Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating lands in the world with a rich and varied history that began long before Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire existed. It is a place of dramatic natural beauty, of mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers, and the magnificent Blue Nile falls.
Scientists believe that Ethiopia is the cradle of mankind. Research shows that modern human beings and their hominid ancestors evolved in the eastern zone of the Rift Valley. “Lucy”, one of our most distant ancestors, lived around 3.2 million years ago and was found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia. Most recently, an even older hominid fossil called “Ardi” was discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia and is believed to be 4.4 million years old.
Ethiopia was known from the dawn of civilization. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had strong trading links with Ethiopia which was one of the greatest merchant nations of the world. Moreover, the ancient Egyptians knew that their sacred and vital river Nile originated from a lake on a plateau in the land of “Punt” (“Land of the Gods” in their language).
Axum, a city 3000 years old, is the cradle of Ethiopian civilization. Some time in 980 B.C., the Queen of Sheba made this city the capital of her kingdom. As Ethiopian history tells it, after the Queen’s stay with King Solomon in Jerusalem, she returned to her country to give birth to a son whom she named Menelik. This child later became Emperor Menelik I, founder of the Solomonian dynasty. Most importantly, Ethiopians believe that when Menelik went to Jerusalem to visit his father, he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Axum, where it is believed to be resting until today.
Historical sources bear witness to the existence of a rich and powerful kingdom with a high level of civilization in pre-Christian times. From its capital city in the north-eastern part of the country, not far from the Red Sea the Axumite Empire controlled once a vast territory, including parts of today’s Yemen and Sudan. It was an important crossroad of trading caravans from Europe, Africa and Asia. The empire had its own written language, Ge’ez and its own coins which were employed in trade.
With the conversion to Christianity of King Ezana in 340 A.D. Ethiopia became one of the first Christian states.
In the seventh century, the first followers of Prophet Muhammad who were being persecuted in Arabia, sought refuge in Ethiopia and were granted asylum by the then Christian Axumite ruler.
After the decline of the Axumite Empire, the Zagwe dynasty established its reign over big parts of the country, with the center of power in Lasta, the area around Lalibela. King Lalibela was the most appreciated king of the Zagwe dynasty and it was he who ordered the construction of the sacred town, considered as a “New Jerusalem” with 11 rock-hewn churches, all carved out of the red mountain rock. Until today, Lalibela is considered to be a holy place for Orthodox Christians and a world heritage site. When the Zagwe dynasty declined, several years of changing rulers, coalitions, conflicts and wars followed, until the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century, who turned the small village of Gondar in the north into the new capital city and a great religious and artistic center.
In recent history, there were other great kings who were able to unify and enlarge the country and oppose foreign invasions and interference. Menelik II, who extended the country to its current size, defeated the Italian colonial invaders in the historical battle of Adwa in 1896 and founded the current capital Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie, the last Solomonic emperor crowned in 1930, reigned for half a century until he was overthrown by a revolution in 1974. The military regime called the “Derg” ruled Ethiopia since then until it was overthrown in 1991 and the first democratic republic was installed.
Many monuments of the ancient and glorious past of this country remain: the monolithic churches of Lalibela, the carved obelisks and churches of Axum, more than 120 monasteries and rock churches in the Tigray region, as well as those scattered here and there along Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. In each of these sacred places ancient paintings, manuscripts and sacred objects are preserved.