Ethiopia has astonishing landscapes, ranging from the flat-topped Simien Mountains of the north to the otherworldly multicoloured salt flats and lava lake of the Erta Ale volcano in the Danakil Depression; rich flora and fauna and ancient cultures, including the city of Axum (one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa), the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and Africa’s oldest mosque, Nejashi. It also has one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies, with booming cities and a young population. For all this, it is yet to attract large numbers of tourists, and visitors can often find themselves alone in this amazing country. Ethiopia’s unique cultural heritage, rich history and remarkable biodiversity are also reflected in a tally of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites – more than any other country in Africa.
Despite years of suffering under totalitarian rule, famine, droughts and a persistent border dispute with neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopia remains one of the most enchanting destinations. Although far from being a regular holiday spot, once you get a taste of its wonders, you will want to keep coming back for more. Ethiopians have a strong cultural identity as a result of being the only country in the region to evade colonization (except for the short, five-year Italian-Mussolini regime that eventually was defeated). Ethiopians also have their own unique Amharic language and script, and retain age-old traditions.
The country is huge and more than four times the size of the UK, and with roads in various stages of construction and repair, full day drives are not uncommon. But these long drives really allow you to appreciate the changes in scenery; anyone venturing south will be traversing the Rift Valley, with its surprisingly lush lakes and astounding views across hills, valleys, escarpment and forest. It also provides the perfect excuse to stop in little towns for a reviving cup of coffee. For those on a tighter schedule, Ethiopia’s national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, connects Addis Ababa to the historic cities of Aksum, Bahir Dar, Gondar and Lalibela. There are also domestic flights to several other key centres including Arba Minch, Assosa, Dire Dawa, Gambella, Jjiiga, Jimma, Mekele and Semera. More remote parts of the country, such as the Danakil Depression and Erta Ale Volcano, or the tribal lands of South Omo, can only realistically be visited on an organised 4×4 expedition with a specialist local operator.
Ethiopia is part of the Horn of Africa and borders Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti. It has an area of 1,127,127 km2. Only 12% of the total land area is arable, with about 85% of the people dependent on agriculture or animal husbandry for subsistence. The terrain consists of high plateaus, mountains, and dry lowland plains. Ethiopia has some of the world’s most rugged and beautiful scenery. Changes in vegetation and terrain offer striking differences and are readily apparent when traveling in any direction from Addis Ababa. Fertile farmland, high mountains with crater lakes, deep canyons and abysses, low-lying savannas, and deserts are some of the many aspects of Ethiopia’s topography. The entire coastline along the Red Sea was lost with the de jure independence of Eritrea on 24 May 1993; Ethiopia is, therefore, the most populous landlocked country in the world. The Blue Nile, the chief headstream of the Nile by water volume, rises inLake Tana in northwest Ethiopia joining with the White Nile in Karthoum, Sudan.
Ethiopia is a diverse cultural nation with a long and in an African context well-documented history. It is the only country in Africa which has never been colonised. Ethiopia is known to be the “cradle of humanity”. Human kind is very likely to have its roots in Ethiopia. Lucy, the best preserved version of the predecessor to man is approximately 3,5 mio. years old, and has been found in the Ethiopian part of the Great Rift Valley. Ethiopia is also one of the oldest Christian nations in the world. Christianity dates back to 300 ad, when the then capital of Ethiopia, Aksum, was converted to Christianity. The Ethiopian orthodox church is thus one of the oldest in the world. Christianity is deeply rooted in Ethiopian history, but Islam also has very long lasting roots. Around 40% of Ethiopians are Muslim, and the two religions have co-existed peacefully ever since the first disciple of the Prophet Muhammad was granted protection and residence in Ethiopia by the first king in Aksum. Ethiopia’s history has been shaped by influence from both the Middle East and Africa. Early Ethiopian history was influenced by Egypt. There is a myth saying that the Queen of Sheba, who reigned in the Northern City of Ethiopia, Aksum, had a son with King Solomon. The son was later pronounced as King Menelik I. According to the myth, Ethiopia has been ruled by descendants of King Menelik I up until the ousting of Kaiser Haile Selassie following the communist take-over of power in 1974. Haile Selassie I ruled as emperor from 1930 to 1974. In 1935 Italian troops occupied the country, and it was not until 1941 that Ethiopia with the assistance of British troops were able to liberate Ethiopia again. In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a communist military council, which in 1977 led to Mengistu Haile Mariam coming to power, where he became the leader of both the military council and the government. During the 1980’s, under the rule of Mengistu, Ethiopia experienced some of the worst famines in the history of the country. Mengistu was overthrown in 1991 by guerilla forces led by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, which ruled th country for the following 27 years. Ethiopia went through a sweep of modernisation during the late 19th and early 20th century. During this time, Emperor Menelik II founded Addis Ababa as the new capital. Ethiopia was one of the original members of the United Nations. Ethiopia today hosts two of the three continental organisations, namely the African Union Commission headquarter and the UNs Economic Commission for Africa. This often leads to Addis Ababa being referred to as the “Capital of Africa”.
