A summary of Ethiopian History
- 5,000 years in 3,000 words.

Our Beginning

The area now known as Ethiopia is thought by many scholars to be the region where early Homo sapiens first emerged in the middle Palaeolithic period about 150 – 200,000 years ago.

The oldest hominid fossils ever discovered were found in Ethiopia in 1994 and date from 4.2m years ago and are known as “Ardi” (Ardipithicus ramidus). The more well-known fossil remains of “Lucy” (Australopithecus afarensis) date from 3.2 m years ago and were discovered in 1974.

The oldest stone tools ever discovered anywhere in the world were found in 2010 and dated at 3 m years old. Fossilised animal bones with stone tool inflicted marks have also been found in Ethiopia dating from 3.4 m years ago.

Contacts with Ancient Egypt

Ethiopia is believed by many scholars to be the ‘Land of Punt’ described by Egyptian chroniclers as a trading partner from over 5,000 years ago. Myrrh, ivory, animal skins and gold were imported from Punt. This trade followed routes along the Nile and the Red Sea coast.

Pre-Axumite Yeha

The kingdom of D’mt with its capital at Yeha was the first kingdom known to have existed and dates from around the 10th century BCE (equivalent to BC, Before the Common/Current Era). A Sabean style temple was built there around 800 BCE and is the oldest standing structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Scholars associate Sabean culture with the area that is modern day Yemen.

Axumite Empire

The D’mt kingdom was succeeded by the Axumite Empire around the 1st century BCE with some scholars placing its origin around 400 BCE. Persian writer Mani (216 – 274 CE) listed Axum with Rome, Persia and China as the 4 great powers of his era.

Christianity was introduced by Frumentius in 330 CE. Frumentius, who was born in Syria, converted Axumite King Ezana in 356 CE. Under Ezana and his son Kaleb, the Axumite Empire was at its peak and growing rich and powerful from trade routes linking India and ancient Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean with the Byzantine Empire in the Mediterranean Sea. Its territories extended from modern Somalia and the Indian Ocean coast, across the Red Sea to the southern Arabian Peninsula and north up to the border with the Roman Empire in Egypt

Near the end of the 5th century CE a group of missionary monks known as the Nine Saints arrived from Syria, Greece and Constantinople. They had a huge influence on the history and culture of Ethiopia and the development of Orthodox Christianity in the centuries that followed.

The last Axumite coins were minted in the 7th century CE. The reasons for the empire’s fall are not clear. It has been attributed to a persistent drought, overgrazing, deforestation, plague or a shift in trade routes.

Ethiopian Middle Ages – Zagwe Dynasty (900 – 1270)

The Zagwe dynasty was based around Lalibela, the city of rock hewn churches that now bears the name of this dynasty’s most famous king. Much is still unknown about this period.

Early Solomonic Period (1270 – 1529)

Yekuno Amlak deposed the last of the Zagwe kings, married his daughter and established a dynasty of kings claiming legitimacy as male-line of descendants of the Axumite kings and therefore continuing the Solomonic line from Solomon and Sheba.

In this period Ethiopia again expanded militarily to dominate the Horn of Africa. The arts and literature also advanced despite the lack of a fixed capital as emperors continually moved around the empire in mobile camps.

The Portuguese Influence

Portuguese missions to Ethiopia started from the 15th century. There had for many years been a legend in Europe of a Christian king in the far east known as Prester John. Various expeditions had been sent to find him.

Pero da Covilha arrived on such a mission in 1490. He remained until 1507 when the Regent Queen Eleni sent a request to the King of Portugal for military support against the Muslim armies to the east. In 1520 a Portuguese fleet arrived in the Red Sea and met with Emperor Lebna Dengel remaining in Ethiopia for about 6 years. Father Francisco Alvares (1465 - 1541) was a member of this delegation. He travelled widely and wrote the first western accounts of Ethiopia.

The Abyssinian – Adal War (1529 – 1543)

From 1528 – 1540 Muslim armies from the Sultanate of Adal in the southeast over ran three quarters of the Abyssinian kingdom. Their leader was known as Mohammed Gran (Mohammed the left handed). From hiding, the Ethiopian emperor appealed to the Portuguese for help. A Portuguese fleet arrived from India in 1541 with 400 musketeers. About two years later Mohammed Gran was killed in battle and his forces were routed. The Portuguese then put pressure on the Ethiopian king to publicly profess allegiance to the Pope in Rome. The emperor refused.

