A History of Ethiopia: The Abbreviated Version

Get out your injera bread and pour yourself a steaming cup of Ethiopian espresso because, if you’re unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, you’re in for a treat. The country is absolutely unique and the history is somewhat mind-boggling. After three weeks of cycling through the Ethiopian mountains, I’m still struggling to figure out which end is up. The problem is that Ethiopian tour guides, as well as Ethiopians you meet on the street, will state with absolute conviction facts that would not necessarily stand up to independent corroboration. For instance, did the Queen of Sheba really rule over an ancient kingdom? Is the Ark of the Covenant kept somewhere in modern day Aksum? People swore to me that these things were true, but I never found any verification of these assertions other than the convictions of people’s beliefs. I’ll try to point out below where the archaeological record is missing; but if one of the reasons to study what’s happened before is to gain insight into what’s happening now, perhaps it’s important to understand the history that people believe to be true no matter what the scientific evidence shows. And to spend some time contemplating what really distinguishes a historical fiction from a historical fact.

imageLet’s start with some science. One of Ethiopia’s claims to fame is that it is the resting place of a number of ancient hominid remains – including, most famously, Lucy. These remains were discovered in the Great Rift Valley, which runs all the way from the Dead Sea down through Ethiopia and into the Great Lakes of Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. Lucy died around 3.2 million years ago; she was discovered in 1974, at which time she was the oldest and most complete hominid fossil to be uncovered. More recent finds have suggested that Lucy may be less of a great-grandmother figure to the human race and more of a great-aunt on a lateral branch of human evolution. But either way, Lucy shattered the theory that hominids only began walking upright after evolving larger brains. Fun trivia fact: Lucy is named after the Beatles song, which was a favorite in the camp of the archaeologists who discovered her.

Fast forward several million years to around 2000 BC; as you may recall from posts on Egypt and Sudan, this was the age of the pharaohs. Records are scarce, but what is now the country of Eritrea probably formed part of the Land of Punt, which traded with the ancient Egyptians and established contacts in southern Arabia. Around 1500 BC, a civilization arose which combined African influences with cultural traditions of the Sabaean people in Arabia. The city established at Yeha during this period is generally considered Ethiopia’s first capital. One lasting legacy of this civilization is the Ge’ez language: a precursor to modern Amharic and, impressively, a script that is still read by some Christian priests in Ethiopia today. By my count, that makes Ge’ez quite possibly the oldest language that is still read that you’ve never heard of.

Around 1000 BC, we enter the age of the Queen of Sheba. WARNING: nothing about this famous queen is in the archaeological record. My sources here are a tour guide in Gondar, two guys I met on the street in Addis, and the Lonely Planet. So maybe don’t quote this stuff with too much conviction at your next cocktail party.

imageAnyway, according to tradition, the Queen of Sheba was a daughter of Yemen who became the ruler of ancient Ethiopia. In the tenth century BC, she traveled to the court of King Solomon in Jerusalem – evidently, to test the king’s renowned wisdom with difficult questions and riddles, which makes her pretty fabulous if any of that is true. Under Ethiopian legend, King Solomon was a bit of a cad and was determined to bed the beautiful queen. He let her stay in his palace on the condition that she touched nothing of his. Which seems like the sort of condition that might lead you to be suspicious enough to book a room at the Motel 6 instead. The king held a feast in her honor and plied her salty and spicy foods. Afterwards, the pair retired to separate beds in the same sleeping chambers. (Alarm! Alarm! “Don’t worry, you can sleep in my room and I promise we won’t have sex” NEVER MEANS THAT.) In the middle of the night, the thirsty queen reached for the king’s glass of water on the bedside table, at which point the king pounced. The child that resulted was Menelik I, the king from whom every other royal ruler of Ethiopia has claimed direct descent.

Evidently, Menelik later traveled to Jerusalem to meet his father. AND THEN STOLE THE ARK OF THE COVENANT. Which seems bold, and rather surprising that no one noticed the commandments of God packed away on the camels amongst the bedding and spices. The Ark is now believed, at least among Ethiopians, to reside in the St Mary of Zion church in Aksum. Many Ethiopian churches contain replicas of this holy relic.

