Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia 1889 to his death



Ethiopia Home of Sages/ Thou art still our noblest pride/ We, thy sons, through future ages /Will take thee for our guide--W.A. Scott, 1915 from History of Alpha Phi Alpha by Charles H. Wesley.

There is not much known on the early origins of the Askum (also Axum) kingdom. The Eastern horn of Africa had been well known during dynastic Egypt and associated with the land of Punt: a place of trade and commerce that may have either been the coastal region of Somalia, or modern day Eritrea.

Roman and Greek sources indicate that an Askum kingdom was thriving by the 1st century AD; the city of Adulis is frequently mentioned as one of the most important port cities in Africa. Ethiopian tradition itself places Askum as an ancient city and the home of Makedda: the celebrated Queen of Sheba. [Note: Southern Yemen on the Arabian peninsula lays claim to the Queen of Sheba as well, calling her kingdom Saba.]

Askum rose to great prominence in around the 1st century AD, and by the second century AD, had acquired tribute states on the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea, placing its troops in occupation of Southern Yemen. This was followed by the conquest of northern Ethiopia, and then finally the defeat of the once mighty Meroitic Kash - ancient Nubia.

The downfall of Kash led to the swift rise of Aksum imperial power. The Aksumites controlled one of the most important trade routes in the region, directly in the path of the growing commercial trade between Africa, Arabia, and India. As a result, it became fabulously wealthy and its major cities, Adulis, Aksum, and Matara, became three of the most important trading centers in the late ancient world. An indication of this cosmopolitan character can be found in the fact that the major Aksumite cities claimed Jewish, Nubian, Christian, and even Buddhist minorities.

By the 4th Century AD the religious system of Christian Rome had conquered Egypt and Syria. During this period a Syrian Christian philosopher and his two sons (or servants) arrived at port in Askum. At the time, Rome and Askum were engaged in a battle over the supremacy of the sea trade routes in the East. Upon reaching port, the ship was seized and the Syrian philosopher and crew were killed. The two sons of the monk were spared and became servants of the royal family during the reign of King Ella Amida.

Though it is uncertain how, they succeed in converting the royal family to Christianity. It was through one of these Syrian servants in fact, Frumentius, that Christianity came to be Ethiopia's state religion. Frumentius later became in Alexandria, the first Bishop of Askum. Amida's successor Ezana also converted to Christianity. Ezana was responsible for the conquest of Nubia (Meroitic Kash), but not its conversion which would not occur until 542AD under the Monophysites from Egypt.

inner painting of medieval Ethiopian Coptic church

Christianity flourished in the Nubian kingdoms mostly among the royalty and the monks; it is unknown whether the general populace fully embraced the religion. Under pressure from northern Muslim neighbors however after 640AD, the Nubian Christian kingdoms fell one by one to Islam---the last in 1504. This is significant as for centuries to come the greatest perceived threat to Ethiopia would be their Muslim neighbors to the north and East--although tradition has it, the Muslim Prophet Muhammad sought refuge in Ethiopia for a period before establishing Islam in Arabia.

Askum suffered its greatest upset however during the 10th century, when it was set upon by a warrior queen only known as Gudit (also Judith, Isat, Esato). Her devastating attack from a southern kingdom, possibly resisting an encroaching Christian Askum, left the kingdom in ruins. The traditional Aksum dynasty was put off the throne and hunted down. It would be several centuries before a Christian king named Anbessa Wudim wrested control of the kingdom once more and ushered in a return to Christian based architectural projects.

According to local religious tradition, God instructed a famous Askumite king, Lalibela, to build 11 churches the like of which the world had never seen, and dispatched a team of angels to help him complete the monumental task. The king is said to have constructed the 12th-century church, Beit Giorgis (House of George), after a fully armored Saint George appeared on horseback and admonished him for not having consecrated a shrine to him. Ethiopian Christian monks still show visitors the legendary "hoof marks" of Saint George's steed. Lalibela's masterwork, hewed directly out of the rock, is now often cited as the "eighth" man-made wonder of the world.

Lalibela Church or Beit Giorgis (House of George)

Nestled into the foothills of the Simien Mountains, some 100 miles south of Aksum, lays the city of Gondar, a former royal capital with a past of political intrigue. This past is tied in with the arrival of the Portuguese, whose Jesuit fighters Ethiopia enlisted to help roll back the devastating Islamic conquests of the 16th century. This relationship soured however, when the Portuguese persuaded Ethiopian King Susenyos to impose Catholicism as the state religion.

