Ethiopia’s ties to ancient culture were confirmed with the discovery of Lucy, an early hominid that dates back 3.5 million years. As early as 7000 B.C.E. hunting tribes were present in the area, and some of them created domestication processes for indigenous plants. The Sabaeans migrated to the area from the Arabian peninsula during the first millennium B.C.E., bringing with them their own Semitic language and writing systems, and Christianity was introduced in the early fourth century under the banner of Byzantine orthodoxy; Orthodox Christianity is an important part of Ethiopian cultural identity today.
The modern history of Ethiopia generally begins in 1855 with the emperor Tewodros II, who united the kingdom after local warlords divided the monarchy. Emperor Minelik II successfully defeated Italy’s attempt at Ethiopian colonization in 1896, granting the Italians the right to their northern province, which they named
Eritrea. Through a series of battles, Minelik created the borders of present-day Ethiopia, and the ascent in 1930 of his cousin Haile Selassie opened the doors to Western influence and technology. Few of his reforms took place before war broke out with Italy in 1935, and despite the emperor’s dramatic appeal to the League of Nations in 1936, Italy occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941.
After World War II, the French-educated emperor Selassie I again attempted to reform Ethiopia and successfully pursued the annexation of Eritrea in 1962. A 1974 mutiny by low-ranking army officials led to the fall of the monarchy and the ascension of the Derg (or committee, in Amharic), a group that imposed on the area a military rule that lasted for 17 years. During this period, the Derg established a socialist agenda with military authority. Cracks in the Derg’s rule, however, began to show when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front began to seek regional autonomy.
In the late 1980s the TPLF combined forces with Eritrea’s EPLF (who were attempting to throw off the Derg’s control from their own country) and orchestrated attacks that led to the collapse of the military regime in May 1991. In 1993 the Eritreans voted almost unanimously for their independence, and Ethiopia unenthusiastically granted it. The political party formed during the liberation movement, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), established a multiparty democracy, and the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was adopted in 1994. A bitter border war with Eritrea erupted in 1998. Despite international arbitration that returned the disputed land to Ethiopia, the two nations remain hostile.
The Top 6: Local Advice
1. Ethiopia is divided into nine states and two special city administrations, Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. These states are subdivided into zones, districts, and subdistricts.
2. Ethiopia’s currency is the birr, which is divided into 100 cents. The government has slowly been devaluing its currency since 1992 from a previous rate of 2.07 birr per American dollar. The current average rate is 16.5 birr to the American dollar, making Ethiopia an excellent place for Americans to travel.
3. Among the major newspapers in Ethiopia are Addis Zemen, the Daily Monitor, and the Ethiopian Herald. There are 18 licensed radio stations in the country, broadcasting in a variety of languages. The major radio broadcasting stations are Radio Ethiopia, Radio Voice of One Free Ethiopia, and the Voice of the Revolution of Tigray. There is one television network in the country, Ethiopian Television. The Ethiopian government controls all of these, although small, privately funded media have been proliferating since 1991.
4. Ethiopia does not have an official language: at least 70 different languages are spoken as “mother” tongues in the country. Approximately 33 percent of the population speaks Amharic, and about 32 percent speaks Oromigna. Most of the other languages are of Semitic, Cushitic, or Omotic origins, and a smaller portion speaks dialects of the Nilo-Saharan family of languages. Many people speak English, as it is a major foreign language taught in a number of schools. If you can pick up a few words and phrases in Amharic, it will help you, especially if you plan to spend a good portion of your trip in Addis Ababa.
5. An estimated 40 percent of the population of Ethiopia is Muslim, 40 percent Orthodox Christians, and approximately 10 percent Protestants. Indigenous religions are also practiced.
6. Ethiopia operates on a different clock than many countries: sunrise is clocked at 12 a.m., and sunset is clocked at 12 p.m. Therefore, the time in Ethiopia is six hours behind European time zones—for instance, if it’s 5 p.m. in Europe, it is 11 a.m. in Ethiopia. Take care to get to know the timing differences, especially when flying or scheduling tours.