A land of “Black Magic” as I love to describe it, Ethiopia stands out as one of the many African countries with a very rich culture so much so that taking a journey into their history leaves one dumbfounded at some point. With a very opulent culture and credited for being sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest state with claims of being founded by a descendant- the son of Queen Sheba and the majestic King Solomon; Ethiopia is no doubt a spectacle in the African continent. Although often sidelined, the composition of Ethiopian heritage points out the fact that Africa was a very much organized society before the advent of colonialism.
The Kingdom of Ethiopia formally known as Abyssinia derived its name from two Greek words ethio and pia meaning “burned face” i.e. the land of burned-faced people. Going back to the first century C.E. the ancient city of Axum was a well-known political, cultural and economic centre of exchange, ancient history states that Axumites dominated trade across the Red Sea by the third century and as at the fourth century they were among the only four nations of the world –Rome, Persia and the Kush of India to issue gold coinage!
Interestingly in 333, at the same period Roman Emperor Constantine converted. Emperor Ezana and his entire court adopted Christianity as their new faith as well. This brought about a kind of economic alliance between the Romans and Axumites, Axum flourished for another hundred years but just like all great kingdoms they too declined due to the spread of Islam. This led to the growth of the Zagwe dynasty which controlled Ethiopia from1150 until 1270, with different political issues the dynasty fell to the Shewans led by Yekuno Amlak who brought about national integration and laid foundations for the nation as it is today.
Most Historians refer to Yekunno Amlak as the founder of the Solomonic dynasty. In the process of legitimizing his rule, the emperor reproduced and possibly created the Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings), which is regarded as the national epic. The Glory of the Kings is a blend of local and oral traditions, Old and New Testament themes, apocryphal text, and Jewish and Muslim commentaries. The epic was compiled by six Tigrean scribes, who claimed to have translated the text from Arabic into Ge’ez. Contained within its central narrative is the account of Solomon and Sheba, an elaborate version of the story found in I Kings of the Bible. In the Ethiopian version, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba have a child named Menelik (whose name is derived from the Hebrew ben-melech meaning “son of the king”), who establishes a duplicate Jewish empire in Ethiopia. In establishing this empire, Menelik I brings the Ark of the Covenant with him, along with the eldest sons of the Israeli nobles. He is crowned the first emperor of Ethiopia, the founder of the Solomonic dynasty.
From this epic, a national identity emerged as God’s new chosen people, heir to the Jews. The Solomonic emperors are descended from Solomon, and the Ethiopian people are the descendants of the sons of the Israeli nobles. The descent from Solomon was so essential to the nationalistic tradition and monarchical domination that Haile Selassie incorporated it into the country’s first constitution in 1931, exempting the emperor from state law by virtue of his “divine” genealogy.
Both the Orthodox Church and the monarchy fostered nationalism. In the epilogue of the Glory of the Kings, Christianity is brought to Ethiopia and adopted as the “rightful” religion. Thus, the empire was genealogically descended from the great Hebrew kings but “righteous” in its acceptance of the word of Jesus Christ.
The Solomonic monarchy had a variable degree of political control over Ethiopia from the time of Yekunno Amlak in 1270 until Haile Selassie’s dethroning in 1974. At times the monarchy was centrally strong, but during other periods regional kings held a greater amount of power. Menelik II played a vital role in maintaining a sense of pride in Ethiopia as an independent nation. In 1896, Menelik II and his army defeated the Italians at Adwa. The independence that emerged from that battle has contributed greatly to the Ethiopian sense of nationalistic pride in self-rule, and many perceive Adwa as a victory for all of Africa and the African diaspora.
Sadly a few years later Fascist Italy conquered Ethiopia in 1935 and exiled Haile Selassie after so many centuries of independence and stability, it is important to recall that during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ Ethiopia stood among the very few states that was not affected by the occupation by imperial powers, she stood as the beacon of hope for the rest of the continent to look upon. However after the occupation Ethiopia was annexed with Eritrea to form the Italian Somaliland.
Today, Ethiopia is truly a Land of discovery – brilliant and beautiful, secretive, mysterious and extraordinary. Above all things, it is a country of great antiquity, with a culture and traditions dating back more than 3,000 years. The traveler in Ethiopia makes a journey through time, transported by beautiful monuments and the ruins of edifices built long centuries ago.
Ethiopia, like many other African countries, is a multi-ethnic state. Many distinctions have been blurred by intermarriage over the years but many also remain. The differences may be observed in the number of languages spoken – an astonishing 83, falling into four main language groups: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. There are 200 different dialects.