ALTERNATE NAMES: Abyssinians
POPULATION: 52 million
LANGUAGE: Amharic; English; French; Italian; Arabic; various tribal dialects
RELIGION: Coptic Monophysite Christianity; Islam; indigenous religions
Ethiopia's history reaches back to the dawn of human existence. In 1974 in Ethiopia, Donald Johanson (1943–) of Cleveland, Ohio, made an important discovery. He and his team of anthropologists and archaeologists found the bones of an ancient female ancestor of the human race. Johanson named her "Lucy." She was found in the northeast quadrant of Ethiopia in the Awash River valley, at a site called Hadar. She was dated at about 3.5 million years old and was a member of a prehuman genus called Australopithecus. The casts of her bones now reside in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Her actual bones are locked in a large vault in the National Museum in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Many other bones of the same age were later found and are believed to be those of Lucy's family. More recently, in 1992–94, archaeologist Tim White and his team found even older remains 45 miles (72 kilometers) southwest of Hadar. They now date human's ancestors back to possibly 4.5 million years ago. It is becoming clear that humans all emerged from a common ancestral family; all share the same original African homeland in Ethiopia.
For thousands of years, early peoples hunted and gathered food in the rich valleys and highlands of what we now know as Ethiopia. The name is from ancient Greek words meaning "the land of people with burnt faces." It was an area of constant population movement. Peoples from Saudi Arabia crossed the narrow straits of Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern end of the Red Sea. They brought their culture and technology with them and settled in the northern reaches of Ethiopia. Negroid (black) peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (south of the Sahara Desert) moved up into the higher, cooler reaches of Ethiopia and mixed with and married among the Caucasoid (white) inhabitants already there. Peoples of the Sudan (to the west) and peoples of the desert (to the east) were also migrating. Many found Ethiopia comfortable, and they too settled among and mixed with the peoples from other lands. A major factor in this movement and settlement was trade. Traders bought and sold foods and spices, salt bars (used as money), gold and precious stones, domestic animals, wild animal skins—and slaves. Goods found in one area were wanted in other areas. This promoted the migration of traders and their families and the growth of market towns. This activity has gone on for 2,000 years and continues today.
Peoples of the vast rolling highland plateau, which was known as Abyssinia, found rich volcanic soils for growing their crops. The substantial harvests permitted large groups of people to live together. With so many people, complex political organizations formed. Kingships with central governments developed. They were something like the feudal systems of the European Middle Ages. Until the nineteenth century, these independent kingdoms ruled the highlands. In the late nineteenth century, Emperor Menelik (1889–1913) united them along with other tribal groups to form one empire. This empire was a continuation of a long line of Abyssinian emperorships and lasted until 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie I (1892–1975), who had ruled since 1936, was overthrown in a bloody revolution.
Ethiopia is situated on the eastern "horn" of the African continent. It is bounded by the Red Sea to the northeast, Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south, and Sudan to the west. A great geological split, or rift, in the African continental plate runs south from the Red Sea all the way into the Indian Ocean. This major geological formation is known as the Great Rift Valley. In Ethiopia, the Great Rift Escarpment (a long cliff) forms one of the more spectacular regions on earth. At 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) one can look straight down into a space of fog and clouds and hear the eagles, hawks, antelope, ibex, monkeys, and hyenas calling in the distance below. In the valley's lowlands, when the winds have blown the morning fog and clouds away and before the rains come in the late afternoon, one can see the desert with vast, steep-walled mountains rising from the valley floor some 3,000 to 6,000 feet (914 to 1,830 meters). These are called amba and are the remains of extinct volcanoes that built up gradually over thousands of years.
To the south in the Great Rift Valley, there are steaming lakes where underground water broke free and came to the surface. The lush forests of southern Ethiopia, its rich alluvial (left by running water) river and lake soils, and the great numbers of fish, land animals, and birds provided ample food for numerous tribal peoples. They still inhabit this region and maintain cultural traditions that reach back 10,000 years. Today within the national boundaries of Ethiopia, there are over 52 million people, of more than eighty separate cultures and languages.
Since it was the Amhara people who ruled great regions of Ethiopia for some two thousand years, their language, Amharic, has become the main language of the country. It is a Semitic language, related to Arabic and Hebrew. Because of the influence of Great Britain from the nineteenth century onward, and because of the presence and influence of America in the twentieth century, English has become the second most important language of this country. Both Amharic and English are the languages of business, medicine, and education.
