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Historic Sites in Ethiopia

Historic Sites in Ethiopia

1. Lalibela Rock Churches

Lalibela is famous for its amazing rock cut churches. Carved out of the rock rather than built with stone, each of these eleven churches has been excavated from the rock, cutting down up to 40 feet then cutting out the intricate interior with great care.

Access to the buildings is down a rocky staircase. Once down, the Lalibela churches are linked by a series of tunnels and walkways.

Historic Sites in Ethiopia - History

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Ifat, Muslim state that flourished in central Ethiopia from 1285 to 1415 in the fertile uplands of eastern Shewa. Toward the end of the 13th century a ruler whose dynastic title was Walashma gained an ascendancy over the Muslim kingdoms of eastern Shewa. By gradually winning over the newly formed states of Fatajar, Dawaro, and Bale and by subduing various Shewan and Afar regions, including the state of Adal, he finally succeeded in constituting the state of Ifat.

Alternately subject to the pagan kingdom of Damot and to the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia and sometimes independent, Ifat became—as the northernmost of several Muslim states—the buffer between them and sometimes suffered from the advance southward of Ethiopian authority. When its sultan, Hakk ad-Dīn, warring against the Ethiopian king Amda Tseyon, was conquered by him in 1328, Ifat was made tributary to Ethiopia. (At this time Ifat’s dominion extended eastward to the port of Zeila.) Thereafter Ifat was continually in revolt against Ethiopia. It was finally destroyed in 1415, when its last attempt at independence under Sultan Sʿadad-Dīn was foiled by Yeshaq I of Ethiopia, who subsequently annexed Ifat to his kingdom.

Historic Sites in Ethiopia - History

The Historique Route

One of Ethiopia's primary attractions for the visitor is her plethora of historical sites, unique in sub-Saharan Africa. While much of her history is impenetrably bound up in myth and legend, a great deal of it is well documented. The well -trodden path through Ethiopia&rsquos famous and fascinating historic places takes you through a scenically magnificent world of fairy -tale names, such as Yeha, Axum, Lalibela, Gondar, Bahar Dar and Harer.

In general the historic route that covers all the historical attractions of Ethiopia includes:

The archaeological & religious sites of Axum
The ancient city of Sabeans, Yeha (5th BC)
The rock churches of Tigray
The 13th century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
The 17th century castles of Gondar
Lake Tana and its island monasteries near Bahir Dar
The 1000-year-old Muslim Town of Harer
The near by town of Harar-Dire Dawa.


It was not until 1963 that evidence of the presence of ancient hominids was discovered in Ethiopia, many years after similar discoveries had been made in neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania. The discovery was made by Gerrard Dekker, a Dutch hydrologist, who found Acheulian stone tools that were over a million years old at the Kella site, near Awash. [5] Since then many important finds have propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of palaeontology. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardipithicus ramidus (Ardi) found by Tim D. White in 1994. [6] The most well known hominid discovery is Lucy, found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia's Afar region in 1974 by Donald Johanson, and is one of the most complete and best preserved, adult Australopithecine fossils ever uncovered. Lucy's taxonomic name, Australopithecus afarensis, means 'southern ape of Afar', and refers to the Ethiopian region where the discovery was made. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago. [7]

There have been many other notable fossil findings in the country. In Gona stone tools were uncovered in 1992 that were 2.52 million years old, these are the oldest such tools ever discovered anywhere in the world. [8] In 2010 fossilised animal bones, that were 3.4 million years old, were found with stone-tool-inflicted marks on them in the Lower Awash Valley by an international team, led by Shannon McPherron, which is the oldest evidence of stone tool use ever found anywhere in the world. [9] In 2004 fossils found near the Omo river at Kibbish by Richard Leakey in 1967 were redated to 195,000 years old, the oldest date in East Africa for modern Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens idaltu, found in the Middle Awash in Ethiopia in 1997, lived about 160,000 years ago. [10]

Some of the earliest known evidence of early stone-tipped projectile weapons (a characteristic tool of Homo sapiens), the stone tips of javelins or throwing spears, were discovered in 2013 at the Ethiopian site of Gademotta, and date to around 279,000 years ago. [11] In 2019, further evidence of Middle Stone Age complex projectile weapons was found at Aduma, also in Ethiopia, dated 100,000-80,000 years ago, in the form of points considered likely to belong to darts delivered by spear throwers. [12]

The earliest records of Ethiopia appear in Ancient Egypt, during the Old Kingdom period. Egyptian traders from about 3000 BC refer to lands south of Nubia or Kush as Punt and Yam. The Ancient Egyptians were in possession of myrrh (found in Punt), which Richard Pankhurst interprets to indicate trade between the two countries was extant from Ancient Egypt's beginnings. Pharaonic records indicate this possession of myrrh as early as the First and Second dynasties (3100–2888 BC), which was also a prized product of the Horn of Africa Region inscriptions and pictorial reliefs also indicate ivory, panther and other animal skins, myrrh-trees and ostrich feathers from the African coastal belt and in the Fourth Egyptian Dynasty (2789–2767 BC) a Puntite is mentioned to be in the service of the son of Cheops, the builder of the Great Pyramid. [13] J. H. Breasted posited that this early trade relationship could have been realized through overland trade down the Nile and its tributaries (i.e. the Blue Nile and Atbara). The Greek historian and geographer Agatharchides had documented seafaring among the early Egyptians: "During the prosperous period of the Old Kingdom, between the 30th and 25th centuries B. C., the river-routes were kept in order, and Egyptian ships sailed the Red Sea as far as the myrrh-country." [14]

The first known voyage to Punt occurred in the 25th century BC under the reign of Pharaoh Sahure. The most famous expedition to Punt, however, comes during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut probably around 1495 BC, as the expedition was recorded in detailed reliefs on the temple of Deir el-Bahri at Thebes. The inscriptions depict a trading group bringing back myrrh trees, sacks of myrrh, elephant tusks, incense, gold, various fragmented wood, and exotic animals. Detailed information about these two nations is sparse, and there are many theories concerning their locations and the ethnic relationship of their peoples. The Egyptians sometimes called the Land of Punt, "God's-Land", due to the "large quantities of gold, ivory, and myrrh that could be easily obtained". [15]

Evidence of Naqadan contacts include obsidian from Ethiopia and the Aegean. [16]

Etymology Edit

Ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus used the word Aethiopia (Αἰθιοπία) is used to refer to the peoples who live immediately to the south of ancient Egypt, specifically the area now known as the ancient Kingdom of Kush, now a part of modern-day Nubia in Egypt and Sudan, as well as all of Sub-Saharan Africa in general. The name Aethiopia comes from the ancient Greek word "Aethiops" (burned-look). [17]

In ancient times the name Ethiopia was primarily used to refer to the modern-day nation of Sudan which is based in the Upper Nile valley and located south of Egypt, also called Kush, and then secondarily in reference to Sub-Saharan Africa in general. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] Reference to the Kingdom of Aksum designated as Ethiopia dates only as far back as the first half of the 4th century CE following the 4th century CE invasion of Kush in Sudan by the Aksumite empire. Earlier inscription of Ezana Habashat (the source for "Abyssinia") in Ge'ez, South Arabian alphabet, was then translated in Greek as "Aethiopia".

The state of Sheba which is mentioned in the Old Testament is sometimes believed to have been in Ethiopia, but it is more often placed in Yemen. According to the Ethiopian narrative, best represented in the Kebra Nagast, the Queen of Sheba slept with King Solomon and bore a child named Ebn Melek (later Emperor Menelik I). When he was of age, Menelik returned to Israel to see his father, who sent with him the son of Zadok to accompany him with a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (Ethiosemitic: tabot). On his return with some of the Israelite priests, however, he found that Zadok's son had stolen the real Ark of the Covenant. Some believe the Ark is still being preserved today at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia. The tradition that the biblical Queen of Sheba was a ruler of Ethiopia who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem in ancient Israel is supported by the 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who identified Solomon's visitor as a queen of Egypt and Ethiopia.

