Visitors who hope to find a mirror image of their own countries, either as a result of colonisation or through the trend towards cultural standardisation imposed by globalisation, will be disappointed: Ethiopia remains stubbornly Ethiopian, distinct and different from its neighbours.
Ethiopia has its own script, notational system and calendar. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the oldest in Africa – Christianity was made the state religion in the Axumite Empire in 330 AD, before Rome.
Muslim communities were established in Ethiopia before the triumph of Islam in its birth place, the Arabian Peninsula, while Ethiopian Jews, or Bait Israel, date their provenance back to the time of the first temple.
At the time of the scramble for Africa, following the Berlin Congress in 1884, the disparate ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia united to defend the country against foreign invasion: at Adua in 1896 Ethiopian forces under Menelik II delivered a stunning rebuff to the colonial ambitions of Italy.
The defeat inflicted on the Italian army was the heaviest suffered by any European army in Africa, and was celebrated not only throughout Africa, but in all countries then suffering under the yoke of colonialism and foreign occupation.
The fascist invasion in 1935, “to avenge the stain of Adua” as Mussolini declared, was met with vigorous and continued resistance – the occupation lasted only 6 years and failed to leave any permanent stamp on the character of the country or the psyche of its people.
Ethiopia has the most extensive historic sites in Sub-Saharan Africa, experts estimate that perhaps as little as 10% of the total has so far been discovered and excavated. The oldest hominid remains have been found along the Awash River valley (Lucy, 3.2 million years old, Selam 3.4 million years old, Anamensis, 3.8 million years old, Ardi, 4.4 million years old) – at any time more than 40 institutions from a dozen countries are excavating in the Afar Region, where most paleo-anthropologists now agree the human race has its origins.
There is every variety of scenery, with tropical rain forests, high moor land with Afro-alpine flora, lakes, savannah and deserts. In elevation it ranges from 120 metres below sea level in the harsh salt flats of the Danakil depression, to the 4624 metre peak of Ras Dashen in the Simien mountains.
There are more than 80 ethnic groups and as many languages.
Country topographic profile
With an area of 1,112,000 square kilometres, Ethiopia is as large as France and Spain combined. From the north and running down the centre are the Abyssinian highlands, to the west of the chain the land drops to the grasslands of Sudan, to the east to the deserts of the Afar and the Red Sea.
South of Addis Ababa the land is dominated by the Rift Valley Lakes. The main rivers are the Blue Nile, the Tekezze, the Awash, the Wabe Shabele, the Omo, and the Baro. 80% of the land in Africa over 3000 meters is found in Ethiopia.
The current population is about 110 million, making it the second most populated country in Africa.
Government and recent history
In 1974 the imperial government of Haile Selassie I was overthrown by a group of lower ranking officers from the armed forces. During the following 17 years Ethiopia was wracked by civil wars and state sponsored famines.
The military regime – generally known as the Derg – was finally overthrown in May 1991 by a coalition of rebel groups called the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which continued to dominate the government until it was dissolved in 2019 – three of the four main coalition members combined to form the Prosperity Party.
Elections which should have taken place in May 2020 were postponed because of the Corona virus – no firm date for the next elections has yet been set.
85% of the population get their livelihood from the land. Coffee (the word originates from the name of the province of Kaffa, in the south west of Ethiopia, the birth place of coffee) provides the bulk of foreign currency earnings, although the rise in importance of other products has meant a fall in its share.
Ethiopia is the third biggest coffee exporter in the world. The export of oilseeds (Ethiopia is the fourth biggest exporter in the world), pulses, spices, gold, flowers, livestock, skins and hides (Ethiopia has the largest domestic livestock population in Africa), textiles, chat, and animal feed makes up the rest of Ethiopia’s foreign currency earnings, with tourism making an increasingly important contribution – recent figures, pre Corona, put tourism ahead of coffee exports on terms of foreign currency earnings.
The opening up of the economy since the overthrow of the previous government in 1991 has created more favourable grounds for development of Ethiopia’s rich resource base. Ethiopia is the “water tower” of the region (the Blue Nile contributes up to 85% of the main Nile flow) and projects are now being implemented to better exploit the country’s water resources both for power generation – the export of hydro power to neighbouring Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan is underway – and to boost agricultural production through irrigation schemes. Mineral exploration and mining has stepped up in recent years – there are reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, gold, copper, tantalum, potash, zinc, iron ore, nickel, marble, precious and semi-precious stones.
Thermal power generation schemes are already operational in Afar and Oromo Regions. The total geothermal resource potential in Ethiopia is found in the Great Rift Valley and is estimated to be over 5000 MWe, and the Ashegoda wind farm in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, together with the Adama or Nazereth I and II wind farm (the biggest wind farms in Sub Saharan Africa), are generating 528MW. Additional wind farms are planned near Asela, as part of Ethiopia’s push for a green economy.
The late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, in 2011 laid the foundation stone of what is now called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which on completion in 2023 will generate more than 6000 MW, making it the 10th biggest dam in the world. The site is on the Blue Nile, in the Beni Shangul Region, some 40 km from the border with Sudan. Other hydro power projects are planned for other places on the Blue Nile, and in Oromia.
