Short History of Ethiopia

This article was originally published on Lonelyplanet


Cradle Of Humanity

In palaeoanthropology, where years are measured in tenths of millions, 40 years is less than a blink of an eye. However, 40 years worth of palaeoanthropological study can rock the very foundations of human history.

After Richard Leakey’s discovery of skull 1470 near Kenya’s Lake Turkana in 1972, which proved Homo habilis (the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens) had lived alongsideAustralopithecus africanus and therefore couldn’t have evolved from them, the search was on for a new species that had branched into the genera Homo and Australopithecus, a species that would likely be Darwin’s ‘missing link’.

On 30 November 1974 Lucy was discovered in a dried-up lake near Hadar in Ethiopia’s northeast. She was a new species, A. afarensis, and she miraculously walked on two legs 3.2 million years ago. Lucy’s bipedal (upright walking) anatomy also shattered previous theories that hypothesised our ancestors only started walking upright after evolving larger brains. Lucy, the oldest and most complete hominid ever found, was famous and Ethiopia was tipped to claim the prize as the cradle of humanity.

After further finds in Ethiopia, like the 1992 discovery of the 4.4-million-year-old A. ramidus, whose foot bones hinted at bipedism, the ink on Ethiopia’s claim was almost dry. However recent CT scans on a six-million-year-old hominid skeleton (Orrorin tugenensis) found in Kenya in 2001, and computer aided reconstruction of a six- to seven-million-year-old skull (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) in Chad seem to suggest that Lucy and A. ramidus may not be part of the direct line of human evolution, but rather a lateral branch of it. This is undoubtedly highly controversial – visit Lucy in Addis Ababa’s National Museum and show her some support!

Regardless of what still lies beneath the soil of Ethiopia, Kenya or Chad, it’s clear to the palaeoanthropologists of today that human life as we know it started in this region of Africa. Although, 40 more years of palaeoanthropology may turn things upside down, again. All it takes is the blink of an eye.


Land of Punt

 Though this period is shrouded in darkness, Ethiopia and Eritrea are believed to have formed part of the ancient Land of Punt, an area that attracted the trading ships of the Egyptian Pharaohs for millennia.

Many valuable commodities such as gold, myrrh, ivory and slaves issued from the interior of the region and were exported from the coast.

It’s thought the northern coastal region saw much migration from surrounding areas, and by 2000 BC it had established strong contacts with the inhabitants of southern Arabia.


Pre-Aksumite Civilisation

The cultural significance of the southern Arabian and the East African cultures mixing was enormous. One consequence was the emergence of a number of Afro-Asiatic languages, including Ge’ez which laid the foundation for modern Amharic (much like Latin did for Italian). Amazingly, Ge’ez script is still read by many Christian priests in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Most significant was the rise of a remarkable civilization in Africa’s Horn in 1500 BC. The fact that the influence of southern Arabia was so clear (the Sabaean script and in the worship of Sabaean gods), that the civilization appeared to mushroom overnight and was very localized, and that it benefited from specialist crafts, skills and technologies previously unknown in the area, led many scholars to believe that the civilization was spawned by Arabian settlers and not Africans.

However, scholars of late argue with great conviction that this civilization was indeed African and while undoubtedly influenced by Sabaean ideas, it developed from within from local effort and initiative. If proved correct, histories of the Horn will have to be completely rewritten.

Whatever the origin, the civilization was a very important one. The most famous relic of the times is the extraordinary stone ‘temple’ of Yeha.


Kingdom Of Aksum

The Aksumite kingdom, which grew to rank among the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world, was the next civilisation to rise in present-day Ethiopia. The first written evidence of its existence (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian sailor) was from the 1st century AD, but by this point its realm of influence was wide, suggesting it rose to prominence much earlier. New archaeological evidence hints it may have emerged as early as 400 BC.

Aksum, its capital, is thought to have owed its importance to its position, situated at an important commercial crossroads. To the northwest lay Egypt, and to the west, near the present-day Sudanese border, were the rich, gold-producing lowlands. To the northeast, in present-day Eritrea, was the Aksumite port of Adulis, positioned at the crux of an extensive trading route. Exports included frankincense, grain, animal skins, rhino horn, apes and particularly ivory (tens of thousands of elephants were reported to roam the region). Imports of dyed cloaks, cheap unlined coats, glassware, and iron for making spears, swords and axes flowed in from Egypt, Arabia and India. Syrian and Italian wine and olive oil were also imported, as was much gold and silver plate for the king. The flourishing trade allowed the Aksumite kingdom to thrive.

