Ethiopia: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest inhabited places on the planet, possibly even ''the'' oldest. So, it's got a pretty fascinating history. In this lesson, we'll talk more about Ethiopia and see what it has meant to world history.


Ethiopia is a pretty cool place. It's the second-most populated nation in Africa, and the most populated landlocked country in the world. It contains Africa's largest caves, Africa's longest continuous mountain range, and one of its nearly abandoned cities holds the title of hottest high average temperature of any inhabited place on Earth. Don't know if that's an honor I'd want my hometown to have. Ethiopia is also the original home of coffee beans, one of the world's most popular breeds of domesticated cats, and quite possibly humanity. Some of the oldest anatomically modern human remains in the world were found in Ethiopia, and most researchers believe this was the exit point from which humans spread from Africa throughout the world. So give it up for Ethiopia, I think it's safe to say we all owe it our gratitude.


Ancient History

Ethiopia has such a long history that it's really impossible to cover all of it in this lesson, so let's hit the highlights. We'll start about 200,000 years ago, when someone died. Who was this person? We don't know, but we do know it was a person, an anatomically modern Homo sapiens, making this the oldest verifiable human skeleton in the world. Many scholars think humans as we know them did in fact evolve in the grasslands and forests of Ethiopia.

Jump forward about 198,000 years and we've got something else pretty exciting happening. Starting around 2,000 BCE, people in what is now Ethiopia started organizing into more complex societies. By roughly the 8th century BCE, these people formed a formal kingdom of Ethiopia called D'mt. Amongst the things to come out of this civilization was the Ge'ez script, which is not only one of the oldest alphabets in the world but is still widely used in Ethiopia today, making it one of the only ancient languages in the world to have survived.

Throughout the next several centuries, the people of Ethiopia were united under various monarchies, which changed names but represented a nearly unbroken line of political power. From roughly the 4th century BCE through the 10th century CE, this political power came from the city of Axum, which at times was the center of both the Kingdom and then Empire of Aksum. Axum was a major trade center that managed trade routes running through Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, making it very powerful. In fact, a Persian scholar of the time named Mani named Axum as one of the four most powerful civilizations in the world, alongside Rome, Persia, and China. So, it really should be no surprise that Ethiopia was also the point of entry for a lot of things eventually headed into Africa. Ethiopia was the second non-Roman country in the world to formally adopt Christianity (in the 4th century CE), and also was home to the first Muslim community in Africa in the 7th century.

Axum was a major kingdom in Ethiopia

Ethiopia in the Modern World

Now, one of the things that characterized Africa's experiences starting from roughly the 16th century through the 20th century was a series of colonial conquest, as European empires expanded their control over the African continent. Nearly every African kingdom or nation was colonized at some point in this time period, but not Ethiopia. From the rise of D'mt and Axum, through later sultanates and emperors, Ethiopia remained ruled by Ethiopians for the entirety of its history. The only small exception was a brief 5-year invasion by Italy under the 20th-century fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Still, 5 years out of almost 3,000? Not bad.

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