Dʿmt Edit

The first kingdom known to have existed in Ethiopia was the kingdom of D'mt, which rose to power around the 10th century BCE. Its capital was at Yeha, where a Sabaean style temple was built around 700 BCE. The D'mt kingdom was influenced by the Sabaeans in Yemen, however it is not known to what extent. While it was once believed that D'mt was a Sabaean colony, it is now believed that Sabaean influence was minor, limited to a few localities, and disappeared after a few decades or a century, perhaps representing a trading or military colony in some sort of symbiosis or military alliance with the civilization of Dʿmt or some other proto-Aksumite state. [27] [28] Few inscriptions by or about this kingdom survive and very little archaeological work has taken place. As a result, it is not known whether Dʿmt ended as a civilization before Aksum's early stages, evolved into the Aksumite state, or was one of the smaller states united in the Aksumite kingdom possibly around the beginning of the 1st century. [29]

Axum Edit

The first verifiable kingdom of great power to rise in Ethiopia was that of Axum in the 1st century CE. It was one of many successor kingdoms to Dʿmt and was able to unite the northern Ethiopian Highlands beginning around the 1st century BCE. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Axum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time. The origins of the Axumite Kingdom are unclear, although experts have offered their speculations about it. Even who should be considered the earliest known king is contested: although Carlo Conti Rossini proposed that Zoskales of Axum, mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, should be identified with one Za Haqle mentioned in the Ethiopian King Lists (a view embraced by later historians of Ethiopia such as Yuri M. Kobishchanov [30] and Sergew Hable Sellasie), G.W.B. Huntingford argued that Zoskales was only a sub-king whose authority was limited to Adulis, and that Conti Rossini's identification can not be substantiated. [31]

Inscriptions have been found in southern Arabia celebrating victories over one GDRT, described as "nagashi of Habashat [i.e. Abyssinia] and of Axum." Other dated inscriptions are used to determine a floruit for GDRT (interpreted as representing a Ge'ez name such as Gadarat, Gedur, Gadurat or Gedara) around the beginning of the 3rd century CE. A bronze scepter or wand has been discovered at Atsbi Dera with an inscription mentioning "GDR of Axum". Coins showing the royal portrait began to be minted under King Endubis toward the end of the 3rd century CE.

Christianity Introduced Edit

Christianity was introduced into the country by Frumentius, [32] who was consecrated first bishop of Ethiopia by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria about 330 CE. Frumentius converted Ezana, who left several inscriptions detailing his reign both before and after his conversion.

One inscription found at Axum states that he conquered the nation of the Bogos, and returned thanks to his father, the god Mars, for his victory. Later inscriptions show Ezana's growing attachment to Christianity, and Ezana's coins bear this out, shifting from a design with disc and crescent to a design with a cross. Expeditions by Ezana into the Kingdom of Kush at Meroe in Sudan may have brought about its demise, though there is evidence that the kingdom was experiencing a period of decline beforehand. As a result of Ezana's expansions, Aksum bordered the Roman province of Egypt. The degree of Ezana's control over Yemen is uncertain. Though there is little evidence supporting Aksumite control of the region at that time, his title, which includes King of Saba and Salhen, Himyar and Dhu-Raydan (all in modern-day Yemen), along with gold Aksumite coins with the inscriptions, "King of the Habshat" or "Habashite", indicate that Aksum might have retained some legal or actual footing in the area. [33]

Toward the close of the 5th century CE, a group of monks known as the Nine Saints are believed to have established themselves in the country. Since that time, monasticism has been a power among the people, and not without its influence on the course of events.

The Axumite Kingdom is recorded once again as controlling part – if not all – of Yemen in the 6th century CE. Around 523 CE, the Jewish king Dhu Nuwas came to power in Yemen and, announcing that he would kill all the Christians, attacked an Aksumite garrison at Zafar, burning the city's churches. He then attacked the Christian stronghold of Najran, slaughtering the Christians who would not convert.

Emperor Justin I of the Eastern Roman Empire requested that his fellow Christian, Kaleb, help fight the Yemenite king. Around 525 CE, Kaleb invaded and defeated Dhu Nuwas, appointing his Christian follower Sumuafa' Ashawa' as his viceroy. This dating is tentative, however, as the basis of the year 525 CE for the invasion is based on the death of the ruler of Yemen at the time, who very well could have been Kaleb's viceroy. Procopius records that after about five years, Abraha deposed the viceroy and made himself king (Histories 1.20). Despite several attempted invasions across the Red Sea, Kaleb was unable to dislodge Abreha, and acquiesced in the change this was the last time Ethiopian armies left Africa until the 20th century CE when several units participated in the Korean War. Eventually Kaleb abdicated in favor of his son Wa'zeb and retired to a monastery, where he ended his days. Abraha later made peace with Kaleb's successor and recognized his suzerainty. Despite this reverse, under Ezana and Kaleb the kingdom was at its height, benefiting from a large trade, which extended as far as India and Ceylon, and were in constant communication with the Byzantine Empire.

Details of the Axumite Kingdom, never abundant, become even more scarce after this point. The last king known to mint coins is Armah, whose coinage refers to the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE. An early Muslim tradition is that the Negus Sahama offered asylum to a group of Muslims fleeing persecution during Muhammad's life (615 CE), but Stuart Munro-Hay believes that Axum had been abandoned as the capital by then [34] – although Kobishchanov states that Ethiopian raiders plagued the Red Sea, preying on Arabian ports at least as late as 702 CE. [35]

Some people believed the end of the Axumite Kingdom is as much of a mystery as its beginning. Lacking a detailed history, the kingdom's fall has been attributed to a persistent drought, overgrazing, deforestation, plague, a shift in trade routes that reduced the importance of the Red Sea—or a combination of these factors. Munro-Hay cites the Muslim historian Abu Ja'far al-Khwarazmi/Kharazmi (who wrote before 833 CE) as stating that the capital of "the kingdom of Habash" was Jarma. Unless Jarma is a nickname for Axum (hypothetically from Ge'ez girma, "remarkable, revered"), the capital had moved from Axum to a new site, yet undiscovered. [36]

Zagwe Dynasty Edit

About 1000 (presumably c. 960, though the date is uncertain), a non-Christian princess, Yodit ("Gudit", a play on Yodit meaning "evil"), conspired to murder all the members of the royal family and establish herself as monarch. According to legends, during the execution of the royals, an infant heir of the Axumite monarch was carted off by some faithful adherents and conveyed to Shewa, where his authority was acknowledged. Concurrently, Yodit reigned for forty years over the rest of the kingdom and transmitted the crown to her descendants. Though parts of this story were most likely made up by the Solomonic Dynasty to legitimize its rule, it is known that a female ruler did conquer the country about this time.

At one point during the next century, the last of Yodit's successors were overthrown by an Agaw lord named Mara Takla Haymanot, who founded the Zagwe dynasty (named after the Agaw people who ruled during this time) and married a female descendant of the Aksumite monarchs ("son-in-law") or previous ruler. Exactly when the new dynasty came to power is unknown, as is the number of kings in the dynasty. The new Zagwe dynasty established its capital at Roha (also called Adeffa), where they build a series of monolithic churches. These structures are traditionally ascribed to the King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, with the city being renamed Lalibela in his honour though in truth some of them were built before and after him. The architecture of the Zagwe shows a continuation of earlier Aksumite traditions, as can be seen at Lalibela and at Yemrehana Krestos Church. The building of rock-hewn churches, which first appeared in the late Aksumite era and continued into the Solomonic dynasty, reached its peak under the Zagwe.

The Zagwe dynasty controlled a smaller area than the Aksumites or the Solomonic dynasty, with its core in the Lasta region. The Zagwe seem to have ruled over a mostly peaceful state with a flourishing urban culture, in contrast to the more warlike Solomonids with their mobile capitals. David Buxton remarked that the Zagwe achieved 'a degree of stability and technical advancement seldom equalled in Abyssinian history'. The church and state were very closely linked, and they may have had a more theocratic society than the Aksumites or Solomonids, with three Zagwe kings being canonized as saints and one possibly being an ordained priest. [37]

Foreign affairs Edit

Unlike the Aksumites, the Zagwe were very isolated from the other Christian nations, although they did maintain a degree of contact through Jerusalem and Cairo. Like many other nations and denominations, the Ethiopian Church maintained a series of small chapels and even an annex at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. [40] Saladin, after retaking the Holy City in 1187, expressly invited the Ethiopian monks to return and even exempted Ethiopian pilgrims from the pilgrim tax. His two edicts provide evidence of Ethiopia's contact with these Crusader States during this period. [41] It was during this period that the Ethiopian king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela ordered the construction of the legendary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.