Early Gondar Period (1632 – 1769)

In the years that followed the defeat of Mohammed Gran, the Portuguese steadily increased their influence and power until the conversion to Roman Catholicism of Emperor Susenyos (1572 – 1632) in 1622. This resulted in a period of violence and open rebellion against the new religion. Susenyos eventually abdicated in favour of his son Fasilides who reinstated the Orthodox faith as the state religion and expelled the Portuguese Jesuit priests.

Emperor Fasilides established Gondar as Ethiopia’s third permanent capital after Axum and Lalibela in 1636.

In this period, each king after Fasil including Queen Mentawab, built a fortified castle residence in what is now referred to as Fasil Ghebbi which loosely translates as Fasil’s compound. This is why Gondar is sometimes called ‘The Camelot of Africa’. A wall with 12 gates surrounds this Royal Enclosure.

Gondar was the capital for the next two centuries until, upon his coronation, Emperor Tewedros II moved the capital to his fortress at Maqdala in 1855.

Zemene Mesafint – ‘Age of the Princes’ (1769 – 1855)

This was a period of great instability and division when a succession of 23 Emperors held the throne. There was no powerful central authority uniting and controlling the warring princes and provincial kings who continuously fought each other. They competed to extend their own lands at each other’s expense and be seen as the guardians of whoever was the current, but nominal, King of Kings enthroned at Gondar.

This period ended in 1855 with the coronation of Tewedros II (b. 1818 – 1868) after he militarily defeated all his rival princes. Full imperial power was once again in the hands of one leader and the history of modern Ethiopia began.

Modern Period (1855 – 1936)

The reigns of Emperors Tewedros II (reigned 1855 – 68), Yohannes IV (r. 1872 – 1889) and Menelik II (r. 1889 – 1913) were during a period when Ethiopia started to open up to the world.

Tewedros II (r. 1855 – 1868)

Despite resistance from some provincial leaders, Tewedros II started to modernise and centralise imperial administration. After writing to Queen Victoria and other European imperial leaders but not receiving a reply Tewedros felt insulted and took some Europeans hostage. This ended very badly in 1868 when the British sent a huge military expedition of 13,000 soldiers, 26,000 men for logistical support and 40,000 animals including war elephants from India. This expedition was led by General Napier (1810 – 1890). Their 280 sail and steam ships landed on the Red Sea coast and a road was built into the interior. Elephants hauled heavy artillery up into the mountains from the coastal plain. It took 3 months to trek the 640 km to the mountain top fortress at Maqdala

Tewedros’ last minute offer to return the hostages with a peace offering of large numbers of cattle and sheep was rejected by Napier who wanted Tewedros’ full surrender.

When all was obviously lost, rather than surrender to the British who had been secretly supported along the expedition route by rebellious princes who sought his throne, Tewedros shot himself with a pistol given to him by Queen Victoria. Maqdala was looted and Tewedros son was taken by the British to London. There, he was known as Prince Alemayu of Abyssinia and he came under the protection of Queen Victoria. He was sent to the prestigious Rugby public school and even enrolled at Royal Sandhurst Military Academy but died, aged 18, in 1879. To this day there is a brass plaque in his memory at the royal chapel in Windsor.

Tewedros II is considered a great national hero by Ethiopians.

Yohannes IV (r. 1872 – 1889)

The reign of Emperor Yohannes IV (b. 1837 – 1889) was dominated by war with Egypt and the Mahdists of Sudan. It was also a time of increasing engagement with European powers especially Italy who, through a series of land purchases and treaties, established a colony on the Red Sea coast in what is now Eritrea. Yohannes was killed by a stray bullet in a battle in which his forces were victorious against the Mahdists in 1889. This prompted King Sahle Maryam of Shewa to declare himself Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia.

Menelik II (r. 1889 – 1913)

Menelik’s reign (b. 1844 – 1913) saw the empire expand to the south, west and east by conquest and negotiation. In 1889 he signed the Treaty of Wuchale with the Italians but the Italians secretly changed the Italian language version. On discovering this trickery, Menelik demanded the Italians change the key clauses. The Italians refused and invaded Ethiopia from their coastal colony in Eritrea. The Italian army was destroyed at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Victory at Adwa Day is a national holiday celebrated on 2 March (European calendar). It was the first time an African army had defeated a European colonial invasion in open battle.

