Ethiopia boasts one of the oldest and most colourful histories of any African kingdom. In Prehistory, it was the home of the earliest hominids on this earth. Its traditional history stretches back to the time of King Solomon.
Few know much of the mighty Axumite Empire that grew up in the north of the country after the birth of Christ and which was a major trading centre for some seven hundred years. Neither have many people heard of the awe-inspiring rock-hewn churches that were constructed during the Middle Ages in Lalibela high on the Ethiopian plateau.
Since that time, the country has had very varied fortunes in all sorts of ways.
With frequent incursions from neighbouring lands and particularly from the influences of Islam, social and political development was somewhat piecemeal for a long time, with notable periods of relative peace and stability such as that provided by the rule of King Fasiledes in the 17th century in Gondar.
It was the Emperor Tewodros who was to make real progress with his vision of a united Ethiopia in the 19th century until his unfortunate demise following the arrival of British troops under Robert Napier in 1868.
Ethiopia’s history in the 20th century is really fascinating, with great leaders such as Emperor Menelik and Emperor Haile Selassie, with dramatic events such as the Italian occupation before the Second World War, and with political turmoil provided by seventeen years of Communist government and the following decade of uneasy movement towards democracy.
Ethiopia is situated at the north end of the great African Rift Valley and has been the site of some amazing archaeological finds in recent years.
In 1974, the archaeologist Donald Johansen was working near Hadar in the north-east of Ethiopia and discovered the human skeleton of a female dating back 3.2 million years, a member of the group Australopithecus afarensis. This female was named ‘Lucy’ by the digging team as the Beatles’ hit “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” was playing in the camp at the time. To the Ethiopians, however, she is known as ‘dinkenesh’ or ‘birkenesh’ meaning ‘wonderful’. The skeleton is now on view on the ground floor of the National Museum just above Arat Kilo in Addis Ababa.
Other more recent finds near Hadar have served to confirm this part of the Rift Valley as a major site of early man’s development.
We know that the Ancient Egyptians traded in the Land of Punt for such commodities as gold, myrrh and ivory and this is thought to have been situated in the Horn of Africa of which Ethiopia is a part.
Local tradition has the Queen of Sheba as an Ethiopian queen who travelled to King Solomon in Jerusalem. Their child, Menelik, was to be the first in the Solomonic line of Ethiopian emperors, eventually culminating with Emperor Haile Selassie in the 20th century. Tradition also says that Menelik brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia and that it still exists under close guard in the St Mary Zion chapel in Axum.
Before the birth of Christ was developed the language of Ge’ez, a kind of Latin and a forerunner of today’s lingua franca Amharic. Ge’ez is still spoken by priests today.
The north of Ethiopia was to be of world importance as an influential trading centre during the first seven centuries after the birth of Christ.
Centring on the city of Axum, today an important city on the Historic Route, and strategically situated near to the bottom of the Red Sea, it was a vital commercial crossroads between Egypt and the Mediterranean and the eastern countries of India and Ceylon. Exotic trade flourished in this richly fertile and agricultural area.
Exports from Axum included ivory, animal skins, rhino horn and frankincense. Imports came from India, Arabia and Egypt and included wine, olive oil, iron and glassware. During the great years of the Axumite Empire, coinage in bronze, silver and gold was produced, immense stone monuments were erected and Christianity was to introduced to Ethiopia.
By the early 12th century, the importance of Axum had declined and the capital of Ethiopia had shifted to near present day Lalibela, high up on the central plateau.
Of this period we know comparatively little, and yet it is from this time that dates one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in the world, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
Legend has it that King Lalibela himself travelled to Jerusalem and so wondered at the buildings he saw there that he determined to create an Ethiopian Jerusalem high in the Lasta Mountains.
These amazing churches attest to an epoch in Ethiopian history which must have known immense technical skill and competence and yet of which we have almost no written record. Tradition tells us that the world’s greatest craftsmen toiled during the day to create these monuments while bands of angels took over to continue the work by night!
