There is a new book out by Dennis Gill which is supposed to be
excellent.  Unfortunately I didn't have time to get it, let alone read
it, before the preparation of this brief article.  This means I will
undoubtedly put my foot in my mouth at least a couple of times, but I've
done that before.  Let us proceed anyway.
The geography of Ethiopia is such as to render centralized
government extremely difficult.  Much of the terrain is filled with
mountains and cuts, making for hard travel.  Add to this the fact that
there live within its borders several ethnic groups speaking mutually
incomprehensible languages and for most of the last couple of thousand
years, at war with each other.  All of the history of the region is the
story of one group dominating other groups by force, and the constant
resistance and rebellion of the subject peoples.  At the height of Haile
Selassie's power the Tigrayans were still fighting for their freedom,
and of course it is they who now occupy the Amhara capital Addis Ababa,
having won the current match.
Early Egyptian records tell of expeditions up the Nile to procure
gold and slaves.  The pharaos regarded the headwaters of their river as
their natural property, even if they didn't occupy it.  To the Persians,
Greeks, and Romans who later conquered Egypt the south looked like more
trouble than it was worth.  Over a 2000 year period the Egyptians had
enslaved all the docile people and the only ones left were strong and
mean.  So the successive Mediterranean empires ignored Africa south of
Things were going on down there however.  A Nubian kingdom held
out against pharaonic Egypt for several centuries over in Sudan.  By the
1st millenium BC there were coastal trading cities established by
colonists from what is now Yemen.  These people mated with the locals
and their descendants moved inland to the Ethiopian plateau.  By the 2nd
century BC they had emerged into political history as a Ge'ez speaking
kingdom whose capital city, Axum, lies in what is now Tigray.
The Axum monarchs claimed that their line was founded by the son
of the Queen of Sheba by Solomon of Israel, by name Menelik I.  For
religion the had the normal south Arabian mix, some local Godlets, maybe
a supreme being.  Judaism became influential in the early years of the
new era, and in the 3rd century AD a king, and with him his country,
converted to Christianity.
In terms of monetary economy we can think of Axum as being in a
back country relationship with Sab'a and Mina in Yemen, as these powers
were themselves back country with the Fertile Crescent powers (Rome,
Persia, etc.) who were the ones who used coins.  Thus ancient Yemeni
coins were local adaptations of Greek and Roman prototypes, and Axumite
coins, when they finally got around to making them in the 3rc century
AD, hark back to South Arabian models, at least to my eye.
Axumite coins come in copper, silver, and gold.  The series
extends from king Endybis, 227-235 AD, through king Aboha, who reigned
in the 10th century, but whose dates are uncertain.  The coins most
often seen offered are nice gold coins of the pagan and the first few
Christian kings.  A nice one will typically ask $600 or so.  I think the
reason you see them offered so often is because everyone wants to wait
for the occasional silver coin at $150, or better still a "cheap"
Now the fact of the matter is that all Axumite coins are scarcer
than hen's teeth, coppers just as much as the others.  When coppers do
show up they are usually in terrible condition.  The most common ones
are those of Ezana, the first Christian king, and his 4rd century
successors, and of Kaleb and his successors in the 6th.  These are the
famous "gold inlay" coins, where the sacred heart of Jesus is
represented by a spot of gold in the center of the cross.  The gold
sometimes falls out, but it is often there, usually base and very
tarnished.  An average coin of this type in "good" with corroded
surfaces will ask for $50+ with the gold, $25 or so without.  Typically
they sell immediately.
Kaleb leagued with Justinian I the Byzantine to squeeze the
Sasanid Persians out of Arabia and Palestine.  Axum invaded Yemen and
held it until the rise of Islam in the 7th century.  The newly risen
muslims shut Christian Axum out of Fertile Crescent trade.  Isolated on
their plateau, the Axumite realm dwindled, and by the 10th century the
kingdom had disappeared.
Several Christian dynasties thereafter succeeded one another.
None of them issued coins.  In this period a feudal system
developedamong the Christian Amharas, in which power lay in land tenure.
