1. A Brief History of Ethiopia

By Harry Kloman, University of Pittsburgh

THE ANCIENT CULTURES of the Middle East may have made contact with the civilizations of what we now call Ethiopia as early as 1,000 years B.C.

Legend tells us that Makeda, the queen of the land of Saba (or, as we know it today, Sheba), visited the revered King Solomon on a diplomatic mission, during which, the legend says, they toasted each other with Makeda’s t’ej. She lavished him with gifts, the greatest one eventually being a son, named Menelik, whom she raised in Saba and sent home to meet his father when he reached manhood.

Queen Makeda and King Solomon enjoy t'ej and a meal
Queen Makeda and King Solomon enjoy t’ej and a meal

Then, in 1270 A.D., Yekuno Amlak, a wily monarch of Ethiopia, drew upon the legend of Solomon and Makeda to declare himself to be the direct descendant of Menelik. This established the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopian emperors that ruled for 700 years and ended in 1974, with the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie to Communist revolutionaries. The brutal Derg (“Committee”) ruled until 1991, when a long-time rebellion finally succeeded, thus creating a nascent democracy (albeit not much of one) in Ethiopia.

We must now take the ancient story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – devised in the time of Yekuno Amlak (who did exist) – with a block of salt (which, incidentally, were called amole in Ethiopia and were used as currency well into the 19th Century).

Despite Ethiopian lore disguised as history, there’s no proof that the land of Saba was located in the portion of eastern Africa that’s now Ethiopia. It may have been in Yemen, across the Red Sea, and the monarch whom the Ethiopians call Makeda was called Bilqis on the Arabian peninsula. There may even have been two Sabas, one on each side of the Red Sea, with neither one dominating the other. Scholars disagree, and the hard archaeological evidence is spotty at best.

A triptych showing Makeda and Solomon meeting and dining together
A triptych showing Makeda and Solomon meeting and dining together with t’ej

The Bible has very little to say about Ethiopia that offers much help in clarifying its relationship with the ancient world. Two passages in the Old Testament – 1 Kings 10: 1-13, and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12 – tell a story of a Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon on a diplomatic mission after hearing tales of his greatness. It doesn’t say she was from Ethiopia, nor do she and Solomon consummate their summit.

In fact, the country we now know as Ethiopia began with the ancient kingdom of Aksum, which occupied what is now the northern region of Ethiopia and the southern region of Eritrea. Aksum emerged in the second or third century A.D. and began to rise in the early fourth century under the great King Ezana (c. 320-360), who converted the nation to Christianity. By about 900 A.D., Aksum was gone, perhaps because it depleted its natural resources. Nobody knows for sure why it declined and vanished. But we do know that Aksumites drank t’ej.

Yekuno Amlak
Yekuno Amlak

For a few hundred years, beginning at the end of the first millennium A.D., the land once known as Aksum was ruled by a series of kings who couldn’t hold onto power. In the early 12th Century, King Lalibela and his Zagwe Dynasty of heirs did better than their predecessors, ruling for almost a century. Finally, in 1270, Yekuno Amlak emerged, overthrowing the last Zagwe emperor and descendant of Lalibela, thus forging the way to the Solomonic Dynasty and, centuries later, modern Ethiopia.

Somewhere between 1314 and 1322 A.D. (scholars believe), an anonymous author composed the Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”), a book that became the Ethiopian national story. This lengthy saga clearly intended to turn Yekuno Amlak’s newly declared Solomonic Dynasty into historical fact: It embellishes the brief biblical story of Solomon and Makeda and creates the child Menelik.

Yet this story remains the central mythology of the nation and is now recognized as the legend that helped to found and foster a culture and a civilization that remained the only African nation never to be colonized. It’s also the nation that gave us t’ej.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

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