Brief History

Ethiopia General Information

Short Introduction of Ethiopia and what to visit in Ethiopia

This page introduces visitors with Ethiopia's history briefly and other important points about Ethiopia. It also discusses places to visit, things to do, and tours in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia Merit Ethiopian Experience Tours offers.

Ethiopia is a country in which the whole story of Man from his first beginnings million of years in the past, through all the stages of his evolution and development, may be studied with awe and wonder. The discovery of Lucy (3.25 mil years old) or Dinknesh at Hadar in Northeaster Ethiopia by Dr. Donald Johanson of Cleveland University rocked the world of palaeoanthropology by pushing back the ancestry of our species at least a million years further into the past. The finder of the fossil says, “ Its bones will make Ethiopia the hominid – fossil center of the world” - as others attest Ethiopia as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. 

View of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Though it is said that Ethiopian history begins with Axum, Semitic tribes from Southern Arabia arrived in Africa in the middle of the first millennium BC. According to the Ethiopian legend, it began in the 10th and 9th century before Christ. One of these legends is related with the Queen of Sheba and her visit to King Solomon of Jerusalem, and their son – Menelik I who is supposed to found the Solomonic Dynasty, which is one of the longest uninterrupted dynasties in the world. Two of the prehistoric structures before Axum became capital of Ethiopia are the supposed palace of the Queen of Sheba and her swimming pool (9th Century BC) and the well-preserved stone temple that stands 12m high, consists of up to 52 layers of masonry, and was built at least 2,500 years ago.

The first written records pertaining to Ethiopia date back to the period between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, when this process of specialization was just began. Axum, which is the earliest capital of Ethiopia, served its purpose from the 1st century BC to the 6th Century AD. Some of achievements during this period were the carvings of some of the tallest monolithic steles in the world (UNESCO World Heritage Site), the introduction of Christianity in the 4th Century, the development of Ethiopia’s unique language and writings.

After the collapse of Axum’s maritime trade routes signaled the end of the Axumite importance around 750 AD, it was regarded as a period of isolations from the outside world until 1270 AD. This period is often known as Ethiopia’s Dark Age. Then the Axumites’ Solomonic Dynasty was replaced with the Zagwe Dynasty whose capital was set at the then Roha, the present day Lalibela.

It was during this period that Ethiopia’s top tourist site – the 11 incredibly hand carved rock churches of King Lalibela (1181 – 1221) came to existence. Lalibela is one place in Ethiopia that no tourist should miss. These churches are unofficially referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

In the period between 1528 – 60, when the country was busy with the Muslim -Christian war, Harar served as the Muslim capital of the country. The spiritual heart of Ethiopia’s large Islamic community, Harar is considered by some Muslims to be the fourth holiest city in the world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, while travel scribe John Graham rates it as ‘the most pleasant city to visit in Ethiopia’. Harar lies at the center of a fertile agricultural area that is renowned for its high- quality coffee and Chat – a mild stimulant. The main attraction of the region is Harar itself, or rather the walled city of Jugal that lies at its ancient heart. This walled enclosure measures about 1 sq km in area and is strongly Muslim in character – its more that 90 mosques, are said to form the largest concentration of such shrines in the world. The other attractions of Harar are the people of Adere (Harari) with their unique and clean houses, and the ‘Hyena Man’ who feeds wild hyenas in the evening at one of the gates of Harar.

The next fixed capital of the country was Gondar (1635 – 1855). It is probably the most immediately impressive of Ethiopia’s major ex-capitals. The city was in 1635 by Emperor Fasiladas who started the tradition of building beautiful and huge castles and churches. The Royal Enclosure or the Imperial Castle Compound of Gondar lies at the heart of the modern town and gives the city much of its character. Surrounded by high stonewalls, the enclosure covers an area of 70,000 m2 and contains six castles, a complex of connecting tunnels and raised walkway, and several smaller buildings.

The other structure that a visitor to Gondar must not miss is the church of Debre Birhan Sillassie. Founded by the grandson of Emperor Fasiladas, Iyasu the Great, it is the most important church in th18th – century Gondar, when it was the site of several royal burials. The most interesting part of the church is the prolific paintings inside. The much-photographed ceiling, decorated with paintings of 80 cherubic faces, is probably the most famous single example of ecclesiastical art in Ethiopia.

