A country of East Africa in the central plateau, with the Red Sea to the N, Sudan to the W, Kenya to the S, and Somalia to the E, ringed by mountains, with only one navigable river, the Blue Nile. Its remoteness has preserved a unique identity and culture through most of its history.
The country’s first kingdom was Axum, founded c. 1000 b.c. by Arabian Semites. Traditionally Ethiopia’s emperors had traced their lineage to Solomon and Sheba of the Bible. It was the biblical land of Kush. In the fourth century a.d. Axum was converted to Christianity. The growth of Islam threatened Ethiopia, however, and it withdrew from contact with the outside world, existing in undisturbed seclusion for nearly 1,000 years.
During the late 15th century a number of adventurers from Portugal and other nations rediscovered Ethiopia. They sought the aid of the legendary ruler Prester John, supposedly in a high country to the E, against Islam and the Ottoman Empire. In 1527 fierce Muslim attacks caused the Ethiopian emperor to ask for Portuguese aid. The Muslims were repulsed, and the Portuguese then tried to convert the country they called Abyssinia to Roman Catholicism. Jesuit missionaries caused great turmoil in Abyssinia, and in 1633 they were expelled, and the country again withdrew from the outside world. Gonder became the country’s capital, but by the mid-18th century imperial rule had weakened, and civil war raged periodically. Europeans began reentering Abyssinia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In July 1867 a British force under Robert Napier entered the country to free British captives. It defeated the Ethiopian army at Magdala and then withdrew. By 1885 Italy, with British approval, had taken the ports of Aseb and Massawa and moved inland . The Ethiopian army halted this advance in 1887 at Dogali. In 1889 Menelik II took the throne and concluded a treaty with Italy. Italy used this to claim Abyssinia as a protectorate. Menelik II rejected the claim, and in 1896 his forces crushed the Italians at Adwa. International respect soared, and his new capital at Addis Ababa became a diplomatic hotbed. Ethiopia maintained its independence by playing off British and French colonial ambitions against one another. Italy continued to covet Ethiopia. In 1935 a massive invasion by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime swept into the country but took six months to secure the capital. Emperor Haile Selassie fled to Great Britain and returned in triumph five years later with British aid. Great Britain actively worked to modernize the army and bureaucracy of its ally during World War II. In the wake of the war full sovereignty was restored, and Ethiopia gained control of Eritrea and Ogaden. Eritrea proved a troublesome acquisition, and Eritrean nationalist guerrillas fought the Ethiopian government throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In September 1974, following a severe famine, Haile Selassie was deposed by military officers, and in March 1975 the monarchy was abolished. Full-scale war between Eritrean and Ethiopian forces began in 1975 and an armed forces committee declared a socialist state, moving toward close ties with the USSR. Fighting and unrest continued to plague the country, with Eritrea having gained independence, the Ogaden being contested with Somalia, and periodic famines sweeping the country. In 1991, a revolution deposed the Marxist military government, in 1994 a new constitution was declared, and in 1995 the first democratically elected government was installed.