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12.12: Ethiopia and Eritrea

  • Page ID
    72289
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    Learning Objective

    • Compare and contrast Ethiopia with other East African empires

    Key Points

    • The first kingdom thought to have existed in today’s Ethiopia was the kingdom of D’mt, with its capital at Yeha, where a Sabaean-style temple was built around 700 BCE. It rose to power around the 10th century BCE, but little is certain about its development and decline. Aksum is the first verifiable kingdom of great power to rise in the region. It was a trading empire in the area of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, and existed approximately from 100 to 940 CE.
    • An Agaw lord named Mara Takla Haymanot founded the Zagwe dynasty in 1137. The new dynasty established its capital at Roha and controlled a smaller area than the Aksumites, with its core in the Lasta region. The Zagwe seem to have ruled over a mostly peaceful state with a flourishing urban culture.
    • Around 1270, a new dynasty was established in the Abyssinian highlands under Yekuno Amlak. A 14th century legend was created to legitimize the Solomonic dynasty, under which the chief provinces became Tigray (northern), what is now Amhara (central), and Shewa (southern).
    • Towards the close of the 15th century, the Portuguese missions into Ethiopia began, and Pêro da Covilhã arrived in Ethiopia in 1490. 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.
    • Between 1528 and 1543, wars with Somali sultanates dominated the Ethiopian Empire. With the support of the Portuguese, Ethiopia emerged victorious from the conflict.
    • In the 18th century, the so-called Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes) began. It was a period in Ethiopian history when the country was divided into several regions with no effective central authority. It ended in the mid-19th century, and Ethiopia was one of few territories not colonized by Europeans.

    Terms

    Hatata

    A 1667 ethical philosophical treatise by Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob. The philosophy is theistic in nature and came during a period when African philosophical literature was significantly oral in character. It has often been compared by scholars to Descartes’ Discours de la methode (1637). Yacob wrote his treatise as an investigation of the light of reason. Yacob is most noted for this philosophy surrounding the principle of harmony.

    Aksum

    A trading nation in Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia Tigray that existed approximately from 100 to 940 CE. It grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period c. the 4th century BCE to achieve prominence by the 1st century CE, and was a major agent in the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.

    the Zagwe dynasty

    A historical kingdom in present-day northern Ethiopia. Centered at Lalibela, it ruled large parts of the territory from approximately 900 to 1270, when the last Zagwe King Za-Ilmaknun was killed in battle by the forces of Yekuno Amlak.

    the Solomonic dynasty

    The former ruling imperial house of the Ethiopian Empire. Its members claim patrilineal descent from King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. Yekuno Amlak claimed direct male-line descent from the old Aksumite royal house that the Zagwes had replaced on the throne. It continued to rule Ethiopia with few interruptions until 1974, when the last emperor, Haile Selassie I, was deposed.

    Fasil Ghebbi

    A fortress-city within Gondar, Ethiopia. It was founded in the 17th and 18th centuries by Emperor Fasilides (Fasil) and was the home of Ethiopia’s emperors. Its unique architecture shows diverse influences, including Nubian styles.

    Zemene Mesafint

    Known also as Era of the Princes, was a period (18th century to mid-19th century) in Ethiopian history when the country was divided into several regions with no effective central authority. It was a period in which the emperors were reduced to figureheads confined to the capital city of Gondar.

    Ancient and Medieval Ethiopia

    The first kingdom thought to have existed in today’s Ethiopia was the kingdom of D’mt, with its capital at Yeha, where a Sabaean-style temple was built around 700 BCE. It rose to power around the 10th century BCE, but little is certain about its development and decline. It is not known
    whether D’mt ended as a civilization before Aksum’s (its one possible successor) early stages, evolved into the Aksumite state, or was one of the smaller states united in the Aksumite kingdom possibly around the beginning of the 1st century. Aksum is the first verifiable kingdom of great power to rise in the region. It was a trading empire in the area of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea that existed approximately from 100 to 940 CE, and was a major agent in the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India. About 1000 (presumably c. 960, though the date is uncertain), a non-Christian female ruler conquered the area. Little is known about this episode, but the later Solomonic Dynasty used the legend of a princess named Yodit to legitimize its rule.

    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 in 1137—the year that marks the beginning of the Ethiopian Empire, known also as Abyssinia. The new Zagwe dynasty established its capital at Roha (also called Lalibela), where they built a series of monolithic churches. The architecture of the Zagwe shows a continuation of earlier Aksumite traditions. The Zagwe dynasty controlled a smaller area than the Aksumites, with its core in the Lasta region. The Zagwe seem to have ruled over a mostly peaceful state with a flourishing urban culture. Unlike the Aksumites, they were very isolated from the other Christian nations, although they did maintain a degree of contact through Jerusalem and Cairo. Later, as the Crusades were dying out in the early 14th century, the Ethiopian King Wedem Ar’ad dispatched a thirty-man mission to Europe, where they traveled to Rome to meet the Pope and then, since the Medieval Papacy was in schism, they traveled to Avignon to meet the Antipope. During this trip, the Ethiopian mission also traveled to France, Spain, and Portugal in the hopes of building an alliance against the Muslim states that threatened Ethiopia’s existence.

