Ethiopia has seen human habitation for longer than almost anywhere else in the world, possibly being the location where humans evolved. Evidence of Naqadan contacts includes obsidian from Ethiopia. The first records of Ethiopia proper come from Egyptian traders from about 3000 BC, who refer to lands south of Nubia or Cush as Punt and Yam. The Ancient Egyptians were in possession of myrrh (found in Punt) as early as the first or second dynasties, which Richard Pankhurst interprets to indicate trade between the two countries extant from the beginning of Ancient Egypt’s beginnings. J.H Breasted posited that this early trade relationship could have been realized through overland trade down the Nile and its tributaries. The Greek historian and geographer Agatharchides had documented ship faring among the early Egyptians “During the prosperous period of the Old Kingdom, between the 30th and 25th centuries B.C., the river routes were kept in order, and Egyptian ships sailed the Red Sea as far as the myrrh country.
The first known voyage to Punt occurred in the 25th century BC under the reign of Pharaoh Sahure. The most famous expedition to Punt, however, comes during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut probably around 1495 BC, as the expedition was recorded in detailed relief on the temple of Deir El – Bahri at Thebes. The inscriptions depict a trading group bringing back myrrh trees, sacks of myrrh, elephant tusks, incense, gold, various fragmented wood and exotic animals. Detailed information about these two nations is sparse, and there are many theories concerning their locations and the ethnic relationship of their peoples. The Egyptians sometimes called Punt land Ta – Netjeru, meaning “Land of the Gods,” and considered it their place of origin.
There is some confusion over the usage of the word Ethiopia in ancient times and the modern country. The ancient Greeks used the word (Αιθιοπία) to refer to the peoples living immediately to the south of ancient Egypt, specifically the area now known as the ancient Kingdom of Kush, now a part of modern Nubia; modern usage has transferred this name further south to the land and peoples known in the late 19th and early 20th century as Abyssinia. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica states the connection between Egypt and Ethiopia is at least as early as the Twenty second dynasty of Egypt was very intimate, and beginning with Piye, a ruler of the Twenty fifth dynasty, occasionally the two countries were under the same ruler. The capital of these two dynasties, however, was in the north of modern Sudan, at Napata. It is now known that in ancient times the name Ethiopia was used to refer to the nation based in the upper Nile valley south of Egypt, also called Kush, which in the 4th century BC was invaded by the Axum from the highlands close to the Red sea. Reference to the Kingdom of Aksum designated as Ethiopia dates as far back as the first half of 4th century since inscription of Ezana Habashat (the source for “Abyssinia”) in Ge’ez, South Arabian alphabet, is translated in Greek as “Ethiopia”.
Around 800 BC the kingdom of Damot arose in Ethiopia, centering on Yeha thought to be the first capital in Ethiopia. The kingdom seems to have had very close relations with the Yemenite Sabaean kingdom. The only known inscriptions of Damot kings include reference to the contemporaneous ruling king of the Sabaean kingdom at the time. The Damot kingdom developed irrigation schemes, used plows, grew millet, and even made iron tools and weapons. Remains of a large stone temple dating to about 500 BC still survive at Yeha, near Axum. The transition from Damot to the Kingdom of Aksum remains unclear.
Reference to Ethiopians in ancient Greece however is obviously either to Africans in general or the Cushites of Northern Sudan in particular. It is interesting to note that Greek historians viewed Ethiopia as a sacred people that was mostly loved by the gods. Memnon was regarded as one of the noblest heroes that participated in the Trojan war and as the handsomest man of his time, bested in battle only by Achilles. According to a version of the myth, the Gods admired him so much that after his death from the sword of Achilles they decided to grant him immortality. According to Greek Mythology Ethiopians acquired their dark color when the sun came once very close to their country. Herodotus recorded that a contingent of Ethiopian warriors who wore leopard skin and claws and painted their bodies red and white were among Xerxes’ army that invaded Greece in the 5th century B.C. It remains to be seen as to how the history, migration and human settlement of the vast land between ancient Egypt and modern Ethiopia helps us understand the history of the region and the pre – Christian – pre – Islam human organization of those days. The nearby Nubian civilization was crushed by the Axumite king in fourth century.