Aksum (which I’ve also seen written as Axum) puts us back on more solid historical ground. The Kingdom of Aksum emerged as early as 400 BC, when the city of Aksum became an important commercial crossroads. Indeed, Aksum grew to be one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient world, which makes me feel somewhat sheepish that I had never heard of it until a month ago. Many monuments from this time still exist, including the great stelae, or obelisks, which surround modern-day Aksum. Importantly, it was during the Aksumite era that Christianity entered Ethiopia.

Here’s another story: a man known today in Ethiopia as Abuna Selama was born a Christian in the early 300s in Lebanon. He traveled with his brother down the Red Sea to Ethiopia, where a group of locals massacred everyone aboard the boat other than the two boys. They were taken as slaves to the king of Aksum, where they befriended the king’s son, the future King Ezana. Abuna Selama eventually converted Ezana to Christianity, which appears to have become the state religion around this time. Here we’re back to the historical record: King Ezana’s stone inscription references Christ, and the coins during this era bear the Christian cross. At the end of the 400s, a group of wandering missionaries called the Nine Saints arrived from the Levant, built a bunch of monasteries, and went about converting the masses. Today, about half of Ethiopia’s population is Orthodox Christian.

Most other modern-day Ethiopians are either Protestant or Muslim, but Islam didn’t make the early inroads into the country that it did in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Sudan. However, the Muslim hadith recounts that Mohammed sent one of his daughters to Negash in 615 to avoid prosecution in Arabia; Negash remains an important site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Muslims today.

The Kingdom of Aksum declined around 700, when Christian Aksum lost control of the Red Sea trade routes to Islamic Arabia. Thereafter, little is known of the Ethiopian “Dark Ages” during the next several hundred years, except that the Zagwe dynasty reigned from around 1137 to 1270 and built awe-inspiring churches out of rock near present-day Lalibela. Of all the parts of Ethiopia that I missed on our cycle route, Lalibela is the place I’d most like to return.

In 1270, Yekuno Amluk seized control and began the Solomonic dynasty, claiming direct descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The dynasty ruled for 500 years, until the fall of Gonder in the 1700s. This period was known as Ethiopia’s “Middle Ages” and, because the capitals of the kingdom were itinerant at the start of this era, it’s hard for me to imagine this time in any way other than as the guy with two coconut halves following around King Arthur in Monty Python. In reality, rulers had huge courts and entourages that accompanied them about the country. At some point during this time, the Kebra Negast, Ethiopia’s national epic, was written. This book is the source for lots of the history about Queen Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant that I’ve recounted above.

Contacts with Christian Europe also increased, in part as a response to the rise of well-equipped Muslim armies in the area that is now Somalia. Tensions between the religions eventually boiled over in the 1490s when a man named Mahfuz in Somalia declared war against Christian Ethiopia. Cue lots of bloody fighting for the next fifty years. Eventually, Emperor Lebna Dengel of Ethiopia appealed to the Portuguese for help; but in 1542, a warrior named Ahmed Gragn the Left-Handed (not making up this name) DEFEATED 400 PORTUGUESE SOLDIERS in Massawa, which is in present-day Eritrea. This event deserves all caps because the Portuguese were a well-armed bunch; also, it was not the last time that a group of Europeans suffered defeat in this region.

Anyway, that victory didn’t have too many lasting political effects, because good old Ahmed was killed the next year by Galawdewos, the new emperor of Ethiopia. He had help from the surviving Portuguese, an alliance that was renewed several times over the next 200 years as the Ethiopians faced a new threat coming northward from Kenya: the Oromos, a people known for their fighting prowess on horses. To fight the Oromos, several emperors sided with the Portuguese Jesuits. But eventually this alliance proved a step too far when Emperor Susenyos converted to Catholicism and tried to impose his religious views on his people. The result? Civil war. And no Catholicism. Susenyos finally backed down and the Orthodox faith was restored.

imageSusenyos’s son and successor was Emperor Fasiladas, who broke the nomadic tradition of the royal court and founded a new capital at Gonder in 1636. Continuing with the King Arthur theme, the royal palaces at Gonder are sometimes called the Camelot of Ethiopia. The architecture of these palaces is excellent and unique: a fascinating mix of Islamic and European styles. Gonder occupies a strategic position in the hills above Lake Tana (a fact to which I can personally attest – I biked those hills and it wasn’t a picnic) and it became a major power center in the region.

