The home of mankind: human evolution in Ethiopia
It is appropriate to start with the fossil evidence as Ethiopia has remains that cover much of human evolution ranging from Chororapithecus Abyssinicus, (12 to 7 million years ago), a possible ape relative of humanity, to Homo Sapiens Idaltu (‘Elder') the earliest modern human fossil at 160,000 year old found in the Afar Regional State at Horto. Recent discoveries include the 4.4 million year old Ardipithecus Kadaba and Selam, an almost complete skeleton of a three year old female child dating to 3.3 million years ago. The most famous of the discoveries in the Afar region, of course, is that of Lucy (‘Dinkenesh' – ‘wonderful'), the most complete skeleton of an early hominid yet found and dating back some 3.2 million years. A replica of her skeleton is on display in the National Museum of Ethiopia. Lucy (Australopithecus Afarensis) walked on two legs and stood about 3.5 feet tall. Australopithecus subsequently evolved towards the genus Homo, with the appearance of Homo Habilis (2.4 - 1.8 million years) and Homo Erectus (1.4 – 1 million years), and then Homo Sapiens, probably about 200,000 years ago. There are several notable fossil sites in Ethiopia including the lower Omo Valley and the Awash Valley, both registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the latter including the Hadar area, Aramis and Melko Kunture, the scenes of numerous paleontological discoveries.
History 1000 BCE – 1991 CE
Ethiopia's history as an organized and independent polity dates back to the first millennium BCE. Earlier, Egyptian pharaohs traded with the Land of Punt, probably somewhere along what is now the coast of Eritrea or possibly Somaliland. Around the 8th century BCE a kingdom known as Da*ma*t probably had its capital at Yeha, but the first state about which there is much real information is the kingdom at Axum in the northern Regional State (Killil) of Tigray. Axum emerged at the beginning of the Christian Era and flourished until around 800CE, before suffering prolonged decline over the next few centuries. Axum's period of greatest power lasted from the 4th through the 6th centuries CE. Its core area lay in the highlands of what's today southern Eritrea, in Tigray and in Lasta and Angot, now part of the Amhara Regional State; its major centers were at Axum and the port of Adulis. Earlier centers, such as Yeha, also contributed to its growth. At the kingdom's height, its rulers controlled the Red Sea coast from Sawak in present day Sudan in the North to Berbera in the present-day Somaliland to the south. They were also active as far as the Nile valley in modern Sudan, attacking and destroying the kingdom of Meroe in the 4th century CE. On the Arabian side of the Red sea, Axumite rulers also controlled much of the coast and extensive areas of modern Yemen. The rulers of Axum were converted to Christianity in the mid 4th century CE.
The rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula had a significant impact on Axum kingdom during the seventh and eighth centuries. By the time of the Prophet Mohammed's death (A.D.632), the Arabian Peninsula, and the entire opposite shore of the Red sea, had come under the influence of the new religion. The steady advance of Islam over the next century resulted in Islamic conquest of all of the former Sassanian empire and much of the Byzantine empire. Relations with Axum were not hostile at first. According to Islamic tradition, members of the Prophet's family and some of his early converts had taken refuge in Axum during the troubled years preceding the Prophet's rise to power, and Axum was declared exempt from the Jihad, or Holy war. The Arabs also considered the Axumite state to be one of the great powers of the time alongside the Islamic State, the Byzantine and Sassanian empires and China. Commerce between Axum and at least some ports on the Red sea continued, albeit on an increasingly reduced scale.
Once the Axumite state had lost control of South West Arabia and of the Red Sea trade on which much of its wealth and power had been based, it gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward inside Ethiopia. Axum was abandoned as a political capital by the end of the seventh or eighth century (CE), becoming no more than a religious center and as a place of coronation for a succession of kings who traced their lineage to Axum. By then, Axumite cultural, political, and religious influence had been established south of Tigray in Agaw districts such as Lasta, Wag, and Angot and eventually, in Amhara areas. The move south continued over the following centuries with Axumite culture, Semitic languages and Christianity providing the driving force. By the tenth century, a post-Axumite Christian Agaw kingdom had emerged, controlling most of the highland areas from southern Eritrea to Shewa and holding much of the coast from Adulis as far south as Zeila in Somaliland, though the Caliphate controlled the trade of the Red Sea.
