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Behold the Ethiopian

Modern Ethiopia reflects the diverse history of its peoples

Ethiopia and the Ethiopians have been many things to many people.

For the ancient Greek and early Christian writers, Ethiopia was a distant land of imprecise geography and the Ethiopian, in the words of Homer in “The Odyssey,” an “eschatoi andron,” the most remote of men.

Later religious writers – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – described Ethiopia as a land of pristine piety. Their writings often referred to the empire of Aksum, which grew in power and prestige along the Red Sea coast and in the interior highlands from the third century B.C. until the sixth century.

Medieval scribes, cartographers and missionaries eager to explore the land saw Ethiopia as a magnificent African kingdom imbued with fantastic wealth and the highest ideals of justice. With European colonial empire-building in full swing, this image changed drastically. Ethiopia represented a den of monstrous savagery, its people the least civilized of the earth.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries when Ethiopian rulers enjoyed success in repelling foreign invasions (Egyptian, Sudanese and Italian), Ethiopia became for some oppressed Africans and African-Americans, including the leaders of many black liberation movements, a symbol of African pride and resistance against colonial exploitation.

All of these images bore some basis in observable fact, but they were never free from poetic embellishment, religious aspirations or political and economic opportunism. More than anything, these images of Ethiopia and the Ethiopians revealed more about the beholder than the beholden.

So what of the Ethiopians? What may be said about their reality apart from the hopes, fears and designs of their foreign chroniclers and visitors?

Situated on the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse. Its population of 60 million is mostly rural, with the Great Rift Valley, which crosses the country from the northeast to the southwest, dividing farmers in the central and northern highlands from shepherds in low-lying southern areas.

This geographic and economic divide mirrors Ethiopia’s historical development. Contact with the Semitic Middle East and later Byzantium provided the northeastern Ethiopian highlands with a faith, language and culture distinct from the African traditions of their neighbors to the south. Centuries of interaction, migration and warfare, however, have blurred this divide, leaving Ethiopia a collection of interactive cultures, religions, languages and ethnicities.

The historical variety is dizzying. Ethnologists list over 100 different ethnicities in a country twice the size of Texas, while linguists count at least 80 native tongues. Orthodox Christians make up almost half of the population, Muslims some 40 percent. Animists, Catholics, Jews and Protestants account for the remainder.

Although the people of the northern highlands have had some form of statehood for millennia, today’s Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia owes its borders to imperial conquests and expansion at the end of the 19th century. Those conquests to the south and west tripled the size of the Ethiopian state, which would later lose the northeastern province of Eritrea to independence in 1993 after a 30-year war of liberation.

Ethiopia’s three largest ethnic groups, the Tigrinyans, the Amhara and the Oromo (called the Galla by the Amhara), make up more than 70 percent of the total population and have all been critical to the country’s development.

The Tigrinyans, who live primarily in the central and northern highlands, are the descendants of the ancient Aksumites, whose Semitic culture, Ge’ez language and Orthodox Christian faith continue to play a defining role in the country’s collective identity.

The Amhara, who live alongside the Tigrinyans in the highlands, but have also migrated farther south, have been Ethiopia’s ruling elite since the 13th century. Both the Amhara and Tigrinyans, who speak variants of an Ethio-Semitic language, are mostly Orthodox Christian.

The single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia is the Oromo, who traditionally live in southern areas and speak a Cushitic (cush means black in ancient Hebrew) language and make up some 40 percent of the total population.

Ethnic identities in Ethiopia, however, are highly fluid. Current ethnic groups are genetic and social amalgams – the result of centuries of migration and assimilation.

Many of the Oromo, whose numerical superiority owes to the tremendous growth of its population starting in the 15th century, have adopted the culture and language of the ruling Amhara.

Even the Amhara, whose language Ethiopian emperors made predominant in their kingdom’s government, commerce and education, are hardly a cohesive group and have a history of interethnic conflict.

“Ethiopia is the despair of the compulsive classifier,” wrote scholar Abraham Demoz of the rich and varied peoples and traditions.

