10 surprising facts about Ethiopia


With the possible exceptions of Colombia and Iran, it’s pretty hard to find a country so undeservedly beset with tourism image problems as Ethiopia. A poverty-stricken, war-ravaged dustbowl… right? Well, not quite.

Bob Geldof’s much-publicised famines are now almost 30 years past, the country has been at peace for more than a decade and its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world.

Add to this a staggering diversity of landscapes, kaleidoscope of cultures and history that tracks back to when our species first raised itself up onto two legs – and suddenly you’ve got one very surprising travel destination. And just to push the point further, here’s a further 10 facts about Ethiopia which could come as a surprise.


Image c/o Mariusz Kluzniak, Flickr

10. Thirteen months to the year

Sure, plenty of cultures have their own calendars that they prefer to follow over the Western Gregorian one, but most still abide by the unspoken ’12 months to a year’ rule. Not Ethiopia. Ever looking to buck a trend, the Ethiopians cottoned on several thousand years ago to Spinal Tap’s belief that one more is always better – and have been counting 13 months to their year ever since. What does this mean? Well, that 2014 is still 2006 there. And that canny tourism boards can legitimately claim that the country really does boast ’13 months of sunshine’.

9. Ethiopian time

Not only do they measure the years differently, but Ethiopians also measure the hours of a day to a different schedule. In a piece of logic that’s kind of hard to argue against, they reckon it’s less confusing if the clock starts when the day does. Thus, sunrise is 1 o’clock and sunset 12. Then the 12-hour night clock sets in. So when buying bus tickets etc., make sure you ask whether departure time is in Ethiopian or Western time.

8. Unconquered

Ethiopia is the only African country never to have been brought under colonial control – a fact that locals will never tire of informing you. And fair enough too. The Italians did give colonisation a crack in 1935 – and succeeded in militarily occupying the country for six years – but Ethiopian forces were waging military opposition the entire time and the whole country was never brought under control. As some of the locals put it, “we waited until they had built us railways and nice buildings… and then kicked them out.”


Image c/o Rod Waddington, Flickr

7. The birthplace of Christian civilisation (?)

With archaeological artefacts evidencing the appointment of Christianity as official state religion back in AD 324, claims have been made that Ethiopia technically qualifies as the world’s first Christian state. Plenty of other experts consider Armenia the rightful occupant of this title; however, it’s really not a debate that we’d care to weigh in on!

6. The birthplace of the Rastafarian movement

Thought it was Jamaica? Nope. While much of the Rastafarian movement did evolve in Jamaica, the spiritual homeland of it is in actual fact Ethiopia. In Amharic, ‘ras’ is a title similar to chief, and ‘tafari’ the first name of Emperor Haile Selassie I – essentially the movement posits Selassie as an incarnation of God. Need further evidence? Just check out the colours on the Ethiopian flag. Familiar no?


Image c/o Alfred Weidinger, Flickr

5. The birthplace of coffee

You know your morning caffeine shot? Well you’ve got some Ethiopian goats to thank for that. As the story goes, a goat herder way back when noticed his flock’s fondness for a certain bush and decided to give one of the fruits a nibble himself. His day’s herding was notably more efficient for it – and the coffee industry took off from there.


Image c/o Mariusz Kluzniak, Flickr

4. The Birthplace of humanity

Several archaeological findings in Ethiopia’s Afar region go quite some way in suggesting that the country may be where we all started out from. In 1972, Donald Johanson and Tim D. White discovered Lucy, a 3.2 million year old hominid skeleton. For years, Lucy was all the rage, embarking on a nine-year worldwide tour and enjoying widespread fame. Then Ardi, also from the Afar region but one million years her senior, rocked up and blew her out of the water. So you arguably also have the Ethiopians to thank for, well… you.

3. Abebe Bikila

In 1960, an Ethiopian by the name of Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win gold in the Olympics. Only making the team selection at the last minute due to another athlete’s broken foot, Bikila opted to run the marathon barefoot, pipping hot favourite Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselam by a full 25 seconds. Four years later, Bikila won the Tokyo Olympics, setting a world record and becoming the first ever person to win the Olympic marathon twice. When asked if he wasn’t tired (he didn’t look it), he answered that he could’ve done with another 10 kilometres!


Image c/o Stefan Gara, Flickr

2. Addis Ababa

Ok, there’s no getting away from the fact that Addis fits the bill of being a big, dusty, overcrowded city. But it’s also home of the African Union, headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and, at an altitude of 2450 metres, the worlds fourth highest capital city. Its name translates to ‘New Flower’ in Amharic.

