“”The importance of the queen, the Ark of the Covenant and the Kebra Nagast in Ethiopian history cannot be overstated. Through their reading of the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopians see their country as God's chosen country, the final resting place that he chose for the Ark - and Sheba and her son were the means by which it came there.
|—Michael Wood, BBC.|
|—Nelson Mandela, 1965.|
Ethiopia, formally the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and formerly known as Abyssinia, is a populous, landlocked country in the Horn of Africa. With a population of over 115 million, Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa, losing the coveted top spot to Nigeria. Its population is one of the fastest-growing in the entire world.
The region was once home to the then oldest-known anatomically modern human remains, dated to roughly 195,000 years ago, but has been beaten out by Morocco, which has modern human fossils dating back to 300kya. In Ethiopia, archaeologists have discovered three million-year-old skeletal remains of Australopithecus anamensis, an early hominid ancestor.
Based upon the epic tome Kebra Nagast, Ethiopian history traditionally holds that the modern Ethiopian state was founded by the Queen of Sheba, a well-known figure from the three major Abrahamic religions. Their legends say that the Queen traveled to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon and got knocked up by him, giving birth to Ethiopia's first king, Menelik I. Ethiopians also claim that Menelik occasionally visited his dear ol' dad in Jerusalem and one time brought back a pretty significant souvenir: the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Ethiopians, the Ark still resides in one of their churches, although nobody is allowed to see it, of course.
In modern times, Ethiopia was one of just three nations in Africa that eluded the 19th-century Scramble for Africa (along with Liberia and Darwiish State). It was later and briefly conquered by Italy in 1936, shortly before World War II; the country regained its freedom thanks to the Allied victory in East Africa in 1941-1943. In 1974 a Soviet Union-backed military junta called the Derg overthrew the millennia-old Ethiopian monarchy and ruled the country as a provisional government. In 1987 they finally established the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, a communist dictatorship, which lasted until the Soviet Union died of mostly natural causes in 1991. Absent Soviet aid, the dictatorship collapsed under the pressure of internal rebels. The partly Islamic neighboring region of Eritrea became independent of Ethiopian rule in the early 1990s and became an extremely hostile totalitarian state. Ethiopia became a dysfunctional republic with authoritarian tendencies.
The US State Department maintains a Level 4 "Do Not Travel" Travel Advisory for Ethiopia, citing the ongoing armed conflict and high risk of terrorism, as well as the danger that Ethiopia's frequent government-mandated internet and cellular-data shutdowns can impede the US Embassy's ability to communicate with any travelers. They urge US citizens and non-emergency US government personnel to evacuate the country at once.
In many ways, unique for an African country, but in others, sadly typical, in the last 50 years, it has gone from being ruled by the "Messiah" to a war-torn "communist" hellhole, to more war and a kleptocratic and incompetent "republic." So let's rush through a few million years of history.
The ancientest of history
Ethiopia has been called "the cradle of humankind" because of the major anthropological finds found there, including the skeleton of Lucy (an early Australopithecus afarensis) and Ardi (an even earlier hominid).
On record, the earliest state in Ethiopia is the prehistoric kingdom of D'mt, which existed between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE. Unfortunately, our information on them could fit on a napkin; we don't even know how the transition between D'mt and Aksum happened.
Kingdom of Aksum
Several not-really notable civilizations rose and fell in the Ethiopian region. Around the fourth century BCE, the Kingdom of Aksum became the dominant form of Ethiopian civilization, ruling most of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of present-day Yemen. The kingdom became quite powerful, being generally recognized alongside Sassanian Persia, the Roman Empire, and Imperial China as one of the four great powers of the ancient world. Saint Frumentius, arriving from the Levant around 316 CE, gets credited with converting much of the Ethiopian population to Christianity. He became the first bishop of Axum. Axum was one of the first countries to convert to the new religion - a mere handful of years after Armenia blazed that particular trail. This makes Ethiopian scriptures and theology of particular interest.
Aksum became gradually weakened by its constant wars with Persia over who would control Yemen, and the Ethiopians finally lost for good around 578 CE. They did, however, remain a force to be reckoned with. Unlike many other Christian powers, Ethiopia remained on good terms with the rising religion of Islam. Ethiopia even famously gave shelter to the followers of Muhammad who fled persecution before Islam secured a strong foothold in Arabia.
The Axum monarchy eventually fell to be replaced by the Zagwe dynasty, which was replaced by a new dynasty that styled itself as the successor to King Solomon of Biblical Israel. The Solomonic dynasty used that legend to legitimize its rule and keep people content under them. They also claimed descent from the Axumite rulers, although there isn't any evidence to back that claim up. With the Solomonic dynasty in power, Ethiopia declared itself an empire.
