Map of Ethiopia
Map of Ethiopia

Ethiopia, formerly also known as Abyssinia, has a population of about 70 million in an area of approximately 435,000 square miles. It has a history going back more than two millennia. Topographically, it is a high plateau with a central mountain range dividing the northern part of the country into eastern and western highlands.

The central mountain range is in turn divided by the Great Rift Valley, which actually runs from the Dead Sea to South Africa. The country, formerly thought to be predominantly Christian, is, in fact, multiethnic and multireligious.

The largest group, the Oromo, predominantly Muslim and formerly called the Galla, make up 40 percent of the population. Other non-Christian groups are the Sidamo and the Somali, Afars, and Gurages. The Christian element is mostly made up by Amharic and Tigrean, speakers, who comprise about 32 percent of the population.

Reasonably accurate and fair census reports estimate that 50 percent of the population is Muslim while 40 percent of the population is Christian, with the remainder being animist. The Christians have tended to live in the highlands in the north and central parts of the country, while, historically, non-Christians live in the lowlands.

The country’s history extends as far back as the 10th century b.c.e., and tradition has it that the kings of Ethiopia were descended from the union of King Solomon with the queen of Sheba (which is identified with the northern part of the country) in the 10th century b.c.e. and claim to be the Solomonic dynasty.

A monument from the ancient kingdom of Axum
A monument from the ancient kingdom of Axum

Historically, the first Ethiopians appear to have been at least in part descended from immigrants from across the Red Sea in the southwestern part of Arabia known as Sabea (present-day Yemen) who arrived before the first century c.e. However, the preexisting population had been engaged in agriculture in the highlands before 2000 b.c.e., so the population was most likely sedentary.

The end result was that by the first century, a kingdom called Axum had been established, which had a great port at Adulis on the Red Sea. Trading with Greeks and Romans as well as Arabs and Egyptians, and as far east as India and Ceylon, and having agriculture based on then-fertile volcanic highlands, the trade empire became a great power between 100 and 600 c.e. It was so powerful that in the fourth century, it was able to destroy its great rival Kush/Merowe in what is now the Sudan and conquer Yemen in the sixth century.

An important element in the emerging Ethiopian identity was the conversion of Axum to Christianity in the fourth century by the missionary Frumentius to the Monophysite nontrinitarian version of Orthodox Christianity also called Coptic Christianity.

The ancient Geez language remains the language of the church and is still used in services, and the modern languages spoken in Ethiopia (Amharic and Tigrean) derive from it. The common language, religion, dynasty, and system of fortified monasteries were to be key elements in the formation and survival of Ethiopian culture.

These features were critical after the seventh century, when the expansion of Islam cut off Ethiopia from the coast, as Muslim invaders occupied the lowlands. From this time forward, Ethiopia, as the country had become known by the ninth century, endured long struggles between the Christian highlands and mostly Muslim lowlands.

St. Frumentius of Ethiopia
St. Frumentius of Ethiopia

When the “king of kings,” or Negus, was in power, he united the Christian highlands and expanded into the lowlands. At other times, the mountains/ highlands were divided among rival chieftains, leaving Ethiopia vulnerable to attack from Muslim and non-Muslim lowlanders.

However, the legend of a remote Christian kingdom (the kingdom of Prester John) fascinated Europeans. The arrival of European visitors, especially the Portuguese, who had established trade routes to India and identified Ethiopia with the legendary kingdom, proved most timely.

At this time, 1540–45, the Christian highlands faced their greatest challenge—a Muslim chieftain, Mohammed al-Gran, threatened to overrun the highlands. The intervention of the Portuguese military might at this critical juncture led to the defeat and the death of Mohammed al-Gran. Thereafter, the Portuguese were prominent in Ethiopia, but their zeal in promoting Roman Catholic Christianity led to their expulsion in 1633.

The country lapsed once more into feudalism until various chieftains fought for the throne, claiming Solomonic ancestry for two centuries, until Theodore reunited the kingdom in 1855. He was succeeded by John in 1868 and Menelik II in 1889.

King Menelik II

Under the latter, who was from the central Amharic province of Shoa, with its capital city Addis Adaba, the Ethiopian state as it exists today was formed. With Western military weapons, Menelik expanded into the lowlands and stunned the world by defeating the Italians in 1896 when they tried to make Ethiopia into a protectorate.

After the death of Menelik in 1908, the chieftain Ras Tafari gradually gained power, especially after 1916, and was crowned emperor in 1930. As the most powerful black leader of his time, he inspired the Rastafarian cult in Jamaica (from his name Ras, or Chief, Tafari). On his assumption of the title of emperor, he took the name Haile Selassie.

Acclaimed for his resistance against Fascist Italy in 1935, Haile Selassie enjoyed great prestige after Ethiopia was liberated in 1941. He was given the Italian possession of Eritrea in 1952 (much against its will), and Addis Ababa was made the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), formed in the early 1960s.

Emperor Haile Selassie
Emperor Haile Selassie