But language and culture in Ethiopia are very complex because of the many other linguistic and cultural influences. There is a family of northern languages in Eritrea. The Cushitic family of languages are spoken by the Oromo peoples, the largest group in the central regions of Ethiopia. The desert-dwelling peoples of the Southeast speak dialects of Somali. In the south and southwest, the Omotic family of languages are spoken by many smaller tribal groups. Many of these languages have no writing system, and the cultures of these peoples are carried on by spoken traditions. They are called nonliterate cultures, but they are not less important or respected just because they exist without writing.
One language of Ethiopia is not spoken daily by any cultural group at all. It is called Geez, an ancient Semitic language used in the Coptic Christian Church. Scriptures are written in Geez, and during Ethiopian Christian Church services, prayers, chants, and songs are spoken and sung in Geez. The function of Geez in the church is similar to that of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church.
In addition to English, other Western languages are evident in Ethiopia. In the early part of the twentieth century, the French built a railroad and established schools in Ethiopia and brought their language to the country. Italian is known because of the Italian occupation during World War II (1939–45). Today most automobile and refrigerator parts have Italian names.
Arabic is an important language of business among people dealing with Arabia and the Middle East.
Every culture has its own body of folklore, myths, legends, song, poetry, stories, and parables. They reveal the identity of the culture and the common notions of morality and tradition among the people of that culture. It would take a whole encyclopedia of folklore just to present examples from the many cultures of Ethiopia. One myth, the Abyssinian story of Solomon and Sheba, provides an example of the function of myth and folklore in a culture.
Meqede was Queen of the land of Sheba (in Amharic she is also known as Saba). She knew of King Solomon's great wisdom and wished to visit him in the land of Israel. So she summoned a trader who traveled far and wide and knew the paths to Israel. She gave him delicate perfumes and scents from tree barks and flowers and sent him to offer these to King Solomon. He accepted them with curiosity, wondering about this queen from the land of Ethiopia. The trader returned with the good news that King Solomon wanted to meet her. She gathered her handmaidens, cooks, body guards, and slaves and set off to the land of Israel. She traveled by boat up the Nile and by camel across the great deserts.
King Solomon personally greeted Saba at his gate. He invited Saba and her people to a great feast. Then the King invited Saba to sleep with him. The Queen refused politely but firmly. That night, King Solomon took Saba's maidservant to bed with him. The next evening King Solomon and Saba dined together. The King had told his cooks to make the food very spicy and salty. Again that night, the King invited Saba to sleep with him. He promised not to touch her so long as she did not take anything belonging to the King—if she did, he could have her. Saba agreed to this and shared the bed of King Solomon. That night Saba awoke with a great thirst and drank some water from the King's own cup. He caught her and reminded her of their agreement. They slept together and she became pregnant.
Saba, the Queen of Sheba, returned to her land and in time had a child, whom she named Menelik. As Menelik grew up, Saba taught him about his father, King Solomon. He drew a picture of his father to keep near him.
As a young man, Menelik traveled back to the land of Israel to meet and know his father. Menelik, who would follow his mother as ruler of Sheba in the land of Abyssinia, remembered the great Ark and the tablets that were handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. He had his people take the Ark of the Covenant from its place and brought it back to the land of Sheba without the knowledge or consent of the Israelites. Back in his native land, Menelik installed the Great Ark in the Church of St. Mary at Axum, sanctifying the land of Sheba and forming a foundation for the royal line of the Solomonic dynasty.
This myth exists to this day. It is a very important myth because it gives the Abyssinian peoples a sense of historical identity. It also justified the emperor's right to rule by linking the Abyssinian people with God, Moses, and the holy Ark of the Covenant. The important link was Menelik, son of King Solomon, who was of the royal line of kings blessed by God. The myth also is rich with the flavor of Abyssinian culture: the sending of pleasing gifts to beg an invitation, Solomon's craftiness, and Menelik's transferring the power of the Ark to his own land.
Religious belief and ritual (ceremony) vary with each culture within the boundaries of Ethiopia. With over eighty languages spoken, one can find over eighty cultures and over eighty religions. Yet there are similarities among religious beliefs and rituals. Therefore, generally speaking, there are three major religions practiced by Ethiopians today: Coptic Monophysite Christianity, Islam, and indigenous (or what some people used to call "pagan") religion.
Ethiopian Coptic Christianity was adopted by the Abyssinian peoples (north-central highland populations) in the fourth century. This religion has not changed much in the almost 2,000 years it has been practiced by Ethiopians of the highlands. This form of Christianity still contains many Old Testament and pagan elements. These would have been common during the time when Jesus's disciples were preaching to the villagers of Galilee. Because it is relatively unchanged, Ethiopian Christianity is a museum of early Christian life.