Later, as the Crusades were dying out in the early fourteenth century, the Ethiopian Emperor Wedem Arad dispatched a thirty-man mission to Europe, where they travelled to Rome to meet the Pope and then, since the Medieval Papacy was in schism, they travelled to Avignon to meet the Antipope. During this trip, the Ethiopian mission also travelled to France, Spain and Portugal in the hopes of building an alliance against the Muslim states then threatening Ethiopia's existence. Plans were even drawn up of a two-pronged invasion of Egypt with the French King, but nothing ever came of the talks, although this brought Ethiopia back to Europe's attention, leading to expansion of European influence when the Portuguese explorers reached the Indian Ocean. [42]

Early Solomonic period (1270–1529) Edit

Around 1270, a new dynasty was established in the Abyssinian highlands under Yekuno Amlak, with aid from neighboring Makhzumi Dynasty deposed the last of the Zagwe kings and married one of his daughters. [43] According to legends, the new dynasty were male-line descendants of Aksumite monarchs, now recognized as the continuing Solomonic dynasty (the kingdom being thus restored to the biblical royal house). This legend was created to legitimize the Solomonic dynasty and was written down in the 14th century in the Kebra Negast, an account of the origins of the Solomonic dynasty.

Under the Solomonic dynasty, the chief provinces became Tigray (northern), what is now Amhara (central) and Shewa (southern). The seat of government, or rather of overlordship, had usually been in Amhara or Shewa, the ruler of which, calling himself nəgusä nägäst, exacted tribute, when he could, from the other provinces. The title of nəgusä nägäst was to a considerable extent based on their alleged direct descent from Solomon and the queen of Sheba but it is needless to say that in many, if not in most, cases their success was due more to the force of their arms than to the purity of their lineage. Under the early Solomonic dynasty Ethiopia engaged in military reforms and imperial expansion which left it dominating the Horn of Africa, especially under the rule of Amda Seyon I. There was also great artistic and literary advancement at this time, but also a decline in urbanisation as the Solomonic emperors didn't have any fixed capital, but rather moved around the empire in mobile camps.

Under the early Solomonic dynasty monasticism grew strongly. The abbot Abba Ewostatewos created a new order called the Ewostathians who called for reforms in the church, including observance of the Sabbath, but was persecuted for his views and eventually forced into exile, eventually dying in Armenia. His zealous followers, also persecuted, formed isolated communities in Tigray. The movement grew strong enough that the emperor Dawit I, after first trying to crush the movement, legalized their observance of the Sabbath and proselytization of their faith. Finally under Zara Yaqob a compromise was made between the new Egyptian bishops and the Ewostathians at the Council of Mitmaq in 1450, restoring unity to the Ethiopian church. [44]

Relations with Europe and "Prester John" Edit

An interesting side-effect of Ethiopian Christianity was the way it intersected with a belief that had long prevailed in Europe of the existence of a Christian kingdom in the far east, whose monarch was known as Prester John. Originally thought to have been in the Orient, eventually the search for Prester John's mythical kingdom focused on Africa and particularly, the Christian empire in Ethiopia. This was first noticed when Zara Yaqob sent delegates to the Council of Florence in order to establish ties with the papacy and Western Christianity. [45] They were confused when they arrived and council prelates insisted on calling their monarch Prester John, trying to explain that nowhere in Zara Yaqob's list of regnal names did that title occur. However, the delegates' admonitions did little to stop Europeans from referring to the monarch as their mythical Christian king, Prester John. [46]

Towards the close of the 15th century the Portuguese missions into Ethiopia began. Among others engaged in this search was Pêro da Covilhã, who arrived in Ethiopia in 1490, and, believing that he had at length reached the far-famed kingdom, presented to the nəgusä nägäst of the country (Eskender at the time) a letter from his master the king of Portugal, addressed to Prester John. Covilhã would establish positive relations between the two states and go on to remain there for many years. In 1509, Empress Dowager Eleni, the underage Emperor's regent, sent an Armenian named Matthew to the king of Portugal to request his aid against the Muslims. [47] In 1520, the Portuguese fleet, with Matthew on board, entered the Red Sea in compliance with this request, and an embassy from the fleet visited the Emperor, Lebna Dengel, and remained in Ethiopia for about six years. One of this embassy was Father Francisco Álvares, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the country. [48]

The Abyssinian-Adal War (1529–1543) Edit

Between 1528 and 1540, the Adal Sultanate attempted, under Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, to conquer the Ethiopian Empire. Entering, from the low country to the south-east, and overran much of the Ethiopian plateau, forcing the Emperor to take refuge in the mountain fastnesses. In this remote location, the ruler again turned to the Portuguese. João Bermudes, a subordinate member of the mission of 1520, who had remained in the country after the departure of the embassy, was sent to Lisbon. Bermudes claimed to be the ordained successor to the Abuna (archbishop), but his credentials are disputed. [ citation needed ]

In response to Bermudes message, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Estêvão da Gama, was sent from India and arrived at Massawa in February 1541. Here he received an ambassador from the Emperor beseeching him to send help against the Muslims, and in the July following a force of 400 musketeers, under the command of Cristóvão da Gama, younger brother of the admiral, marched into the interior, and being joined by native troops were at first successful against the enemy but they were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Wofla (28 August 1542), and their commander captured and executed. The 120 surviving Portuguese soldiers fled with Queen Mother Seble Wongel and regrouped with Ethiopian forces led by the Emperor to enact several defeats on the Adal over late 1542 and early 1543. [49] On February 21, 1543, Al-Ghazi was shot and killed in the Battle of Wayna Daga and his forces were totally routed. After this, quarrels arose between the Emperor and Bermudes, who had returned to Ethiopia with Gama and now urged the emperor to publicly profess his obedience to Rome. This the Emperor refused to do, and at length Bermudes was obliged to make his way out of the country. [48]

Oromo Movements Edit

The Oromo migrations were a series of expansions in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Oromo people from southern areas of Ethiopia to more northern regions. The migrations had a severe impact on the Solomonic dynasty of Abyssinia, as well as being the death blow to the recently defeated Adal Sultanate. The migrations concluded in around 1710, when the Oromo conquered the kingdom of Ennarea in the Gibe region. [ citation needed ]

In the 17th century, Ethiopian emperor Susenyos I relied on Oromo support to gain power, and married an Oromo woman. While initial relations between the Oromo and Amhara were cordial, conflict erupted after the emperor tried to convert the Oromo to Christianity. [50] Many Oromo entered in emperor Susenyos' domain in response. [50]

In the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the Oromo people gradually underwent conversion to Islam, especially around Harar, Arsi and Bale. The Oromo Muslims regarded the Imam of Harar as their spiritual guide, while retaining some of their original culture and socio-political organisation. Scholars believe the Oromo converted to Islam as a means of preserving their identity and a bulwark against assimilation into Ethiopia. [50]

By late 17th century, the Oromo had friendly relations with the Amharas. So when emperor Iyasu I tried to attack the Oromo, he was convinced by local Amharic rulers to back down. The Oromo also formed political coalitions with previously subdued people of Ethiopia, including the Sidama people and the locals of Ennarea, Gibe and Kingdom of Damot. [50]

Gondar as a third permanent capital (after Aksum and Lalibela) of the Christian Kingdom was founded by Fasiladas in 1636. It was the most important center of commerce for the Kingdom. [51]

Early Gondar period (1632–1769) Edit

The Jesuits who had accompanied or followed the Gama expedition into Ethiopia, and fixed their headquarters at Fremona (near Adwa), were oppressed and neglected, but not actually expelled. In the beginning of the 17th century Father Pedro Páez arrived at Fremona, a man of great tact and judgment, who soon rose into high favour at court, and won over the emperor to his faith. He directed the erection of churches, palaces and bridges in different parts of the country, and carried out many useful works. His successor Afonso Mendes was less tactful, and excited the feelings of the people against him and his fellow Europeans. Upon the death of Emperor Susenyos and accession of his son Fasilides in 1633, the Jesuits were expelled and the native religion restored to official status. Fasilides made Gondar his capital and built a castle there which would grow into the castle complex known as the Fasil Ghebbi, or Royal Enclosure. Fasilides also constructed several churches in Gondar, many bridges across the country, and expanded the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum.

