I’ve long known about the Captivating History books, but History of Ethiopia: A Captivating Guide to Ethiopian History is my first of the series. The large collection of books covers a wide range of subjects, from ancient Mesopotamian cities to the history of Ohio. The books designate no author except Captivating History, but the brand was founded by prolific writer Matt Clayton. It’s hard to tell if Mr. Clayton is a professional historian or simply a history buff, but he clearly has a passion for any and all history.
The writing seemed a bit choppy at times, but overall I enjoyed reading an abbreviated history of Ethiopia. At only 104 pages, History of Ethiopia held my attention and covered the country’s expansive three thousand-year history, though civilizations have lived in Ethiopia for more than ten thousand years. The book focuses a lot of attention on the last few centuries, though, likely because of the greater volume of source material.
The first kingdom
Consensus among historians is that the first Ethiopian kingdom was D’mt (also Damot or Da Ma’at), which began sometime around 1000 BCE. This date precedes a visit by the first recorded Ethiopian monarch, the Queen of Sheba, with King Solomon of Israel by about 30 years.1
A recurring theme in the book is Ethiopia’s Christian heritage. As the second nation to officially adopt Christianity (in the fourth century), Ethiopia has a long history of pious leaders, including two emperors who each spent “retirement” in seclusion studying the Christian scriptures. Even before the existence of the Christian religion, Ethiopia favored Hebrew culture. The Kebra Nagast, the chronicle of ancient Ethiopian history, claims that the Queen of Sheba returned from her visit to Israel and gave birth to King Solomon’s child, Menelik I, who introduced Ethiopia to his father’s religion, Judaism. According to this account, Menelik began the Solomonic dynasty,
which is said to have lasted all the way until the death of the last Ethiopian monarch, Haile Selassie, in 1975.
Another bold claim by the Kebra Nagast is that Solomon gave the sacred Ark of the Covenant to his son Menelik as a gift.
There are Ethiopians to this very day who insist that the Ark is still hidden away somewhere in a secret Ethiopian monastery, where it is carefully guarded by Ethiopian priests.
The people and places of the Bible have left an indelible mark on Ethiopia. Emperor Lalibela (1181–1221) was so impressed by his visit to Jerusalem that he tried building his own version of the holy city in northern Ethiopia. Ras Tafari2 was also impressed during his visit to Jerusalem in April of 1924, when he obtained special permission for clergy in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to use the monastery on Mount Golgotha.
There have been many monarchs and rases to come to power in Ethiopia, with varying degrees of popularity among the people. After a power struggle, Ras Mikael of Tigray (1748–1771, 1772–1784) began a reign of terror, dismembering his enemies and scattering their bodies in the streets. Emperor Tewodros II (1855–1868), on the other hand, grew up poor and disinherited from his family. He robbed from the rich for survival, but he gave some of his “earnings” to the poor.
Under King and Emperor Menelik II (1889–1913), Ethiopia became more connected and centralized with the help of new technology: the railroad, telegraph, and telephone. He also expanded Ethiopia’s territory. Menelik’s preferred successor, Ras Makonnen of Harar, passed away unexpectedly. His 14-year old son, Tafari, took his father’s place and became Ras Tafari.
Before passing away on December 12, 1913, Menelik II named his lackadaisical grandson, Lij Iyasu, to be his successor to the throne. But Menelik’s wife and daughter (from a different wife) both conspired against Menelik’s wishes, believing that Lij Iyasu was not the right choice to lead Ethiopia. Lij Iyasu wore the crown briefly, but he was ousted after being charged with apostasy for abandoning his Christian faith in favor of Islam. (One of his top appointed cabinet officials was openly Muslim.) He was excommunicated from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and forfeited his claim to the throne. (He had also attempted to align with the Central Powers during World War I, which included the Ottoman Empire, believed by most at the time to be an ancestral enemy of Ethiopia.)
Though a lineage to King Solomon had always been important, inheriting the throne of Ethiopia was not typically the case.
Usually, the emperor’s hereditary children did not succeed the throne; more often than not, a regional Even though Menelik II wanted his son to succeed him, it was Ras Tafari who would actually gain power.
prince or governor would take control.
Ras Tafari (Emperor Haile Selassie I)
As Emperor, Ras Tafari was known as Haile Selassie I (1930–1974), Ethiopia’s last monarch. Prior to his ascension to the throne, he was instrumental in bringing Ethiopia into the League of Nations (later the United Nations) and establishing the country’s first printing press and its first newspaper, Berhanena Selam.
When Ras Tafari originally applied for Ethiopia to join the League of Nations, he was denied because the practice of slavery still existed in his country.
The institution had been so ingrained in Ethiopian culture that it was difficult to remove the practice entirely. In response, Tafari began the abolition process. After years of hard work and pledges to the international community, Ethiopia was admitted into the League of Nations in 1923. Ethiopia’s membership in the League of Nations paid off when Italy later tried to build a railroad through Ethiopian territory without permission. Tafari went to the League of Nations about the plans, and Italy backed down.
On May 15, 1924, Tafari visited Italy. Both Italy and Ethiopia had been attempting to maintain peace between the two nations since engaging in multiple battles over African territory under previous leaders.3 It’s on that trip that Ras Tafari met Benito Mussolini.
Tafari and his associates were treated to lavish banquets in their honor, and the new Italian prime minister, Benito Mussolini, was all smiles and warm handshakes for his guests.
Only ten years later, Mussolini would lead an Italian invasion of Ethiopia, ushering in an Italian occupation of Ethiopia during World War II. Top Ethiopian officials agreed that Emperor Selassie should flee the country, so he lived in Bath, England until the British would oust the Italians from the land. In 1955, Selassie instituted a constitutional monarchy.
The writing is a little choppy. I noticed two “Tolkien slips”—first, when the text incorrectly referenced Gondor instead of Gondar, and second, when it mentioned the Battle of the Shire rather than the Battle of Shire (a city in the Tigray region of Ethiopia). Gondar was actually misspelled multiple times, but it’s a mistake that I enjoyed.
Overall, I really enjoyed History of Ethiopia, and I learned so much from such a short book. When it comes to history books, I prefer brevity, and this book delivered. I look forward to my next Captivating History selection.
See 1 Kings 10:1–12; 2 Chronicles 9:1–13; Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31. ↩
“Ras” is a title equivalent to a governor of a region. Ras Tafari is a renowned figure in the Rastafarian movement. ↩
After the Italians gained access to Eritrea, which was north of Ethiopia, they overstepped and crossed into Ethiopian territory, where they were soundly defeated by Menelik II in the ensuing war. ↩