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Ethiopia (Iyasu I)



Home to ancient empires dating back to the waning centuries of the first millennium BC, Ethiopia has a storied history driven by the rule of great kings and emperors. As one of the few African nations to avoid the colonial ambitions of Europe, Ethiopia maintained its sovereignty well into the 20th century, remaining independent until the invasion of Italian forces led by Mussolini in 1935. It was during this period that noted Emperor Haile Selassie brought Ethiopia to the forefront of global affairs, as his nation endured the conflicts of World War II, and he strove to set Ethiopia on a path of modernization and progressive reform.

Geography and Climate[]

Ethiopia, Africa's tenth largest nation, covers the majority of the Horn of Africa, nestled along the continent's northeastern coast. Bisected by the Great Rift Valley, Ethiopia's geography is dominated by highly elevated plateaus and disjointed mountain ranges. Sitting atop the African tectonic plate, which has been in the process of splitting apart for millions of years, Ethiopia has found itself on the receiving end of frequent earthquakes throughout history. The country is also home to several dozen active and dormant volcanoes, including Erta Ale, one of the few volcanoes in the world with an ever-present lake of lava on its summit. The climate of Ethiopia varies greatly, although the nation as a whole is part of a tropical zone with heavy rainfall during the summer monsoon season followed by a dry, moderate winter.

Origins of Human Development[]

The Great Rift Valley cutting across central Ethiopia has long been considered the birthplace of human development. Numerous fossil remains have been discovered within the valley, in particular the famous skeleton known as "Lucy," which is estimated to be approximately three million years old. These early Hominids later developed into the earliest Homo sapiens, who lived throughout Ethiopia in small groups more than 100,000 years ago.


As early as the 10th millennium BC, Ethiopia was inhabited by tribal peoples who subsisted using early forms of agriculture and animal husbandry. Later during the height of the ancient Egyptian civilization, traders from both nations established routes for the exchange of gold, obsidian, ivory, and other precious materials. These early inhabitants of Ethiopia, who lived in what is known as the mysterious Land of Punt, developed many of the early agricultural practices that are still part of Ethiopian culture today.

Early Kingdoms[]

As the most advanced of the early Ethiopian kingdoms, the powerful Axumite Empire is well documented in history, but also steeped in legend. Founded in roughly the 4th century BC, Axum grew to become a powerful center of trade over the next five hundred years. The valuable commodities of frankincense and myrrh, harvested from trees prevalent in Ethiopia, brought great wealth to the city of Axum and its people. Through the exportation of these goods, plus lucrative trades in ivory and various precious metals, Axum became an integral part of the trade routes connecting Egypt, Rome, and India, enough so to facilitate the minting of currency within Axum to support the flourishing local economy.

However, after centuries of prosperity, legends say the expansive empire's downfall came at the hands of a rebellious queen named Gudit. As the story goes, Axum had long been a stronghold of Christianity, and the Jewish queen Gudit sought the throne by way of conquest, purportedly devastating the countryside before murdering the royal family of Axum. Although the story of Gudit's life and brief reign is mysterious and controversial, it can be said with certainty that the decline of Axum did coincide with her speculated arrival in the 10th century AD.

The Zagwe Dynasty, established in the early 12th century after the fall of Axum, was the first dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire, which would control the nation well into the 20th century. Although the Zagwe Dynasty was only in power for little more than a century, they contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity throughout Ethiopia, which would play a major role in the future of the country.

Return of the Solomonic Dynasty[]

In 1270 AD, the monarchy that would control Ethiopia for the coming centuries arose under the leadership of Emperor Yekuno Amlak, founder of the Solomonic Dynasty. The rulers of the Solomonic Dynasty attributed their lineage to the great biblical king Solomon and his queen, Makeda. As legend has it, in the 10th century BC, Queen Makeda traveled from her kingdom in Sheba (thought to have formed part of modern Ethiopia) to Israel in an effort to learn from the wisdom of revered king Solomon. Although accounts differ as to her relationship with Solomon, Makeda later gave birth to a son, Menelik. Said to have been educated in the court of Solomon before returning to Ethiopia, Menelik brought with him the legendary Ark of the Covenant as a gift from Solomon. Ruling sometime around 950 BC, Menelik I was the originator of the biblical ancestry held sacred by later Emperors of Ethiopia.

