Behold the Ethiopian

Modern Ethiopia shelters and combines the rich and diverse traditions of its peoples

by David Sheehan

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Ethiopia and the Ethiopians have been many things to many people.

For the ancient Greek and early Christian writers, Ethiopia was a distant land of imprecise geography and the Ethiopian, in the words of Homer in “The Odyssey,” an “eschatoi andron,” the most remote of men.

Later religious writers – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – described Ethiopia as a land of pristine piety. Their writings often referred to the empire of Aksum, which grew in power and prestige along the Red Sea coast and in the interior highlands from the third century B.C. until the sixth century.

Medieval scribes, cartographers and missionaries eager to explore the land saw Ethiopia as a magnificent African kingdom imbued with fantastic wealth and the highest ideals of justice. With European colonial empire-building in full swing, this image changed drastically. Ethiopia represented a den of monstrous savagery, its people the least civilized of the earth.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries when Ethiopian rulers enjoyed success in repelling foreign invasions (Egyptian, Sudanese and Italian), Ethiopia became for some oppressed Africans and African-Americans, including the leaders of many black liberation movements, a symbol of African pride and resistance against colonial exploitation.

All of these images bore some basis in observable fact, but they were never free from poetic embellishment, religious aspirations or political and economic opportunism. More than anything, these images of Ethiopia and the Ethiopians revealed more about the beholder than the beholden.

So what of the Ethiopians? What may be said about their reality apart from the hopes, fears and designs of their foreign chroniclers and visitors?

Situated on the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse. Its population of 60 million is mostly rural, with the Great Rift Valley, which crosses the country from the northeast to the southwest, dividing farmers in the central and northern highlands from shepherds in low-lying southern areas.

This geographic and economic divide mirrors Ethiopia’s historical development. Contact with the Semitic Middle East and later Byzantium provided the northeastern Ethiopian highlands with a faith, language and culture distinct from the African traditions of their neighbors to the south. Centuries of interaction, migration and warfare, however, have blurred this divide, leaving Ethiopia a collection of interactive cultures, religions, languages and ethnicities.

The historical variety is dizzying. Ethnologists list over 100 different ethnicities in a country twice the size of Texas, while linguists count at least 80 native tongues. Orthodox Christians make up almost half of the population, Muslims some 40 percent. Animists, Catholics, Jews and Protestants account for the remainder.

Although the people of the northern highlands have had some form of statehood for millennia, today’s Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia owes its borders to imperial conquests and expansion at the end of the 19th century. Those conquests to the south and west tripled the size of the Ethiopian state, which would later lose the northeastern province of Eritrea to independence in 1993 after a 30-year war of liberation.

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Tags: Ethiopia Africa Ethiopian Jews Aksum