Posts Tagged ‘ethiopian history’

Changes in Soviet Policy and New International Horizons

The Soviet Union policies changed toward its allies among the developing countries in the late 1980s–changes that appeared likely to result in significant reductions in it’s hitherto extensive support of Ethiopia. By then it was evident that the Soviet-Ethiopian relationship had undergone a fundamental reorientation. The change was partly the result of the new directions in Soviet foreign policy undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev. But other contributing factors were strong undercurrents of Soviet disapproval of Ethiopia’s conduct of its internal affairs and of Addis Ababa’s inability to make effective use of the aid that Moscow sent. The implications of this changed policy for Ethiopia were likely to be profound, inasmuch as continued high levels of military assistance were vital to the pursuit of Mengistu’s military solution in Eritrea as well as to the fight against other internal insurgencies.

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The literature on Ethiopia is relatively rich and deep, the consequence of Ethiopia’s indigenous written tradition, mostly in Gi’iz, and of the extraordinary interest in the country shown by Europeans over the last five centuries. For the early historical period, two works are fundamental: Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity by Stuart Munro-Hay, and Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527 by Taddesse Tamrat. Each is the best work on its respective subject and period and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. In nearly the same league is John Spencer Trimingham’s Islam in Ethiopia, a standard work and a starting point for the history, culture, and religion of Ethiopia’s Muslim peoples, despite its age (published in 1952).

A comprehensive, up-to-date survey of the country remains to be written, but an older work by Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People (1973), is still quite useful, despite its emphasis on the northern, Semitic-speaking population. As a supplement, the reader might consult the relevant chapters in the eight volumes of The Cambridge History of Africa, edited by J.D. Fage and Roland Oliver. Two books by Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia and the Red Sea and Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes, cover subjects or periods otherwise almost totally neglected, including trade, commerce, and the contributions of the Oromo. Richard K. Pankhurst’s Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935 contains a wealth of information on a wide variety of topics, as do other works by this scholar. Two books by Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold and Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society, provide stimulating and at times provocative analyses of Amhara, Tigray, and (in the latter volume) Oromo cultures but should be consulted only after basics in the field have been mastered. A highly useful reference is the Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia by Chris Prouty and Eugene Rosenfeld, which provides a lexicon of Ethiopian topics as well as an extensive bibliography.

Bahru Zewde’s A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1974 surveys the last century of imperial rule, with an emphasis on the twentieth century. Two biographical histories on nineteenth-century emperors are recommended: Yohannes IV of Ethiopia by Zewde Gabre-Sellassie, and The Life and Times of Menelik II by Harold G. Marcus. The following are among outstanding works on the reign of Haile Selassie: George W. Baer’s The Coming of the Italian-Ethiopian War; Christopher S. Clapham’s Haile Selassie’s Government; John Markakis’s Ethiopia: Anatomy of a Traditional Polity; and Harold G. Marcus’s Haile Selassie I: The Formative Years, 1892-1936. A new work by Gebru Tareke, Ethiopia: Power and Protest, analyzes three major peasant revolts and the response of the imperial government.

An excellent discussion of contemporary Ethiopia that treats both the Haile Selassie era and the revolutionary years is Ethiopia: Transition and Development in the Horn of Africa by Mulatu Wubneh and Yohannis Abate. Among the best sources on the military government and its policies are Marina and David Ottaway’s Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution, still the basic source on the early years of the Derg, and Christopher S. Clapham’s Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia. Among periodicals, the Journal of African History and Northeast African Studies are particularly valuable for scholarly coverage of Ethiopia and the Horn.

Government Defeats in Eritrea and Tigray

In March 1988, the EPLF initiated one of its most successful military campaigns by striking at Ethiopian army positions on the Nakfa front north of the town of Afabet, where the Derg had established a base for a new attack against the insurgents. In two days of fighting, the Eritrean rebels annihilated three Ethiopian army divisions, killing or capturing at least 18,000 government troops and seizing large amounts of equipment, including armor and artillery. Subsequently, the town of Afabet, with its military stores, fell to the EPLF, which then threatened all remaining Ethiopian military concentrations in northern Eritrea.

The Ethiopian army’s defeat in Eritrea came after setbacks during the preceding week in Tigray. Using the same tactics employed by the EPLF, the TPLF preempted a pending Ethiopian offensive in Tigray with a series of attacks on government positions there in early March. A government attack against central Tigray failed disastrously, with four Ethiopian army divisions reportedly destroyed and most of their equipment captured. In early April, the TPLF took the town of Adigrat in northern Tigray, cutting the main road link between Addis Ababa and Eritrea.

The March 1988 defeats of the Ethiopian army were catastrophic in terms of their magnitude and crippling in their effect on government strategy in Eritrea and Tigray. The capability of government forces in both regions collapsed as a result. Subsequently, Ethiopian government control of Eritrea was limited to the Keren-Asmera-Mitsiwa triangle and the port of Aseb to the southeast. The TPLF’s victories in Tigray ultimately led to its total conquest by the rebels and the expansion of the insurgency into Gonder, Welo, and even parts of Shewa the following year.

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa, with one of the longest recorded histories in the world.


Earliest History

Ethiopia has seen human habitation for longer than almost anywhere else in the world, possibly being the location where Homo sapiens evolved.

There is some confusion over the usage of the word Ethiopia in ancient times and the modern country. The ancient Greeks used the word (Αιθιοπία) to refer to the peoples living immediately to the south of ancient Egypt, specifically the area now known as Nubia; modern usage has transferred this name further south to the land and peoples known in the late 19th and early 20th century as Abyssinia[citation needed]. As a result, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica states the connection between Egypt and Ethiopia is at least as early as the Twenty-second dynasty of Egypt was very intimate, and beginning with Piye, a ruler of the Twenty-fifth dynasty, occasionally the two countries were under the same ruler. However, the capital of these two dynasties was in the north of modern Sudan, at Napata. It is now known that in ancient times the name Ethiopia was used to refer to the nation based in the upper Nile valley south of Egypt, also called Cush, which in the 4th century CE was invaded by the Axum from the highlands close to the Red sea. Reference to the Kingdom of Aksum designated as Ethiopia dates as far back as the first half of 4th century since inscription of Ezana Habashat (the source for “Abyssinia”) in Ge’ez, South Arabian alphabet, is translated in Greek as “Aethiopia”. The first records of Ethiopia proper come from Egyptian traders from about 3000 BC, who refer to lands south of Nubia or Cush as Punt and Yam. The Ancient Egyptians were in possession of myrrh (found in Punt) as early as the First or Second Dynasties BC), which Richard Pankhurst interprets to indicate trade between the two countries extant from the beginning of Ancient Egypt’s beginnings. J.H. Breasted posits that this early trade relationship would have been realized through overland trade down the Nile and its tributaries (i.e. the Blue Nile and Atbara) rather than by sea. The first known voyage to Punt occurred in the 25th century BC under the reign of Pharaoh Sahure BC). The most famous expedition to Punt, however, comes during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut probably around 1495 BC, as the expedition was recorded in detailed reliefs on the temple of Deir el-Bahri at Thebes. The inscriptions depict a trading group bringing back myrrh trees, sacks of myrrh, elephant tusks, incense, gold, various fragmented wood, and exotic animals. Detailed information about these two nations is sparse, and there are many theories concerning their locations and the ethnic relationship of their peoples. The Egyptians sometimes called Punt land Ta-Netjeru, meaning “Land of the Gods,” and considered it their place of origin.[1]

Ancient Ethiopia

The ruin of the temple at Yeha, Tigray region, Ethiopia.

The ruin of the temple at Yeha, Tigray region, Ethiopia.

