Historic and Ethnic Development of Ethiopia

Essay, 2002

10 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents


1. Historical and ethnic roots of the ethiopian population

2. Ethiopias Path to modernization

3. The Ethiopian revolution and its impacts on ethnic groups

4. Current demographical situation





Regarding the history of african nations, Ethiopia is commonly considered as one of the most unique countries of Africa. One of the reasons for its originality and cultural richness is the fact that Ehtiopia, during his long history as a sovereign state has never been colonized by any of the European powers. But nowadays in the western world Ethiopia is unfortunately rather associated with naturals disasters and wars. Most of these wars, which constitute the main cleavage lines of inner-ethiopian conflicts were fought among ethnic groups. To have a better understanding of those conflicts as well as towards a better understanding of the current demographic dynamics it could be very helpful to have a brief look at Ethiopian history. In order to describe the main turning points of Ethiopia's rich history we should have an idea about its ethnic development. Following that question this presentation is divided in four chapters which also generally mark the four main sections of Ethiopian history: the kingdom of Axum, the modernisation from Emperor Theodore to Emperor Haile Selassie, the marxist period under Haile Mengistu and finally the current situation since 1991.

1. Historical and ethnic roots of the Ethiopian population

At around 1000 B.C. people provenant from southern Arabia settled on the coast of Eritrea where they founded several cities and from where they gradually moved to the highlands of the current north of Ethiopia. The land they found was mostly populated by peoples who had already settled down by dedicating themselves to agriculture (ETHIOPIAN MINISTRY OF INFORMATION 1969, p. 176). It was in those northern highlands at the city of Axum where in 100 B.C. a great kingdom was established. The founding of the so-called Empire of Axum is mostly considered as the starting point of Ethiopian civilization (MATTHIES 1997, p. 69f.). The basic element of the Axumitic culture was the synthesis between the semitic groups coming from south Arabia and the Autochton African cultures. The Axumit empire can be compared to an antique city state whose material basis was trading and war. They were able to control the trading routes from the Nile to the Red Sea and maintained a fleet who controled great parts of the Red Sea. The axumit people developed their own writing which was called Ge’ez, they had their own money and they had a more complex society than many others had in Africa in those days.

The next important step in Ethiopian history was the convertion to Christianity in the 4th century A.D. which became the state-religion of the Axumitic empire. It was especially two peoples, the Amhara and the Tigray, who ruled that ancient christian kingdom and to whom all the other ethnicities of the horn of Africa had to submit. But despite their common interest in ruling the empire there was always a great rivality between those two groups which persisted untill modern times. Due to the fact that, for example the Amhara and the Tigray were doing agriculture, another persistent contrast has been intensified: the contrast between the settled and the nomadic peoples.

After the rising of the Islam in Arabia which rapidly spilled over to the horn of Africa, the decline of the Axum empire began. The Axum empire had to defend itsself against the arabic-islamic expansion towards the horn of Africa. The Arabs quickly took control over the coastline from Eritrea all the way down to Mogadishu, today’s oficial capital of Somalia, and even founded in the 9th century an islamic state in the eastern Shoa region, the heartland of today’s Ethiopia. Because of the new synthesis between semitic Arabs and African cultures the furtheron influencial, nomadic ethnies of the Afar and Somali came up.

By the turning of the first millenium due to climatic change and population growth the Somalis migrated in the following centuries towards Ethiopia and produced the migration of the Oromo, an originally stockbreeding culture who later changed to agriculture. They spread over wide parts of Ethiopia and substantially changed the ethnic map. From thereon the ethiopian state also had to defend itself against the invading Oromo while it was already weak because of innerpolitical problems. As a result of this, a great confusion lasted until Theodore II. took over power in 1855. (HAMMERSCHMIDT 1967)

2. Ethiopias Path to modernization

Ethiopian society before the 19th century was a feudal society which was often called a „feudal anarchy“ (MATTHIES 1997, p. 27) because of the fights between regional leaders and civil wars. In this context modernization meant the re-centralisation of the Ethiopian state combined with a re-distribution of political power. It was under Emperor Theodore II. (1855 – 1868) when first steps towards a modernisation where made (ETHIOPIAN MINISTRY OF INFORMATION 1969, p. 178). Nevertheless the re-centralisation of the state not only went on with the surpression of regional ethnies but also intensified their dependency to the central-Ethiopian regions. Especially at the end of the 19th century Ethiopia was confrontated with two new problems. On one hand there was the threat of European powers trying to colonize Ethiopia (Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1887) and on the other hand there was an increasing demographical pressure in formerly central Ethiopia due to droughts and livestock diseases.

Under the rule of Emperor Menelik II. (1889 – 1913) the Ethiopians fought back the Italians at the Battle of Adua (1896) and the European powers finally had to recognize the unrestricted sovereignity of the Ethiopian state. Apart from this Menelik II. expanded his empire to the south, east and west which affected especially the Oromo, the Sidama and the Somali. The fertil south was needed for cash crops (coffee etc.), export minerals (gold etc.), ivory and slaves (MATTHIES 1997, p.28). Furthermore Addis Abeba was founded as the new capital in 1889 because of its central position in the new empire. After all, modernisation never meant the end of feudalism in Ethiopia. In contrast the christian and feudal society which was dominated by the Amhara was still the basis of the political system under Menelik II.

It was his successor, emperor Haile Selassie who first tried to limit the influence of the feudalistic system. To reach this aim he did three things: first he established a modern army who was only under the command of the central power. Second he established a modern and central tax system which ended the tradition of farmers having to make deliveries to their feudal lord. The third point was a new organisation of provincial administration which implied a rotating system of the officials (HAMMERSCHMIDT 1967, p. 76). But these policies still limited the rights of the peripheral ethnicities and so there were several uprisings by diferent ethnic groups (Tigray (1943), Oromo (1963 – 1970), Somali (1963) and Eritrea (since 1961)).


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Historic and Ethnic Development of Ethiopia
University of Trier
Regional Seminary Ehtiopia
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ISBN (Book)
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Historic, Ethnic, Development, Ethiopia, Regional, Seminary, Ehtiopia
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M.A. pol. Simon Stumpf (Author), 2002, Historic and Ethnic Development of Ethiopia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/61588


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