Menelik II is considered the Father of Modern Ethiopia. He built diplomatic relations with European powers including, notably, Russia. He encouraged modernisation and development including the Djibouti to Addis Ababa railway line built by the French. He established the first bank and postal system and brought electricity to the new capital which he founded and named Addis Ababa, meaning New Flower. Under his reign the first telephone and telegraph service was set up and the first cars were seen in Ethiopia.

Menelik’s death in 1913 was followed by a period of intrigue and plotting at the royal court. Menelik’s unpopular grandson Iyasu V who succeeded him was deposed by the nobles in 1916. He was followed by Menelik’s daughter Empress Zewditu and her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen who became regent. (Ras can translate as head, Duke or Lord). Ras Tafari Makonnen succeeded to the throne in 1930 and changed his name to Haile Selassie I.

Haile Selassie I (r. 1930 – 1974)

His full royal title was “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God”.

Having been regent from 1916, Haile Selassie (b. 1892 – 1975) was crowned as Emperor in 1930. He went into exile after the initially successful fascist Italian invasion of 1935. In his appeal for help to The League of Nations he famously asked,” What answer shall I take back to my people,” and warned prophetically, “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.” He became an icon of pre-war anti-fascism and was named “1935 Man of the Year” by Time magazine. There were only six nations in the League that refused to recognise Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia in 1937; New Zealand, USA, Mexico, China, Soviet Union and Spain.

In 1941, Haile Selassie returned from exile after the Italians had been expelled with the support of the British army now at war with Germany and Italy. The Ethiopian resistance had been continuously active during the occupation. They are remembered as the patriotic heroes and heroines of the ‘Arbegnoch’.

After the war Haile Selassie set about modernising Ethiopia. He invited ordinary Italian soldiers to remain and contribute to rebuilding Ethiopia. Many did, building respected families and businesses with their Ethiopian wives.

Haile Selassie was a feudal monarch and most Ethiopians were peasant farmers living under the power of local, landed aristocrats. His was the final word on major decisions but he did face significant resistance to some of his reforms from the nobles and clergy especially on tax and land matters.

He took a special interest in education and appointed himself Minister of Education establishing the first university and many schools. An elected parliament was granted limited powers by the 1955 constitution which still maintained “the indisputable power of the monarch”.

Haile Selassie helped start the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 now known as the African Union and was its first official chair person. The African Union headquarters continues to be in Addis Ababa leading to Ethiopia being known as the diplomatic capital of Africa.

In 1960 an attempted coup was crushed by the military and lacked popular support. However, there was sympathy for change amongst students and some members of the educated elite. This is considered a major moment in recent Ethiopian history as this was the first time the emperor’s absolute right to rule without the peoples’ consent was questioned. The increased advocacy for the rights of the peasantry and poor, especially from students, spurred Haile Selassie to speed up his reforms.

Students were at the centre of calls for reform in the 1960s and ‘70s. Resentment grew amongst the rural poor at the nobility’s successful resistance to land reform. Increasingly, Haile Selassie focused on foreign affairs and left national affairs to his prime ministers. While his prestige grew internationally, there were growing problems at home.

A major famine in 1972 that killed up to 300,000 people was, at first, denied by the imperial government. There was widespread outrage at this delay in asking the world for help. This famine was famously exposed to the outside world in 1973 by Jonathan Dimbleby’s British television documentary called ‘The Unknown Famine’. History repeated itself in 1984 with Michael Buerk’s BBC television reports from northern Ethiopia. Buerk's initial reports are credited with stimulating the international community to respond on a massive scale including Band Aid and Live Aid.

But, by 1974 Ethiopia was on the verge of revolution.

Ethiopia's Communist Era (1974 – 91)

The military coup on 22 September 1974 saw the aging emperor publicly humiliated by being escorted from the Imperial Palace in a VW Beetle car. He was not initially harmed.

A military council known as the Derg took power and summarily executed 59 members of the former imperial government. Haile Selassie died in 1975. Many believe he was strangled in the basement of his palace by, or at the orders of, Lt Col Mengistu Haile Mariam who then systematically murdered his rivals on the military council and established himself as undisputed head of state by 1977.