Aksum also benefited from its well-watered agricultural lands, which were further exploited by the use of well-designed dams, wells and reservoirs.

During its heyday between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the Aksumite kingdom stretched into large parts of southern Arabia, and west into the Sudanese Nile Valley. Aksumite society was rich, well organised, and technically and artistically advanced. During this era, an unparalleled coinage in bronze, silver and gold was produced and extraordinary monuments were built, all of which are visible in Aksum today. The kingdom also exerted the greatest influence of all on the future of Ethiopia: it introduced Christianity.


Historians might like to insist that little is known about the founding of the Aksumite Kingdom, but ask the average Ethiopian and they’ll tell you something very different. Aksum, they will say, was founded by none other than the Great-Grandson of Noah, Aksumawi. His new kingdom flourished for a while, but one day Wainaba, a giant snake, 170 cubits long, attacked the city, killed the king and then ruled for 400 dark years. The snake was a foul tempered and dangerous creature and in order to placate him the people of Aksum fed him a diet of milk and virgins. Eventually salvation came in the form of a man named Angabo who, crossing the Red Sea from the land of the Sabeans, offered to kill the serpent in exchange for the throne. The people of Aksum agreed, but rather than fighting the serpent as the Aksumites expected, Angabo proved himself wise and fed the serpent a goat laced in poison.

The kingdom quickly recovered, Angabo married and was borne a daughter. That daughter was named Makeda and on her father’s death she became the woman we today know as the Queen of Sheba.


The Coming Of Christianity

The Ethiopian church claims that Christianity first reached Aksum at the time of the apostles. According to the Byzantine ecclesiastical historian Rufinus, it arrived on Ethiopian shores by accident rather than by design, when a Christian merchant from Syria, returning from a long voyage to India with his two young students, stopped for water on Africa’s coast. However, Ethiopian tradition records a different version of events saying that Christianity reached the country through Abba Salama, a wandering Saint.

Whoever you believe, what’s certain is that Christianity didn’t become the state religion until around the beginning of the 4th century. King Ezana’s stone inscription makes reference to Christ, and his famous coins bear the Christian Cross – the world’s first to do so.

The end of the 5th century AD brought the famous Nine Saints, a group of Greek-speaking missionaries who established well-known monasteries in the north of the country, including Debre Damo. At this time, the Bible was first translated from Greek into Ge’ez.

Christianity shaped not just Ethiopia’s spiritual and intellectual life, but also its cultural and social life, including its art and literature. Today almost half of Ethiopia’s population is Orthodox Christian.


The Coming Of Islam & The Demise Of Aksum

According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Mohammed was nursed by an Ethiopian woman. Later, the Muslim Hadith (collection of traditions about Mohammed’s life) recounts that Mohammed sent some of his followers to Negash in AD 615, to avoid persecution in Arabia.

When things calmed in Arabia, most refugees returned home. However, Negash continues to be a crucial pilgrimage point for Ethiopia’s Muslims.

Good relations between the two religions continued until at least King Armah’s death. Thereafter, as the Arabs and Islam rose to prominence on the opposite side of the Red Sea, trade slowly shifted away from Christian Aksum and it eventually became isolated. The economy slumped, coins ceased to be minted and hard times set in. Aksum’s commercial domination of the region was over.

After Aksum’s decline around AD 700, Ethiopia endured what is commonly known as its ‘dark age’.


The Zagwe Dynasty

 The 12th century witnessed a new capital (Adafa) rise in the mountains of Lasta, not far from present day Lalibela. It was established under a new power: the Zagwe dynasty.

Although the Zagwe dynasty reigned from around AD 1137 to 1270, and left the astonishing rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, this period is still shrouded in mystery. Seemingly, no stones were inscribed, no chronicles written, no coins minted, and no accounts of the dynasty by foreign travellers have survived.

It’s not certain what brought the Zagwe dynasty to an end; it was likely a combination of infighting within the ruling dynasty and local opposition from the clergy. In 1270 the dynasty was overthrown by Yekuno Amlak; political power shifted south to the historical province of Shoa.


