Ethiopia in detail

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More than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is known for its culture. With its long and prestigious history and early connections with the Christian church, its culture is ancient and rich. Additionally, it was the only country on the continent to escape colonialism; its culture has survived largely intact.


Ethiopia boasts some remarkable historical architecture. Though some monuments, such as the castles of Gonder, show foreign influence, earlier building styles, such as those developed during the Aksumite period, are believed to be wholly indigenous and are of a high technical standard.

More recently, the Italians left behind a few impressive bits of fascist architecture (Gonder has a couple of memorable buildings as does Dire Dawa) and the Derg left behind some Soviet-style works (check out the Derg monument in Addis).

Aksumite Architecture

The ‘Aksumite style’ of stone masonry is Ethiopia’s most famous building style. Walls were constructed with field stones set in mortar, along with sometimes finely dressed cornerstones. In between came alternating layers of stone and timber, and protruding ends of round timber beams, known as ‘monkey heads’. The latter are even symbolically carved into Aksum’s great obelisks, which may just be the nation’s greatest architectural achievements. The Aksumites were undoubtedly master masons.

The best examples of Aksumite buildings are seen at Debre Damo and the church of Yemrehanna Kristos.

The Aksumite style is additionally seen in Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, particularly in the shape of the windows, as well as in modern design today. Keep an eye out for the ancient motifs in new hotel and restaurant designs.

Ethiopian Houses

Ethiopian houses are famously diverse; each ethnic group has developed its own design according to its own lifestyle and resources. In general, the round tukul (hut) forms the basis of most designs. Circular structures and conical thatched roofs better resist the wind and heavy rain. Windows and chimneys are usually absent. The smoke, which escapes through the thatch, fumigates the building, protecting it against insect infestations such as termites.

Sometimes the huts are shared: the right side for the family, the left for the animals. Livestock are not only protected from predators, but in some regions they also provide central heating!

Gonder Architecture

The town of Gonder and its imperial enclosure represent another peak in Ethiopian architectural achievement. Although Portuguese, Moorish and Indian influences are all evident, the castles are nevertheless a peculiarly Ethiopian synthesis. Some have windows decorated with red volcanic tuff, and barrel- or egg-shaped domes.

Rock-Hewn Architecture

Ethiopia’s rock-hewing tradition probably predates Christianity and has resulted in nearly 400 churches across the country. The art form reached its apogee in the 12th and 13th centuries in Lalibela, where the Zagwe dynasty produced 11 churches that continue to astound. They’re considered among the world’s finest early Christian architecture.

The churches are unique in that many stand completely free from the rock, unlike similar structures in Jordan and Egypt. The buildings show extraordinary technical skill in the use of line, proportion and decoration, and in the remarkable variety of styles.

The rock-hewn churches of the Tigray region, though less famous and spectacular, are no less remarkable.

Feature: Hoofprints & Saintly Reminders

Few would doubt that the churches of Lalibela are one of the architectural highlights of the early Middle Ages. And of all the churches none are as exquisite as the cruciform Bet Giyorgis. So perfectly composed is this church you could be forgiven for thinking that it could not possibly be the design of mere men. And according to Ethiopian tradition you’d be right.

Just as King Lalibela was finishing off his series of churches, he was suddenly paid an unexpected visit. Astride a white horse and decked out in full armour came Ethiopia’s patron saint, George. However, the saint turned out to be severely piqued: not one of the churches had been dedicated to him.

Profusely apologetic, Lalibela promised to make amends immediately by building him the most beautiful church of all.

Today, the priests of Bet Giyorgis (meaning ‘Place of George’) point out the hoofprints left behind by the saint’s horse, permanently imprinted in stone on the side of the trench.


The church, traditionally enjoying almost as much authority as the state, is responsible for both inspiring Ethiopia’s art forms and stifling them with its great conservatism and rigorous adherence to convention.

Long neglected and ignored, the cultural contributions of Ethiopia’s minority ethnic groups are only now receiving due credit and attention.


Dance forms an extremely important part of the lives of most Ethiopians, and almost every ethnic group has its own distinct variety. Although the iskista – in which the shoulders are juddered up and down and backwards and forwards, in a careful rhythm, while the hips and legs stay motionless – is the best known, there are myriad others.

Dances in praise of nature, such as after a good harvest or when new sources of water are discovered, are still found in rural areas, as are dances that allow the young ‘warriors’ to show off their agility and athleticism. Look out for the fukara (boasting dance), which is often performed at public festivals. A leftover from less peaceful times, it involves a man holding a spear, stick or rifle horizontally above his shoulders at the same time as moving his head from side to side and shouting defiantly at the ‘enemy’.

Among the tribes of the Omo Valley in the south, many dances incorporate jumping and leaping up and down, a little like the dances of Kenya’s Maasai.


Literature has a long and illustrious history in Ethiopia. Inscriptions in Ge’ez, a South Semitic language, have been found to date as far back as 2500 years; though it wasn’t until Aksumite times that it became widely used as a language of literature. It was during this early period that the Bible was translated from Greek into Ge’ez.

Even though Ge’ez had long since died as a spoken language, the 13th and 14th centuries are considered to mark the golden age of Ge’ez literature, in which many works were translated from Arabic, as well as much original writing produced. It’s thought that in the early 14th century the Kebra Negast was written.

During the 16th-century Muslim–Christian Wars, book production ground to a halt and copious amounts of literature was destroyed. By the 17th century, Ge’ez was in decline as a literary language, but that didn’t mean the value of books had been lost. It’s around this time that rumours spread of a vast library hidden on the mysterious flat-topped mountain of Amba Gishen. Inside the library’s endless halls could be found every kind of book, including the works of Job and Abraham and the lost Book of Enoch. What makes this tale so extraordinary is that in 1773 a Ge’ez version of the lost Book of Enoch was discovered in Ethiopia (to this day it remains the only complete copy ever found).

