I’ll give you a ‘brief’ history of Ethiopia, mainly because it might help to answer the following questions:
1. Why are the majority of Ethiopians Orthodox Christians?
2. How was Ethiopia able to resist being colonized by the Europeans, the only Africa country to do so?
3. What is the link between the Rastafarian religion and Emperor Haile Selassie?
4. Why did Emperor Haile Selassie come to such an ungodly end?
And, it should give you an insight with regard to the historical sites that we visited during our stay in Ethiopia.
The land known as Ethiopia and Eritrea today once formed part of an area that was well known to the Egyptian Pharaohs for thousands of years. By 2000 BC, there were strong contacts made with southern Arabia as well, everyone was attracted by the vast quantities of gold, myrrh, ivory and slaves gathered in the interior and exported from the coastal regions.
The next 500 years saw a significant intermingling of the cultures of the Southern Arabian and East African cultures. This gave birth to a remarkable new civilization, whose language became the precursor for the today’s Amharic – the dominant language in Ethiopia today. The formation of a state what would become known, as Abyssinia was evident as early as 980 B.C.
The Aksumite kingdom (400 BC) was the next to emerge and it grew to become on of the most powerful in the ancient world. It’s capital, Aksum, was situated where several important trading routes intersected. In exchange for exports of gold, grain, frankincense and especially ivory, traders imported glassware, iron (for weaponry), olive oil, wine and silver (for the king) from Egypt, Arabia, India, Syria and Italy.
The people of Aksum developed a well-organized society and their technical and artistic skills were highly advanced. The riches were funneled into the production of incomparable coinage, in bronze, silver and gold and the funds were used to erect outstanding monuments, all of which still stand today at Aksum. It was this very kingdom that introduced Christianity to Ethiopia.
There are differing accounts as to how and when Christianity reached Aksum, but there is no denying that the 4th century’s King Ezana’s coins were the first in the world to bear the Christian Cross! A century later, a group of Greek-speaking missionaries arrived and established several monasteries in the north of Ethiopia.
It’s hard to appreciate exactly how much of Ethiopia’s cultural, spiritual and social life was influenced by Christianity. Today, clearly half of the country’s peoples worship at Orthodox Christian churches and cathedrals.
An Ethiopian woman, or so Muslim traditions report, suckled the Prophet Mohammed. With the birth of Islam and the growing dominance of the Arabs in the region to the east of the Red Sea, trade began to shift away from the African coast and Christian Aksum, by 700 AD had become a backwater. It was the start of a very dark time for the region.
A new dynasty emerged during the 12th century, and it was responsible for the incredible rock-hewn churches at Lalibela. There is little else to give researchers an insight into the dynasty – nothing such as inscriptions, chronicles, old coins or the reports of travellers to the region. It is thought that infighting brought the dynast to its knees and in 1270 AD Yekuno Amlak took control and shifted the political power further south to the province of Shoa.
The Solomonic Dynasty
Why was Yekuno Amlak a name to remember? He claimed to be a descendant of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, and he established the Dynasty of Solomon, one that would reign for the coming 500 years, ending with Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The Ethiopian Middle Ages relates to this period in local history, and it was dominated by a powerful monarchy and a clergy that made sure to exert a strong influence. However, gone were the established capital cities and instead, the emperors commanded enormous moving military camps. This did not allow for the minting of coins, and trade shifted to a barter system, using salt, iron and cloth as trade goods.
The dynasty saw the outpouring of literature and it was during this time that Ethiopia’s most famous epic was written. Arabian armies threatened from the East at the same time that the Europeans to the north dreamed of recapturing Jerusalem from the Muslims. It was clear that the Ethiopian dynasty occupied land in an important strategic position, and it was recognized as almost the only Christian kingdom outside of Europe.
By the early 15th century, exchanges between the aristocrats of Europe and the Ethiopians began to take place and many religious men travelled to Rome and were joined the established churches there.
From the 13th century onwards, tensions built between the Muslims and the Christians, as each sought to control the valuable trading routes between the interior highlands and the Red Sea. The beginning of the 16th century was so bloody that it came close to wiping out the entire empire. The destruction of the beautiful churches and monasteries, and all the treasures within were left in ashes.
In 1535 AD the emperor turned to the Portuguese for assistance, as they had been active in the area. The son of the famous explorer Vasco de Gama led a small army against the Muslims at Lake Tana, but lost his head in battle there. Battles raged on and off for the next 200 years, especially with a new threat from the south. The Oromos were a tribe of nomadic famers with fierce warriors who fought on horseback. They sought to subdue the Muslim state around the walled city of Harar.
Early in the 17th century, the emperors again turned to the Europeans, this time the Portuguese-backed Jesuits. An attempt was made to try to convert the Orthodox Christians to Catholicism, but this was met with fierce opposition and rebellion, bordering on civil war. More than 32,000 peasants perished in the fighting and eventually the Jesuits were expelled and all foreigners were forbidden to enter the kingdom.
