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    Ethiopia Historical Setting
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies

    by John W. Turner (An African analyst with the Department of Defense)

    Ethiopian Orthodox cathedral at Aksum, built in seventeenth century.

    MODERN ETHIOPIA IS THE PRODUCT of many millennia of interaction among peoples in and around the Ethiopian highlands region. From the earliest times, these groups combined to produce a culture that at any given time differed markedly from that of surrounding peoples. The evolution of this early "Ethiopian" culture was driven by a variety of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups.

    One of the most significant influences on the formation and evolution of culture in northern Ethiopia consisted of migrants from Southwest Arabia. They arrived during the first millennium B.C. and brought Semitic speech, writing, and a distinctive stone-building tradition to northern Ethiopia. They seem to have contributed directly to the rise of the Aksumite kingdom, a trading state that prospered in the first centuries of the Christian era and that united the shores of the southern Red Sea commercially and at times politically. It was an Aksumite king who accepted Christianity in the mid-fourth century, a religion that the Aksumites bequeathed to their successors along with their concept of an empire-state under centralized rulership.

    The establishment of what became the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was critical in molding Ethiopian culture and identity. The spread of Islam to the coastal areas of the Horn of Africa in the eighth century, however, led to the isolation of the highlands from European and Middle Eastern centers of Christendom. The appearance of Islam was partly responsible for what became a long-term rivalry between Christians and Muslims--a rivalry that exacerbated older tensions between highlanders and lowlanders and agriculturalists and pastoralists that have persisted to the present day.

    Kingship and Orthodoxy, both with their roots in Aksum, became the dominant institutions among the northern Ethiopians in the post-Aksumite period. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a dynasty known as the Zagwe ruled from their capital in the northern highlands. The Zagwe era is one of the most artistically creative periods in Ethiopian history, involving among other things the carving of a large number of rock-hewn churches.

    The Zagwe heartland was well south of the old Aksumite domain, and the Zagwe interlude was but one phase in the long-term southward shift of the locus of political power. The successors of the Zagwe after the mid-thirteenth century--the members of the so-called "Solomonic" dynasty-- located themselves in the central highlands and involved themselves directly in the affairs of neighboring peoples still farther south and east.

    In these regions, the two dominant peoples of what may be termed the "Christian kingdom of Ethiopia," the Amhara of the central highlands and the Tigray of the northern highlands, confronted the growing power and confidence of Muslim peoples who lived between the eastern edge of the highlands and the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In religious and ethnic conflicts that reached their climax in the midsixteenth century, the Amhara and Tigray turned back a determined Muslim advance with Portuguese assistance, but only after the northern highlands had been overrun and devastated. The advent of the Portuguese in the area marked the end of the long period of isolation from the rest of Christendom that had been near total, except for contact with the Coptic Church of Egypt. The Portuguese, however, represented a mixed blessing, for with them they brought their religion--Roman Catholicism. During the early seventeenth century, Jesuit and kindred orders sought to impose Catholicism on Ethiopia, an effort that led to civil war and the expulsion of the Catholics from the kingdom.

    By the mid-sixteenth century, the Oromo people of southwestern Ethiopia had begun a prolonged series of migrations during which they overwhelmed the Muslim states to the east and began settling in the central highlands. A profound consequence of the far-flung settlement of the Oromo was the fusion of their culture in some areas with that of the heretofore dominant Amhara and Tigray.

    The period of trials that resulted from the Muslim invasions, the Oromo migrations, and the challenge of Roman Catholicism had drawn to a close by the middle of the seventeenth century. During the next two-and-one-half centuries, a reinvigorated Ethiopian state slowly reconsolidated its control over the northern highlands and eventually resumed expansion to the south, this time into lands occupied by the Oromo.

    By the mid-nineteenth century, the Ethiopian state under Emperor Tewodros II (reigned 1855-68) found itself beset by a number of problems, many of them stemming from the expansion of European influence in northeastern Africa. Tewodros's successors, Yohannis IV (reigned 1872-89) and Menelik II (reigned 1889-1913), further expanded and consolidated the state, fended off local enemies, and dealt with the encroachments of European powers, in particular Italy, France, and Britain. Italy posed the greatest threat, having begun to colonize part of what would become its future colony of Eritrea in the mid-1880s.

    To one of Menelik's successors, Haile Selassie I (reigned 1930-74), was left the task of dealing with resurgent Italian expansionism. The disinclination of the world powers, especially those in the League of Nations, to counter Italy's attack on Ethiopia in 1935 was in many ways a harbinger of the indecisiveness that would lead to World War II. In the early years of the war, Ethiopia was retaken from the Italians by the British, who continued to dominate the country's external affairs after the war ended in 1945. A restored Haile Selassie attempted to implement reforms and modernize the state and certain sectors of the economy. For the most part, however, mid-twentieth century Ethiopia resembled what could loosely be termed a "feudal" society.

    The later years of Haile Selassie's rule saw a growing insurgency in Eritrea, which had been federated with and eventually annexed by the Ethiopian government following World War II. This insurgency, along with other internal pressures, including severe famine, placed strains on Ethiopian society that contributed in large part to the 1974 military rebellion that ended the Haile Selassie regime and, along with it, more than 2,000 years of imperial rule. The most salient results of the coup d'├ętat were the eventual emergence of Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam as head of state and the reorientation of the government and national economy from capitalism to Marxism.

    A series of crises immediately consumed the revolutionary regime. First, domestic political violence erupted as groups maneuvered to take control of the revolution. Then, the Eritrean insurgency flared at the same time that an uprising in the neighboring region of Tigray began. In mid-1977 Somalia, intent upon wresting control of the Ogaden region from Ethiopia and sensing Addis Ababa's distractions, initiated a war on Ethiopia's eastern frontier. Mengistu, in need of military assistance, turned to the Soviet Union and its allies, who supplied vast amounts of equipment and thousands of Cuban combat troops, which enabled Ethiopia to repulse the Somali invasion.

    Misery mounted throughout Ethiopia in the 1980s. Recurrent drought and famine, made worse in the north by virtual civil war, took an enormous human toll, necessitating the infusion of massive amounts of international humanitarian aid. The insurgencies in Eritrea, Tigray, and other regions intensified until by the late 1980s they threatened the stability of the regime. Drought, economic mismanagement, and the financial burdens of war ravaged the economy. At the same time, democratic reform in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union threatened to isolate the revolutionary government politically, militarily, and economically from its allies.

    Data as of 1991

    NOTE: The information regarding Ethiopia on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Ethiopia Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Ethiopia Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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    Revised 04-Jul-02
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