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7 Facts About Ethiopia: The Land of Ancient Mysteries

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Read on to learn seven incredible facts about Ethiopia and its history.

Read on to learn seven incredible facts about Ethiopia and its history.

A land of highlands, savannahs, deserts and rainforests, Ethiopia has a diverse landscape and a history that makes it unique among nations of the world.

Archaeological discoveries have uncovered human remains dating back millions of years, along with the remnants of mighty empires that reigned for centuries.

Aside from that, the country is a place of mysteries, ancient lands and tribes whose origins are lost in the mists of time.

7 Facts About Ethiopia

  1. It may be the original homeland of the Ancient Egyptians.
  2. One of the world's most famous fossils was discovered here.
  3. It's home to the hottest place on Earth.
  4. It's the second oldest Christian country in the world (after Armenia).
  5. A tribe of Ethiopian Jews lived here for at least 2000 years.
  6. It was the location of a mighty civilization known as Aksum.
  7. It may be the birthplace of coffee.
A bas-relief on the walls of the Temple of Hatshepsut. It depicts a trading expedition arriving in Punt.

A bas-relief on the walls of the Temple of Hatshepsut. It depicts a trading expedition arriving in Punt.

1. It may be the original homeland of the Ancient Egyptians

Ancient Egyptian texts refer several times to a land called "Punt", which is also depicted on the walls of the Temple of Hatshepsut (built in the 15th century BC).

This hallowed land's true nature and location remain one of history's greatest mysteries, but the evidence suggests that it was situated in modern Ethiopia.

What's more, the Ancient Egyptians believed Punt to be their original homeland.

What the Ancient Egyptians believed about "Punt"

In A Short History of the Egyptian People, Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge claims that: "Egyptian tradition of the Dynastic Period held that the aboriginal home of the Egyptians was Punt".

Either way, the Ancient Egyptians wrote of Punt with great reverence, referring to it as "God's land".

There's no record of any attempt to conquer Punt despite its riches, and the route there was preserved by the Ancient Egyptians despite centuries without contact.

Clues as to Punt's whereabouts

Bas-reliefs on the walls of the Temple of Hatshepsut depict a trading expedition to Punt. The flora and fauna shown in the images include species native to Africa, such as rhinoceros and giraffes.

That's one clue as to Punt's whereabouts. Another is the Ancient Egyptian trading records listing the resources imported from Punt, which included gold, ivory, ebony, and myrrh — a substance derived from trees indigenous to Central and Northeast Africa.

The biggest clue of all is a DNA test performed on the mummified remains of two baboons brought back from Punt as gifts for the Pharoah. The American Research Centre identified the species as originating in modern Ethiopia and Eritrea.

A recreation of Lucy, our ancient ancestor.

A recreation of Lucy, our ancient ancestor.

2. One of the world's most famous fossils was discovered here

In 1974, Donald Johanson and Tom Gray uncovered the skeletal remains of a bipedal human female in Hadar, Ethiopia.

The skeleton dated back 3 million years and was 40% complete, making it the most complete skeleton of an ancient human discovered up to that point (an older, more complete fossil nicknamed "Ardi" was discovered in 1994, also in Ethiopia)

That night, Johanson, Gray and their team celebrated the discovery while the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" played on the radio. Thus the origins of the fossil's nickname.

The significance of Lucy

Two of the most important factors that separated humans from the rest of the animal world were a) our ability to walk upright and b) our larger brains.

But which one came first? This was a long-running debate. Darwin believed upright posture followed larger brains as our bodies evolved in response to tool use.

The discovery of Lucy proved him wrong. This species of human—dubbed Australopithecus afarensiswalked upright but had a small, ape-like brain. This showed that bipedalism, not tool use, was the first step toward modern humanity.

Acid ponds in Dallol site in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia in Africa.

Acid ponds in Dallol site in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia in Africa.

3. It's home to the hottest place on Earth

The Danakil Depression is a small desert 125 meters below sea level. It is the lowest point on the African continent and the hottest place on Earth.

25% of Africa's volcanoes are located here, with one, in particular, being the source of the world's oldest lava lake. This highly active volcano spews out ash and lava regularly.

Despite the heat and dryness of the Danakil Depression, it has been called the "Cradle of Humanity" due to the large number of human fossils discovered here.

An Ethiopian church and cloister found near Gorgora on the way from Bahir Dar to Gondar, Ethiopia.

An Ethiopian church and cloister found near Gorgora on the way from Bahir Dar to Gondar, Ethiopia.