While Ethiopian Christianity is practiced by a minority (smaller proportion) of the total Ethiopian population, Islam is practiced by the great majority (largest group). Each Ethiopian interprets the Islamic Koran a bit differently, and each has a slightly different tradition of practice. One notable ritual practice is the chewing of qat, or tchat . This is a plant that grows widely and is a multimillion dollar industry in Ethiopia, with exports to several Middle Eastern countries. (The leaves are bitter to the taste and provide a mild stimulant that can keep a person awake through the night. Often people work very hard at their jobs of trading or farming through the morning, and then at noon they will cease their work and chew for the rest of the day, while socializing, praying, and taking care of minor business matters.)
The third major category of Ethiopian religion is indigenous religion. This is a general term for the ancient religions practiced by tribal peoples who live by 10,000- year-old traditions. Within these religions there is evidence of outside influences including those of Protestant missionaries and Islam. But these ancient religions have served the people well, helping them to adapt and survive with energy and spirit.
Finally, there are the Falasha, the Hebraic people of Ethiopia who practice an ancient form of Judaism. From the eleventh century through the thirteenth century, the Falasha formed a powerful political force in the high reaches of the Semien Mountains. For a time they controlled the Abyssinian population. When they were defeated by the Abyssians at the end of the thirteenth century, they lost their land. They then made their living working with metal, clay, and cloth. They existed as a despised group that other peoples still had to depend upon because of the Falasha's fine crafting skills. Because of the upheavals of famine and civil war—at one point they were caught in the middle of that war—and through high-level political manipulations, few Falasha remain in Ethiopia. In a massive airlift, called Operation Solomon, most of the Falasha people moved to Israel, their promised land.
Although most of the holidays are religious—and they are numerous—there are some secular holidays recognized by all Ethiopians. The Ethiopian New Year is celebrated in September because they use the old Julian calendar. It contains twelve months of thirty days each, plus a six-day "month" which ends their year. New Year's Day is a time of celebration, during which the people slaughter and feast on chickens, goats, and sheep, and sometimes steer. They welcome the New Year with singing and dancing. The other major secular holiday today can be translated as "Freedom Day" or "Independence Day," and celebrates the time when the northern fighters swept down into Addis Ababa and ousted the former dictatorship after a thirty-year civil war. There are parades, feasts, and dancing to the traditional Ethiopian music.
Birth is not a very significant time for rites of passage in Ethiopia, because the family is anxious about the survival of the newborn baby and does not know whether their god will take the infant or let it gain strength through childhood. Infant mortality (the proportion of children who die during infancy) ranges between 20 to 40 percent depending on the particular people and where they live.
For the Christian and Islamic groups, circumcision marks a rite of passage into the adult world and provides cultural identity for the boys and girls involved. For the boys it is a simple ceremony. For the girls, depending on the cultural group, it may be extensive and painful surgery on the genitals (sex organs).
For many groups in Ethiopia, marriage is a significant event in which the couple assumes adult responsibilities. These include work roles and the rearing of children who will carry on the family name and maintain the family estate.
Among the highland Ethiopians, the virginity of a bride is considered extremely important. Her blood must be seen on the bed sheets before this first marriage is considered official.
The funeral ritual is the other major rite of passage, in which the community grieves over its loss and celebrates the passing of the person's spirit into the realm of God.
Throughout Ethiopia people use both formal and informal ways of relating to others. The formal level of communicating eases the comings and goings and business of everyday living, prevents conflict from surfacing, and provides an entrance into more informal conversation.
Among Amharic speakers in Ethiopia, when greeting an acquaintance, one will say tenayistilign (may God give you health for me), and the other will answer in kind. (Most people speak Amharic even if it is not their mother tongue, because it is the national language.) Then the first speaker will say dehna neh? (you are fine?) if he or she is speaking to someone familiar. The other will answer, awon, dehna negn (Yes, I am fine). They will question each other about their wives or husbands, children, and other close relatives. This exchange can be repeated several times before lapsing into conversation.
It is an honor to be invited into homes for a meal since it means feasting with the family, drinking beer and liquor, and spending hours in warm conversation telling all the news one can remember. Normally, if one is invited to another's home, one should bring a gift. The traditional visiting gifts in Ethiopia include coffee or sugar, a bottle of liquor or honey wine, or fruit or eggs. Giving food and drink is practically a sacred act.
Drought and famine in Ethiopia have left parts of the country devastated. The north-central region has been affected and conditions there have been made worse by a civil war that continued until 1991.
