Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world. In the long and disturbed history of the African continent, Ethiopia remains the only country which has never been colonised. Ethiopia was a founding member of the AU and is home to the African Union’s headquarters. The Old Testament of the Bible records the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem.
In fact, historians believe that Ethiopia may well be the beginning of mankind. The fossils of the oldest once-living humans or “Lucy” were discovered in the the northern section of Ethiopia. The remains of the fossil are said to be 3.5 million years old.
After a long and difficult period under self-declared “communist” rulers, the country is now back on its feet. The long history assures that there are many historic sites in the country. The natural beauty, with high mountains, lakes, waterfalls as well as arid deserts are among the natural attractions of Ethiopia.
Highlights in Ethiopia include the towns of Axum, Gondar, Harar, as well as the rock churches of Lalibela. Spectacular outdoor activities are rafting on the Omo River. And several national Parks offer gold opportunities for multi-day hiking in spectacular landscape, partly with good chances to spot wildlife animals. The Danakil Depression is one of few places worldwide where one can descent to an active vulcano’s lava flow.
Ethiopia is one of the oldest independent nations in the world. It has long been an intersection between the civilizations of North Africa, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Unique among African countries, Ethiopia was never colonised, maintaining its independence throughout the “Scramble for Africa”, except for five years (1936-41) when it was under Italian military occupation. During this period, the Italians occupied only a few key cities and major routes, and faced continuing native resistance until they were finally defeated during the Second World War by a joint Ethiopian-British alliance. Ethiopia has long been a member of international organizations: it became a member of the League of Nations, signed the Declaration by United Nations in 1942, founded the UN headquarters in Africa, was one of the 51 original members of the UN, and is the headquarters for and one of the founding members of the former OAU and current AU. In 1974, its monarchist government was deposed, and replaced with a pro-Soviet military junta, which ruled Ethiopia for 17 years until the end of the Cold War.
Ethiopia was historically called Abyssinia.
The predominant climate type is tropical monsoon, with wide topographic-induced variations. As a highland country, Ethiopia has a climate which is generally considerably cooler than other regions at similar proximity to the Equator. Most of the country’s major cities are located at elevations of around 2,000-2,500 metres (6,600-8,200 ft) above sea level, including historic capitals such as Gondar and Axum.
The modern capital, Addis Ababa, is situated in the foothills of Mount Entoto at an elevation of around 2,400 metres (8,000 ft), and experiences a healthy and pleasant climate year-round. With such temperatures, the seasons in Addis Ababa are largely defined by rainfall, a dry season from October to February, a light rainy season from March to May, and a heavy rainy season from June to September. The average annual rainfall is around 1200mm (47 in). There are on average 7 hours of sunshine per day, meaning it is sunny for around 60% of the available time. The dry season is the sunniest time of the year, though even at the height of the rainy season in July and August there are still usually several hours per day of bright sunshine.
The average annual temperature in Addis Ababa is 16°C (61°F), with daily maximum temperatures averaging 20-25°C (68-77°F) throughout the year, and overnight lows averaging 5-10°C (41-50°F). A light jacket is recommended for the evenings, though many Ethiopians prefer to dress conservatively and will wear a light jacket even during the day.
Most major cities and tourist sites in Ethiopia lie at a similar elevation to Addis Ababa and have comparable climates, though in less elevated regions, particularly the lower lying regions in the east of the country, the climate can be significantly hotter and drier. The town of Dallol, in the Danakil Depression in this eastern zone, has the world’s highest average annual temperature of 34°C (93°F).
A high plateau with a central mountain range divided by the Great Rift Valley, arid low lands in the east and lush riverine lowlands in the westernmost parts.
The lowest point of the Danakil Depression is one of the lowest and hottest points in earth at 125 metres (410 ft) below sea level. The highest point is Ras Dejen 4,620 metres (15,157 ft.)
The still geologically active Great Rift Valley is susceptible to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Frequent droughts and unrestricted fecundity threaten periodic famines.
Ethiopia is now landlocked since the entire coastline along the Red Sea was lost with the de jure independence of Eritrea on 24 May 1993 after years of bitter fighting. The Blue Nile, the chief headstream of the Nile, rises in T’ana Hayk (Lake Tana) in northwest Ethiopia.
