Ethiopia is truly a Land of discovery - brilliant and beautiful,
secretive, mysterious and extraordinary. Above all things, it is a
country of great antiquity, with a culture and traditions dating back
more than 3,000 years. The traveler in Ethiopia makes a journey through
time, transported by beautiful monuments and the ruins of edifices
built long centuries ago.
Ethiopia, like many other African countries, is a multi-ethnic
state. Many distinctions have been blurred by intermarriage over
the years but many also remain. The differences may be observed in the
number of languages spoken - an astonishing 83, falling into four main
language groups: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. There are
200 different dialects.
Regarding the country’s nations
and nationalities, which is estimated to be around 80 million, the
number of ethnic Oromo accounts about 25.5 million (34.5 %) while Amhara
is 19.8 million (26.9%), Somali 4.5 million (6.2 %),Tigre 4.4 million
The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are related to both Hebrew and
Arabic, and derive from Ge'ez, the ecclesiastical language.
The principle Semitic language spoken in the north-western and
central part of the country is Amharic, which is also the official
language of the modern state. Other main languages are Tigrigna,
Guraginya, Adarinya, Afan Oromo, Somalinya, Sidaminya, Afarinya, Gumuz,
Berta and Anuak.
The Tigrigna- and Amharic-speaking people of the north and centre
of the country are mainly agriculturalists, tilling the soil with
ox-drawn ploughs and growing teff (a local millet), wheat,
barley, maize and sorghum. The most southerly of the Semitic speakers,
the Gurage, are also farmers and herders, but many are also craftsmen.
The Gurage grow enset, 'false banana', whose root, stem and leaf
stalks provide a carbohydrate which, after lengthy preparation, can be
made into porridge or unleavened bread.
The Cushitic Oromo, formerly nomadic pastoralists, are now mainly
engaged in agriculture and, in the more arid areas, cattle-breeding. The
Somali, also pastoral nomads, forge a living in hot and arid bush
country, while the Afar, semi-nomadic pastoralists and fishermen,
are the only people who can survive in the hostile environment of the
Danakil Depression. Living near the Omo River are the Mursi, well-known
for the large clay discs that the women wear inserted in a slit in
their lower lips.
The people of Ethiopia wear many different types of clothing. The
traditional dress of the Christian highland peasantry has traditionally
been of white cotton cloth. Since the time of Emperor Tewodros 11
(mid-1800s), men have worn long, jodhpur-like trousers, a
tight-fitting shirt and a shamma (loose wrap).
The Muslims of Harar, by contrast, wear very colourful dress, the men in
shortish trousers and a coloured wrap and the women in fine dresses of
red, purple and black. The lowland Somali and Afar wear long,
brightly coloured cotton wraps, and the Oromo and Bale people are to be
seen in the bead-decorated leather garments that reflect their
economy, which is based on livestock. Costumes to some extent
reflect the climates where the different groups live - highlanders, for
instance, -use heavy cloth capes and wraparound blankets to combat
the night chill. In the heat of the lowland plains, light cotton cloths
are all that is required by men and women alike.
Traditional dress, though often now supplanted by Western attire, may
still be seen throughout much of the countryside. National dress
is usually worn for festivals, when streets and meeting-places are
transformed into a sea of white as finely woven cotton dresses, wraps
decorated with coloured woven borders, and suits are donned. A
distinctive style of dress is found among the Oromo horsemen of the
central highlands, who, on ceremonial days such as Maskal,
attire themselves in lions' manes or baboon-skin headdresses and,
carrying hippo-hide spears and shields, ride down to the main city
squares to participate in the parades.
Ethiopians are justifiably proud of the range of their traditional
costumes. The most obvious identification of the different groups is in
the jewellery, the hair styles and the embroidery of the dresses.
The women of Amhara and Tigray wear dozens of plaits (sheruba),
tightly braided to the head and billowing out at the shoulders. The
women of Harar part their hair in the middle and make a bun behind
each ear. Hamer, Geleb, Bume and Karo men form a ridge of plaited hair
and clay to hold their feathered headwear in place. Arsi women have
fringes and short, bobbed hair. Bale girls have the same, but cover it
with a black headcloth, while young children often have their
Jewellery in silver and gold is worn by both Muslims and
Christians, often with amber or glass beads incorporated. Heavy
brass, copper and ivory bracelets and anklets are also worn.
Ethiopia also has a rich tradition of both secular and religious
music, singing and dancing, and these together constitute an
important part of Ethiopian cultural life. Singing accompanies many
agricultural activities, as well as religious festivals and
ceremonies surrounding life's milestones - birth, marriage and death.
Traditional musical instruments in widespread use include the
massinko, a one-stringed violin played with a bow; the
a six-stringed lyre, played with the fingers or a plectrum; the
washint, a simple flute; and three types of drum - the negarit
(kettledrum), played with sticks, the kebero, played with
the hands, and the atamo, tapped with the fingers or palm. Other
instruments include the begena, a huge, multi-stringed lyre often
referred to as the Harp of David; the tsinatseil, or sistrum,
which is used in church music; the meleket, a long trumpet
without fingerholes, and the embilta, a large, simple,
one-note flute used on ceremonial occasions.
Though often simply made, the massinko can, in the hands of
an expert musician, produces a wide variety of melodies. It is
often played by wandering minstrels,particularly near eating houses,
where the musicians entertain the diners. The rousing rhythms of
the negarit were used in times gone by to accompany important
proclamations, and chiefs on the march would be preceded by as many as
30 men, each beating a negarit carried on a donkey. The
tiny atamo is most frequently played at weddings and
festivals, setting the rhythmic beat of folk songs and dances.
Modern-style bands have come into existence in recent decades, and there
are noted Ethiopian jazz musicians.