The Ethiopian Middle Ages

Yekuno Amlak, claiming to be a descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, established the ‘Solomonic dynasty’ that would reign for the next 500 years. His rule would also ring in the start of what’s known as the Ethiopian Middle Ages, a period more documented than any other in the nation’s past.

With its all-powerful monarchy and influential clergy, the middle Ages were a continuation of the past. However, unlike the past, the kingdom’s capitals were itinerant and were little more than vast, moving military camps. There was no longer minted money and trade was conducted by barter with pieces of iron, cloth or salt.

Culturally, the period was important for the significant output of Ge’ez literature, including the nation’s epic, the Kebra Negast. It was also at this time that contacts with European Christendom began to increase. With the rising threat of well-equipped Muslim armies in the East, Europe was seen as a Christian superpower.

Europe, for its part, dreamed of winning back Jerusalem from the ‘Saracens’, and realised the important strategic position occupied by Ethiopia. At the time, it was almost the only Christian kingdom outside Europe. Ethiopia even became a candidate for the location of legendary Prester John, an immensely wealthy and powerful Christian monarch believed to reign in a far-off land in the East.

In the early 15th century, the first European embassy arrived in Ethiopia, sent by the famous French aristocrat Duc de Berry. Ethiopians in their turn began to travel to Europe, particularly to Rome, where many joined churches already established there.


The Muslim-Christian Wars

The first decades of the 16th century were plagued by some of the most costly, bloody and wasteful fighting in Ethiopian history, in which the entire empire and its culture came close to being wiped out.

From the 13th century, relations with the Muslim Ethiopian emirates of Ifat and Adal were showing signs of strain. With the increasing competition for control of the valuable trade routes connecting the Ethiopian highlands with the Red Sea, tension was growing.

In the 1490s animosities came to a head. After establishing himself at the port of Zeila in present-day Somalia, a skilled and charismatic Muslim named Mahfuz declared a jihad against Christian Ethiopia and made 25 annual raids into the highlands of Shoa. Emperor Lebna Dengel finally halted Mahfuz’s incursions, but not before he had carried off huge numbers of Ethiopian slaves and cattle.

An even more legendary figure was Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi, nicknamed ‘Ahmed Gragn the Left-Handed’. After overthrowing Sultan Abu Bakr of Harar, Ahmed declared his intention to continue the jihad of Mahfuz. Carrying out several raids into Ethiopian territory, he managed in March 1529 to defeat Emperor Lebna Dengel himself.

Ahmed then embarked on the conquest of all of Christian Ethiopia. Well supplied with firearms from Ottoman Zeila and southern Arabia (which he pragmatically exchanged for captured Christian slaves), the Muslim leader had, by 1532, overrun almost all of eastern and southern Ethiopia.

In 1535 the Emperor Lebna Dengel appealed in desperation to the Portuguese, who were already active in the region. In 1541 an army of 400 well-armed musketeers arrived in Massawa (in present-day Eritrea), led by Dom Christovão da Gama, son of the famous mariner Vasco da Gama. They met Ahmed near Lake Tana, where he quickly routed them before lopping off the young and foolhardy head of Dom Christovão.

n 1543 the new Ethiopian emperor, Galawdewos, and his amassed army joined ranks with the surviving Portuguese force and met Ahmed at Wayna Daga in the west. This time, the Christians’ huge numbers proved too powerful and Ahmed was killed, and his followers fled. However, Muslim raids led by Ahmed’s wife and nephew continued in the years following. In infuriation, and without the back-up of his main army, Galawdewos attacked the rich trading Muslim city of Harar in 1559. He met the same fate as Dom Christovão, and his head was paraded around Harar on a stick.

The Muslim-Christian wars were terribly costly. The Christian monarchy was nearly wiped out, and the once mighty Muslim state of Adal lay in ruins. Many of the most beautiful churches and monasteries in Ethiopia, along with their precious manuscripts, church relics and regalia, lay in ashes.


Oromo Migrations & the Jesuits

A new threat to the Ethiopian empire arose in the mid-16th century, filling the power vacuum left behind by the weakened Muslims. The nomadic pastoralists and warrior horsemen of the Oromos (known to the Amharas as Gallas, a pejorative term) began a great migration northwards from what’s now Kenya.