Nearly 2,000 years after the reign of Menelik, Yekuno Amlak claimed to have traced his ancestry through a long line of relatives to establish a clear connection to the legendary emperor and his parents. This newly formed Solomonic Dynasty maintained its rule over Ethiopia for more than five centuries, lasting until the reign of Haile Selassie in the 1970s. Fully supported by the influential Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which to this day still claims to be holding the legendary Ark of the Covenant), the Solomonic emperors enjoyed relative stability during their reign, despite several attempted incursions from outside the country.

Islamic Invasion[]

During the mid-16th century, Ethiopia was bordered by the increasingly powerful Islamic Kingdom of Adal, led by Imam Ahmad Gargn, known colloquially as "The Conqueror." Initiating a holy war against the Christians of Ethiopia in 1529, Imam Ahmad spurred the great conflict that came to be known as the Ethiopian-Adal War. As battles raged for nearly 15 years, Ahmad was nearly successful in wiping out the entire kingdom, laying claim to vast swaths of Ethiopian territory.

After suffering such great losses, the Ethiopian Empire was forced to call on the assistance of Portuguese reinforcements to help in repelling the Islamic armies. Explorers and missionaries from Portugal had reached Ethiopia in the prior decades, intent on converting the populace to Roman Catholicism, and were fighting a war of their own against the Islamic Ottomans. After a prolonged conflict that eventually drew the Ottomans in to aid the Adals, the war was settled in 1543 following the deaths of both Imam Ahmad and the Portuguese general Cristovao da Gama. Ethiopia was left to recover from the war, but the rapid spread of Catholicism in the surrounding regions led to internal strife as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church struggled to maintain a firm grip on the nation.

Age of Princes[]

The period known as the Zamana Mesafent, or "Age of Princes" in the 18th century was marked by near constant turmoil within Ethiopia. The development of opposing religious factions, along with constant regional disputes, led to the collapse of central government control. As battles erupted between the princes, warlords, and nobility, each attempting to divide the region and increase their own power, the common people of Ethiopia were forced to endure the ravages of these futile conflicts.

The Emperor who finally brought an end to the Age of Princes, Kassa Hailu, first gained notoriety as an outlaw and highwayman. Assembling an army and amassing great wealth through his smuggling operations, Kassa Hailu gained popular support by sharing his riches with the poor. After uniting several of the decentralized provinces and gaining a strong following, Hailu was eventually crowned as Emperor Tewodros II in 1855. Following his coronation, Ethiopia as a whole stabilized, and his reign is considered by many to mark the beginnings of modern Ethiopia.

Haile Selassie[]

Perhaps the best remembered of Ethiopia's great emperors, Haile Selassie, ascended the throne in 1930 and quickly gained recognition throughout the world for Ethiopia and its people. During his reign he made a strong push for the abolition of slavery, a prospect that had been suggested, but never fulfilled, by his many predecessors. Emperor Selassie was also deeply concerned with modernizing his nation and ending many of the feudal policies that still held sway in Ethiopia.

Italian Occupation[]

In 1935, the Fascist Italian regime led by Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in an attempt to claim the territory as a province of Italy. Facing a superior military force, Ethiopia was unable to repel the invasion, and by 1936, Mussolini had declared the establishment of an Italian Empire including the occupied Ethiopian territory. During this period, Haile Selassie was forced into exile, taking refuge in Great Britain throughout the occupation. Selassie made his case for the defense of Ethiopia to the League of Nations, including a stern reproach of Italy's use of mustard gas against Ethiopian soldiers and citizens alike. Despite his plea, international assistance was not forthcoming, and years passed before the British East African Campaign of World War II was successful in ending the Italian occupation. Haile Selassie returned to his throne as Emperor of Ethiopia following Italy's defeat, and he would rule successfully for nearly 40 years before the arrival of a new threat.

