Ethiopia’s Rift Valley is known as the cradle of humanity – fossils of the oldest known upright hominid, the 3.5-million-year-old ‘Lucy’, were found here in 1974. Ethiopians have a record of their rulers that stretches back 5000 years, and although this is not supported by other records, you can find Biblical passages which record Ethiopian episodes around 1000 BC. The Queen of Sheba’s son, Menelik I, is regarded as the first emperor of Ethiopia – his dynasty ended with Haile Selassie, who ruled from 1930 until 1974.
According to local tradition, ancient Ethiopians were Jews, and a community of Ethiopian Jews lived in the country until the late 1980s, when the last of them moved to Israel. Christianity was brought to the then Kingdom of Axum by St Frumentius, who was consecrated as the first bishop in 330AD. Axum was slap-bang in the path of the armies of Islam, which set out from Mecca on a holy war of conversion in 632AD, and although the Christian kingdom was cut off from the rest of Christendom, Islam never really took hold.
Over the next thousand years, the kingdom came under attack from various forces – pagan tribes forced the Ethiopian emperors to abandon their cities and become nomads for a time, Muslims moved into the east of the country in the 12th and 14th centures, and in the 16th century the Islamic kingdoms gained the support of the Ottoman Empire, seriously threatening the power of the Kingdom of Axum.
After a remarkable life span, the Axum empire broke down into its constituent provinces in the 18th century, triggering 100 years of warfare between rival warlords. The shattered empire was eventually reunified by Ras Kassa, who crowned himself Emperor Tewodros in 1855, but later shot himself when his fortress was beseiged by a British military expedition. Subsequent emperors invested the privy purse in European arms and expanded the empire.
In 1936 the country was overrun by Mussolini’s Italian troops, who hung around until 1941, when Italy surrendered to the Allies and Ethiopia regained its independence. In 1962 emperor Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea, sparking a guerilla fightback by the disgruntled Eritreans which would last 30 years. Although Haile Selassie was seen as a national hero, opinion turned against him as nobility and the church filled their pockets while millions of landless peasants went hungry. In 1974, as students, workers, peasants and the army rose against him, Selassie was deposed and a military dictatorship took over. Under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the new government, the Derg, threw out Americans, jailed trade union leaders, banned the church and turned to the USSR for economic aid. Upheaval was the last thing the already unstable country needed, and the Eritreans and invading Somalis took full advantage of the chaos. Soviet and Cuban troops intervened to fight back both forces, but did not succeed in defeating the Eritrean guerillas.
Mengistu tried to tighten his grip on the country by instituting conscription, curfews, population transfers – a disastrous initiative which herded people around the countryside in an effort to avoid famines – and people’s committees, a sinister form of neighbourhood watch. But it was all to no avail – the Eritreans took Ethiopia’s main port, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front joined in the fighting, the Soviets pulled out, coffee prices fell and a major famine ravaged the country. In May 1991 Mengistu fled and a rebel coalition under Tigrayan Meles Zenawi took over. They inherited six million people facing famine, a shattered economy and moribund industrial and agricultural sectors, but decided to make moves toward democracy anyway.
A new constitution was ratified in 1994, notably allowing any of Ethiopia’s nine regions to become independent if they wish to. The country’s first parliamentary elections were held in 1995, with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front winning 98% of the vote – all the major opposition parties boycotted the poll. Meles Zenawi became prime minister and appointed a predominantly Tigrayan cabinet. The government’s priorities include expanding the private sector and improving food security. Relations with Eritrea deteriorated in recent years and in June 1998 armed conflict broke out and borders were closed. Two years later, in 2000, the border war came to a close when Ethiopia defeated Eritrea and a peace agreement was signed. The plan called for the creation of a 25km buffer zone along the border, to be patrolled by a UN peace-keeping force. The construction of boundary posts began in May 2003. Relations with Eritrea will remain tense until the border demarcation is completed, probably sometime in 2004.
There are almost as many languages as there are peoples in Ethiopia, about 80 in all. The languages come from a variety of families – Semitic, Hamitic, Nilotic and Omotic. Amharic, spoken in the country’s heartland, is Ethiopia’s official language, but Tigrinya, spoken in the north, and Orominya, spoken in the south, have semi-official status.
The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in the country, and are made up of a muddle of Christians, Muslims and traditional animists. Amharic and Tigrinya use the Ge’ez script, with an understated 231 letters – keep an eye out for fabulously complex Amharic typewriters. Kids are taught English from junior high onward, and many people can speak a smattering or more. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has dominated religious life in the country since the fourth century, when two brothers from Tyre began evangelizing with the blessing of the king. Ethiopian Orthodoxy has a strong monastic tradition, and until the Marxist revolution, there were Orthodox clergy in almost every town in the country. Orthodoxy combines more standard Christian beliefs in God, Catholic saints and Jesus (although there is more emphasis on the Old Testament than in many western churches) with traditional African beliefs about spirits and devils – church services often include dancing, astrology and fortune telling. Believers fast every Wednesday and Friday, avoiding meat, dairy and sometimes fish.
