People and Culture
Over 80 linguistic groups exist in Ethiopia, representing four of the five Afro-Asiatic families of languages, including the Omotic language family found exclusively within the confines of Ethiopia. The mystical symbols, myths and ritual practices found in Ethiopia are linked with the mysteries and traditional beliefs of the ancient civilizations of Asia, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. The customs, body decorations and celebrations of Ethiopia’s traditional people mirror Africa’s exotic cultural heritage. The current population is about 90 million, making it the second most populated country in Africa.
Three of the world’s major religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam have had their followers here since they were founded and thus have grown with indigenous expressions that are distinctly Ethiopian. Both Christianity and Islam became state sponsored and protected in Ethiopia before anywhere else. The Prophet Mohammed’s earliest followers (the “Asshaba”) were able to escape persecution in Arabia by fleeing to Ethiopia, where they were accepted and allowed to flourish under the protection of the king of Axum. In appreciation of this, there is an injunction in the Koran against violence by Muslims directed at Ethiopia. Today, almost 95% of Ethiopians are adherents of one of these three main religions with the rest being followers of animist traditional spirit or ancestral worship of one kind or another.
Ethiopia is the only civilization on the continent with its own alphabet, chronology and calendar system and medieval religious art.
Some 1600 years before his counterparts in Europe, the Ethiopian Saint Yared devised a musical notation in the 6th century for his stupendous repertoire of sacred music with finely choreographed sacred dance to go with it. To this day, highland Ethiopian secular music and dances are based on Yared’s legacy. The most common folk dance, the esskista has basic elements running through the traditional dances of all the various highland peoples. Mostly based on shaking shoulders, its combination of the religious, fetish and sensuous is as confusing as it is fascinating. The somersaults of the Welaita and the coquettish theatrics of the Omo people are in sharp contrast to this.