Abyssinia and the Ethiopian Empire: The Ancient History of a Struggling Nation

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The Horn of Africa is a region with a unique identity and vibrant history. Close to the Arabian Peninsula, it always stood out from the rest of the African continent. Today, the Horn of Africa is home to the modern nations of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia, comprising some 115 million people.

Throughout centuries of rich history, Ethiopia has managed to persevere and preserve its identity, despite many pressures. Once known as the Ethiopian Empire, or Abyssinia, which existed from 1270 to 1974, it is one of the longest surviving empires in history and is defined by its distinctive character and a past filled with defining moments.

Today we’ll be stepping back in time, as we recount the ancient and modern ages of the venerable Ethiopian Empire.

Ancient Origins of the Ethiopian Empire: The Rise of Aksum

The earliest origins of the Ethiopian Empire reach back before 1270. The story begins with the Kingdom of Aksum , also known as the Aksumite Empire , an ancient kingdom of great import in the classical world. Aksum was located in today’s northern Ethiopia, and flourished from about 80 BC to 825 AD.

Taking its name from its key city, the capital called Axum, its strategic location played a crucial role in the trading routes of the ancient world, particularly between ancient India and the Roman Empire. In time, Axum grew in power and importance, and eclipsed the neighboring and older Kingdom of Kush.

The importance of Axum was well portrayed by the famous Persian prophet Mani, who said:

“There are four great Kingdoms on Earth: the first is the Kingdom of Babylon and Persia; the second is the Kingdom of Rome; the third is the Kingdom of the Aksumites; the fourth is the Kingdom of the Chinese .”

To the Greeks and the Romans, the Kingdom of Aksum was well known, as it was to the Arabs and the Persians as well. Aksum ascended to great heights thanks almost exclusively to trade. Commerce was the key factor that helped Axum evolve to become the capital of an empire.

This can safely be ascribed to its proximity to the Red Sea and its trade routes, since all it had to do was successfully facilitate the growing need of the Greeks and the Romans for African goods. A major export of Axum was elephant ivory, which was a highly sought after commodity in the Mediterranean, Levant, and Persia.

Aksumite traders established far-reaching caravans that would travel into the African interior in order to procure more ivory. As Axum was located at key crossroads for trade traffic, it only sped up its prosperity. In time, Axum became the hotbed for a rising civilization with a unique character fed by a proper amalgam of indigenous African cultures infused with South Arabian character, as well as plenty of influences from the classical world of the Mediterranean.

The Book of Aksum is a collection of 15th century documents from St. Mary’s Cathedral of Aksum which gives crucial information about Ethiopian history. (Dmitry Chulov / Adobe Stock)

The Book of Aksum is a collection of 15 th century documents from St. Mary’s Cathedral of Aksum which gives crucial information about Ethiopian history. ( Dmitry Chulov / Adobe Stock)

A Crucial Trading Power Rises

The name Ethiopia to describe the Aksumite Empire appears as early as the 4 th century, and one popular explanation for the name is that it comes from Greek: Αἰθιοπία (Aithiopia). This is a compound word that roughly translated means “burnt face” or “red brown”. This term was used early on by Herodotus to denote this particular region of Africa. This Greek word was later loaned to the Amharic language of the region as ʾĪtyōṗṗyā.

More precisely, the name Aethiopia was used in Greco-Roman inscriptions for a long time and denoted specifically the region of ancient Nubia. However, in the 15 th century Ethiopian church book, known as the Book of Aksum , it is stated that the name stems from a legendary biblical figure known as Ityopp’is, a son of Cush (Kush).

It was Ityopp’is who allegedly founded the city of Axum. Ethiopia was also known as Abyssinia in English historiography and elsewhere. This term stems from the Ethiopian Ge’ez language and their pronunciation of Aethiopia: Habashat.

The people of the Aksumite Empire began using the designation “Ethiopians” only around the 4 th century AD, when the Aksumite King Ezana conquered Nubia. Around this time the Aksumites also came in contact with Christianity. This occurred with the arrival of the two brothers and Christian Missionaries, Frumentius and Edesius, who managed to enter the royal Aksumite court and convert it to Christianity. Ethiopia (Aksum) was thus the second country to officially adopt Christianity in world history. The first one was Armenia in 301 AD.