Most Ethiopianists trace the history of modern Ethiopia to the arrival of the Sabaeans. Only a few historians insist on the link of modern Ethiopia to pre-Sabaean original Cush people. Such is the link to the Dʿmt kingdom. Around 800 BC the kingdom of Dʿmt arose in Ethiopia, centering around Yeha (thought to be its capital) in northern Ethiopia. The kingdom seems to have had very close relations with the Yemenite Sabaean kingdom. The only known inscriptions of Dʿmt kings include reference to the contemporaneous ruling king of the Sabaean kingdom at the time. The Dʿmt kingdom developed irrigation schemes, used plows, grew millet, and even made iron tools and weapons. Remains of a large stone temple dating to about 500 BC still survive at Yeha, near Axum. The transition from Dʿmt to the Kingdom of Aksum remains unclear.[2] Reference to Ethiopians in Ancient Greece however is obviously either to Africans in general[citation needed], or the Cushites of Northern Sudan in particular. It is interesting to note that Greek historians viewed Ethiopia as a sacred people that was mostly loved by the Gods. Memnon was regarded as one of the noblest heroes that participated in the Trojan war and as the handsomest man of his time, bested in battle only by Achilles. According to a version of the myth, the Gods admired him so much that after his death from the sword of Achilles they decided to grant him immortality. According to Greek Mythology Ethiopians acquired their dark colour when the sun came once very close to their country. Herodotus recorded that a contingent of Ethiopian warriors who wore leopard skin and claws and painted their bodies red and white were among Xerxes’ army that invaded Greece in the 5th century B.C. It remains to be seen as to how the history, migration and human settlement of the vast land between ancient Egypt and modern Ethiopia helps us understand the history of the region and the pre-Christian-pre-Islam human organization of those days. The nearby Nubian civilization was crushed by the Axumite king in fourth century.

 Judaic Ethiopia

Traditions in the early churches of Ethiopia indicates that much of the country once embraced Jewish beliefs and culture as part of its religious system. It is possible that Judaism may have entered (modern-day) Ethiopia as early as the 8th century BCE either through Egypt (southward across Nubia) or because of trade links along the Red Sea coast. Although the speculations for widespread acceptance of Jewish belief is based on just few somewhat controversial material pieces, there has not been any good counter-explanation which for some have become a reason to believe the Jewish Pre-settlement Theory.

What is called the Jewish Pre-settlement Theory essentially states that starting around the 8th century BCE until about the 5th century BCE, there was an influx of Jewish settlers both from Egypt & Sudan in the north, and southern Arabia in the east. Whether these settlers arrived in great numbers is yet a matter of debate. Note that this period matches the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and Jewish dispersion. What is certain, however, if proved, is that these settlers have preceded the arrival of Christianity at least 800-1000 years. On the other hand, arguing for the possibility some people present material artifacts quite depicting ancient Jewish ceremony. For instance the Temple at Yeha (in Tigray province), which is said to have been erected in the 6th century BCE, is believed to an architectural copy of other Jewish temples found in Israel and Egypt during the pre-Babylonian era (before 606 BCE). Another example is found on the monastery islands of Lake Tana (northern Gojjam), where several archaic stone altars, fashioned in the manner of Jewish sacrificial alters of pre-8th century BCE Israel, have been found not only preserved in good condition but also containing blood residue. The manner of the blood placed on the stone altars was found to be typical to a culture that strongly adhered to Mosaic Law.

Sometime in the early medieval era, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Towahido has produced some details to the Biblical record of visit to the King of Israel by the Queen of Sheba. The Ethiopian version of the story details an affair between King Solomon of Israel and Makeda supposedly the name of the Queen of Saba, or Queen of Sheba. The Ethiopian version of the story also adds the coming of the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia and establishes Ethiopia as a new covenant nation. Admittedly, this subject is highly controversial. For the devotee, at least, Makeda—who supposedly ruled over a very small area in modern-day southern Eritrea—made a long pilgrimage to Jerusalem to visit a king famed for wisdom. During her stay, however, King Solomon was so much ensnared by her beauty and her fidelity that he felt he had to have her around for some time more. So one evening, he ordered his royal cooks to increase the amount of pepper (salt?) in the meal which would be served for dinner. However, he also ordered the water bearers not to give anyone any water unless specifically authorized by him and to also place a jug of water in his bedchamber. Queen Makeda, realizing his trickery, played along with him thinking that she could easily go without water for the evening. Her self-confidence unfortunately proved to be quite too high when she, unable to cope with her dehydration, finally gave in to his desire and slept with him for a drink of water. This affair was (claims the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) what led to the birth of King Menelik I. The legend further says that at age twenty-five, Menelik returned to Jerusalem and covertly stole the Ark of the Covenant, making Ethiopia the custodian of the lost Ark to this day. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox devotee, the Ark of the Covenant is still in Axum St. Mary Church sealed and secured from outside influence.

 Biblical Ethiopia

The first reference to Ethiopia in the Bible appears in the early chapters of Genesis. Significant to note that what is known to be the Old Testament to the Christians constitute the Hebrew Scriptures written in the languages of the Hebrew (Jews) – Aramaic and Hebrew. Therefore, the reference to Ethiopia appears as Cush and not Ethiopia as in the Greek manuscripts later translated these texts. No thoroughgoing study is yet published on reference to Cush in the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, various commentaries and Biblical dictionaries suggest inconsistent interpretations. By and large, most Bible students/scholars assume today’s Ethiopia to be fitting for the Biblical Cush; hence, even the King James Version of the Bible, following the designation of major modern Bible translations, removed Cush and replaced it with Ethiopia. It is now common practice to refer to Cush as modern Ethiopia. Note Syene (Eze_29:10) southward – Egyptian Kôs, Babylonian Kûšu, Assyrian Kûsu. In the Bible, the name sometimes denotes the land (Isa_11:11; Isa_18:1; Zep_3:10; Eze_29:10; Job_28:19; Est_1:1; Est_8:9) and at other times sometimes the people (Isa_20:4; Jer_46:9; Eze_38:5); but many passages remain uncertain. Modern Ethiopians preferred to consider themselves as Semitic language speakers and traced their history more often from their Sabean connectin minimizing the name Cush to subordination and hiding the history of the original Cushites as later migrants into the Horn.

The Glory of the Kings

Modern book cover of Kebra Nagast: The Glory of the Kings

The state of Sheba mentioned in the Old Testament is sometimes believed to have been in Ethiopia, but more often is placed in Yemen. However, it is possible that it could have encompassed both due to their nearness, and close ties in linguistics and culture. According to the Ethiopian legend, best represented in the Kebra Negest, the Queen of Sheba was tricked by King Solomon into sleeping with him, resulting in a child, named Ebn Melek (later Emperor Menelik I). When he was of age, Menelik returned to Israel to see his father, who sent with him the son of Zadok to accompany him with a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (Ethiosemitic: tabot). On his return with some of the Israelite priests, however, he found that Zadok’s son had stolen the real Ark of the Covenant. Some believe the Ark is still being preserved today at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia. The tradition that the biblical Queen of Sheba was a ruler of Ethiopia who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem in ancient Israel is supported by the 1st century ad Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who identified Solomon’s visitor as a queen of Egypt and Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has often been mentioned in the Bible. A great example of this is the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch as written in Acts, Chapter 8, verse 27: “Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake (Candace) Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure.” The passage continues by describing how Philip helped the Ethiopian understand one passage of Isaiah that the Ethiopian was reading. After the Ethiopian received an explanation of the passage and came to believe in Jesus as the “Son of God”, he requested that Philip baptize him, which Philip obliged. Queen Gersamot Hendeke VII (very similar to Kandake) was the Queen of Ethiopia from the year 42 to 52. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded in the fourth century by Syrian monks.

