Ethiopian Emperors: Title & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Ethiopia has a very long and fascinating political history. In this lesson, we are going to explore the history of the rulers of Ethiopia and see how their power changed over time.

Emperors of Ethiopia

The West African nation of Ethiopia has a distinguished history. Most archeologists agree that this region is the birthplace of humanity, based on fossil evidence of our most ancient ancestors. From this auspicious start, Ethiopia continued to grow as a major world power. Headed by an Ethiopian emperor, or Negus in the Ethiopian language, this region was home to some of the most powerful states in the world, all forming a roughly continuous Ethiopian Empire that spanned generations. Ethiopia has played a major role in human history, and the emperors of this region helped make that possible.

Founding and Titles

Ethiopia, as a roughly unified political state, has an ancient lineage. Thus, it's no surprise that the founding of this empire is shrouded in myth and controversy. Traditionally, Ethiopians claim that the first emperor of Ethiopia was a semi-mythical figure named Menelik I. Menelik I was said to be the offspring of King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Queen of Sheba, ruler of a kingdom in either Yemen or Ethiopia. In Judeo-Christian accounts, the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in the 10th century BCE to test his famed wisdom. According to Ethiopian sources, this meeting resulted in a son named Ibn-al-Malik, who would later take the name of Menelik I as a great conqueror and founder of an empire.

The facts of this legend are disputed, but belief in the reign of Menelik I had important impacts on Ethiopia. While the name of this empire would change, many rulers claimed to be able to trace their ancestry back to Menelik himself. The practice of political leaders associating themselves with the founding figure was also reflected in the title Negus, which had long been associated with the ancient ruler.

The Kingdom of Axum

The region of Ethiopia saw the rise and fall of several smaller kingdoms over the centuries, but the rise of the first truly great empire began around the year 1st century CE in the Ethiopian city of Axum. Axum was the center of a major trade empire that controlled the exchange of goods across the Red Sea. That meant that products going between the Middle East/Mediterranean and India/China passed through Axum. This kingdom first appears in historical accounts under the leadership of a ruler named Zoskales, who is believed to have helped turn this city into a mighty kingdom.

The kingdom of Axum would grow is size and wealth, becoming a mighty empire. At its height, Axum would rank as one of the most powerful empires in the world. In fact, the 3rd-century Persian prophet Mani described Axum as one of the four greatest powers in the world, alongside Rome, Persia, and China. Ethiopians also claimed it as the resting place of the Jewish Arc of the Covenant, brought to Ethiopia originally by Queen Sheba and maintained by her royal descendants.

The zenith of Axum's reign would come under King Ezana in the 4th century. Ezana, one of the national heroes of Ethiopia to this day, was the first Axumite king to convert to Christianity. This connected him to growing Christian nations of Europe, but Axum itself would maintain an attitude of religious tolerance. In fact, the early Muslims of the 7th century would be granted asylum in Axum when they were forced to flee Mecca.


The Zagwe Dynasty

The mighty Axumite Empire eventually fell into decay, losing its trade status to the growing Islamic trade routes of the 7th and 8th centuries. While the royal dynasty maintained its formal titles for a while, they were eventually superseded by a new set of rulers. From roughly the 10th through 13th centuries, most of Ethiopia was under the rule of the Zagwe dynasty. The Zagwe kings claimed the last Axumite king, Dil Na'od, had married his daughter to Mara Takla Haymanot, founder of their dynasty. The Zagwe dynasty was relatively short lived, reaching its peak in the early 13th century under the ruler Lalibela, remembered for building monolithic churches across his kingdom.

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