Human settlement in Ethiopia dates back to ancient times. Fossilized remains of the earliest ancestors to the human species, discovered in Ethiopia, have been assigned dates as long ago as 5.9 million years. Together with Eritrea and the southeastern part of the Red Sea coast of Sudan (Beja lands), it is considered the most likely location of the land known to the ancient Egyptians as Punt (or “Ta Netjeru,” meaning land of the Gods), whose first mention dates to the twenty-fifth century BC.
Dʿmt and Axum
Around the eighth century BC, a kingdom known as Dʿmt was established in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with its capital at Yeha in northern Ethiopia. Most modern historians consider this civilization to be a native African one, although Sabaean-influenced due to the latter’s hegemony of the Red Sea, while others view Dʿmt as the result of a mixture of “culturally superior” Sabaeans and indigenous peoples. However, Ge’ez, the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia, is now thought not to have derived from Sabaean (also South Semitic). There is evidence of a Semitic-speaking presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea at least as early as 2000 BC. Sabaean influence is now thought to have been minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century, perhaps representing a trading or military colony in some sort of symbiosis or military alliance with the Ethiopian civilization of Dʿmt or some other proto-Aksumite state.
After the fall of Dʿmt in the fifth century BC, the plateau came to be dominated by smaller successor kingdoms, until the rise of one of these kingdoms during the first century BC, the Aksumite Kingdom, ancestor of medieval and modern Ethiopia, which was able to reunite the area. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Aksum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time.
In 316 AD, a Christian philosopher from Tyre, Meropius, embarked on a voyage of exploration along the coast of Africa. He was accompanied by, among others, two Syro-Greeks, Frumentius and his brother Aedesius. The vessel was stranded on the coast, and the natives killed all the travelers except the two brothers, who were taken to the court and given positions of trust by the monarch. They both practiced the Christian faith in private, and soon converted the queen and several other members of the royal court. Upon the king’s death, Frumentius was appointed regent of the realm by the queen, and instructor of her young son, Prince Ezana. A few years later, upon Ezana’s coming of age, Aedesius and Frumentius left the kingdom, the former returning to Tyre where he was ordained, and the latter journeying to Alexandria. Here, he consulted Athanasius, who ordained him and appointed him Bishop of Aksum. He returned to the court and baptized the King Ezana, together with many of his subjects, and in short order Christianity was proclaimed the official state religion again. For this accomplishment, he received the title “Abba Selama” (“Father of peace”).
At various times, including a fifty-year period in the sixth century, Aksum controlled most of modern-day Yemen and some of southern Saudi Arabia just across the Red Sea, as well as controlling southern Egypt, northern Sudan, northern Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and northern Somalia.
The line of rulers descended from the Aksumite kings was broken several times: first by the Jewish (unknown/or pagan) Queen Gudit around 950 (or possibly around 850, as in Ethiopian histories). It was then interrupted by the Zagwe dynasty; it was during this dynasty that the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were carved under King Lalibela, allowed by a long period of peace and stability.
Around 1270, the Solomonic dynasty came to control Ethiopia, claiming descent from the kings of Aksum. They called themselves Neguse Negest (“King of Kings,” or Emperor), basing their claims on their direct descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba.
Restored contact with Europe
In the early fifteenth century Ethiopia sought to make diplomatic contact with European kingdoms for the first time since Aksumite times. A letter from King Henry IV of England to the Emperor of Abyssinia survives. In 1428, the Emperor Yeshaq sent two emissaries to Alfons V of Aragon, who sent return emissaries that failed to complete the return trip. The first continuous relations with a European country began in 1508 with Portugal under Emperor Lebna Dengel, who had just inherited the throne from his father.
This proved to be an important development, for when the Empire was subjected to the attacks of the Adal General and Imam, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (called “Grañ”, or “the Left-handed”), Portugal responded to Lebna Dengel’s plea for help with an army of four hundred men, who helped his son Gelawdewos defeat Ahmad and re-establish his rule. However, when Emperor Susenyos converted to Roman Catholicism in 1624, years of revolt and civil unrest followed resulting in thousands of deaths. The Jesuit missionaries had offended the Orthodox faith of the local Ethiopians, and on June 25, 1632 Susenyos’ son, Emperor Fasilides, declared the state religion to again be Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, and expelled the Jesuit missionaries and other Europeans.