All around the sedentary Armharas roamed nomads who thought of wealth in
terms of cattle.  In the northern coastal lowlands the Danakil mined
salt.  Bullion, and more importantly in terms of day to day commerce,
beads, drifted down from Egypt and Arabia.
In 1520 an Islamic sultanate was founded in western Ethiopia over
by Somalia.  The sultans initially made inroads deep into Amhara
territory but were driven back.  Coins are known from the early 19th
century through the conquest of Harar by the resurgent Menelik II in
1887.  Tiny silver coins are known, but no one has them for sale.  A
small quantity of the miserable little brass coins was on the market
about 10 years ago.  Maybe there are still some around.
Now we get to the real coins.  Menelik of Shoa, claiming Solomonic
descent, united the Amhara.  Conquering Harar, he issued that enigmatic
little silver mahallek.  Compared with the issues of the sultans it has
somewhat of a European look to it.  Now it is known that Menelik was
making use of European advisors and that while he was still King of Shoa
and not yet emperor he was contemplating establishing a European style
coinage, and this is perhaps an early essay in that direction.
Whatever, the coin shows up every now and then in nice grade.  No one
wants to pay the catalog price for it, so it sits around in inventory.
If it was a German coin it would be snapped up at $1000.
Menelik had been negotiating with Italy to strike a full set of
coins, but he broke off when Italy's colonial plans became obvious, and
turned to France.  The first coins to come from Paris were the 1887 birr
and its fractions.  (For simplicity I'm translating Ethiopian dates into
Western dates.)  This birr was made a tad heavier than it's competitor,
the Maria Theresia thaler, but still was not immediately accepted.  The
1887 coins come in all grades and can be found.  Paul Bosco once offered
a cased proof set of 1887, an SCWC-unlisted item..  You can call him and
ask him what happened to it.
The silver coins were issued again in 1896, along with a series of
large module copper coins.  Mintage was limited to only 200 pieces, so
all of them are rare.  The coppers show up from time to time and get
good money.  The silvers hardly appear at all.  Paris struck a full set
of silver again in 1897, replacing its "bit" or eighth birr with a "5¢"
or gersh, and adding a copper "cent."  The copper shows up from time to
time, and in my opinion should be priced higher in the catalog.  The
silvers are not uncommon, some being struck as late as the 1920s.  Then
there was another gersh in 1898 and a birr in 1899, both findable.
Finally from Paris came the silvers of 1903 which are the commonest of
Menelik's coins.
One other Paris emission should be mentioned, and that is the
bronze medal for the Dire Dawa railroad.  These first started coming on
the market in serious numbers about 5 years ago.  At that time they got
up to $100.  Then, a couple of years later, a lot of them showed up,
along with a story I hadn't heard previously that they were used to pay
workers on the rail line.  Well, I don't know.  The price went down
The Emperor wanted very badly to start up his own mint in Addis,
and did so late in 1903. The copper 32nds, the gold, and the "right leg
raised" silver coins except for the birr were all struck at Addis.
There is some quantity of coppers around of all three types.  The alloy
is catch as catch can, some are yellower, some are redder.  The right
leg silvers ( except for the birr) are a bit difficult, especially the
girsh.  The gold werk and half werk are available, the quarter is tough.
There are numerous other "things" reported from Addis mint.  These
would be essays of various kinds and presentation pieces.  Many are in
gold, and show up rarely in auctions.
Menelik died in 1913, succeeded by his grandson Lij Yasu.  The
grandson became a muslim, which upset the Amharas no end.  He also was a
wholsale womanizer.  He contracted syphilis, which eventually caused
some mental deterioration.  His reign was marked by anarchy and strife,
and only the preoccupation of Europe with the first World War prevented
them from carving up Ethiopia.  In 1916, while Lij Yasu was off on a
slaving expedition in the south, the Amhara nobles united to occupy
Addis and placed Menelik's daughter Zauditu on the throne, on which she
sat until her death in 1930.
These two rulers ordered some Menelik coins from Paris, most with
the 1897 date.  A few presentation pieces were struck in Addis with the
name and portrait of Zauditu.  The only ones I've ever seen were gold,
very rare.  There are no coins for Lij Yasu.