Kingdom of Axum

Main article: Kingdom of Aksum

The first verifiable kingdom of great power to rise in Ethiopia was that of Axum in the first century AD. It was one of many successor kingdoms to Dʿmt and was able to unite the northern Ethiopian plateau beginning around the first century BC. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time. The origins of the Axumite Kingdom are unclear, although experts have offered their speculations about it. Even whom should be considered the earliest known king is contested: although C. Conti Rossini proposed that Zoskales of Axum, mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, should be identified with one Za Haqle mentioned in the Ethiopian King Lists (a view embraced by later historians of Ethiopia such as Yuri M. Kobishchanov[3] and Sergew Hable Sellasie), G.W.B. Huntingford argued that Zoskales was only a sub-king whose authority was limited to Adulis, and that Conti Rossini’s identification can not be substantiated.[4]

Inscriptions have been found in southern Arabia celebrating victories over one GDRT, described as “nagashi of Habashat [i.e. Abyssinia] and of Axum.” Other dated inscriptions are used to determine a floruit for GDRT (interpreted as representing a Ge’ez name such as Gadarat, Gedur, Gadurat or Gedara) around the beginning of the 3rd century. A bronze sceptre or wand has been discovered at Atsbi Dera with in inscription mentioning “GDR of Axum”. Coins showing the royal portrait began to be minted under King Endubis toward the end of the Third Century.

Debre Damo Monastery (5th or 6th c. AD)

Aksumite architecture: Debre Damo Monastery (5th or 6th c. AD)

Christianity was introduced into the country by Frumentius, who was consecrated first bishop of Ethiopia by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria about 330. Frumentius converted Ezana, who has left several inscriptions detailing his reign both before and after his conversion. One inscription found at Axum, states that he conquered the nation of the Bogos, and returned thanks to his father, the god Mars, for his victory. Later inscriptions show Ezana’s growing attachment to Christianity, and Ezana’s coins bear this out, shifting from a design with disc and crescent to a design with a cross. Expeditions by Ezana into the Kingdom of Kush at Meroe in Sudan may have brought about its demise, though there is evidence that the kingdom was experiencing a period of decline beforehand. As a result of Ezana’s expansions, Aksum bordered the Roman province of Egypt. The degree of Ezana’s control over Yemen is uncertain. Though there is little evidence supporting Aksumite control of the region at that time, his title, which includes king of Saba and Salhen, Himyar and Dhu-Raydan (all in modern-day Yemen), along with gold Aksumite coins with the inscriptions, “king of the Habshat” or “Habashite,” indicate that Aksum might have retained some legal or actual footing in the area.[5]

From the scanty evidence available it would appear that the new religion at first made little progress. Towards the close of the 5th century a great company of monks known as the Nine Saints are believed to have established themselves in the country. Since that time monasticism has been a power among the people and not without its influence on the course of events.

Dungur (“Queen Sheba’s Palace”), an ancient Aksumite villa or castle.

The Axumite Kingdom is recorded once again as controlling part – if not all – of Yemen in the 6th century. Around 523, the Jewish king Dhu Nuwas came to power in Yemen and, announcing that he would kill all the Christians, attacked an Aksumite garrison at Zafar, burning the city’s churches. He then attacked the Christian stronghold of Najran, slaughtering the Christians who would not convert. Emperor Justin I of the Eastern Roman empire requested that his fellow Christian, Kaleb, help fight the Yemenite king, and around 525, Kaleb invaded and defeated Dhu Nuwas, appointing his Christian follower Sumuafa’ Ashawa’ as his viceroy. This dating is tentative, however, as the basis of the year 525 for the invasion is based on the death of the ruler of Yemen at the time, who very well could have been Kaleb’s viceroy. Procopius records that after about five years, Abraha deposed the viceroy and made himself king (Histories 1.20). Despite several attempted invasions across the Red Sea, Kaleb was unable to dislodge Abreha, and acquiesced to the change; this was the last time Ethiopian armies left Africa until the 20th century when several units participated in the Korean War. Eventually Kaleb abdicated in favor of his son Wa’zeb and retired to a monastery where he ended his days. Abraha later made peace with Kaleb’s successor and recognized his superiority. Despite this reverse, under Ezana and Kaleb the kingdom was at its height, benefitting from a large trade, which extended as far as India and Ceylon, and were in constant communication with the Byzantine Empire.

Details of the Axumite Kingdom, never abundant, become even more scarce after this point. The last king known to mint coins is Armah, whose coinage refers to the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614. An early Muslim tradition is that the negus Ashama ibn Abjar offered asylum to a group of Muslims fleeing persecution during Muhammad‘s life (615), but Stuart Munro-Hay believes that Axum had been abandoned as the capital by then[6] – although Kobishchanov states that Ethiopian raiders plagued the Red Sea, preying on Arabian ports at least as late as 702.[7]

The end of the Axumite Kingdom is as much of a mystery as its beginning. Lacking a detailed history, the kingdom’s fall has been attributed to a persistent drought, overgrazing, deforestation, plague, a shift in trade routes that reduced the importance of the Red Sea — or a combination of these factors. Munro-Hay cites the Muslim historian Abu Ja’far al-Khwarazmi/Kharazmi (who wrote before 833) as stating that the capital of “the kingdom of Habash” was Jarma. Unless Jarma is a nickname for Axum (hypothetically from Ge’ez girma, “remarkable, revered”), the capital had moved from Axum to a new site, yet undiscovered.[8]

 The Ethiopian Dark Ages

About 1000 (presumably c 960), a non-Christian princess, Yodit (“Gudit”, a play on Yodit meaning evil), conspired to murder all the members of the royal family and establish herself as monarch. According to legends, during the execution of the royals, an infant heir of the Axumite monarch was carted off by some faithful adherents, and conveyed to Shewa, where his authority was acknowledged, while Yodit reigned for forty years over the rest of the kingdom, and transmitted the crown to her descendants. At one point during the next century, the last of Yodit’s successors were overthrown by an Agaw lord named Mara Takla Haymanot, who founded the Zagwe dynasty and married a female descendant of the Axumite monarchs (“son-in-law”) or previous ruler. One of the highlights of this dynasty was the reign of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, in whose reign the stone churches of Lalibela were carved.

 Ethiopian Empire

Around 1270, a new dynasty was established in the Abyssinian highlands under Yekuno Amlak who deposed the last of the Zagwe kings and married one of their daughters. According to legends, the new dynasty were male-line descendants of Axumite monarchs, now recognized as the continuing Solomonic dynasty (the kingdom being thus restored to the biblical royal house).

Under the Solomonic dynasty, the chief provinces became Tigray (northern), Amhara (central) and Shewa (southern). The seat of government, or rather of overlordship, had usually been in Amhara or Shewa, the ruler of which, calling himself [nəgusä nägäst] (king of kings, or Emperor of Ethiopia), exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. The title of [nəgusä nägäst] was to a considerable extent based on their direct descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba; but it is needless to say that in many, if not in most, cases their success was due more to the force of their arms than to the purity of their lineage.

 Portuguese Influence

Towards the close of the 15th century the Portuguese missions into Ethiopia began. A belief had long prevailed in Europe of the existence of a Christian kingdom in the far east, whose monarch was known as Prester John, and various expeditions had been sent in quest of it. Among others engaged in this search was Pero da Covilhã, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1490, and, believing that he had at length reached the far-famed kingdom, presented to the [nəgusä nägäst] of the country, a letter from his master the king of Portugal, addressed to Prester John.