Aksum began to enter a gradual decline in the 6 th and 7 th century AD, due to religious rivalry, Jewish persecution of the Christians and the rise of Islam. Around this time the use of the name Ethiopia becomes prevalent.

Ethiopia was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and a center of pilgrimage. These rock-cut monolithic churches are dated back to somewhere between the 7 th and 12 th century AD and were declared a world heritage site in 1978. ( yurybirukov / Adobe Stock)

Struggling Between Religions: The End of the Aksumite Empire

One of the first acts in the empire’s fall came in 520 when King Kaleb led a campaign against the Jewish Himyaritic King Dhu Nuwas who was persecuting Christians in  Yemen. Although the Axumite forces won the conflict and secured Christianity in Yemen (at least until the advent of Islam), the years of battle over-extended Axum’s wealth and manpower. Its position as an economic and trading power was diminished, but it still remained active to an extent.

As the first major Islamic power, the Rashidun Caliphate rose to prominence and conquered Egypt and the Red Sea around 646 AD. Aksum became economically isolated, but even so it remained firmly Christian.

Oral history holds the Aksumite Empire was eventually defeated by the Hebrew Queen Yodit (also known as Gudit or Judith), around the early 900’s AD. This defeat brought the end to the centuries old Aksumite Kingdom and all its rich history. During her 40 year reign of Aksum, Yodit conducted numerous pogroms against the Christian populace, burning churches, crucifying people, and forcefully converting the citizens, all as part of her campaign to terminate Christianity in an apparent act of revenge.

During this period, a great deal of Axumite heritage is said to have been destroyed. Yodit’s reign ended around 960, when she and her successors were overthrown by an Agaw Lord called Mara Takla Haymanot. The Agaws were a Cushitic ethnic group of the region. This lord married the female descendant of the last Aksumite monarchs, and thus established a new lineage known as the Zagwe Dynasty This new dynasty ruled over a smaller region than Aksum, and remained Christian, although still largely isolated.

The Adal Sultanate invaded the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire in what came to be known as the Abyssinian-Adal War which lasted from 1529 to 1543. (Public domain)

The Adal Sultanate invaded the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire in what came to be known as the Abyssinian-Adal War which lasted from 1529 to 1543. ( Public domain )

The successful Zagwe Dynasty was eventually overthrown around 1270 AD. This happened with the emergence of a rebellious Lord named Yekuno Amlak, who claimed he descended from the Aksumite Kings of old, and ultimately, from Solomon. Most likely due to the political circumstances of the time, Amlak succeeded in receiving substantial aid from the Sultanate of Shewa, a small Muslim Kingdom that established itself in Ethiopia and competed with the Zagwe.

This was one of the rare times that an alliance between Muslims and Christians occurred. Yekuno Amlak succeeded in establishing the Ethiopian Empire and becoming the head of the ruling Solomonic Dynasty, which remained in power until 1974. Not long after, relations with the neighboring competing Muslim sultanates deteriorated, and conflicts occurred sporadically for centuries afterwards.

One of the completing sultanates that managed to stay in power was the Ifat Sultanate. In the early 14 th century AD, the famed Ethiopian Emperor Amda Seyon I invaded Ifat and defeated it. But the descendants of Ifat managed to return to the region at a later date to establish a new and more powerful regional entity, known as the Adal Sultanate, a Muslim Somali Kingdom. This power would prove to become a huge threat for the rising Ethiopian Empire.

The Adal Sultanate invaded the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire around the year 1529, led by the Somali Imam and General Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi. This came to be known as the Abyssinian-Adal War, which lasted from 1529 to 1543.

The very first conflict occurred almost at once, in 1529, when the invading Adal forces met a sizeable Ethiopian army in open battle. Both sides suffered immense casualties, but the upper hand went to the forces of Imam Ahmad. Even so, he decided not to pursue further, and the invasion was in a passive state for about two years.

After defeating the last Zagwe king, Yekuno Amlack established the Ethiopian Empire and became the head of the ruling Solomonic Dynasty which remained in power until 1974. (Public domain)

After defeating the last Zagwe king, Yekuno Amlack established the Ethiopian Empire and became the head of the ruling Solomonic Dynasty which remained in power until 1974. 

