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The Land of Burnt Faces

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Addis Ababa October 17-18 2009 006

Rifle used in the second Italo-Ethiopian war, 1935-1941

The word “Ethiopia” is derived from the Greek word Aethiop and means “The land of burnt faces.” The first people to be called Ethiopians were the people of Meroe, which lies at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, in the sixth century BCE. However, the modern nation of Ethiopia is a direct descendant of the Kingdom of Axum.

The Axumites spoke a language called Gez, which is a direct forerunner of Amharic, the official national language of Ethiopia. The Axumites and the Meroens are the only African kingdoms from the ancient world besides Egypt which have left us written records.

The records of the Axumite Kingdom go back only as far as the second century CE, but by then Axum was already a world power which dealt on equal terms with Persia and Rome, and whose merchant ships sailed as far as China in search of trade. Sometime around 300 CE, the Kingdom of Meroe was conquered and incorporated into the Axumite Empire. Some thirty years later, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. But the rise of Islam cut off Axum from the rest of Christendom, and the empire began a long slow decline.

By the early fourteenth century, when a delegation of Ethiopian clerics arrived in Avignon to meet with Pope Clement V, the very existence of Ethiopia was nothing more than a rumor to the Europeans. Ethiopia’s power and influence continued to diminish through the centuries. Nevertheless, its civilization persisted.

In 1896, the Italians invaded, and were defeated by forces led by Emperor Menelik II. Forty years later, they tried again, but again were defeated by forces led by Menelik’s successor, Emperor Haile Selassie.

In 1974, Haile Selassie was overthrown by a group of officers called the Derg, which means “council” in Amharic. The Derg elected Major Haile Mengistu as their leader. A year later Haile Selassie died, either of natural causes or by strangulation, depending on whose account you believe. Millions of Ethiopians were forcibly relocated and put to work in state-owned collective farms, for starvation rations. Over a million died in purges and state-engineered famines. Most of the Derg were eventually put to death by Mengistu as well. In 1987, Mengistu proclaimed the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia – the last nation on earth to be so called.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, with rebel forces closing in, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, where his pal President Robert Mugabe provided him with a luxury home and a police bodyguard. He still lives there today.

Ethiopia’s population has more than tripled in the last fifty years, to a staggering 85 million. With a median age of 17, and an annual growth rate in excess of three percent, Ethiopia’s population will continue to soar for decades to come.

Addis Ababa November-December 2009 026

This is a country which is impoverished even by African standards. And now, its leaders have decided they are going to wrench this ancient land into the twenty-first century, by sheer force of will. Thirteen new universities were established last year. They may not have books or teachers, but they have thirteen new universities. In Addis, new skyscrapers are being erected in every direction one cares to look. The scaffolding consists of fantastically rickety assemblages of saplings, but the buildings go up.

Addis Ababa November-December 2009 004

All photos by author

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