Ethiopia’s religious inheritance is no less complex. The three monotheistic Semitic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have all helped shape Ethiopia’s history.

The Aksumite kingdom’s expansion to the south and west starting in the third century brought its imperial and Christian traditions to a growing number of African peoples, previously untouched by Semitic culture and language.

It was the Aksumites who first employed the term “Aithiopia” (Greek for the land of burnt faces) to describe their empire and its dark-skinned people. The leaders of Aksum took the name negusa nagast, or “King of Kings,” to signify their symbolic rule over principalities outside their traditional stronghold in the Ethiopian highlands. The use of this title, as well as claims to being the descendants of the Old Testament union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, continued into the 20th century until the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Ethiopia’s 3,000-year-old dynasty.

Aksum’s cultural achievements were as great as they were widespread. The kingdom’s distinct architectural style, its liturgical language (Ge’ez) and its minted coins brought a common culture to previously isolated African peoples.

Aksum’s most important legacy, however, was the establishment of the church across Ethiopia and the Christian identity Ethiopian emperors nurtured among their subjects.

The missionary activity of Christian monks from the northern highlands helped establish a nationwide calendar of ritual observances and a network of religious education that touched nearly every part of what is now Ethiopia.

Similarly, Muslim traders and their caravan routes created Islamic shrines and annual pilgrimages that traversed the country. Although the 16th-century conquests of Ahmad Gran, an Islamic prince, brought a brief period of Islamic ascendancy throughout much of Ethiopia, Islam’s political and cultural influence on the whole of the land was checked repeatedly by the ethnic divisions within the faith. Despite this fractured legacy, Harar, which is near Ethiopia’s eastern border with Somalia and boasts some 90 mosques, remains an important Muslim center and the fourth holiest city in Islam.

Judaism also penetrated Ethiopia toward the end of the sixth century, but Jewish Ethiopians, known as Falasha (or outsiders), remained a small minority scattered among the larger groups of Ethiopian Christians, Muslims and animists until the Israeli government airlifted most of them to Israel in the late 20th century.

Like Islam and Christianity, indigenous African faiths are found in every corner of Ethiopia’s varied landscape, with large numbers of followers among the Sidama, the Gurage, the Oromo and the country’s Nilotic-speakers in the southwest.

Rich in diversity, Ethiopia is more than a mosaic of distinct peoples. Seeing the country as an ethnographic museum, or “museo di popoli,” in the words of one Italian scholar, obscures the reality of the country’s cultural, ethnic and religious history.

The peoples of Ethiopia have long experienced constant interaction through trade, warfare, religious activities, migration and intermarriage.

Although Christians and Muslims have often found themselves as antagonists in territorial disputes, the two faith communities share in many of the same observances.

Large numbers of Christians and Muslims attend an annual sacrifice at Lake Bishoftu, a fertility rite of pagan Oromo origins. Members of both faiths also participate in an annual pilgrimage to the Harege region to honor the archangel Gabriel.

Non-Christians also join Ethiopian Christians in their celebration of the Finding of the True Cross, a two-day festival known as Meskel, as well as the Christian celebration of Temqat, or the feast of the Epiphany.

No matter their religious or ethnic identities, Ethiopians also share a number of cultural traits. Belief in active spirits such as the evil eye, a ban on the consumption of pork, a ritual calendar, pilgrimages and monotheism are just some of the many beliefs and practices common to the great majority of the Amhara, Tigrinyans, Falasha, Kman, Oromo, Somali and Haddiya of every faith community.

Despite these similarities and the modernization and consolidation efforts of Ethiopian governments starting in the late 19th century, Ethiopia is not a single national society.

Sadly, poverty is probably the only characteristic common to most every Ethiopian. The country is overwhelmingly poor, with most of the population engaged in subsistence farming. Degraded lands, poor cultivation and frequent droughts have left the country periodically unable to feed its people.

Ethiopians will have to pool their rich and diverse histories and traditions to meet this unrelenting economic challenge as they try to forge a national future worthy of the land’s remarkable history of interaction and achievement.

David Sheehan is Assistant Editor of ONE.

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