Prehistory and Axum

Ethiopia is one of the oldest incessant civilizations in the world. The first records of Ethiopia proper come from Egyptian traders from about 3000 BC, who refer to lands south of Nubia or Cush as Punt and Yam.

The word Ethiopia in ancient times and the modern country is often used in confusion. The ancient Greeks used the word Αιθιοπία to refer to the peoples living immediately to the south of ancient Egypt. 

Mostly Ethiopia is identified with Emperor Hailie Selassie or the Queen of Sheba (Saba). The real name of the Queen of Sheba was Queen Makeda. There is approximately 3000 years gap between Queen Makeda and Emperor Hailie Selassie I. There are at least 97 other sovereign rulers who reigned prior to Queen Makeda. Once we include the rule of these 97 sovereigns, Ethiopian civilization can be traced back to 3000 BC.

Reference to the Kingdom of Axum designated as Ethiopia dates as far back as the first half of 4th century since inscription of Ezana Habashat (the source for "Abyssinia") in Ge’ez South Arabian alphabet, is translated in Greek as "Aethiopia".

Legend has it that the emperor Menilik I, the son of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Axum, where he settled and established one of the world’s longest known uninterrupted monarchical dynasties.

The ancient town of Axum which was one of the very first capitals of Semitic culture in northern Ethiopia was founded about 1000 BC. The earliest capital was actually at near Yeha. The Axumite kingdom was known as ‘’the most powerful state between the Roman Empire and Persia’'.

The Medieval Period

From Axumite times there began a process of cultural and linguistic fusion between the northern Semites and the indigenous Agew that was to continue over the course of a millennium.

This process gave rise to northern Christianized Agew, who formed themselves into the Tigray and Amhara ethnic groups. The Zagwe placed their capital, Lalibala, far south of Axum and constructed there and elsewhere across their domains a remarkable ensemble of rock-hewn churches.

In the late thirteenth century, a solomonic dynasty moved the center of the kingdom still farther south into Shewa in the southernmost part of the northern highlands. During the succeeding centuries, the Christian kingdom, a military state, was often at war either with Sidama kingdoms to the west or with Muslim principalities to the east. About 1529 a Muslim Afar-Somali army overran the highlands, and during the 1530s nearly succeeded in destroying the Amhara-Tigray state and Christianity.

At almost the same time, the Oromo were in the midst of a decades-long expansion from their homeland in the far southern lowlands. The Oromo moved north through the southern highlands, bypassing the Sidama on the west, and into the central highlands, where they settled in the center and west on land.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits arrived to minister to Portuguese soldiers who had helped defeat the Muslims in the early 1540s and who had remained in the kingdom. As part of their mission, however, the Jesuits attempted to convert the Orthodox Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. They met with some initial success before their crusade set off a religious civil war in the late 1620s that led to their expulsion and an attempt to keep out all “Fararnjis” as the Ethiopians called Europeans.

Early Modern Times

An era of reconsolidation and cultural flowering ensued during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries following the founding of a new capital at Gondar. The monarchy eventually becomes a pawn of regional warlords, however, and it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Tewodros II reunited the kingdom. Most scholars trace the origins of the modern history of Ethiopia to his reign. Menilek II (1889–1913) defeated the Italians in 1896 when they sought to invade Ethiopia, although he allowed them to retain the frontier province facing the Red Sea, which they named Eritrea.

Menilek, in turn, sent armies to conquer the southern highlands and surrounding lowlands, annexing them to the traditional Amhara-Tigray kingdom to create the present-day nation-state of Ethiopia with its capital at Addis Ababa. He also opened the country to Western influence and technology, by establishing diplomatic relations with several European powers.

After serving as regent, Tafari Makonnen, a cousin of Menilek, ascended the throne in 1930 as Emperor Haile Selassie I. French-educated and aware of Ethiopia’s backwardness, he began to introduce various Western-inspired reforms, but these changes were hardly underway before war broke out with Italy in October 1935. Italian occupation lasted from 1936 to 1941.

The Post-World War II Era

After the war, Haile Selassie pursued a policy of centralization, but he also continued to introduce change in areas such as public education, the army, and government administration.

The slow pace of his reform efforts, however, fostered discontent that led to an attempted coup in 1960. In early 1974, a mutiny among disgruntled lower-ranking army officers set a process in motion that led to the fall of the imperial government.

The mutineers were joined by urban groups disappointed by the slow pace of economic and political reforms and aroused by the impact of a devastating famine that the government failed to acknowledge or address.

Over a period of several months, the officers arrested the emperor’s ministers and associates, and in September removed the emperor himself. A group of junior military officers, soon known as the Derg (“committee” in Amharic), then assumed power and initiated a 17-year period of military rule.

The Derg pursued a socialist agenda but governed in military style, and it looked to the Soviet Union as a model and for military support.

In Eritrea the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) pursued a campaign against the 1962 annexation and eventually sought separation from Ethiopia. In Tigre, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) sought regional autonomy and the overthrow of the Derg. In the late 1980s, the TPLF and other Ethiopian ethnically based resistance groups formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and, together with the EPLF, administered defeats on that led to the collapse of the Derg in May 1991.Ertiera separated from Ethiopia after the fall of the Derg in May 1991.