KINGDOM OF AXUM
The first verifiable kingdom of Great Power to rise in Ethiopia was that of Axum in the first century AD. It was one of many successor kingdoms to Damot and was able to unite the northern Ethiopian plateau beginning around the first century BC. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time. The origins of the Axumite Kingdom are unclear, although experts have offered their speculations about it. Even whom should be considered the earliest known king is contested: although C.Conti Rossini proposed that Zoskales of Axum, mentioned in the Periplus of the Eritrean Sea, should be identified with one Za Haqle mentioned in the Ethiopian King Lists (a view embraced by later historians of Ethiopia such as Yuri M. Kobishchanov and Sergew Hable Sellasie), G.W.B. Huntingford argued that Zoskales was only a sub king whose authority was limited to Adulis, and that Conti Rossini’s identification can not be substantiated.
Inscriptions have been found in southern Arabia celebrating victories over one GDRT, described as “Nagashi of Habashat, i.e. Abyssinia and of Axum.” Other dated inscriptions are used to determine a floruit for GDRT (interpreted as representing a Ge’ez name such as Gadarat, Gedur, Gadurat or Gerard) around the beginning of the 3rd century. A bronze scepter or wand has been discovered at Atsbi Dera within inscription mentioning “GDR of Axum”. Coins showing the royal portrait began to be minted under King Endubis toward the end of the third century.
Christianity was introduced into the country by Frumentius, who was consecrated first bishop of Ethiopia by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria about 330. Frumentius converted Ezana, who has left several inscriptions detailing his reign both before and after his conversion. One inscription found at Axum, states that he conquered the nation of the Bogos, and returned thanks to his father, the god Mars, for his victory. Later inscriptions show Ezana’s growing attachment to Christianity, and Ezana’s coins bear this out, shifting from a design with disc and crescent to a design with a cross. Expeditions by Ezana into the Kingdom of Kush at Meroe in Sudan may have brought about its demise, though there is evidence that the kingdom was experiencing a period of decline beforehand. As a result of Ezana’s expansions, Aksum bordered the Roman province of Egypt. The degree of Ezana’s control over Yemen is uncertain. Though there is little evidence supporting Aksumite control of the region at that time, his title, which includes king of Saba and Salhen, Himyar and Dhu – Raydan (all in modern day Yemen), along with gold Aksumite coins with the inscriptions, “king of the Habshat” or “Habashite,” indicate that Aksum might have retained some legal or actual footing in the area.
From the scanty evidence, available it would appear that the new religion at first made little progress. Towards the close of the 5th century a great company of monks known as the Nine Saints are believed to have established themselves in the country. Since that time monasticism has been a power among the people and not without its influence on the course of events. The Axumite Kingdom is recorded once again as controlling part – if not all – of Yemen in the 6th century. Around 523, the Jewish king Dhu Nuwas came to power in Yemen and, announcing that he would kill all the Christians, attacked an Aksumite garrison at Zafar, burning the city’s churches. He then attacked the Christian stronghold of Najran, slaughtering the Christians who would not convert. Emperor Justin I of the Eastern Roman empire requested that his fellow Christian, Kaleb, help fight the Yemenite king, and around 525, Kaleb invaded and defeated Dhu Nuwas, appointing his Christian follower Sumuafa’ Ashawa’ as his viceroy. This dating is tentative, however, as the basis of the year 525 for the invasion is based on the death of the ruler of Yemen at the time, who very well could have been Kaleb’s viceroy. Procopius records that after about five years, Abraha deposed the viceroy and made himself king. Despite several attempted invasions across the Red Sea, Kaleb was unable to dislodge Abreha, and acquiesced to the change; this was the last time Ethiopian armies left Africa until the 20th century when several units participated in the Korean War. Eventually Kaleb abdicated in favor of his son Wa’zeb and retired to a monastery where he ended his days. Abraha later made peace with Kaleb’s successor and recognized his superiority. Despite this reverse, under Ezana and Kaleb the kingdom was at its height, benefiting from a large trade, which extended as far as India and Ceylon, and were in constant communication with the Byzantine Empire.
Details of the Axumite Kingdom, never abundant, become even scarcer after this point. The last king known to mint coins is Armah, whose coinage refers to the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614. An early Muslim tradition is that the negus (king) Ashama Ibn Abjar offered asylum to a group of Muslims fleeing persecution during Muhammad’s life (615), but Stuart Munro Hay believes that Axum had been abandoned as the capital by then although Kobishchanov states that Ethiopian raiders plagued the Red Sea, preying on Arabian ports at least as late as 702. The end of the Axumite Kingdom is as much of a mystery as its beginning. Lacking a detailed history, the kingdom’s fall has been attributed to a persistent drought, overgrazing, deforestation, plague, a shift in trade routes that reduced the importance of the Red Sea and a combination of these factors.