For the next 200 years intermittent armed conflict raged between the empire and the Oromos. For the empire, the Oromo expansion meant loss of territory and vital tax revenue. The Oromos also challenged the old Muslim state; the old city walls seen in Harar today were built in response to Oromo conflicts.

Early in the 17th century the Oromo threat led several Ethiopian emperors to seek an alliance with the Portuguese-backed Jesuits. Two emperors, Za-Dengel and Susenyos, even went as far as conversion to Catholicism. However, imposing Catholicism on their population provoked widespread rebellion. Za-Dengel was overthrown and, in 1629, Susenyos’ draconian measures to convert his people incited civil war.

As many as 32,000 peasants are thought to have lost their lives in the bloodshed that followed, most at the hands of Susenyos’ army. Eventually Susenyos backed down and the Orthodox faith was re-established.

Susenyos’ son and successor, Fasiladas, expelled the meddling Jesuits and forbade all foreigners to set foot in his empire. For nearly 130 years only one European, a French doctor Charles Poncet, was allowed to enter Ethiopia. He famously wrote about Emperor Iyasu’s grandeur in A Voyage to Ethiopia (translation).

Though the Jesuits’ interference had caused great suffering and bloodshed in Ethiopia, they left behind one useful legacy: books. Pero Pais wrote the first serious history of the country. Other writings included detailed accounts of Ethiopia’s cultural, economic and social life.

With the rising Ottoman hold in the east, and the Oromo entrenchment in the south, the political authority of Shoa had become increasingly circumscribed. It was time to relocate the centre of power – again.


The Rise & Fall Of Gonder

In 1636, following the old tradition of his forefathers, Emperor Fasiladas decided to found a new capital. However, Gonder was different from its predecessors: it was to be the first permanent capital since Lalibela. Fasiladas’ plan worked and Gonder flourished for well over a century.

By the 17th century’s close, Gonder boasted magnificent palaces, beautiful gardens and extensive plantations. It was also the site of sumptuous feasts and extravagant court pageantry, attracting visitors from around the world. Its thriving market even drew rich Muslim merchants from across the country.

Under the ample patronage of church and state, the arts and crafts flourished. Impressive churches were built, among them the famous Debre Berhan Selassie, which can be seen to this day. Outside Gonder, building projects included some remarkable churches at Lake Tana’s historic monasteries.

But not all was sweet in Gonder’s court, and between 1706 and 1721 everyone from royal bodyguards, the clergy and nobles to ordinary citizens tried their hand at conspiracy. Assassination, plotting and intrigue became the order of the day, and the ensuing chaos reads like something out of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. No less than three monarchs held power during this turbulent period, at least one meeting a sticky, poisonous end. Emperor Bakaffa’s reign (1721–30) briefly restored stability, during which time new palaces and churches were built, and literature and the arts once again thrived.

However, by the time of Iyasu II’s death in 1755, the Gonder kingdom was back in turmoil. The provinces started to rebel. Ethnic rivalries surfaced and came to head in a power struggle between the Oromo people, who’d become increasingly absorbed into the court, and the Tigrayan ruler, Ras Mikael Sehul. Assassination and murder again followed and central government fell apart.

Between 1784 and 1855 the emperors were little more than puppets in the hands of rival feudal lords and their powerful provincial armies. The country disintegrated and civil war became the norm. After Gonder’s renaissance, Ethiopia had stepped right back into the dark ages. Thankfully, much of Gonder’s architectural grandeur survived and remains intact.

Ethiopian historians later referred to the time after Iyasu II’s death as the period of the masafent (judges), after the reference in the Book of Judges 21:25 when ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’.


Emperor Tewodros

After the fallout of Gonder, Ethiopia existed only as a cluster of separate and feuding fiefdoms. That was until the mid-19th century, when a unique man dreamt of unity.

Kassa Haylu, raised in a monastery and the son of a western chief, had first been a shifta (bandit) after his claim to his deceased father’s fief was denied. However, he eventually became a Robin Hood figure, looting the rich to give to the poor. This gained him large numbers of followers and he began to defeat the rival princes, one after another, until in 1855 he had himself crowned Emperor Tewodros.

The new monarch soon began to show himself not just as a capable leader and strong ruler but as a unifier, innovator and reformer as well. He chose Maqdala, a natural fortress south of Lalibela, as his base and there he began to formulate mighty plans. He established a national army, an arms factory and a great road network, as well as implementing a major program of land reform, promoting Amharic (the vernacular) in place of the classical written language, Ge’ez, and even attempting to abolish the slave trade.