The new Marxist government made social reforms and nationalized the assets of the church, aristocracy and landowners. Financially supported by the Soviet Union, Ethiopia became a totalitarian state and greatly increased the size of its military. Cuban soldiers came and fought alongside Ethiopian soldiers against some of the regional rebellions that followed this upheaval. Ties with the USA were cut.

In this milieu, in 1977, Somalia invaded the eastern Ethiopian territory known as the Ogaden. This invasion was only repelled with a huge airlift of Soviet weapons and the support of 17,000 Cuban soldiers.

The Red Terror of 1977 – 78 was a time of extreme blood shed when hundreds of thousands of accused enemies of the Derg were tortured and killed. Today, there is a museum to this dark period in Addis Ababa.

The regime’s overall brutality, the policy of forced villagization pushing farmers onto collective farms, famine, collapse of the regime’s main sponsor the Soviet Union and many regional rebellions led to the rebel military victory in 1991.

Mengistu fled to be the guest of his erstwhile supporter Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He still lives there despite being found guilty of genocide by Ethiopian courts. Mengistu is considered responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000,000 Ethiopians.

Ethiopia – A Federal Democratic Republic (from 1991)

In 1991 an alliance of northern rebel groups militarily defeated the Derg’s forces which had been weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a referendum that followed this victory, Eritrea voted for full independence from Ethiopia and became an independent state in 1993 after about 30 years of guerrilla war.

The 1994 constitution created the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In 1995 Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and a multiparty parliament were elected in the first of the 5 yearly elections that have followed.

The federation consists of 14 national states reflecting ethnic and cultural territories. The elected state governments are responsible for everything except defence, foreign affairs and economic policy. Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa are two federal city-states with their own government.

Market reforms were introduced and many government businesses were privatized with some notable exceptions including the successful and efficiently run Ethio – Telecom, Ethiopian Airlines and The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. There are now many private banks.

Massive state investment in infrastructure such as roads and hydroelectricity generation has attracted growing levels of foreign investment. Marxist era land reform saw all land go into government ownership and this is still the case. More than 40 universities have been built across the country to offer higher education to the 50% of Ethiopians that are aged below 18. A key challenge is finding employment for the burgeoning numbers of skilled graduates.

Ethiopia is seen as a major African economic success story in recent years starting from a low base as one of the poorest countries on the continent. The World Bank reports that in 2000, 56% of the population lived on less than US$ 1.25 per day. This was reduced to 30% by 2011.

From 2004 to 2014 economic growth has averaged 10.8%.

Addis Ababa recently opened the first urban, electric powered, light rail system anywhere in Africa. The 800 km Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti railway line has been electrified and rebuilt for fast trains. Djibouti is a small independent state and all of landlocked Ethiopia’s maritime exports and imports pass through this port.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, under construction since 2011, on the Blue Nile will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa and 7th largest in the world. Egypt feared control of the head waters of the Blue Nile which carries 80% of the water in the Nile river that flows on to Egypt. This resulted in the Ethiopian government having difficulty gaining finance for the USD 5 billion project. Despite this, Ethiopia pressed ahead and largely financed the project itself. Egypt has since signed an agreement with the Ethiopia.

There continue to be some challenges including a fast growing population, unreliable rainfall and sometimes, civil unrest around land reform issues. For example, the government’s long term goal of national food self-sufficiency has seen some international aggrotech companies granted long term leases on large tracts of prime agricultural land which some farmers say has disadvantaged them.

Overall economic policy is based on the Climate Resilient Green Economic Strategy which has been held up as an international example of the way forward for developing countries by UN Development Program Head and former three term NZ Prime Minister, Helen Clarke.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in office in 2012. He was succeeded as executive head of government by his then Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Ato (male honorific like Mr) Mulatu Teshome is President and ceremonial Head of State.


Ethiopia is rapidly developing into a middle income country. Many members of the diaspora are returning and investing in the growing economy. The Ethiopian renaissance, after years of difficulties, is a testament to the courage and resilience of her people. Despite the challenges faced by this great nation, there is a palpable sense of positivity and optimism amongst the people. This is not only in economic terms but in the proud traditional culture and blossoming of contemporary creativity in cinema, theatre, visual arts and music. Ethiopia is just starting to hit its stride which makes it a great time to visit.

Sam Cunningham