If Ethiopia's historical and natural treasures received as much airtime as the indelible images of past famines and war, Ethiopia would be mentioned in the same breath as Egypt, Morocco and Tanzania as one of Africa's most captivating countries.
CAPITAL CITY: ADDIS ABABA, POPULATION: 74.8 Million, AREA : 1.1 Million sq km, OFFICIAL LANGUAGES: Amharic, Tigrinya, Somali, Arabic, Oromiga, Guaragigna
With the Simien and Bale mountains climbing over 4000 meters and the Danakil Depression diving below sea level, Ethiopia's landscapes cover a glorious gamut. The highlands, which have been exquisitely carved by the hands of time, offer some of the continent's most dramatic chasms. Flowing from the highlands are four large river systems, the most famous being the Blue Nile. Africa's renowned Rift has bisected southern Ethiopia and left several lovely lakes in its wake. Rifting continues in the Danakil Depression, where the wafer-thin crust parts to put the earth's insides on permanent display.
Caption: In the north of Ethiopia lies one of the world’s most interesting pilgrimage destinations, the churches of Lalibela. These eleven rock-cut, monolithic churches are thought to have been hewn into the reddish earth during the thirteenth century. Today, their mystique attracts thousands of visitors each year and the site has been awarded World Heritage Status.
HISTORY IN A NUTSHELL
While Lucy, the representative of Ethiopia's most ancient citizens, Ardipithecus ramidus (they are possibly our oldest upright ancestors), awaited discovery in the ground, a mysteriously short-lived civilization with Arabian influences blossomed in Ethiopia around 1500 BC. Next, between the 4th and 2nd century BC, the Aksumite civilization rose and dominated the region until the 7th century AD — their remarkable obelisks and tombs survive today. In the 4th century Christianity took hold and, despite devastating holy wars with invading Muslims and onslaughts by the Oromo (a tribe from northern Kenya) over the centuries, it continues to dominate Ethiopian society.
Emperor Menelik stunned the world by thrashing Italy's colonial army in 1896, thus saving Ethiopia from colonialism. The following century witnessed a brief Italian occupation during the 1930s, communists overthrowing (and murdering) the last of Ethiopia's Solomonic emperors (Haile Selassie) in the mid-1970s, and a decade-long civil war that ended in 1991. In 1998, only seven years after shedding its socialist shackles, Ethiopia briefly went to war with Eritrea; much to Ethiopia's detriment, they continue to squabble today.
Religion is the most important aspect of Ethiopian life. Forty-five per cent of Ethiopians are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, 35 per cent are Muslim and 11 per cent follow traditional animist beliefs. Ethiopia has almost 75 million citizens: an astounding figure considering the population was just 15 million in 1935. Most belong to one of eight main ethnic groups: Oromo (40 per cent), Amhara (21 per cent), Tigrayan (11 per cent), Sidama (nine per cent), Somali (six percent), Afar (four per cent), Gurage (two percent) and Harari (one per cent). The Orthodox Amharas have traditionally dominated the country and imposed their language and culture on society, leading to resentment from other groups. Today there are similar feelings towards the Orthodox Tigrayans, who have dominated the government since 1991.
With 80 per cent of the country working in agriculture, it unsurprisingly accounts for half the nation's GDP and 60 per cent of its exports. Ethiopia's two biggest exports are currently coffee and qat (a mildly intoxicating leaf that's illegal in many nations but embraced in others), which bring in US$335 million and US$99 million per year respectively. The Eritrean tensions hinder economic growth, however, as does the land tenure system under which the government owns all land and provides citizens with long-term leases. Also, although the country is incredibly fertile, it is prone to drought — and with almost the entire nation relying on their crops for sustenance, the consequences are dire.
Venturing into the Danakil Depression is an exercise in insanity (daytime temperatures can exceed 50°C), but it will give you a lesson in the beauty of bleakness that you will never forget, and in the pre-dawn darkness, a peek into Irt'ale's permanent cauldron of lava will turn all that bleakness into brilliance.
The centuries-old walls of the ancient section of Islamic Harar, built to protect it from the attacks of the invading Oromo tribe, still enclose a square kilometer packed with fascination. Floating through the old city's myriad crooked alleyways, innumerable mosques, shrines and architectural gems are the perpetual aroma of coffee and the silhouettes of the alluring Adare women. Equally transfixing, though just outside the city's walls, are the men who continue the tradition of feeding the hyenas by hand (and occasionally by mouth.)
Isolated as its from the rest of Africa by its fortress like mountains, Ethiopia’s wildlife has evolved to be unique; there are 89 species here that are seen nowhere else on earth. What is even more remarkable is that it is fairly easy to observe them, even the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf, walia ibex and mountain nyala. The birdlife is prolific – at last count 842 species have been identified, of which 21 are endemic.
MYTHS & LEGENDS
At least 1000 years before Starbucks frothed its first cappuccino in 1971, Kaldi, an astute Ethiopian herder, noticed his goats behaved rather excitedly after eating a certain plant. He followed suit and sure enough, he became a hyper herder. He rushed his news to the nearest monastery, only to be reprimanded for ‘partaking in the Devil’s fruit’. However the monks quickly came around after smelling the aroma wafting from the fire in which they had thrown Kaldi’s beloved beans. Soon they were shipping beans to monasteries everywhere. Surely something that helped them pray into the early hours must be God’s work, not the Devil’s. The name of Kaldi’s kingdom stuck to this elixir of wakefulness. And to what kingdom did he belong? Kafa, of course.
Ethiopia’s cuisine is much like Ethiopia: completely different from the rest of Africa. Plates, bowls and even utensils are replaced by injera, a savory pancake of huge proportions. Atop its rubbery expanse can sit anything from spicy meat stews to colorful dollops of boiled veggies to cubes of raw beef. And despite preconceptions, most Ethiopians do not habitually go hungry.
BEST TIME TO VISIT OCTOBER TO JANUARY