4. It's the second oldest Christian country in the world

A Greek-speaking missionary named Frumentius served as a tutor to the crown prince of Aksum during the 4th century AD. Upon ascension to the throne, the prince declared Christianity the official state religion.

In 2019, scientists discovered a church dating back to the 4th century AD in Northern Ethiopia. It would have been built around the same time Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Although Islam became influential during the rise of the Arab caliphates, Ethiopia remains a predominantly Christian country, with over 50% of the population being members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (called Tewahdo by Ethiopians).

A wood engraving from 1886 depicts King Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba.

A wood engraving from 1886 depicts King Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba.

5. A tribe of Ethiopian Jews lived here for at least 2000 years

Referring to themselves as Beta Israel (House of Israel), their origins are unknown, but there are several theories.

The Bible tells of a meeting between the Ethiopian monarch (known as the Queen of Sheba) and King Solomon.of Israel. According to the tale, the two had good relations, and Sheba even travelled to Israel to enjoy the king's hospitality.

There is no archaeological evidence of this encounter, with the only potential connection being the presence of Yemeni architecture in Ethiopia.

That hasn't stopped some from positing that the Ethiopian Jews arose from this meeting between the two cultures.

Operation Solomon: The rescue of the Ethiopian Jews

The Ethiopian Jews long suffered persecution by their Christian neighbours, who referred to them as falasha ("stranger"). Since the 17th century, they were forbidden from owning land or being educated.

The situation worsened after a government coup in the 1980s resulted in the deaths of around 2500 Ethiopian Jews and the banning of Judaism. In response, Mossad agents began shipping Ethiopians from Sudan to Israel.

This culminated in Operation Solomon in 1991, where the Israeli government sent planes to evacuate Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa.

Seating was stripped from the planes to make space for more passengers, allowing one particular plane to transport 1122 people, setting the Guinness World Record for most passengers on a single aircraft.

The plight of the Ethiopian Jews

Although Operation Solomon was a triumphant moment in the nation's history, it's been overshadowed by the treatment of Ethiopians since their arrival in Israel. The Ethiopian Jewish community has suffered racism and discrimination, which Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called "an open and bloody wound in Israeli society".

An obelisk among the ruins of Aksum.

An obelisk among the ruins of Aksum.

6. It was the location of a mighty civilization known as Aksum

Around the 1st century AD, a mighty kingdom arose in the Nothern Ethiopian highlands. Aksum was a trade hub connecting the Roman Empire and the Middle East. It had trade routes reaching as far as India.

As well as being rich and populous (the capital city hosted a population of around 20000), Aksum was a strong military power, conquering the nearby city-state of Meroe (present-day Sudan) and later crossing the sea to subjugate the Yemenites.

Their decline began around the 7th century AD, with the rise of Arab caliphates who seized control of the Red Sea and snuffed out Aksum's trading routes.

The empire left behind impressive monuments, such as the 21-meter-tall obelisk known as King Ezana's Stela. In 1980, the ruins of Aksum were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

Ethiopian coffee roasted in a traditional way.

Ethiopian coffee roasted in a traditional way.

7. It may be the birthplace of coffee

In 850 AD, as the legend goes, an Ethiopian goat herder noticed that certain berries energized his goats to the point that they could not sleep at night.

He tried the berries for himself and received an infusion of energy that lasted throughout the day and through evening prayers. He made this discovery known to local monks, who used the berries to brew an early form of coffee.

There's no proof that this occurred, so Ethiopia can't categorically be called the birthplace of coffee, but they're certainly a major exporter. Coffee also plays an important role in their culture, with significant life events being preceded by "coffee ceremonies".

Quick Ethiopia Facts

  • It has never been colonised by Europeans, although Italy occupied it from 1936 to 1941.
  • It has around 80 languages.
  • It has 13 months in a year.
  • It has its own 12-hour clock based on the rising and setting of the sun.
  • Its calendar is a few years behind the Gregorian Calendar due to different interpretations of Jesus' time of death.
  • An Ethiopian named Abebe Bikila was the first black African to win gold at the Olympics when he won the marathon in 1960 (he ran barefoot as the shoes were giving him blisters)

References

Sullivan, Nardia. 2019, 26 July. Things to Know About Ethiopia. Wild Frontiers.

General Information. National Geographic.

Friedman, Sher. 2018, October 24. Operation Solomon: from Ethiopian Jews to Ethiopian Israelis. Jewish Museum London.

Lawler, Andrew. 2019, December 10. Church Unearthed in Ethiopia Rewrites the History of Christianity in Africa. Smithsonian Magazine.

Lucy's Story. Arizona State University Institute of Human Origins.