Friends and Neighbours


Ethiopia was a term used by the Greeks - originally with little geographical significance (in Homer's Odyssey, it's where the gods go for their holidays), and its people are proverbial for their remoteness. The word Aithiops means "a man with a burnt face" - presumably inspired by encounters with darker races in Africa. Later it usually came to refer to the territory south of Egypt - Nubia, or modern Sudan and Ethiopia - but many Greek and Roman writers are very vague about its precise geography. It was known to the Persians as Kush.

Pyramids at Meroe; Wikimedia

Early history

Kush became independent from Egypt when the New Kingdom disintegrated around 1070 BC. The Kushites conquered Egypt around 727 BC - and ruled it for 150 years as the 25th Dynasty, until they lost it to the Assyrians. However the original kingdom of Kush (Sudan) flourished, with much building of temples and pyramids. At some stage, they established their capital at Meroë.

Persian influence

Herodotus tells us all we know:

Persis is the only territory I was told who did not pay tax: the Persians live in their land tax-free. These peoples are not made to pay tax, but give regular gifts: the Aithiopes next door to Egypt, whom Cambyses defeated in his expedition against the long-lived Aithiopes … They gave gifts every other year (and still do in my lifetime) 2 choinikes of gold (2.16 litres), 200 logs of ebony, 5 Ethiopian boys and 20 large elephant tusks.

They provided Xerxes with troops in 479 BC to invade Greece. Herodotus describes two groups of Ethiopians:

The eastern Ethiopians have straight hair, while those of Libya have the curliest hair of all humans.

Ethiopian carrying an ivory tusk

An Ethiopian shown amomg those bringing gifts to the king at Persepolis. Ivory from Kush is also mentioned in an inscription on Darius' palace at Susa.


The Persian connection was severed by Alexander - but the kingdom of Kush/Meroë continued to exist. It was responsible for developing trade along the Red Sea, and eventually opened up trade routes to India. By the 6th century AD, it was in decline, and regional power devolved on the kingdom of Aksum further south. Both kingdoms had converted to Christianity. Aksum clashed with the Sasanians over Arabia Felix (Yemen) in the 6th century AD: full story here.