Amharic, now Ethiopia’s official language, was the Amharas’ language. It was Emperor Tewodros who encouraged the local language in an attempt to promote national unity. In a continuation of the trend begun in the 14th century, Tewodros and other emperors right up to Haile Selassie funded writers whose compositions and poetic laudatory songs were written to praise the ruler’s qualities and munificence.

Under the Derg, both writing and writers were suppressed. Be’alu Girma is a well-known example of one of the many artists who disappeared during their reign.


Whether it’s the solemn sounds of drums resonating from a church, the hilarious ad-libbing of an azmari (wandering minstrel) or Ethiopian pop blaring in a bus, Ethiopian music is as interesting as it’s unavoidable.


Traditionally, Ethiopian painting is largely limited to religious subjects, particularly the life of Christ and the saints. Every church in Ethiopia is decorated with abundant and colourful murals, frescos or paintings.

Much Ethiopian painting is characterised by a naive realism. Everything is expressed with vigour and directness using bold colour, strong line and stylised proportions and perspective. Like the stained-glass windows in European Gothic churches, the paintings served a very important purpose: to instruct, inspire and instil awe in the illiterate and uneducated.

Though some modern artists (particularly painters of religious and some secular work) continue in the old tradition (or incorporate ancient motifs such as that of the Aksumite stelae), many artists have developed their own style. Borrowing freely from the past, but no longer constrained by it, modern Ethiopian painting shows greater originality of expression and is now a flourishing medium.


In many ways Ethiopia is heading squarely in the right direction, but one sphere where things are taking a decided turn for the worse is in the freedom of media.

When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) first came to power the severe restrictions placed on the media by the Derg regime, and before that the imperial regime, were largely lifted and the press given more freedom than it had ever really had before. However, this change of fortunes was not to last.

After the May 2005 elections, the EU had harsh criticism of the state-owned media for regularly releasing unofficial results that highlighted the government’s victories and virtually ignoring the victories of opposition parties. They blasted state-owned Radio Ethiopia and Ethiopian TV for ‘completely ignoring’ the press conferences and important statements given by opposition parties, information that CNN and the BBC thought newsworthy.

Since 1992, when the Press Law came into effect, numerous journalists have been arrested without trial for publishing critical articles of the government. The editor of Agere died untried in prison in 1998. Several owners of private media were arrested and their newspapers shut down during the post-electoral violence in 2005.

More recently the situation for journalists has gotten worse. An antiterrorism law, introduced in 2009, has been used to harass and jail journalists and editors who have published antigovernment articles. According to Journalists Without Borders, in 2011 four journalists, including two Swedes, were given lengthy prison terms for ‘terrorist activities’. Under pressure the Swedes were released in 2012. In mid-2012 award-winning Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega was imprisoned for 18 years after writing a column questioning the arrest of journalists.

The censorship and repression doesn’t stop with print media. Opposition websites and websites criticising the government are frequently blocked, and in early 2012 the government even went as far as making the use of Skype and other VoIP software illegal on ‘national security grounds’ with possible prison sentences of up to 15 years. Such an uproar followed that the government later backed down on this. In October 2016, the government declared a state of emergency and again blocked many websites as well as Facebook in an attempt to control the situation.


Ethiopia’s mix of cultures has been pretty stable over the past few centuries, with only the expulsion of Eritrean citizens after the recent Ethiopia–Eritrea War and influxes of Sudanese refugees into the western lowlands shifting the status quo.

Despite the nation’s regions being divided along ethnic lines in 1995, there’s still some resentment, particularly among the Oromo, that has led to violence over the fact that the minority Tigrayan and Amhara people largely maintain control of the national government (although the prime minister is not from either of these groups).

Many travellers also notice that some Ethiopian highlanders, regardless of their ethnic background, seem to show a slight disdain for Ethiopians from the lowlands.

Religion in Ethiopia

Faith is an extremely important part of an Ethiopian’s life. Orthodox Christians bring religion into everyday conversation just as much as their Muslim counterparts. Although Orthodox believers only slightly outnumber Muslims (43.5% to 33.9%), Christianity has traditionally dominated the country’s past. The vast majority of highlanders are Orthodox and the religion continues to heavily influence the highlands’ political, social and cultural scene. Most Muslims inhabit the eastern, southern and western lowlands, but there are also significant populations in the country’s predominantly Christian towns, including Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity

As the official religion of the imperial court right up until Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974, the Orthodox Church continues to carry great clout among the Ethiopian people and is regarded as the great guardian and repository of ancient Ethiopian traditions, directly inherited from Aksum.

Ethiopia was the second country (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity as its state religion and it’s been a truly unifying factor over the centuries. By the same measure, it’s also legitimised the oppression of the people by its rulers.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is thought to have its roots in Judaism – some even say that this is the home of the Lost Tribes of Israel. This Jewish connection explains the food restrictions, including the way animals are slaughtered. Even the traditional round church layout is considered Hebrew in origin. Ancient Semitic and pagan elements also persist.

Circumcision is generally practised on boys, marriage is celebrated in the presence of a priest and confession is usually only made during a grave illness.


Ethiopia’s connection with Islam is as distinguished as its connection with Christianity. Though bloody religious wars were fought in Ethiopia in the past, Ethiopia’s Christian and Muslim inhabitants generally coexist in harmony. Fundamentalism is rare in Ethiopia, and it’s uncommon to see women wearing the hijab (veil), though the majority wear either headscarves or shalmas (a gauze-thin length of fabric draped around the head, shoulders and torso).