During this time of religious strife Ethiopian philosophy flourished, and it was during this period that the philosophers Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat lived. Zera Yaqob is known for his treatise on religion, morality, and reason, known as Hatata. [52]

Aussa Sultanate Edit

The Sultanate of Aussa (Afar Sultanate) succeeded the earlier Imamate of Aussa. The latter polity had come into existence in 1577, when Muhammed Jasa moved his capital from Harar to Aussa with the split of the Adal Sultanate into Aussa and the Harari city-state. At some point after 1672, Aussa declined and temporarily came to an end in conjunction with Imam Umar Din bin Adam's recorded ascension to the throne. [53]

The Sultanate was subsequently re-established by Kedafu around the year 1734, and was thereafter ruled by his Mudaito Dynasty. [54] The primary symbol of the Sultan was a silver baton, which was considered to have magical properties. [55]

Zemene Mesafint Edit

This era was, on one hand, a religious conflict between settling Muslims and traditional Christians, between nationalities they represented, and, on the other hand, between feudal lords on power over the central government.

Some historians date the murder of Iyasu I, and the resultant decline in the prestige of the dynasty, as the beginning of the Ethiopian Zemene Mesafint ("Era of the Princes"), a time of disorder when the power of the monarchy was eclipsed by the power of local warlords.

Nobles came to abuse their positions by making emperors, and encroached upon the succession of the dynasty, by candidates among the nobility itself: e.g. on the death of Emperor Tewoflos, the chief nobles of Ethiopia feared that the cycle of vengeance that had characterized the reigns of Tewoflos and Tekle Haymanot I would continue if a member of the Solomonic dynasty were picked for the throne, so they selected one of their own, Yostos to be negusa nagast (king of kings) – however his tenure was brief.

Iyasu II ascended the throne as a child. His mother, Empress Mentewab played a major role in Iyasu's reign, as well as her grandson Iyoas too. Mentewab had herself crowned as co-ruler, becoming the first woman to be crowned in this manner in Ethiopian history.

Empress Mentewab was crowned co-ruler upon the succession of her son (a first for a woman in Ethiopia) in 1730, and held unprecedented power over government during his reign. Her attempt to continue in this role following the death of her son 1755 led her into conflict with Wubit (Welete Bersabe), his widow, who believed that it was her turn to preside at the court of her own son Iyoas. The conflict between these two queens led to Mentewab summoning her Kwaran relatives and their forces to Gondar to support her. Wubit responded by summoning her own Oromo relatives and their considerable forces from Yejju.

The treasury of the Empire being allegedly penniless on the death of Iyasu, it suffered further from ethnic conflict between nationalities that had been part of the Empire for hundreds of years—the Agaw, Amharans, Showans, and Tigreans—and the Oromo newcomers. Mentewab's attempt to strengthen ties between the monarchy and the Oromo by arranging the marriage of her son to the daughter of an Oromo chieftain backfired in the long run. Iyasu II gave precedence to his mother and allowed her every prerogative as a crowned co-ruler, while his wife Wubit suffered in obscurity. Wubit waited for the accession of her own son to make a bid for the power wielded for so long by Mentewab and her relatives from Qwara. When Iyoas assumed the throne upon his father's sudden death, the aristocrats of Gondar were stunned to find that he more readily spoke in the Oromo language rather than in Amharic, and tended to favor his mother's Yejju relatives over the Qwarans of his grandmothers family. Iyoas further increased the favor given to the Oromo when adult. On the death of the Ras of Amhara, he attempted to promote his uncle Lubo governor of that province, but the outcry led his advisor Wolde Leul to convince him to change his mind.

It is believed that the power struggle between the Qwarans led by the Empress Mentewab, and the Yejju Oromos led by the Emperor's mother Wubit was about to erupt into an armed conflict. Ras Mikael Sehul was summoned to mediate between the two camps. He arrived and shrewdly maneuvered to sideline the two queens and their supporters making a bid for power for himself. Mikael settled soon as the leader of Amharic-Tigrean (Christian) camp of the struggle.

The reign of Iyaos' reign becomes a narrative of the struggle between the powerful Ras Mikael Sehul and the Oromo relatives of Iyoas. As Iyoas increasingly favored Oromo leaders like Fasil, his relations with Mikael Sehul deteriorated. Eventually Mikael Sehul deposed the Emperor Iyoas (7 May 1769). One week later, Mikael Sehul had him killed although the details of his death are contradictory, the result was clear: for the first time an Emperor had lost his throne in a means other than his own natural death, death in battle, or voluntary abdication.

Mikael Sehul had compromised the power of the Emperor, and from this point forward it lay ever more openly in the hands of the great nobles and military commanders. This point of time has been regarded as one start of the Era of the Princes.

An aged and infirm imperial uncle prince was enthroned as Emperor Yohannes II. Ras Mikael soon had him murdered, and underage Tekle Haymanot II was elevated to the throne.

This bitter religious conflict contributed to hostility toward foreign Christians and Europeans, which persisted into the 20th century and was a factor in Ethiopia's isolation until the mid-19th century, when the first British mission, sent in 1805 to conclude an alliance with Ethiopia and obtain a port on the Red Sea in case France conquered Egypt. The success of this mission opened Ethiopia to many more travellers, missionaries and merchants of all countries, and the stream of Europeans continued until well into Tewodros's reign.

This isolation was pierced by very few European travellers. One was the French physician C.J. Poncet, who went there in 1698, via Sennar and the Blue Nile. After him James Bruce entered the country in 1769, with the object of discovering the sources of the Nile, which he was convinced lay in Ethiopia. Accordingly, leaving Massawa in September 1769, he travelled via Axum to Gondar, where he was well received by Emperor Tekle Haymanot II. He accompanied the king on a warlike expedition round Lake Tana, moving South round the eastern shore, crossing the Blue Nile (Abay) close to its point of issue from the lake and returning via the western shore. Bruce subsequently returned to Egypt at the end of 1772 by way of the upper Atbara, through the kingdom of Sennar, the Nile, and the Korosko desert. During the 18th century the most prominent rulers were the emperor Dawit III of Gondar (died May 18, 1721), Amha Iyasus of Shewa, who consolidated his kingdom and founded Ankober, and Tekle Giyorgis of Amhara – the last-mentioned is famous as having been elevated to the throne altogether six times and also deposed six times. The first years of the 19th century were disturbed by fierce campaigns between Ras Gugsa of Begemder, and Ras Wolde Selassie of Tigray, who fought over control of the figurehead Emperor Egwale Seyon. Wolde Selassie was eventually the victor, and practically ruled the whole country till his death in 1816 at the age of eighty. [56] Dejazmach Sabagadis of Agame succeeded Wolde Selassie in 1817, through force of arms, to become warlord of Tigre.

1855–1936 Edit

Under the Emperors Tewodros II (1855–1868), Yohannes IV (1872–1889), and Menelik II (1889–1913), the empire began to emerge from its isolation. Under Emperor Tewodros II, the "Age of the Princes" (Zemene Mesafint) was brought to an end.

Sacred Sites of Ethiopia and the Arc of the Covenant

Seldom visited by foreign tourists over the past few decades due to its continuing political problems, Ethiopia is most well known as being the possible cradle of humankind. Fossil remains (the famous Lucy) discovered in northeastern Ethiopia have been dated to roughly 3.5 million years, making them the earliest known example of an upright walking hominid. The oldest known stone tools, dating to 2.4 million years, were also found in this same region. But Ethiopia has numerous other claims to fame, including the mysterious granite obelisks of Axum, the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and - most enigmatic of all - the church of St. Mary of Zion, probable location of the Holy Arc of the Covenant.

The early history of Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia) begins with the glorious but little known kingdom of Axum. The origins of the Axumite state are now dated to the middle of the 2nd century BC. At the height of its power, between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, the Axumite kingdom controlled most of present-day Ethiopia, including territories in the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The Axumite rulers were in regular diplomatic and commercial contact with Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine and Persian empires. The achievements of this grand culture are recorded today in the ruins of its cities, reservoirs, temples and, most remarkably, its towering black granite obelisks.

