Introduction to Ethiopia

To provide some context to the rest of this site, it’s useful to know some basic facts about the modern nation-state of Ethiopia.

So, where in the world is Ethiopia, anyway?

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It’s located in the Horn of Africa, bordered by (counterclockwise starting from the south) Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan. It’s roughly twice the size of the state of Texas and is quite diverse in climate and geography, from the temperate highlands to the almost tropical climates of the lowlands in the south to the desert climates of the Great Rift Valley. In my experience, one only needs to take a 2 or 3 hour drive to end up in a different landscape.

Simien Mountains (source)

Danakil Depression (source)

A Little History

It’s probably more expedient to say Ethiopian histories (plural) rather than a single history, since the many peoples within the modern nation’s borders have different backgrounds. The history for which Ethiopia is most famous and was promoted by Emperor Haile Selassie is from the northern highlands, where some claim to trace their heritage back around 3000 years ago to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Around the first century, we have some documentation of the Aksumite Kingdom (also spelled Axumite) in northern Ethiopia, which was an important center for trade at the time. Christianity came to this area around the fourth century, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was established. Of course, modern-day Ethiopia encompasses many other kingdoms and governments that rose and fell in different regions over the course of history (Kingdom of Jimma, Hadiya Sultanate…I could go on), but it’s a bit too much to hash out here (check out other sources like Pankhurst’s The Ethiopian Borderlands if you’re interested in reading more on this subject).

Obelisk in Aksum, Tigray region, dating around 1700 years old

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The modern Ethiopian nation as we know it today really wasn’t established until in the late 1800s, when Menelik II began conquering neighboring regions and expanding his kingdom. Menelik II also established Addis Ababa as the capital during his reign. Haile Selassie was Menelik’s successor and reigned from the early 1900s until 1974, when he was overthrown by a socialist revolution. The following communist regime, known as the derg, was in power until 1991, when it was overthrown by rebel groups. Shorty thereafter, in 1994, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came to power and continues to be the ruling party.

It’s important to note that Ethiopia was never colonized by a European power. The Italians attempted to invade in 1896 but were defeated at the Battle of Adwa. This is a major point of national pride for many Ethiopians, and, in fact, it is often a subject of Amharic songs, both traditional and popular. Italy invaded again around WWII and succeeded in occupying Ethiopia in the mid-1930s but were kicked out in 1941 by Ethiopian and British forces. Ethiopia has proceeded to remain independent of European rule through the present. Now, some are questioning whether or not Ethiopians colonized other Ethiopians during the nineteenth century’s imperial expansion, but those issues can be rather contentious, so we’re not going to go down that rabbit hole here.

Demographics

Ethiopia has upwards of 80 different ethnic groups, of which upwards of 50 reside in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region. The largest ethnic group is the Oromo, who comprise about 34.4% of the population according to the 2007 census, followed by the Amhara (27%), the Somali (6.2%), and the Tigray (6.1%). Amharic is the official working language of Ethiopia and is the most widely spoken throughout the country, but people commonly speak their own indigenous languages in their home regions.

Christianity is the most popular religion in Ethiopia with roughly 43.5% following Ethiopian Orthodox and 18.5% following Protestant Christianity. About 33.9% of the population adheres to Islam.

Orthodox worshipers surrounding St. George Church, carved out of solid rock around the 12th century, in Lalibela, Amhara region

Society and Culture

Ethiopia has developed some distinct traditions not found elsewhere in the world. One of these is its indigenous writing system, which uses the Ge’ez alphabet. Ge’ez is an old Semitic language that is no longer spoken today, but there are many old documents from the Aksumite Kingdom written in this language and it continues to be the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Some of the earliest documents written in Ge’ez date from around the fifth or sixth century. The same alphabet is still used to write the Amharic and Tigrinya languages. (Although some of the Cushitic languages, like Oromiffa and Somali, which have historically been solely oral societies, have adopted the Latin alphabet.)

Book of Genesis in Ge’ez language

Ethiopia also has its own calendar, which is divided into 13 months. Each month has 30 days, then the last month has 5 or (on a leap year) 6 days. The year in Ethiopia is about 7 years behind the Gregorian calendar, with the new year (known as enkutatash) beginning on September 11 (or September 12 on the year before the Gregorian leap year.)

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