History

The history of Ethiopia, known to many as Abyssinia, is rich, ancient, and still in part unknown. Anthropologists believe that East Africa’s Great Rift Valley is the site of the origin of humankind. The first recorded account of the region dates back to almost 5,000 years ago during the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, when the ancient Egyptians sent expeditions down the Red Sea in quest of gold, ivory, incense, and slaves.

It is in the Afar region of Ethiopia where scientists discovered the remains of “Lucy” or Dinkenesh, meaning “thou art wonderful,” as she is known to the Ethiopians. “Lucy” lived more than three million years ago, and her bones now rest in the Ethiopian National Museum.

The country’s rich history is woven with legends of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the Ark of the Covenant that is said to rest in Axum; the great Axumite kingdom and the birth of Christianity; the rise of Islam; and the story of King Lalibela, who is believed to have constructed eleven rock-hewn churches, still standing today and considered the eighth wonder of the world.

Ethiopia is the only African nation that was not colonized by European colonial forces. It was briefly occupied by the Italians between 1936 and 1941.

In recent history, between 1889 and 1913, Emperor Menelik II reigned, fending off the encroachments of European powers. Italy posted the greatest threat, having begun to colonize part of what would become its future colony of Eritrea in the mid 1880s. In 1896, Ethiopia defeated Italy at the Battle of Adwa, which was considered the first victory of an African nation over a European colonial power.

Menelik’s successor, Haile Selassie I (who reigned from 1930-1974) was left with the task of dealing with Italy’s resurgent expansionism. In the early years of World War II, Ethiopia was liberated from the Italians by the joint forces of the Resistance Movement and the British Army.

After being restored to power, Emperor Selassie attempted to implement reforms and modernize the state. However, increasing internal pressures, including conflict with Eritrea and severe famine, placed strains on Ethiopian society that contributed in large part to the 1974 military rebellion that ended the Haile Selassie regime.

The biggest impact of the coup d’etat was the emergence of Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam as the head of state, and the re-orientation of the government and national economy from capitalism to Marxism. During the 17 years of the military controlled government, the economy deeply worsened, while civil unrest grew beyond the control of the military.

Growing civil unrest and a unified force of Ethiopian people, led by the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) against their communist dictators finally led to the demise of the Mengistu regime in 1991. Between 1991 and 1995, the transitional government of Ethiopia, a coalition of 27 political and liberation organizations, embarked on its path to transform Ethiopia from a centralized, military-controlled country to a free and democratic federation.

In 1994, a new constitution was written, setting up a bicameral legislature and a judicial system, and guaranteeing equal rights and freedom of expression to all of the Ethiopian citizens. In May 1995, Ethiopia’s first free and democratic elections were held in which Meles Zenawi was elected Prime Minister and Negasso Gidada was elected President. Representatives to the Parliament were also elected at that time. Ethiopia’s second national multiparty elections took place in May of 2000 and individuals were once again elected to the House of the Federation and to the House of Peoples’ Representatives. Prime Minister Meles was re-elected Prime Minister in October 2000, and a new president, Lieutenant Girma Wolde-Giorgis, was elected the following year, in October 2001.

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