It was also during the Middle Ages in Europe that the name of Prester John came to be associated with Ethiopia at the royal courts. This legendary priest apparently ruled over a land full of riches and luxury where precious gems and all manner of exotic items were plentiful. It is thought that the first Portuguese expeditions to Ethiopia in the 16th century and the even earlier travels of the Knights Templar might well have been inspired by the idea of discovering Prester John’s kingdom.
The years leading up to the 17th century were to see all manner of religious challenges from outside the country, notably from the Moslems under Mohammed Gragn the Left-Handed in the 1530s and, more peaceably, from the Jesuits in the early 1600s. At the same time, the Oromos from Kenya and the south of the country were making strong incursions into the Ethiopian empire.
Ethiopia was in need of a strong emperor and found one in Emperor Fasiledes who took over from his father Susenyos in 1632 and, in 1636, founded his new capital in Gondar near Lake Tana. The city of Gondar was the first permanent capital and was to flourish until the early 19th century.
Emperor Fasiledes was to bring a period of stability to Ethiopia and Gondar was to become a sophisticated and artistic city with its central Royal Enclosure of magnificent castles started by Fasiledes and continued by ensuing monarchs.
In 1855, an unusual character who had once lived as a bandit had himself crowned as Emperor Tewodros and set out to unify his large and disparate country. He showed himself to be a very capable and creative monarch and he chose the mountain of Maqdala as his royal base.
He planned a system of roads across the country, encouraged land reform, established a national army and promoted Amharic as his country’s lingua franca. He was a reforming monarch who took great pride in his country, his people and in himself.
He sought British and other European support for his reforms and, when this was not forthcoming, he imprisoned two British ambassadors who were at his court at that time.
When Queen Victoria learned of this, she sent Sir Robert Napier with an army of soldiers, elephants and camels to achieve a rescue. Tewodros’s reforming zeal had made him unpopular with local chieftains and they supported Napier’s contingent and swelled its numbers.
As Napier and his men approached the summit of Maqdala in 1868, Tewodros, still refusing to submit, shot himself in the mouth. Maqdala was razed to the ground and the British troops returned triumphantly to England taking with them many hundreds of royal artefacts and manuscripts.
The 20th century was to be a period of great positive development as well as great trauma and anguish for Ethiopia.
In the late 1800s, there were to be threats and incursions from both the Italians (with a great and memorable victory for the Ethiopians over the Italian troops at Adwa in 1896) and the Dervishes from the Sudan (with another Ethiopian victory in 1889).
It was to be Emperor Menelik II who was to take Ethiopia into the modern world of the 20th century. He chose the site for his new capital of Addis Ababa – his ‘New Flower’ – and set to creating a modern country with electricity, telephones, schools, hospitals and a railway.
In world terms, it was to be Emperor Haile Selassie, crowned in 1930, who was to make Ethiopia a known world power.
He held his country together as a nation through the Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941, made good relations with European monarchs and statesmen, and spoke up boldly for his people in the League of Nations.
He survived as monarch until 1974 when he was overthrown and murdered by the Derg, the Communist regime under the military colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, and Ethiopia was plunged into a stagnating 17 years of oppressive and repressive dictatorship.
The great famines of 1972-4 and 1984-5 were to bring the country to its knees and to bring it also to the concern of the entire world thanks to resounding media coverage.
In 1991, Mengistu was at last driven out of the country, the Communist regime fell and the long journey towards democracy was started. After a period of transitional government under Meles Zenawi, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed in 1995 and elections were held with Meles Zenawi being re-elected to leadership. This progress continues strongly today.
The three-year border dispute with Eritrea that erupted in 1998 did little to help the economic stability of either country but, with the help of UN peace-keeping forces, this problem seems to be resolving itself and Ethiopia looks forward to a period of strong economic development and growth.
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