Chic African Culture Africa Factbook

Ethiopia: A Tapestry of History and Cultural Marvels

Ethiopia, located in the northeastern part of Africa, is a country known for its rich history, diverse culture, and stunning landscapes. 

The land of Ethiopia, with its diverse landscapes and cultures, holds a deep historical tapestry waiting to be explored. From the mighty Aksumite Empire to the astonishing rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the ancient history of Ethiopia offers a glimpse into the country's enduring traditions, resilience, and profound contributions to the world.
Land, people, and brief ancient history of Ethiopia

Get to Know Ethiopia

Land, people, and brief ancient history of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is technically landlocked because the entire coastline along the Red Sea was lost with the de jure independence of Eritrea on May 24, 1993. Ethiopia is, therefore, the most populous landlocked country in the world; the Blue Nile, the chief headstream of the Nile by water volume, rises in T'ana Hayk (Lake Tana) in northwest Ethiopia; three major crops are believed to have originated in Ethiopia: coffee, grain sorghum, and castor bean. 

Geologically active Great Rift Valley susceptible to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions; frequent droughts volcanism: volcanic activity in the Great Rift Valley; Erta Ale (613 m), which has caused frequent lava flows in recent years, is the country's most active volcano; Dabbahu became active in 2005, forcing evacuations; other historically active volcanoes include Alayta, Dalaffilla, Dallol, Dama Ali, Fentale, Kone, Manda Hararo, and Manda-Inakir.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. Ethiopia’s highest populations are found in the highlands of the north and middle areas of the country, particularly around the centrally located capital city of Addis Ababa; the Far East and southeast are sparsely populated.

In 1974 in Ethiopia, archaeologists excavating sites in the Awash River valley discovered 3.5-million-year-old fossil skeletons, which they named Australopithecus afarensis. These earliest known hominids stood upright, lived in groups, and had adapted to living in open areas rather than in forests.

One cannot stop sleeping because of a fear of bad dreams is an Ethiopian Proverb. Wise sayings in the language of proverbs have been passed down for generations in the Ethiopian culture. Proverbs are an important part of traditional and modern Ethiopian society.

The Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksumite State

Ethiopia has a fascinating ancient history that stretches back thousands of years. One of its most significant historical periods is the Aksumite Empire, which emerged around the first century CE. The Aksumites were renowned for their advanced civilization, international trade, and adoption of Christianity as a state religion. They left behind remarkable archaeological sites, including the obelisks of Aksum and the Church of St. Mary of Zion, believed to house the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksumite State

The Aksumite state emerged at about the beginning of the Christian era, flourished during the succeeding six or seven centuries, and underwent prolonged decline from the eighth to the twelfth century A.D. Aksum's period of greatest power lasted from the fourth through the sixth century. Its core area lay in the highlands of what is today southern Eritrea, Tigray, Lasta (in present-day Welo), and Angot (also in Welo); its major centers were at Aksum and Adulis. Earlier centers, such as Yeha, also continued to flourish.

At the kingdom's height, its rulers held sway over the Red Sea coast from Sawakin in present-day Sudan in the north to Berbera in present-day Somalia in the south, and inland as far as the Nile Valley in modern Sudan. On the Arabian side of the Red Sea, the Aksumite rulers at times controlled the coast and much of the interior of modern Yemen. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Aksumite state lost its possessions in Southwest Arabia and much of its Red Sea coastline and gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward.

Inscriptions from Aksum and elsewhere date from as early as the end of the second century A.D. and reveal an Aksumite state that already had expanded at the expense of neighboring peoples. The Greek inscriptions of King Zoskales claim that he conquered the lands to the south and southwest of what is now Tigray and controlled the Red Sea coast from Sawakin south to the present-day Djibouti and Berbera areas.

During this time, the Aksumite state-controlled parts of Southwest Arabia, and subsequent Aksumite rulers continually involved themselves in the political and military affairs of Southwest Arabia, especially in what is now Yemen. Much of the impetus for foreign conquest lay in the desire to control the maritime trade between the Roman Empire and India and adjoining lands. Indeed, King Zoskales is mentioned by name in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, a Greek shipping guide of the first to third centuries A.D., as promoting commerce with Rome, Arabia, and India.

Among the African commodities that the Aksumites exported were gold, rhinoceros horn, ivory, incense, and obsidian; in return, they imported cloth, glass, iron, olive oil, and wine. During the third and fourth centuries, the traditions related to Aksumite rule became secure.

Sometime around A.D. 300, Aksumite armies conquered Meroe or forced its abandonment. The Aksumites created a civilization of considerable distinction. They devised an original architectural style and employed it in stone palaces and other public buildings. They also erected a series of carved stone stelae at Aksum as monuments to their deceased rulers. Some of these stelae are among the largest known from the ancient world.

The Aksumites left behind a body of written records that, although not voluminous, are nonetheless a legacy otherwise bequeathed only by Egypt and Meroe among ancient African kingdoms. These records were written in two languages—Gi'iz and Greek. Gi'iz is assumed to be ancestral to modern Amharic and Tigrinya, although possibly only indirectly. 

Greek was also widely used, especially for commercial transactions with the Hellenized world of the eastern Mediterranean. Even more remarkable and wholly unique for ancient Africa was the minting of coins over an approximately 300-year period. These coins, many with an inlay of gold on bronze or silver, provide a chronology of the rulers of Aksum.

Another remarkable historical site in Ethiopia is Lalibela, a town renowned for its rock-hewn churches. Constructed in the 12th century, these churches were carved entirely from solid rock, with each structure intricately designed and meticulously crafted. Lalibela is considered a holy site and an important pilgrimage destination for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

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