Pero da Covilhã remained in the country, but in 1507 an Armenian named Matthew was sent by the Emperor to the king of Portugal to request his aid against the Muslims. In 1520 a Portuguese fleet, with Matthew on board, entered the Red Sea in compliance with this request, and an embassy from the fleet visited the Emperor, Lebna Dengel, and remained in Ethiopia for about six years. One of this embassy was Father Francisco Álvares, who wrote one of the earliest and not the least interesting account of the country.

 The Abyssinian-Adal War

Main article: Abyssinian-Adal War

Between 1528 and 1540 armies of Muslims, under the Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, entered Ethiopia from the low country to the south-east, and overran the kingdom, obliging the emperor to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses. In this extremity recourse was again had to the Portuguese. John Bermudez, a subordinate member of the mission of 1520, who had remained in the country after the departure of the embassy, was, according to his own statement (which is untrustworthy), ordained successor to the Abuna (archbishop), and sent to Lisbon. Bermudez certainly came to Europe, but with what credentials is not known.

In response to Bermudez’s message, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Estêvão da Gama, was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in February 1541. Here he received an ambassador from the Emperor beseeching him to send help against the Muslims, and in the July following a force of 400 musketeers, under the command of Christovão da Gama, younger brother of the admiral, marched into the interior, and being joined by native troops were at first successful against the enemy; but they were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Wofla (28 August 1542), and their commander captured and executed. On February 21, 1543, however, Ahmad was shot and killed in the Battle of Wayna Daga and his forces totally routed. After this, quarrels arose between the Emperor and Bermudez, who had returned to Ethiopia with da Gama and now urged the emperor to publicly profess his obedience to Rome. This the Emperor refused to do, and at length Bermudez was obliged to make his way out of the country.

Ethiopia had several Muslim States: Ifat of the Walashma dynasty. Adal Sultanate

 The Jesuits

The Jesuits who had accompanied or followed the da Gama expedition into Ethiopia, and fixed their headquarters at Fremona (near Adwa), were oppressed and neglected, but not actually expelled. In the beginning of the 17th century Father Pedro Páez arrived at Fremona, a man of great tact and judgment, who soon rose into high favour at court, and gained over the emperor to his faith. He directed the erection of churches, palaces and bridges in different parts of the country, and carried out many useful works. His successor Alfonso Mendez was less tactful, and excited the feelings of the people against the him and his fellow Europeans, until upon the death of Emperor Susenyos and the accession of his son Fasilides in 1633, the Jesuits were expelled.

 The Period of the Princes

Main article: Zemene Mesafint

This era was, on one hand, a religious conflict between settling Muslims and traditional Christians, between nationalities they represented, and on the other hand between feudal lords on power over the central government.

Some historians date the murder of Iyasu I, and the resultant decline in the prestige of the dynasty, as the beginning of the Ethiopian Zemene Mesafint (“Era of the Princes”,) a time of disorder when the power of the monarchy was eclipsed by the power of local warlords.

Nobles came to abuse their positions by making emperors, and enroached upon the succession of the dynasty, by candidates among the nobility itself: e.g on the death of Emperor Tewoflos, the chief nobles of Ethiopia feared that the cycle of vengeance that had characterized the reigns of Tewoflos and Tekle Haymanot I would continue if a member of the Solomonic dynasty were picked for the throne, so they selected one of their own, Yostos to be negusa nagast (king of kings) – however his tenure was brief.

Iyasu II asecended the throne as a child. His mother, Empress Mentewab played a major role in Iyasu’s reign, as well as in that of her grandson Iyoas too. Mentewab had herself crowned as co-ruler, becoming the first woman to be crowned in this manner in Ethiopian history.

Empress Mentewab was crowned co-ruler upon the succession of her son (a first for a woman in Ethiopia) in 1730, and held unprecedented power over government during his reign. Her attempt to continue in this role following the death of her son 1755 led her into conflict with Wubit (Welete Bersabe), his widow, who believed that it was her turn to preside at the court of her own son Iyoas. The conflict between these two queens led to Mentewab summoning her Kwaran relatives and their forces to Gondar to support her. Wubit responded by summoning her own Oromo relatives and their considerable forces from Yejju.

The treasure of the Empire being attestedly penniless on the death of Iyasu, it suffered further from ethnic conflict between nationalities that been part of the Empire for hundreds of years — the Agaw, Amharans, Showans, and Tigreans — and the Oromo newcomers. Mentewab’s attempt to strengthen ties between the monarchy and the Oromo by arranging the marriage of her son to the daughter of an Oromo chieftain backfired in the long run. Iyasu II gave precedence to his mother and allowed her every prerogative as a crowned co-ruler, while his wife Wubit suffered in obscurity. Wubit waited for the accession of her own son to make a bid for the power wielded for so long by Mentewab and her relatives from Qwara. When Iyoas assumed the throne upon his father’s sudden death, the aristocrats of Gondar were stunned to find that he more readily spoke in the Oromo language rather than in Amharic, and tended to favor his mother’s Yejju relatives over the Qwarans of his grandmothers family. Iyoas further increased the favor given to the Oromo when adult. On the death of the Ras of Amhara, he attempted to promote his uncle Lubo governor of that province, but the outcry led his advisor Walda Nul to convince him to change his mind.

It is believed that the power struggle between the Qwarans led by the Empress Mentewab, and the Yejju Oromos led by the Emperor’s mother Wubit was about to erupt into an armed conflict. Ras Mikael Sehul was summoned to mediate between the two camps. He arrived and shrewdly maneuvered to sideline the two queens and their supporters making a bid for power for himself. Mikael settled soon as the leader of Amharic-Tigrean (Christian) camp of the struggle.

The reign of Iyaos’ reign becomes a narrative of the struggle between the powerful Ras Mikael Sehul and the Oromo relatives of Iyoas. As Iyoas increasingly favored Oromo leaders like Fasil, his relations with Mikael Sehul deteriorated. Eventually Mikael Sehul deposed the Emperor Iyoas (7 May 1769). One week later, Mikael Sehul had him killed; although the details of his death are contradictory, the result was clear: for the first time an Emperor had lost his throne in a means other than his own natural death, death in battle, or voluntary abdication.

Mikael Sehul had compromised the power of the Emperor, and from this point forward it lay ever more openly in the hands of the great nobles and military commanders. This point of time has been regarded as one start of the Era of the Princes.

An aged and infirm imperial uncle prince was enthroned as Emperor Yohannes II. Ras Mikael soon had him murdered, and underage Tekle Haymanot II was elevated to the throne.

This bitter religious conflict contributed to hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans, which persisted into the 20th century and was a factor in Ethiopia’s isolation until the mid-19th century, when the first British mission, sent in 1805 to conclude an alliance with Ethiopia and obtain a port on the Red Sea in case France conquered Egypt. The success of this mission opened Ethiopia to many more travellers, missionaries and merchants of all countries, and the stream of Europeans continued until well into Tewodros‘s reign.

This isolation was pierced by very few European travellers. One was the French physician C.J. Poncet, who went there in 1698, via Sennar and the Blue Nile. After him James Bruce entered the country in 1769, with the object of discovering the sources of the Nile, which he was convinced lay in Ethiopia. Accordingly, leaving Massawa in September 1769, he travelled via Axum to Gondar, where he was well received by Emperor Tekle Haymanot II. He accompanied the king on a warlike expedition round Lake Tana, moving South round the eastern shore, crossing the Blue Nile (Abay) close to its point of issue from the lake and returning via the western shore. Bruce subsequently returned to Egypt at the end of 1772 by way of the upper Atbara, through the kingdom of Sennar, the Nile, and the Korosko desert. During the 18th century the most prominent rulers were the emperor Dawit III of Gondar (died May 18, 1721), Amha Iyasus of Shewa), who consolidated his kingdom and founded Ankober, and Tekle Giyorgis of Amhara) – the last-mentioned is famous of having been elevated to the throne altogether six times and also deposed six times. The first years of the 19th century were disturbed by fierce campaigns between Ras Gugsa of Begemder, and Ras Wolde Selassie of Tigray, who fought over control of the figurehead Emperor Egwale Seyon. Wolde Selassie was eventually the victor, and practically ruled the whole country till his death in 1816 at the age of eighty.