Negash, in Tigray, where Islam was introduced in 615 AD and the shrine of Sheikh Hussein in the Bale region are both greatly venerated and attract national and international pilgrims.

The famous walled city of Harar is also an important Islamic centre in its own right and is home to an astonishing number of shrines and mosques. In the past, it was renowned as a centre of learning.

The Secret Name of God

Belief in talismans and charms is common among all communities in Ethiopia, whether they be Christian, Muslim or animist. Maybe the most intriguing of these is belief in asmat, or the secret names of God in which reside his power. God has many asmat and these, if invoked by a person, can protect against misfortune or illness. Because of this many Ethiopians wear a talisman around their neck containing a small piece of parchment on which are written asmat. When a Christian Ethiopian dies his or her body is wrapped in a shroud containing a thin, body-length strip of linen on which are written the asmat. This ensures a safe passage through the underworld and across a river of fire to the gates of Heaven.

Traditional African Beliefs

Traditional African beliefs are still practised either totally or in part, by an estimated 11% of Ethiopia’s population, particularly in the lowland areas of the west and south. These range from the Konso’s totemism to animism (associated with trees, springs, mountains and stones), in which animals are ritually slaughtered and then consumed by the people. Elements of ancestor worship are still found among the Afar people.

The Oromo traditionally believe in a supreme celestial deity known as Wak, whose eye is the sun.

Feature: The Birth of Christian Ethiopia

Sometimes finding out what happened in Ethiopia just last week can be tough, so when it comes to finding out what happened nearly 2000 years ago it goes without saying that fact, fiction and an utter disregard of scientific logic are part of the parcel. The story of how Christianity first arrived in Ethiopia is no exception to this rule.

The man credited with bringing Christianity to Ethiopia is a certain St Frumentius, better known in Ethiopia today as Abuna Selama. Born a Christian in early-4th-century Lebanon, legend has it that when still young Abuna and his brother Edesius travelled by boat down the Red Sea to Ethiopia. By all accounts the shores of the Red Sea at that time were filled with people up to no good. As if to prove this point, when the boat they were travelling on stopped at a harbour the locals massacred all aboard except the two boys, who were taken as slaves to the king of Aksum. Quickly gaining the trust of the king they were eventually given their freedom, but when the king died the queen begged the brothers to stay and help bring up her son, and future king, Ezana. Abuna Selama in particular used his position to influence the young Ezana and convert him to Christianity. When Ezana was old enough to become king, Selama travelled to Alexandria in Egypt where he requested the patriarch to send a bishop to Ethiopia. Instead, the patriarch consecrated Selama and sent him back to Aksum, where he baptised Ezana, built a number of churches and set about converting the masses.

Abuna Selama may have brought Christianity to Ethiopia (actually there were already Christian traders living in Ethiopia before Selama’s time), but he didn’t make much headway converting the rural masses. It wasn’t until the 5th century when a group of wandering monks known as the Nine Saints arrived from the Levant and, using a potent mixture of magic, giant snakes and other show-stopping stunts, impressed the locals to such an extent that they quickly converted to Christianity.

The Ethiopian Way of Life

Other than religion, which undoubtedly plays a huge role in almost all Ethiopians’ daily life, it’s agriculture and pastoralism that fill the days of well over 80% of the country’s population. Everyone is involved, right down to stick-and-stone-wielding four-year-old children who are handed the incredible responsibility of tending and herding the family’s livestock.

With almost everyone toiling out in the fields, it’s not surprising that only 42.7% (CIA figures; note that other sources give lower, or higher, figures) of the population is literate. Since young children are needed to help with the family plots and animals, only 82% (Unicef figures) of children attend primary school. If all children under 16 were forced to attend school, Ethiopia’s workforce would be ravaged and almost half of the country’s entire population would be attending classes.

Ethiopian families are incredibly close and most people live with their parents until marriage. After marriage, the couple usually joins the household of the husband’s family. After a couple of years, they will request a plot of land from the village, on which to build their own house.

Divorce is relatively easy in Ethiopia and marriage can be dissolved at the request of either party (adultery is usually given as justification). In theory, each partner retains the property he or she brought into the marriage, though sometimes allowances are made for the ‘wronged’ partner.

Although women continue to lag behind men economically, they are highly respected in Ethiopian society. The same can’t be said for gays and lesbians. Homosexuality is severely condemned – traditionally, religiously and legally – and remains a topic of absolute taboo.

The People of Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s population has squeezed past the 100-million mark, an astounding figure considering the population was just 15 million in 1935. Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing populations in the world. This population explosion is arguably the biggest problem facing Ethiopia today. In 2015 its population growth rate was estimated at a worryingly high 2.5%; which, if growth rates continue at around that level, will leave Ethiopia bursting at the seams with almost 120 million people in 2025. However, AIDS, which affects 2.1% of the population, will inevitably slow future growth.

Although 84 languages and 200 dialects are spoken in Ethiopia, the population can be broken down into nine broad groups.

The Afar

The Afar, formerly also known as the Danakils, inhabit the famous region of Dankalia, which stretches across Ethiopia’s east, Djibouti’s west and into Eritrea’s southeast. It’s considered one of Earth’s most inhospitable environments. Rightly or wrongly, they’ve latched onto early-20th-century adventurer Wilfred Thesiger’s portrayal of them as famously belligerent and proud. Thesiger wrote of the Afar winning social prestige in the past for murdering and castrating members of an opposing tribe. Fortunately for male travellers this is somewhat rarer today!

The Afar comprise 1.7% of Ethiopia’s population.

