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Ethiopia - Biblical land of the lion

Ethiopia - Biblical land of the lion

In many ways, Ethiopia is an outlier in Africa, for it is practically the only Sub-Saharan civilization that has been known and well documented by the outside world for thousands of years. In fact, Egyptian records referencing Ethiopia and Sudan exist as far back as 3000 BC! Ethiopia is a major part of Biblical history and closely tied into the history of West Asia, a land with which it maintains significant cultural and religious ties. Around the 10th century BC, the kingdom of Dm't emerged in what is Ethiopia today, and but not much is known about it. However, in the 1st century AD, the kingdom of Axum arose, a great power of its time. A major development of the Axumite empire was its conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century AD, nearly half a century before Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. This marks the second aspect of what we might call the Ethiopian exception, making Ethiopia the only African state where Christianity was not a by-product of colonialism and making the Ethiopian Orthodox Church among the oldest in the world and Ethiopia only the second country (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity as a state religion. This ancient association with the Abrahamic faith and relative geographical proximity to the Levant would make Ethiopia particularly important as a centre of religion, as its domination of the horn of Africa would make it a key intermediary in the trade between the Roman Empire and the rich lands of India.


 Ethiopian gold cross

This gold cross pendant is a symbol of the Ethiopian Church whose long and stories past is intimately woven with the history of Ethiopia.


Although the Axumite kingdom thrived for nearly 800 years, its economy relied heavily on trade and the rise of the Rashidun Caliphate, the first Muslim state, resulted in the Indian trade to Europe being routed through West Asia rather than the horn of Africa. The resultant economic crisis spelt the end for Axum and Ethiopia soon came to be ruled by the Agaw Zagwe dynasty. The Zagwe were themselves replaced by the dynasty most frequently associated with Ethiopia and that came to shape the modern state, the Solomonic dynasty.



Map of Ethiopia pendant

The Lion of Judah, a traditional symbol of the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty, is etched into this beautiful pendant shaped like the map of Ethiopia.


Its origins are mired in mythology, and the founder of Ethiopia's Solomonic dynasty was the legendary Menelik I, son of the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Who was Ethiopian according to some traditions. The Amharic Solomonic dynasty deposed the Agaw Zagwe rulers in 1274 under Yekuno Amlak, who claimed to be descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and also the Axumite kings. The Solomonic myth may well have been retrospective and originated with the Kebra Nagast, or Glory of Kings, a 14th-century epic that describes the Queen of Sheba's meeting with King Solomon and Menelik I as their child and founder of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. At any rate, the Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) Empire founded under Yekuno Amlak soon reversed the isolationist policies of its predecessor polity and carried out military reforms that resulted in an imperialist and expansionist state. The Empire also saw significant literary and artistic progress in this early period and renewed foreign relations with Europe. The Europeans had long held a belief that a Christian state existed in the East, headed by one Prestor John. This belief coincided with Ethiopia's outward-looking Kings, and soon Europe was taking an increasing interest in the region, particularly the Portuguese, who were quickly transforming into a global thalassocracy.



Ethiopian multicoloured enamel pendant

We are proud hosts of this dazzling multi-coloured Ethiopian enamel pendant.


Contact with the Portuguese was timely indeed, as to the north and west of Abyssinia a new power was on the rise. The Adal Sultanate had quickly become a power in its own right, and even more worryingly for Christian Ethiopia, was strongly allied to its fellow Muslim Ottoman Empire, which in the 16th century was at its height and possibly the most powerful state in the world, stretching across the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic seas. The destructive Adal-Abyssinian war that followed was one of the many conflicts of this era which pitted armies supported by the Ottomans against those aided by the Portuguese. Ultimately, the military reforms of Ethiopia under the Solomonic kings combined with Portuguese technology won the day for the Abyssinians, who came out victorious. However, the 16th century proved to be a time of sustained violence for both, Adal and Ethiopia, as the immediate aftermath of their war against each other saw the northward migrations of the Oromo people, who soon came into conflict with both states.


Ethiopian gold bangle

The intricately woven patterns on this bangle are a hallmark of Ethiopian metalwork.