Dejazmach Sabagadis of Agame succeeded Wolde Selassie in 1817, through force of arms, to become warlord of Tigre.


 Leaving the Medieval World

Early nineteenth century warriors in Abyssinia

Early nineteenth century warriors in Abyssinia

Map of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the 19th century.

Map of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the 19th century.

Under the Emperors Tewodros II (1855 – 1868), Yohannes IV (1872 – 1889), and Menelek II (1889 – 1913), the kingdom began to emerge from its medieval isolation.

Emperor Tewodros (or Theodore) II was born Lij Kassa in Qwara, in 1818. His father was a small local chief, and his relative (possible uncle) Dejazmach Kinfu was governor of the provinces of Dembiya, Qwara and Chelga between Lake Tana and the northwestern frontier. Kassa lost his inheritance upon the death of Kinfu while he was still a young boy. After receiving a traditional education in a local monastery, he went off to lead a band of bandits that roved the country in a Robin Hood-like existence. His exploits became widely known, and his band of followers grew steadily until he led a formidable army. He came to the notice of the ruling Regent, Ras Ali, and his mother Empress Menen Liben Amede (wife of the puppet Emperor Yohannes III). In order to bind him to them, Ras Ali and the Empress arranged for Kassa to marry Ali’s daughter, and upon the death of his uncle Kinfu, he was made chief of Kwara and all Dembea with the title of Dejazmatch. He turned his attention to conquering the remaining chief divisions of the country, Gojjam, Tigray and Shewa, which still remained unsubdued. His relations with his father-in-law and grandmother-in-law deteriorated however, and he soon took up arms against them and their vassals, and was successful.

On February 11, 1855, Kassa deposed the last of the Gondarine puppet Emperors, and was crowned negusa nagast of Ethiopia under the name of Tewodros II. He soon after advanced against Shewa with a large army. Chief of the notables opposing him was its king Haile Melekot, a descendant of Meridazmach Asfa Wossen. Dissensions broke out among the Shewans, and after a desperate and futile attack on Tewodros at Dabra Berhan, Haile Melekot died of illness, nominating with his last breath his eleven-year-old son as successor (November 1855) under the name Negus Sahle Maryam (the future emperor Menelek II). Darge, Haile Melekot’s brother, and Ato Bezabih, a Shewan noble, took charge of the young prince, but after a hard fight with Angeda, the Shewans were obliged to capitulate. Sahle Maryam was handed over to the Emperor, taken to Gondar, and there trained in Tewodros’s service, and then placed in comfortable detention at the fortress of Magdala. Tewodoros afterwards devoted himself to modernizing and centralizing the legal and administrative structure of his kingdom, against the resistance of his governors. Sahle Maryam of Shewa was married to Tewodros II’s daughter Alitash.

In 1865, Sahle Maryam escaped from Maqdala, abandoning his wife, and arrived in Shewa, and was there acclaimed as Negus. During Tewodros’s reign, the alliance he forged between Britain and Ethiopia was ended in 1868 when the Emperor, angered by Queen Victoria’s failure to reply to his diplomatic overtures, imprisoned several British subjects. The British sent an army to free the subjects which defeated the Ethiopians and, in turn, led Tewodros to fall from power and commit suicide on April 13, 1868. On the death of Tewodros, many Shewans, including Ras Darge, were released, and the young Negus of Shewa began to feel himself strong enough, after a few preliminary minor campaigns, to undertake offensive operations against the northern princes. But these projects were of little avail, for Ras Kassai of Tigray, had by this time (1872) risen to supreme power in the north. Proclaiming himself negusa nagast under the name of Yohannes (or John) IV, he forced Sahle Maryam to acknowledge his overlordship.

 Interactions with European Colonial Powers

Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power.

Several colonial powers had interests and designs on Ethiopia in the context of the “Scramble for Africa.”

When Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, in 1867 failed to answer a letter Tewodros II of Ethiopia had sent her, he took it as an insult and imprisoned several British residents, including the consul. An army of 12,000 was sent from Bombay to Ethiopia to rescue the captured nationals, under the command of Sir Robert Napier. The Ethiopians were defeated, and the British stormed the fortress of Magdala (now known as Amba Mariam) on April 13, 1868. When the Emperor heard that the gate had fallen, he fired a pistol into his mouth and killed himself. Sir Robert Napier was raised to the peerage, and given the title of Lord Napier of Magdala.

Ethiopia in 1908, according to a Rand McNally map

Ethiopia in 1908, according to a Rand McNally map

The Italians now came on the scene. Asseb, a port near the southern entrance of the Red Sea, had been bought from the local sultan in March 1870 by an Italian company, which, after acquiring more land in 1879 and 1880, was bought out by the Italian government in 1882. In this year Count Pietro Antonelli was dispatched to Shewa in order to improve the prospects of the colony by treaties with Sahle Maryam of Shewa and the sultan of Aussa.

In April 1888 the Italian forces, numbering over 20,000 men, came contact with the Ethiopian army, but negotiations took the place of fighting, with the result that both forces retired, the Italians only leaving some 5000 troops in Eritrea, later to become an Italian colony.

Meanwhile the Emperor Yohannes IV had been engaged with the dervishes, who had in the meantime become masters of the Egyptian Sudan, and in 1887 a great battle ensued at Gallabat, in which the dervishes, under Zeki Tumal, were beaten. But a stray bullet struck the king, and the Ethiopians decided to retire. The king died during the night, and his body fell into the hands of the enemy (March 9, 1889). When the news of Yohannes’s death reached Sahle Maryam of Shewa, he proclaimed himself emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, and received the submission of Begemder, Gojjam, the Yejju Oromo, and Tigray.

On May 2 of that same year, Emperor Menelik signed the Treaty of Wuchale with the Italians, granting them a portion of Northern Ethiopia, the area that would later be Eritrea and part of the province of Tigray in return for the promise of 30,000 rifles, ammunition, and cannons.[9] The Italians notified the European powers that this treaty gave them a protectorate over all of Ethiopia. Menelik protested, showing that the Amharic version of the treaty said no such thing, but his protests were ignored.

Ethiopian’s conflict with the Italians was resolved by Italians defeat at the Battle of Adowa on March 1, 1896. A provisional treaty of peace was concluded at Addis Ababa on October 26, 1896, which acknowledged the independence of Ethiopia.

Regarding the question of railways, the first concession for a railway from the coast at Djibouti (French Somaliland) to the interior was granted by Menelik, to a French company in 1894. The railway was completed to Dire Dawa, 28 miles (45 km) from Harrar, by the last day of 1902.

When Menelik II died, his grandson, Lij Iyassu, succeeded to the throne but soon lost support because of his Muslim ties. He was deposed in 1916 by the Christian nobility, and Menelik’s daughter, Zauditu, was made empress. Her cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, was made regent and successor to the throne.

Upon the death of Empress Zauditu in 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen, adopting the throne name Haile Selassie, was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. His full title was “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God.”

Following the death of Abba Jifar II of Jimma, Emperor Selassie seized the opportunity to annex Jimma. In 1932, the Kingdom of Jimma was formally absorbed into Ethiopia. During the reorganization of the provinces in 1942, Jimma vanished into Kaffa Province.

 The Italian period and World War II

Emperor Haile Selassie‘s reign was interrupted in 1935 when Italian forces invaded and occupied Ethiopia.

