The official language is Amharic.
There are more than 70 languages (the main ones being the Oromo, Tigrinya, Gurage) and 290 dialects. English is taught in many schools and most Ethiopians speak it.
Ethiopia is a mosaic of people, combining around 80 ethnic groups.
Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the fourth century at the shores of the Red Sea. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest organised Christian states in the world and Ethiopia is one of the only African nations that wasn’t introduced to Christianity by European colonists. Ethiopia proclaimed Christianity as its state religion in 333 AD. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was part of the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959, when an Ethiopian patriarch was appointed, and it separated. The religion has its own special rituals, pilgrimages and an ever-present passion among Ethiopian followers. From the seventh century, Islam was introduced to Ethiopia. The vast majority of Ethiopian Muslims follow the Sunni branch of Islam. There are also a large number of federated beliefs under the term animism, and many are present in Ethiopian culture. Lalibela is a spiritually significant site in Ethiopia – 11 interconnected churches are carved into the pink volcanic rock and dug into the ground. Often frequented by tourists, it retains a special, haunting magic despite the crowds. A UNESCO World Hertiage site, each church contains all manner of Christian symbols and is a startling historic monument that continues to live and breathe today. Religious ceremonies are a mesmerising daily occurrence and sacred songs, stone bells, castanets, drums and incense are among the props carried by white-clothed pilgrims. Rumoured to have been built in the 11th century by Christian King Lalibela as a second Jerusalem, it remains a point of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia. The site is highly protected now with a veil of protection overhead to shield the monument from the attacks of time.
May 28: National Day. 2 March is celebrated the commemoration of the Battle of Adwa (1896).
Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar, which is seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar. The Ethiopian calendar has 13 months in a year – it’s divided into 12 months of 30 days and one month of five days (6 days in leap years). The Tourist Board slogan is: ‘Ethiopia 13 months of sunshine!’
- 7 January: Christmas.
- January 19: Timkat.
- April: Easter.
- September 11: New Year.
- September 27: Meskel.
The most spectacular religious celebrations are held in Gondar and Lalibela.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest known countries. In the 1960s, archaeologists discovered the oldest example of Homo sapiens, with some branding Ethiopia as the ‘cradle of humankind’. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia and occupied the capital between 1936 and 1941. In 1941 Ethiopia was liberated with the help of Britain and the Emperor Haile Selassie was restored to his throne. In 1974, a military coup overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. A socialist state was established led by General Teferi Benti, which eventually fell in 1991. A republican regime was established, with a new constitution giving increased powers to the provinces, making Ethiopia a federal state. In 1993, following a referendum, Eritrea declared its independence after thirty years of armed struggle. Border clashes develop into a full-scale war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 to 2000. A peace plan was signed in 2000, which outlined troop withdrawal and a boundary commission to define the border. The government announced in May 2005 general elections to renew the 548 seats of the Assembly of People's Representatives.
The operation of Ethiopian institutions is codified by the constitutional text that was ratified in December 1994 and entered into force on 22 August 1995. The parliamentary system is based on two meetings (bicameral) representing the legislature – the House of People's Representatives and the Federal Parliamentary Assembly. The institutions are characterised by a strong executive power, the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the majority party for a term of five years, a term that can be renewed once. The President, meanwhile has a largely ceremonial function. He is elected by the House of People's Deputies.
Ethiopia is a deeply conservative and religious country and almost all men and women dress modestly – this means covering the shoulders and knees. While Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is slightly more liberal in its approach to dress, it’s advisable to exercise caution and be led by local guides. Eat with your right hand and avoid reaching for food with your left, which is considered unclean. Greetings are important to Ethiopians – many shake hands and it’s polite to swap pleasantries before launching into your reason of business. Ethiopians have the utmost respect for their elders and it’s advisable for tourists to follow suit. Remove shoes before entering a church, mosque or someone’s home.
Ethiopian crafts are varied and beautiful – metal, leather, braided or woven fabrics, wood – all make excellent mementos. All purchases made in Ethiopia can be exported, except antiques (mostly icons, magic scrolls, Bibles, silver jewellery and processional crosses).
Forget everything you know about the culinary arts as you touch down in Ethiopian – there are flavour sensations offered here unlike anywhere else. The chief mainstay served at every turn is injera, a large sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture that’s accompanied with grilled meat or stew (beef, sheep, goat). There are various religious customs surrounding food in Ethiopia – Orthodox Christians and Muslims don’t eat pork, while every Wednesday and Friday, Orthodox Christians fast from all animal products.
Coffee (or bouna) is undoubtedly the Ethiopian national drink, after all it’s the birthplace of coffee – an elaborate ceremony is often performed to produce a cup. Other traditional drinks include chai (tea), tej (mead) and tella (local beer). In the cities, especially in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar, pick up a cup of ‘spris’, a delicious layered fruit juice that consists of guava, papaya, orange, banana and avocado. It is not recommended to drink tap water – bottled water is readily available.