In 1636, Emperor Fasiladas decided to abandon his wandering lifestyle and select a location for a more permanent capital. He chose Gondar in the northwest, and it became the first capital since Lalibela. Gondar flourished and eventually encompassed an array of magnificent palaces, stunning gardens and productive plantations. The tales of sumptuous feasts and extravagant court celebrations attracted visitors from around the world.
Both the church and the state encouraged the blossoming of the arts and literature, and during this period impressive churches were built in Gondar and on the shores and islands of Lake Tana. But infighting between the courtiers and the threat of rebelling provinces to the east and south were the order of the day.
The emperors eventually became subservient to the feudal lords and their powerful armies. Civil war broke out once again and it was ‘every man for himself’. This continued until the emergence of Africa’s ‘Robin Hood’, Emperor Tewodros.
The son of a chief from the west, brought up in a monastery and briefly a bandit after he was denied his claim to his dead father’s fiefdom, Kassa Haylu began to steal from the rich and give to the poor. He won the support of a huge following and was able to defeat other ‘princes’ until he had himself declared Emperor Tewodros in 1855 AD.
He had a vision to unite the warring tribes and his strong skills as a leader, an innovator and a reformer served him well. He implemented a major land reform, built a network of roads and established a national army. He promoted the Amharic language over the classical written language of the clergy and attempted to abolish the slave trade.
He turned to the Europeans for support as he modernized the land, but met with little success. The British spurned his overtures and in anger and frustration, he imprisoned some who came to his court. In 1868 AD, heavily armed British troops attacked his men, armed mostly with only spears and shields. The emperor’s defeat left a power vacuum that the colonial powers quickly took advantage of.
With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 AD, the region along the Red Sea held even more significance as it was a passageway to the East and distant trade. The British and the French dominated the region, but Italy was eager to get a toehold as a colonizer and chose Massawa, in present day Eritrea as their base.
The Italians blockaded British arms reaching the new Emperor Yohannes, who had kept the Egyptians at bay, in the interior. Yohannes was furious at the British for not getting rid of the Italians, but had to turn his attentions to the Dervishes who were threatening from the west. Meanwhile, another local lord was arming himself and had designs on the imperial throne. Menelik embarked on a brutal campaign and succeeded on expanding his control, occupying territories across the south. Initially, his relations with the Italians were good; he was seen as an ally against Yohannes.
When Yohannes was killed in battle with the Dervishes, the Italians supported Menelik’s claim to the throne, gave him the right to import arms through Ethiopian ports, and in return, he granted Italy the region that was later to become Eritrea. It wasn’t long before the Italians were expanding their new colony and soon they were encroaching across the border agreed to in the treaties.
At last Menelik could no longer tolerate the provocation of the Italians, and he decided to march north with his forces. In one of the biggest and most important battles in Africa history, he soundly defeated the Italians at Adwa, one of the few times a native army one-upped a colonial power. The rest of the continent sat up and took notice, the colonial powers had it almost completely enslaved.
During the ten years that Menelik had been imprisoned by Tewodros, he was very much impressed with the mighty plans of this jailer. He set about modernizing the country, introducing electricity and telephones and building roads, schools, bridges, banks and hospitals. The railway that was constructed between Addis Ababa, his new capital, and Djibouti in 1915 was probably the greatest technological achievement of the time.
When Menelik died of natural causes, his successor, a grandson named Iyasu proved to be a modern young man with a more open mind. He built mosques as well as churches and took Muslim wives alongside his Christian wives. The oppressed tribes, which had suffered at the hands of the dominant Amhara governors, were supported and protected.
However, the church and the nobles were opposed to his new system of land reforms and taxation, and after upsetting the Allied Powers by dealing with the Weimar Republic, Austria and the Ottoman Empire, Iyasu was deposed in 1921. Another of Menelik’s grandsons, Ras Tafari was proclaimed the prince regent, with his mother, Menelik’s daughter Zewditu the empress, because of the young age of the regent.
Prince Ras Tafari was a shrewd operator, particularly in the field of foreign diplomacy. He managed to abolish the slave trade and in 1923 AD he secured Ethiopia’s entry into the League of Nations. Following the lead of Menelik, reforms continued, a modern printing press was established and an air force created. The last rebellious noble was vanquished in 1930 AD and shortly thereafter, the ailing empress died.
Emperor Hails Selassie
On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie. Representatives from around the world attended the elaborate coronation. A new faith took root from that day. The coronation drew the attention of Marcus Garvey’s ‘Return to Africa’ movement in far away Jamaica. Garvey saw the crowning of the new emperor as the fulfillment of the Bible’s ancient prophecy that ‘Kings will come out of Africa’.
