muslim Red Sea kingdoms, including providing modern firearms and artillery. Thus the formerly vassal Red Sea Arab states became a military threat to Christian Ethiopia. The shifted the ballance of power in East Africa. It certainly would have led to the conquest of the Ethiopian Christian Empire. What prevented it was the Portugese voyages of discovery. The Portugese broke Ottoman/Arab sea power in the Indian Ocean at the Battle of Diu (1509). This significantly releaved Musalim military pressure on the Ethiopians. Portuguese missionaries attempted to persuade the Ethiopian church to accept the Pope in Rome as the leader of the Church (1542).

Declining Empire (18th Century)

The Ethiopian Empire broke down as local war lords seized power in the (18th century). This resulted in a century of internal conflict among the provincial war lords.

Resisting Europen Colonialism (19th Century)

The Europen powers until the late-19th century did not colonize sub-Saharan Africa. For the most part they simply set up coastal trading stations. This did not change until the second half of the 19th century. What followed has been described as the Scramble for Africa. A divided Ethiopia at war with itself as was the case in the 18th century would have been easy prey for the Europeans. In fact, Ethiopia was the only country in Africa to successfully resist the Europeans. This was in large measure because of two strong emperors and competition among the European powers. Ras Kassa had himself crowned as the emperor at Axum under the name Tewodros (1855). He organized an army to reunite the provinces. He brought Tigre, Amhara and Shoa once again under the control of the central government. Despite his success, Tewodros shot himself when the British besieged his fortress (1867). He was succeeded by John IV who the British armed. John IV further expanded the provinces under control of the Empire. He gained control of the Afars, the Somalis of Harrar and the Ogadam, and the Gallas. The British forced John to accept the young vassal King of Shoa as his heir, Menelik. He proved to be a strong leader, influenced by the British, but no puppet. Menelik built up a strong army with enough modern arms to defeat the Italians at Adowa (1896). This would prove to be the only European colonial power to be defeated by an African army.

Haile Selassie: Prince and Emperor (1916-35)

Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen led a revol and seized power as Prince Regent and heir to the throne (1916). He was was proclaimed Emperor Haile Selassie (1930).

Italian Colonization (1935)

Mussolini's invaded Ethiopia which at the time was an independent state (1935). Mussolini's invading army used modern weapons, again including poison gas, to attack a largely unarmed country. The Ethiopins had defeated an Italian Army in 1896 and Mussoline was determined to redeem what he saw as a blot on the national honor. Marshal Pietro Badoglio commanded the Italian invasion force. Using modern weapons, the Italian Army quickly overwealmed Emperor Haile Selassie's lightly armed forces. The Italian extensevly used poison gas. (The Allies in 1943 made a deal with Badoglio to overthrow Musolini.) The Italian Ministry of Defence did not admit until 1995 that poison gas had been used by the Italian Air Force. [Del Boca] The Italian invasion was widely condemned at the League of Nations more than 50 other countries. The invasion gave rise to world-wide indignation, but nor military support for Ethiopia. Criticism was especially heated in Britain which, still thinking about World War I, people were truly shocked by Italy's use of poison-gas as well as deliberate bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances--especially the British Red Cross Unit. [Waley]

World War II

Ethiopia featured prominently in the years leading up to World War II. Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was entent on reserecting the Roman Empire. The first step was to brutally put down a nationalist insuregency in Libya (1920s). Mussolini's next step was to invade Ethiopia which at the time was an independent state (1935). Using modern weapons, the Italian Army quickly overwealmed Emperor Haile Selassie's lightly armed forces. Italian attrocities in Libya had not been widely reported. The invasion of Ethiopia was. The Allies (Britain and France) supported scantions in the League of Nation. Mussolini was outraged and the ineffective League scantions was a factor in his closer relations with Hitler and NAZI Germany. Italy entered the War once the German invasion in the West over France was secured (June 1940). This meant that the Italian colonies in Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Libya) were combat zones because they bordered on British colonies or countries like Egypt which were British protectorates. Britian had such limited forces in the area that what was available was concentrated in Egypt where a hugh Italian army launched a major offensive from Libya (September 1940). They drove a few miles into Egypt and then set up defensive positions. On paper it looked like the Italians also had a large force in Ethiopia. The Italian forces were, however, weak and their Ethiopian auxileries of questionable loyalty. It was the British, despite their numerical inferiority, who attacked the Italians. The stunning British victory over the Italians in the Western Desert (December 1940) gave the British the opportunity to deal with the Italian forces south of Egypt. The British put together a small force of South African and African colonial troops. They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces. Behind the British forces, Emperor Haile Salassie returned to Ethiopia, arriving in Gojam (January 20, 1941) and began organizing the resistance groups.