The Amharas

As great warriors, skilful governors and astute administrators, the Amhara have dominated the country’s history, politics and society since 1270, and have imposed their own language and culture on the country. In the past this was much resented by other tribal groups, who saw it as little more than a kind of colonialism.

Amhara tend to be devoutly Christian, although there are some Muslim Amhara. They’re also fanatical about their land and 90% of them are traditional tillers of the soil: they produce some of the nation’s best tef (endemic cereal grain used for the national staple, injera).

Making up 26.9% of Ethiopia’s population, they’re the second-largest ethnic group. Over 90% of the Amharaland region’s people are Amhara.

The Falashas

Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) have inhabited Ethiopia since pre-Christian times. Despite actively engaging in wars over the years to defend their independence and freedom, few now remain: war, some persecution (though much less than seen elsewhere) and emigration in the latter part of the 20th century have greatly reduced their numbers.

In 1984 around 8000 Falashas fled Ethiopia and walked on foot to Sudan, where the Israeli and US secret services surreptitiously airlifted them to Israel. A further operation took place in 1991, when 34 Israeli aircraft secretly transported some 14,325 Jews to Israel over a 36-hour period (by the time the planes had landed, there were actually two extra passengers as two women gave birth during their flights!).

Tiny populations of Falashas remain north of Lake Tana in the northwest of Ethiopia; their beliefs combine a fascinating mixture of Judaism, indigenous beliefs and Christianity.

The Gurage

Semitic in origin, the Gurage practise herding or farming, and the enset (false-banana tree) is their favoured crop. They are known as great workers, clever improvisers and skilled craftspeople. Many work as seasonal labourers for the highlanders. Their faith is Christian, Muslim or animist, depending on the area from which they originate.

They comprise only 2% of Ethiopia’s population, but make up more than 10% of the population in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s region.

The Harari

Like the Gurage, the Harari people (sometimes known as Adare) are also Semitic in origin. They have long inhabited the walled Muslim city of Harar. The people are particularly known for their distinct two-storey houses, known as gegar, and for the very colourful traditional costumes still worn by many Harari women today. In the past, the Harari were known as great craftspeople for their weaving, baskets and bookbinding. They’re also renowned Islamic scholars.

The Oromo

Although traditionally most of the Oromo were nomadic pastoralists, it was the skilled Oromo warrior horsemen who put fear into Ethiopians when they migrated north from present-day Kenya in the mid-16th century. It was the Oromo who inspired Harar’s leaders to build a wall around the city and even led Ethiopian emperors to (briefly and much to the disgust of the general population) accept Catholicism in order to gain Portugal’s military support.

Today, most Oromo are settled, making a living as farmers or cattle breeders. They are Muslim, Christian and animist in religion, and are known for their egalitarian society, which is based on the gada (age-group system). A man’s life is divided into age-sets of eight years. In the fourth set (between the ages of 24 and 32), men assume the right to govern their people.

They are the largest ethnic group in the country, making up 34.5% of its population. Over 85% of the massive 350,000-sq-km Oromia region’s population are Oromo. Many Oromo resent the Tigray-led national government, and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) continues to lobby for separation from Ethiopia.

The Sidama

The Sidama, a heterogeneous people, originate from the southwest and can be divided into five different groups: the Sidama proper, the Derasa, Hadiya, Kambata and Alaba. Most Sidama are farmers who cultivate cereals, tobacco, enset (false-banana tree found in much of southern Ethiopia) and coffee. The majority are animists and many ancient beliefs persist, including a belief in the reverence of spirits. Pythons are believed to be reincarnations of ancestors and are sometimes kept as house pets. The Sidama social organisation is based on an age-group system.

The Sidama comprise about 4% of Ethiopia’s population and most live in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s region.

The Somali

The arid lowlands of the southeast dictate a nomadic or seminomadic existence for the Somali. Somali society is 99% Muslim, strongly hierarchical, tightly knit and based on the clan system, which requires intense loyalty from its members. In the harsh environment in which they live, ferocious competition for the scant resources leads to frequent and sometimes violent disputes (thanks to an abundant supply of AK-47s) over grazing grounds and sources of water.

The Somali make up 95% of the Somali region’s people and 6.2% of Ethiopia’s population.

The Tigrayans

Much like the Amharas, the Tigrayans are fiercely independent and zealously attached to their land. They disdain all manual labour with the single exception of agriculture.

Most live in the Tigray region, where both Christianity and Islam were introduced to Ethiopia. Ninety-five per cent of Tigrayans are Orthodox Christian, and most devoutly so. Tigrayans are Ethiopia’s third-largest ethnic group, comprising around 6.1% of the population.

As a result of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) playing the major role in the bringing down of the Derg, many Tigrayans feature in Ethiopia’s government. This has caused resentment among other groups.

Who Are the Ethiopians?

The Ethiopians are nothing if not proud, and for good reason. To them, Ethiopia has stood out from all African nations and proved itself to be a unique world of its own – home to its own culture, language, script, calendar and history. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike revel in the fact that Ethiopia was the only nation on the continent to successfully fight off colonisation. So strong is this sense of being unique that it’s not unusual to here Ethiopians refer to people from other parts of Africa as ‘Africans’, as if they themselves were nothing to do with the rest of the continent!

But with their pride comes other traits. The Ethiopians can be a stubborn, violent and xenophobic people; but on the flip side they can be incredibly gregarious, warm, welcoming and kind and will often go miles out of their way to help a stranger. Proud though they are, it wasn’t long ago that many Ethiopians seemed desperate to be somebody else. Many of the younger generations, brought up on hand-outs by aid agencies, were anything but proud of Ethiopia and sometimes it felt as if every other young Ethiopian you met, at least in urban areas, wanted to run away to America. Fortunately, in recent years, as Ethiopia increasingly takes its place on the regional and world stage, that attitude seems to be becoming rarer. In fact, nowadays there’s an undeniable sense of optimism among most Ethiopians.

