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Is it an idiom or should it be understood literally?
It is from "The Sign and The Seal" by Graham Hancock. The full quote runs thus:

The peasant whom we met and talked to were poor, in some cases very poor indeed, and their lives were clearly ruled by the iron rods of soil and season.

(emphasis mine)

"iron rods of soil" puzzles me the most. Unless it is an idiom, does it refer to some geological feature of the Ethiopian soil?

If it is an idiom, what is its meaning?

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"Ruled by an iron rod" is a well-known English idiom. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Control or govern very strictly or harshly.
‘she ruled their lives with a rod of iron’

The peasants in your quote have lives which are controlled very strictly or harshly, hence they're ruled by an iron rod. What controls their lives so much? The "soil and season" (this phrase itself is a metonym which denotes their whole environment - weather, seasons, natural rhythms of the day and year). So the metaphorical iron rods which rule them must be the iron rods of soil and season.

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