During the Early Modern Era, the Ethiopians started reaching out to other Christian realms in Europe. Correspondence survives between the Emperor of Ethiopia and King Henry IV of England. The Ethiopians also benefited from Portugal's belief in the Prester John myth. The story went that there was a long-lost Christian kingdom that had hidden from expansionist Islamic powers in the east and would hopefully one day rise up to kick the Muslims out of the Near East. The Portuguese convinced themselves that the Emperor of Ethiopia was Prester John, despite the Ethiopians clearly having no idea what the Portuguese were talking about.
Despite the confusion, Ethiopia ended up being pretty glad to have such a good ally in Portugal. In 1529, the Adal Sultanate, a Muslim state mostly comprised of ethnic Somalis, decided to try conquering the Ethiopians. The Ethiopian emperor lost most of the ensuing battles until some Portuguese musketeers showed up to bail him out.
These good feelings came to an end in the early 1600s. Emperor Susenyos I actually converted to Catholicism after being convinced by the Portuguese, but his conversion caused outrage and revolts among followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Susenyos' successor responded to the unrest by banning Catholicism and expelling the Jesuits from Ethiopia. Portugal didn't like that very much, and they broke up with Ethiopia.
Scramble for Africa
Between 1755 and 1855, Ethiopia endured a period of isolation and decentralization referred to as the Zemene Mesafint or "Age of Princes". Ethiopian emperors became figureheads controlled by warlords, and the country was fractured into several de facto independent pieces. The period ended when Tewodros II started reclaiming the power of the Ethiopian throne, and Ethiopia rejoined the world.
The world was quite different from when Ethiopia had first fallen into warlordism. When Tewdros imprisoned some Anglican missionaries in 1867, the British government didn't put up with it. Instead, they launched a punitive war against Ethiopia, which they won with relative ease. Shortly after that, the British protectorate of Egypt declared war on Ethiopia to annex the entire length of the Nile River.
Worst of all, the rush of colonialism in Africa convinced Italy that it was time for them to annex some of the continent. To that end, Italy launched a full invasion of Ethiopia in 1895. Luckily for Ethiopia and its emperor, Menelik II, the Italians had failed to prepare for the harsh terrain or the logistical effort of the war. The victory was costly for Ethiopia, but the country preserved its independence. For a while, at least.
Haile Selassie, the Messiah
“”Like twentieth-century Iran, the remnant of the Persian Empire, Ethiopia under Haile Selassie attempted to preserve the absolutist state through an accommodation with modernizing forces in his own terms.
|—Edmond J. Keller, Revolutionary Ethiopia : From Empire to People's Republic.|
Haile Selassie became regent to emperor Menelik II in 1916 and then emperor in 1930. He was revered by the Rastafari movement as the Messiah, God's representative on Earth. Marcus Garvey, a notable African American intellectual who tried to convince black people to return to Africa, became one of the intellectual fathers of the Rastafari movement due to his speeches and advocacy for black self-determination. Garvey had also famously said, "Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer." Rastafarians interpreted this as a prophecy, and they were awed when Haile Selassie came to power shortly after Garvey's prophecy. It also helped things that Selassie claimed lineage from King Solomon.
In reality, Selassie was not the Messiah (and being a devout Christian like most Ethiopians, he actually took offense to these claims). He was, however, an emperor who tried his best to modernize the creaking Ethiopian state. He built electrical grids, abolished feudalism, built hospitals, started schools, and established a national bank, among other things. He also abolished slavery in Ethiopia, which was one of the conditions for allowing the country to join the League of Nations.
Unfortunately, that great effort didn't save Ethiopia from what came next.
Italian East Africa
“”It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.
|—Haile Selassie to the League of Nations.|
In 1935, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini decided that Italy should try taking another crack at the Ethiopian nut. He hoped to avenge Italy's previous loss against Ethiopia. He also saw the enterprise as a way to acquire extra land for unemployed Italian farmers and acquire mineral resources to aid industrialization. Despite Ethiopia having joined its ranks at a cost to itself, the League of Nations was ineffective in halting the violence.
Although Ethiopia had made great modernizing strides, it still lacked key military technologies necessary to resist the Italians, such as radio devices and aircraft. Italy also repeatedly committed war crimes, such as bombing hospitals and using chemical weapons. The Ethiopians responded with war crimes of their own. They used expanding bullets in violation of the Hague Conventions, and they also castrated many prisoners of war. Italy successfully annexed Ethiopia in 1937.
