World Travel Guide > Guides > Africa > Ethiopia

Ethiopia History, Language and Culture

History of Ethiopia

Thanks to the discovery of the hominid fossil Lucy, Ethiopia is much touted as the cradle of humanity. As part of the Land of Punt, the people here enjoyed trade with the ancient Egyptians some 5,000 years ago and then, around 3,500 years ago, Ethiopia's first great civilisation arose.

Various kingdoms then spawned, the most famous being the Aksumite Kingdom (100AD to 940AD). Dynasties rose, flourished and fell throughout the region up until the 19th-century, uniting and then splitting the country into feuding states.

Ethiopia can lay claim to be the only country in Africa to have never been fully colonised, despite the best efforts of the Italians, who suffered a series of devastating defeats at the hands of the Ethiopians in the late 19th-century and made a successful (but short-lived) occupation between 1936 and 1941.

The first half of the 20th century was dominated by Haile Selassie, who became emperor in 1930. Widespread discontent with continuing imperial rule led to a military coup in 1974, bringing the Derg to power. In 1977 a further coup established Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu as ruler. Ethiopia slid into a state of terror as mass arrests and executions became commonplace. A multitude of armed opposition groups rose up across Ethiopia in response, ushering in the start of Ethiopia's civil war.

It was the civil war, along with severe drought, economic mismanagement and mutual mistrust between the government and Western aid agencies that contributed to the widespread Ethiopian famine of 1983. The war ended in 1991 when the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took control of the capital. Not long after, in 1993, Eritrea extricated itself from Ethiopia, and tension continues between the two governments.

EPRDF leader, Meles Zenawi, was elected head of a transitional administration and became Ethiopia's first democratically elected prime minister after elections in 1995. Since then, more political parties have been created and the government is keen to reform and encourage economic growth.

Did you know?
• Rastafarians believe Ethiopia's former emperor, Haile Selassie, is an incarnation of Christ.
• Ethiopia is the only country in the world to have a 13-month year. The first 12 months have exactly 30 days for each month and the 13th month has five or six days.
• Coffee is thought to have been discovered in the Kaffa region when a shepherd found his goats behaving oddly after eating the plant.

Ethiopia Culture

Religion in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 43%; Islam (mainly in the east and south), 35%; Traditional religions and Protestants are also significant.

Social Conventions in Ethiopia

Religion permeates nearly every facet of Ethiopian life and society. Fasting, as part of a religious ritual, is common. Ethiopian society is rather conservative with traditional values very much in place. Many Ethiopians also harbour a strong national identity, taking pride in their profound history as well as recent economic accomplishments.

Ethiopians are a sociable bunch. They take time to greet one another and close friends may kiss three times on the cheeks. Hand-holding between two same-sex friends is a sign of affection, not a sign of a gay relationship.

Eating & drinking: Only the right hand is used for eating or passing things. The left hand is used when going to the toilet and therefore considered dirty.

Monasteries & churches: When visiting a monastery or a church (particularly in Lalibela), women must wear a headscarf, and cover their arms and legs. Some monasteries and churches are only open to male visitors. Women travellers should always check before entering if they're unsure.

Ethiopian time: Please see the 'Doing business & staying in touch' section for an explanation on this.

Photography: In smaller towns, locals will expect a small payment in return for being photographed. Video photography in famous tourist attractions normally carries a small charge. Photography may be prohibited near government buildings and military installations.

Language in Ethiopia

Amharic is the official language, although about 80 other native tongues are spoken including Oromifa and Tigrigna. English is also widely used.


Hello/hi = Selam
How are you = Tenastalign
How much is it = Sintinew
Goodbye = Dahnahan (male), Dahnahhanyee (female)
Yes = Awo
No = Adalam
OK = Ishi
Please = Ibeki (male), Ibekish (female)
Thank you = Amasagenalaha
Sorry = Yikirta

Coffee = Buna
Tea = Shai
Beer = Birra
Water = Wiha
Sparkling water = Amboha (the most popular brand)

A digital image at

Related Articles

Undiscovered Ethiopia: Abuna Yemata Guh in Tigray

Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, boasts over 100 ancient rock churches and a climb to Abuna Yemata Guh is a test of faith, writes Vivien Yap

Book a Hotel