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One of the most ancient cultures in the world. The Emperors traced their line to the perhaps mythical marriage of the Queen of Sheba (Saba'a in the Yemen) and Solomon. That is, it is a mixture of Arabian and African influences. The main languages are Semitic and represent a separate branch of the family that includes Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, but there are also Afro-Asiatic (Cushitic) languages related to other north African languages.

Among influences to the culture are: ancient Egyptian culture which came up the Nile via Meroe (Khartoum); Jewish culture probably came by the same route, but there are also connections across the Red Sea of which the direction is disputed - that is, did the "Jewishness" of some tribes in Arabia come from Palestine, or from Ethiopia? The Jews in Ethiopia followed a very archaic version of the religion which suggests they arrived soon after the Solomonic period, before the reforms of Josiah. (They still sacrificed animals and didn't use the Talmud.) Another Speculation is that they represent the religion of Akhnaten, and came directly from Egypt after the fall of Akhnaten.

The kingdom of Axum became Christian in the early days of Christianity (third century) and follows the Monophysite version derived from the Copts of Egypt. Until 1959 the church was nominally subject to the Patriarch of Egypt who appointed the Archbishop. The religion shows strong Jewish influences: Saturday kept as well as Sunday; emphasis on the Ark of the Covenant; churches based on circular Jewish Temple design with Holy of Holies; ceremonies of an archaic Jewish type.

In Medieval times the distant rumor of this kingdom in Europe was that there was a king called Prester John (perhaps from the title of the Zagwe kings - Jan), somewhere in Africa (or Asia). A delegation from Emperor Wedem was received by Pope Clement the fifth in 1306.

Until recently there was a group of black Jews known as the Falashas whose history goes back at least two millennia. These may be the descendants of Jews who migrated from Egypt and Meroe in the 5th century BCE. A controversial theory is that they brought the ancient Ark with them from Aswan. (Some anthropologists speculate that from the Falasha, Jewish influence extended as far south as the Venda in South Africa, though other research suggests that these Lemba of southern Africa came from Yemen.)

The Christian kingdoms remained on the high plateau of the interior, based at Axum. The people of the lower country by the Red Sea became Muslim. In Muslim history Ethiopia is important because some of the first converts were sent by Mohammed to the Christian king of Ethiopia (Axum) for refuge from persecution in Makkah.

Ethiopia is believed to be a source of many cultural influences in the rest of Africa, especially to the south in southern Sudan and the Bantu kingdoms of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi as far south as the area to the south of Lake Victoria (Buhaya).

Portuguese entered the country soon after they reached the Indian Ocean. The search for Prester John had been one of the motives for Portuguese and European expansion. In 1541 the son of Vasco da Gama led a group of 450 Portuguese troops which defeated a large Muslim Somali invasion from Harrar.

The present state was consolidated during the late 19th century when some of the outlying areas which previously had only been influenced by the emperors' government were brought under direct administration. This means that modern Ethiopia, like the Soviet Union and the European empires, is a multi national state in danger of breaking up.

Ethiopia resisted an attempted colonization by Italy when its forces defeated the Italians at Adowa (1896). This was the only serious defeat by any African state of European colonisers.

The last emperor was Haile Selassie who reigned from 1928 until 1974 when he was overthrown and probably murdered. Because the central plateau was so inaccessible and because the government was organized enough Ethiopia escaped direct colonial conquest until 1935 when it was attacked and occupied by Italy. This occupation lasted only until 1941 when the Italians were conquered in their turn by British forces able to attack them from Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and Somaliland.

The emperor and his government were restored and the country became allied with the western world. But his government was not able to cope with modern development problems and in particular was unable to deal with a serious drought and famine whose cause was partly climatic variation but more seriously the land holding arrangements and forest clearing resulting from population growth. Peasants could not improve their land because the advantages went to the feudal landlords.

The Monarchy was abolished in 1975 when a military revolutionary group, the Dergue, seized power and proclaimed a Marxist-Leninist state. It received support from the Soviet Union which set up the usual apparatus of a Communist state - Secret Police, single party dictatorship. It practiced forced movements of population from the densely populated high country to the lower areas, with disastrous results.

As communism disappeared in eastern Europe this regime lost its overseas support. It collapsed in May 1991 when Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country and the rebel armies occupied the capital.

The chief problem for the government is frequent droughts which may be increasing.

The Eritrean rebels also gained control and declared independence. In the south there are Oromo guerrillas representing about 50% of the population who may not be under the control of the government and may be about to renew the civil war. It is still not clear that peace has been reestablished though the present government is an improvement on the former. Religion has been freed.

A war with Eritrea in 1998-2001 seemed to be the proverbial 'two bald men fighting over a comb'.

Jews in Africa








Official: Amharic




and others






There was a one-party state modeled on the Soviet Union, and of military origin.

The leader of the Marxist regime, Mengistu Haile Mariam, fled the country in May 1991. Tigrean rebels occupied the capital.

The leader of the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Liberation Front was made president by an interim council in July 1991. The government talks about federation and the rights of all peoples, but they may be about to assert again the dominance of the plateau peoples - Amharic and Tigrean - against the 50% of Oromo and allied peoples who threaten to secede.

A federal government based on ethnic groups has been set up.

Elections May 1995, much criticised for excluding opposition.

In effect a one-party state dominated by Tigreans, only one of the several ethnic groups.

The death of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi in August 2012 may lead to political uncertainty. As he ran was what was in many ways a dictatorship there is no obvious successor.






A poorly performing economy because of the application of Soviet methods of centralized control and bureaucracy in a society where there are few educated people. Disastrous agricultural policy of forced collectivization has made the problems of erosion and drought worse.

Famine is now endemic as peasants do not have reserves from good years to use during bad years. Dry years are probably getting more frequent because of tree cutting.

The new government is said to be acting slowly on privatization. (Considering the effects in eastern Europe this may be sensible.) Bad drought and famine in 1994 and again in 2005.






Drought may be the most serious ecological problem. This may be the result of deforestation caused in turn by the increasing population clearing land for cultivation. Forests have the effect of storing ground water. Most of the forests have gone.

The wars which have been continuous for many years also have an effect.

Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile which flows out of Lake Tana. Thus deforestation has an effect on the states that are downstream by intensifying the floods, and the soil washed down. This affects both Ethiopia and the countries of the Nile Basin. Egypt has expressed concern at plans to use more water in Ethiopia for irrigation.





Human Rights

In the early days of the Mengistu regime there were episodes of Red Terror when opponents were massacred and imprisonment without trial and deaths.

150,000 dead have been claimed by Argentinean experts. Plus many others killed in civil wars and population movements. The new regime is better but there are reports of imprisonment without trial and many of the local people believe it will be no better than other governments.

Recent reports (Feb 2006) are that many opponents of the current regime have been arrested.

Leading members of the opposition have been tried for treason. It is clear that Zenawi considers himself to be leading a one party state.

Climate effects

Ethiopia will be badly affected by rises in temperature. The agricultural areas are in the higher, cooler areas. These will tend to rise up the mountains.

Last revised 22/08/12

East Africa


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