Module Twenty Two, Activity Two

History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia has a rich history. It is the oldest independent country in Africa with a rich and proud tradition as an admired civilization that has lasted for more than 2,000 years.   In this activity, you will learn about and explore the history of Ethiopia and how it has impacted the rest of the world.


As you go through this lesson, make a timeline of Ethiopian History. Find a dynasty, empire or ruler that you think helped Ethiopia and write a paragraph explaining why you feel this way and what facts you used to have to come to this decision.

History of Ethiopia

I. Prehistory
Some of the earliest human ancestors have been found in Ethiopia. Not only is Ethiopia home to the world’s oldest Homo sapiens dating back over 100,000 years, but also Australopithecus ramidus dated back 4.4 million years. Current day Ethiopia is part of the eastern and southern African cradle of civilization that is our universal heritage.

Animal husbandry has been practiced in Ethiopia for around 8,000 years.

II. Punt
The Punt were a people that lived in the horn of Africa (the area the Punt occupied is still being decided upon today) who provided Egypt with luxury goods such as gold and ebony and ivory – many were believed to have been pastoralists living in round huts on stilts. What information is known about the Punt comes from records of Egyptian trade missions to this area. Punt has been believed to be in the area of southeastern Sudan, northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.

III. D’mat (Da’amat)
Da’amat – 800-300 B.C.E. – were a literate and developed civilization in Eritrea and Tigray highlands. They wrote inscriptions in a language and script similar to southern Arabia and also shared a common cultural background with them.  Traces of their civilization do remain but they are few, such as Yeha (pictured below) a temple of the god Ilmuqah. It is the most ancient building in Ethiopia.

Image courtesy

IV. Proto-Axsum
During this time Ethiopia was involved in trade with Egypt and Nubia, before the 2nd century B.C.E

V. The Axsum (Axum) Empire 1st C. BCE-10th C E
The Axsum Empire developed in Ethiopia during the 1st-10th centuries CE. At the beginning of its existence, Axsum flourished and was the most powerful state in the region. The empire gained much of their wealth from trade of items such as ivory, gold, tortoise shells and emeralds with places like Rome and India. Axsum was ruled by the “king of kings” (negusa nagast) who ruled over the imperial system of government.

During this empire important historical accomplishments such the creation of their own alphabet called Ge’ez, stelae (tomb markings made of stone), and coinage were developed. Ge’ez is a Semitic language that developed in the region of Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia. It was a language of peasantry that became an official language during the Axsumite Empire. It is no longer a dominant or spoken language in Ethiopia – though church services are often given in Ge’ez. Stelae (which may often be called obelisks) were made of stone and used to mark graves and burial chambers. The most famous stelae of the Aksumite Empire was the Obelisk of Axsum in Axsum. It was taken from Ethiopia by the Italians during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and finally returned to Ethiopia around 2003. These stelae were often tall and very heavy. The largest were used to mark the graves of royalty, while nobility would have smaller, less decorated stelae.

This stelae is a symbol from the Axsumite civilization

Image courtesy of Africa Focus Database

Coinage was also a historical accomplishment of the Axsum Empire. They were the only empire in the region to offer coinage (when others couldn’t afford it or did not need it). It was a symbol of the wealth that they had gained from trading and agriculture. From 270-610, gold, silver and bronze coins were minted in the Kingdom of Axum, making them the first African polity to issue their own coins.  It not only simplified trade that occurred, but it marked the Axsumite kingdom equal to its neighbors and an empire of great importance.

Rulers during the Axsumite Empire
There is limited information about many of the kings from the Axsumite Empire. Below is a table of dates and kings that served. There is more information on two particular kings which are focused on below. *Those bolded have more information given below.