All of this contributed to Ethiopia’s isolation from 1755 to 1855, called the Zemene Mesafint or “Age of Princes.” The Emperors became figureheads, controlled by warlords like Ras Mikael Sehul of Tigray, and later by the Oromo Yejju dynasty. Ethiopian isolationism ended following a British mission that concluded an alliance between the two nations; however, it was not until 1855 that Ethiopia was completely reunited and the power in the Emperor restored, beginning with the reign of Emperor Tewodros II. Upon his ascent, despite still large centrifugal forces, he began modernizing Ethiopia and recentralizing power in the Emperor, and Ethiopia began to take part in world affairs once again.
By the 1880s, Sahle Selassie, as king of Shewa, and later as Emperor Menilik II began expanding his kingdom to the South and East, expanding into areas that hadn’t been held since the invasion of Ahmed Gragn, and other areas that had never been under Ethiopian rule, resulting in the borders of Ethiopia still existing today.
European Scramble for Africa
The 1880s were marked by the Scramble for Africa and modernization in Ethiopia, when the Italians began to vie with the British for influence in bordering regions. Asseb, a port near the southern entrance of the Red Sea, was bought in March 1870 from the local Afar sultan, vassal to the Ethiopian Emperor, by an Italian company, which by 1890 led to the Italian colony of Eritrea. Conflicts between the two countries resulted in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, whereby the Ethiopians surprised the world by defeating Italy and remaining independent, under the rule of Menelik II. Italy and Ethiopia signed a provisional treaty of peace on October 26, 1896.
The early twentieth century was marked by the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I,who came to power after Iyasu V was deposed. It was he who undertook the modernization of Ethiopia, from 1916, when he was made a Ras and Regent (Inderase) for Zewditu I and became the de facto ruler of the Ethiopian Empire. Following Zewditu’s death he was made Emperor on 2 November 1930.
The independence of Ethiopia was interrupted by the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and Italian occupation (1936–1941). Some of Ethiopia’s infrastructure (roads most importantly) was built by the fascist Italian occupation troops (not by corvee) between 1937 and 1940. Following the entry of Italy into World War II, the British Empire forces together with patriot Ethiopian fighters liberated Ethiopia in the course of the East African Campaign (World War II) in 1941, which was followed by sovereignty on January 31, 1941 and British recognition of full sovereignty (i.e. without any special British privileges) with the signing of the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement in December 1944. During 1942 and 1943 there was an Italian guerrilla war in Ethiopia. On August 26, 1942 Haile Selassie I issued a proclamation outlawing slavery.
In 1952 Haile Selassie orchestrated the federation with Eritrea which he dissolved in 1962. This annexation sparked the Eritrean War of Independence. Although Haile Selassie was seen as a national and African hero, opinion within Ethiopia turned against him due to the worldwide oil crisis of 1973, food shortages, uncertainty regarding the succession, border wars, and discontent in the middle class created through modernization.
Haile Selassie’s reign came to an end in 1974, when a pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist military junta, the “Derg” led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, deposed him, and established a one-party communist state.
The ensuing regime suffered several coups, uprisings, wide-scale drought, and a massive refugee problem. In 1977, there was the Ogaden War, but Ethiopia quickly defeated Somalia with a massive influx of Soviet military hardware and a Cuban military presence coupled with East Germany and South Yemen the following year.
Hundreds of thousands were killed due to the red terror, forced deportations, or from using hunger as a weapon. In 2006, after a long trial, Mengistu was found guilty of genocide.
In 1993 a referendum was held & supervised by the UN mission UNOVER, with universal suffrage and conducted both in and outside Eritrea (among Eritrean communities in the diaspora), on whether Eritreans wanted independence or unity with Ethiopia. Over 99% of the Eritrean people voted for independence which was declared on May 24, 1993. In 1994, a constitution was adopted that led to Ethiopia’s first multi-party elections in the following year. In May 1998, a border dispute with Eritrea led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War that lasted until June 2000. This has hurt the nation’s economy, but strengthened the ruling coalition. On May 15, 2005, Ethiopia held another multiparty election, which was a highly disputed one with some opposition groups claiming fraud. Though the Carter center appreciated the preelection conditions, it has expressed its dissatisfaction with postelection matters. The 2005 EU election observers continued to accuse the ruling party of vote rigging. Many from the international community are divided about the issue with Irish officials accusing the 2005 EU election observers of corruption for the “inaccurate leaks from the 2005 EU election monitoring body which led the opposition to wrongly believe they had been cheated of victory.” In general, the opposition parties gained more than 200 parliament seats compared to the just 12 in the 2000 elections. Despite most opposition representatives joining the parliament, some leaders of the CUD party are in jail following the post-election violence. Amnesty International considers them “prisoners of conscience”.
September 12, 2007 on the Gregorian calendar marked the beginning of the year 2000 on the Ethiopian calendar.