The Austrian mint prepared a silver and gold pattern set on
Menelik's module dated 1928.  The silver coins are unavailable, but the
gold werk and half can be found fairly easily (unless you need it now,
of course, "Reis' wantlist rule).  The obverse die of the 1/8 birr got
to Addis, where it was muled with defaced 1/32 birr reverse dies to make
gold presentation pieces
In 1933 a set of dies was ordered from Vienna to strike the nickel
coins of the "matona" series.  The dies for the copper 1 and 5m  were
prepared by ICI in Birmingham, who also supplied the blanks as well.
The coins are all back dated to the coronation year 1930.  With the
exception of an extremely rare pattern "100 matona" these coins are all
available.  The toughest of the series would be the 5m in Unc.
In 1935 Ethiopia was overrun by Fascist Italy and Haile Selassie
was forced into exile in cold, damp England.  When he returned with the
British in 1944 he was not in control of his country.  The British
military command imported coin from East Africa, India, and Egypt to
service its needs, and had Maria Theresia thalers struck by the London
mint.  The British wanted to keep Ethiopia and set up a currency linked
to that of the East Africa Currency Board, but Haile Selassie played for
time.  In 1944 he applied for Lend Lease assistance from America.  Under
this plan a contract was signed with the Philadelphia mint for the
production of the 1944 dated coins.
These coins were struck with frozen dates until Haile Selassie's
overthrow in 1975.  The 1, 5, and 10¢ are common coins in Unc.  The 50¢
exists in two finenesses, but in practice no one can tell them apart.
The 25¢ is the interesting denomination.  The original round coin  was
silver plated and passed as a 50¢.  It was withdrawn and its possession
was made illegal.  The withdrawn pieces were knurled on the edge to make
the scallops.  This is the so-called "crude" edge.  You will see a dent
and raised rims on each scallop.  The "refined" edge pieces were made
that way in Philadelphia, and the scallops are smooth.  Less than
500,000 of the round coins were released, so the number of crude edge
coins has to be smaller than that, versus about 30,000,000 of the
refined coins.  Crude edge types are almost always circulated.
There are a few patterns for the early part of Haile Selassie's
reign.  The commemorative pieces of 1966 and 1972 were made and sold
outside of Ethiopia.  All can be found, but original cased sets are
rather scarce..  The 1972 military bust 5 dollar is a fairly ubiquitous
The Emperor was deposed by his army in 1975.  He had become rather
incompetent.  He was kept a prisoner in his palace until his death in
1978.  The location of his grave is unknown.
The socialist government issued a set of 1977 dated coins, which
are not particularly easy to find.  Every now and then a batch comes on
the market, then they disappear.  I'd say the circulation strikes in
perfect Unc are toughish.  The proof sets only turn up very
occasionally.  In commemoratives, the 1979 conservation coins are
somewhat tougher than the contributions of other nations to that series.
The 1981 children sharing bread coin is fairly common.  The two lion
coins are quite popular.  The copper-nickel lion/soccer coin was on the
market in large quantity back in 1983-85.  Now they're pretty much gone.
The silver version has never been particularly common.  The "disabled"
silver coin can be found, but you probably have to go to Germany to get
the "Women's Decade" silver.  All of the socialist gold is hard to find.
All the coins of this short series can be found, with the possible
exception of the 1896 lira.  You have to pay a premium for them because
all the one-of-each-country collectors need one.  The steepest premium
will be on the lower grade coins around which the bargain hunters
gather.  High grade coins will get around the catalog quotes.
Of the four pieces listed in the DeLuxe SCWC only the Trohalis
token exists in any quantity in the market.  Typical grade is aVG, and I
would never sell it so cheap.  The others only turn up every now and
then.  There are other tokens: US military and a few other types.  All
are scarce.
The Amhara socialist government collapsed last year leaving the Tigray
and Eritrea armies in control of the country.  Eritrea said at the time
that it wanted to be independent, which event would make Ethiopia a
landlocked country.  At this point nothing has been settled.  No
official issues have been reported.  I have no idea what the current
financial arrangements are.