There is a paucity of reliable data about the prehistory of Ethiopia because archaeological excavation was long prohibited. Three procedures can be followed, however: interpretation of surface archaeological sites, tracing ancient trade routes, and linguistic analysis. Rock paintings resemble those of Libya; others depict cattle without humps, suggesting an early population of cattle breeders prior to the entry from Yemen of breeders of humped cattle (which are predominant today), via the Bab al-Mandab. The elaborate obelisks at Aksum, 27 to 30 meters tall, with false doors and windows (which have counterparts in ancient Yemen), appear to fall into the Semitic period of about 500 B . C . to A . D . 300.
Certain basic trade routes—for instance, the iron route—have scarcely changed in thousands of years. Salt must still be brought in from the coast of the Red Sea. Ivory, gold, and slaves were brought from the south to pay for imports. Wild coffee was brought from the south of Ethiopia to Yemen, perhaps to pay for humped sebu cattle. Mashella (guinea corn) may have originated on the western Ethiopian plateau and spread westward from there. Foreign trade was given great impetus when the camel was introduced to those Ethiopian regions too dry for donkeys, about A . D . 100. There is a record of hunting expeditions by the Ptolemean rulers of Egypt in Ethiopia. Ptolemy III (245-222 B . C .) placed at the port of Adulis (near present-day Mesewa) a Greek inscription recording that he captured elephants, and an inscribed block of stones with magical hieroglyphs. At the same port about A . D . 60, a Greek merchant named Periplus recorded the importation of iron and the production of spears for hunting elephants, and in A . D . 350 Aeizana, king of Aksum, defeated the Nubians and carried off iron and bronze from Meroë.
The Abyssinian tradition of the Solomonic dynasty, as told in the Ge'ez-language book Kebra Nagast (Honor of the Kings) refers to the rule of Menilek I, about 975-950 B . C . It relates that he was the son of Makeda, conceived from King Solomon during her visit to Jerusalem. Interrupted in A . D . 927 by sovereigns of a Zagwe line, the Solomonic line was restored in 1260 and claimed continuity until Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. Abyssinian churches are still built on the principle of Solomon's temple of Jerusalem, with a Holy of Holies section in the interior. Christianity came to Aksum in the fourth century A . D ., when Greek-speaking Syrians converted the royal family. This strain of Christianity retained a number of Old Testament rules, some of which are observed to this day: the consumption of pork is forbidden; circumcision of boys takes place about a week after birth; upper-level priests consider Saturday a day of rest, second only to Sunday; weddings preferably take place on Sunday, so that the presumed deflowering, after nightfall, is considered to have taken place on the eve of Monday. Ecclesiastic rule over Abyssinia was administered early on by the archbishop of Alexandria, detached only after World War II. At the Council of Chalcedon in A . D . 451, the theological Monophysites of Alexandria, including the Abyssinians, had broken away from the European church; hence the designation "Coptic."
The spread of Islam to regions surrounding it produced relative isolation in Ethiopia from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries. During this period, the Solomonic dynasty was restored in 1260 in the province of Shewa by King Yekuno Amlak, who extended his realm from Abyssinia to some Cuchitic-speaking lands south and east. Amharic developed out of this linguistic blend. From time to time, Europeans heard rumors of a Prester John, a Christian king on the other side of the Muslim world. Using a vast number of serfs on feudal church territories, Abuna (archbishop) Tekle Haymanot built churches and monasteries, often on easily defensible hilltops, such as Debra Líbanos monastery in Shewa, which is still the most important in Ethiopia.
With the Muslim conquest of Somali land in 1430, the ring around Abyssinia was complete, and recently Islamicized Oromo (Galla) seminomadic tribes from the south invaded through the Rift Valley, burning churches and monasteries. Some manuscripts and church paintings had to be hidden on islands on Lake Tana. When a second wave of invaders came, equipped with Turkish firearms, the Shewan king Lebna Dengel sent a young Armenian to Portugal to solicit aid. Before it could arrive, the Oromo leader Mohammed Grañ ("the lefthanded") attacked with the aid of Arabs from Yemen, Somalis, and Danakils and proceeded as far north as Aksum, which he razed, killing the king in battle in 1540. His children and the clergy took refuge on and north of Lake Tana. One year later, Som Christofo Da Gama landed at Mesewa with 450 Portuguese musketeers; the slain king's son, Galaudeos (Claudius), fought on until he died in battle. The tide turned, however, and in 1543 Mohammed Grañ fell in battle.