But these reforms met with deep resentment and opposition from the land-holding clergy, the rival lords and even the common faithful. Tewodros’ response, however, was ruthless and sometimes brutal. Like a tragic Shakespearean hero, the emperor suffered from an intense pride, a fanatical belief in his cause and an inflated sense of destiny. This would eventually be his downfall.

Frustrated by failed attempts to enlist European, and particularly British, support for his modernising programs, Tewodros impetuously imprisoned some Britons attending his court. Initially successful in extracting concessions, Tewodros overplayed his hand, and it badly miscarried. In 1868 large, heavily armed British forces, backed by rival Ethiopian lords, inflicted appalling casualties on Tewodros’ men, many of them armed with little more than shields and spears.

Refusing to surrender, Tewodros played the tragic hero to the last and penned a final dramatic and bitter avowal before biting down on a pistol and pulling the trigger.

Tewodros’ defeat gravely weakened Ethiopia. This did not escape the watchful eyes of colonial powers, now hungry for expansion.


Emperor Yohannes

In the aftermath of Tewodros’ death, there arose another battle for succession. Using his weaponry gained from the British in exchange for his support of their Maqdala expedition, Kassa Mercha of Tigray rose to the fore. In 1871, at the battle of Assam, he defeated the newly crowned Emperor Tekla Giorgis.

After proclaiming himself Emperor Yohannes the following year, Kassa reigned for the next 17 years. In contrast to Tewodros, Yohannes staunchly supported the church and recognised the independence of local lords. With the latter, he struck a bargain: in exchange for keeping their kingdoms, they were obliged to recognise the emperor’s overall power, and to pay taxes to his state. In this way, Yohannes secured the religious, political and financial backing of his subjects.

Yohannes also proved himself a skilful soldier. In 1875, after the Egyptians had advanced into Ethiopia from the coastal area, Yohannes drew them into battle and resoundingly routed them at Gundat and then again at Gura in 1876. His victories not only ended any Egyptian designs on the territory, but brought much captured weaponry, turning his army into the first well-equipped force in Ethiopian history.

But soon another power threatened: the Italians. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly increased the strategic value of the Red Sea, which again became a passageway to the East and beyond.

In 1885 the Italians arrived in Massawa (in present-day Eritrea), and soon blockaded arms to Yohannes. The failure of the British to impede the arrival of the Italians made Yohannes furious. He accused them of contravening the 1884 Hewett Treaty. Though protesting otherwise, Britain privately welcomed the Italians, both to counter French influence on the Somali coast (in present-day Djibouti), and to deter any Turkish ambitions.

Meanwhile, the Mahadists (or Dervishes) were raising their heads in the west. Dislodging the Egyptians and British, they overran Sudan before arriving in Ethiopia and eventually sacking Gonder in 1888.

Yohannes rushed to meet the Dervishes at Qallabat in 1889 but, at the close of yet another victory, he fell, mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet.


Emperor Menelik

Menelik, King of Shoa since 1865, had long aspired to the imperial throne. Confined at Maqdala for 10 years by Tewodros, he was yet reportedly much influenced by his captor, and also dreamt of Ethiopia’s unification and modernisation.

After his escape from Maqdala and his ascendancy in Shoa, Menelik concentrated on consolidating his own power, and embarked on an aggressive, ruthless and sometimes brutal campaign of expansion. He occupied territories across the south, forcing various ethnic groups under his empire’s yoke.

Relations with the Italians were at first good; Menelik had been seen as a potential ally against Yohannes. On Yohannes’ death, the Italians recognised Menelik’s claim to the throne and, in 1889, the Treaty of Wechale was signed. In exchange for granting Italy the region that was later to become Eritrea, the Italians recognised Menelik’s sovereignty and gave him the right to import arms freely through Ethiopian ports.

However, a dispute over a discrepancy in the purportedly identical Amharic and Italian texts – the famous Article 17 – led to disagreement. According to the Italian version, Ethiopia was obliged to approach other foreign powers through Italy, which essentially reduced Ethiopia to a lowly Italian protectorate. Relations rapidly began to sour.

In the meantime, the Italians continued their expansion in their newly created colony of Eritrea. Soon, they were spilling into territory well beyond the confines agreed to in both treaties.

