In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethiopia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
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African Studies Ethiopia
David H. Shinn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0139


Ethiopia is perhaps the origin of humankind; it is sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest civilization, the second most populous country in all of Africa, and the world’s most populous landlocked country. Ethiopian governance, which dates back more than 2,000 years, until recently had a close association with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that began in the 5th century. Muslims and Protestants have increased in percentages and influence in the past several decades. Ethiopia has a long history of highly centralized and autocratic leadership, most of it under kings and emperors. Ethiopia was never colonized, although Italy militarily occupied it from 1936 until 1941. Following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, a left-wing military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam ruled until 1991. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) under the leadership of Meles Zenawi deposed the Mengistu government and instituted a policy of ethnic federalism that delegated limited decision-making authority to the regions. Meles died in 2012 and was replaced by Hailemariam Desalegn. Although the government has had regular elections since 1991, opposition political parties often boycott them and routinely charge that they are not free and fair. Ethiopia lacks significant, known natural resources, but it experienced an impressive GDP growth rate from 2007 through 2017. The economy is based on agriculture and the service sector. Ethiopia is geographically diverse, with both highland and lowland cultures, and includes some eighty-five different ethnic groups. While Amharic serves as the lingua franca, ethnic tension and ethnic politics are an important component of daily life. In the late 1990s, HIV/AIDS seriously threatened Ethiopian society; international intervention and a belated strong response by the government significantly reduced the problem. Growing ethnic tension in 2016 resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency. Geographically at the center of the troubled Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has borders with Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia/Somaliland, Sudan, and South Sudan. The Horn is one of the most conflict-prone regions of the world, and Ethiopia usually contributes to or is affected by conflict in neighboring countries. Ethiopia is the source of 86 percent of the water reaching the Aswan Dam in Egypt. This has resulted in periodic tension with Egypt and neighboring Sudan over Nile Basin water usage. Ethiopia has one of the strongest, best organized, and most experienced military forces in Africa. It is the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, hosts the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, which adds to its influence. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on Eritrea; previously part of Ethiopia, Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1993 to become an independent state.

General Overviews

Because of its ancient history, large and diverse population, widely varied geography, and relatively large land area, Ethiopia is an especially difficult African country for the outsider to comprehend. The works cited here are primarily general histories or make an unusual effort to incorporate historical antecedents as they analyze some aspect of modern Ethiopia. Two of the authors are Ethiopian: Bahru is a distinguished historian, and Leenco is an Oromo political opposition leader who has been in exile since 1992. The collection of essays Bahru 2012 suggests the variety of issues that have faced Ethiopia for more than a century. Leenco 2004 puts Ethiopia in the context of the Horn of Africa, which is critical to an understanding of the country. Henze 2000 is a straightforward, well-balanced history that could serve as a textbook if supplemented with more recent material. Adejumobi 2007 is a more recent but cursory general history. Markakis 2011 provides a clear and important thesis that has the advantage of being more up to date. Marcus 1994 is a history through the Mengistu Haile Mariam era. Richard Pankhurst has lived much of his life in Ethiopia and is its most prolific writer; his writings cover a wide variety of topics over many decades, and Pankhurst 1998 pulls together some of the more prominent Ethiopian themes. Van der Stappen 1996 demonstrates the diversity and beauty of Ethiopia; the book encourages readers to take an interest in the country.

  • Adejumobi, Saheed A. The History of Ethiopia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.

    Part of the Greenwood history series of modern nations, this is an introduction to Ethiopia. While it offers a once-over-lightly view, it might serve as a textbook for an undergraduate class.

  • Bahru Zewde. Society and State in Ethiopian History: Selected Essays. Los Angeles: Tsehai, 2012.

    Essays in this collection by an emeritus professor of history at Addis Ababa University span a period of thirty-four years and cover Ethiopia’s political, economic, and social history. The essay titled “A Century of Ethiopian Historiography” is especially notable. Most of the essays deal with the 20th century.

  • Henze, Paul B. Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. London: Hurst, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-11786-1

    A sweeping overview of Ethiopian history from the origins of humankind to the beginning of the 21st century, this account reflects Henze’s extensive travels in Ethiopia and his service at the US Embassy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

  • Leenco Lata. The Horn of Africa as Common Homeland: The State and Self-Determination in the Era of Heightened Globalization. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004.

    The book analyzes ongoing conflicts and efforts at state-building in the Horn of Africa. It underscores the overlapping nature of these conflicts, the role played by Ethiopia, and the impact of conflict in neighboring countries on Ethiopia.

  • Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    The book offers a cursory analysis of the period leading up to 1855, the year often designated as the beginning of modern Ethiopia. The emphasis is on the post-1855 era and especially the reigns of Menelik, Haile Selassie, and Mengistu Haile Mariam.

  • Markakis, John. Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers. Woodbridge, UK: James Currey, 2011.

    Written by a political historian, the book focuses on two challenges facing a multicultural empire that is trying to become a modern nation-state. The first is the monopoly of power inherited from the ruling class of Abyssinian highlanders. The second is the arid lowlands on the margins of Ethiopia, where opposition to integration is greatest.

  • Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopians. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

    Singling out key topical issues in Ethiopian history, the book begins with prehistory and moves to the position of Ethiopia in biblical times. It covers the major dynasties and the roles of religion, culture, and the economy in Ethiopian history.

  • Van der Stappen, Xavier, ed. Aethiopia: Peuples d’Éthiopie. Tervuren, Belgium: Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central, 1996.

    Many experts contributed to this oversize and well-illustrated volume, which covers geography, human origins, agriculture, history, religion, ethnic groups, and the arts. While the contributions are eclectic and omit some key aspects of Ethiopian history and society, the illustrations are a wonderful addition.

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