Ethiopian literature is traditionally Christian, with the earliest writings in Ge’ez being translations of Greek Christian works. Ge’ez literary production really took off in the 13th century, when a stack of Coptic, Syriac and Greek religious works were translated from Arabic. About 200 years later, Ge’ez writers branched out into original works, beginning with the lives of saints and moving onto apocalyptic books such as the Elucidation of Jesus and the Mystery of Heaven and Earth. Amharic took over from Ge’ez around the 16th century, and again, writers concentrated mainly on translations of religious works. It wasn’t until the end of WWII that Amharic writers really began writing about other issues – Makonnen Endalkaches, Kebede Mikael and Tekle Tsodeq Makuria are notable postwar writers who addressed moral and patriotic themes.
Ethiopia sits landlocked on the eastern side of the continent, the Horn of Africa. To its west is Sudan, to the north Eritrea, to the east the tiny country of Djibouti and Somalia, which also stretches around the southern border, and to the south Kenya. Ethiopia covers about 1,098,000 sq km (423,938 sqmi), and is dominated by a high central plateau, cut by deep gorges including the Great Rift Valley.
Only around 12% of Ethiopia is used for agriculture – mainly around the flood plains of the Blue Nile, in the west of the country, and in the highlands – and most of this is subsistence growing.
Ethiopia’s forests are declining alarmingly. Because of the demands for fuel, construction and fencing, at least 77% of the country’s tree cover has been cut down in the last 25 years. In the late 19th century, Australian eucalypts were introduced to reverse the deforestation trend, but the fast-growing plants have actually made things worse – local animals don’t like them, and nothing grows around their roots, so eucalypt forests are highly prone to soil erosion. Ethiopian wildlife isn’t doing too well either, so if you’re after a safari you’ll be better off elsewhere in Africa.
There are plenty of antelope species and a couple of monkey and baboon species. But if it’s birds you’re after, you’ve come to the right place – there are at least 17 endemic species in the country, and you won’t have to travel far afield to find them.
Although Ethiopia is relatively close to the equator, the central plateau has a temperate climate, with an average annual temperature of 16°C (60°F). Only in the east, towards the Red Sea, and west, near Sudan, does it get very hot. The kremt, or main rainy season, occurs between mid-June and the end of September, and there’s also a bit of light rain in March and April.
Ethiopia has an extraordinary range of wildlife. Most notable of the endemic mammals are the gelada baboon, the Walia ibex, the Menelik’s bushbuck, the Mountain Nyala, Swayne’s Hartebeest and the Simien Fox.
The Simien Fox is confined to a very few areas of the country. Although rare in the Simien Mountains themselves, it is much more frequently seen in the Bale National Park. It lives exclusively on the high mountain plateaux. Sometimes called the Simien wolf or Abyssinian wolf, it is large by fox standards with long legs.
The Gelada baboon is found in great numbers in similar mountainous areas to the Simien fox. It is particularly recognisable by the heart-shaped red skin on its chest and its lion-like mane. It is particularly numerous in the Simien mountains. Global warming is having a dire effect on its habitat and it is fast disappearing.
The Walia Ibex is the rarest of the endemic animals in Ethiopia. Its principle area is in the Simien mountains where it can only be seen on very steep areas of high mountains. It has magnificent heavily ridged horns that sweep back over its shoulders.
Menelik’s Bushbuck is fairly plentiful in both the Bale and Simien mountains and is found in forest and bush at high altitude. The males are very dark, the females brown/red. The horns are a twisted closed spiral.
The Mountain Nyala is found in the various mountainous areas to the east of the Rift Valley such as the Bale National Park and the Kuni-Muktar sanctuary. It prefers the high moorlands. It is, more accurately, a kudu and is recognisable by its elegant lyre-shaped horns.
Swayne’s Hartebeest is very rare and prefers open plains and woodland. It can be found in the Awash and Nechisar parks.
Ethiopia is an agricultural country, with farm products accounting for over half of the country’s gross domestic product and 90% of its exports (mainly coffee). Economically, the great majority of the population is engaged in subsistence farming. The chief farm products are coffee, teff and other millets, sorghum, barley, wheat, corn, plantains, peas, potatoes, oilseeds, cotton, and sugarcane.
Large numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats are raised. Industry, which is largely state-run, is mostly restricted to agricultural processing and the manufacture of consumer goods. The main industrial centers are Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa , and Nazret. The leading manufactures include processed food, beverages, textiles, leather, chemicals, metal products, and cement. No large-scale mineral deposits have been found in Ethiopia; gold, platinum, salt, limestone, iron ore, and sulfur are extracted in small quantities. Foreign investment in the mining sector began in the 1990s.
Ethiopia has a poor transportation network, with few year-round roads. The country’s one rail line links Addis Ababa and Djibouti; plans for its revitalization were announced in 1998. The chief ports serving Ethiopia, which became landlocked with Eritrean independence, are in other countries: Djibouti , in the country of Djibouti, and Aseb and Massawa , in Eritrea.The annual value of imports into Ethiopia is usually considerably higher than the value of its exports. The principal imports are food, petroleum and petroleum products, machinery, motor vehicles, chemicals, and manufactured consumer goods; the main exports are coffee, hides and skins, oilseeds, grain, and gold. The leading trade partners are Germany, Saudi Arabia, Italy, and Japan.