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia. It is a Semitic language that has some similarities with to Arabic and Hebrew. However, Ethiopia has 86 different languages with up to 200 different dialects spoken. The Ethiopian languages are divided into four major language groups. These are Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan. The largest ethnic and linguistic groups are the Oromos, Amharas and Tigrayans. English is the principal foreign language that is taught in schools so most of the younger population, at least in urban areas, can understand and speak some English.
Holidays / Festivals
Ethiopia’s most famous festivals are all annual events on the Christian calendar, the best known being Timkat (often referred to as Ethiopian Epiphany) and Meskel (the Finding of the True Cross). These holidays are celebrated in all Christian areas but attract large numbers of local pilgrims and international tourists to the likes of Lalibela, Aksum and Gondar, meaning that accommodation prices rocket and rooms can be difficult to find. Timkat takes place on Jan 20 (Jan 19 in leap years). Countrywide. More important to Orthodox Christians than Christmas (which is celebrated quite sedately 12 days earlier), this three-day festival commemorates Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. It is one of the few occasions when the tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is removed from church altars; it’s then swaddled in colourful cloth and paraded around at the head of a procession. Timkat is a particularly spectacular occasion in Gondar, when Fasil’s Pool is filled with water and hundreds of eager participants leap in to re-enact the baptism. It is also a big event in Lalibela. Enkutatash or Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on Sept 12 (Sept 11 in leap years) and marks the country’s most important secular holiday with a similar party atmosphere to New Year festivities anywhere in the world. Meskel is celebrated on Sept 27 (Sept 28 in leap years). This colourful spring festival, which shares its name with the yellow daisy-like flowers that blanket the highlands in September, commemorates an ancient legend that Empress Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, was led to the buried True Cross on which Jesus was crucified in 326 AD. The festival is highly significant to Ethiopian Christians, who claim that a fragment of the cross, given to Emperor Dawit I in the early fifteenth century, is now stored at Gishen Maryam monastery, to the northwest of Dessie. The best place to be for Meskel is Aksum or at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. The centrepiece of the festival is the burning of a massive pyre as colourful processions of priest and worshippers look on.
People and Culture
Ethiopians have one of the richest, most well-preserved cultures in the world, with very little influence from other countries. Locals have a strong identity, passing on legends and customs from one generation to the next. Christianity is the predominant religion, followed by Islam and other traditional animist beliefs. Ethiopian music is extremely diverse and modern influences come from folk music from all over the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia. Religious music has distinct Christian elements, while secular tunes in the highlands are played by wandering musicians known as azmaris. Some of the traditional instruments include the chordophone (a string instrument that resembles a lute and lyre, played with a bows), aerophones (bamboo flutes), idophones (used for liturgical music), and membranophones (hand drums). Hand woven fabrics (often decorated with intricate patterns) are used to create elegant garments. Traditional garb includes pants and knee-length shirts with a white collar, a sweater for men and shawls to cover the women’s hair. Locally made jewellry is stunning, particularly the silver and gold necklaces, which are often worn on the arms and feet. Traditional clothes are often seen during religious ceremonies, weddings and other special occasio
The communist government under Mengistu Hailemariam, who had ousted Emperorer Haile Selassie in 1974, was overthrown in 1991 by guerilla forces led by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and a coalition of guerilla groups then formed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) led by Former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The Ethiopian constitution, which was enacted in 1994, defines Ethiopia as an ethnic-based federal system and divides the country into 10 relatively autonomous regions. Ethiopia has had national parliamentary elections in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015. From 1991 until August 2012 Meles Zenawi was the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. After his death on August 20th 2012, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Hailemariam Desalegn was appointed interim Prime Minister, and he was re-elected after the general election in May 2015. The EPDRF, which in fact was always domiated by the TPLF, had governed Ethiopia with an iron grip for decades, overseeing a period of stability and economic growth at the cost of basic civil and political rights. The party’s authoritarian rule eventually provoked a popular uprising that ultimately forced Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign. Abiy Ahmed was appointed in 2018 by the ruling class to bring change, without, however, upending the old political order. But almost as soon as he came to power, Abiy announced the rearrangement of the ruling coalition that the TPLF had founded – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front, or EPRDF, which was composed of four parties – into a single, new Prosperity Party, ostracizing the TPLF in the process. His youthful energy and beaming smile offered great hope to address the deep divisions in the country. He released thousands of political prisoners, lifted restrictions on the independent media and invited the country’s once-banned opposition groups back into the country from exile. He backed a woman to become president, created gender parity in the cabinet and established a ministry of peace. Eventually, he even bagged the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019 for finally bringing an end to the 20-year stalemate with Eritrea. Unfortunately, Mr Aby was exposed to increasing resistance of the former TPLF ruling class which had gradually lost its power. Mr Aby almost miracously survived several attempts to take his life. Tensions reached a boiling point in September 2020, when the Tigrayans defied Abiy by holding a vote which had been delayed due to the pandemic, setting off a tit-for-tat series of recriminations that spilled into open conflict in November 2020. In July 2021, in the midst of the war with the TPLF, Abiy and his party won a landslide victory in a general election