Fascist Italy of Mussolini invaded Ethiopian territory on October 2, 1935, occupied the capital Addis Ababa on May 5 and formally annexed Ethiopia on May 9, 1936. Emperor Selassie was forced into exile in England despite his plea to the League of Nations for intervention against the Italians. Mussolini boasted that with his conquest of Ethiopia, “finally Adua was avenged“.

Map of Italian East Africa showing Ethiopia as part of the Italian Empire

Map of Italian East Africa showing Ethiopia as part of the Italian Empire

The King of Italy (Victor Emmanuel III) was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and the Italians created an Italian empire in Africa (Italian East Africa) with Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somalia, that was destroyed during WWII.

The Italians in 1937-1940 created many infrastructures and roads in Ethiopia, like the “imperial road” between Addis Abeba and Mogadishu, and planned to bring half a million Italians to colonize and develop the Ethiopian plateaus.

In spring 1941 the Italians were defeated by British and Ethiopian forces and, on May 5, 1941, Emperor Selassie re-enterred Addis Ababa and returned to his throne. The Italians, after their final stand at Gondar in November 1941, conducted a guerrilla war in Ethiopia, that lasted until summer 1943. With the defeat of Italy, Ethiopia annexed the former Italian colony of Eritrea, obtaining the secular Ethiopian aspiration to have a seashore.

 Modern Ethiopia

 Post-WWII period

After WWII, Emperor Selassie exerted numerous efforts to promote the modernization of his nation. The country’s first important school of higher education, University College of Addis Ababa, was founded in 1950. The Constitution of 1931 was replaced with a new one in 1955. The new constitution expanded the powers of the Parliament. While improving diplomatic ties with the United States, Emperor Selassie also sought to improve the nation’s relationship with other African nations. To do this, in 1963, he helped to found the Organisation of African Unity.

By the early 1970s, despite his best efforts, Emperor Selassie’s advanced age was becoming a major problem for the future of his nation. As Paul B. Henze explains: “Most Ethiopians thought in terms of personalities, not ideology, and out of long habit still looked to Haile Selassie as the initiator of change, the source of status and privilege, and the arbiter of demands for resources and attention among competing groups.” [10] Ethiopians worried for their future following his impending death. They worried too whether Emperor Selassie’s successors would continue his campaigns for modernization and economic development.

 The Derg period

After a period of civil unrest which began in February 1974, the aging Emperor Haile Selassie I was deposed. On September 12, 1974, a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the Derg (“committee”) seized power from the emperor and installed a government which was socialist in name and military in style. The Derg summarily executed 59 members of the former government, including two former Prime Ministers and Crown Councilors, Court officials, ministers, and generals. Emperor Selassie died on August 22, 1975. He was allegedly strangled in the basement of his palace.

Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed power as head of state and Derg chairman, after having his two predecessors killed, as well as tens of thousands of other suspected opponents. The new Marxist government undertook socialist reforms, including nationalisation of landlords’ and church’s property. Before the coup, Ethiopian peasants’ way of life was thouroughly influenced by the church teachings; 280 days a year are religious feasts or days of rest. Mengistu’s years in office were marked by a totalitarian-style government and the country’s massive militarization, financed by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and assisted by Cuba. In December 1976, an Ethiopian delegation in Moscow signed a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. The following April, Ethiopia abrogated its military assistance agreement with the United States and expelled the American military missions.

In July 1977, sensing the disarray in Ethiopia, Somalia attacked across the Ogaden in pursuit of its irredentist claims to the ethnic Somali areas of Ethiopia (see Ogaden War). They were assisted in this invasion by the armed Western Somali Liberation Front. Ethiopian forces were driven back far inside their own frontiers but, with the assistance of a massive Soviet airlift of arms and Cuban combat forces, they stemmed the attack. The last major Somali regular units left the Ogaden March 15, 1978. Twenty years later, the Somali region of Ethiopia remains under-developed and insecure.

From 1977 through early 1978, thousands of suspected enemies of the Derg were tortured and/or killed in a purge called the “red terror.” Communism was officially adopted during the late 1970s and early 1980s; in 1984, the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was established, and on February 1, 1987, a new Soviet-style civilian constitution was submitted to a popular referendum. It was officially endorsed by 81% of voters, and in accordance with this new constitution, the country was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia on September 10, 1987, and Mengistu became president.

A disabled T-62 tank in Addis Ababa after the fall of the Derg

A disabled T-62 tank in Addis Ababa after the fall of the Derg

The regime’s collapse was hastened by droughts and famine, which affected around 8 million people, leaving 1 million dead, as well as by insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically-based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.

Hundreds of thousands were killed due to the red terror, forced deportations, or from using hunger as a weapons.[11] In 2006, after a long trial, Mengistu was found guilty of genocide. [12]

 Post-Derg period

In July 1991, the EPRDF, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and others established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) which was composed of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution. In June 1992, the OLF withdrew from the government; in March 1993, members of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Coalition also left the government.

Eritrea separated from Ethiopia following the fall of the Derg in 1991, after a long independentist war.

In 1994, a new constitution was written that formed a bicameral legislature and a judicial system. The first free and democratic election took place in May 1995 in which Meles Zenawi was elected the Prime Minister and Negasso Gidada was elected President. Also at this time, the members of the Parliament were elected. Ethiopia’s second multiparty election was held in May of 2000. Prime Minister Meles was one again elected as Prime Minister in October of 2000. In October 2001, Lieutenant Girma Wolde-Giorgis was elected president.

In 1998, a border dispute with Ethiopia led to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, which killed thousands of soldiers from both countries. While the war hurt the nation’s economy, it also strengthened the ruling coalition. The border war ended in 2000 with a negotiated agreement known as the Algiers Agreement. One of the terms of the agreement was the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation, known as the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). Another term of the Algiers agreement was the final demarcation of the disputed border area between Eritrea and Ethiopia. After extensive study, an independent, UN-associated Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission (EEBC) issued a final border ruling in 2003, but its decision was rejected by Ethiopia. As of 2007, the border question remains in dispute, while a tentative peace remains in place.

In 2005, during the general elections in Ethiopia, allegations of irregularities that brought victory to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front resulted in widespread protests in which the government is accused of massacring civilians (see Ethiopian police massacres).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the rise of radical Islamism, Ethiopia again turned to the Western powers for alliance and assistance. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Ethiopian army began to train with US forces based out of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) established in Djibouti, in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Ethiopia allowed the US to station military advisors at Camp Hurso.[13]

In 2006, an Islamic organisation seen by many as having ties with al-Qaeda, the Islamic Courts Union, spread rapidly in Somalia. Ethiopia sent logistical support to the Transitional Federal Government opposing the Islamists. Finally, on December 20, 2006, active fighting broke out between the ICU and Ethiopian Army. As the Islamist forces were of no match against the Ethiopian regular army, they decided to retreat and merge among the civilians, and most of the ICU-held Somalia was quickly taken. Ethiopian troops continued to occupy Somalia in 2007 as a growing resistance begun to build up. Human Rights Watch accused Ethiopia of various abuses including indiscriminate killing of civilians during the 2007 battle in Mogadishu.

 See also

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


  1. ^ Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to The End of the 18th century (Asmara: Red Sea Press, Inc., 1997), pp.5, 7, 9.
  2. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), pp. 63ff.
  3. ^ Yuri M. Kobishchanov, Axum, Joseph W. Michels, editor; Lorraine T. Kapitanoff, translator, (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 1979), pp.54-59.
  4. ^ Expressed, for example, in his The Historical Geography of Ethiopia (London: the British Academy, 1989), p.39.
  5. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum, p. 81.
  6. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum, p.56.
  7. ^ Kobishchanov, Axum, p.116.
  8. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum, pp.95-98.
  9. ^ Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, pp. 472-3
  10. ^ Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 282.
  11. ^ Black Book of Communism p. 687-695
  12. ^ Mengistu found guilty of genocide
  13. ^U.S. trainers prepare Ethiopians to fight“, Stars and Stripes, 200612-30. Retrieved on 200701-14. 