The field of Obelisks, Axum, Ethiopia

Armed guard and the tallest of the Axumite obelisks, toppled by a mad queen

These obelisks, also called stelae, are known to be the tallest single pieces of stone ever quarried and erected in the ancient world. Their age and use is a complete mystery. Some scholars, extrapolating from ancient coins found at the base of the giant pillars, suggest that they may have been carved and erected around the beginning of the 4th century AD. Due to their proximity to nearby tombs, the obelisks may possibly have been used as memorials to deceased kings and queens, but this is only a speculation. The tallest of the monoliths, now fallen and broken into six massive pieces, was 33.3 meters tall and weighed an estimated five tons (the largest Egyptian obelisk is that of King Tutmosis, 32.16 meters high and now standing in Rome). The tallest obelisk still standing at Axum today is 23 meters. Precisely carved upon its sides (and upon the sides of many other nearby stelae) are what seem to be representations of multiple storeys with floors between them. Each storey features several window-like carvings and, at the base of the obelisks, what appear to be false doors complete with knockers and locks. Are these carvings merely artistic ornamentations or did they have some deeper function?

An even greater mystery surrounds the ancient city of Axum. A few hundred meters from the cluster of towering obelisks is a large walled compound surrounding two churches. Between these two churches, both dedicated to St. Mary of Zion, are the foundational remains of an ancient church and a strange looking, fenced off and heavily guarded “treasury” said to contain the true Arc of the Covenant. Legends tell that long ago this entire area was a swamp inhabited by evil spirits. God helped the local people by coming down to the nearby sacred hill of Makade Egzi and throwing a miraculous dust from heaven that dried up the swamp, dispelled the evil spirits and charged the region with a magical power. Over uncounted centuries shrines were constructed upon the hill and where the swamp had been. Around this holy place grew the cities of pre-Axumite and Axumite kingdoms.

In 331 AD, the Axumite king Ezana was converted to Christianity by the Syrian monk Frumentius. Upon the foundations of the ancient pagan temples, a great church of St. Mary was built in 372 AD. This church, probably the earliest Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa, was visited in the early 1520’s by the Portuguese explorer, Francisco Alvarez. Writing of the church, Alvarez says:

“It is very large and has five naves of a good width and of a great length, vaulted above, and all the vaults are covered up, and the ceiling and sides are all painted it also has a choir after our fashion . This noble church has a very large circuit, paved with flagstones, like gravestones, and it has a large enclosure, and is surrounded by another large enclosure like the wall of a large town or city. ”

What factors explain the remarkable grandeur of this church isolated so deep in the remote mountains of northern Ethiopia, so far from the orbit of Christianity? One explanation is that a rich king of a powerful empire built the great church. More compelling is the notion that it was built to house the fabled and enigmatic relic, the Holy Arc of the Covenant.

Courtyard of St. Mary of Zion, Axum, Ethiopia

The Arc of the Covenant and its supposedly divine contents are one of the great mysteries of antiquity. Its story begins with Moses. The traditional founder of Judaism, Moses was born in Egypt, the son of a Hebrew slave. The Hebrews had been in bondage in Egypt for four hundred years from approximately 1650 - 1250 BC. Near the end of this period an Egyptian priest in the service of the Pharaoh made a prophecy that a child would be born to the Hebrews that would one day free them from their slavery. The Pharaoh, on hearing this prophecy, ordered that every male child born to the Hebrews should be killed by drowning. In hopes of preventing his death, Moses' parents placed him in a small basket, which they set adrift on the Nile. He was found by the daughter of the Pharaoh and subsequently raised as an adopted son of the royal family. During his upbringing he was extensively educated in the esoteric and magical traditions of the Egyptian mystery schools. At the age of forty Moses discovered that his original people, the Hebrews, were in bondage to the Egyptians. Enraged at this cruel treatment, he killed an Egyptian overseer and fled into exile into the Sinai wilderness.

Approximately forty years later, while grazing his flocks on the side of Mt.Horeb, Moses came upon a burning bush that was, miraculously, unconsumed by its own flames. A voice speaking out of the fire (Exodus 3:1-13) commanded him to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt and return with them to the mountain. Upon his return Moses twice climbed the mountain to commune with god. Regarding the second ascent, Exodus 24:16-18 states: And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days and the seventh day God called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount and Moses was in the mount fourty days and fourty nights. During this time on the mountain Moses received two tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments, in addition to precise dimensions for the Arc of the Covenant, which would contain the tablets.

Soon thereafter the Arc, a portable box-like shrine, was constructed and Moses and his people departed from Mt. Sinai. According to archaic textual sources the actual Arc was a wooden chest measuring three feet nine inches long by two feet three inches high and wide. It was lined inside and out with pure gold and was surmounted by two winged figures of cherubim that faced each other across its heavy gold lid. Many scholars believe it may have contained pieces of meteorites or powerful radioactive rocks.

In the ensuing two hundred and fifty years, between the time it was taken from Mt.Sinai to when it was finally installed in the first great Jewish temple in Jerusalem, the Arc was kept for two centuries at Shiloh, was captured by the Philistines for seven months, and then, returned to the Israelites, was kept in the village of Kiriath-Jearim. During this entire time it was associated with numerous extraordinary phenomena, many of which involved the killing or burning of often large numbers of people. Biblical and other archaic sources speak of the Ark blazing with fire and light, inflicting cancerous tumors and severe burns, leveling mountains, stopping rivers, blasting whole armies and laying waste cities.

Passages in the Old Testament give the impression that these happenings were divine actions of Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews. Contemporary scholars, however, believe that there may be another explanation. Writing in his meticulously researched book, The Sign and the Seal (concerning his search for the lost Arc of the Covenant), Graham Hancock suggests that the Arc, and more precisely its mysterious contents, may have been a product of ancient Egyptian magic, science and technology. Moses, being highly trained by the Egyptian priesthood, was certainly knowledgeable in these matters and thus the astonishing powers of the Arc and its “Tablets of the Law” may have derived from archaic Egyptian magic rather than the mythical god Yahweh.

At some unknown date, this awesome object vanished from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple. The date of its disappearance and its subsequent whereabouts has mystified legions of biblical scholars, archaeologists and historians. Among the various explanations given for its disappearance, two are particularly worthy of consideration.

Ethiopian legends say that when the Queen of Sheba made her famous journey to Jerusalem she was impregnated by King Solomon and bore him a son - a royal prince - who in later years stole the Ark. The name of the prince was Menelik, which means "the son of the wise man". Although he was conceived in Jerusalem he was born in Ethiopia where the Queen of Sheba had returned after discovering that she was carrying Solomon's child. When he had reached the age of twenty, Menelik himself traveled from Ethiopia to Israel and arrived at his father's court. There he was instantly recognized and accorded great honor. After a year had passed, however, the elders of the land became jealous of him. They complained that Solomon showed him too much favor and they insisted that he must go back to Ethiopia. This the king accepted on the condition that the first-born sons of all the elders should also be sent to accompany him. Amongst these latter was Azarius, son of Zadok the High Priest of Israel, and it was Azarius, not Menelik, who stole the Ark of the Covenant from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The group of young men did not reveal the theft to Prince Menelik until they were far away from Jerusalem. When at last they told him what they had done he asserted that they could not have succeeded in so bold a venture unless God had willed its outcome. Therefore he agreed that the Ark should remain with them. Thus Menelik brought the Arc to Ethiopia, to the sacred city of Axum, where it has remained ever since.

Church of St. Mary of Zion with Treasury of the Arc of the Covenant in background

In The Sign and the Seal, Graham Hancock presents a radically different explanation for the Arc’s disappearance. Based on compelling evidence gathered from years of research, he suggests that Jewish priests from Solomon’s temple removed the Arc during the rule of the apostate King Manasseh (687 - 642 BC). The Arc was then hidden for two hundred years in a Jewish temple on the Egyptian sacred island of Elephantine in the Nile. Next it was taken to Ethiopia, to the island of Tana Kirkos in Lake Tana, where it remained for over 800 years. When the Axumite kingdom converted to Christianity after 331 AD, the Ark of the Covenant was co-opted by the Christian hierarchy and brought from Tana Kirkos to the newly constructed church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.