Despite the Italians’ attempts to court Tigray’s local chiefs, the latter chose to assist Menelik. Nevertheless, the Italians managed to defeat Ras Mangasha and his Tigrayan forces and occupied Mekele in 1895.

Provoked at last into marching north with his forces, Menelik shocked the international world by resoundingly defeating the Italians at Adwa. It was one of the biggest and most significant battles in African history – numbering among the very few occasions when a colonial power was defeated by a native force. To the rest of Africa, Ethiopia became a beacon of independence in a continent almost entirely enslaved by colonialism.

Menelik then set his sights on modernisation. He abandoned the Shoan capital of Ankober and soon founded Addis Ababa. During his reign, electricity and telephones were introduced, bridges, roads, schools and hospitals built, banks and industrial enterprises established.

The greatest technological achievement of the time was undoubtedly the construction of Ethiopia’s railway, which eventually linked Addis Ababa to Djibouti in 1915.



Menelik died a natural death in 1913. Iyasu, his raffish young grandson and nominated heir, proved to be very much a product of the 20th century. Continuing with Menelik’s reforms, he also showed a ‘modern’ secularist, non-sectarian attitude.

The young prince built mosques as well as churches, took several Muslim as well as Christian wives, and supported the empire’s peripheral populations, which had for years suffered at the oppressive hands of Amharic settlers and governors.

Iyasu and his councillors pushed through a few reforms, including improving the system of land tenure and taxation, but they faced ever-deepening opposition from the church and nobility.

Finally, after also upsetting the allied powers with his dealings with the Weimar Republic (Germany), Austria and the Ottoman Empire, a pretext for his removal was found. Accused by the nobles of ‘abjuring the Christian faith’, the prince was deposed in 1921. Zewditu, Menelik’s daughter, was proclaimed empress, and Ras Tafari (the son of Ras Makonnen, Menelik’s cousin) was proclaimed the prince regent.


Ras Tafari

Prince Ras Tafari boasted more experience and greater maturity than Iyasu, particularly in the field of foreign affairs. In an attempt to improve the country’s international image, he succeeded in abolishing the Ethiopian slave trade.

In 1923 Tafari pulled off a major diplomatic coup by securing Ethiopia entry into the League of Nations. Membership firmly placed Ethiopia on the international political map, and also gave it some recourse against the grasping designs of its European, colonial neighbours.

Continuing the tradition begun by Menelik, Tafari was an advocate of reform. A modern printing press was established as well as several secondary schools and an air force. In the meantime, Tafari was steadily outmanoeuvring his rivals. In 1930 the last rebellious noble was defeated and killed in battle. A few days later the sick empress also died. Ras Tafari assumed the throne.


Emperor Haile Selassie

On 2 November 1930 Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie. The extravagant spectacle was attended by representatives from across the globe and proved a terrific public relations exercise. It even led indirectly to the establishment of a new faith.

The following year, Ethiopia’s first written constitution was introduced. It granted the emperor virtually absolute power, his body was even declared sacred. The two-house parliament consisted of a senate, which was nominated by the emperor from among his nobles; and a chamber of deputies, which was elected from the landholders. It was thus little more than a chamber for self-interested debate.

Ever since the day of his regency, the emperor had been bringing the country under centralised rule. For the first time, the Ethiopian state was unambiguously unified.


Italian Occupation

By the early 20th century Ethiopia was the only state in Africa to have survived Europe’s colonial scramble. However, Ethiopia’s position between the two Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia made her an enticing morsel. Any Italian attempt to link its two colonies would require expansion into Ethiopia. When Mussolini seized power, the inevitable happened.

From 1933, in an effort to undermine the Ethiopian state, Italian agents, well heeled with funds, were dispatched to subvert the local chiefs, as well as to stir up ethnic tensions. Britain and France, nervous of pushing Mussolini further into Hitler’s camp, refrained from protests and turned a blind eye.

In 1934 a minor skirmish known as the Wal Wal incident took place between Italian and Ethiopian forces. Italy had found its pretext. Though the export of arms was banned to both countries, in Italy’s case (itself a major arms manufacturer), the embargo was meaningless.

Italian Invasion

On 3 October 1935 the invasion began. Italians, overwhelmingly superior in both ground and air forces, invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea. First the northern town of Aksum fell, then Mekele.