The origins of the Zagwe dynasty remain obscure so does its dating, but it appears most probable that it had set up its capital at Roha or Adefa by the end of the 10th century CE. This was later known as Lalibela after the most famous ruler of the dynasty who was traditionally responsible for the carving of twelve churches out of rock. The churches, probably carved during the reigns of several rulers, are an incredible and impressive monument, a wonder of the world and are deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Emperor Lalibela, a priest and king, was probably the origin of the medieval European legend of Prester John, a great Christian ruler who was expected to come to the aid of the Crusaders in the Holy Land and help recover Jerusalem.
In about 1270 CE, an Amhara noble, Yekuno Amlak, drove out the last Zagwe ruler and proclaimed himself emperor, founding a dynasty of rulers claiming descent from former Axumite emperors and indeed from King Solomon of Israel. To strengthen Yekuno Amlak's claims to the throne, a national epic was created (the Kebra Negast) which claimed the rulers of Axum had originated with the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Emperor Minelik. Only descendants of Solomon could become emperors. The Zagwe rulers were thus designated as usurpers, and the accession of Yekuno Amlak could claim to be the legitimate "restoration" of the Solomonic line.
This first Shoan Amhara empire (13th to 16th centuries CE) represented the high point of the medieval civilization of Ethiopia. It is in this period that many, or most of the rock churches of Tigray region, were built and Christianity spread over much of the country, producing glorious illuminated manuscripts. With its major centers in the Amhara areas of northern Shewa and Wollo, the empire faced a series of powerful Muslim sultanates or Sheikhdoms to the south and east where a variety of peoples had embraced Islam. One of these was the Sultanate of Ifat in the foothills of north-east Shewa; another was the Sultanate of Adal, centered in the Islamic city of Harar, farther to the east and which controlled areas along the Red Sea inhabited by two other peoples who also converted to Islam, Afars and Somalis. To the south were the Sultanates and Kingdoms of Hadiya, Bali, Dawaro and Fatajar which usually paid tribute to the Christian empire, and further west, Damot.
For most of the 15th century, the Christian empire and the Sultanate of Adal existed in a precarious state of balance, but in the second decade of the sixteenth century, a successful military commander Ahmed Ibin Ibrahim Al Ghazi, (Ahmed Gran, the "left handed"), seized power in Harar which had become the seat of the Sultanate in 1520 CE. Acquiring the status of a religious leader, he called he launched a successful jihad to break the Christian power. After winning a major victory in 1529 CE, his forces ravaged far and wide across the empire for over a decade, destroying much of the literary, architectural, cultural and material wealth of medieval Ethiopia. In 1541, the arrival of a force of Portuguese to help the Emperor Galawdewos led Emir Ahmed to call on support from the Ottoman empire. After a preliminary defeat, the Portuguese helped Galawdewos win victory near Lake Tana in February 1543 where Emir Ahmed was killed. With his death the jihad collapsed as did the power of Adal.
Originally, the Portuguese were mainly concerned to strengthen their hegemony over the Indian Ocean trade routes. They subsequently made every effort to try to persuade Ethiopia to reject its Monophysite version of Christianity and convert to Roman Catholicism. The resulting conflicts, reaching the level of civil war, continued until the Jesuits and all Roman Catholics were expelled in 1632, also contributed to the weakness of an already exhausted empire and its inability to stem the advances by Oromo peoples from the south. The conflicts of the 1520s and the successes of the jihad in the 1530s, together with the collapse of the Sultanates and the Sidama kingdoms opened the way for pastoral Oromo confederacies in the area of the Ganale River to expand north into Bali and Fatajar. Originally the attacks seemed to be largely raids for plunder but once the weakness of opposition became apparent, during the Michelle gada (1554-1562 CE), the Oromo began to settle in the areas they had overrun. From Fatajar, the Metcha-Tulama clans spread out across the south and west, and to the north over the next century. Their original unity fragmented and the confederacies began to disintegrate as they settled. In the east, they destroyed the power of Adal in the latter sixteenth century though the walls of Harar kept the city inviolate. Oromo advances continued north, over-running much of Shoa and advancing into Wollo. To the west and south west they eventually overran Ennarya and advanced as far as the Gojeb River, where they were halted by the powerful kingdom of Kaffa. In the early 1800s, several Oromo kingdoms were set up in the Gibe area: Limmu-Ennarya (about 1800), Gumma, Gomma, Jimma, the most powerful, and Gera.
