The Aksumite empire was originally a Semitic Jewish kingdom based at Axum (from around the second century BC), and founded, according to legend, by Menelik, son of King Solomon of Israel and the queen of Sheba. There is evidence of a Semitic-speaking presence from at least as early as 2000 BC. A study in 2012 of the DNA of more than two hundred Ethiopians found that their ancestors intermixed with either Egyptian, Israeli, or Syrian populations around 1000 BC, precisely at the time that Sheba was supposedly at its height, lending much-needed weight to the story of King Solomon and Sheba.
The country is also known as Abyssinia, which probably originates from the Egyptian name of Habashat. The name ‘Ethiopia’ is Greek, meaning ‘burnt faces’, a collective name for all dark-skinned people south of Egypt, although this is now disputed as the Book of Aksum, a Ge’ez chronicle first composed in the fifteenth century, states that the name is derived from ”Ityopp’is’, a son (unmentioned in the Bible) of Cush, son of Ham who, confusingly, also founded the city of Axum, according to legend.
In the Bible, she arrives at the court of King Solomon to test his renowned wisdom with “hard questions”. So impressed is she with Solomon’s good judgment and justice that she gives him fine spices and gold, and in return, “King Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty.”
In the 14th century Ethiopian compilation of legends, the Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of Kings”), Solomon’s grants royal bounty to Sheba; according to the Kebra Nagast, Sheba subsequently gave birth to a son who became Menelik, King of Axum.
400 BC: Jewish refugees from Egypt appear to settle in the area of Western Abyssinia.
3rd-2nd century BC: Axum is founded as the capital of a Jewish kingdom.
Fourth century AD: the country was converted to Christianity at the same time as the new religion was accepted into the Roman empire, although a Jewish population, the Falashas, remained, and was still very powerful, with its own kings, until it was broken by the Aksumites.
50: the kingdom of Axum expands, reuniting the area and expanding southwards. Until the end of the sixth century, Axum is considered to be one of the most powerful and prosperous kingdoms in the known world, ranking on equal terms with Rome or Persia.
331: Frumentius converts the emperor to Christianity and is created first Coptic Bishop of Ethiopia. This act leads to centuries of conflict between the Christian and Jewish communities in Ethiopia as each vies for overall control of the empire. Even so, Christianity in Ethiopia is still only skin deep, being deeply influenced by the Judaism which appears to have been established in the country over a thousand years previously. Between 331-1959 all Ethiopian archbishops are supplied by the Coptic Patriarchate in Alexandria.
523 – 525: Caleb also wages war against the Falashas in a continuation of the long conflict between the empire’s Jewish and Christian populations. The Falashas are eventually vanquished to an extent, but from their northern strongholds, ruled by their own line of Jewish kings, they continue to strike against the Christian south over the subsequent 400 years.
980: In a conclusion to the long religious conflict in the empire, Gudit, the head of a large tribal confederation known as the Agaw – which includes the Jewish Falashas – leads an uprising which snatches the Axumite throne, razes much of Axum itself, and destroys much of the ruling Solomonic dynasty, replacing it with the Zagwe dynasty.
As the state is sent into a minor Dark Age, one royal prince escapes to hide in the south, in the distant province of Shoa, where his descendants continue to live until the thirteenth century.
1030 – 1270: The Solomonic Dynasty was replaced by a Falasha dynasty which was established following Queen Gudit’s uprising and largely un-chronicled reign. Although it is by no means certain that Gudit left any direct successor, it is accepted that within fifty years of her death Ethiopia was generally governed by the Jewish Zagwe Dynasty. This line converted to Christianity well before the birth of Lallebella in circa 1140.
1270 – 1974: The Christian Solomonic Dynasty was restored as a monarch claiming descent from the single royal prince to escape Gudit’s uprising was crowned.
1564 – 1580: Sarsa Dengel wages a seventeen year crusade against the Falasha Jewish population, slowly destroying their powerful strongholds in the Simien mountains. The Falasha king, Radai, is taken prisoner and accepts death over conversion to Christianity. The Falashas begin to diminish from this point, from an estimated population of 500,000 in the early 1600s to one of 28,000 in 1984.
The House of Solomon is the former ruling Imperial House of the Ethiopian Empire. Its members claim patrilineal descent from Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba, the latter of whom tradition asserts gave birth after her biblically described visit to Solomon in Jerusalem.
The dynasty, a bastion of Judaism and later of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, is considered to have ruled Ethiopia in the 10th century BC. Records of the dynasty’s history were reported to have been maintained by the Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries to near antiquity; however, if such records existed, most were lost as a result of the destruction of Orthodox monasteries by the resurgent Judaic Judith I. Yekuno Amlak I re-established the dynasty, tracing his ancestry to the last Solomonic King of Axum, Dil Na’od.
The Solomonic Dynasty continued to rule Ethiopia with few interruptions until 1974, when the last emperor, Haile Selassie I, was deposed.
The Imperial Coat of arms was adopted by Haile Selassie I, and is currently held by his direct heir in the male line, Prince Zera Yacob, and by the Crown Council of Ethiopia. The arms are composed of an Imperial Throne flanked by two angels, one holding a sword and a pair of scales, the other holding the Imperial scepter. The throne is often shown with a Christian cross, and a Star of David, (representing the Christian and Jewish traditions). It is surmounted by a red mantle with the Imperial Crown, and before the throne is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The Lion of Judah was the central emblem of the Ethiopian tri-color flag during the reign of the monarchy, and now serves as the chief symbol of the Ethiopian monarchist movement. The Lion of Judah has also been adopted as the leading religious symbol for the Rastafari movement that regards Emperor Haile Selassie as divine.
The phrase “Moa Ambassa ze imnegede Yehuda”, (Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah) appeared on the arms, and always preceded the Emperor’s official style and titles, signaling the Emperor’s submission to Christ, to whom the title belonged. It was an often repeated mistake that the title of “Lion of Judah” referred to the Emperor himself. The official Imperial Dynastic motto was “Ityopia tabetsih edewiha habe Igziabiher” (Ethiopia stretches her hands unto God), a quote from the Psalms of David.
Haile Selassie – born Tafari Mekonnen – became emperor in 1930. In Ethiopian tradition, succession to the throne could be claimed by any male blood relative of the emperor. Selassie claimed distant descent through his father. He believed he was called to be king. In his autobiography, My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress 1892-1937, written in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, Selassie set out his claim to nobility. “Thus We Ourselves, by virtue of Our descent from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, ever since We accepted in trust … first the regency of the Ethiopian realm and later the Imperial dignity, right up to the present, We have set out to the best of Our ability to improve, gradually, internal administration by introducing into the country western modes of civilisation through which Our people may attain a higher level; hence Our conscience does not rebuke Us.” He wrote the book while living in England, in Bath, in exile – Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia in 1935.
Haile Selassie’s reign is extraordinary for many reasons, not least because it was claimed during his lifetime that he was an incarnation of Jesus. He is worshipped to this day by Rastafarians, who take their name from “Ras”, meaning “head” or “duke”, and “Tafari”, being Selassie’s original family name. Selassie was deposed in 1974. He died in prison, in mysterious circumstances, in 1975.
1999: Persecution of the Falasha has steadily increased, so the state of Israel begins covert airlifts of Falasha populations, taking them back to their homeland. Despite attempts by the Ethiopian government to put a halt to this, the airlift is completed by 1999 with all of the Falashas being removed to Israel.