The League of Nations issued sanctions against Italy, but they proved to be little more than a slap on the wrist. If the Suez Canal had been closed to the Italians, or an oil embargo put in place, the Italian advance – as Mussolini was later to admit – might have been halted within weeks.


Terrified that the international community would impose more serious embargoes, and keen to keep Italian morale high, Il Duce pressed for a swift campaign.

Impatient with progress made, he soon replaced De Bono, his first general. Pietro Badoglio, his replacement, was authorised ‘to use all means of war – I say all – both from the air and from the ground’. Implicit in the instructions was the use of mustard gas, which contravened the 1926 Geneva Convention. Also in contravention was Italy’s repeated bombing of civilian targets, including Red Cross hospitals.

Despite overwhelming odds, the Ethiopians succeeded in launching a major counterattack, known as the Christmas Offensive, at the Italian position at Mekele at the end of 1935.

However, the Italians were soon on the offensive again. Backed by hundreds of planes, cannons and weapons of every type, the Italian armies swept across the country. In May 1936 Mussolini triumphantly declared: ‘Ethiopia is Italian’.

Meanwhile, Emperor Haile Selassie had fled Ethiopia (some Ethiopians never forgave him for it) to present Ethiopia’s cause to the world. On 30 June 1936 he made his famous speech to the League of Nations in Geneva. The league staggeringly responded by lifting the sanctions against Italy later that year. Only the USSR, USA, Haiti, Mexico and New Zealandrefused to recognise Italy’s conquest.


Occupation & Resistance

Soon Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia were merged to become the colonial territory of ‘Africa Orientale Italiana’ (Italian East Africa).

Hoping to create an important economic base, Italy invested heavily in its new colony. From 1936 as many as 60,000 Italian workers poured in to work on Ethiopia’s infrastructure.

Ethiopia kept up a spirited resistance to Italian rule throughout its brief duration. Italy’s response was famously brutal. Mussolini personally ordered all rebels to be shot, and insurgencies were put down using large-scale bombing, poison gas and machine-gunning from the air.

Ethiopian resistance reached a peak in February 1937 with an assassination attempt on the much-hated Italian viceroy, Graziani. In reprisal, the Italians spent three days shooting, beheading or disembowelling several thousand people in the capital.

The ‘patriot’s movement’ (the resistance fighters) was mainly based in the historical provinces of Shoa, Gonder and Gojam, but drew support from all parts of the country; many fighters were women.

Graziani’s response was simple: ‘Eliminate them, eliminate them, eliminate them’. But Ethiopian resolve stiffened and resistance grew. Although in control of major towns, Italy never succeeded in conquering the entire country.

The outbreak of WWII, particularly Italy’s declaration of war against Britain in 1940, dramatically changed the course of events. Britain at last reversed its policy of tacit support of Italy’s East African expansion and initially offered Ethiopia assistance on the Sudan–Ethiopia border. Later, in early 1941, Britain launched three major attacks.

Though not then widely recognised, the Ethiopian patriots played a major role before, during and after the liberation campaign, which ended on 5 May 1941 when the emperor and his men entered Addis Ababa.


Postliberation Ethiopia & The Derg

The British, who’d entered Ethiopia as liberators, initially seemed to have simply replaced Italy as occupiers. However, Anglo-Ethiopian treaties in 1942 and 1944 eventually marked Ethiopia’s resumption of independence.

The 1940s and ’50s saw much postwar reconstruction, including (with US assistance) the establishment of a new government bank, a national currency, and the country’s first national airline, Ethiopian Airlines.

New schools were developed and, in 1950, the country’s first institution of higher education was established: the University College of Addis Ababa (now Addis Ababa University).

In 1955 the Revised Ethiopian Constitution was introduced. Although for the first time the legislature included an elected chamber of deputies, the government remained autocratic and the emperor continued to hold all power.

In 1962 Addis Ababa became the headquarters of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and, in 1958, of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).



Despite modernisation, the pace of development was slow and dissatisfaction with it, and with the emperor’s autocratic rule, began to grow. Finally, taking advantage of a state visit to Brazil in December 1960, the emperor’s imperial bodyguard staged a coup d’etat. Though put down by the army and air force, it signalled the beginning of the end of imperial rule in Ethiopia.

