Ethiopia

The land that time forgot

Ethiopia is unique in every way! It has its own languages (more than 84), its own calendar (7 years behind the Gregorian), its own strand of Christianity (Ethiopian-orthodox) and a landscape that is unparalleled. In the high mountains of the North, called the roof of Africa, one feels neither part of Africa nor Asia. The Semitic people, speaking age-old languages, plough their stony fields with ox drawn wooden ploughs. But peoples' cultures and habits are as various as the different natural sceneries that Ethiopia has to offer and that embrace all different landscapes from the driest desert to the greenest forests. Here you will discover what makes Ethiopia so special.

Geography

Ethiopia is situated in the Horn of Africa. It is a large country of more than 1.1 million km2. The main part of the country consists of an immense tableland with an average altitude of more than 2,000 m above sea level, where several mountain massifs reach more than 4,000m, and where rains and big rivers such as the Blue Nile, Tekezze, Omo and Awash have carved out deep canyons.
The Ethiopian high plateau slopes down westwards to the Sudanese borders and eastwards to the dry and hot desert depression of Danakil with its lunar landscapes, salt lakes and active volcanoes. From the South to the East the country is divided by the great African Rift Valley. It hosts a beautiful sequence of lakes, abounding in fish and inhabited by a large variety of birds species. Due to the special mountainous and inaccessible natural environment of Ethiopia, many cultures could be preserved from foreign influences and interferences.

History

“Lucy”, who lived around 3.2 million years ago and was found in the Awash Valley, and 4.4 million years old “Ardi” recently found in the Afar desert prove that modern human being and its hominid ancestors evolved in the eastern zone of the great African Rift Valley. Thus Ethiopia is considered as the cradle of mankind.
Ethiopia was known from the dawn of civilisation and has a 3,000 years old history.
After the prehistorian times of “Ardi” and “Lucy” and the evolution of human beings the most noteworthy stages are the years around 960 A.D. with Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (whose child was Ebn Melek and later Menelik I, the first Emperor of Ethiopia), the successive Empire of Axum, the Zagwe dynasty around year 1,000, the Solomonic period and subsequent Portuguese influence in the 15th century, the islamic invasion under Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (Gragn) and the Abyssinian-Adal War he generated, the Gondar period (1632-1855), the modern era with the emperors Tewodros II, Yohannes IV and Menelik II, the reign of the last emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) interrupted by the Italian period (1936-1941), the red revolution and communist period until 1991 and the creation of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Religion

Ethiopia is an important country for all the three book-religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Since the Ark of the Covenant had arrived in the Axumite Empire the country was believed to be a chosen land from the beginning amongst the early Jewish settlers. As one of the first countries in the world, Ethiopia had Christianity as a state religion around 340 A.D. In the fifth century nine monks of the Roman Empire (still known as the nine saints) came to Ethiopia and built many churches and monasteries.
The geographic isolation of the Ethiopian highlands and the custom to built churches out of the rock was a reason why the Christian Church has resisted all attempts to be destroyed. “New Jerusalem”, later called “Lalibela” after the most productive king, arose in the 12th-13th century.
After the Solomonic dynasty Islam became stronger and the two religions clashed various times. Ahmad (Gragn) attacked and destroyed big parts of Christian Ethiopia until he was killed in 1543 with the help of Portuguese Jesuits. Today the eastern parts around Harar, the Bale Mountains and Afar are mainly Muslim while the rest of the Ethiopian highlands are mainly Christian.
A large group of Ethiopian Jews, called the “Falasha” have lived since millennia in the North-West. Between 1985 and 1991 most of them were airlifted to Israel and nowadays only a handful of Jewish women and children remain around the village of Woleka north of Gondar.

