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Ethiopian Empire

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Ethiopian Empire

Only two nations in Africa never fell under European colonial control. One was the Ethiopian Empire. This Christian empire's leaders claimed direct descendance from the Biblical King Solomon and ruled for over 800 years.

Who were these rulers? How did they create an empire in East Africa? What characterized the Ethiopian Empire? What were their achievements? Learn about how the Ethiopian Empire expanded and consolidated its rule, belief systems, and historical significance.

Ethiopian Empire History and Origins

Also known as the Abyssinians, the Solomonid Dynasty ruled the Ethiopian Empire, which emerged by the 13th century.

Ancient Ethiopian Empire of Axum

The roots of the Ethiopian Empire can be traced to the Kingdom of Axum. This ancient Ethiopian Empire emerged in the 1st Century CE. The reliable annual monsoon rains and fertile soil of the region made it ripe for the flourishing of civilization.

Axum was the first sub-Saharan African state to adopt Christianity. The rock-carved churches that dot the landscape evidence that culture flourished there, especially from the 3rd to the 6th century.

The Ark of the Covenant: A Foundational Myth

Axum declined around the 8th century CE. And c. 1270, the Solomonid Dynasty was founded under Yekuno-Amlak. He and his successors claimed direct descendance from the Biblical King Solomon of Jerusalem. They also claimed possession of the Ark of the Covenant, kept in the ancient capital of Axum.

Historians today doubt there was a historical King Solomon and believe this claim was invented to provide legitimacy for the new dynasty. Ethiopian literature considered lineage from someone who had made a covenant with God and possession of the Ark to be important markers of a good king, so it is clear this claim was widely believed and was essential to the Ethiopian Empire's rule.

Ethiopian Empire, Religion Church at Axum, StudySmarterThe church where the Ark of the Covenant is claimed to be held. Source: Adam Cohn, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Ethiopian Empire Expansion

Early in the Ethiopian Empire's history, the two most important early leaders were Amda Seyon and Zera-Yakob. Amba Seyon's conquests from 1314 to 1344 doubled the territory of the Ethiopian Empire Zera-Yakob conquered several Islamic coastal trader states in the mid-15thcentury.

The 16th century saw the Islamic states to the northeast along the Red Sea challenge the Ethiopian Empire. The Oromo people took over part of the southern area, temporarily contributing to the Ethiopian Empire's decline.

However, the Ethiopian Empire's history experienced a resurgence after 1855, including an expansion of the empire under Menelik II. He expanded the empire to more or less include the present-day borders of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Empire, History Map, StudySmarter

Map showing Menelik II's conquests in light yellow. Source: CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 1895-96, Italy invaded as part of Africa's more significant European takeover, sometimes referred to as the Scramble for Africa. In the 1896 Battle of Adwa, Ethiopian forces defeated the Italians. It prevented a takeover of the Ethiopian Empire, although Italy occupied it from 1935-to 36.

Scramble for Africa

This term refers to Africa's colonization by a handful of European powers in the last decades of the 19th century. In 1870, only around 10 percent of African territory was under European control. By 1914, 90 percent of it was under European domination. Ethiopia and Liberia were the only states to not fall under European control.

Administration of the Ethiopian Empire

Colonization of conquered areas, religion, and diplomacy was essential to maintaining power for the Ethiopian Empire.

Religion as Tool of Consolidation

Missionaries were a vital part of the Ethiopian Empire's expansion. Missionaries were often sent to non-Christian towns and villages to serve as the first wave or advance guard before the conquest. The clerics converted local populations and built churches in newly conquered areas.

Beginning in the 1600s, each new emperor also built a new castle from which they ruled. Gondar, the capital in this period, is sometimes referred to as the "Camelot of Africa." These castles were important shows of power and legitimacy on top of the claim of Biblical lineage.

Ethiopian Empires, Picture of Ruler Menelik II, StudySmarterMenelik II. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Ethiopian Empire Political Structure

The Ethiopian Empire's political structure lacked a robust and centralized state.

The taking of family members as hostages from local leaders in newly conquered areas did prevent rebellions. The Ethiopian Empire's emperors also confined male relatives, except for their sons, to monasteries, preventing succession disputes for most of the Ethiopian Empire's history.

The use of land grants called Gults and colonization of newly conquered areas also helped maintain the empire's control.

However, the lack of a centralized system in the Ethiopian Empire's political structure led to the empire becoming increasingly fragmented, with local leaders challenging the emperor's power.

Emperor Tewedros II instituted several reforms that reasserted centralized control and began to modernize the empire starting in 1855. Menelik II's rule saw the continuation of these reforms and the first railroads, telephones, telegrams, and automobiles. He also founded the modern capital of Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian Empire Religion and Belief Systems

Religion was a powerful tool for the Ethiopian Empire to legitimize their rule and expansion. Most of the population throughout the Ethiopian Empire's history adhered to the beliefs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, religion did bring it into conflict with the Islamic trader states.

As many of the direct challenges to the empire were from the small Arab Islamic trading states nearby, they used religious justifications for conquest. The idea of a "Holy War" appears in historical references to the Ethiopian Empire's conquests.