Ethiopia’s many lakes, rivers, and reservoirs and its approximately 960 kilometers of Red Sea coastline are fertile fishing grounds. However, fishing contributed less than l percent of GDP in l987. The ten-year plan in l983/84 estimated that the country had the potential to produce more than 92,000 tons of fish–66,000 tons from the Red Sea and the remaining 26,000 tons from lakes and rivers. But actual production in l983/84 was estimated at 600 to l,200 tons.

Fresh fish are consumed along the Red Sea coast, in Asmera, and in the vicinity of the Great Rift Valley lakes. Outside these areas, however, the domestic market for fish is small. Two factors account for this low level of local fish consumption. First, fish has not been integrated into the diet of most of the population. Second, because of religious influences on consumption patterns, the demand for fish is only seasonal. During Lent, for example, Christians who abstain from eating meat, milk, and eggs consume fish.

There was considerable commercial fishing activity in the Red Sea prior to l974, chiefly consisting of private foreign companies that exported most of their catch after processing the fish onshore. For instance, in l970 private companies exported about 9,l40 tons of fish. After the l974 revolution, most commercial fishing companies left Ethiopia, which reduced fish exports.

The Mengistu regime encouraged the establishment of fishery associations and cooperatives along the Red Sea coast and in the Great Rift Valley lakes area. In l978 the government established the Fish Production and Marketing Corporation (FPMC) to help improve the Ethiopian fish industry. The following year, the Ministry of Agriculture created the Fisheries Resources Development Department to help improve fish breeding, control, and marketing. The FPMC received loans from the Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank and aid from the European Economic Community (EEC) to purchase various types of transportation equipment and to establish modern shops and cold storage.

In late 1990, the Red Sea Fishery Resources Development Project, which is managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), received funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Capital Development Fund to purchase motor boats, fishing nets, and other accessories for five fishermen’s cooperatives in Aseb. The government hoped this equipment would help increase production and eventually enable the five cooperatives to extract 450 tons of fish annually. Nevertheless, the 1988/89 fish production of sixty tons fell by more than half in 1989/90 because of security problems in the area.


Livestock production plays an important role in Ethiopia’s economy. Estimates for l987 indicated that livestock production contributed one-third of agriculture’s share of GDP, or nearly l5 percent of total GDP. Hides and skins constituted the second largest export earner, averaging about l5 percent of the total export value during the period l984/85 to l988/89; live animals averaged around 3 percent of the total value of exports during the same period.

Although varying from region to region, the role of livestock in the Ethiopian economy was greater than the figures suggest. Almost the entire rural population was involved in some way with animal husbandry, whose role included the provision of draft power, food, cash, transportation, fuel, and, especially in pastoral areas, social prestige. In the highlands, oxen provided draft power in crop production. In pastoral areas, livestock formed the basis of the economy. Per capita meat consumption was high by developing countries’ standards, an estimated thirteen kilograms annually. According to a l987 estimate, beef accounted for about 5l percent of all meat consumption, followed by mutton and lamb (l9 percent), poultry (l5 percent), and goat (l4 percent).

Ethiopia’s estimated livestock population of about 78.4 million in l988 was believed to be Africa’s largest. There were approximately 31 million cattle, 23.4 million sheep, l7.5 million goats, 5.5 million horses and mules, l million camels, and 57 million poultry. Livestock was distributed throughout the country, with the greatest concentration in the highlands, where more than 90 percent of these animals were located. The raising of livestock always has been largely a subsistence activity.

Ethiopia has great potential for increased livestock production, both for local use and for export. However, expansion was constrained by inadequate nutrition, disease, a lack of support services such as extension services, insufficient data with which to plan improved services, and inadequate information on how to improve animal breeding, marketing, and processing. The high concentration of animals in the highlands, together with the fact that cattle are often kept for status, reduces the economic potential of Ethiopian livestock.

Both the imperial and the Marxist governments tried to improve livestock production by instituting programs such as free vaccination, well-digging, construction of feeder roads, and improvement of pastureland, largely through international organizations such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The Mengistu regime also opened veterinary stations at Bahir Dar, Buno Bedele, and Debre Zeyit to provide treatment and vaccination services.

Cattle in Ethiopia are almost entirely of the zebu type and are poor sources of milk and meat. However, these cattle do relatively well under the traditional production system. About 70 percent of the cattle in l987 were in the highlands, and the remaining 30 percent were kept by nomadic pastoralists in the lowland areas. Meat and milk yields are low and losses high, especially among calves and young stock. Contagious diseases and parasitic infections are major causes of death, factors that are exacerbated by malnutrition and starvation. Recurring drought takes a heavy toll on the animal population, although it is difficult to determine the extent of losses. Practically all animals are range-fed. During the rainy seasons, water and grass are generally plentiful, but with the onset of the dry season, forage is generally insufficient to keep animals nourished and able to resist disease.

Most of Ethiopia’s estimated 41 million sheep and goats are raised by small farmers who used them as a major source of meat and cash income. About three-quarters of the total sheep flock is in the highlands, whereas lowland pastoralists maintain about three-quarters of the goat herd. Both animals have high sales value in urban centers, particularly during holidays such as Easter and New Year’s Day.

Most of the estimated 7 million equines (horses, mules, and donkeys) are used to transport produce and other agricultural goods. Camels also play a key role as pack animals in areas below l,500 meters in elevation. Additionally, camels provide pastoralists in those areas with milk and meat.

Poultry farming is widely practiced in Ethiopia; almost every farmstead keeps some poultry for consumption and for cash sale. The highest concentration of poultry is in Shewa, in central Welo, and in northwestern Tigray. Individual poultry farms supply eggs and meat to urban dwellers. By 1990 the state had begun to develop large poultry farms, mostly around Addis Ababa, to supply hotels and government institutions.

Major Staple Crops

Ethiopia’s major staple crops include a variety of cereals, pulses, oilseeds, and coffee. Grains are the most important field crops and the chief element in the diet of most Ethiopians. The principal grains are teff, wheat, barley, corn, sorghum, and millet. The first three are primarily cool-weather crops cultivated at altitudes generally above l,500 meters. Teff, indigenous to Ethiopia, furnishes the flour for injera, an unleavened bread that is the principal form in which grain is consumed in the highlands and in urban centers throughout the country. Barley is grown mostly between 2,000 and 3,500 meters. A major subsistence crop, barley is used as food and in the production of tella, a locally produced beer.

Sorghum, millet, and corn are cultivated mostly in warmer areas at lower altitudes along the country’s western, southwestern, and eastern peripheries. Sorghum and millet, which are drought resistant, grow well at low elevations where rainfall is less reliable. Corn is grown chiefly between elevations of l,500 and 2,200 meters and requires large amounts of rainfall to ensure good harvests. These three grains constitute the staple foods of a good part of the population and are major items in the diet of the nomads.