The highlands have been dominated by a distinctive form of Christianity since the 4th century. Although undeniably devout and keen to dispense centuries’ worth of Orthodox legends and tales dating back to Aksum and the Ark of the Covenant, Christians, like all Ethiopians, nonetheless still cling to a surprising amount of magic and superstition.

Belief in zar (spirits or genies) and buda (the evil eye with the power to turn people into mischievous hyenas by night) is rife and as such even Christians adorn their children, from baptism, with charms or talismans around their necks to deter such spirits and terrible diseases.

Yet this apparent religious contradiction is quite natural to Ethiopians. In a historically isolated area where rhetoric and reasoning have become highly valued and practised, where eloquent communication and sophisticated wordplay are considered an art form and where the ability to argue a case in point while effectively sitting on the fence is now aspired to, ambiguity and complexity are as much a part of the Ethiopian psyche as it is a part of their religion.

Women in Ethiopia

Legally, women in Ethiopia enjoy a relatively equitable position compared with some African countries. They can own property, vote and are represented in government, though there are still some cases in which women’s rights are impeded.

Life for many women is extremely hard; to make ends meet many have to resort to extreme actions. Many foreigners are shocked to see just how many prostitutes there are in Ethiopia and just how openly it’s practised. Put simply, prostitution doesn’t have the same social stigma as it does in the West. Often prostitutes are just students trying to get by. Others are widows, divorcees or refugees, all with little or no hope of finding other forms of employment. With no social security system, it’s often their only means of survival. Though not exactly a respected profession, prostitution is considered a perfectly viable means of making a living. HIV-AIDS levels among prostitutes is thought to be close to 50% in Addis Ababa (although no official figures exist). Outside the city, men should be warned that almost all women in bars are prostitutes.

Many Ethiopian women also have to endure the practice of female genital mutilation (genital cutting). The UN has stated that 74.3% of Ethiopian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone some form of female genital mutilation; in the Somali regions of Ethiopia this figure rises significantly. One bit of good news though is that among younger women the rate is lower and continuing to decline year on year.

Reasons given in the Horn for genital mutilation vary from hygiene and aesthetics to superstitions that uncut women can’t conceive. Others believe that the strict following of traditional beliefs is crucial to maintaining social cohesion and a sense of belonging, much like male circumcision is to Jews. Some also say that it prevents female promiscuity.

Feature: Who Does She Think She Is?

The most beautiful and alluring woman ever to live had hairy legs and the cloven foot of the devil. Her fame has lasted 3000 years, yet nobody remembers her name. She’s a player in the ancient legends of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, yet no one knows where she lived. She’s the mother of the throne of Ethiopia, the most famous daughter of Yemen and the original Jerusalem pilgrim. She is, of course, the Queen of Sheba, but she may never even have existed.

Though she appears in the writings of all three monotheistic religions, it’s the Ethiopian story (in which she is known as Makeda) of her life that is most famous in the West, while for Christian Ethiopians the story is virtually the very cornerstone of their culture, history and lifestyle.

According to the Kebra Negast (Ethiopia’s national epic), the Queen of Sheba’s first public appearance was when she paid a visit to the court of King Solomon in Jerusalem in the 10th century BC.

The Ethiopian legend reveals how after her arrival Solomon became enraptured with her beauty and devised a plan to have his wicked way with her. He agreed to let her stay in his palace only on the condition that she touched nothing of his. Shocked that Solomon should consider her incapable of such a thing, she agreed. That evening Solomon laid on a feast of spicy and salty foods. After the meal, Sheba and Solomon retired to separate beds in his sleeping quarters. During the night Sheba awoke, thirsty from all the salty food she had consumed, and reached across for a glass of water. The moment she put the glass to her lips Solomon awoke and triumphantly claimed that she had broken her vow. ‘But it’s only water’, she cried, to which Solomon replied, ‘And nothing on earth is more precious than water’.

Ethiopian tradition holds that the child that resulted from the deceitful night of passion that followed was to become Menelik I, from whom the entire royal line of Ethiopia claims direct descent (in truth the line, if it ever existed, has been broken a number of times).

But there’s more to this tale than just the birth of the Ethiopian royal line. This is also the story of the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia and the conversion of its people to Judaism. It’s said that the centrepiece of Solomon’s famous temple was the Ark of the Covenant, and that as long as the Jews had the Ark nothing bad could come of them. However, when Menelik travelled to Jerusalem to meet his father, his luggage was a little heavier on his return trip. Secreted away among his dirty laundry was the Ark of the Covenant.

Finding out whether Sheba existed and where her capital was located has not proved easy. The strongest claims have come from both Ethiopia, which claims that Aksum was her capital, and Yemen, which says it was Ma’rib. Both cities were important trade and cultural centres and it’s quite likely that both were, if not ruled by the same monarch, then certainly closely tied through trade. However, so far neither has yielded any evidence to suggest that the Queen of Sheba ever existed. Whatever the truth, the legend persists, and every Ethiopian will swear to you that Aksum was the home of the most beautiful cloven-footed woman to ever live.

Feature: Ethiopian Hairstyles

Hairstyles in all societies form an important part of tribal identification. Reflecting the large number of ethnic groups, Ethiopian hairstyles are particularly diverse and colourful. Hair is cut, shaved, trimmed, plaited, braided, sculpted with clay, rubbed with mud, put in buns and tied in countless different fashions. In the Omo Valley, hairstyles are sometimes so elaborate and valued that special wooden headrests are used as pillows to preserve them.