Axsumite Empire Kings Table

There were also kings later in the Axsumite Empire, though there are no dates available for their reign. Later Kings included: Kwanstantinos, Wasan Sagad, Fere Shanay, Adre’az, Akla Wedem, Germa Safar, Zergaz, Degna Mikael, Bahr Ikela, Gum, ‘Aswomgum, Letem, Talatem, ‘Oda Gosh, ‘Ayzur, Dedem, Wededem, Wedem ‘Asfare, ‘Armah, Degna Djan, ‘Anbasa Wedem, and Dil Na’od (this list is based on E. A. Wallis BudgeA History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia, 1928 Oosterhout, the Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1970, pp. 269f)

King Ezana of Axsum (320-356 C.E.) 

King Ezana reigned as king in the Axsumite Empire from the years of 320-356 C.E. King Ezana succeeded his father still being a child, tradition states. He is known for his conversion to Christianity near the end of his reign.  Following his lead most citizens of Axsum converted to Christianity, making Ethiopia one of very oldest predominantly Christian countries in the world.  He had many successful military campaigns during the fourth century. He ruled a powerful group of nations that were included in the Axsum kingdom: Arabia, Saba, Abyssinia, Beja and Moroe.

Coinage from Reign of King Ezana
Coinage from the Reign of King Ezana

King Kaleb 
Kaleb became king around 520. In 523 he led an expedition to avenge the persecution of Christians in South Arabia. Because of this journey part of South Arabia was brought under Axsumite control. He also conquered small Jewish kingdoms in Arabia.  Kaleb allowed the Jews to maintain their traditions and practices.  As a consequence Jewish customs can still be found today within Ethiopian Christian traditions.  Moreover, there was a migration of Jews to Axsum where they formed the Falasha community of Ethiopian Jews, a small remnant of which remains in Ethiopia, although there much of the Falasha community migrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s as the consequence of persecution by the Derg regime (see below).  Kaleb became a military power and was a protector of Christians throughout the region.

Coinage from Reign of King Kaleb
Coinage from the Reign of King Kaleb

The Decline of the Axsumite Empire
The Islamic Empire began to build during the 7th-10th centuries. They took control over the Red Sea and much of the Nile River valley, which was at one time the trade route for the Axsumite Empire. This caused economic isolation for the Axsumite and forced them to move further into the highlands. This would lead to the decline of the Axsumite Empire. This isolation did contribute though to the monastic traditions of the Coptic Christian church. This tradition became very distinctive and often the sanctuaries were built into the walls of rock. Axsum was eventually taken over and the dark ages of Gudit begin.

Roof of Rock Church

VI. Gudit 12th Century
After the Axsumite kingdom began the rule of Gudit, a non-Christian princess, who let the kingdom of Axsum, many say, go to waste. Many say she would attempt to burn churches and other deeds. She usurped the throne and had a reign of around 40 years. The accounts of her ruling are incomplete. Many call this time in Ethiopian history the “dark ages”.

VII. Zagwe Dynasty 1150-1270 (usurpers)
The next empire of Ethiopia was the Zagwe Dynasty. It was a dynasty of the Agaw people who claimed descent from a companion of the Queen of Sheba. It is uncertain how many kings actually ruled during this dynasty. The capital of this dynasty was Roha (today known as Lalibela). It was during the Zagwe Dynasty that Islam began to spread down the east coast of Africa, converting many who lived south and east of the Ethiopia highlands. The trade routes of the Red Sea were also controlled by Muslim traders. In spite of the increased influence and spread of Islam, this was the era of expansion for Christianity within Ethiopia. Christianity flourished in the highlands. The construction of 11 monolithic churches, were completed by King Lalibela at Roha. They were built out of solid volcanic rock in a shape like celestial Jerusalem. People of the Zagwe Dynasty were responsible for the continued development of Christianity – through such things as the building of churches and monasteries. They were supplied a patriarch upon request from the Coptic Church of Egypt.  During this time Christian arts and literature were encouraged and it was a time of great artistic achievement for Ethiopia.