Pulses are the second most important element in the national diet and a principal protein source. They are boiled, roasted, or included in a stew-like dish known as wot, which is sometimes a main dish and sometimes a supplementary food. Pulses, grown widely at all altitudes from sea level to about 3,000 meters, are more prevalent in the northern and central highlands. Pulses were a particularly important export item before the revolution.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church traditionally has forbidden consumption of animal fats on many days of the year. As a result, vegetable oils are widely used, and oilseed cultivation is an important agricultural activity. The most important oilseed is the indigenous niger seed (neug), which is grown on 50 percent or more of the area devoted to oilseeds. Niger seed is found mostly in the northern and central highlands at elevations between 1,800 and 2,500 meters. Flaxseed, also indigenous, is cultivated in the same general area as niger seed. The third most important oilseed is sesame, which grows at elevations from sea level to about l,500 meters. In addition to its domestic use, sesame is also the principal export oilseed. Oilseeds of lesser significance include castor beans, rapeseed, groundnuts (peanuts), and safflower and sunflower seeds. Most oilseeds are raised by small-scale farmers, but sesame was also grown by large-scale commercial farms before the era of land reform and the nationalization of agribusiness.

Ensete, known locally as false banana, is an important food source in Ethiopia’s southern and southwestern highlands. It is cultivated principally by the Gurage, Sidama, and several other ethnic groups in the region. Resembling the banana but bearing an inedible fruit, the plant produces large quantities of starch in its underground rhizome and an above-ground stem that can reach a height of several meters. Ensete flour constitutes the staple food of the local people. Taro, yams, and sweet potatoes are commonly grown in the same region as the ensete.

The consumption of vegetables and fruits is relatively limited, largely because of their high cost. Common vegetables include onions, peppers, squash, and a cabbage similar to kale. Demand for vegetables has stimulated truck farming around the main urban areas such as Addis Ababa and Asmera. Prior to the revolution, urbanization increased the demand for fruit, leading to the establishment of citrus orchards in areas with access to irrigation in Shewa, Arsi, Harerge, and Eritrea. The Mengistu regime encouraged fruit and vegetable production. Fresh fruits, including citrus and bananas, as well as fresh and frozen vegetables, became important export items, but their profitability was marginal. The Ethiopian Fruit and Vegetable Marketing Enterprise (EFVME), which handled about 75 percent of Ethiopia’s exports of fruits and vegetables in l984-85, had to receive government subsidies because of losses.

Ethiopia’s demand for grain continued to increase because of population pressures, while supply remained short, largely because of drought and government agricultural policies, such as price controls, which adversely affected crop production. Food production had consistently declined throughout the 1980s. Consequently, Ethiopia became a net importer of grain worth about 243 million birr annually from l983/84 to l987/88. The food deficit estimate for the l985/89 period indicated that production averaged about 6 million tons while demand reached about 10 million tons, thus creating an annual deficit of roughly 4 million tons. Much of the food deficit was covered through food aid. Between l984/85 and l986/87, at the height of the drought, Ethiopia received more than l.7 million tons of grain, about l4 percent of the total food aid for Africa. In addition, Ethiopia spent 341 million birr on food purchases during the l985-87 period.

Agricultural Production

The effect of the PMAC’s land reform program on food production and its marketing and distribution policies were among two of the major controversies surrounding the revolution. Available data on crop production show that land reform and the various government rural programs had a minimal impact on increasing the food supply, as production levels displayed considerable fluctuations and low growth rates at best (see table 13, Appendix).

Major Cash Crops

The most important cash crop in Ethiopia was coffee. During the l970s, coffee exports accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the total value of all exports, although coffee’s share dropped to 25 percent as a result of the economic dislocation following the l974 revolution. By l976 coffee exports had recovered, and in the five years ending in l988/89, coffee accounted for about 63 percent of the value of exports. Domestically, coffee contributed about 20 percent of the government’s revenue. Approximately 25 percent of Ethiopia’s population depended directly or indirectly on coffee for its livelihood.

Ethiopia’s coffee is almost exclusively of the arabica type, which grows best at altitudes between l,000 and 2,000 meters. Coffee grows wild in many parts of the country, although most Ethiopian coffee is produced in the southern and western regions of Kefa, Sidamo, Ilubabor, Gamo Gofa, Welega, and Harerge.

Reliable estimates of coffee production in Ethiopia were unavailable as of mid-1991. However, some observers indicated that Ethiopia produced between l40,000 and l80,000 tons annually. The Ethiopian government placed coffee production at l87,000 tons in l979/80, 233,000 tons in l983/84, and l72,000 tons in l985/86. Estimates for l986/87 and l987/88 were put at l86,000 and l89,000 tons, respectively. Preliminary figures from other sources indicated that coffee production continued to rise in 1988/89 and 1989/90 but registered a sharp decline of perhaps as much as one-third during 1990/91. About 44 percent of the coffee produced was exported. Although the potential for local coffee consumption was high, the government, eager to increase its hard-currency reserves, suppressed domestic consumption by controlling coffee sales. The government also restricted the transfer of coffee from coffee-producing areas to other parts of the country. This practice made the price of local coffee two to three times higher than the price of exported coffee.

About 98 percent of the coffee was produced by peasants on smallholdings of less than a hectare, and the remaining 2 percent was produced by state farms. Some estimates indicated that yields on peasant farms were higher than those on state farms. In the 1980s, as part of an effort to increase production and to improve the cultivation and harvesting of coffee, the government created the Ministry of Coffee and Tea Development, which was responsible for production and marketing. The ten-year plan called for an increase in the size of state farms producing coffee from l4,000-l5,000 hectares to 50,000 hectares by l994. However, given the strain on the government’s financial resources and the consistently declining coffee price in the world market, this may have been an unrealistic goal.

The decline in world coffee prices, which began in 1987, reduced Ethiopia’s foreign-exchange earnings. In early 1989, for example, the price of one kilogram/US$0.58; of coffee was by June it had dropped to US$0.32. Mengistu told the 1989 WPE party congress that at US$0.32 per kilogram, foreign-exchange earnings from coffee would have dropped by 240 million birr, and government revenue would have been reduced by l40 million birr by the end of l989. Such declines not only hampered the government’s ability to implement its political, economic, and social programs but also reduced Addis Ababa’s capacity to prosecute its war against various rebel groups in northern Ethiopia.

Before the revolution, pulses and oilseeds played an important role, second only to coffee, in Ethiopia’s exports. In EFY l974/75, pulses and oilseeds accounted for 34 percent of export earnings (about l63 million birr), but this share declined to about 3 percent (about 30 million birr) in EFY l988/89 (see table 14, Appendix). Three factors contributed to the decline in the relative importance of pulses and oilseeds. First, the recurring droughts had devastated the country’s main areas where pulses and oilseeds were produced. Second, because peasants faced food shortages, they gave priority to cereal staples to sustain themselves. Finally, although the production cost of pulses and oilseeds continued to rise, the government’s price control policy left virtually unchanged the official procurement price of these crops, thus substantially reducing net income from them. The Ethiopian Pulses and Oilseeds Corporation, the agency responsible for exporting two-thirds of these crops, reported losses in EFY l982/83 and EFY 1983/84. In EFY l983/84, the corporation received export subsidies of more than 9 million birr. Subsequently, production of both crops failed to improve; by 1988 the output index, whose base year was 1972 (100), was 85.3 for pulses and 15.8 for oilseeds. Given the country’s economic and political problems and the ongoing war in the north, there was little prospect of improvement.

Cotton is grown throughout Ethiopia below elevations of about l,400 meters. Because most of the lowlands lack adequate rainfall, cotton cultivation depends largely on irrigation. Before the revolution, large-scale commercial cotton plantations were developed in the Awash Valley and the Humera areas. The Tendaho Cotton Plantation in the lower Awash Valley was one of Ethiopia’s largest cotton plantations. Rain-fed cotton also grew in Humera, Bilate (in Sidamo), and Arba Minch (in Gamo Gofa).

Since the revolution, most commercial cotton has been grown on irrigated state farms, mostly in the Awash Valley area. Production jumped from 43,500 tons in l974/75 to 74,900 tons in l984/85. Similarly, the area of cultivation increased from 22,600 hectares in l974/75 to 33,900 hectares in l984/85.