When to come
This can depend on where you are going. In most of the country, the main rainy season runs from June to the end of September, with short rains in March. In the Omo and Mago parks however, in Southern Ethiopia, the seasons are different with the main rains from March to June, and shorter rains in November. (However, in a time of changing global weather patterns it is not longer possible to be absolutely definitive about the rains – in recent years unseasonable rains have made sections of the Omo impassable, for example.)
With the upgrading of the airports along the Historic Route (Axum, Lalibela, Gondar and Bahir Dar), it is now possible to visit the north even in the rainy season. For travellers who do not mind waiting out a downpour (usually followed by brilliant sunshine) there are certain rewards – a green countryside full of crops and flowers and the sites largely to yourselves.
Climate and clothing
Because of the elevation, temperatures rarely exceed 250C in most of the country, although in some of the lower lying areas (Awash, the Afar and Somali Regions, Omo and Mago parks, Gambella) it can get considerably hotter.
Pack light clothes for the day time and a jacket or sweater for the evenings, and a good pair of walking shoes even if you are not going trekking – path ways around historic sites are usually uneven and stony. Trekkers in the Simien and Bale Mountains will need warm clothes, water-proofs and 3-4 season sleeping bags.
On a cultural note – Ethiopians are generally modest dressers, and visitors should be sensitive about going underdressed (shorts, tank tops and bare backed) into places of worship. Shoes must always be removed before entering churches and mosques.
Health and medical
The possession of a valid Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is no longer mandatory but visitors coming from countries where Yellow Fever has been reported may be asked. (Some countries, such as Australia and Thailand, will ask for a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate if you have visited Ethiopia in the previous 6 months.) Immunisation for Hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, Typhoid and Polio is recommended.
Malaria: in many sites malaria is not a problem because of the elevation – this is true of Axum, Gondar and Lalibela for example, but it can occur in Bahir Dar at the end of the rainy season and after unseasonable rains. Lowland areas along the Awash River, the Omo Valley, Rift Valley and Gambella are subject to malaria outbreaks.
Mosquitoes are constantly improving their resistence to the prophylactics on the market, so you should consult your doctor about the prescription. Alternatively, you can keep mosquitoes and other insects at bay with repellent creams and sprays. (Climatic changes and phenomena such as el-Nino has meant the appearance of malaria at unseasonable times, and its spread to areas previously malaria free.)
Visitors should take a simple first aid pack, which would include: different size plasters, antiseptic cream, anti-histamine cream and/or tablets for insect bites, aspirin and/or panadol, sun barrier cream (while temperatures are moderate the sun is strong) and anti-diarrhoea tablets such as Immodium for emergencies (they will not cure the problem but will control the symptoms).
Generally, visitors should take out standard holiday health insurance in their home countries.
The Ethiopian national dish consists of injera, a flat, circular pancake of fermented dough made from a grain seed called tef, on top of which are served different kinds of cooked meats, vegetables and pulses.
The sauces are generally spiced with berbere, a blend of herbs and spices (including hot peppers) which gives Ethiopian food its characteristic taste. Vegetarians should try “fasting food” (for devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast days make up more than half the year), a colourful spread of salads, vegetables and pulses, devoid of all meat and animal products.
One eats national dishes with the right hand (water for washing is usually brought to the table before the food is served), tearing off pieces of injera to pick up the “toppings”.
Addis Ababa now boasts a wide variety of restaurants – you can effectively dine out in every continent of the world – and at hotels in tourist sites European style food such as pasta is always available.
While in Addis Ababa, be sure to visit Road Runner Bar and Restaurant, sister company of Ethiopian Quadrants, for good mood, food and music. All kinds of food is served, including Ethiopian dishes and pizzas. Friday night in particular is “networking night”, when all kinds of contacts can be made. Road Runner is situated next to Demberwa Hospital, Haya Hulet.
If you are travelling to remote areas, such as the Omo Valley and parts of southern Ethiopia, it is advisable to stock up with tinned and packet food in Addis Ababa.
Gassy and still mineral water, along with soft drinks, are now available throughout the country. There are several brands of locally produced beer. Ethiopia produces its own wine and spirits, while imported spirits are also widely available. There are home made alcoholic drinks: tela (home made beer or ale), tej (wine made from honey) and kati kala (distilled liquor from various grains.)
Following a recent hotel starring process, Addis Ababa now has five 5 star hotels – The Radisson Blu, Capital Hotel & Spa, The Elilly International and the Sheraton (5 star plus) – the popular Hilton Hotel was downgraded to 4 Star. There is a growing number of tourist class hotels.
Standards vary outside the capital (there have been marked improvements in recent years), but apart from some areas on the west bank of the Omo and in parts of the Afar Region where camping would be necessary, it is generally possible to get relatively clean rooms with en suite toilet and shower.
Travel by air, road and rail
Passenger services between Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa and Djibouti have already started on what is Africa’s first trans-boundary electric train. You can see in the below links the train schedule and fair from Addis Abeba (Labu train station) to Nagad train station in Djibouti) https://
Unless one is carrying very large sums, it is no longer obligatory for visitors to declare currency in their possession on arrival, but should visitors wish to change money back on departure, it will be necessary to produce receipts from banks and authorised foreign exchange dealers. The Ethiopian currency is the birr, the rate of which against the US dollar is fixed essentially by market demand.