Italy merged its holdings in Eritrea and Somalia to form the new colony of Italian East Africa. This act of colonialism was likely Italy's first step to expanding its rule past the Red Sea and into the oil-rich Middle East. The colony was short-lived, however. Ol' Benny-Boy fucked up by declaring war against France and the United Kingdom in 1940, putting Italy in a war that it was not prepared for. The UK quickly sent its colonial forces to invade and occupy Italian East Africa, and Italian resistance was effectively over by early 1941.
After Italy's full defeat in the war, the country renounced its claim to all of its African colonies. The British agreed to hand Italian Eritrea to Ethiopian control as part of the peace deal and compensation. This would cause problems later.
Haile Selassie is back in the saddle (but not for long)
With Mussolini gone, things were back to normal in Ethiopia. Mostly. Although Ethiopia had been previously occupied by a foreign power, it had become the occupying power in neighboring Eritrea. Eritrean rebels rose up, partly for independence and partly because Ethiopian Christians tried to suppress Eritrean Muslims by banning the speaking of Arabic and removing Muslims from government jobs. The Eritrean Liberation Front formed in 1961, and the war for independence was on.
About ten years later, domestic opinion among Ethiopians also turned sharply against Selassie due to his mismanagement of the 1973 oil crisis. The crisis crashed Ethiopia's economy, and that financial crash also resulted in critical food shortages, which the government also failed to effectively address. As we all know, food shortages and economic crises result in dramatic political shifts. This case was no different.
In 1974, Selassie's rule came to an abrupt end. A Marxist-Leninist military group called the Derg arrested Haile Selassie and seized government control. Without Ethiopia's absolute monarch to stop them or tell anyone in the government what to do, taking over the country was relatively simple. The new "provisional government" quickly turned Ethiopia into a one-party communist dictatorship, solidifying its rule by 1975. Selassie mysteriously died in the same year.
The Derg government was extremely unstable, suffering several coup attempts against it. In 1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia to take the Ogaden region, populated by mostly ethnic Somalis. The Derg resisted and survived the invasion with the help of aid and volunteers from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East Germany. The war effort included about 11,000 Cuban troops and 1,000 Soviet military advisers.
The communist regime celebrated their victory in the war by launching a so-called "Red Terror", a purge in which they murdered about 500,000 people. One notorious detail of the murder spree was that the communist government would not release the bodies of the slain for burial until the victims' families coughed up enough money to pay for the bullet used to commit the murder. The Derg made no secret of their brutality and even left bodies on display in the streets of Addis Ababa. The purge seemed to focus on those you would think the Derg would consider their supporters. Most of those slain were students, trade unionists, and other communists. It seems those people were tortured and murdered for doctrinal differences.
Between 1983 and 1985, Ethiopia also had to endure a brutal famine. It was Ethiopia's worst famine in a century, and it left about 1.2 million people dead. The famine was caused by drought and climate conditions and the Derg's ongoing wars against internal dissidents and Eritreans. According to Human Rights Watch, more than half its mortality could be attributed to "human rights abuses causing the famine to come earlier, strike harder and extend further than would otherwise have been the case". The West tried to intervene with well-intentioned but questionably effective charity. One expert suggests that money from Bob Geldof's Live Aid funded the brutal forced resettlement of 100,000 people, although Geldof begs to differ.
After a long and troubled reign, Ethiopian communists finally met their downfall due to Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to sharply decrease the Soviet Union's foreign aid contributions to other communist countries. Having been left out to dry by the Soviets, the communist government fell to rebels in 1991.
After the fall of communism, Ethiopia finally decided to figure a way out of the decades-long war against the Eritrean separatists. The government consented to an independence referendum, in which Eritreans voted about 99% in favor of separation. Eritrea declared independence later in 1993, and Ethiopia was once again landlocked.
Ethiopia's first real elections took place in 1995 and were won by the center-left Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. This was apparently too many good things for one decade in Ethiopia because Ethiopia and Eritrea decided to go to war again in 1998. Two of the world's poorest countries spent two years fighting over pieces of land that didn't actually have any material worth. The enemies agreed to stop shooting in 2000 but couldn't agree on where the border should lie until 2018.
In 2015, President Obama of the United States became the first sitting leader of the US to visit Ethiopia, aiming to highlight the country's role in fighting against an Al-Qaeda surrogate active in eastern Africa. The visit was celebrated by Ethiopian human rights activists, but the country, unfortunately, failed to make any significant liberalizing reforms in the wake of his visit.