There are four major ecological zones that determine living conditions for Ethiopians. To the east are the desert nomads. National Geographic Magazine describes them as one of the toughest and most ferocious peoples on earth. They live with their camel and cattle herds in one of the most hostile places on earth, the Afar Desert and Danakil Depression. Temperatures can climb to 140° F (60° C ). Salt bars are still mined there and used as money.
In contrast, the great highland plateau rises from 9,000 to 14,000 feet (2,743 to 4,267 meters). Fertile soils allow rich harvests for the large populations of Abyssinians, who live in a fairly complex political system. Work roles are distinctive for men and women. Women start the day at dawn, get the water, make the coffee, prepare the grains for the day's meals, and care for the children. Men get up a bit later and, depending on the season, till the soil with plowshare and oxen, allow the animals to fertilize it with dung, harvest the grain crops, and defend the homestead in times of danger. Men usually have much more leisure time than the women. But through the day there is always time for coffee parties, gossip, and lively conversation. Adults and children tell stories by the hearth fires at night and go to bed between 10:00 PM and midnight.
To the south are the tribal peoples. They live in a horticultural ecology, cultivating food-giving plants around the homestead. Their daily rounds are not too different from the peasant farmers in the highland.
The fourth way of life is city and town life. Addis Ababa, the capital city, is more like a conglomeration of villages or neighborhoods with straight-sided, mud-walled houses topped by corrugated iron roofs. The city is full of automobiles and large trucks. Concrete buildings house government and big business, and a few palaces recall the royalty of an earlier era.
Health is the major problem in the cities, where many diseases flourish. The dense population has little access to modern medicine.
By World Bank standards, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. But there is evidence of a growing middle class. Nevertheless, there is still a striking contrast between the very poor, many of whom are living on the streets, and the upper class, who live in palatial homes with many modern luxuries.
Among the Christian population monogamy is the rule, allowing one spouse. Among the Muslim population, a man may have up to four wives if he can afford to support them, but most men have only one wife. Ethiopians love to have large families because children are considered wealth: they are a source of labor, they provide social and emotional support, and they are an old couple's social security. Peasant farmers often live in extended families on homesteads. Each house serves a special function, such as the kitchen house, the bedroom house, the party house, the toilet house (if there is one), and the guest house. All are surrounded by walls of stone and thornbush to keep out the wild animals, such as leopard, hyena, and wild dog. One will normally find three generations of a family living together, sharing the work and the pleasures of family life. Most families have one or more dogs that they keep tied on a short rope in order to intimidate intruders who might consider stealing a goat or a chicken or two.
Grandparents are highly valued because they are the teachers of the young. They tell their grandchildren stories of their history, their religion, and the best way to gain power and influence in the community. Women are considered inferior to men in Ethiopian society.
A great variety of clothing can be found in Ethiopia, from the fancy and colorfully embroidered white dresses of women and the tailored white shirts and jodhpur trousers of men, to the body decorations of naked tribal peoples of the southwest. In the past, the tribal peoples' only clothing was iron bracelets, beads, gypsum and ocher paints, and elaborate designs of scars. Today, more and more of these peoples have donned clothing, but only as a decoration.
The traditional Abyssinian cuisine is complex and varied. The berbere is a hot sauce of cayenne pepper and twelve other spices. It is heavy and rich, cooked with a good deal of butter. The sauce is served with chicken, mutton, goat, or beef. Pigs are not eaten anywhere in Ethiopia except by the Europeans and Americans. Pork is considered disgusting and is taboo, according to the ancient Hebraic custom. No meal is complete without a variety of fresh vegetables, both cooked and raw. Cheese, which is similar to a dry cottage cheese, is eaten, but not to a great extent. Fish is also eaten, though it is not a popular dish among the native Ethiopians.
People sit around a tall circular basket (mesob) with a flat top, where the large, round, thin sourdough bread called injera is laid and the various foods are put down upon it. Food is eaten with the fingers. At the beginning and at the end of the meal, the hostess hands around hot steaming towels. The meal is finished with coffee—some the richest beans found anywhere in the world.
Note: If the first injera begins to brown on the bottom while the top is still under-cooked and runny, try using less batter and cooking just a little longer. If the injera become crispy, reduce cooking time.
Injera may be topped with any kind of bean, lentil, or rice salad, with chopped vegetables, or with a meat mixture. The most authentic topping would be spicy lentils.
Injera is a thin flat bread, shaped like a tortilla. Sometimes loaves of injera are made to be 3 feet (1 meter) across. Injera is used in place of silverware. Loaves are laid on a platter in overlapping circles. Food is mounded on top. Diners tear off a bite-sized piece of injera, and use it to pick up a mouthful of food.