The golden period started to decline in the early 1700s, when court intrigue became rife. Lots of plotting! And poison! When Emperor Iyasu II died in 1755, the Gonder kingdom disintegrated and Ethiopia entered a period of civil war for the next 100 years.

The man who brought it all back together was Kassa Haylu, aka Emperor Tewodros. He gained popularity as a Robin Hood figure who eventually defeated enough rival princes to unify much of the previously warring territories in 1855. He moved the capital to Maqdala, just south of the rock churches at Lalibela. He promoted Amharic as the national language and began an ambitious program of military modernization and land reform. He fell from power after imprisoning a group of Britons who were at his court. The British were NOT PLEASED and sent in heavy forces in 1868. Tewodros died with a flourish on the receiving end of his own pistol and trigger finger.

After a battle for succession, Kassa Mercha proclaimed himself Emperor Yohannes. Yohannes was from the Tigray region of Ethiopia in the north; although he was Ethiopia’s only ruler from this region (the rest have been from the central Amhara region), Tigrayans currently have an influence on Ethiopian politics far larger than their relatively small percentage of Ethiopia’s demographics would otherwise suggest.

As we saw in Egypt, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had dramatic consequences throughout the region. The Italians suddenly became interested in the strategic value of the Red Sea and turned their eyes to the port city of Massawa. While trouble was brewing with the Italians, Yohannes had other problems. Remember General Gordon and the Mahdi up in the Sudan? After the whole beheading incident, the Mahdists started to expand their territory under the leadership of the Khalifa. They progressed into Ethiopia as far as Gonder, which they sacked in 1888. Yohannes was killed the next year in a battle with the Khalifa’s forces.

Enter Emperor Menelik II. In the power vacuum that occurred after the death of Yohannes, the Italians saw Menelik (who had been king of the central Ethiopian region of Shoa) as a potential ally. They signed a treaty that recognized Menelik’s sovereignty in exchange for control over Eritrea. But translation errors fueled a major conflict. Article 17 of the treaty, which dealt with foreign relations, said different things in Italian and Amharic. Whoops! THEY CLEARLY NEEDED BETTER DRAFTING.

The Italians began taking territory further and further south, which was a super fashionable thing to do if you were European and in Africa in the 1890s. Eventually, Menelik had to act. He sent his forces north and, on 1 March 1896 – in an event that shocked pretty much everybody – HE WON THE BATTLE OF ADWA. More all caps! This was a big deal! All Ethiopian schoolchildren know this date because, with that victory, Ethiopia became basically the only independent nation left in Africa after the European powers finished carving up the rest of the continent.

Emperor Menelik built a new capital at Addis Ababa and embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects all over the country. He died (peacefully!) in 1913, at which point there was a bunch of family wrangling over the throne for a decade until Prince Ras Tafari eventually schemed his way to the top. On 2 November 1930, in an extravagant and I’m sure absolutely fabulous spectacle (pay no attention to the cost or all the hungry people), Prince Ras Tafari became Emperor Haile Selassie.

imageSIDE NOTE: If the name Ras Tafari seems familiar, that’s because Marcus Garvey’s followers in Jamaica believed that the emperor’s coronation was the fulfillment of the biblical prophesy that “Kings will come out of Africa.” Garvey’s followers created a new religion: Rastafarianism. But they mostly stayed in Jamaica. Evidently, Selassie wasn’t sure what to think about all this, but eventually granted the Rastafarians some land in the town of Shashemene. Having cycled through this town, the only thing I can really say about it is that lots of people can sell you weed there.


In 1931, the now entirely unified Ethiopia adopted its first written constitution. Which sounds like a bit of joke, since it basically gave Selassie absolute power. Still, Ethiopia was uniquely free from European influence. This was a situation that displeased the Italians, who were still smarting from the Adwa defeat and wanted to expand the control they already had in Eritrea and parts of Somalia.

The Italians invaded on 3 October 1935. Despite sanctions from the League of Nations, no one really did anything about it – mostly because Hitler was getting feisty in Europe and Britain was nervous about pissing off Mussolini and pushing him into an alliance with Germany. The occupation was brutal. The Italians used mustard gas and killed almost 300,000 Ethiopians. Despite valiant counteroffensives, the Italians gained control of most major cities (although one tour guide I had was adamant that Italy never conquered the entire country). The emperor fled and made a famous but ultimately fruitless speech to the League of Nations in June 1936.

