Ethiopia — History and Culture

Ethiopia is one of the most heavily populated countries in Africa. Needless to say, it also has one of the richest cultures in the entire continent, and is mostly untouched by foreigners thanks to a long history of independence, broken only by a five-year occupation by the Italians. Amhara was the dominant ethnic group during the pre-war days, followed by Tigreans. Some degree of influence from neighboring countries like Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, and India, as well as its old Italian dwellers can still be seen in local music, religion and cuisine.


The earliest recorded history of the country can be traced back to the 8th century BC during which Ethiopia was part of the ancient D’mt Kingdom, which ruled over present day Northern Eritrea and Ethiopia. The 4th century BC saw the Aksumite Empire take over to reunite the independent kingdoms in the region. Evidence of early history are abundant in ancient towns like Yeha near Aksum, where old temples and ruins offer a glimpse into the pre-Aksumite civilization.

It was not until the 16th century when the territory made real contact with the Europeans. A relationship with the Portuguese was established, which proved beneficial during the Ethiopian-Adal War to provide munitions and soldiers to the local forces. The empire’s conversion to Catholicism led to years of blood-spattered revolt, which lead to the expulsion of Jesuit missionaries and the Europeans from the territory. Religion reverted back to Orthodox Christianity and it was during this time when many of the country’s historical and religious marvels were built, such as the Old Cathedral of St Mary of Zion, the Fasilides Castle and the Fasil Ghebbi Fortifications.

Modern Ethiopia began to rise as Emperor Tewodros II assumed the throne in 1855. During the second half of the century, Ethiopian troops maintained freedom by fighting off Turkish and Egyptian invaders who threatened their independence. The country eventually allied with both Turkey, Egypt, and Britain to combat the Sudanese in what was historically known as the Mahdist War.

The Italian occupation happened during the chaos of WWII, but Ethiopians didn’t have a hard time regaining power. The Italian rule lasted only five years, thanks to the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie II, who oversaw the fight for liberation and outlawed slavery. Despite being one of the countries with the longest history of independence, Ethiopia remains plagued by food shortages, poverty and squabbles with neighboring countries, no thanks to the Dark Age brought about by the communistic Mengitsu Era, which marred their past with wars, state-sponsored genocide and famine.

The communist era ended in 1991, coinciding with the disintegration of communism throughout the entire world. Ethiopia established a new constitution in 1994 following the revolution, though its political situation remains relatively unstable due to continual conflicts with neighboring Eritrea.


Ethiopians have one of the richest, most well-preserved cultures in the world, with very little influence from other countries. Locals have a strong identity, passing on legends and customs from one generation to the next.

Christianity is the predominant religion, followed by Islam and other traditional animist beliefs. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea were among the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity. Up to 62 percent of the population is Christian, while 30-35 percent is Muslim. The remaining 4-5 percent follows traditional religions.

Ethiopian music is extremely diverse and modern influences come from folk music from all over the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia. Religious music has distinct Christian elements, while secular tunes in the highlands are played by wandering musicians known as azmaris. Some of the traditional instruments include the chordophone (a string instrument that resembles a lute and lyre, played with a bows), aerophones (bamboo flutes), idophones (used for liturgical music), and membranophones (hand drums).

Hand woven fabrics (often decorated with intricate patterns) are used to create elegant garments. Traditional garb includes pants and knee-length shirts with a white collar, a sweater for men and shawls to cover the women’s hair. Locally made jewelry is stunning, particularly the silver and gold necklaces, which are often worn on the arms and feet. Traditional clothes are often seen during religious ceremonies, weddings and other special occasions.

Ethiopian cuisine is also one of the most distinct in Africa, known for its unique flavors and use of local ingredients. Some of the most popular entrees include injera and wat. Traditional Ethiopian cooking does not use pork or seafood (except for fish), as most of the population adheres to Ethiopian Orthodox, Islam and Jewish faith, all of which disallow consumption of pork.