The Arc remained in Axum until the early 1530’s when it was removed to a secret hiding place to protect it from approaching Muslim armies. In 1535, the fanatical Muslim invader, Ahmed Gragn, swept across the Horn of Africa from the Islamic holy city of Harar (in southern Ethiopia) and destroyed the Church of St. Mary of Zion. A hundred years later, with peace restored throughout the empire, the Ark was brought back to Axum. It was installed in a new St. Mary's church built by King Fasilidas (with Portuguese assistance), immediately adjacent to the ruins of the earlier church. The Arc remained in this church, called Maryam Tsion Cathedral, until 1965 when Haile Selassie (said to be the two hundred and twenty-fifth direct-line descendant of Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon) had it transferred to a more secure chapel, the so-called treasury, ten meters away from the northeast corner of the old church.

The Treasury of the Arc of the Covenant Axum, Ethiopia

In past centuries, the Arc of the Covenant was brought out during important church festivals, to be taken on processions around the town of Axum. More recently its use in such processions was limited to the festival of Timkat, the major Ethiopian Orthodox celebration that occurs every January. Since the beginning of military conflicts between Ethiopia and its northern neighbor, Eritrea, the Arc has remained securely locked within the treasury. No one but the head priest of the church, not even the president of Ethiopia, is allowed to see the Arc. (But lucky pilgrims, like this author, will occasionally be given water to drink that has flowed over the sacred Arc.)

Writing in his book Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark, author Laurence Gardner disagrees with Hancock’s assertions, and states that the Axumite Ark “Called a manbara tabot, is actually a casket which contains a venerated altar slab known as a tabot. The reality is that, although the Axum chest might be of some particular cultural significance in the region, there are manbara tabotat (plural of tabot) in churches across the breadth of Ethiopia. The tabotat which they contain are rectangular altar slabs, made of wood or stone. Clearly, the prized manbara tabot of Axum is of considerable sacred interest and, by linguistic definition, it is indeed an ark – but it is not the biblical Ark of the Covenant, nor anything remotely like it.”

Other sources researched by Laurence Gardner indicate that the Arc of the Covenant had been hidden beneath Solomon’s Temple at the time of King Josiah (597 BC) so as not to be seized by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. In his Mishneh Torah of 1180, the Spanish philosopher Moses Maimondes told that Solomon had constructed a special hiding place for the Arc in tunnels deep beneath the temple. The prophet Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah who became the High Priest of Jerusalem, was the captain of Hilkiah’s Temple Guard. Prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion, Hilkiah instructed Jeremiah to have his men secrete the Arc of the Covenant, along with other sacred treasures, in the vaults beneath the Temple. More than 1700 years later a group of nine Frenchmen known as the original Knights Templars spent the years from 1118 to 1127 excavating beneath the El-Aqsa mosque on the site of the old Temple of Jerusalem. They retrieved, in addition to a vast wealth of gold bullion and hidden treasures, the true Arc of the Covenant. While the existence and exact location of this Arc are not currently known, the Templars soon became one of the most powerful religious and political institutions in medieval Europe.

Writing in his book, The Head of God: The Lost Treasure of the Templars, Keith Laidler says:
“The Ark of the Covenant can also be shown to be of Egyptian derivation. Many gods (including the state god Amun-Ra) were carried in procession in stylized boats, or arks. They were, as it were, portable homes for the gods. This was a very ancient tradition. When Tutmoses III, the great empire builder of the eighteenth dynasty, went forth to do battle, his god went with him. ‘Proceeding northward by my majesty, carrying my father Amun-Ra, Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands before me.’ While he rejected many of the old ways, Akhenaten retained the ark as a ‘home’ for his god. That Moses introduced an identical concept to the Israelites (who also used to carry the ark of their god Adon (Aten) before them when they engaged in combat) is quite compelling evidence of identity.”

The city of Axum also occupies a central place in the traditions of the Muslims. The remote town of Axum was the earliest historical center where the followers of Muhammad freely exercised their religion in an atmosphere of peace without the fear of persecution. In the fifth year of Muhammad’s mission (corresponding to the year 615 in the Christian era), the Axumite king, Ella Saham, offered asylum to a small group of Muhammad’s followers (11 men and 4 women, including Uthman ibn Affan, who was to become the third Caliph). A few years later, nearly 100 more Muslims came to join this first group and altogether they stayed in Axum for thirteen years. Scholars believe that Axum was selected as a place of asylum because there existed a close commercial link between the kingdom of Axum and the city-state of Mecca long before the rise of Islam.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

Axum began to decline in the early decades of the 7th century following the rise and rapid expansion of the Muslim Arabs throughout the Middle East. Both Byzantium and the Persian Empire fell to the Arabs and this dealt a deathblow to the trading endeavors of the Axumite kings. Little is known of what became of the Axumite kingdom between the 8th and 11th centuries. Around the middle of the 11th century the Ethiopian state reappeared as the Christian Zagwe dynasty with its center in the town of Roha in the Amhara region of the Ethiopian highlands. The Zagwe dynasty, ruled over by eleven kings, lasted until the 13th century, when its last king abdicated in favor of a descendant of the old Axumite dynasty.

The most notable of the rulers of the Zagwe dynasty was King Lalibela who reigned from 1167 to 1207. A brilliant achievement of his reign was the construction of a dozen beautiful rock-hewn churches. According to legend, a dense cloud of bees surrounded the Prince Lalibela at the moment of his birth. His mother, claiming that the bees represented the soldiers who would one day serve her son, chose for him the name Lalibela, meaning "the bees recognize his sovereignty". Lalibela's older brother, King Harbay, was made jealous by these prophecies about his brother and tried to poison him. While Lalibela was drugged, angels transported him to various realms of heaven where God gave him directions to build a New Jerusalem with churches in a unique style. Lalibela also learned that he need not fear for his life or his sovereignty, for God had anointed him so that he might build the churches. After three days of divine communication, Lalibela returned to mortal existence and accepted the throne from his brother, who had also been visited by God (and told to abdicate to Lalibela). Both brothers traveled to the city of Roha and began the construction of the churches. Assisted by angels and St. Gabriel, they built twelve extraordinary churches over a period of twenty-five years. The Ethiopian Orthodox church later canonized the King and changed the name of the city of Roha to Lalibela.

The churches of Lalibela are among the most extraordinary architectural creations of human civilization. Each church is sculpted, both inside and out, directly from the living bedrock of the earth (this type of architecture was not new to the area for there are numerous other examples around Ethiopia dating to earlier periods the Zagwe constructions, however, took the art form to a new level). There are two basic types at Lalibela: rock-hewn cave churches which are cut inward from more or less vertical cliff faces and rock-hewn monolithic churches which imitate a built-up structure but are actually cut in one piece from the surrounding rock and separated from it by an encircling trench. The probable method of construction was for craftsman to first sink trenches directly into the stone, then to slowly chisel away excess stone to reveal exterior and interior spaces. Narrow, labyrinthine tunnels connect several of the churches, and the walls of the trenches and courtyards contain cavities and chambers filled with mummies of pious monks and pilgrims. The churches are still used for worship today and many are filled with richly painted biblical murals.

The hill containing the rock-cut church of Bet Giorgi, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Looking down on Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela

The most remarkable of the Lalibela churches, called Bet Giorgis, is dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia. According to legend, when King Lalibela had almost completed the group of churches which God had instructed him to build, Saint George appeared (in full armor and riding his white horse) and sharply reproached the king for not having constructed a house for him. Lalibela promised to build a church more beautiful than all the others for the saint. The church of Bet Giorgis is a nearly perfect cube, hewn in the shape of a cross, and is oriented so that the main entrance is in the west and the holy of holies in the east. The nine windows of the bottom row are blind the twelve windows above are functional. One of the most sophisticated details of Bet Giorgis is that the wall thickness increases step by step downwards but that the horizontal bands of molding on the exterior walls cleverly hide the increase. The roof decoration, often used today as the symbol of the Lalibela monuments, is a relief of three equilateral Greek crosses inside each other. The church is set in a deep pit with perpendicular walls and it can only be entered via a hidden tunnel carved in the stone.