After World War II, the province of Eritrea remained under British control. The British oversaw a plebiscite organised by the United Nations (1952). The population voted for a federation with Ethiopia. Muslims did not want a fedration with Christian Ethiopia. The Federation was disolved (1962). Emperor ordered Eritrea annexed. The result was a guerrilla warfare with Muslim fighters attacking the Ethiopians and Christian Eritreans. The Muslim Eritreans saw the Ethiopian annexation as being colonised. The result was years of inconclusive fighting and a loss of prestige for the now aging Emperor.

Haile Selassie (1942-74)

Emperor Haile Selassie was returned to power by the British during World War II. The Emperor Haile Selassie was respected on the world stage for his resistance to Fascism and his role as an African statesman. He was a key person in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). At home, however, the Emperor did little to modernize his still largely feudal country. The country and its wealth was controlled by the nobility and the church. There was famine in several provinces, especially the northern provinces, as a result of primitive farming practices, exploitive feudal system, and the weather. Thousands of more people perished as a result of the guerilla war in Eritrea. He was overthrowm by the Derg. Some of the Royal Family managed to escpe into exile. The Emperor died in captivity.

Famine (1973-74)

The economy of Ethiopia even in the late-20th century continued to be based on subsistence agriculture. The aristocracy consumed most of the surplus. The Ethiopian peasants lacked incentives to either improve farming methods or to store their excess harvest. They lived from harvest to harvest. They amounted to approximately the great majority of the population and still do. Famines occured in northern Ethiopia erlier: Amhara and Tigray (1913-14), Amhara (1929), Tigray (1958), and Amhara (1966). Famine struck again in northern Amhara (1973). The Amhara Region is the most important agricultural region of Ethiopia. The Amhara Highlands receive something like 80 percent of the country's total rainfall. It is by far the most fertile and well watered region of Ethiopia. Laka Tana, the source of the Blue Nile is located in Amhara at Bahir Dar. The flow of the Blue Nile reaches maximum volume in the rainy season (June to September) and supplies about two-thirds of the water of the Egypt's famed Nile. The Blue Nile, along with the Atbara River to the north, which also flows out of the Ethiopian Highlands, cause the annual Nile floods that made the Nile so fertile and was the basis of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The 1972 harvest was poor. Poor rainfall triggered the 1973-74 famine. Some 300,000 people, predominantly the northern peasantry, died during the famine. [UN FAO] The lack of rain resulted in a harvest failure, but many other factors contributd to the death toll. It was not that there was notfood avilable in Ethiopia. The drought that caused the harvest failure only affected northern Ethiopia, particularly Amhara. Starvation ensued, because little food from the Ethiopian a regions not affected by the drought. The suffering peasants did not have money to purchase food. Ethiopia lacked the infrastructure and the will to transport large quantities of food to Amhara and destribute it to the starving peasantry. One author estimates that there were only 14,000 miles of road in the country and only a third of that all weather. [Jansson, Harris, and Penrose] Some 90 percent of the population lived more than a day�s walk from a road. The Imperial Government made no real effort to save the starving peasants. Failure to respond to the crisis was a major factor leading to the fall of the Imperial government and the rise of the Communist Derg (1974). Tragically the Derg proved even more deadly to the Ethiopian peasantry.

Revolution (1974)

The failure of Emperor Haile Selassie to moderize the country and address deep seeded social problems combined with famine and the simmering war in Eritrea made the aging Emperor increasingly unpopular. Finally a wave of demonstrations, mutinies and uprisings suceeded in overthrowing the Emperor. He held under armed guard in his palace and died several months later. There was no one of stature to replace him. The country was in the hands od the Army and a group of junior officers who proceeded to impose a military dictatorship. Ethiopia had no tradition of democracy and the Emperor had done nothing to build one. The junior officers were poorly educated and were impressed by socialist ideas that were popular in nationalist, anti-colonial circles throughout Europe. The saw little value in either democracy or free market economics. These men saw that Ethiopia needed a social revolution which was obvious enough, but they saw the Communist model and socialist economics as the effective way of modernizing their country. Mengistu Haile Miriam emerged as the revolutionary leader. He proceeded to expel Americans and institute radical economic reforms. He ordered the arrest of any one who criticized his regime. Vigilante groups carried out massacres. Opposition grew. The Eritreans intensified their guerrilla war. It is in this atmoshere that the Somalis decided to launch a campaign to reclaim the Ogaden desert.