Three major crops are believed to have originated in Ethiopia: coffee, grain sorghum, and castor bean. Teff is also a grain that came from Ethiopia.
Time & Calendar
Ethiopia uses the Ethiopian calendar, which dates back to the Coptic calendar 25 BC, and never adopted the Julian or Gregorian reforms. One Ethiopian year consists of twelve months, each lasting thirty days, plus a thirteenth month of five or six days (hence the “Thirteen Months of Sunshine” tourism slogan). The Ethiopian new year begins on 11 or 12 September (in the Gregorian calendar), and has accumulated 7-8 years lag behind the Gregorian calendar: thus, for the first nine months of 2007, the year will be 1999 according to the Ethiopian calendar. On 11 September 2007, Ethiopia celebrated New Year’s Day (Enkutatesh) for 2000.
In Ethiopia, the 12-hour clock cycles do not begin at midnight and noon, but instead are offset six hours. Thus, Ethiopians refer to midnight (or noon) as 6 o’clock.
Airline timetables and our guides (unless otherwise stated) are based on the 24-hour clock and use the Gregorian calendar.
Travel by Air
Ethiopian Airlines (IATA code ET) is the sole domestic airline operator and one of the most successful and reputable airlines in Africa and is a Star Alliance member, servicing both the USA and Europe with direct flights.
Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa is the main hub for Ethiopian Airlines with flights to most capitals of Africa. An extremely attractive deal for ET passengers on their way to other East Africa safari destinations is to make a week stop-over in Ethiopia at no additional cost to enjoy the famous Ethiopia Historical Circuit before flying to their final destination.
Other international airlines serviced by Bole International Airport include: Lufthansa, Sudan Airways, Kenya Airways, British Airways, KLM, Turkish Airways, Emirates, Gulf Air, Egypt Air and Fly Dubai. A new runway and international terminal, which was said to be the largest in Africa, opened in 2003.
Many hotels will offer free pickup – be sure to book in advance. If not, upon arrival you may call your hotel for the transfer but may wait up to 1 hour depending on the traffic.
CAUTION: Arriving in the country without a major currency such as euros or US dollars is not recommended, especially if one has not obtained a visa prior to arrival. Travellers cheques and cash can be exchanged at the airport. There are several ATMs in the international airport terminal (Terminal 2) accepting VISA-branded cards (both debit and credit cards), but they’re not reliable. You should have some cash in any major currency (USD, Euro, Pounds, Swiss Franc, Japanese Yen)
Travel by Bus
There is a comprehensive network of cheap buses along the major roads, although these are slow and basic. Buses travelling shorter distances generally leave whenever they have filled up with passengers (in practice, this means once an hour or so); nearly all long-distance buses leave at dawn (06:00, and 12 o’clock according to the Ethiopian way of reckoning time). Buses do not travel at night; they will stop before sundown in a town or village with accommodation for the passengers, or, between Dire Dawa and Djibouti, by the roadside in the country. Between some cities (e.g. Adama and Addis Ababa), minibuses will run after the larger buses have stopped for the night. Everyone on the bus must have a seat by law — this prevents overcrowding, but often makes it difficult to catch a bus from an intermediate point on a route. If planning to travel by bus, keep in mind that the vehicles are old and very dusty and the roads are bad. Ethiopians do not like opening the bus windows, so it gets hot and stuffy inside by afternoon. If you like fresh air, sit as close to the driver or one of the doors as possible as the driver keeps his window open and the conductor and his assistant often have the door windows open.
The bus stations usually open somewhere around 05:00. If you are catching an early morning bus, you should get to the station at 05:00. They are very chaotic first thing in the morning, and many buses will sell out of seats before they leave at 06:00. To make things easier and less stressful, you can often buy a ticket in advance. In Addis, find the correct window at the bus station the day before you wish to travel and buy your ticket there. (You will need help finding the window unless you can read Amharic, but there are usually people around who will help if you ask.) The ticket will be in Amharic, but there will be a legible bus number written on it somewhere. Simply find that bus the next morning at the bus station. In smaller cities, you can often buy your ticket from the conductor when the bus arrives from its previous trip the afternoon before you travel. Even if you already have a ticket, arrive early and claim a seat as soon as possible. If you don’t have a ticket, you will have to ask people to show you the correct bus, unless you can read Amharic. In this case, don’t waste time trying to buy a ticket from the window or from the bus conductor — push your way on board the bus and claim a seat! The conductor will sell you a ticket later. Medium sized backpacks can usually be squeezed under the seats, but large packs and most luggage will have to go up on the roof. Claim your seat before you worry about your luggage. Anyone assisting you with your luggage, including the person passing it up to the conductor’s assistant on the roof, will expect a small tip (around 2-3 birr).