THE ETHIOPIAN DARK AGES
About 1000 (presumably c 960), a non-Christian princess, Yodit [“Gudit”, a play on Yodit meaning evil]; conspired to murder all the members of the royal family and establish herself as monarch. According to legends, during the execution of the royals, an infant heir of the Axumite monarch was carted off by some faithful adherents, and conveyed to Shewa, where his authority was acknowledged, while Yodit reigned for forty years over the rest of the kingdom, and transmitted the crown to her descendants. At one point during the next century, the last of Yodit’s successors were overthrown by an Agaw lord named Mara Takla Haymanot, who founded the Zagwe dynasty and married a female descendant of the Axumite monarchs (“son – in – law”) or previous ruler.
THE ZAGWE DYNASTY
By the tenth century, the Zagwe dynasty had emerged as a post Axumite Christian Empire. The Zagwe kingdom was born out of the cultural and political interactions of the Cushitic and Semitic peoples in the northern highlands. Like the Axumite kingdom, the Zagwe dynasty was a political empire rooted in religion. The Zagwe devoted themselves to the construction of new churches and monasteries. Born out of this patronship of religious art is the construction of the rock hewn churches of Lalibela. Ethiopian Christianity, however, was increasingly isolated from other Christian nations. With the conversion of Egypt to Islam, the Zagwe dynasty lost contact with its closest link with the outside Christianity, the Egyptian Coptic Christian Church.
Around 1270 AD, a new dynasty was established in the Abyssinian highlands under Yekuno Amlak who deposed the last of the Zagwe kings and married one of their daughters. According to legends, the new dynasty was male-line descendants of Axumite monarchs, now recognized as the continuing Solomonic dynasty (the kingdom being thus restored to the biblical royal house). Under the Solomonic dynasty, the chief provinces became Tigray (northern), Amhara (central) and Shewa (southern). The seat of government, or rather of over lordship, had usually been in Amhara or Shewa, the ruler of which, calling himself Niguse Negest (king of kings, or Emperor of Ethiopia), exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. The title of Niguse Negest was to a considerable extent based 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 was due more to the force of their arms than to the purity of their lineage.
THE ABYSSINIAN ADAL WAR
Between 1528 and 1540 armies of Muslims, under the Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrihim Al -Ghazi, entered Ethiopia from the low country to the southeast, 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.
In response to Bermudez’s message, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Estêvão Da Gama, was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in February 1541. Here he received an ambassador from the Emperor beseeching him to send help against the Muslims, and in the July following a force of 400 musketeers, under the command of Cristóvão 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 at the Battle of Wofla (28 August 1542), and their commander captured and executed. On February 21, 1543, however, Ahmad was shot and killed in the Battle of Weyna Daga and his forces totally routed. After this, quarrels arose between the Emperor and Bermudez, who had returned to Ethiopia with Gama and now urged the emperor to publicly profess his obedience to Rome. The Emperor refused to do, and at length Bermudez was obliged to make his way out of the country.
THE ERA OF PRINCES
This era was, on one hand, a religious conflict between settling Muslims and traditional Christians, between nationalities they represented, and on the other hand between feudal lords on power over the central government. Some historians date the murder of Iyasu I, and the resultant decline in the prestige of the dynasty, as the beginning of the Ethiopian Zemene Mesafint (“Era of the Princes”) a time of disorder when the power of the monarchy was eclipsed by the power of local warlords.
Nobles came to abuse their positions by making emperors, and encroached upon the succession of the dynasty, by candidates among the nobility itself: e.g. on the death of Emperor Tewoflos, the chief nobles of Ethiopia feared that the cycle of vengeance that had characterized the reigns of Tewoflos and Tekle Haymanot I would continue if a member of the Solomonic dynasty were picked for the throne, so they selected one of their own, Yostos to be negusa nagast (king of kings) – however his tenure was brief.
Iyasu II ascended the throne as a child. His mother, Empress Mentewab played a major role in Iyasu’s reign, as well as in that of her grandson Iyoas too. Mentewab had herself crowned as co-ruler, becoming the first woman to be crowned in this manner in Ethiopian history.