In rural areas, the heads of children are often shaved to discourage lice. Sometimes a single topknot or tail plait is left so that ‘God should have a handle with which to lift them unto Heaven’, should he decide to call them.

Feature: Ethiopia’s Street Kids

Throughout Ethiopia there are a range of charities working to help the country’s many street children. In many cases working with these charities involves a considerable commitment of time as well as having a certain skill to offer. In these cases it’s usually easiest for a short-term visitor to just donate money to their chosen charity after they’ve returned home.

A more hands-on approach is the distribution of meal tickets. Some local centres sell booklets of meal tickets that are then distributed to needy children. Each day hundreds of children redeem the tickets for a meal at the centre.

Addis Ababa–based Hope Enterprises sells booklets of eight meal tickets.

In Gonder, local NGO Yenege Tesfa runs an orphanage and provides educational and medical programs. Tourists are encouraged to visit some of its project sites. It sells ‘bread coupons’ that children can exchange for a loaf of bread. Tickets are available from most of the bigger hotels for Birr0.50 per ticket.

Feature: The Ethiopian ‘Handshake’

Greeting one another in Ethiopia can be a complicated business. Do you just say hello? Do you offer a hand? Do you kiss the other person on the cheek? Or do you go for the ‘fighters salute’? Commonly, as Ethiopians shake hands they also gently knock their shoulders together. This is known as the ‘fighters salute’ and traditionally was used as a greeting between those who fought the Derg. Today, it’s used by almost everyone – male and female – but only in informal situations between friends. You would not use this form of ‘handshake’ at a business meeting!

There are plenty of other ways to greet people in Ethiopia. Multiple kissing on the cheek is also very common among friends and relatives of either sex. It’s also considered polite to kiss babies or young children, even if you’ve just met them.

And if you do just stick with a boring old handshake then deference can be shown by supporting the right arm (near the elbow) with the left hand during shaking. When Ethiopians enter a room they try and shake hands with everyone (including children). If hands are dirty or wet, limp wrists are offered.


Ethiopia is a land of extraordinary diversity: where cold evening winds whip across high moorland plateaus and powerful rivers tumble through deep gorges; where elegantly dressed colobus monkeys swing through dense forests; savannah grasslands shimmer in the sun and camel caravans traverse some of the most inhospitable territory on Earth. For a visitor obsessed with seeing Ethiopia’s cultural highlights, the stirring landscapes and eye-catching wildlife often comes as an unexpected, and very welcome, surprise.

Environmental Issues

Despite civil wars taking their toll on the environment, Ethiopia’s demographic pressures have been the main culprit. About 95% of Ethiopia’s original forest is believed to have been lost to agriculture and human settlement.

Ethiopia’s population has almost quintupled in the last 75 years and continues to grow at 2.9%; the pressures for living space, firewood, building materials, agricultural land, livestock grazing and food will only further reduce natural resources and wipe out larger areas of wildlife habitat.

The deforestation has resulted in soil erosion, an extremely serious threat in Ethiopia because it exacerbates the risk of famine. Although hunting and poaching over the centuries have decimated the country’s once-large herds of elephants and rhinos, deforestation has also played a role.

Wildlife and forests were both victims of the most recent civil war, where whole forests were torched by the Derg to smoke out rebel forces. Additionally, large armies, hungry and with inadequate provisions, turned their sights on the land’s natural resources and much wildlife was wiped out.

Up until recently, armed conflict between ethnic groups in the Omo and Mago National Parks continued to impede wildlife conservation efforts.

Today, things are more under control. Hunting is managed by the government and may even provide the most realistic and pragmatic means of ensuring the future survival of Ethiopia’s large mammals. Poaching, however, continues to pose a serious threat to some animals.

In late 2005 a new conservation action plan was put in place that crafted stricter environmental regulations designed to unite previously scattered wildlife and environmental activities under the umbrella of a radically restructured Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority. This action has started to pay off with new national parks, a little more money being pumped into existing protected areas and environmental issues being discussed at higher levels of government.

For more on wildlife conservation, contact the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority

Gibe III Dam

Essential to the development of Ethiopia or an environmental and social disaster in the making? No conversation about environmental policies in Ethiopia is complete without talk of the huge new Gibe III dam, which was completed in 2015.

The pet project of the late prime minister, Meles Zenawi, the Gibe III dam is part of a huge hydroelectric project being constructed on the Omo river. The Gibe dams I and II have already been completed and eventually five dams will be constructed along the Omo river. The project has several stated goals. Firstly, only around 2% of rural Ethiopians have mains electricity and it’s hoped that this project will bring much more of the rural population onto the mains electricity grid. The government also hopes to sell about 50% of the electricity produced to neighbouring countries (though none of them have actually signed an agreement with Ethiopia to do so; Kenya has signed a Memorandum of Understanding).

It is also hoped that the construction of the Gibe III dam (which is the biggest dam in Africa) and its brothers will help reduce instances of drought and flooding as well as allowing the establishment of large scale sugarcane plantations in the Lower Omo Valley.

Well this all sounds very worthy; so what’s the problem? According to the environmental and social impact assessment commissioned by the Ethiopian government (and released two years after construction of the dam began) the dam will cause minimal problems. However, almost every other independent environmental and social body disagrees. The African Resources Working Group has stated that ‘Data collected in virtually all major sections of the [government environmental impact] report were clearly selected for the consistence with predetermined objective of validating the completion of the Gibe III hydro-dam’.