The Return of the Solomonic Dynasty

The next string of victories for the Adal forces came around 1531. The first occurred in the Battle of Antukyah, followed by the Battle of Amba Sel soon after. Both resulted in decisive Muslim victories. The Adal forces relied heavily on early firearms and cannons, which worked with great effect against the Ethiopian forces, oftentimes instilling great fear in the common soldier.

Eventually, the forces of Imam Ahmad penetrated deep into the Ethiopian highlands, and conducted heavy sacking of the empire. The latter was eventually occupied and annexed by the Adal Sultanate, which united the territories with those of modern-day Somalia. This occupation of Ethiopia lasted for 14 years.

Around 1543, the guerilla warriors of Ethiopia received aid from the Portuguese Empire, whose navy provided crucial military support. At the time, the Portuguese were involved in the Ottoman-Portuguese conflicts which lasted from 1538 to 1559. Since the Adal Sultanate received aid from the Ottomans, the Ethiopians aided by the Portuguese.

With the Portuguese help, the Adal forces were gradually defeated, culminating with a decisive Battle of Wayna Daga that caused the collapse of Adal forces and the death of Imam Ahmed.

A new challenge for the Ethiopian Empire occurred in the 16 th and 17 th centuries, with the increasing migrations of the Oromo peoples of southern Ethiopia. This Cushitic ethnic group progressively migrated north and eventually became involved with the imperial politics. A direct consequence of these migrations was a loosened grip of the empire on its faraway provinces as the latter gained more independence than usual.

It was not until the reign of the Emperor Iyasu I the Great of the Solomonic dynasty , who reigned from 1682 to 1706, that the things were once more consolidated and returned to prosperity. His successor, Iyasu II, took this power one step further and allowed the Ethiopian Empire to flourish.

Emperor Tewodros II committed a grave error, by imprisoning several British representatives in 1868, which led to serious reprisals from the British and his subsequent suicide. (Public domain)

Emperor Tewodros II committed a grave error, by imprisoning several British representatives in 1868, which led to serious reprisals from the British and his subsequent suicide. 

Vying for Power and Facing the Modern Age

Where there is power and wealth, there is also crisis. For Ethiopia, this crisis era emerged around 1769 and lasted until 1855. It is known as the Zemene Mesafint , or the “Era of Princes”. During this period the empire was largely divided and decentralized, with numerous regional ras (dukes or lords) competing for influence and power over the emperor.

This unstable period was only brought to end with the rise to power of the famed Emperor Tewodros II. The charismatic ruler once more stabilized the Empire of Ethiopia and became a favorite of the people.

Later in his rule though, Tewodros committed a grave error. Seeking to force the British to give him military aid, the Emperor imprisoned several British representatives in 1868, an event that caused a serious reprisal from the British. This response from Queen Victoria became known as the Punitive Expedition to Abyssinia, which resulted in the burning of the Fortress of Magdala and the subsequent suicide of Emperor Tewodros II.

As the result of this British involvement, the throne of the Empire passed on to Yohannes IV, an Ethiopian noble who claimed connection to the Solomonian Dynasty. His rule marked the rise of the modern era of Ethiopia and is defined by his victory over the Ottoman Egypt.

The cover of Time Magazine, from November 3, 1930, features Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia.

The cover of Time Magazine, from November 3, 1930, features Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia.

The Last Emperor of an Ancient Lineage

The Ethiopian Empire managed to survive for many centuries, in fact well into the 20 th century, making it one of the last surviving empires of the world. Its last emperor was Haile Selassie I , a member of the Solomonic Dynasty and one of the defining figures of modern Ethiopian history who could trace his lineage to the 10 th century BC. His series of political and social reforms greatly modernized the country.

Alas, the last emperor was deposed in 1974 by the pro-Soviet Marxist-Lenininst military dictatorship known as the Derg (Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia) which ended the monarchy, murdered Haile Selassie, and brought communism to Ethiopia.

The Aksumite Empire, and the subsequent Ethiopian Empire, are not often a burning historical subject – and unjustly so. The ancient, far-reaching, and endlessly important history of these powerful entities are filled with thrilling and world-defining events, many of which are connected with some of the most powerful empires of the ancient times.

The stubborn and inspiring fight for survival of a Christian nation surrounded by Islam is unique on the African continent, and the endurance of the centuries-old Solomonic dynasty into the 1970’s is nothing short of thrilling for any history enthusiast.