Empress Mentewab was crowned co-ruler upon the succession of her son (a first for a woman in Ethiopia) in 1730, and held unprecedented power over government during his reign. Her attempt to continue in this role following the death of her son 1755 led her into conflict with Wubit (Welete Bersabe), his widow, who believed that it was her turn to preside at the court of her own son Iyoas. The conflict between these two queens led to Mentewab summoning her Kwaran relatives and their forces to Gondar to support her. Wubit responded by summoning her own Oromo relatives and their considerable forces from Yejju.
The treasure of the Empire being allegedly penniless on the death of Iyasu, it suffered further from ethnic conflict between nationalities that been part of the Empire for hundreds of years the Agaw, Amharans, Showans, and Tigreans and the Oromo newcomers. Mentewab’s attempt to strengthen ties between the monarchy and the Oromo by arranging the marriage of her son to the daughter of an Oromo chieftain backfired in the long run. Iyasu II gave precedence to his mother and allowed her every prerogative as a crowned co-ruler, while his wife Wubit suffered in obscurity. Wubit waited for the accession of her own son to make a bid for the power wielded for so long by Mentewab and her relatives from Qwara. When Iyoas assumed the throne upon his father’s sudden death, the aristocrats of Gondar were stunned to find that he more readily spoke in the Oromo language rather than in Amharic, and tended to favor his mother’s Yejju relatives over the Qwarans of his grandmother’s family. Iyoas further increased the favor given to the Oromo when adult. On the death of the Ras of Amhara, he attempted to promote his uncle Lubo governor of that province, but the outcry led his advisor Walda Nul to convince him to change his mind.
It is believed that the power struggle between the Qwarans led by the Empress Mentewab, and the Yejju Oromos led by the Emperor’s mother Wubit was about to erupt into an armed conflict. Ras Mikael Sehul was summoned to mediate between the two camps. He arrived and shrewdly maneuvered to sideline the two queens and their supporters making a bid for power for himself. Mikael settled soon as the leader of Amharic – Tigrean (Christian) camp of the struggle.
The reign of Iyaos’ reign becomes a narrative of the struggle between the powerful Ras Mikael Sehul and the Oromo relatives of Iyoas. As Iyoas increasingly favored Oromo leaders like Fasil, his relations with Mikael Sehul deteriorated. Eventually Mikael Sehul deposed the Emperor Iyoas (7 May, 1769). One week later, Mikael Sehul had him killed; although the details of his death are contradictory, the result was clear: for the first time an Emperor had lost his throne in a means other than his own natural death, death in battle, or voluntary abdication.
Michael Sehul had compromised the power of the Emperor, and from this point forward it lay ever more openly in the hands of the great nobles and military commanders. This point of time has been regarded as one start of the Era of the Princes.
An aged and infirm imperial uncle prince was enthroned as Emperor Yohannes II. Ras Mikael soon had him murdered, and underage Tekle Haymanot II was elevated to the throne.
This 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, when the first British mission, sent in 1805 to conclude an alliance with Ethiopia and obtain a port on the Red Sea in case France conquered Egypt. The success of this mission opened Ethiopia to many more travelers, missionaries and merchants of all countries, and the stream of Europeans continued until well into Tewodros’ reign. This isolation was pierced by very few European travelers. One was the French physician C.J. Poncet, who went there in 1698, via Sennar and the Blue Nile. After him James Bruce entered the country in 1769, with the object of discovering the sources of the Blue Nile, which he was convinced, lay in Ethiopia. Accordingly, leaving Massawa in September 1769, he traveled via Axum to Gondar, where he was well received by Emperor Tekle Haymanot II. He accompanied the king on a warlike expedition round Lake Tana, moving South round the eastern shore, crossing the Blue Nile (Abay) close to its point of issue from the lake and returning via the western shore. Bruce subsequently returned to Egypt at the end of 1772 by way of the upper Atbara, through the kingdom of Sennar, the Nile, and the Korosko desert. During the 18th century the most prominent rulers were the emperor Dawit III of Gondar (died May 18 1721), Amha Iyasus of Shewa), who consolidated his kingdom and founded Ankober, and Tekle Giyorgis of Amhara) the last mentioned is famous of having been elevated to the throne altogether six times and also deposed six times.
The first years of the 19th century was disturbed by fierce campaigns between Ras Gugsa of Begemder, and Ras Wolde Selassie of Tigray, who fought over control of the figurehead Emperor Egwale Seyon. Wolde Selassie was eventually the victor, and practically ruled the whole country till his death in 1816 at the age of eighty. Dejazmach Sabagadis of Agame succeeded Wolde Selassie in 1817, through force of arms, to become warlord of Tigrai.