Traditionally, in the rural regions—most of Ethiopia—education was mainly for boys and young men and was supervised by the church. Today, government schools dot the countryside. In the city of Addis Ababa and larger towns, schools have always played an important role in the secular (nonreligious) education of the children. Today, in the city, girls and young women struggle to become educated. More opportunities are opening up for girls and for women with the help of international agencies, which are trying to support the faltering economy.
Among the Abyssinians, there is a traditional literature that is mainly religious in nature. Centuries of relative isolation have allowed a unique tradition of music to develop, which is similar to Indian or Arabic styles. Painting is largely religious, and it portrays people with facial features in a very formal style, with very large eyes.
Today, a growing number of artists are creating powerful images of their times with oil and watercolor and in sculpture.
In the rural countryside, traditional work has continued relatively unchanged for a thousand years. The peoples of the highlands are farmers. Desert peoples are nomadic herders of camels, goats, and cattle. In the Rift Valley and the surrounding regions of the south and southwest, gardening is a traditional form of employment. Here, people cultivate the ensete plant, which looks like a banana tree, but its trunk pulp is prepared and eaten.
It is only in the towns and the city that industry and business have proliferated. Most work is found in independent shops selling fabrics, hardware, food, and drinks. There are numerous coffee and pastry shops, mostly run by women.
Many Ethiopians are crazy about soccer, which they call "football."
Ethiopian athletes participate in Olympic sports. The marathon is the specialty of Ethiopians. Long-distance running is a very popular sport, even at the local level. Of course, there are numerous traditional sports: the wrestling and stick fighting in the tribal south, the whipping battles practiced in the north, and a variety of children's ball and stick games that are played throughout Ethiopia.
Women are the dancers. They rarely compete in sports, which are considered the arena of young men. Women cheer the men and encourage them to be fierce, so they can be proud of them and consider them worthy partners for marriage.
In the rural countryside children play with whatever they have, making animals, dolls, balls, toy weapons, automobiles, and other toys out of mud, clay, rags, sticks, tin can scraps, and the like. Boys engage in competitive sports.
Adults drink and talk and dance, especially during holiday celebrations, which occur almost weekly in Abyssinian culture. There are also traveling minstrels—men and women who travel from village to village, town to town, singing naughty songs and the gossip of the day or week. They invite spectators to sing with them and dance and joke. In return they "beg" for money.
In the city of Addis Ababa and a few northern towns one can find movie theaters showing B-grade films from America, Italy, and India. There are many bars and night clubs, complete with music and dance. Although there is only one television station, videotape rental is a booming business.
Throughout Ethiopia, artisans ply their trades, serving both the artistic and practical needs of their customers. Workers in clay make biblical figurines, coffee and cooking pots, water jugs, and plates to set food on (but not to eat from). Blacksmiths forge plowshares, iron rings (for bracelets, neck ornaments, and the like), bullets, cartridge casings, spearheads, and knives. Woodcarvers craft chairs, tables, goblets, and statues. Artists paint oil on canvas, creating traditionally religious images. Modern painters mix traditional art with their own interpretations of their world today, sometimes with spectacular results. Weavers hand-spin cotton thread and weave it into complex patterned cloth, and they decorate it with highly detailed and colorful embroidery. This is then used in clothing, including scarves, shirts, dresses, and capes.
There are many social problems. Many Westerners know of the thirty years of civil war in the north, continuing drought, widespread famine, and massive loss of life. Add to this the unavailability of modern medical care (except for the upper class in the city); rampaging diseases such as tuberculosis, intestinal bacterial infections, crack cocaine addiction, and HIV in the capital city; poverty; widespread prostitution; and homelessness. There are violations of human rights in the countryside and in the capital city. These include politically motivated imprisonment without trial, torture, and hasty and illegal executions.
To begin addressing these social problems, international volunteers have arrived in Ethiopia. Small private clinics (funded by Ethiopians, such as doctors, living in Europe and America) are springing up in the capital city and in larger towns. Several reservoirs are being built and more are planned. Many small dam projects are under construction, especially in the drought-ravaged north. Tree-planting projects have been undertaken to repair the damage from a thousand years of tree cutting.
The Ethiopian spirit is strong, and the children of Ethiopia are vibrant and enthusiastic, nurtured by loving relatives who do what they can to promote hope for the next generation.
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Buxton, David. The Abyssinians. New York: Praeger, 1970.
Fradin, D. Ethiopia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.
Gerster, Georg. Churches in Stone: Early Christian Art in Ethiopia. New York: Phaidon, 1970.
Internet Africa Ltd. Ethiopia. [Online] Available http://www.africanet.com/africanet/country/ethiopia/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide, Ethiopia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/et/gen.html , 1998.