The followers of Marcus Garvey identified themselves with the Ethiopian monarch and proclaimed him divine – The Messiah of African Redemption – and they took the name of the emperor’s name before his coronation – Ras Tafari. The emperor was a bit embarrassed at first, but in 1963 he granted the Rastafarians some land Shashemene, southern Ethiopia. However, it’s probably the late Bob Marley who really brought the Rastafarians to the attention of the world. A year after the coronation, a new constitution was drafted; it granted the new emperor absolute power and his body was even declared sacred.
Ethiopia’s position between the two Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia made the country vulnerable. When Mussolini seized power there was no holding him back. Agents were sent to stir up the local chiefs and inflame ethnic tensions. Britain and France looked the other way, they were fearful of pushing Mussolini closer to Hitler.
Italy invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935. Aksum was the first northern town to fall. The League of Nations issued sanctions, but with the Suez Canal remaining open to the Italians, they were free to import weapons and fuel to support their advance. The Geneva Convention forbid the use of chemical weapons or the bombing of civilian targets or hospitals, but this didn’t stop Mussolini. Using planes, cannons and every sort of weapon know to man, he swept across the country and in May 1936, declared Ethiopia to be ‘Italian’.
Emperor Haile Selassie had fled the country in order to present Ethiopia’s case to the League of Nations. Many of his subjects never forgave him for leaving. He made his famous speech on June 30, 1936, but the league responded by lifting the sanctions against Italy! The only countries to refuse to recognize Italy’s conquest were the USSR, Haiti, Mexico, New Zealand and America.
Thus began the brutal occupation of Ethiopia, and the territory was merged with Eritrea and Somalia to form ‘Italian East Africa’. The Ethiopians put up a fierce resistance, but all rebels were shot and poison gas, carpet-bombing and machine-gunning from the air was used to subdue the natives. When an assassination plot failed to kill the much-hated Italian viceroy, several thousand men, women and children were butchered over the course of three days in Addis Ababa.
With the outbreak of WWII, and Italy’s declaration of war against Britain in 1940, the British joined the Ethiopian patriots in ousting the Italian forces. On May 5, 1941, the emperor and his men entered Addis Ababa. The cruel five-year period of attempted colonization was over. Though Italy had been in control of most of the major towns, it had never succeeded in conquering the countryside.
Post War Ethiopia
At first it seemed as if the British had replaced the Italians as occupiers, but treaties signed in 1942 and 1944 gave the Ethiopians their independence once again. With aid from the US the 1940s and 1950s saw a great deal of reconstruction and new development. A national currency was established along with the country’s first airline, Ethiopian Airlines.
In 1958 Addis Ababa became the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and then in 1962, the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
Despite all this modernization, development seemed to move at a very slow pace and discontent grew. The people were unhappy with the emperor’s autocratic rule and when the emperor left for a state visit to Brazil in December 1960, the imperial bodyguard staged an attempted coup d’état. Although the attempted overthrow was unsuccessful, it marked the beginning of the end of imperial rule in Ethiopia.
The international community was disgruntled when Ethiopia unilaterally annexed the Eritrean state in 1962, most likely to give them access to the Red Sea ports. The rising student class began to protest against the land tenure system, corruption and the horrific famine that raged between 1972 and 1974, a famine that killed an estimated 200,000 people.
During this period, a powerful radical military group, known as the Derg (Committee) began to solidify. They used the media to weaken the influence of the emperor and create even more unrest among the populace. In the summer of 1973, waves of strikes took place by teachers, students, taxi drivers and army mutinies even began to occur.
Goodbye Emperor, Hello Derg
Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed unceremoniously on September 12, 1974 and hustled away to prison. The leader of the Derg was Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Derg soon dissolved parliament and established the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) to rule the country. The emperor was thought to have been murdered by Mengistu in 1975. Mengistu was seen wearing the ring of Solomon, on his middle finger, evidence that Haile Selassie was dead.
A socialist state was declared on December 20, 1974. Banks, businesses, factories and land, both urban and rural were nationalized. All political debate was suppressed and violence was the order of the day. In 1977, Red Terror campaign saw the silencing of all political opponents. It is thought that at least 100,000 people were killed, while many more thousands fled the country.
A number of liberation movements emerged to fight the heavily armed Soviet-backed Derg. Battles raged on for years and the drought and resulting famine in 1984-85 was aggravated by the policies of the Derg and their unwillingness to aid the peoples of Tigray. More than one million people died of starvation and disease.
Several factors led to Mengistu fleeing the country on May 21, 1991. The various opposition groups joined forces, his allies in Eastern Europe lost power themselves, his state treasury was bankrupt and his authority over the military was in doubt. He was taken in by Zimbabwe and remains there to this day.