People

In Ethiopia up to 87 different ethnic groups live together, socially organized on federal basis. Almost all of them speak their own language. The three most numerous ethnic groups are the Amhara (Amharic is official national language), the Oromo (biggest tribe in number of population) and the Tigray (their language Tigrinya is closely related to the antique language Geez, used up to date by the Orthodox Church).
Other numerous ethnic groups are the Guraghe and Sidamo, dwelling in the western and South-western highland territories. Towards the North-eastern border with Eritrea and Djibouti, in the wide desert areas of Danakil, there live the semi-nomadic Afar, and the Eastern regions are mainly populated by Ethiopian Somali, both tribes of Cushitic origin. Towards the West, near Gambela and the South Sudanese border live the Anuak and Nuer populations, tribes of Nilotic origin which are related to Sudanese tribes.
In the southern highlands there are a variety of small ethnic groups living there, such the Wolayta, Dorze, Konso and Borena, and along the banks of the Omo River there are several animistic peoples of Nilotic and Omotic origin, e.g. the Karo, Galeb, Bodi, Mursi, Benna, Erbore, Tsemay and Hamer on the eastern side and the Surma, Dizi, Bume and Nyangatom on the western side of the Omo river. They have lived isolated until a few years ago and have preserved their lifestyle practically intact up to the present.

Festivals

Following the legends told in the book “Kebra Negast”, Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, went to visit his father in Jerusalem and on his way back to Ethiopia he brought the “Ark of the Covenant”, containing the tables of law God had given to Moses. According to this legend the Ark remained in Ethiopia is now preserved in Axum. Every Ethiopian church contains a copy of the Ark called “Tabot”. During some usually two days lasting Ethiopian Orthodox festivals, the most interesting events in the country, these copies are often brought out, hidden in heavy and colourful brocades and carried through the masses of the believers in processions, accompanied by music, psalms, and rituals all dating back to Judaism and to the dawn of Ethiopian Christendom. As every day is dedicated to a special saint, smaller celebrations take place on the respective churches dedicated to that saint, but the major celebrations in Ethiopian Orthodox Church are:
- Gena, Christmas, 6th- 7th of January
- Timket, Epiphany, 18th- 19th of January
- Hosanna, Palm Sunday one week before Easter
- Fasika, Easter, Date varies from year to year
- Meskal, celebrations of the Finding of the True Cross, 27th of September
The most important Muslim events, celebrated greatly in the eastern part of Ethiopia are: Sheikh Hussein and Sof Omar festivals as well as, of course, the internationally celebrated Muslim holidays, depending on the lunar calendar.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Ethiopia has a lot to offer from the cultural as well as from the natural side. To give you a further evidence of it, we highlight that Ethiopia has 9 Cultural or Natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, together with Morocco (9) more than any other African country (Tunisia and South Africa have 8, Egypt, Algeria and Tanzania 7, Kenia 6, etc…)
Here is the complete list of Ethiopia's UNESCO World Heritage Sites 1):

Site Name 2) Region Criteria Year Description
Lower Valley of the Awash Afar Region Cultural 1980 Palaeontological findings from at least 4 million years ago, such as Lucy, give evidence of human evolution.
Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Amhara Region Cultural 1979 The fortress was the residence of the Ethiopian emperors during the 16th-17th century. The city remains (with Hindu and Arab influences) were later remodelled with Baroque-style architecture.
Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela Amhara Region Cultural 1978 The site contains eleven medieval cave churches from the 13th century.
Simien National Park Amhara Region Natural 1978 The eroded Ethiopian plateau comprises high mountain peaks (the highest of Ethiopia), deep valleys, and sharp precipices dropping about 1,500 m.
Harar Jugol, the Fortified Historic Town Harari Region Cultural 2006 The city, the fourth-holiest city of Islam, is on a plateau and surrounded by gorges and savanna. It contains 82 mosques, 102 shrines, and unique interior design in the town-houses.
Lower Valley of the Omo Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region Cultural 1980 The prehistoric site near Lake Turkana is the location of many fossil findings, such as Homo gracilis.
Konso Cultural Landscape Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region Cultural 2011 The site features 55 kilometres of stonewalled terraces and fortified settlements in the Konso highlands.
Tiya Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region Cultural 1980 The archaeological site contains 36 monuments, which includes 32 carved stelae covered with symbols hard to decrypt.
Axum Tigray Region Cultural 1980 The ruins of the city, including obelisks, stelae, tombs and ruins dating from the 1st-13th century, mark the heart of ancient Ethiopia and was the most powerful state between the Roman Empire and Persia.
2)
Some of these site and other locations are described in the section attractions.
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