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History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC describes ancient Ethiopia in his writings. The Old Testament of the Bible records the Queen of Sheba[?]'s visit to Jerusalem. According to legend, Menelik I[?], the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, founded the Ethiopian Empire. Missionaries from Egypt and Syria introduced Christianity in the 4th century AD. Following the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Ethiopia was gradually cut off from European Christendom. The Portuguese established contact with Ethiopia in 1493, primarily to strengthen their hegemony over the Indian Ocean and to convert Ethiopia to Roman Catholicism. There followed a century of conflict between pro- and anti-Catholic factions, resulting in the expulsion of all foreign missionaries in the 1630s. This period of bitter religious conflict contributed to hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans, which persisted into the 20th century and was a factor in Ethiopia's isolation until the mid-19th century.

Under the Emperors Theodore II[?] (1855-1868), Johannes IV[?] (1872-1889), and Menelik II (1889-1913), the kingdom began to emerge from its medieval isolation. When Menelik II died, his grandson, Lij Iyassu[?], succeeded to the throne but soon lost support because of his Muslim ties. He was deposed in 1916 by the Christian nobility, and Menelik's daughter, Zewditu, was made empress. Her cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen (1892-1975), was made regent and successor to the throne.

In 1930, after the empress died, the regent, adopting the throne name Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor. His reign was interrupted in 1936 when Italian Fascist forces invaded and occupied Ethiopia (they took the capital Addis Abba[?] on May 5 and formally annexed Ethiopia on May 9). The emperor was forced into exile in England despite his plea to the League of Nations for intervention. Five years later, the Italians were defeated by British and Ethiopian forces, and the emperor returned to the throne. After a period of civil unrest which began in February 1974, the aging Haile Selassie I was deposed on September 12, 1974, and a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the Derg ("committee") seized power from the emperor and installed a government which was socialist in name and military in style. The Derg summarily executed 59 members of the royal family and ministers and generals of the emperor's government; Emperor Haile Selassie was strangled in the basement of his palace on August 22, 1975.

Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed power as head of state and Derg chairman, after having his two predecessors killed. Mengistu's years in office were marked by a totalitarian-style government and the country's massive militarization, financed by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and assisted by Cuba. From 1977 through early 1978 thousands of suspected enemies of the Derg were tortured and/or killed in a purge called the "red terror." Communism was officially adopted during the late 1970s and early 1980s with the promulgation of a Soviet-style constitution, Politburo, and the creation of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (WPE).

In December 1976, an Ethiopian delegation in Moscow signed a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. The following April, Ethiopia abrogated its military assistance agreement with the United States and expelled the American military missions. In July 1977, sensing the disarray in Ethiopia, Somalia attacked across the Ogaden Desert in pursuit of its irredentist claims to the ethnic Somali areas of Ethiopia. Ethiopian forces were driven back far inside their own frontiers but, with the assistance of a massive Soviet airlift of arms and Cuban combat forces, they stemmed the attack. The major Somali regular units were forced out of the Ogaden in March 1978. Twenty years later, the Somali region of Ethiopia remains under-developed and insecure.

The Derg's collapse was hastened by droughts and famine, as well as by insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled the country and was granted asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.

In July 1991, the EPRDF, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and others established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) which was comprised of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution. In June 1992 the OLF withdrew from the government; in March 1993, members of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples' Democratic Coalition left the government.

Text from 1911 encyclopedia:


(12) Abyssiania, or at least the northern portion of it, was included in the tract of country known to the ancients as Ethiopia, the northern limits of which reached at one time to about Syene.

The connexion between Egypt and Ethiopia was in early times very intimate, and occasionally the two countries were under the same ruler, so that the arts and civilization of the one naturally found their way into the other.

In early times, too, the Hebrews had commercial intercourse with the Ethiopians; and according to Ethiopian tradition the queen of Sheba[?] who visited Solomon was a monarch of their country, and from their son Menelek[?] the kings of Ethiopia claim descent. During the Captivity many of the Jews settled here and brought with them a knowledge of the Jewish religion.