Credit card acceptance is now growing throughout the country, but banks which issue cash withdrawals on cards will only do so to a limit of US$500.00 per day (paid in birr), and this only in Addis Ababa and a few other main cities.
ATMs for Visa and other cards can now be found in most banks, and in most of the main hotels in Addis Ababa, and this service has recently been extended to other main urban centres.
Visa- If you are coming from the countries whose citizens are allowed to get visa on arrival, you can get it by payment based on the purpose you are coming for, if you are coming for tourism purpose the payment is US$40.00 for 30 days and US$60.00 for three month for single entry visa; and US$70.00 for three month and US$80.00 for six month for multiple entry visa.
Airlines – the following airlines fly into and out of Ethiopia: Egypt Air, Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, KLM, Kenya Airways, Lufthansa, Saudia, Sudan Airways, Turkish Airlines, Fly Dubai and Yemenia.
Internet – internet cafes are now available in most of the larger towns, though connecting and downloading can be extremely slow. This will hopefully change soon, when Ethiopia links up with fibre optic networks.
Electricity – 220 volts. Plugs are of the round two-pin variety.
Souvenirs – many antiques cannot be exported and may be confiscated if found in airport searches. The National Museum in Addis Ababa can issue a clearance certificate.
Photography – As a matter of courtesy, permission should be sought before photographing individuals and in many parts of the country, particularly among the ethnic groups living by the Omo River, people will demand a fee. In some sites (in the churches and Blue Nile Falls for example) there is a charge for video photography.
Visitors with a lot of camera equipment may be asked by airport Customs to get a permit from the Government Communication Affairs Office – Ethiopian Quadrants can assist with this process prior to our clients’ arrival.
Noise and earplugs: Over the last 10 years churches and mosques have installed increasingly powerful loudspeakers. Ethiopian Christian Orthodox ceremonies can start at 0300 and continue for 5 to 6 hours, making it impossible to sleep if your hotel happens to be near a church. Ethiopian Airlines Cloud 9 earplugs are particularly effective.
Beggars and begging – Ethiopia’s recent history of civil wars, famines and population displacement, along with poverty and under development generally, has created large numbers of destitutes, particularly noticeable in Addis Ababa. Giving to one often provokes a flood of others and does not really solve the problem – Ethiopian Quadrants is happy to facilitate donations to indigenous organisations working with the needy and to facilities like clinics and schools.
One of the negative impacts of tourism has been to foster a culture of begging, even among those not particularly in need. Generally, visitors should avoid giving pens, clothes and sweets to children – it is better to provide support to local schools, for example.
The Bradt Guide to Ethiopia
The Lonely Planet Guide to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti
Collins Birds of East Africa
Where to Watch Birds in Ethiopia, by Claire Spottiswoode, Merid Gabremichael and Julian Francis
Important Bird Areas of Ethiopia – Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society
Collins Flowers and Plants of East Africa
Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook – Lonely Planet
History, Geology and Economics
Layers of Time – Paul Henze
A History of Modern Ethiopia – Bahru Zewde
Axum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity – Stuart Monroe Hay
The Blue Nile – Alan Morehead
The Sign and the Seal – Graham Hancock
The Survival of Ethiopian Independence – Sven Rubenson
Ethiopian Civilisation – Belay Giday
The Ethiopians – Edward Ullendorf
The Scramble for Africa – Thomas Packenham
Made in Africa-Industrial Policy in Ethiopia- Dr. Arkebe Oqubay
Understanding Ethiopia – Frances M. Williams
African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia
African Ark: People of the Horn
Black Angels: The Art and Spirituality of Ethiopia
Ethiopia Photographed – Richard Pankhurst and Denis Gerard.
Ethiopia Engraved – Richard Pankhurst and Leila Ingrams
Churches of Ethiopia- The Living Churches of an Ancient Kingdom.
African Bird Club
There is no space here for a definitive glossary – Ethiopia has 83 languages and more than 200
dialects! Fortunately, Amharic or Amarigna is widely spoken through the country.
Tenastilign – Hello/how are you?
Ciao! – Good bye
Sintino? – How much is it?
Widdino – It’s expensive
Efellegalow – I want
Alfellegum – I don’t want
Tiru no – It’s good
Tiru aydellem – It’s not good
Simeh man no? – (Masc) What’s your name?
Simesh man no? – (Fem) What’s your name?
Leselassa – Soft drink
Amboha – Mineral water
Birra – Beer
Wuha – Water
Ow (as in how) – Yes
Ishi – OK
Aydellem – No
Shintibait – Toilet
Buna – Coffee
Shai – Tea
Injera – Sour dough pancake
Wot – Sauce or stew
Tela – Local beer
Tej – Honey wine
Yekirta – Excuse me
Amesegenalo – Thank you
Na! – Come!
Hid! – Go!
Chiger yellem – No problem
Beka – Enough
Bewhala – Afterwards/later
Qonjo – Beautiful