This ultimately resulted in his ousting and the massacre of many Portuguese by Ethiopian Christians. His son, Fasilidas, established Gondar as his capital in 1632, and it remained the seat of imperial power for 200 years. Fasilidas's square, a two-story castle with a turret at each corner, inspired by a mixture of Ethiopian and Portuguese design, remains the central attraction of the royal compound. Although it endowed Gondar with many beautiful buildings, Fasilidas's rule also marked the start of a long and violent string of successions, often through poisoning or patricide, and aggravated by bloody struggles for power by feuding regional lords.

One of Gondar's principal rulers was Queen Mentewab (1730 to 1799AD). The palace she had built for her self came to be the kingdom's finest example of "Gondarian style" architecture, embodying the best of Portuguese, Indian and Ethiopian influences. Her two-story, 350-square-meter palace, in the fortified compound of Qwesqwam, was complemented by a church.

Remains of medieval Ethiopian castle of Gondar

The legacy of Ethiopia had a profound affect on the modern black world. Long acknowledged as an ancient land with similar religious ties, Ethiopia held a fascination to Europeans, who would endow it with mythical kings like Prester John. For blacks in the West, the name Ethiopia—mentioned in Biblical and Greek or Roman texts—would become synonymous with an ancient "racial presence." [Note: Ethiopia however, when mentioned in the Bible or Greco-Roman texts, may have actually referred to Kash or other regions of Africa, as the very term Ethiopia is originally Greek in origin and applied to varied locales].

As European colonization reached its climax in the nineteenth century with the "Scramble for Africa," the newly knitted together nation-state of Italy, eager to acquire its own colonial holdings, targeted Ethiopia whose location on the Red Sea made it strategically important. Unable to get the Ethiopians to capitulate to colonization, Italy declared war on Ethiopia in 1895. One year later the Ethiopians, under Menelik II, soundly defeated the invading Italians at the Battle of Adwa, destroying their army and capturing some 3,000 soldiers. This made Ethiopia the first non-European nation—followed by Japan in 1905—to win a victory against a modern European army and avoid colonization.

The news of this African kingdom with ancient roots under a black king defeating a European army quickly spread across the world. Everywhere throughout the black Diaspora—in Africa, the West Indies, Europe, and the Americas—Ethiopia became a symbol of power, freedom, resistance and redemption. A strong connection with Ethiopia, called Ethiopianism, became common. It would be picked up by numerous figures in the early 1900s, from historians like JA Rogers, to social academics like WEB Du Bois to activists like Marcus Garvey, many literary and artistic figures of the Harlem Renaissance—and later outgrowths such as Rastafarianism.

In November 1930 Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Haile Selassie I, Power of the Holy Trinity, 225th Emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty, Elect of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Emperor Haile Selassie declared his monarchy the oldest continuous monarchy in the world, claming descent from the ancient Hebrew King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Makedda.

Emperor Haile Selassie's Coronation on the front cover of Time Magazine, 1930.

At a time when black inferiority and white supremacy was taken as a mainstream assumption, blacks around the world watched as European royalty presented themselves, even bowing, to this African king at Selassie's elaborate coronation. When in 1935 Italy, under the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, sought to once again conquer Ethiopia in revenge for their humiliating defeat of near half a century prior, blacks everywhere—from the United States to South Africa—rallied behind Ethiopia. Street battles between black Americans and Italians took place in NY. In the Caribbean, black soldiers in the British army and air force traveled to Ethiopia to lend their military skills. In South Africa colonized blacks began a northward march towards Ethiopia, determined to help repel the Italian invaders (they were stopped by colonial administrators). It would in the end take a joint effort of British Allied and Ethiopian forces to drive the Italians out during WWII.

The end of the era of Ethiopian monarchy and the eclipse of its symbolic importance would come in 1974. Despite repeated attempts at modernization, Ethiopia with its deep class conflicts, aggressive attempts to keep ethnic groups under control and near medieval feudal society, fell to Marxist forces who were able to exploit these entrenched divides and inequalities. In a 1974 coup Selassie was dethroned and replaced by a Marxist government and dictator, bringing to a close near 1,000 years of monarchy and a profound impact on perceptions of the black world.




Belai Giday. Ethiopian Civilization. (1992)


Winston James. Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America (1999)


Stuart Munro-Hay. Aksum: A Civilization of Late Antiquity. (1991)


Stephen Williams. "Ethiopia: Africa's Holy Land". New African, Vol. 458. ( Jan. 2007).


Bahru Zewde. A history of modern Ethiopia, 1855-1974 (1991)


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