VIII. Solomonic Dynasty 1270 – 1974 (legitimate)
The Solomonic dynasty claims descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba through their son Menilek I. Menilek I was the first emperor of Ethiopia. Leaders of the Coptic Christian backed the Solomonic dynasty and in return the church was given control of vast stretches of land- which gave it a base of wealth and power.  Yekuno Amlak overthrew the last ruler of the Zagwe dynasty to re-establish the Solomonic Dynasty. He claimed his descent from the Solomonic lineage and began ruling Ethiopia in 1270. The Solomonic rule continued into the 1970s. There are different periods throughout this dynasty. Each period has significant occurrences that shape the history of Ethiopia and the Solomonic Dynasty. During this dynasty the capital was often moved, set up in a temporary place as the need to move would occur. Often tents would be used.

Figurehead: A figurehead is a person who holds the head title (king, emperor, queen) but has no real authority or power.
Regent: One who acts as a ruler during an absence of a head authority.

Solomonic Dynasty Table 1

Solomonic Dynasty Table 2

Solomonic Dynasty Table 3

Solomonic Dynasty Table 4

Solomonic Dynasty Table 5

Solomonic Dynasty Table 6

Solomonic Dynasty Table 7


Questions on Selassie’s Speech to the United Nations and Bob Marley’s song “War”: Haile Selassie I, during his reign as Emperor of Ethiopia, gave an influential speech to the United Nations on October 6, 1963. His previous encounter at the United Nations was during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936. It was at that time he would ask for assistance with the Italian occupation but would receive none. His next address to the UN would occur in 1963. Below are links to his speech. Read over Selassie’s speech.
Link to: Speech
Link to: Song
Then, listen to Bob Marley’s song titled “War,” where the speech was turned into a song.

  • What messages are they trying to portray to their audiences?
  • What different topics does Selassie address in this speech?
  • What do you feel were his main goals of giving this speech to the UN?
  • Why do you think Bob Marley adapted this speech into a song?
  • What were his main messages from the song?

IX. Eritrean War 1961-1991
In September of 1961, the Eritrean War of Independence began. This war for independence with Ethiopia would last 30 years. Ethiopian forces had been occupying Eritrea since the end of World War II when Italy was defeated and was forced to give up all its colonies in Africa.  The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) formed together to fight against the Ethiopian government. In 1991 many things occurred that would lead to the fall of the Ethiopian government in Eritrea. Their funding from the Soviets  ended, morale of the forces dropped and Eritrean forces were advancing on the Ethiopian’s positions. Ethiopia was left landlocked and Eritrea become an independent nation-state.

Derg Party Badge
Photo of a Derg party badge

X. Derg (PMAC) 1974-1991

The last ten years of Selassie’s rule was filled with opposition. Issues such as rising oil prices, and decreasing coffee prices were hurting Ethiopia economically. During his last years, trouble with Eritrea, famine, drought, and discontent led to the monarchy being terminated in 1974. Young military officers formed a military revolutionary organization called the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) or the Derg. The emperor was deposed by the PMAC. During this time a new socialist order was put in place but as time moved on, it became more authoritarian in its leadership.  Mengistu Haile Mariam, a leader in the military that overthrew Selassie, lead the Derg from 1977-1991. In the 1980s the Derg declared its commitment to developing a Marxist Ethiopia.  In accomplishing this agenda Mariam and the Derg dramatically reduced its contacts with the USA and became was heavily reliant on support from the Soviet Union.
The Derg suppressed opposition through killings and jailing of opponents.  This period in the late 1970s and early 1980s is known as the “Red Terror.”  There were 1.5 million victims of what can legitimately be considered to be a political genocide that was the result of direct killings and starvation from a famine brought on by drought and the deliberate policy to restrict the distribution of food to food-scarce communities.  The news of the famine spread and international aid was given to Ethiopia to help defray the ravages of the famine.
In the late 1980s the an internal opposition to the Derg grew in Ethiopia with assistance from outside powers.   By 1991 the opposition was strong enough to force Mengistu Haile Mariam to step down from power.   He went into exile in Zimbabwe where he remains until today (2011).  In 2006 the International Court of Justice found him guilty of political genocide but the Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe protected him from serving an imposed life sentence.