    The Solomonic Dynasty

    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 his daughters. According to legends, the new dynasty were male-line descendants of Aksumite monarchs. The 14th century legend was created to legitimize the Solomonic dynasty, under which the chief provinces became Tigray (northern), what is now Amhara (central), and Shewa (southern). The seat of government, or rather of overlordship, was usually in Amhara or Shewa, and the ruler exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. At the time, Ethiopia engaged in military reforms and imperial expansion that left it dominating the Horn of Africa, especially under the rule of Amda Seyon I (1314–44). Artistic and literary advancement of the period came together with a decline in urbanization, as the Solomonic emperors did not have a fixed capital but rather moved around the empire in mobile camps.

    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 to find it. Among others engaged in this search was Pêro da Covilhã, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1490. 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 accounts of the country.

    image
    Lebna Dengel, nəgusä nägäst (emperor) of Ethiopia and a member of the Solomonic dynasty. Portrait by Cristofano dell’Altissimo, c. 1552-1568, Uffizi, Florence. The Solomonic dynasty was a bastion of Judaism and later of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. It is considered to have ruled Ethiopia in the 10th century BCE. Records of the dynasty’s history were reported to have been maintained by the Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries to near antiquity. However, if such records existed, most were lost as a result of the destruction of Orthodox monasteries. The Dynasty re-established itself in 1270 CE, when when Yekuno Amlak overthrew the last ruler of the Zagwe dynasty.

    Wars with Somali Sultanates

    Between 1528 and 1540, armies of Muslims, under the Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, entered Ethiopia from the low country to the southeast and overran the Abyssinian Kingdom, obliging the Emperor to take refuge in the mountains. The ruler turned to the Portuguese again. João Bermudes, a subordinate member of the mission of 1520, was sent to Lisbon, although it is not know what his specific role was. In response to Bermudes’s message, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Estêvão da Gama was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in 1541. Under the command of Cristóvão da Gama, younger brother of the admiral, the Portuguese and local troops were initially successful against the enemy. However, they were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Wofla (1542), and their commander was captured and executed. Nonetheless, in 1543, Al-Ghazi was shot and killed in the Battle of Wayna Daga, and his forces were totally routed. Following the victory, quarrels arose between the emperor and Bermudes, who now urged the emperor to publicly profess his obedience to Rome. The emperor refused, and Bermudes was obliged to leave.

    Gondar and Zemene Mesafint

    Upon the death of Emperor Susenyos and the accession of his son Fasilides in 1633, the Jesuits,
    who had accompanied or followed the Gama expedition, were expelled and the native religion restored to official status. Fasilides made Gondar his capital in 1636 and built a castle there, which would grow into the castle complex known as the Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure. During this time, Ethiopian philosophy flourished, with philosophers Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat leading the way. Yaqob is known for his treatise on religion, morality, and reason, known as Hatata.

    image
    The Royal Enclosure (Fasil Ghebbi) and Gondar. Emperor Fasilides made Gondar his capital and built a castle there, which would grow into the castle complex known as the Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure. Fasilides also constructed several churches in Gondar, many bridges across the country, and expanded the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum.

    In the 18th century, the so-called Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes) began. It was a period in Ethiopian history when the country was divided into several regions with no effective central authority. The emperors were reduced to little more than figureheads confined to the capital city of Gondar. Historians debate what triggered Zemene Mesafint, pointing to various events ranging from 1706 to 1769 as the beginning of the era. A religious conflict between settling Muslims and traditional Christians, between nationalities they represented, and between feudal lords dominated the region at the time. The power lay ever more openly in the hands of the great nobles and military commanders.

    Bitter religious conflicts contributed to hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans; they persisted into the 20th century and were a factor in Ethiopia’s isolation until the mid-19th century, when the first British mission was sent in 1805 to conclude an alliance with Ethiopia and obtain a port on the Red Sea in case France conquered Egypt. This isolation was pierced by very few European travelers.

    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 until 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.
    Under the emperors Tewodros II (1855–1868), Yohannes IV (1872–1889), and Menelek II (1889–1913), the empire began to emerge from its isolation. Under Emperor Tewodros II, Zemene Mesafint was brought to an end.

    Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power, but was occupied by Italians in 1936. However, several colonial powers had interests in and designs on Ethiopia in the context of the 19th century colonization of Africa.

     

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