Lalibela was the refuge for one of Christianity’s most interesting heresies, known as Monophysitism. This belief states that Christ was both divine and human before his incarnation but that his divine nature left his body and only reentered it after the Resurrection. First professed at the 2nd Council of Ephesus in 449 AD and soon thereafter condemned as heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Monophysitism spread through Asia Minor into Africa and Ethiopia. In different forms it survives today in the Syrian Orthodox church, the Armenian church, the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

Ethiopian Orthodox priest with ancient Bible and crowns of Ethiopian kings, St. Mary of Zion, Axum

Other sacred sites, power places and pilgrimage shrines in Ethiopia:

  • Abreha Atsbeha shrine near Wukro
  • Ancient temple of Yeha, 25 kilometers east of Axum
  • Rock-hewn churches of the Gheralta region, near Hawzen
  • Pilgrimage church of St. Gabriel, near town of Kulubi
  • Monastery of Debre Libanos
  • Monastery of Debre Damo
  • Monastery of Gishen Maryam
  • Archaeological site of Tiya
  • Muslim pilgrimage site at Shek Husen
  • Church on island of Tana Kirkos, Lake Tana

Short film of Lalibela festival by Karoki Lewis.

Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study and documentation of pilgrimage places around the world. During a 38 year period he has visited more than 1500 sacred sites in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide web site is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.


Ethiopia is situated at the north end of the great African Rift Valley and has been the site of some amazing archaeological finds in recent years.

In 1974, the archaeologist Donald Johansen was working near Hadar in the north-east of Ethiopia and discovered the human skeleton of a female dating back 3.2 million years, a member of the group Australopithecus afarensis. This female was named ‘Lucy’ by the digging team as the Beatles’ hit “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” was playing in the camp at the time. To the Ethiopians, however, she is known as ‘dinkenesh’ or ‘birkenesh’ meaning ‘wonderful’. The skeleton is now on view on the ground floor of the National Museum just above Arat Kilo in Addis Ababa.

Other more recent finds near Hadar have served to confirm this part of the Rift Valley as a major site of early man’s development.

We know that the Ancient Egyptians traded in the Land of Punt for such commodities as gold, myrrh and ivory and this is thought to have been situated in the Horn of Africa of which Ethiopia is a part.

Ancient History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a region that has a long history, has some of the earliest human populations and possibly the region where people expanded and evolved out of Africa to populate the rest of the world 1.8 years ago. The period begins with the Australopithecus, the ancient hominoids which extend to the early inhabitants of the pre-Aksumites. It is also the period with the arrival of Ge’ez and Judaism. It is believed that the Cushitic language speakers have been the original inhabitants of Ethiopia however, they were driven out of the region in the 2nd millennium B.C. Accordingly, the Ethiopian kingdom was founded (10th cent. B.C.) by Solomon’s first son, Menelik I. However, it is documented that the first kingdom was Aksum (Axum), a kingdom that probably emerged in the 2nd century A.D. The First Ethopian Kingdom, Aksum was a very advanced civilization, for they were the first Africans to mint coins. Nevertheless, Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the most ancient nation in the world.

Under King Ezana, Aksum was converted (4th cent.) to Christianity by Frumentius of Tyre. This is closely tied to the Egyptian Coptic Church, and it accepted the Monophysitism, a Christological position that Christ has only one position, following the Council of Chalcedon. In the 6th century, however, the Jewish influenced the Aksum, and some Ethiopians were converted to Judaism. The second Ethopian Empire was The Zagwe they didn’t claim the King Solom nor the Queen of Sheba. When Yekuno Amlak came to power, the Solomonic Dynasty was reinstated in the 10 th century BC. Then came, the Zamana Masafent era, which was marked with continuous welfare. It was a period in which Ethiopia was divided with no effective central authority. The lords constantly fought against each other to become the guardians of the kings of kings of Gonder. A notable figure of this period is the monastic evangelist Ewostatewos, who was an important religious leader in the Ethiopian church. Finally the modern Ethipoia was the reunification of Ethiopia, which began with the rule of Emperor Tewodros. The next major ruler was Haile Selassie I before Derg replaced him.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia consists of number of religion, which includes mainly Abrahamic religions, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Ethiopia is developing a $45 million information technology park to boost the economy, and to advance the academic aspect of the country since this park will attract much more research and development of the country. By establishing the technology park, the Ethiopian government is seeking to attract global businesses, which includes call-centers and computer hardware. By doing so, they will be able to have access to Internet speeds of as much as 40 gigabytes a second.

I believe that there is sufficient information regarding the ancient history of Ethiopia. Some of the sources include: BBC, www.ethiopiantreasures.co.uk, books, and scholarly articles. Also the sources delineate the history of Ethiopia clearly and sufficiently, which makes it easy to understand the content and to grasp the information.

6. The Blue Nile Falls

Source: flickr The Blue Nile Falls

The Nile River is the longest in Africa and its two tributaries are the White Nile and the Blue Nile.

The Blue Nile begins in Ethiopia and along its course you’ll find the Blue Nile Falls – a spot to rival Niagara.

About 90 minutes from Bahar Dar the scenery here is truly breath-taking. Locally known as Tis Abbay, or ‘great smoke,’ the falls are about 45 metres high during the rainy season.

Just downstream from the falls you’ll find Ethiopia’s first stone bridge, built in the 17th century.

Ancient Ethiopia

Ethiopia seems a world apart. Its geographical isolation – perched on a massive plateau of fertile highlands surrounded by inhospitable desert and lowland swamp – has ensured the development of a unique culture, quite different from anything elsewhere in Africa. This culture and the country’s remarkable world heritage monuments are - to the uninitiated - Africa’s greatest surprise. This is a land where great civilisations flourished, emperors reigned and remarkable buildings and monuments were constructed.

Four very different places are considered here, each one testimony to a particular stage in Ethiopian history spanning more than 2,000 years. The earliest is the town of Aksum in the far north of the country, home of teetering 30-metre high stelae, some of which still pierce the sky, while others lie broken into massive chunks of rock where they fell. These and other monuments at Aksum bear witness to one of the great civilisations of the ancient world, the Aksumite Kingdom, which rose shortly after 400 BC at an important commercial crossroads between Egypt, the goldfields of Sudan, and the Red Sea. Christianity came to Aksum in the 4 th century AD, and the town is still a major centre of Christian pilgrimage as the Ark of the Covenant is (according to Ethiopian belief) kept here – ever since it was brought from Jerusalem by Menelik I, son of the fabled Ethiopian Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Aksum flourished until the 7 th century, when the rise of Islam in Arabia left it isolated, trade dwindled and the whole of Ethiopia entered its ‘dark ages’.

It was another 500 years before the Zagwe dynasty emerged around Lalibela in 1137 and work on the incredible rock-hewn churches was begun. At around the same time, Islam was beginning to spread into the eastern part of the country, and the fortified Muslim town of Harar was established. Its walls were constructed between the 13 th and 16 th centuries to defend its people against Oromo warriors migrating from present-day Kenya, and it became the 4 th holiest city in Islam. In the late 15 th century, following intervention by the Ottoman Turks, the Muslim east declared a jihad (holy war) on the Christian Highlands and Ethiopia suffered some of the worst bloodshed in its history. The Christians received support from Portuguese Jesuits, but conflict continued intermittently for almost 200 years. In 1636, however, a new permanent capital was founded at Gondar by Emperor Fasiladas, and by the end of the 17 th century, Gondar boasted some magnificent palaces, beautiful gardens and grand public baths. The Royal Enclosure, or Fasil Ghebbi, appears at first to be a magnificent European castle, strangely out of place, but some of the architectural details reveal its unmistakable Ethiopian heritage.

To read more about each of the world heritage sites from ancient Ethiopia, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links:

Richard Pankhurst

The distinctive centrality of Ethiopia and of the Great African Rift Valley as the cradle of mankind and early history is perhaps the most enthralling of subjects. Unfortunately, despite hosting the many unique sites, preservation has not been adequate and enforced in Ethiopia. This week’s Pankhurst’s Corner discuses the urgent need for museums and the scientific preservation of the legacies of antiquity.

I have been asked to write something about Ethiopia’s Historic Heritage and the Struggle for its Preservation”.

This, on any showing, is what the English call a “Tall Order”. Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa constitute a single cultural area, as Professor Donald Levine has shown. This region is virtually as large as Europe – and has a history dating back to before the Ethiopian three-million and a quarter year-old Lucy, or Dinkenesh, who has been described as the mother of the human race.

I can therefore hope only to highlight a few points which may be worthy of consideration. I will concentrate largely, but not exclusively on historic buildings and paintings, as well as photographs and microfilms, museums and libraries.