Under the Ptolemies, the arts as well as the enterprise of the Greeks entered Ethiopia, and led to the establishment of Greek colonies. A Greek inscription at Adulis, no longer extant, but copied by Cosmas of Alexandria[?], and preserved in his Topographia Christiana, records that Ptolemy Euergetes[?], the third of the Greek dynasty in Egypt, invaded the countries on both sides of the Red Sea, and having reduced most of the provinces of Tigre to subjection, returned to the port of Adulis, and there offered sacrifices to Jupiter, Mars and Neptune. Another inscription, not so ancient, found at Axum, states that Aizanas[?], king of the Axumites, the Homerites, etc., conquered the nation of the Bogos, and returned thanks to his father, the god Mars, for his victory.

Out of these Greek colonies appears to have arisen the kingdom of Auxume[?] which flourished from the 1st to the 7th century A.D. and was at one time nearly coextensive with Ethiopia proper. The capital Auxume and the seaport Adulis were then the chief centres of the trade with the interior of Africa in gold dust, ivory, leather, aromatics, etc. At Axum, the site of the ancient capital, many vestiges of its former greatness still exist; and the ruins of Adulis, which was once a seaport on the bay of Annesley, are now about 4 miles from the shore.

Introduction of Christianity.

(13) Christianity was introduced into the country by Frumentius[?], who was consecrated first bishop of Ethiopia by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria about A.D. 330. From the scanty evidence available it would appear that the new religion at first made little progress, and the Axumite kings seem to have been among the latest converts. Towards the close of the 5th century a great company of monks are believed to have established themselves in the country. Since that time monachism has been a power among the people and not without its influence on the course of events.

In the early part of the 6th century the king of the Homerites, on the opposite coast of the Red Sea, having persecuted the Christians, the emperor Justinian I requested the king of Auxume, Caleh or El-Esbaha, to avenge their cause. He accordingly collected an army, crossed over into Arabia, and conquered Yemen (c. 525), which remained subject to Ethiopia for about fifty years. This was the most flourishing period in the annals of the country. The Ethiopians possessed the richest part of Arabia, carried on a large trade, which extended as far as India and Ceylon, and were in constant communication with the Greek empire.

Their expulsion from Arabia, followed by the conquest of Egypt by the Muslims in the middle of the 7th century, changed this state of affairs, and the continued advances of the followers of the Prophet at length cut them off from almost every means of communication with the civilized world; so that, as Gibbon says, "encompassed by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten."

About A.D. 1000, a Jewish princess, Judith, conceived the design of murdering all the members of the royal family, and of establishing herself in their stead. During the execution of this project, the infant king was carded off by some faithful adherents, and conveyed to Shoa, where his authority was acknowledged, while Judith reigned for forty years over the rest of the kingdom, and transmitted the crown to her descendants. In 1268 the kingdom was restored to the royal house in the person of Yekunu Amlak[?].

Portuguese Influence.

(14) Towards the close of the 15th century the Portuguese missions into Ethiopia began. A belief had long prevailed in Europe of the existence of a Christian kingdom in the far east, whose monarch was known as Prester John, and various expeditions had been sent in quest of it. Among others who had engaged in this search was Pedro de Covilham[?], who arrived in Ethiopia in 1490, and, believing that he had at length reached the far-famed kingdom, presented to the negus, or emperor of the country, a letter from his master the king of Portugal, addressed to Prester John.

Covilham remained in the country, but in 1507 an Armenian named Matthew was sent by the negus to the king of Portugal to request his aid against the Muslims. In 1520 a Portuguese fleet, with Matthew on board, entered the Red Sea in compliance with this request, and an embassy from the fleet visited the negus, Lebna Dengel Dawit (David) II., and remained in Ethiopia for about six years. One of this embassy was Father Francisco Alvarez, from whom we have the earliest and not the least interesting account of the country.

Between 1528 and 1540 armies of Muslims, under the renowned general Mahommed Gran (or Granye, probably a Somali or a Galla), entered Ethiopia from the low country to the south-east, and overran the kingdom, obliging the emperor to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses. In this extremity recourse was again had to the Portuguese. John Bermudez, a subordinate member of the mission of 1520, who had remained in the country after the departure of the embassy, was, according to his own statement (which is untrustworthy), ordained successor to the abuna (archbishop), and sent to Lisbon. Bermudez certainly came to Europe, but with what credentials is not known.