Discontent simmered among the students too, who protested in particular against land tenure, corruption and the appalling famine of 1972–74 in which an estimated 200,000 died.

Meanwhile, international relations had also been deteriorating. In 1962 Ethiopia abrogated the UN-sponsored federation with Eritrea and unilaterally annexed the Eritrean state.

Then war broke out in 1964 with Somalia over joint claims to Ethiopia’s Somali-inhabited region of the Ogaden Desert.

The 1974 Revolution & the Emperor’s Fall

By 1973 an increasingly powerful and radical military group had emerged. Known as the Derg (Committee), they used the media with consummate skill to undermine the authority of the emperor himself. They famously flashed striking footage of starvation from Jonathan Dimbleby’s well-known BBC TV report on the Wolo famine in between clips of sumptuous palace banquets.

The result was an unprecedented wave of teacher, student and taxi strikes in Addis Ababa. Even army mutinies began to be reported. At crisis point, the prime minister and his cabinet resigned and a new one was appointed with the mandate to carry out far-reaching constitutional reforms. But it was too late.

On 12 September 1974 the emperor was deposed, unceremoniously bundled into the back of a Volkswagen, and driven away to prison. Ministers, nobles and close confidants of the emperor were also arrested by the Derg. The absolute power of the emperor and the divine right of rule of the century-old imperial dynasty were finished – forever?

The Derg soon dissolved parliament and established the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) to rule the country.

Emerging as the leader of the Derg was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam who rode the wave of popular opposition to Selassie’s regime, as well as the Marxist-Leninist ideology of left-wing students.

And what happened to the emperor? It’s thought he was murdered by Mengistu himself in August 1975. Evidence for the crime? The ring of Solomon, rumoured to have been plucked from the murdered emperor’s hand, was spotted on Mengistu’s middle finger.


The Socialist Experiment

On 20 December 1974 a socialist state was declared. Under the adage Ityopya Tikdem or ‘Ethiopia First’, banks, businesses and factories were nationalised as was the rural and urban land. Raising the status of Ethiopian peasants, the campaign was initially much praised internationally, particularly by Unesco.

In the meantime, the external threats posed by Somalia and secessionist Eritrea were increasing. In July 1977 Somalia invaded Ethiopia. Thanks to the intervention of the Soviet Union, which flooded socialist Ethiopia with Soviet state-of-the-art weaponry, Somalia was beaten back. In Eritrea, however, the secessionists continued to thwart Ethiopian offensives.

Internal political debate also degenerated into violence. In 1977 the Red Terror campaign was launched to suppress all political opponents. At a conservative estimate, 100,000 people were killed and several thousand more fled abroad.


The Demise of the Derg

Red Terror only cemented the stance of those opposing the Derg. Numerous armed liberation movements arose, including those of the Afar, Oromo, Somali and particularly Tigrayan peoples. For years, with limited weaponry, they fought the military might of the Soviet-backed Derg.

In 1984–85 another appalling famine followed a drought, in which up to a million people died. Failed government resettlement campaigns, communal farms and ‘villageisation’ programmes aggravated the disaster in many areas, while Mengistu’s disinclination to help the province of Tigray – the worst affected region and home to the powerful Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – caused thousands more to die.

The various opposition groups eventually united to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which in 1989 began its historic military campaign towards Addis Ababa.

Doubly confronted by the EPRDF in Ethiopia and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in Eritrea; with the fall of his allies in Eastern Europe; and with his state in financial ruin as well as his own military authority in doubt, Mengistu’s time was up and he fled the country on 21 May 1991. Seven days later, the EPRDF entered Addis Ababa and the Derg were done.

Mengistu received asylum in Zimbabwe, where he remains to this day, despite being tried in absentia in Ethiopia and sentenced to death.


The Road To Democracy (1991–95)

After the war of liberation, Ethiopia and Eritrea’s leaders showed a similar determination and zeal to rebuild their countries.

In July 1991 a transitional charter was endorsed, which gave the EPRDF-dominated legislature a four-year, interim rule under the executive of the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi. First and foremost, Mengistu’s failed socialist policies were abandoned, and de facto independence was granted to Eritrea.

In August 1995 the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed, a series of elections followed, and the constitution of the second republic was inaugurated. Meles Zenawi formed a new government.


The Ethiopia-Eritrea War

Despite being friends and having fought against the Derg side by side for more than a decad