On several routes (Addis – Dire Dawa, Bahardar – Addis) you may find informal traveler cars with no fixed departure; when looking around at a bus station you may be approached by somebody who offers you a faster connection via private car; this is more expensive than the normal bus but also much faster. You’ll be handed a cell phone number to call to make an appointment. These cars may leave before sundown or travel even at night.
Injera is Ethiopia’s national dish. It is a spongy, tangy-tasting sourdough made from the grain teff, which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia. It is baked in the form of giant thin pancakes, then often rolled up and sliced to hand-sized portions. It is eaten with wot (or wat), traditional stews made with spices and meat or legumes. Some popular wats are doro (chicken) wat, yebeg (lamb) wat and asa (fish) wat. Most dishes are somewhat spicy, but still very enjoyable for western travellers. At the same time probably the long cooking times of stews will leave you with minimal food-related problems compared to other low developed countries.
The injera sits directly on a large round plate or tray and is covered with wat placed symmetrically around a central item. The various wats are eaten with other pieces of injera, which are served on a side plate or come free of charge once you finished the non vegetable covered injera on the main plate. Injera is eaten with the right hand – rip a large piece of injera and use it to pick up one of the various flavours of wat on the main platter.
Do not eat with your left hand! In Ethiopia food is a respected gift from God and eating with your left hand is a sign of disrespect.
Another popular injera dish is firfir: fried, shredded injera. It can be served with or without meat or with all sorts of veggies.
If you prefer vegetarian food, try the shiro wat, which is a chick-pea based stew served with injera. Most times you have to specifically ask for vegetarian options as it doesn’t come with most of the combinations since Ethiopians prefer meat. When a vegetarian is having trouble communicating his/her dietary needs, a good strategy is to ask for “fasting food,” a concept that is nearly universally understood.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church mandates a large number of “fast days” during the year – officially more than 180 days annually, including a 56 day fast during the Orthodox Lent. During these periods, the observant are required to eat no animal products, only vegan food. In large tourist restaurants in Addis and in predominately Muslim areas, you will find the fasting period has no impact on the food available to you. But in smaller restaurants, including in tourist venues like Lalibela and Axum, a tourist will be handed an English language menu full of chicken and meat options – but when attempting to order those items, will be told they are not available, and given the option of “fasting food.” The result will be a very tasty injera plate with 3-6 vegetable and legume wats, including lentils, spinach/greens and similar items. While this can be frustrating to carnivores, and the be served the same “fasting food” for days on end can become tiresome, it makes Ethiopia much more vegetarian friendly. For those that require gluten-free dietary the teff-based and therefore gluten-free injera will make you love the country.
Another popular dish is tibbs or tibs, spicy beef fried in butter. It can be either really bad (burnt to a crisp and resembling petrified wood) or juicy and delicious in more fancy restaurants. (The Holiday Hotel in Addis serves delicious tibbs).
Kitfo is minced meat, spiced with chili. You can have it raw (the locally preferred way, but there’s a risk of getting tape worm), leb-leb (lightly cooked) or fully cooked. It comes with a local cheese ayeb and a spinach.
For the pickier traveler, almost every place in Ethiopia also serves spaghetti (thanks to the short lived Italian occupation). In nice restaurants in Addis you can find excellent spaghetti and lasagna (try the Blue Tops or Top View restaurants), and in the more peripheral places you will usually find it overcooked with bland tomato paste as sauce. (Ethiopians – especially in smaller towns – will often turn the bowl of spaghetti on top of a plate of injera and wats, and use injera to scoop up both the spaghetti and the spicy stews).