The demographic challenges of the late middle ages and early modern period changed the face of Ethiopia. Long an Arhamic dominated Orthodox Christian state (though by no means the only people present), Ethiopia soon had to contend with Great Power politics (initially the Ottoman-Portugal rivalry, but soon the French, British, and later Italians as well), the greatly increased presence of Muslims both in and around itself, and waves of migrations of ethnically distinct populations, most notably the Oromo. The 18th and 19th centuries saw Ethiopia undergo its own "warring states" period of civil strife, the Zemene Mesafint, when the Solomonic kings were reduced to puppets (and survived largely thanks to the divine status they had attained) and warlords fought for control against each other in different regions. This legacy of ethnic strife between the different people of Ethiopia, unfortunately, remains responsible for political tensions to this day. Eventually, Emperor Tewodros II re-established the Solomonic kings as de jure and de facto rulers of Ethiopia in 1855.


 Ethiopian women's gold ring
Ethiopians have long been experts of metalwork, as can be seen from this beautiful ring.


Tewodros II came to the head of a state in crisis. Ethiopia was the only orthodox Christian state in the region, had few allies, and was coveted by the Ottomans, Egyptians, and Europeans. Remarkably, however, Ethiopia found itself with a succession of talented rulers, who miraculously steered a careful course between the predatory powers that sought to rule over it. Yohannes IV successfully beat back an Egyptian invasion in 1876, and his successor, Menelik II, represented the first instance of a sub-Saharan nation defeating a European power in the 1896 Italian invasion, successfully helping Ethiopia avoid the Scramble for Africa. Menelik II also modernized the State and founded the current capital of Ethiopia at Addis Ababa, ending the traditional practice of a nomadic capital that was no longer tenable.


Lion of Tribe of Judah

The Solomonic dynasty itself claims descent from the tribe of Judah, with the lion as depicted here their adopted emblem. The symbol was also adopted by the Rastafari movement.


The Italian attempt to seize control of Ethiopia is particularly notable, as they used several tricks to wrest power, and attempted to pit different groups against each other through coercion and bribery, but, surprisingly, these attempts failed and rival groups were remarkably astute in realizing the need for a united front to oppose the imperialistic power. At this point, Ethiopia had been fending off external, imperialistic aggression for hundreds of years, and the Italians sorely miscalculated its ability to hold its own, with the result that Ethiopia concluded the 20th century with widespread recognition of its status as a sovereign state.


Rasta chain

The 20th century saw the emergence of the Rastafarian movement. Although largely concentrated in Jamaica, this religion ascribed divine status to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and sought to create a new African identity. Rastafari imagery often overlaps with Ethiopian, as seen in this pendant and gold chain.


Although it did eventually fall under occupation, this was only during world war II, a period that also saw the occupation of world powers such as France. The 20th century also saw the rise of a new religion, Rastafarianism, which, though largely centred in Jamaica, held the last Solomonic king, Haile Selassie, to be a divine figure. Selassie himself was deposed in 1974 in a socialist uprising, which resulted in a military government that ended only in 1991.


 Ethiopia T-shirt

Show your love for the highland nation of the Horn and get your Ethiopia T-shirts in multiple colours here.


Modern Ethiopia is a complex state that carries the weight and prestige of a civilization that is thousands of years old, and has defied the attempts of other, larger and more powerful nations to impose their will upon it, but has also inherited the challenges that Ethiopia has faced throughout its modern history. It faces secessionism, is landlocked since Eritrea broke away, faces large scale violence and Islamic terror groups, and has a major water dispute with Sudan and Egypt over the Nile. Yet Ethiopia is proving itself capable of rising to the challenge, as it has time and again. Abiy Ahmed was elected in 2018 and won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace deal with Eritrea and embarking upon large scale political and economic reforms. The road ahead is long and hard for the Ethiopians, but there is every reason to bet on their success.





  1. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/ettoc.html
  2. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/33/index-d.html
  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20131002072821/http://www.ethiopiantreasures.toucansurf.com/pages/menelik.htm
  4. http://purl.org/pressemappe20/folder/pe/019783
  5. https://web.archive.org/web/20080511205908/http://www.csw.ucla.edu/Newsletter/May06/belcher.html
  6. http://www.angelfire.com/ny/ethiocrown/HaileII.html
  7. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Abyssinia
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