Resistance to the occupation was fierce and reached a peak in February 1937 with an assassination attempt on the Italian viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani. In response, thousands of Ethiopians were shot, beheaded, and disemboweled in the capital.

The tide turned with the outbreak of World War II. Britain was no longer worried about appeasing the Italians (too late!) and, with the help of the local Ethiopian forces, launched three successful counterattacks in 1941. Emperor Selassie reentered Addis Ababa on 5 May 1941.

The emperor resumed absolute power, but cracks appeared in his rule at the beginning of the 1960s. There was an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1960, followed by growing discontent over Ethiopia’s unilateral annexation of Eritrea in 1962 and war with Somalia in 1964. In 1972, a famine struck Ethiopia in which an estimated 200,000 people died over the next two years. Students and other people opposed to Selassie’s rule brilliantly used footage of the famine juxtaposed with sumptuous palace banquets (and photos of Selassie feeding steaks to his dogs) to undermine the emperor’s power. Selassie was deposed on 12 September 1974, when he was unceremoniously bundled into the back of a Volkswagen (a deliberate tactic to humiliate him) and driven to prison. He died in 1975 under suspicious circumstances – no one is quite sure whether he was murdered or by whom.

imageIn a set of events that I find eerily prefigures the current events in Egypt, what had at least in part been a student-led revolution was quickly exploited by a military elite. This elite was known as the Derg (which means Committee) and its leader was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Derg purported to be socialist and communist; but from what I’ve seen of its tactics, it seems like it was pure fascism to me. In a Big Brother kind of way: there were some crazy propaganda posters with a big eye watching everyone.

The Derg instituted what was known as the Red Terror to beat back its enemies. Mengistu gave a famous speech in Addis in which he smashed bottles filled with blood (or something that looked like it) to represent the crushing of his opponents. Estimates for the number of people killed during the Red Terror range from 100,000 to 500,000 and possibly higher. By all accounts, Mengistu was Ethiopia’s Pol Pot. Thousands of children were killed, their bodies rotting in the streets until they were eaten by wild hyenas. Later, a massive famine in 1984-86 was almost certainly made worse by Mengistu’s unwillingness to help the Tigray region, which was a center of opposition and unrest.

Many of the people I met in Ethiopia had personal histories from this period – brothers who had been shot, and mothers who had been imprisoned. I visited the Red Terror museum in Addis, where I was given a harrowing tour by Fre, a former prisoner of the regime. Fre related excruciating tales of torture, the most vivid of which was his description of how his captors tore off his fingernails. Interestingly, the museum does not receive any funding from the government – and I had the sense that my guide’s comments were uncensored. He had a great deal of criticism to heap on the current government, which he said was no different from the Derg in essential ways.

The Derg collapsed in 1991, in part because the Soviet Union no longer existed to support it. The Derg was also battling a multi-headed hydra by that point, with liberation armies from all corners of the country. Most powerful was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (remember, Tigray is the northern region which was the home to Emperor Yohannes). The TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, led an interim government and eventually became the president under a new constitution.

The TPLF continues to dominate the government today. While Ethiopia has remained peaceful since the nineties, it has been involved in several conflicts on its borders. Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia at the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, has remained a source of tension. A war from 1998-2000 between the two countries resulted in a demilitarized zone and a UN Mission. Although UN troops withdrew from the border zone in 2008, the two countries remain at odds. Meanwhile, Ethiopia has repeatedly invaded Somalia to fight both the Islamic Courts Union and al-Shabaab.

Zenawi died in 2012. Evidently, some of the last people to find out about this event were Ethiopians themselves, as the government heavily censors the internet and filters the news that its citizens receive. An interim government has been in place until the next election, which will occur on 24 May 2015. Everyone to whom I spoke said the result is preordained and the TPLF will be returned to power.

Posted in Travel Blog.


  1. Thank you for another fascinating read. Wishing you health, safety and joy as you continue on your journey.

Leave a Reply to Leila and Selim Cancel reply