Let us begin by considering the above-mentioned history of early man: a significant part of Ethiopia’s heritage. It is now generally agreed that humanity originated in the Great African Rift Valley – which runs right across the centre of Ethiopia. This heritage is important for the understanding of human evolution: why monkeys came down from the trees, and walked on four legs how they started making hand tools – and all that stuff.

This pre-historic heritage is important also for the study of the early history of crops and livestock – and for the study of cave drawings, which could be conceived as Chapter One in the History of Ethiopian Art.

Tim Clarke, the Representative in Ethiopia until a few weeks ago of the European Union, has proposed the establishment in Addis Ababa of an exciting new Museum dedicated to the Pre-History of Ethiopia and the African Rift Valley – a region which would seem to form an entity in its own right.

This is a project, I feel, which deserves our full support.

Moving from Pre-History to History we have, I believe, to consider Ethiopia’s pre-Aksumite and Aksumite heritage.

Archaeological research has recently been carried out on at the great Pre-Christian Temple at Yeha, dedicated to the worship of the Sun and Moon: a remarkable edifice dating back half a millennium or more before the Birth of Christ. That great structure, as well as other still uninvestigated archaeological remains of the same period, constitute another major part of Ethiopia’s early historic heritage.

Turning down the centuries to the Great Days of Aksum we may say that – despite the work of many scholars from Enno Littmann to David Phillipson – archaeological research on that remarkably rich area of Ethiopia’s heritage has far to go and there is need to cross the artificial frontier of Eritrea to study the former Aksumite port of Adulis. Our knowledge of that important site has scarcely advanced since the researches of Roberto Paribeni, early in the last century.

Work on the re-erection of the 25 metre high Aksumite obelisk looted by Benito Mussolini in 1937 – and returned by Italy last year – a spectacular aspect of Ethiopia’s heritage – is now well in hand but many of us feel that a significant portion of Ethiopia’s heritage will not be appreciated, until there is a favourable response to the Aksumite people’s request for the re-erection of other fallen stele.

While discussing the question of Ethiopian loot taken by Fascist Italy it may be recalled that the Ethiopian Ministry of the Pen archives on Italy have still not been returned. The same is true of the Ethiopian aeroplane Tsehai, which is wanted as an exhibit for Addis Ababa’s new airport. International scholars have petitioned for the repatriation of both the archives and the ‘plane – but thus far in vain.

Returning to Aksum is however good to report that the city’s antiquities are being demarcated for all to see – and a considerably expanded Aksum Museum will shortly be inaugurated.

Study of Aksumite buildings, including rock-hewn churches, outside the city is however still far from complete – though we have learnt much since Abba Tewelde Medhen delivered his seminal paper on the rock-hewn churches of Tegray to the Third International Conference of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa in 1966.

Proceeding down the centuries again we come to Lalibela, site of further rock churches – another part of Ethiopia’s heritage. Lalibela is described in Ethiopian tourist literature as among of the wonders of the world. Though a major international tourist attraction, recent pioneering work by Michael Gervers, Ewa Balicka-Witakowska and others has shown how little we in fact know relatively about Lalibela history: We have up to now no answer to such questions as who conceived the Lalibela churchs, and when? Was the work carried out during a single reign – the reign of King Lalibela – or, as scholars are now suggesting, over a much longer time, perhaps by an on-going dynasty?

Lalibela, I would urge, is also seriously in need of a Museum: to explain the whole Ethiopian heritage of rock churches, as well as to relate those of Lalibela to others all over the country – from the vicinity of Asmara in the north to Goba (Bali) in the south.

And it is also worthy of note that the wall paintings in many of Lasta churches outside Lalibela remain largely unstudied.

In this context I would inject a specific plea for the systematic preservation of Ethiopia’s artistic heritage. Many church paintings are currently flaking, fading or otherwise deteriorating – or, perhaps even worse, are being re-painted. What is needed, I feel, is the methodical photographing of Ethiopian church paintings: wall by wall, and painting by painting – so as to produce as far as possible a complete record of the country’s artistic evolution.

At this point, I would suggest, we must, however, face one of the basic facts of Ethiopia’s heritage conservation. It is this: The country is economically poor, but culturally rich: if the opposite was the case there would be no problem, as a rich country could easily look after an insignificant heritage.
Nor would there be any problem if the country and its culture were both either rich or poor. As things stand, however, the country has a weak economic base – and a remarkably rich – and extensive – heritage, as I am discussing, to preserve

But to return to my broad historical-cum-geographical survey of Ethiopia’s heritage we come next to the antiquities of the Lake Tana-Gondar area.

It is gratifying to note that almost all the castles and other historic buildings in Gondar, which survived the Dervish incursions of the past, are fairly adequately preserved. Bu it is regrettable that no serious effort has yet been made to establish a Gondar Museum.

Outside the city the heritage situation is more serious. Virtually nothing has been done to stabilize the enigmatic castle of Guzara, the dating of which has been debated by Francis Anfray, LaVerle Berry and others. This fine old structure is steadily disintegrating, with the local inhabitants taking away its stones. Old Gorgora, and other Portuguese buildings, have meanwhile largely collapsed – many in the last two decades.

And the great palace at Danqaz, overlooking the lake, is likewise in a sorry state of preservation.

It is on the other hand worthy of note that not a few churches have converted their eqa-bets, or traditional store-houses, into fledging museums. Many display royal or other crowns, icons and illustrated manuscripts.

A number of local museum have also come into existence, most notably at Mekele, Jimma, Jinka, and Harar.

This development deserves every encouragement.

The situation in respect of the historic walled city of Harar is on the whole praise-worthy. A very creditable Arthur Rimbaud House – though the dwelling of an Indian merchant rather the French one of that name – has been established. The city’s famous walls would also seem to be in a reasonable condition – but we all hope there is a passage for yenas to go in and out!

Coming to Addis Ababa itself we encounter some of Ethiopia’s most serious problems of heritage management. The city was the site of numerous interesting buildings: many of them made of worked stone with wooden gables and balconies – buildings erected during the Menilek- Iyasu-Zawditu period. Perhaps a third of such structures (around 80) have been demolished in the last half century or so – leaving only about 120 remaining.

What is the more serious is that there is still no legislation to protect the capital’s historic buildings. Various lists of such edifices have been made, but no action has been taken to preserve listed structures.

To cite one recent case among many: The old house of Qanyazmach Belihu Degefu, popularly known as Shaka, was “listed”, and its historical interest recognized in an official publication of the city Municipality. The building is also featured in Milena Bastioni and Gian Paolo Chiari’s admirable Historical Guide to Addis Ababa antiquities. But last year the building was allowed to collapse – according to rumour it was actually pushed over. It was then finally demolished, and its valuable wood sold. Of the building nothing now remains.

Scarcely less serious is the question of the remarkable old house of Menilek’s Swiss adviser Alfred Ilg. New multi-storey housing structures have been erected bang in front of this building, and within thirty metres or so of it, thus destroying its vista. Report now has it that this historic building, in the absence of popular protest, will soon be demolished to make space for parking required by the new housing scheme.

All this, I would emphasise, is not an ordinary question of heritage preservation. It is a problem intimately bound up with Addis Ababa’s housing shortage:

The previous government crowded homeless people into the historic old buildings. These tenants, who are still there, do not adequately look after the properties, but cannot be moved without the provision of alternative accommodation – which is virtually impossible.

The present government is attempting to solve the housing problem by building a vast number of multi-storey condominia and other structures, and in the process are perhaps running the risk of forgetting the historic buildings – with the result that the necessary heritage decree is sill awaited.
It is however encouraging to note that Princess Mariam Senna has established an NGO: Addis Wubet, expressly dedicated to the preservation of the capital’s historic buildings – it is currently renovating the structure formerly occupied by the notable late 19th and early 20th century Indian merchant Mohomedally.

Focus on the country’s heritage has meanwhile been provided by the placing in one of the city’s squares of a replica of Emperor Tewodros’s cannon Sebastapol used in the battle of Maqdala in 1868.

The ensuing article will turn to a Consideration of Ethiopian Manuscripts and their Conservation

Watch the video: Ελληνικές αποικίες στην Αιγυπτο και Αιθιοπία - Η Βερενίκη ή Τρωγλοδυτική και Βερενίκη Πάγχρυσος (January 2022).