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From Lucy to the Queen of Sheba and Beyond! The Ancient History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia has a very long history. It’s thought that it is one of the oldest countries on earth! Let’s dig in and find out more about this ancient land.

Ethiopia, and the surrounding area, is where scientists believe people originated. Humanoid skeletal remains were found in the country which were dated back to 4.2 million years ago. This was in 1994 and they dubbed the remains “Ardi.” This is short for Ardipithicus ramidus.

There is a much more widely known set of fossils that was discovered in Ethiopia, though. Found in 1974 by paleoanthropologist and geologist Maurice Taieb, the skeletal remains of Lucy were unearthed.

hominid skull Lucy Ethiopia

Lucy became quite popular after her discovery. The remains made up the most complete skeleton that had been found at the time. Lucy was classified as Australopithecus afarensis.  Her remains were dated to 3.2 million years ago!

Paleoanthropologists are people who find and study ancient remains for links to modern humans. Geologists study all the components of the earth to see what makes up the rocks, liquids, and gases. These scientists go out looking for clues to see what the history of people is made up of.

Changes over the Years in Ethiopia

Ethiopia in the horn of Africa

The geographical nature of Ethiopia led to the area being inhabited by many different people throughout history. The highland areas have regular rainfall and fertile soil. This provided people with a way to grow food, hunt, and survive.

Long after Ardi and Lucy were gone, the first known kingdom in the area of Ethiopia was called D’mt. There are few clues left behind by these people. What is known is their kingdom lasted for almost 600 years around 980-400 BC.

The kingdom of D’mt was located in northern Ethiopia. Archaeologists discovered that these people made irrigation channels, knew how to make iron tools and weapons, and grew crops, like millet.

iron tools from ancient Ethiopia

A succession of smaller city-states rose and fell after D’mt dissolved. They didn’t last very long.

Then, around the 1st century AD, the kingdom of Aksum (also called Axum) established itself. The people of Aksum built up trade routes that had been diverted during the end of the kingdom of D’mt.

The people of Aksum prospered as an empire, taking control of the trade routes that passed through their lands. They exchanged gold and ivory for luxuries from foreign lands like silk from China and spices from India.

Aksum created its own form of writing called Ge’ez, which is still used today in Ethiopia.

ancient ge'ez script from Ethiopia

They minted their own coins in gold and silver to be used for payment of goods. The coins of Aksum were discovered in places like Sri Lanka and India, providing evidence they had an awesome trade economy.

They also were the second country in Africa to adopt Christianity as an official religion. This was a result of a missionary, by the name of Frumentius, being one of two survivors of a shipwreck. He was taken to King Ezana and ended up teaching him about the religion.

Making Christianity the official religion of the empire didn’t change some of the polytheistic (worship of many gods) practices and traditions that were in place.

The kingdom of Aksum lasted for almost 1,000 years. History tells us that it was established in 80 AD and lasted until it was taken over in 960 AD.

Lasting Monuments in Ethiopia

The next kingdom that took over the country of Ethiopia was that of the Zagwe dynasty. They held power until 1270 AD. This era of the country and the ruling powers is shrouded in mystery. Even the name of the last king has been lost. The oral traditions of passing down stories called him Za-Ilmaknun, which translates as the “Unknown” or “hidden one.”

One king that gained a reputation during this period was Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. It’s said during his reign the famous rock-hewn churches were built…or carved.

Lalibela church in Ethiopia

These churches weren't constructed on top of the ground. Instead, they were carved down into the ground! The roof is at ground level. The buildings are several stories and have rooms, windows and doors all carved out of the solid rock.

Ethiopia: Made of Legends

Part of the history of Ethiopia includes some famous people from the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia in King Solomon's Court

It’s said that the Queen of Sheba was a ruler in Ethiopia and Egypt around 965-931 BC.  Her name, according to some references, was Queen Makeda. She heard tales of Solomon, the king of Israel. She was impressed by his wisdom and decided to visit him.

Queen Makeda gathered gifts to take to King Solomon, intending to ask him riddles to test him. She wanted to see if he was as smart as the tales said he was.

King Solomon welcomed the Queen into his kingdom. She pressed him to answer her riddles and, once he did so, she gave him the gifts she had brought, including gold, spices and precious stones.

Their encounter ended up starting the a new dynasty with the birth of King Menelik I in the 10th century BC. According to the legends and oral traditions, Menelik was the beginning of the Solomonic dynasty. 

The Solomonic dynasty ruled Ethiopia for close to 3,000 years, with few interruptions! But that is the stuff of legends.

In 1262, Yekuno Amlak claimed to be descended from the kings of Aksum and took over, establishing the Solomonic dynasty again. This dynasty ruled the country of Ethiopia from 1270 to 1529.

map of Abyssinia Ethiopia Africa

Under king Amlak, Ethiopia was known as the Kingdom of Abyssinia. From there the country transformed itself into the Ethiopian Empire. Through military conquests and expansion, it was a powerful nation and managed to avoid being colonized by European settlers.

The Ethiopia that exists today was established by Menelik II, all the way back in 1889. It didn’t become a nation until 1995, but as a country, Ethiopia managed to maintain its identity all throughout its very long history.

You can explore more about Ethiopian history, geography, language, art, and music in our eat2explore Ethiopia box!

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