The only African state to resist the colonising interests of Europe, Ethiopia’s history is more than the story of a nation forged by a monarchy that traced its lineage back to King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba.
Home to the fossilised remains of some of the world’s earliest hominoids, it is a strong contender for being the cradle of mankind. Prior to adopting Christianity in the fourth century, it possessed an empire large enough to act as counterweight to those of Rome and Persia. After the fall of Haile Selassie, it fell under the rule of the Dergue, a dictatorship that had the backing of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Today, it continues to make history, its newest prime minister hailing from an ethnic group once excluded from the corridors of power, whose cabinet is gender balanced, and who has managed to initiate the beginnings of peace with neighbouring Eritrea.
As complicated as it is fascinating, it is a history that leaves us with Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, and one whose star is once again very much on the rise.
From Lucy to Axum
The land that constitutes Ethiopia today was home to some of our earliest ancestors. Since the discovery of million-year-old stone tools in 1963, and the unearthing of the Australophithecine fossil Lucy in 1974, the likes of the Awash and the Omo have continued to provide clues as to the origins of man. As well as the discovery of the oldest tools and tool use found anywhere, finds by Richard Leakey show that homo sapiens walked its lands nearly 200,000 years ago.
Fast forward to the Bronze Age and northeast Ethiopia is part of the Land of Punt, an ancient kingdom that traded with Ancient Egypt as early as 3000 BC. Another 2,300 years and we have the diminutively named D’mt, the first of several pre-Axumite kingdoms. By the first century AD, much of the Horn of Africa is home to the Kingdom of Axum, which will convert to Christianity in 333 AD, and which at its height would stretch as far north as Egypt, conquer much of Arabia, and control trade in and out of the Red Sea.
Birth of an Almost Hidden Empire
Faced with diminishing resources, competition from new trade routes, and the spread of Islam, the Axumites abandoned Axum in around 600 AD, retreating into the highlands. In 1000 AD, they gave way to the Zagwa, Judaic converts to Christianity. With Roha (Lalibela) as the new capital, this was a period of relative peace and technological progress. Ethiopia’s earliest rock churches were built during this time. Things continued apace under the Solomonic dynasty, which came to power in the 13th century, expanding its territory, and rotating through several capitals before settling on Gondor.
The dynasties did not, as once thought, develop in perfect isolation. Evidence points to intermittent trade and alliances between different Christian and Muslim territories, and to contact being maintained with Jerusalem and Alexandria, and latterly with Mediterranean Europe, particularly Portugal, whose interests would variously support and undermine the kingdom between 1520 and 1640. The Hidden Empire was findable, for those prepared to look.
The Making of a Modern State
The Solomonic dynasty grew considerably during the modern period. Protracted inter-dynastic infighting continued, new territories were consolidated, and increased European interest resulted in greater contact with the outside world. In 1896, Menelik II’s army routed Italy at the Battle of Adwa, and by the time Haile Selassie took the throne in 1935, Ethiopia once again occupied the same territory as that ruled by the Axumites, less Arabia.
However, the twentieth century brought enormous change. The feudal systems of governance that the dynasty depended on began to unravel in the latter part of the century. Weakened by corruption, famine, military unrest, and poverty, Selassie was deposed in 1974 by the Dergue. Abolishing feudalism, it declared Ethiopia a Marxist-Leninist state, and proceeded to rule absolutely, executing political enemies in the tens of thousands. The Dergue dissolved itself in 1987, its key figures heading up the new People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which would last until 1991, when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) successfully took power.
Now a democratically elected coalition party, the EPRDF remains in power today. In 2018, the first non-Tigrayan president took power, ushering in a new era, one that included a gender-balanced cabinet, a world first.