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History Part II

The Middle Ages

WelcomeThe Ethiopian culture we know today may be said to date from between the ninth and eleventh centuries, coinciding with Axum's political decline. Judaism and Islam grew to be powerful forces in Ethiopia. The Felasha (Jewish) queen Yodit, daughter of the quasi-legendary Gideon, led a destructive expedition against Axum around 980.

It is believed that following Yodit's death, Axuma Christian king, Anbessa Wudim, returned to Axum to restore Christian control. The Zagwe dynasty, first based in Lasta, emerged around this time. Many of Ethiopia's rock churches at Roha (now Lalibela) date from the reign of the Zagwe king Lalibela. A number of fortresses were also erected during this era.

King Yekuno Amlak ascended the throne in 1270. His origins are uncertain. The Kebre Negest (The Glory of the Kings), one of Ethiopia's most important histories, describes his line's Solomonic descent. The story of Prester John, a legendary Christian ruler of Ethiopia, added luster to the Solomonic monarchs' rule.

In the fourteenth century, Emperor Amda Siyon made a serious effort at expansion, annexing territories and consolidating these into an Ethiopia which more or less conformed to the boundaries of today. To do so, he suppressed ethnic movements and firmly established Ethiopia as an Amharic and Christian nation. He granted a form of autonomy to regional rulers as his feudal vassals with authority over gults, or fiefs, and accommodated Islam.

Zara Yakob, born in 1434, was one of Ethiopia's most remarkable rulers. Renowned for his intelligence, he further developed what had already become two fundamental institutions of the Ethiopian state --Christianity and feudalism. He also instituted a new capital, at Debre Birhan in northern Shewa. Zara Yakob expanded his realm into Eritrea and established tenuous diplomatic ties with several European monarchs.

What followed was a succession of lesser rulers who were forced to contend with Muslim incursions and foreign influences.

The Modern Era

With Portuguese help, the Muslims, led by Ahmed Gragn, were again suppressed in 1543. This didn't bring an end to the hostilities, but it certainly limited serious uprisings. Portuguese and Catholic influence became greater. In 1632, the Rock ChurchEmperor Fasil banished most foreigners and placed the Orthodox Church in its position of primacy.

Fasil resided at Gonder, which he made Ethiopia's capital in 1636. It remained so for two centuries, and a period of prosperity began.

In Ethiopia, the title of "emperor" literally means "king of kings." By the nineteenth century, this role was essentially symbolic. Kasa Hayla, crowned Emperor Tewodros II in 1855, sought to change this situation. Though widely respected, he was a stern ruler whose policies were not universally embraced in Ethiopia.

In 1869, the British sent troops to subdue him. This was the first serious attempt by a European power to subvert Ethiopian sovereignty. Besieged at Makdela, Tewodros committed suicide.

A war of succession followed. In 1871, Emperor Takla Giorgis was defeated by the ruler of Tigray, Kasa Mercha, who happened to be his brother-in-law. Kasa Mercha was crowned Johannis IV in 1872, but his authority was challenged by certain regional leaders, such as Menelik of Shewa. In 1878, he signed the Leche Agreement in an attempt to regularize the political relationship between emperor and princes. Unfortunately, this didn't prevent the attempts of outside forces to "divide and conquer" Ethiopia by negotiating with the various princes.

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