Ethiopia’s imperial civilization

From the 12th to the 19th century, Ethiopians erected a marvelous civilization that we invite you to explore…

Beforehand, we explained here how Christianity was introduced in Africa in general, particularly in Ethiopia. The Negus’s country – initially vitalist (animist) – received this religion from Egypt to whom it was imposed by Roman invaders. Christianity did not originate from Ethiopia as some may believe. And it is in the zeal developed around this essentially European religion that Ethiopian priests wrote the romance myth between the Black Queen of Sheba and Solomon the Jewish King in the 14th century. Yet, this relationship never existed. As for the Falashas, they are Black Africans who were converted to Judaism by Jewish missionaries, not Israelites as narrated. All this has been discussed here.

Gondar castle

Nevertheless, Christianity played a role in the civilizational blossom of Ethiopians. The imperial civilization of the Amhara, Agaw and Tigrayan peoples is – together with the Dongola civilization of the neighboring Sudan – one of the two Christian black civilizations.


Before the imperial civilization, the Axum Pharaonic civilization which started in antiquity existed in Ethiopia. It is that vitalist (animist) civilization which received Egypt’s orthodox Christianity under King Ezana in the 4th century. In the 12th century, the Christian empire – which was weakened by wars over territories – was taken over by the Agaw people who founded the Zagwe dynasty. The Zagwe – Black Cushitics (Sudanians) and later on assimilated by other Cushitic Ethiopians of Arab mixing – began the gigantic construction of the monasteries which have amazed the world.

The monasteries

In the 12th century, Zagwe Emperor Lalibela decided to have some churches built. Most of all, he wanted to possess holy sites after Muslim conquests in the East and Africa obstructed the road to Jerusalem. Besides, since the new dynasty was challenged by Alexandria’s Egyptian patriarch, it seems that Lalibela wanted to strengthen his legitimacy. The emperor had 11 churches built in the rock, which are architectural and civil engineering marvels.

Lalibela’s places of worship were literally carved in stone. After moving out giant cubic blocks, they were given a shape and shelves were cut inside as well as doors, windows, vaults and reliefs. That titanic work is simply flabbergasting.

The Lalibela site hosted priests mostly trained in Egypt who taught exact science and human science including theology indeed. Intellectual vitality was particularly vibrant there during imperial times. Lalibela even became a worship place for the Coptic orthodox Christians of Egypt.

Aerial view of a part of the site. Lalibela was cut in stone

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The murky period

In 1270, Yekuno Amlak put an end to the Zagwe dynasty and restored the old power who was claiming to be of Solomon’s and Queen of Sheba’s descent. The so-called Solomonic dynasty of the Amhara and Tigrayan peoples stands out by a nomadic system of government. The purpose was partly to consolidate the orthodox Christian empire which was facing countless wars against the Muslims, the Vitalists, the Catholics and the Jews.

Ethiopia was everywhere plagued with blood-shedding civil wars. The serious and overwhelming violence of those conflicts constitute a unique case in the history of relations between African peoples before the European slave trade. The royal house toured across the whole State while taking along thousands of people and equipment. Each people receiving the King and his assistance had to host him. Although this way of proceeding aimed at bringing the power closer to the citizens, the peoples who were visited paid dearly the demanded hospitality. The kingdom got bogged down in religious quarrels and grew weaker until the advent of King Sarsa Dengel.

Gondar, a city of castles in Africa

Thanks to war, Sarsa Dengel expanded the kingdom and started dominating other religious groups. He was crowned in the former capital city Axum in 1578. The event was perceived as the rebirth of the empire. His successors Za Dengel and Susenyos were later converted to Catholicism under the influence of the Portuguese. Said conversion brought chaos upon the country. Za Dengel paid the price with his life.

Fasiladas, son of Susenyos finally ordered the return to orthodox Christianity and had the Catholics killed. Then, Fasiladas undertook the construction of the new capital city Gondar which marked the kingdom’s cultural renaissance.

Gondar is a pearl of the African heritage, built in the enchanting environment of Lake Tana in the North of the country. It officially became the capital city in 1636. The city was protected by an outer wall of 900 meters’ length! Fasil Ghebbi, the largest palace amazed with its beauty and sophistication. The following emperors enriched the city with new buildings. The premises gathered almost 20 palaces, administrative and royal buildings as well as baths. Around thirty places of worship were built. Life in Gondar was marked by intellectual renewal and luxury in the royal house.

Vue aérienne de l'enceinte de Gondar
Aerial view of Gondar’s premises

Gondar Castle

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Le bain construit par Fasilides
A bath constructed by Fasiladas
De jeunes éthiopiens dans le bain de Fasilidès
Young Ethiopians in Fasiladas’ Bath

It is only in 1885 that Tewodros II moved the capital to Magdala. Gondar was destroyed by the assaults of the Islamized Sudanese. As for the famous emperor Menelik II, father of modern Ethiopia, he founded Addis Ababa the capital city in 1886.


By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbidden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)


– Histoire de l’Afrique noire, Joseph Ki-Zerbo
– General history of Africa, Unesco, Volumes 4 and 5
Lalibela, Unesco
Gondar, Unesco

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