Be that as it may, a Portuguese fleet, under the command of Stephen da Gama, was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in February 1541. Here he received an ambassador from the negus beseeching him to send help against the Moslems, and in the July following a force of 450 musqueteers, under the command of Christopher da Gama, younger brother of the admiral, marched into the interior, and being joined by native troops were at first successful against the enemy; but they were subsequently defeated, and their commander taken prisoner and put to death (August 1542). On the 21st of February 1543, however, Mahommed Granye was shot in an engagement and his forces totally routed. After this, quarrels arose between the negus and Bermudez, who had returned to Ethiopia with Christopher da Gama and who now wished the emperor publicly to profess himself a convert to Rome. This the negus refused to do, and at length Bermudez was obliged to make his way out of the country.

The Jesuits who had accompanied or followed the da Gama expedition into Ethiopia, and fixed their headquarters at Fremona (near Adowa), were oppressed and neglected, but not actually expelled. In the beginning of the 17th century Father Pedro Paez arrived at Fremona, a man of great tact and judgment, who soon rose into high favour at court, and gained over the emperor to his faith. He directed the erection of churches, palaces and bridges in different parts of the country, and carried out many useful works. His successor Mendez was a man of much less conciliatory manners, and the feelings of the people became strongly excited against the intruders, till at length, on the death of the negus Sysenius, Socinius or Seged I., and the accession of his son Fasilidas in 1633, they were all sent out of the country, after having had a footing there for nearly a century and a half.

Visits of Poncet and Bruce.

The French physician C. J. Poncet, who went there in 1698, via Sennar and the Blue Nile, was the only European that afterwards visited the country before Bruce in 1769. James Bruce's main object was to discover the sources of the Nile, which he was convinced lay in Ethiopia. Accordingly, leaving Massawa in September 1769, he travelled via Axum to Gondar, where he was well received by King Tekla Haimanot II. He accompanied the king on a warlike expedition round Lake Tsana, moving S. round the eastern shore, crossing the genuine Blue Nile (Abai) close to its point of issue from the lake and returning via the western shore. On a second expedition of his own he proved to his own satisfaction that the river originated some 4o miles S.W. of the lake at a place called Geesh (4th of November 1770). He showed that this river flowed into the lake, and left it by its now well-known outlet. Bruce subsequently returned to Egypt (end of 1772) via Gondar, the upper Atbara, Sennar, the Nile, and the Korosko desert.

(15) In order to attain a clear view of native Ethiopian history, as distinct from the visits and influence of Europeans, it must be borne in mind that during the last three hundred years, and indeed for a longer period, the country has been merely a conglomeration of provinces and districts, ill defined, loosely connected and generally at war with each other.

Of these the chief provinces have been Tigre (northern), Amhara (central) and Shoa (southern). The seat of government, or rather of overlordship, has usually been in Amhara, the ruler of which, calling himself negus negusti (king of kings, or emperor), has exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. The title of negus negusti has been to a considerable extent based on the blood in the veins of the claimant. All the emperors have based their claims on their direct descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba; but it is needless to say that in many, if not in most, cases their success has been due more to the force of their arms than to the purity of their lineage.

Some of the rulers of the larger provinces have at times been given, or have given themselves, the title of negus or king, so that on occasion as many as three, or even more, neguses have been reigning at the same time; and this must be borne in mind by the student of Ethiopian history in order to avoid confusion of rulers.

During the 18th century the most prominent and beneficent rulers were the emperor Yesu of Gondar, who died about 1720, Sebastie, negus of Shoa (1703-1718), Amada Yesus of Shoa, who extended his kingdom and founded Ankober (1743-1774), Tekla Giorgis of Amhara (1770-1798?) and Asfa Nassen of Shoa (1774-1807), the latter being especially renowned as a wise and benevolent monarch. The first years of the 19th century were disturbed by fierce campaigns between Guxa, ras of Gondar, and Wolda Selassie, ras of Tigre, who were both striving for the crown of Guxa's master, the emperor Eguala Izeion. Wolda Selassie was eventually the victor, and practically ruled the whole country till his death in 1816 at the age of eighty.

British mission and missionary enterprise.

(16) Mention must here be made of the first British mission, under Lord Valentia and Mr Henry Salt, which was sent in 1805 to conclude an alliance with Ethiopia, and obtain a port on the Red Sea in case France secured Egypt by dividing up the Turkish empire with Russia. This mission was succeeded by many travellers, missionaries and merchants of all countries, and the stream of Europeans continued until well into Theodore's reign.