And how will it all affect people downriver? This is where things get really heated. In a BBC interview Meles Zenawi said: ‘The overall environmental impact of the project is highly beneficial. It increases the amount of water in the river system, it completely regulates flooding which was a major problem, it improves the livelihood of people downstream because they will have irrigation projects, and it does not in any way negatively affect the Turkana Lake’. Environmentalists and social-rights bodies say that thousands of people who live downstream of the Gibe III dam, and are reliant on the annual flooding to fertilise and water their crops, will be adversely affected by its construction.

There are also widespread claims of forced resettlements in order to make room for the sugarcane plantations and repeated reports of human-rights violations by the Ethiopian army against locals who oppose the establishment of these farms.

International Rivers called Gibe III ‘the most destructive dam under construction in Africa’ and Survival International claimed it would be a ‘disaster of cataclysmic proportions for the tribes of the Omo valley’. The problems are not just limited to Ethiopia. Over the border in Kenya, Lake Turkana lies in an area of extreme aridity and thousands of Kenyans living in the vicinity of the lake are reliant on the lake for their crops, to water their livestock and generally to maintain their tribal lifestyles. Opponents of the dam say that water levels in the lake will drop by between 2m and 10m and that salinity will increase to such an extent that the waters will become undrinkable for people and livestock.

National Parks & Wildlife Sanctuaries

In the last few years the Ethiopian government has created a flurry of new national parks and other protected areas. Currently there are 21 national parks, five wildlife sanctuaries and reserves and six community conservation areas in Ethiopia. The most famed of these is the Simien Mountains National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site. Many of the other protected areas actually receive very little protection at all (the government itself has allowed the establishment of sugarcane plantations in Omo and Mago National Parks).

Park borders continue to overlap with local communities, and conflicts over conservation continue, despite wildlife authorities trying to encourage locals’ participation in the conservation of wildlife.

One unexpected bit of good news comes from Gambela National Park on the border of South Sudan in the far west of the country. Once known to harbour huge herds of antelope as well as elephants, lions, buffalo and other big mammals, it had long been assumed that conflict in South Sudan and that part of Ethiopia, coupled with an influx of refugees into the park would have devastated wildlife populations. But according to various surveys it seems that we were all wrong and that Gambela is still home to significant populations of animals.

Feature: Top Parks & Sanctuaries

ParkFeaturesActivitiesBest time to visit
Northern Ethiopia
Simien Mountains National ParkDramatic volcanic escarpments and plateaus; walia ibexes, gelada baboons, Simien wolves, lammergeyersTrekking, birdwatching, wildlife viewingOct-Jan
Southern Ethiopia
Bale Mountains National ParkSteep ridges, alpine plateaus; Ethiopian wolves, mountain nyala and 16 endemic birdsTrekking, birdwatchingOct-Jan
Abiata-Shala Lakes National ParkCrater lakes, hot springs; red-billed hornbills, Didric’s cuckoos, Abyssinian rollers, superb starlingsBirdwatching, walkingNov-Dec
Mago National ParkSavannah, open woodland; hartebeest, buffaloes, many birdsVisiting Mursi people, wildlife drivesJun-Sep & Jan-Feb
Nechisar National ParkSavannah, acacia woodland; Burchell’s zebras, Swayne’s hartebeest, crocodiles, greater kudu, 320 bird speciesWildlife drives, boat tripsNov-Feb
Omo National ParkSavannah, open woodland; elephants, buffaloes, lionsVisiting Mursi, Dizi and Surma groupsJun-Sep & Jan-Feb
Senkelle Swayne’s Hartebeest SanctuaryOpen acacia woodland; Swayne’s hartebeest, Bohor reedbucks, spotted hyenas, greater spotted eaglesWildlife drivesNov-Feb
Yabelo Wildlife SanctuaryAcacia woodland, savannah grasses; Stresemann’s bush crows, white-tailed swallows, Swayne’s hartebeest, gerenuksWildlife drives, birdwatchingyear-round
Eastern Ethiopia
Awash National ParkSemiarid woodland; beisa oryxes, Soemmering’s gazelles, kudu, six endemic bird speciesBirdwatching, wildlife viewingOct-Feb
Western Ethiopia
Gambela National ParkSemiarid woodland, deciduous forests; savannah Nile lechwe, white-eared kobs, elephantsRugged wildlife drives, trekkingDec-Mar

The Land

With a land area of 1,098,000 sq km, Ethiopia is five times the size of Britain and twice the size of Texas. Its topography is remarkably diverse, ranging from 20 peaks higher than 4000m to one of the lowest, hottest, driest and most inhospitable points on the Earth's surface: the Danakil Depression, which in parts lies almost 125m below sea level and sprawls into neighbouring Eritrea and Djibouti.

Two principal geographical zones can be found in the country: cool highlands and their surrounding hot lowlands.

Ethiopia’s main topographical feature is the vast central plateau (the Ethiopian highlands) with an average elevation between 1800m and 2400m. It’s here that the country’s major peaks are found, including Ras Dashen (more correctly, but less commonly, known as Ras Dejen) at 4543m, Ethiopia’s highest mountain and Africa’s 10th highest.

The mountains are also the source of four major river systems, the most famous of which is the Blue Nile. Starting from Lake Tana and joined later by the White Nile in Sudan, it nurtures Egypt’s fertile Nile Valley. The other principal rivers are the Awash, the Omo and the Wabe Shebele.

Southern Ethiopia is bisected diagonally by the Rift Valley. Averaging around 50km wide, it runs all the way south to Mozambique. The valley floor is home to many of Ethiopia’s most important lakes, including a well-known chain south of Addis Ababa.

The northern end of the Rift Valley opens into the Danakil Depression, a low-lying area that extends through northern Ethiopia to the coast (where the ever-widening Rift Valley will be flooded by sea water sometime in the next couple of million years as East Africa gradually splits off from the rest of Africa).


