From the grandiose narratives of Biblical
past to present day appeals for aid to hungering children, Ethiopia has not been often far from the consciousness of Western culture. As one of the oldest established countries of Africa and hosting a rich conjunction of Christian
, and Muslim
influences, Ethiopia's culture is worthy of note in the region. Its unfortunate recent history should not overshadow the great achievements of its past.
According to Biblical tradition, the monarchy
of the kingdom is said to be descended directly from King Solomon
and the Queen of Sheba
. To give a more grounded base, earliest archeological
evidence, especially of early Ethiopic writings, maintains that Ethiopia began its existence as a nation in close relation with late Ancient Egypt
. Documents from the late 1400s BCE
show that the Egyptians were aware of the area, referring to it generally as the Land of Punt. The evidence for any more than passing trade between the regions is scant, however, and any conclusive knowledge of the country we have in its early period come from the Greek
s. Regular trade relations were opened with the campaign of Alexander the Great
in the 300s.
The indigenous people of Ethiopia are hard to determine. The area was subject to frequent invasions and possessed a relatively mobile population, intermingling races from the Arab peninsula with Northern and Southern Africans along the Eastern coast. Religion was pagan with influence from the Greeks, like Roman religion the Ethiopian pantheon slowly aligned itself with that of the highly detailed gods' realm of Olympus. Ethiopia remained beyond Roman control for its history, and in fact during the second century CE the King of Kings Aksum engaged in powerful military campaigns against Egypt and wielded his control of the Red Sea ruthlessly. After making his splash on the world stage, Aksum's Ethiopia withdrew again. His son Ezana is famous for his conversion to Christianity, which led subsequently to the conversion of the entire kingdom. The Ethiopian variety of Christianity is associated with a flourishing culture of art and literature, with significant influence from Greek Orthodox and native pagan rituals to form a unique blend. From that point on the Empire of Ethiopia was theological as well as imperial, irrevocably intertwined with Monophysite Christianity
Early Christian and Middle Ages
Ethiopia was regarded by the Byzantine
world as one of the champions of Christianity
. According to traditional Muslim
belief the Emperor 'Abreha was responsible for an attack on Mecca
shortly before the birth of Mohammed
, typical for the military campaigns with which Ethiopia was almost continually engaged in the region. The growing strength of the nations of Islam began to choke away Ethiopia's power, isolating the country from contact with the nations of the Mediterranean
and crippling Ethiopia's sea ports. Almost all information about Ethiopia's development from the seventh to the twelfth century is a mystery, as records were kept haphazardly and isolation prevented record of contact with other nations. Ethiopia withered and shrunk, however it remained staunchly Christian against the spread of Islam.
A resurgence in the fortunes of Ethiopia began under the Zagwe dynasty, which marks the turning point at which Ethiopia became truly known to the European world. The reign of these kings is marked by a Renaissance of architectural achievement, mostly devoted to the construction of new churches. Under successive rulers territorial unity was reestablished, military power was increased, and culture flourished again. Campaigns against the remaining non-Christian tribes of the region were stepped up, and instead of buckling under the influence of Islam the Christian church of Ethiopia grew far stronger. A Portuguese fleet sailed to the kingdom in 1520 in an attempt to forge a military alliance with the nation and convert the people of Ethiopia to Catholicism, however they were less than receptive. The confidence was misplaced, as in 1541 the sultan Abu-Bakr brought recompense for Ethiopia's treatment of neighboring Muslim states. Nearly overwhelmed, the kingdom was forced to ask for aid from Portugal. A force was sent to defend the nation under the command of Don Christofe de Gama and eventually the attacks were repelled.
After the Renaissance in Europe Ethiopia became embroiled in territorial conflicts and fragmented once again. This trend was reversed for a short time with the rule of Yasu the Great, an efficient and devout emperor whose government seemed to the people a pure embodiment of the tradition of Ethiopian monarchy, but with his death it began again in greater strength. Reunion would not be achieved until the ascendance of the monk-king Kasa (Romanized to Theodore II from the name he assumed, Tewodros) in 1855, who felt that by prophecy he was to lead Ethiopia to glory again. Unfortunately his regime was prone to gruesome violence and persecution, especially of Catholics in the region, and the brutality eventually led to his downfall. A series of kings following him generally kept order in the kingdom, even expanding borders, and Ethiopia remained an independent nation despite the imperialism of European nations as they sliced up Africa for their own profit. Ethiopia remained a monarchy until 1935, when in the years leading up to World War II Ethiopia was occupied by Italy.
With the end of the war and the reestablishment of the monarchy under emperor Haile Selassie
, it was felt that things were finally returning to normal for the kingdom. Political insurgency caught up with Ethiopia however, and the struggle of Eritrea
to secede combined with the chaos
wracked by an attempted coup d'etat
in 1960 and subsequent crumbling of the rule of law under military revolution took a vicious toll on the country. When the government finally stabilized, Ethiopia was a socialist oligarchy
under the rule of a secretive committee called the Derg
Economic collapse due to unsuccessful socialist policies such as collectivization, military setbacks in Eritrea, and famine combined in the late 1980s to create a crisis that attracted the attention of the international community. By 1985 5.8 million people were reliant on food aid, and thousands died from starvation. The government handled the disaster with stunning incompetence, engaging in a process of forced migration to round up the Ethiopian people in 'villages', a policy that left what few crops could grow in the drought abandoned and even more hungry. The explosion of the AIDS epidemic piled on the injuries.
Ethiopia was finally declared a democracy in 1987. Referendum in Eritrea in 1993 led to the establishment of the region as a separate nation, and there was little the government could do with its hands tied managing the aftermath of the famine crisis. Although elections were free and fair, the government still possessed control over such fundamental rights as freedom of press.
In 1998 petty squabbling over a border erupted into a symbolic conflict as Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war. The two countries' fragile economies were crushed under the increasingly devastating fighting, and though both countries insisted they did not want war, neither would agree to a feasible mediation plan. A peace agreement was forced by an arms embargo by the United States that starved both nations' military machines. A peace agreement was signed on December 12, 2000.
Doresse, Jean. Ethiopia. London: Elek Books, 1959
Ullendorf, Edward. The Ethiopians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973
Ethiopia / Eritrea War - http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/eritrea.htm
History of Ethiopia - http://www.worldrover.com/history/ethiopia_history.html
Thanks to Gritchka for some extra information