(17) Wolda Selassie of Tigre was succeeded in 1817, through force of arms, by Sabagadis of Agame, and the latter, as ras of Tigre, introduced various Englishmen, whom he much admired, into the country.

Rise of the emperor Theodore.

(18) Lij (= Mr) Kassa was born in Kwara, a small district of Western Amhara, in 1818. His father was a small local chief, and his uncle was governor of the districts of Dembea, Kwara and Chelga between Lake Tsana and the undefined N.W. frontier.

On the death of his uncle he was made chief of Kwara.

He turned his attention to conquering the remaining chief divisions of the country, Gojam, Tigre and Shoa, which still remained unsubdued.

(February 1855) proclaimed himself negus negusti of Ethiopia under the name of Theodore III. In 1855 Kassa, under the name of the emperor Theodore, advanced against Shoa with a large army. Dissensions broke out among the Shoans, and after a desperate and futile attack on Theodore at Debra-Berhan, Haeli Melicoth died of exhaustion and fever, nominating with his last breath his eleven-year-old son Menelek2 as successor (November 1855). Darge, Haeli's brother, took charge of the young prince, but after a hard fight with Angeda, one of Theodore's rases, was obliged to capitulate. Menelek was handed over to the negus, taken to Gondar, and there trained in Theodore's service.

Theodore died after a battle with the British in 1868

Menelek II., king of Shoa (22) It is now time to return to the story of the young prince Menelek, who, as we have seen, had been nominated by his late father as ruler of Shoa, but was in Theodore's power in Tigre. The following table shows his descent since the beginning of the 19th century:--

            Asfa Nassen, d. 1807
              Wassan Seged = Woizero Zenebe Work
                  d. 1811  |
             |                               |
        Becurraye                    Sella Selassie = Woizero Betsabesh
                                        (1795-1847)    |
              |                              |                  |
      Haeli Melicoth = Ejigayu             Siefu             Darge
      (1825-1855)    |                   (1826-1860)         b. 1827
                     |                        |
               Menelek II. = Taitu       Mashasha
                  b. 1844  |
          |                |                     |
        1 son          Zauditu             Tanina Work
        (dead)         (Judith)             (daughter)

In 1865, Menelek, now a desjazmach 4 of Tigre, arrived in Shoa, and was there acclaimed as negus.

On the death of Theodore (13th April 1868) many Shoans, including Ras Darge, were released, and Menelek began to feel himself strong enough, after a few preliminary minor campaigns, to undertake offensive operations against the northern princes. But these projects were of little avail, for Kassai of Tigre, as above mentioned, had by this time (1872) risen to supreme power in the north. Proclaiming himself negus negusti under the name of Johannes or John, he conquered Menelek and Shoa.

The Italians now come on the scene. Assab, a port near the southern entrance of the Red Sea, had been bought from the focal sultan in March 1870 by an Italian company, which, after acquiring more land in 1879 and 1880, was bought out by the Italian government in 1882. In this year Count Pietro Antonelli was despatched to Shoa in order to improve the prospects of the colony by treaties with Menelek and the sultan of Aussa.

In April 1888 the Italian forces, numbering over 20,000 men, came into touch with the Ethiopian army; but negotiations took the place of fighting, with the result that both forces retired, the Italians only leaving some 5000 troops in Eritrea, as their colony was now called.

Meanwhile John had not been idle with regard to the dervishes, who had in the meantime become masters of the Egyptian Sudan. continued, and in 1887 a great battle ensued at Gallabat, in which the dervishes, under Zeki Tumal, were beaten. But a stray bullet struck the king, and the Ethiopians decided to retire. The king died during the night, and his body fell into the hands of the enemy (9th March 1889).

Immediately the news of John's death reached Menelek, he proclaimed himself emperor, and received the submission of Gondar, Gojam and several other provinces.

Battle of Adowa against Italy. On the 26th of October 1896 a provisional treaty of peace was concluded at Adis Ababa, recognizing the absolute independence of Ethiopia.

Regarding the question of railways, the first concession for a railway from the coast at Jibuti (French Somaliland) to the interior was granted by Menelek to a French company in 1894. The railway was completed to Dire Dawa, 28 miles from Harrar, by the last day of 1902.

See also : Ethiopia

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