The recorded history of Ethiopia dates back more than 3,000 years to the pre-Aksumite Empire of D’mt, whose capital Yeha lay at the heart of a well organised trade empire that stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen. According to legend, the nearby city of Aksum (which is still inhabited today) was once ruled over by the Queen of Sheba, who famously visited King Solomon of Jerusalem during her reign, and bore him a son who was crowned as Emperor Menelik I. Ethiopians believe it was Menelik I who brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, and who founded the Solomonic Dynasty, which endured until the late 20th century reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I.
Aksum later served as the capital of the Aksumite Kingdom or Empire, which probably emerged as the dominant trading power in the Horn of Africa in the 4th century BC and retained that role for another 1,000 years under a succession of powerful rulers. Aksum was a major player in commerce between the Roman Empire and India, and its rulers facilitated trade by minting their own currency. Among the great Aksumite rulers was King Basen, or Balthazar, who according to some legends was one of the Three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In the 3rd Century AD, the Persian writer Manni listed Aksum along with Persia, China and Rome as one of the world’s four greatest kingdoms. In 341 AD, King Ezana founded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, making Aksum the first major empire to convert to Christianity. In the 7th century, a group of Muslims who had originally converged in Mecca sought refuge from Quraysh persecution by travelling to Aksum, which is known in Islamic history as the First Hijra. Negash, founded at this time, is reputedly the oldest Islamic settlement in Africa.
Ethiopia took its modern shape in the late 19th century under a series of powerful emperors: Tewodros I (ruled 1855-69), Yohannis IV (1872-89) and Menelik II (1889-1913). Following the late 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia remained the only African country not to be colonised, largely as a result of the imperial army’s victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa on 1 March 1896. Menelik II was the founder of the modern capital Addis Ababa, whose growth was bolstered by the arrival of the Djibouti railway in 1917 and an associated influx of Armenian and French traders, as well as by the drive for modernisation under Emperor Haile Selassie I following his coronation in 1930. In 1963, Addis Ababa was chosen as headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), a role it has retained ever since.
Ethiopia today occupies a territory of 1,104,300 square kilometres, making it the tenth-largest country in Africa. Its population is estimated at between 95 and 100 million, the second largest in Africa (after Nigeria). Following the installation of a transitional coalition government in 1991, Ethiopia adopted a new federal constitution in December 1994. Composed of nine Regional States and two City Administrations, Ethiopia is now a multiparty democracy that has held democratic elections every five years since May 1995.