A Short History of the Ethiopian Empire


posted on: November 15th, 2016

The Ethiopian Empire, also known as the Abyssinia, was one of several East African Kingdoms and covered what is now the northern half of Ethiopia. Established in the twelfth century and lasting until 1974, it is one of the longest running empires of all time, and one of only two countries in the world to have been independent for almost the entirety of its history.


The Empire is considered to have begun in around 1137, although no one knows exactly when, under the Zagwe dynasty. The name of the dynasty is derived from the Agaw people of northern Ethiopia, and therefore refers to them. The Zagwe kings and queens ruled for about 150 years, in which time many of Ethiopia’s famous rock-cut churches were constructed, such as the one at Lalibela.

In 1270, the Zagwe dynasty was overthrown by a king claiming to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He was therefore believed to be a member of the traditional ruling house of Ethiopia. This dynasty reigned with only a few interruptions from 1270 until the late 20th century. It was under them that most of Ethiopia’s modern history occurred. During this time, the empire conquered and incorporated virtually all the peoples within modern Ethiopia.


In the early 15th century, the Ethiopian Empire sought to make diplomatic contact with European kingdoms for the first time since the ancient Aksumite era. A letter from Henry IV of England to the Emperor of Abyssinia survives. In 1428, diplomatic contact was made with the King of Aragon, in Spain. The first continuous relations with a European country began in 1508 with Portugal under Dawit II. Relations with Portugal were so good that the two nations allied in battle on several occasions, and successfully defeated an attempted invasion by the Adal Sultanate in 1529.

Between 1755 and 1855, Ethiopia experienced a period of isolation referred to as the Zemene Mesafint or “Age of Princes”. The Emperors became figureheads, but were really controlled by warlords. Ethiopian isolationism ended following a British mission but it was not until 1855 that Ethiopia was completely united and the power in the Emperor restored, beginning with the reign of Tewodros II. Upon his ascent, he began modernizing Ethiopia and recentralizing power in the Emperor. Ethiopia began to take part in world affairs once again.


The Ethiopian Empire successfully resisted Italian colonisation in the nineteenth century, defeating Italy in the first Italo-Ethiopian War under the rule of Menelik II. Ethiopia was one of only two African countries to retain its independence throughout this period. In 1935 Italy once again tried to invade, thus beginning the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Although partially occupied by the Italians until 1941, the Empire never officially surrendered, so cannot be considered a colony.

The Solomonic dynasty continued to rule the Ethiopian Empire with few interruptions until 1974, when the last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed.

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