185 km south of Gondar is where Ethiopia’s largest water body (Lake Tana – 3,673 km sq) – the source of the longest river in the world – Blue Nile, is located at – with its 37 islands of which about 20 shelter churches and monasteries which are decorated with beautiful and colorful religious paintings from the 16th century. The largest city and most important tourist center in the Tana region is Bahir Dar, which lies on the southern lakeshore close to the Nile outlet, and is the base for a trip to the Blue Nile Falls, 32 km far from the town.

The capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, situated at the heart of the country, as a capital should, at an altitude of 2,400 meters (makes it the third highest capital in the world) is the largest city in Ethiopia with a population of more that 5.5 mil. Addis Ababa, translated as ‘New Flower’ in Ethiopia’s national language, is regarded as the ‘Capital of Africa’ as it is the seat of the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and more than 100 embassies and consulates. Addis Ababa was founded in 1886 and was made the official capital of Ethiopia in 1891 by its founder – Menelik II.

Nature + Wild Life + Culture
In the breathtaking S8mien Mountains, 136 km north of Gondar, most of the country’s endemic animals are found in the Simein Mountains’ National Park’s 180 square kilometers. The Walia Ibex with its fantastic set of horns, the Simien wolf and the Gelada baboon are unique to Ethiopia.

Mt. Ras Dashen (4,620 meters and the highest mountain in Ethiopia) is on the edge of the park. The jagged peaks deep ravines – some of which take two days to cross – and contorted rock formations are a stark reminder of the time, millions of years ago, when the African continent was still forming. The Simeins are a graphic example of the effect of these tumultuous forces on the surface of the earth. White-hot basaltic lava once covered what is now Ethiopia to a depth of 3,000 meters.

Far to the west of the capital are the lowlands of Gambella, the region bordering on the Sudan. No Semitic or Cushtic languages are heard there for it is the land of the Anuak and Nuer, speakers of Nilo-Saharan tongues whose relatives live over the border in the swampland of southern Sudan at places with such names – foreign to other Ethiopians – as Gog, Pibor, Wush Wush, Mangdeng and Dingding.

Its main town, Gambella, stands on a minor tributary of the White Nile. The Baro River, fed from the west-facing slopes of this part of Ethiopia, becomes the Sobat River once it enters the Sudan. Gambella and the Baro River were once a major Ethiopian outlet to the outside world. While the Sudan was still an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, Ethiopia had made an arrangement to lease space to Britain on the riverbank at Gambella to facilitate the two-way traffic.

This area hosts several wild life species not found elsewhere in Ethiopia. These include the Nile lechwe (Onotragus megaceros) and the white-eared kob (Kob leucotis). The banks of the Baro are also rich in bird life. Like some Nilotic people of neighboring southern Sudan, the Nuer people of both sexes favor cicatrisation, an ‘adornment’ causing bumps in various patterns on their jaws and bodies. They and their Anuak cousins have little contact with such highland peoples as the Oromo, Gimirra or Gurage. The Gimirra have suffered severely over the centuries from slave-raiders, large numbers having been captured and shipped overseas.

Ascending east from Ilubabor to the western wall of the Rift Valley the traveler arrives in ‘Coffee Country’, the place where the beverage originated. Before coffee ever reached the Americas it went right around the world in an easterly direction – first crossing the Red Sea to Yemen and Arabia, where its name was translated into Arabic Qaweh.

Today Ethiopia is a leading exporter of high quality arabica coffee. Most of the crop still grows wild in Keffa and parts of the neighboring Sidamo, where the soil, climate and the 2,000 meters altitude create an ideal environment for its cultivation. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main source of foreign exchange. Jimma is the main collection center, before coffee goes for processing and grading.

East of Jimma the bed of the Rift Valley rises to form a chain of lakes. Since most are fairly close to Addis Ababa, they are popular weekend resorts for the city’s population, who enjoy the facilities for water-skiing, sailing and other water sports in lakes such as Langano which are free of bilharziasis, a parasitical and often water-borne disease. The variety of bird life at these Rift Valley lakes makes them a paradise for bird-watchers, with masses of pelicans, flamingoes, fish eagles, and cormorants.
The Sidama people and others living in the southern segment of the Ethiopian section of the Rift Valley occupy some of the most delightful areas in the country with greenswards of meadow interspersed with patches of forest. Their carefully crafted beehive-shaped houses of wickerwork or grass show their origins that they share with the Gurage.