In the face of the advancing Oromo threat, the weakened empire re-established its center further north, at Gonder north of Lake Tana. This became a permanent capital and the centre of another vigorous flowering of Christian art and culture. As Oromo principalities were established in parts of Shewa and Wollo, their leaders began to play a role in the politics of the Gondar empire. By the end of the 17th century, the Oromo were as much part of the empire as the Amhara or the Tigreans. Their rise was symbolized by the marriage of the Emperor Bakaffa to an Oromo, and during the latter part of the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, the family of Ras Ali Gwangul, ruling in Yejju, played a major role. This was the period of the Zemene Mesafint, the era of the princes, when the imperial power collapsed, and Amhara, Tigrean and Oromo princes fought for control of Gonder and of the emperors. At one point in 1800 there were six crowned emperors alive in the country, each supported by one of the leading regional princes. One emperor was placed on the throne on four different occasions.
This time of confusion was temporarily brought to an end by Tewodros II, a member of the local nobility from Qwara, who briefly restored some imperial authority with a series of victories over regional nobles, before committing suicide at Magdala when faced by defeat from a British invasion to release British prisoners in 1868. After another brief hiatus, Yohannis 1V from Tigray region, crowned emperor in 1872, re-established imperial control more successfully, fending off attacks from several external sources. In 1875 and 1876 two Egyptian expeditions were defeated at Gundet and Gura, and in 1887 Ras Alula wiped out an Italian battalion at Dogali briefly putting a stop to Italian incursions inland from Massawa whioch they had taken over in 1995. There were a number of successful battles against the forces of Mohammed Ahmad who proclaimed himself the Mahdi in 1881 but Yohannis himself was killed while winning the battle of Metemma in 1889 against the Mahdi's Dervish army. He, he was succeeded by Minelik, King of Shewa, who expanded the empire to the east, south and west of Shewa, bringing back into imperial control lands that hadn't been part of the Ethiopian polity for several centuries. This expansion coincided with the arrival of European colonial powers in the region, and after the defeat of Italy at the battle of Adowa in 1896, Minelik was able to establish the boundaries of Ethiopia, though despite his victory at Adowa he was unable to expel the Italians from their colony of Eritrea.
Minelik (1889-1913), who founded Addis Ababa as the capital, presided over the first stages of Ethiopian's modernization. He was succeeded by his 13 year old grandson Lij Yasu who was never crowned. Lij Yasu's father was Negus Michael, a Muslim Oromo leader from Wollo who had been converted to Christianity by Yohannis IV. In an Oromo and a converted Muslim, and in his three year reign Lij Yasu showed strong indications of turning away from the largely Amhara and Tigrean Christian highlands, raising the profile of the Muslim and non-Christian peoples of peripheral regions including Oromos, Somalis and Afars. He also favoured links with Germany and the Ottoman Empire. As this was during the First World War, it caused concernes to the British, nervous about control of the route to India, and the French worried about the safety of Djibouti. Thery therefore backed the coup organized by Shoan Amhara nobles in 1916. The result was a coup in 1916, backed by the UK and France, at war with Germany and the Ottoman Empire at the time, and Lij Yasu was replaced by Minelik's daughter, the Empress Zewditu with Ras Taferi as Crown Prince and Regent. In 1930 after the death of the Empress, Ras Taferi was crowned Emperor, taking the throne name of Haile Selassie.