The Derg[]

In 1974, a Communist-led military coup resulted in Haile Selassie's removal from power and imprisonment within the royal palace. The group deposing him, known as the Derg, formed the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia and ruled with an iron fist. Selassie died mysteriously while imprisoned, a controversial subject that continues to stir debate today. As the Derg and their communist ideals were not universally supported, their military coup also marked the beginning of the Ethiopian Civil War. This great conflict claimed the lives of several hundred thousand innocent bystanders as fighting continued for over 15 years. In 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front was finally successful in overthrowing the government, leading to the creation of a new constitution and a democratically elected government.

Present-day Ethiopia[]

Known today as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the nation faces a number of major socio-economic issues as the second most populous country in Africa. The wide-ranging geographic isolation facing some groups within the country has made it increasingly difficult to provide education, healthcare, and, in many cases, the basic necessities of life. Although the nation currently holds multiparty elections, corruption within the government is a constant concern, and crackdowns in recent years have led to international condemnation over the killing of protesters and opposition party members.

Ethiopian Trivia[]

The calendar used in Ethiopia, known as the Ge'ez, is based on the Coptic calendar developed in ancient Egypt. Thanks to the Ge'ez, Ethiopia is the only nation in the world with a 13th month.

Legend has it that the stimulating effects of coffee were first discovered in Ethiopia, when a goatherd named Kaldi observed his goats bucking wildly after eating the berries of a coffee plant.

Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa is one of the highest capitals in the world, sitting at an elevation nearly 8000 ft (2400 m) above sea level.

Iyasu I[]


Iyasu I was emperor of Ethiopia from 1682 to 1705. He was likely contemporarily known by his crown name, Adyam Sagad, meaning "To Whom the Confines of the Earth Bow", but posterity knew him as Iyasu the Great. He led several military campaigns, built many churches and sought to reconcile some of the religious differences that caused conflict between factions of the Ethiopian nobility and clergy.


Iyasu was the son of Emperor Yohannes I, and of his wife Sabla Wangél. He was carefully educated, and was trained in the arts of war. He was serving as Nagash (or Governor) of Gojjam when his father Yohannes summoned him and made him heir at the age of 20. In 1676, on the death of his eldest brother Yostos, he inherited his brother’s house in the capital at Gondar, his arms and treasures, and his position as Aggafari (or Chamberlain) of Semien, in what is now northwestern Ethiopia.

During this time in Ethiopia, a controversy about the nature of Christ was growing, threatening the stability of the church. Emperor Yohannes exiled all those who did not embrace the beliefs of the Ethiopian Church to nearby Sennar, and favored those who's believes were in harmony with the Ethiopian Church such as Armenian visitors, whose beliefs also embraced Miaphysitism. In the last year of Yohannes' rule, a synod was called to resolve the dispute. On one side were the monks of Debre Libanos, who at that time still advocated traditional Miaphysitism and was supported by the Emperor, and on the other Ewostathian monks of Gojjam, who were supported by the young heir to the throne, Iyasu. The disagreement with his father, led Iyasu to twice attempting to escape from Gondar, both times unsuccesfully, and the result being he was stripped of his governorships (of Gondar and Gojjam), leaving him with that of Semien.


When his father, Emperor Yohannes I, died 19 July 1682, Iyasu was unanimously proclaimed Emperor. Curiously, however, he did not have himself crowned until 1693. During the first year of his reign he attended to his brothers and other relatives imprisoned on Wehni, the then royal prison for princes and other young nobles to keep in check their ambitions. Iyasu is said to have replaced their rags with proper clothing and furnished the starving royals with a banquet.

Although he was not personally aggressive, and often preferred reconciliation to fighting, his reign was marked by many military campaigns, in which he was generally victorious. In the second year of his reign, he had to confront an invasion of the Yejju and Wollo Oromo into Amhara. A few years later he led a punitive expedition against the Agaws beyond southern Gojjam, who had supported a short-lived revolt in which a pretender to the throne had been chosen, Yeshaq, likely as a result of emnity towards Iyasu's religious stance.

During his reign, Iyasu led at least nine military campaigns, defending his empire against various groups of Oromo and Wallo, who constantly invaded the south and east during the dry seasons. He also led several expeditions to the north and northwest into what is now Sudan and South Sudan. It was during this time that individual Oromo first found service in the Imperial court - something that eventually impacted the culture of Ethiopia significantly.