Ethiopia’s ecosystems are diverse, from high Afro-alpine vegetation to desert and semidesert scrubland. Rounding out the roster of habitats are six more unique ecosystems: dry evergreen montane forests and grassland; small-leaved deciduous forests; broad-leaved deciduous forests; moist evergreen forests; lowland semievergreen forests; and wetlands.

The massive Ethiopian central plateau is home to several of these ecosystems, as well as a distinctive assemblage of plants and animals. Isolated for millions of years within this ‘fortress environment’, and unable to cross the inhospitable terrain surrounding the plateau, many highland plants and animals evolved their own unique adaptations.


Simply because it lacks large crowds of cavorting elephants, giraffes and rhinos, Ethiopia is mistakenly written off by many Westerners as purely an historical destination. What they don’t know is that Ethiopia hosts 279 mammal species, 201 reptile species, 150 fish species and 63 amphibian species. And that doesn’t even include the birds!

To date, more than 860 species of birds have been recorded (compared with just 250 in the UK). Of Africa’s 10 endemic mainland bird families, eight are represented in Ethiopia; only rockfowls and sugarbirds are absent. Families that are particularly well represented are falcons, francolins, bustards and larks.

More noteworthy is the fact that of all the species in Ethiopia, 31 mammals, 21 birds, nine reptiles, four fish and 24 amphibians are endemic (found only in Ethiopia). The biggest thrill of all is the realisation that you have a pretty good chance of spotting some of the rarest species, including the Ethiopian wolf, which is the planet’s rarest canid.


Ethiopia’s flora is as exceptional as almost everything else about this country. Ethiopia was classed as one of the world’s 12 most important hot spots for crop plant diversity by the famous Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, and is thought to possess extremely valuable pools of crop plant genes. Between 600 and 1400 plant species are thought to be endemic; a whopping 10% to 20% of its flora.

The small-leaved deciduous forests can be found all over the country apart from the western regions, at an altitude of between 900m and 1900m. Vegetation consists of drought-tolerant shrubs and trees with either leathery persistent leaves or small, deciduous ones. Trees include various types of acacia. Herbs include Acalypha (copperleaf) and Aerva (mountain knotgrass).

The western and northwestern areas of Ethiopia host broad-leaved deciduous forests, while tall and medium-sized trees and understorey shrubs of the moist evergreen forests also occupy the west, as well as the nation’s southwest. Even further west are the lowland semi-evergreen forests around Gambela. Vegetation there consists of semi-evergreen trees and shrub species, as well as grasses.

Covering much of the highlands and the north, northwest, central and southern parts of the country, is the dry evergreen montane forest and grassland. This habitat is home to a large number of endemic plants. Tree species include various types of acacia, olive and euphorbia. Africa’s only rose, the Rosa abyssinica, is here.

Within the Afro-alpine vegetation habitat, you’ll see the endemic giant lobelia (Lobelia rhynchopetalum), an endemic species of globe thistle, as well as the so-called ‘soft thistle’. On the high plateaus at around 4000m are many varieties of gentian.

Look out for fig and tamarind trees along the Baro River in the west, as well as along river banks or wadis (seasonal rivers) in the highlands and the northwest.

The Dankalia region, Omo delta and Ogaden Desert contain drought-resistant plants such as small trees, shrubs and grasses, including acacia. Succulent species include euphorbia and aloe. The region is classified as desert and semidesert scrubland.

Feature: Legendary Ethiopia

Remember when you were a child tucked in bed and your parents, opening a book, read aloud the words ‘Once upon a time’? Within moments you were transported to a magical world where castles were made of crystal, monks from Syria climbed serpents tails to build invisible monasteries, emperors turned solid rock into beautiful churches, a queen known only as Sheba was seduced by a king named Solomon and the words of God were hidden in a secret ark for the world to ponder. Today you are about to venture to Ethiopia. It is your wildest fairy tale brought to life.

A New Jerusalem

Nearly a thousand years ago a poisoned king was taken by angels to Heaven. Here he was shown a city of rock-hewn churches. Then God himself commanded him to return to Earth and, re-creating what he had seen, build a New Jerusalem. Today it’s named after that king: Lalibela.

Ark of the Covenant

Carried by the Israelites during their 40 years wandering in the desert, and a prized possession of King David and centrepiece of King Solomon’s temple, the Ark of the Covenant is now the cornerstone of Ethiopian culture and history, but is it in Aksum?

King of Kings

A biblical prophecy proclaimed that ‘Kings would come out of Africa’ and for the people of Jamaica that prophecy came true with the 1930 coronation of Haile Selassie. The emperor found himself becoming not just King of Kings to millions of Ethiopians, but also the Messiah of a new religion: Rastafarianism.

Mystical Monasteries

The mountains of northern Ethiopia are home to hundreds of ancient monasteries. Some require scrambles up sheer rock faces to reach, some are invisible and guarded by sword-wielding ghosts, some contain the bones of former monks, and one could only be built with the help of a giant snake.

Prester John

The legendary Christian king, Prester John, was said to be a descendant of one of the Three Magi. His kingdom contained the Fountain of Youth and the Gates of Alexander. And right up until the first Europeans arrived in Gonder it was widely believed that his kingdom was in Ethiopia.

The Queen of Sheba

When King Solomon first laid eyes on the Queen of Sheba, ruler of ancient Aksum, he was enraptured with her beauty. According to Ethiopian tradition every emperor up to Haile Selassie was a direct descendant of Menelik I, the son that resulted from that fateful meeting 3000 years ago.

Roots of Ethiopia

Roots of Ethiopia ( is an excellent website listing community-run activities across Ethiopia. It could go a long way towards making your trip a little more sustainable, but do note that not all the projects are actually up and running yet.