Civil War (1974-91)

Ogaden War (1976-78)

The Ogaden Desert is located between Somalia and Egypt and claimed by both. Emperor John IV had regained the Ogaden for Ethiopia (19th century). The Ogaden War is one of several wars that were a mix of historic, traditional issues and the Cold war. Like many of the shooting wars of the Cold War. it became deadly because of the modern weaponry made available as aesult of the Cold war. The Soviets had armed the Somalis at a time that Ethiopia was an American ally. As aresult the Somali National Army had a modern armor force. The Revolution that relaced Emperor Haile Selassie (1974) had installed a Ledt-Wing military distatorship which also became a Soviet ally. While both Somalia and Ethiopiawee Soviet allies, this did not change centuries of emnity and the dispute over the Ogaden. The Somalis possessing a powerful The Somalis after tough fighting, managed to overrun Jijiga--an important Ethiopian military base and rail center (1978). The Soviets attempted to mediate between their twi allies, but the Somalis were intent on recovring the Ogaden. The Somalis seemed posed to capture areas along the rail line. For a time it looked like the Ethiopian military regime might collapse. It s at this time the Soviets intervened in force with arms shipments and introducing Cuban surrogates. Mengistu and he Cubans were able to drive the Somalis back across the border.

Revolutionary Ethiopia

The Mengistu regime was saved by the Soviets and Cubans. He proceeded to pursue revolution in Ethiopia. Central to the new regime was the Kebeles or people's committees. They controlled the everyday lives of the population. What they did not do was to promote economic development in any sensible way. Development and economic growth is the only way to modernize a country and Ethiopia is just one example of how inefficent Communism is as a program for moderizing and developing a country. The Ethiopian regime forcibly mobilized large numbers of people and moved around the country in poorly conceived effort to end famine. Conscription laws eventually forced ever man from 18 to 70 years into the Army. Rather than increasing the production of food and other products, production declined and the famine problem intensified. Ppopular discontent grew with spreading famine and wars in Eritrea, Ogaden and Tigray. Mengistu sensing the inevitable as rebel forces moved toward Addis, hastily departed the country (1991). He was given refuge by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe (1991).

Famine (1984-85)

Ethiopia and Eritea during the Revolutuionasry Era experienced one of Africa's worst famines (1984-85). The crisis began with a drought centered in Gojjam, Hararghe, Tigray, and Wollo�all provinces. They experienced record low rainfall. The drought was bad enough, but famines in the midern age are not just caused by environmental conditions, usually governments are involved. And in the 20st century, most of the terrible famines were caused, some times on purpose, by Communist Governments. And in Ethiopia, the Communist Revoutionary Goverment's policies turned a bad situation into a humanitarian disaster. The Goverment made no real effort to prepare for the crisis. And insurgencies the Government generated, drained resources needed to deal with the famine. President Mengistu announced that nearlky half of the country's Gross National Product would devoted to military spending (1984). The President created the largest standing army in sub-Saharan Africa. Allocation for health were sharply cut. There is no real accountingb of the deaths resulting from the famine. The vUnited Nations estimted 1 million deaths, but there is almost no real data supporting this assessment. It is, however, clear that the very least hundreds of thousands of people died and over a million people were made destitute. The Western media began reporting on the crisis. This was able to generate sizeable charitable contributions. One important author who has written exdtensively on famines, Alex de Waal. has criticized the United Nations policies. He also is critical of the Western chairitable effort, charging that, "The humanitarian effort prolonged the war, and with it, human suffering." [Da Waal, 1997]

New Government (1991)

The new government led by Meles Zenawi replaciing Mengistu's Revolution with an attempted to develop a multi-party democracy. Eritrea was allowed to become an independent country. Eritrea would be led by Isaias Afwerki, who had cooperated with Zenawi in the struggle to oust Mengistu. Tragically this would not end the fighting because of boundary differences.


Da Waal, Alex. Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. African Rights and the International African Institute. (1997).


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Created: 7:59 PM 5/13/2009
Last updated: 10:37 PM 9/30/2021