This activity will focus on genocide and where it has occurred in modern history. It not only has occurred in Ethiopia, but in many countries throughout history – and it is still occurring. You will become actively involved in defining genocide, finding information on genocides that have and are occurring, and then discuss the role the United States and other countries have in stopping genocide. You should brainstorm ways they can stop genocide or give aid to those facing genocide.

First –  find the definition of genocide – as given by the Genocide Convention. How would you define genocide yourself? Where do you know genocides have occurred?

Complete the Genocide worksheet

(This is a short list of genocides, to choose others, search the web for lists of more genocides and facts/details about them)

Meles Zenawi
Photo of Meles Zenawi

XI. Transitional Government 1991-1993
This period was the end of the Derg ruling and time of devastation in Ethiopia. A president in this transitional government would chair a council of 87 representatives. There were many parties that were sharing the government due to the many political and ethnic groups within the country. Meles Zenawi became an interim president at this time from the years 1991-1995. He previously had led the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which took over the Ethiopian government from Haile Mengistu. After leading Ethiopia as president, in the 1995 elections Zenawi was voted in as Prime Minister (where he remained until 2012).

XII. EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) 1993-Present
In 1995 the elections brought a new order into Ethiopia. The country became divided into regions based upon ethnic lines – though it was opposed by some in fear that it would take away a national unity in the country. There were a total of 14 regions. Property that was previously taken away could be reclaimed. In 1996 the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was born.

May 1998- Border issues with Eritrea
Continuing border conflict once again emerged in Ethiopia. This conflict would be called the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border War, starting in May 1998 and lasting until June 2000. Not only was this war fought in the air but it was also fought on ground. Tens of thousands of troops died from each country and the war cost millions of dollars. Foreign agencies and countries attempted to step in and mediate between the two countries to bring peace but failed to do this. Famine and drought again plagued the region and caused displacement of citizens (as did the war) of both countries. In December of 2000, a treaty was signed and UN Peacekeeping forces were sent into the buffer zone. The final ruling from the UN Border Commissions was that Badme would be granted to Eritrea but it seems that Ethiopians still considers it part of their country. Though the treaty was signed, there is still some hostility between the two countries and they do not have diplomatic relations. There is still fear that a border war could break out once again.

Eritrea Ethiopia Border

Questions to consider:

  • Why do countries fight over borders? What are some other examples of border wars?
  • Why do international agencies and foreign countries try to mediate? Is this good or bad?
  • Why do you feel this piece of land may be so important to both countries?


Come up with resources why Eritrea should acquire the town of Badme. Now come up with reasons why Ethiopia should acquire it. Use resources from the lesson and other websites to help you build your argument. Debate with a classmate on which country you think should ultimately acquire it.

Ethiopia Area Map

Ethiopia’s Relationship with Somalia
Ethiopia’s southeastern neighbor is Somalia. 1,600 km. of Ethiopia’s border is along the country of Somalia. The Ethiopian region closest to Somalia is called Somali, and over 95% of the regions inhabitants are Somali. It is this region that at times was called “Greater Somalia” due to the large percentage of Somalis that make their home there. It is the issue of land and religion that have caused conflict with Ethiopia and Somalia. There have been many conflicts over the past centuries. Most recently the following incidences have caused strained relations between the neighbors:

  • Border Dispute from 1960-1964
  • Ogaden War from 1977-1978 (Somalia invades Ethiopia to claim “Greater Somalia” as theirs)
  • August Border Clash in 1982
  • Warlord era cross-border warfare from 1998-2000
  • Militant Islamist (Islamic Courts Union – ICU) conflict starting in 2006 (Ethiopia invades Somalia)

Ethiopia also has many times in the past few decades been home to Somali refugee camps.

Go on to Activity Three or select from one of the other activities in this module