Shewa nevertheless remained settled by Oromo, who learned the agriculture of the region. The royal family had only a tent city in what became the town of Gonder. There the Portuguese built bridges and castles, and Jesuits began to convert the royal family to Roman Christianity. King Za Dengel was the first royal convert, but the Monophysite clergy organized a rebellion that led to his removal. His successor, King Susneos, had also been converted but was careful not to urge his people to convert; shortly before his death in 1632, he proclaimed religious liberty for all his subjects.
The new king, Fasilidas (1632-1667), expelled the Portuguese and restored the privileges of the Monophysite clergy. He—and later his son and grandson—employed workmen trained by the Portuguese to build the castles that stand to this day. Special walled paths shielded the royal family from common sight, but the king, while sitting under a fig tree, judged cases brought before him. A stone-lined water pool was constructed under his balcony, and a mausoleum entombed his favorite horse. All these structures still exist. But the skills of stonemasonry later fell into disuse; warfare required mobility, which necessitated the formation of military tent cities. Portuguese viticulture was also lost (though the name of the middle elevation remains "Woyna Dega"), and the clergy had to import raisins to produce sacramental wine.
Gonder had been abandoned by the Solomonic line when a usurping commoner chieftain, Kassa, chose it as the location to have himself crowned King Theodore in 1855. He defeated the king of Shewa and held the dynastic heir, the boy Menilek II, hostage at his court. Theodore realized the urgency of uniting the many ethnic groups of the country into a nation, to prevent Ethiopia from losing its independence to European colonial powers. Thinking that all Europeans knew how to manufacture cannons, Theodore invited foreign technicians and, at first, even welcomed foreign missionaries. But when the latter proved unable to cast cannons for him and even criticized his often violent behavior, he jailed and chained British missionaries. This led to the Lord Napier expedition, which was welcomed and assisted by the population of Tigray Province. When the fort of Magdalla fell, Theodore committed suicide. A conservative Tigray chief, Yohannes, was crowned at Aksum.
In 1889 the Muslim mahdi took advantage of the disarray in Ethiopia; he razed Gonder and devastated the subprovince of Dembeya, causing a severe and prolonged famine. Meanwhile, the Shewan dynastic heir, Menilek II, had grown to manhood and realized that Ethiopia could no longer isolate itself if it were to retain independence. He proceeded, with patient persistence, to unify the country. As an Amhara from Shewa, he understood his Oromo neighbors and won their loyalty with land grants and military alliances. He negotiated a settlement with the Tigray. He equipped his forces with firearms from whatever source, some even from the Italians (in exchange for granting them territory in Eritrea).
His policies were so successful that he managed to defeat the Italian invasion at Adwa, in 1896, an event that placed Ethiopia on the international map diplomatically. Empress Taitu liked the hot mineral springs of a district in Shewa, even though it was in an Oromo region, and the emperor therefore agreed to build his capital there, naming it "Addis Ababa" (new flower). When expanding Addis Ababa threatened to exhaust the local fuel supply, Menilek ordered the importation of eucalyptus trees from Australia, which grew rapidly during each three-month rainy season.
Menilek II died in 1913, and his daughter Zauditu became nominal head; a second cousin, Ras Tafari Makonnen, became regent and was crowned King of Kings Haile Selassie I in 1930. He made it possible for Ethiopia to join the League of Nations in 1923, by outlawing the slave trade. One of his first acts as emperor was to grant his subjects a written constitution. He allied himself by marriage to the Oromo king of Welo Province. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie appeared in Geneva to plead his case before the League, warning that his country would not be the last victim of aggression. The Italian occupation ended in 1941 with surrender to the British and return of the emperor. During succeeding decades, the emperor promoted an educated elite and sought assistance from the United States, rather than the British, in various fields. Beginning in about 1960, a young, educated generation of Ethiopians grew increasingly impatient with the slowness of development, especially in the political sphere. At the same time, the aging emperor, who was suffering memory loss, was losing his ability to maintain control. In 1974 he was deposed, and he died a year later. The revolutionary committees, claiming to follow a Marxist ideology, formed military dictatorships that deported villagers under conditions of great suffering and executed students and each other without legal trials. Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam fled Ethiopia in May 1991 as Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel armies approached from the north. The country remains largely rural; traditional culture patterns and means of survival are the norm.