Farthest in the south, in the Lower Omo Valley, there are many interesting, friendly and charming people with their unique culture that is far from the touch of the technological achievements of the 21st Century. Among the 82 different linguistic groups of Ethiopia, the following are worth visiting.

The Hamer – are people who occupy the eastern part of the Lower Omo Valley, are known for the women’s typical hairdressing that is thoroughly covered in a mixture of grease and red ocher coloring. Hamer women are some of the most elaborately dressed women of the region. They are also famous for their ritual of jumping over the bulls, a ceremony to determine whether a young Hamer man is ready to take the responsibility of marriage and leading a family.

Mursi – are people who live between the Omo and the Mago Rivers. The distinctive trait o the Mursi is the labial and lobular plates worn by the women. A small incision is made in the lower lip and ear lobes of a young Mursi girl during initiation rituals.

The Dasenech - are people who occupy land on both sides of the Omo River and the northern edges of Lake Turkana. One of the most striking details of the Dasenech is the incredible male hairstyle signifying position in the age set system. Children have a completely shaven head with a cap of hair, while adults have sophisticated hairstyles incorporating earth to signify status.


Ethiopian Festivals
Enkutatash – New Year
September 11, on the Western calendar, is both Ethiopia’s New Year’s Day and the Feast of St. John the Baptist. The day is called Enkutatash meaning the ‘gift of jewels’, when the famous Queen of Sheba returned from her expensive jaunt to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, her chiefs welcomed her back by replenishing her treasury with fuku, or jewels. The spring festival has been celebrated since these early times and as the rains come to their abrupt end, and singing can be heard at every village in the green countryside.

Meskel (Finding of the True Cross)
Meskel, second in importance only to Timket, has been celebrated in the country of over 1,600 years. The feast commemorates the discovery of the Cross-, upon which the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, crucified Jesus. The feast is celebrated on 27 September. It is one of Ethiopia's Site (intangible) to be listed by UNESCO as World Heritage.

On the eve of Meskel tall branches are tied together and yellow daisies, popularly called Meskel Flowers are placed at the top. During the night these branches are gathered together in front of the compound gates and ignited. This symbolizes the actions of Empress Helena who, when no one would show her the Holy Sepulcher, lit incense and prayed for help. Where the smoke drifted she dug and found three crosses. To one of them, the True Cross, many miracles were attributed.

Meskel also signifies the physical presence of True Cross at the remote mountain monastery of Gishen Mariam located in the Wollo Region. Arrangement of the Cross-was kept in a box of gold. The priests of Gishen still safeguard this treasure along with the Tefut, which is handwritten in Ge’ez on beautiful parchment.

Genna (Ethiopian Christmas)
The Ethiopian Christmas, also called Lidet, is not the primary religious and secular festival that it has become in Western countries. Falling on 7th January, it is celebrated seriously by a church service that goes on throughout the night, with people moving all corners to different churches. Traditionally, young men played a game that is similar to hockey, called Genna, on this day now Christmas ahs also come to be known by that name.

Timket - Feast of Epiphany  
Timket, Feast of Epiphany, is the greatest festival of the year, falling on 19 January, less than two weeks after the Ethiopian Christmas. It is a three-day affair, beginning on the eve of Timket with dramatic and colorful processions. The following morning the great day itself, Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist is commemorated. The third day is devoted to the Feast of St. Michael, the archangel, one of Ethiopia’s most popular saints.

Enormous effort is put into the occasion. Tej and tella (Ethiopian mead and beer) are brewed, special bread is bake, and sheep is for slaughter. Gifts are prepared for the children and new clothes purchased or old clothes mended and laundered.

On the eve of 18th January, Ketera, the priests remove the tabots from each church and bless the water of the pool or river where the next day’s celebration will take place. It is the Tabot (symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments) rather that the church building with is consecrated and accorded extreme reverence.

With a private customized tour of Ethiopia with Merit Ethiopian Experience Tours, you can learn history, experience culture and explore the nature of Ethiopia. If visitors of Ethiopia or Addis Ababa have a short time to spend on tour, Merit Ethiopian Experience Tours organizes short tours of Addis Ababa or Day Tours from Addis Ababa.


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