In the 20th century, religious differences played a role in the Islamic population of Eritrea desiring independence. The communist military government known as the Derg that took power in Ethiopia in 1974 explicitly rejected Christian rule. It dismantled the Ethiopian Orthodox Church against the wishes of most of the population.

Ethiopian Empire, Flag of the Ethiopian Empire, StudySmarterFlag of the Ethiopian Empire. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Exam Tip!

Exam questions can ask you about religious change and continuity, and the expansion of empires. Think about how you might construct a historical argument based on how belief systems showed continuity or change in the Ethiopian Empire.

End of the Ethiopian Empire

The Ethiopian Empire's last ruler was Haile Selassie, crowned in 1930. He became well known internationally for his pleas to the international community for intervention when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.

After the Italians were expelled in 1941, Selassie instituted many reforms, including building schools and universities. He also attempted land reform.

In the early 1970s, famine and resentment over the slow speed of reforms prompted a rebellion. A group of military officers participated in a coup and created the military government known as the Derg.

The Derg deposed Selassie and declared an end to the Ethiopian Empire. An essentially repressive government that fought Eritrean independence forces and domestic civil war, it ruled the country until 1991. In 1994, Eritrea formally voted for independence, and a new constitution created a federal republic in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Empire, Rulers Selassie at League of Nations, StudySmarterHaile Selassie at Leauge of Nations. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Emperor Haile Selassie

Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930 with "His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God." During the 1935-36 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, he gave a famous speech at the League of Nations. He criticized the rest of the world for not fulfilling the peace-keeping ideals the league promoted. He prophetically stated, "It is us today. It will be you tomorrow."

After World War II, he remained a respected voice for international peace and cooperation. He was a crucial figure in the 1963 creation of the Organization of African Unity, a precursor to the African Union. A religion in Jamaica known as Rastafarianism, which takes its name from his title and name of Ras Tafari Makonnen before being crowned emperor, considered him to be the divine Messiah, although he never claimed divinity. Reggae music sung by Rastafarian believers often references him and has helped him live on in the popular culture.

Ethiopian Empire Achievements

The Ethiopian Empire's main achievements were:

  • Resisting European Colonization: It became a powerful symbol of African resistance to European rule and helped inspire the wave of decolonization and independence of new nation-states in Africa in the second half of the 20th century.
  • Maintenance of Christianity in East Africa: The historic churches built by the ancient Ethiopian Empire stand as lasting cultural testaments of the Ethiopian Empire's achievements.
  • Longevity of the Ethiopian Empire's History: The Ethiopian Empire's emperors ruled in an unbroken line for over 800 years, making the Ethiopian Empire one of the longest-running in history.

Comparing the Ethiopian Empire

Missionaries and the building of churches by the Ethiopian Empire functioned similarly to their use by European Christian empires.

Trade and contact with Europeans allowed it access to military technology that helped their expansion in the 15th century, around the same time as the Islamic Gunpowder Empires. Unlike these empires, a centralized state was unsuccessful until much later, prompting a decline from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Ethiopian Empire - Key takeaways

  • The Solomonid Dynasty was established in circa 1270 and ruled by an unbroken line of emperors who claimed descendance from the Biblical King Solomon until 1974.
  • Christianity was a powerful source of legitimacy and motivation for expansion by the Ethiopian Empire.
  • Ethiopia successfully resisted European conquest in the 1890s, one of the only areas of Africa to do so.
  • It expanded in the 1890s to include most of its modern borders.
  • In 1974, the last emperor was overthrown and replaced by a communist military government until 1991.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethiopian Empire

The Ethiopian Empire was located in East Africa, between the Red Sea and the Great Rift Valley. It contained the modern states of Ethiopia and part of Eritrea.

The Ethiopian Empire fell after a military coup established a military government called the Derg in 1974.

The Ethiopian Empire is best known for being an African Christian Empire and for resisting European takeover in the 1890s.

The Ethiopian Empire lasted from 1270 to 1974 although it went through a period of decline from the 1600s to the mid-1800s.

The Ethiopian Empire was powerful due to its successful military as well as its use of Christian missionaries.

Final Ethiopian Empire Quiz


What religion did the Ethiopian Empire practice?

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What religious figure did the Ethiopian Emperors claim as an ancestor?

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King David

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What country tried and failed to conquer Ethiopia in 1896?

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Which emperor led a period of resurgence after two hundred years of decline, including expanding the Ethiopian Empire to its largest size?

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Menelik II

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Which of the following best describes what happened during the 2nd Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36?

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Italy successfully invaded and occupied Ethiopia for several years.

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What was one weakness of the Ethiopian Empire when compared to some other empires?

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It lacked a strong centralized state, not developing one until the late 1800s.

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Who was the last Ethiopian Emperor?

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Halie Selassie

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For what reasons was the last Ethiopian Emperor famous around the world? (check all that apply)

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He claimed he was a God on earth.

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When did the Ethiopian Empire end?

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What kind of government took power in Ethiopia when the empire ended?

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A communist military government known as the Derg took power in 1974 and ruled until 1991.

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