Ethiopian History

It would be impossible to give a full account of Ethiopian history here, but here are a few snippets to whet your appetite...

  • Independent for three millennia, Ethiopia has a long and complex history, in which it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from legend.
  • Some of the world’s most ancient hominid skeletons were found in Ethiopia – the most famous of them being Lucy, who lived here 3.2 million years ago. Known locally as Dinkinesh, meaning "you are special", she is now preserved in Addis Ababa’s National Museum. The first Homo sapiens are also thought to have emerged from Ethiopia around 160,000 years ago.
  • Ethiopia was named by the Greeks and translates literally as “Land of the burnt faces”. The term used to be applied to a wide area of sub-Saharan Africa (note the map from 1710 at the top of this page).
  • Legend has it that the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Ethiopia almost 3,000 years ago by Menelik I, who was the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia. The Ark of the Covenant is now said to rest in St. Mary of Zion Church in Axum, Northern Ethiopia.
  • From around the first century to the eighth century AD, the Axumite kingdom was one of the most powerful in the world. The Ethiopian highlands were uniquely placed as the cultural meeting point of ancient Arabia, Africa and the Mediterranean. The Axumite Empire covered much of Eastern Africa and controlled trade routes through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean - shipping routes vital for silk and spice traders. 
  • In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia became one of the first countries to adopt Christianity, and the first to build a Christian church on African soil. Today, around 60% of the population are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.
  • Africa’s first Muslim migrants settled in Ethiopia after Mohammed sent them there to avoid persecution in Mecca. The walled city of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, is now considered to be Islam’s fourth most important city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it contains 82 mosques.
  • Since Menelik I, Ethiopia has had 255 Emperors, the last of which was Ras (prince) Tafari, crowned Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930. He reigned until 1974, when he was arrested by the military. Imperial rule in Ethiopia was officially abolished in March 1975.
  • Haile Selassie is considered a messiah by the Rastafarian community, who named themselves after him. Although he strongly denied any such godly association, in 1948, Haile Selassie donated land in Shashemene to Rastafarians and other Afro-Caribbeans who wished to return to Africa. There is now a community of about 800 Rastafarians living there today.
  • Ethiopia stands out as the only country in Africa never to have been fully colonised by Europeans, although it was under Italian occupation from 1936-41.