Iyasu built many churches, the most important being the churches of the Trinity at Debra Berhan in Gondar, and Qeddus Gabriel on the island of Kebran on Lake Tana. However, the legacy of religious conflict from Iyasu's youth, when his father had still been emperor, still haunted him. Thus, the most difficult problems of his reign were of religious matters. The conflict within the church had not been resolved by the synod held during the last year of the reign of Yohannes I and hostility between the different factions arose. But Iyasu dealt with all segments of the clergy with patience and tolerance. He arranged several councils to which all opposing parties were invited, and encouraged discussions for the settlement of differences. Although important councils were held in Gondar in 1684 and 1686, and private discussions were also held in 1687, 1688 and 1691, the parties could not agree on a single formula to describe Christ’s Nature, and the conflict persisted until it was finally resolved by Emperor Yohannes II in the late 1760s.

Taking advantage of these religious disputes, pretenders, encouraged by Iyasu’s religious opponents, laid claim to the throne. The most dangerous conspiracy was that of his former counselors, Blattengeta Yohannes Dajazmach, and Walda-Giyorgis

Grief and death[]

The death of his favorite concubine, Qeddesta-Krestos, was a turning point in Iyasu's life. On learning of her illness during the Enarea expedition of 1705, Iyasu returned from the campaign to Gojam, where he found her already dead. Stricken with grief, he retired to an island in Lake Tana. Meanwhile the dignitaries in Gondar announced Iyasu’s deposition, and enthroned his son, Takla Haymanot, who had been left in Gondar during the expedition. Iyasu at first collected an army to regain his throne, but then fell sick, gave up the fight, and returned to the island of Chaqela Manzo, where he spent the winter. His partisans tried to return him to power, but Takls Haymanot sent his maternal uncles to murder him on the island on October 13, 1706. Iyasu's death caused much distress in the capital, especially amongst the priests of Debre Berhan Selassie, who openly displayed his gifts to them, and mourned their dead monarch for a month. When Iyasu's brother, Tewoflos, two years later claimed the throne, he initiated Iyasu's canonization right away.

Unique Components[]

Chewa Regiment[]

The Chewa Regiments (also called Cawa) were the feudal noble warrior class of Ethiopia. Originally recruited and appointed for the Emperor army service, they formed a class of professional soldiers, also known for traditional warriorhood practices and a rich cultural background. They were allocated with land grants for their sustainement. Their installation in settlements were instrumental in creating the nucleus of urban centers as well as the land tenure system through Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Historically, the Chewa Regiment formed the backbone of the Empire's military forces from around the time of Amda Seyon I, replacing the previous Sarawit, and until the time of the Zemene Mesafint where it was in turn mostly replaced by the Wa'alyan structure of nobles.

During the reign of Zara Yaqob, the Chewa regiments developed its structure, containing several thousand men per regiment, and each regiment receiving a fief (or Gult) to ensure its upkeep by the land revenue. Of names of these regiments can for example be mentioned: Jan Amora, Eagle of the Majesty, Spear of the Eagle and Sword of the Foe.

Gult System[]

The system of Gults were part of a complex system of land ownership rights and reforms in Ethiopia (with an estimated 111 different types of land tenure), and is perhaps best described as a ways for the Ethiopian rulers to distribute land rights to the nobility and church. Thus, "Gult rights" entailed "fief-holding rights", but also rights of collecting tribute, judicial and administrative powers as well as military mobilization over the people occupying the land.

Usually, the lands given to the churches and monasteries, as gult land, was vast, and the church was not expected to cultivate it. Rather, the church land was distributed among the people who served it, mostly people among the clergy or lay men who supported the church in different capacities.

While the Gult system has likely existed long into the past of the Ethiopian highlands, perhaps evolved already duing the times of the Axumite kingdom or the Zagwe dynasty of the early Ethiopian empire. However, during the reign of Amda Seyon I in the 1300s, the system was expanded; strategic garrisons were established to consolidate power in newly conquered regions, making use of the system of gults, in which the holders of a gult were paid tribute by the gult's inhabitants. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Gult system saw the church most privileged, claiming about one-third of Ethiopia's land; however, actual ownership probably never reached this figure. Estimates of church holdings range from 10 - 20% of the country's cultivated land.