1. Ethiopia for vegetarians

Ethiopian cooking is some of the tastiest, healthiest and most diverse cuisine on the continent. And, unlike many African countries, it’s a haven for vegetarians. The simple reason for this is that most Ethiopians follow a particular strand of Orthodox Christianity that prohibits the eating of any animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays. And the happy by-product of this for herbivores is that restaurants tend to always have a few deliciously spicy vegan stews on the menu. It also means that when you say that you don’t eat meat they’ll actually understand the idea, instead of replacing the beef you requested be left off your pizza with, say, chicken.

Find out more about how Ethiopia will surprise you with its monolithic churches, stunning national parks, ornate palaces and welcoming tribespeople on Intrepid tours of Ethiopia!

Feature image c/o Rod Waddington, Flickr 


About the author

Taz Liffman - I was born in Melbourne in 1984, the son of two parents. My first foray into the acting world came in 1995, when I was permitted admittance into The St. Kilda National Theatre's Saturday morning acting classes. It was here that my natural flair for buffalo wrangling was first recognised. Films that I haven't starred in include, but are not limited to, Batman Forever (1995), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Casablanca (1942). In 2010 I missed out on an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, though not narrowly. The following year, much to my disappointment, I married neither Charlize Theron nor Audrey Tatou. In my current role I write copy for Intrepid Travel. Who am I?

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Taz Liffman, very nice how you have made the list. But, I think you missed atleast one, among the amazing values of the Oromo people of Ethiopia. It is the Gada System! An incredible political and cultural system created by these people thousands of years ago, by which leaders are selected, rules and laws are devised, etc. with a national assembly (caffee/gumii). It is the first DEMOCRACY known to have been created by nations. Btw, A leader can only serve one term which is 8yrs. Is it a coincidence that it is the same with other democracies like the US? May be. Please read more about this and I am sure you will add a list…..Ethiopia, the birth place of Democracy!


If you ask me, the problems and the solutions of Addis begin and end when we deal with the hypocrisy of our contemporary elites. There is no need to waste time and resources on other things before we confront the roots of the problems.
In a world of hypocrisy noting can be done but recycle hypocrisy until nature takes its own course. Thus, there is noting that reviles the problem of society than the hypocrisy of its elites. The poorer a nation and her people the more split tongue hypocrite her elites.


Hi Taz. Good article. But you are missing get number 2 🙂

Thanks Kyle, amended!


When is the best time to go? Are there any festivals that would make a trip to Ethiopia special?

Hi Will,
Ethiopia’s most colourful festival is Timkat in January. It’s celebrated around the country to commemorate Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. For best time to visit, it’s more likely to rain from July to September, but the rest of year is great. You can find out more on our website at http://www.intrepidtravel.com/ethiopia/snapshot.
Happy adventures,
Sue, Intrepid Express Editor

July to September is rainy season, other than that it is beautiful!
Timkit is the largest religious festival in Ethiopia. Beautiful processions, dancing, etc.


A nice gentle one is around Whitsunday, when the arc of the covenant (a copy there of) is processed (as in Procession) around various towns in northern Ethiopia. Make sure you buy the appropriate clothing in the market, before you go (impolite not to).

But try anywhere up North, starting with Lalibela, then Axum …

You don’t really need to ‘do’ special occasions in Ethiopia, because is it all special!


Sure there are so many festivals are celebrating in Ethiopia. the most one are the Festival of the finding of the True Cross which is celebrated on Meskerem 16 (Eth C.) or September 16/17 and also it is registered by UNESCO as World In Tangible Heritage and Timket (Ethiopian Epiphany) which falls Tir 10/11 (January 17/18) this also on process to register on UNESCO World In Tangible Heritage. Come to Ethiopia and live younger by 7/8 years.
God Bless Ethiopia

FANOS Ethiopia Tours / Reply

Dear Taz Liffman:

A very nice looking to the facts of Ethiopia. However it would be full if you include something about the scenic landscape of the country.
Some think of Ethiopia as the country of famine, drought & starvation. This is not true & this is not the Ethiopia experience! It is home to many other scenes sure to amaze the most demanding ecological tourists. With mountains, fields, rivers, and waterfalls, Ethiopia offers something for all.If you are interested in fauna and flora Ethiopia has colorful and diversified natural generosity which can be explored on walks, horse rides, trekking, hiking, boat trips or a simple nature watch.
A unique country and with no other African country comparison. The scenery is varied and surprisingly green, with many wonderful geological features such as Dallol Depression (one of the lowest depressions in the world), the Erta ale Active Volcano, Sof Omar Cave, the Great East Africa Rift Valley, Blue Nile Gorge and others.

Regards, Keb

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