In 2016, pro-democracy protesters assembled in the streets to demand that the government stop killing protesters; the government responded by killing about 90 protesters. In 2018, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency for six months after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn became the first leader in the country's modern history to step down rather than be removed or killed. Later in the same year, Ethiopia's new prime minister traveled to Eritrea to officially declare an end to the 1998 border war.
Ethiopia remains a troubled country. Ethnic violence between Ethiopians and Somalis continues and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Starting in November 2020, Ethiopia has also been sucked into an ongoing Tigray civil war which has already resulted in humans rights abuses on both sides, including tens of thousands killed in total and millions facing displacement and starvation. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is largely an ethnic organization, and it resisted central government attempts at centralization. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed then started accusing them of plotting to destabilize the country and finally accused them of assaulting a military outpost. The problem is that the TPLF has strenuously denied all of those accusations, instead accusing Abiy of using a false flag to undermine Ethiopia's federalist system. In one of the conflict's worse moments, unknown assailants murdered hundreds of people in Mai-Kadra by gruesomely hacking them apart with machetes. Amnesty International suspects the TPLF was responsible. Negotiations started around January 2022, but it's tough going.
Ethiopia is also currently in a dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the damming up of the Nile River by Ethiopia. In case it's not obvious, Egypt and Sudan are heavily reliant on the Nile River for sustenance; with the drying up of the Nile River due to Ethiopia's big dam, the Nile will dry up to a trickle and consequently will no longer flood. The flooding of the Nile River delivers vital black soil fertilizing the region. Ethiopia insists water flow will not be affected by the building of this dam (despite this being exactly what a dam does). However, Egypt and Sudan rightfully call the Ethiopians out on their bullshit. Talks were held in early November 2020 but were fruitless.
Freedom of speech and assembly
Ethiopia restricts free speech on the internet and restricts access to television. However, the country seems to be attempting reform as the recently-elected government has released many of the jailed journalists and bloggers. This is also after government forces murdered almost 100 protesters who had been protesting against the government's practice of murdering protesters (admittedly not the brightest move) in 2016. Sadly, that still seems to be happening, as a crackdown against protests in October 2019 resulted in about 86 more deaths. Ethiopia's new "reformist" leader also likes to completely shut down the internet every now and then, which has harmed his image as a human rights supporter.
Torture and inhumane detention
Ethiopia is also heavily criticized for the conditions to which it subjects its prisoners. The country's prisons are known for depriving prisoners and the heavy use of torture, and this was recently admitted by Ethiopia's new government. Not helping matters is that Ethiopian police have broad authority to arbitrarily detain people. The US State Department found in 2018 that Ethiopian prisoners were repeatedly beaten, overcrowded, underfed, forced to do labor, and sometimes subjected to even harsher punishments like being immersed in human shit. Luckily, the government recently closed many of the worst prisons due to their atrocious conditions.
The roots of Christianity in Ethiopia are ancient, in contrast to much of Africa, where the religion was only imposed by 19th-century missionaries, who likely had quite the rather amusing surprise when they arrived here and found that they weren't needed. In fact, Ethiopia has actually been Christian for even longer than Rome has.
Although it's not known for historical accuracy, the Acts of the Apostles describes how an Ethiopian eunuch was baptized and took Christianity home with him (in practice, the authors of the New Testament weren't too picky about exact nationalities, and he could have been any kind of a darker-skinned person). The Aksumite kingdom became a refuge for Christians persecuted by the Roman Empire in the 3rd century CE and adopted the religion in the 4th century. Ethiopian Christianity became closely allied with the Egyptian Coptic Church. Christianity survived as the state religion despite the rise of Islam to the north. However, the church was largely cut off from the rest of the Christian world (it may have been the inspiration for the medieval myth of Prester John, a Christian king rumored to be hidden in lands far from Europe). Much more recently, the Portuguese brought Catholicism in the 17th century, but they were soon driven out.
The patron saint of Ethiopia is St George, who rescued the princess Beruktawit from the dragon. Fact!
Ethiopia also has an indigenous Jewish population called Beta Israel (or Falasha, which was initially derogatory). Some of the more orthodox and lighter-skinned Jews believe they practice a degenerate folk religion: this caused problems when the Israeli government airlifted them to Israel and gave them citizenship. They were even accused of being fakes.
Yes, the Ethiopians claim to have the original Ark of the Covenant, which they keep carefully hidden from inspection
so its authenticity can't be tested for everyone's protection (remember that scene in Raiders?).
- Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which is crazy marijuana shit
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