Ethiopia has been an independent state since ancient times, being one of the oldest countries in the world. A monarchical state for most of its history, the Ethiopian dynasty traces its roots to the 10th century BC. Besides being an ancient country, Ethiopia is one of the oldest sites of human existence known to scientists today, having yielded some of humanity’s oldest traces, it might be the place where Homo sapiens first set out for the Middle East and points beyond.
Ethiopia has close historical ties to all three of the world’s major Abrahamic religions. It was one of the very first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century and it still has a Christian majority.
The area now that is now the country named Ethiopia was once called the Empire of Axum. The Axumite (Aksumite) Empire at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and northern Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Axum (Aksum), now in northern Ethiopia.
Axum was an important trading nation in northeastern Africa, growing from the proto-Aksumite period ca. 4th century BC to achieve prominence by the 1st century AD. It was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India and the Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by minting their own currency. The state established its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush and regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, and would eventually extend its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom.
Under Ezana Aksum became the first major empire to convert to Christianity and was named by Mani as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China. In the 7th century the Muslims who originally converged in Mecca, sought refuge from Quraysh persecution in by travelling to Aksum which is known in Islamic history as the First Hijra. Its ancient capital is found in northern Ethiopia. The Kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.
Aksum is mentioned in the 1st century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea for its importance in trade, which was exporting throughout the ancient world, and states that the ruler of Aksum in the 1st century AD was Zoskales, who, besides ruling in Aksum also controlled two harbours on the Red Sea: Adulis (near Massawa) and Avalites (Assab) located in Eritrea. He is also said to have been familiar with Greek literature.
Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean. It benefited from a major transformation of the maritime trading system that linked the Roman Empire and India. This change took place around the start of the Common Era. The older trading system involved coastal sailing and many intermediary ports. The Red Sea was of secondary importance to the Persian Gulf and overland connections to the Levant. Starting around 100 BC a route from Egypt to India was established, making use of the Red Sea and using monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea directly to southern India. By about 100 AD the volume of traffic being shipped on this route had eclipsed older routes. Roman demand for goods from southern India increased dramatically, resulting in greater number of large ships sailing down the Red Sea from Roman rule in Egypt to the Arabian Sea and India.
The Empire of Aksum was the first African polity economically and politically ambitious enough to issue its own coins, which bore legends in Ge’ez and Greek. From the reign of Endubis up to Armah (approximately 270 to 610), gold, silver and bronze coins were minted. Issuing coinage in ancient times was an act of great importance in itself, for it proclaimed that the Axumite Empire considered itself equal to its neighbors. Many of the coins are used as signposts about what was happening when they were minted. An example being the addition of the cross to the coin after the conversion of the empire to Christianity. Ethiopia was the first country to print the
Christian cross on its coin. The presence of coins also simplified trade, and was at once a useful instrument of propaganda and a source of profit to the empire.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the unnamed queen of the land of Sheba heard of the great wisdom of King Solomon of Israel and journeyed there with gifts of spices, gold, precious stones, and beautiful wood and to test him with questions, as recorded in First Kings 10:1-13 (largely copied in 2 Chronicles 9:1–12).
2 Chronicles 9:1 And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to prove Solomon with hard questions at Jerusalem, with a very great company, and camels that bare spices, and gold in abundance, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.
9 And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices great abundance, and precious stones: neither was there any such spice as the queen of Sheba gave king Solomon.
It is related further that the queen was awed by Solomon’s great wisdom and wealth, and pronounced a blessing on Solomon’s God. Solomon reciprocated with gifts and “everything she desired,” whereupon the queen returned to her country. The queen apparently was quite rich, however, as she brought four and a half tons of gold with her to give to Solomon (1 Kings 10:10).
In the biblical passages which refer explicitly to the Queen of Sheba there is no hint of love or sexual attraction between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The two are depicted merely as fellow monarchs engaged in the affairs of state.
The biblical text, Song of Solomon (Song of Songs), contains some references, which at various times, have been interpreted as referring to love between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The young woman of the Song of Songs, however, continues to deny the romantic advances of her suitor, whom many commentators identify as King Solomon. In any case, there is little to identify this speaker in the text with the rich and powerful foreign queen depicted in the Book of Kings. The woman of the text of the song clearly does regard “The Daughters of Jerusalem” as her peer group.
Today gold remains one of Ethiopia’s main exports.