Ethiopia has been called a rich cultural mosaic due to its eighty different languages and dialects and as many, if not more, cultural variations. In the north and centre of the country different semitic languages, namely Tigre, Tigrinya, Guraginya, and the official language of the country, Amharic are spoken. The ancient Semitic forebear of these languages, Ge’ez, today only survives in church liturgy and literature. To the east and other parts of the south are the Oromos, the Afars and the Somalis who are Cushitic – speaking peoples while the associated Sidama languages are spoken to the south east. To the west and south-west are to be found the Nilotic peoples, each with its own distinctive language and culture?
Elsewhere around the country there are a number of smaller communities whose cultures, languages and traditions are related to different facets of Ethiopia’s long history and, as with all the peoples of the country, to its religions be they Orthodox Christians, Moslems or members of other faiths.
Folk culture is also an important element of today’s Ethiopia. Artists and craftsmen make their own contributions to the country’s cultural and social development. Almost every town has its own cultural troupe made up of singers and dancers, poets and writers, and its own cultural hall in which the troupe re-creates the song and dance of its particular area from a bygone age.
Delicacies of Ethiopia
Ethiopian cuisine is unique by the way of ceremony, color and presentation. First decorated metal or clay water jugs are brought to the table and their contents poured over the guests’ out stretched hands into a small bowl below. This cleansing is some times followed by a short prayer of thanks giving.
The first course, which immediately follows this ceremonial aspect of the meal, is usually a mild dish such as curds and whey to cleanse the palate for the more spicy offerings that follow.
Wot, the national dish, comes in many varieties – meat, fish, poultry or vegetable – of hot pepper and spice stews which are almost always accompanied by a fermented form of unleavened bread called injera. Layers of the bread are geometrically positioned in mesobs, or basket tables and spoon fulls of the different types of wot are then attractively portioned out on top of them. Then it’s finger time, tearing off a piece of injera and wrapping it around a chosen piece of meat with savory sauce.
For those not accustomed to such foods whose ingredients include red and black pepper, cardamom, garlic and coriander, there is an alternative: Alicha is equally delicious but a lot milder and is usually made from chicken or lamb flavored with green pepper and onions.
Traditional Ethiopian meals are normally washed down with tej, a type of wine made from honey, or tella which is a light, home brewed beer manufactured from barley. Ethiopia also produces a range of very palatable yet inexpensive red and white wines. Ethiopians do not traditionally end their meals with a dessert although, it ca be found, a honey comb dripping with honey if often offered to sooth the heat of the wot. In any event, the end of a meal is not complete without buna, (the Ethiopian word for coffee), the world’s favorite beverage which actually originated in Ethiopia about a thousand years ago.
Jewellery and Crafts
The Ethiopians love ornament, designs and aesthetic art and this is reflected not only in the dress of the people adornment.
Historically this is displayed in their jewel -studded crowns and diadems, and with daggers and shields set with rubies and emeralds. The same creative tradition is maintained also by the humble – but no less impressive – skills of the rural weavers of grass ,leather and hair, and the string of colorful bead neck less and cowries shells .
Artists abound as well. The monasteries of Ethiopia; produced some of the earliest illuminated parchments. Good ,modern examples of brightly colored illustrated stories drawn from Ethiopia history and the Bible are today still produced in large quantities.
Church decorations are another medium for artistic expression. Many Ethiopian master pieces may never be known to the out side world because they are painted on the walls and ceiling of remote and inaccessible churches or monasteries.
The potter’s craft in Ethiopia is over 3000 years old. Superb traditional pottery is produced by monks and the Sambo tree monastery in the north east of the country. Carving is another traditional craft which continues to flourish. Carved objects made of wood include combs (the most ornate used by the Afar people), rosary beads, bowls, camel bells, coffee urns, butter pots and head-rests.
Basket weaving is a highly developed craft. Items are wooden from different colored grasses and fibers and are highly prized for their intricate designs.
Other hand crafts in the country include the use of the beads and the cowries’ shells to adorn clothing and jewellery, and the hand weaving of internationally recognized woolen carpets.
Ethiopia has a number of festivals through out the year starting with, Tseday, which is the time of the Ethiopian new year which falls on the Maskaram 1 or September 11th. This is also the beginning of the harvest season which is a time of parties and weddings. The most unusual of the country’s festivals are Kulubi Gabriel, Shiekh Hussein, Gisheni Mariam, and Sof Omar. Huge crowds arrive to pray for their health, for a new baby, for a special favor, for a good harvest or to give thanks for wishes already granted.
One of the important festival is Meskal which falls on September 27th and which celebrates the discovery of the true cross by st Helena, the wife of Constantine the great. Vast bonfires are lit country wide the night before the celebration and, on the day it self, there are dances and feasts for every body present.
The most solemn of Ethiopia’s festivals is at Easter when the celebrations include the sacred music and dance which is unique to the church, and which are later accompanied by the most solemn and moving rituals during the midnight mass.