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Culture Spotlight: Ethiopia

by Martha Hales

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The origins of modern Ethiopian culture can be traced back millennia; indeed some scholars are convinced that this East African land is where the earliest humans evolved, then spread to other parts of the world. Today it is a vibrant country heavy with tradition and beauty, and a rich cultural legacy that merits exploration.

LalibelaOrthodox Christianity

This cradle of humanity was also one of the first areas to adopt the Christian faith, and this remains a mainstay of the nation’s cultural identity. Records state that in 333 AD the rulers of Aksum became followers of Christ, thus the religion spread across the Ethiopian people. The most renowned symbols of Christianity in the country are the twelve rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. A fulcrum of worship for Ethiopians, the area becomes a hive of prayer and pilgrimage at the holiest of times, for example during Timkat - the Ethiopian version of the Christian holiday, Epiphany.

Feasting and fasting

One of the enduring staples of Ethiopian cuisine is Injera, a spongy, bready pancake which is served with pretty much everything. Rip off small pieces and use it to scoop up the wat - a spicy stew that it accompanies. Injera could be described as an acquired taste but in fact the dense, sour staple makes a good contrast to the spicy stews. Neither Christian nor Muslim Ethiopians eat pork, but beef, goat and chicken are commonly served. Fasting is a big part of Ethiopian religious observance in all faiths, and as animal products are not allowed at these times there is good practise of vegetarian cooking. However, on high days and holidays the delicacy of choice is kitfo, made of the leanest cuts of beef which are minced and either eaten raw or barely warmed through.

Ethnic diversity

DiversityThere are around one hundred separate languages spoken in Ethiopia and nearly as many distinct ethnic groups. Cultural identity is often intertwined with ethnicity and even more strongly with language among Ethiopians. Most of these languages fall into four major linguistic groups: Semitic; Cushitic; Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. Many Ethiopians also speak some English, and a significant number speak some Italian and French as well. When Amharic became the official working language of Ethiopia, the people who came from that linguistic background found themselves at an advantage, and thus Amhara culture has in some cases become the national ‘norm’. This has caused friction with the speakers of the Omotic languages; an ethnic group of similar size to the Amharic, who have none of the associated advantages. Several of the Omotic-speaking groups are to be found in the villages of the Omo valley, home to some of the most elaborate traditional tribal adornments in Africa. Lip plates, body painting, intricate jewellery and hair styling are all part of the local culture in the area. If you visit the Omo tribes, make the effort to learn about their heritage, and remember that these are people - engage before snapping your photos.

Make it happen

Ethiopia has so much to offer the traveller, from legendary hospitality to panoramic highlands and rare wildlife. Get in touch with our local experts, who will put their expertise to good use planning your perfect itinerary.

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