There aren’t many countries that can truly call themselves unique. France has great cuisine, but so does Italy. India has challenging and beautiful mountaineering routes, and so does Peru.
But Ethiopia really is unique. It’s the only African country that was never colonized, and as far as paleontologists can tell, it’s where the human race evolved from our earlier ancestors.
Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley is a treasure trove of fossils that have revealed our origins from something not quite human and not quite ape, and our slow evolution into something more recognizable. These fossils, including the famous Lucy, are on show at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. The great lesson evolution has to teach us is that we’re all related. Ethiopia is everyone’s hometown.
Ethiopia’s great history didn’t end with simply giving birth to the human race. It was home to a series of important civilizations that left a rich cultural legacy. The country boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the eleven churches of Lalibela cut out of solid rock. The one pictured here is called Bete Medhane Alem (“Savior of the World”) and is believed to be the largest rock-hewn church anywhere. Another entry to the list is the ancient capital of Aksum with its towering monoliths. Aksum’s rulers controlled one of the ancient world’s great empires for a thousand years from about 50 BC until 950 AD.
Ethiopians are proud of their history and near Aksum is the battlefield of Adowa, where in 1896 an Italian army determined to colonize the country was gobbled up by a well-armed and disciplined Ethiopian force in one of the biggest defeats of a colonial force by a native army in history. The Italians returned in 1935 under Mussolini, this time with tanks and poison gas, and took over for a few brutal years, but they never really controlled the country and got promptly ejected during World War Two.This is a large nation, almost twice the size of France, with several different cultural and ethnic groups and a mix of Christian, Muslim, and animist beliefs. The population of 79 million speaks 83 languages and more than 200 dialects. In the rugged highlands of the north are the Amhara and Tigrayana, who are mostly Christian. In the dry east are the Muslim Harari, whose main city of Harar is considered one of the holiest cities of Islam. The grasslands to the south are home to the Oromo, who embrace various faiths, and tribal animist cultures such as the Mursi, who are famous for the giant rings they put through their lower lips. There are many more ethnic groups, but it would take a book to cover them all.
One aspect of Ethiopian culture many people in the West have discovered is the food. There’s Ethiopian coffee, of course. Coffee was discovered coffee here and the Ethiopians have a pleasant ceremony to celebrate drinking it with friends. There’s also distinct cuisine that’s beginning to catch on in the West. A spongy, slightly sour bread called injera provided a base for a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. There’s lots for vegetarians to eat in Ethiopia, plus Wednesdays and Fridays are traditional fasting days when most restaurants and private homes won’t serve meat. Ethiopian restaurants have become popular in the U.S. and U.K. and provide a good introduction to the cuisine. If you’re in London, try Merkato Restaurant on 196 Caledonian Road. The best I’ve had in England!
If nature is more your style then try the wild and rugged Semien Mountains, another World Heritage Site, that offers unspoiled trekking where you can see rare species found only in Ethiopia, such as the Ethiopian wolf and Gelada baboon. You might also want to dare the Danakil Depression in the extreme northeast. An inhospitable desert 100 meters below sea level, it’s seen a record high of 64.4°C (148.0°F) and regularly gets up to 48 °C (118 °F).
A number of airlines fly to Bole International Airport in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Since it isn’t a hugely popular destination prices aren’t very competitive but they aren’t outrageous if you shop around. I got a flight on Egyptair from Madrid via Cairo to Addis Ababa for only 550 euros ($830). Few flights from Europe are direct; most stop in the Gulf or North Africa. One odd thing is that many flights land in the wee hours of the morning. I’m getting in at 4am, so I guess I’ll just change some money at the 24-hour bank, hope one of the airport cafes is open, and wait until sunrise.
I’ll be there from February 9-March 27. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to see Ethiopia. I’ve been studying the history for years and talking to every expat I can find. Now I’m finally going there! Expect to see lots more about this fascinating country on Gadling.