Ethiopia has a highly diverse population of people. Most people speak a Semitic or Cushitic language. The Tigray, Oromo, Somali and Amhara people make up more than three-quarters of Ethiopia's human population but there are more than 80 different ethnic groups represented. Some of these ethnicities have as few as 10,000 people. English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is taught in all secondary schools. Amharic was the predominant Ethiopian language of primary school instruction but has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromifa, Somali and Tigrinya.
Here is a small selection of names that are recognised by every Ethiopian.
Crowned in 1930, Haile Selassie went into exile in England during the Italian occupation (1935 – 41). He is considered an icon of African independent leadership and was a co-founder of what is now known as the African Union. He was deposed in a coup d’état in 1974 and died in 1975. His remains are now interred in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.
The legendary son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Menelik I was the founder of the Solomonic dynasty from about 950 BCE.
Many scholars now agree that Sheba was Saba in South Arabia and some say Queen Makeda was the real Queen of Sheba. There is little specific evidence for the Queen of Sheba story but this may change in the future. The story is recorded in the 14th century literary work, the Kebra Nagast the Glory of Kings which describes the Solomonic origin of the Emperors of Ethiopia. The Queen of Sheba is also written about in the Bible, the Koran and in ancient Jewish texts.
Reigning as King of Shewa from 1866, he reigned as King of Kings from 1889 and is considered the founder of modern Ethiopia. Menelik II expanded militarily and through negotiation to the south and east. After destroying an invading Italian army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 he expanded relations with the imperial European powers and continued his technological and administrative modernisation of Ethiopia.
Coming to power at the end of the turbulent Era of Princes, Tewedros is considered a national hero of independence by contemporary Ethiopians. He demanded to be taken seriously by the European powers who ignored a series of letters he sent to the likes of Queen Victoria. Finally, the British sent a huge military expedition from India complete with war elephants under General Napier to free the European hostages taken by Tewedros. Tewedros shot himself rather than surrender his mountain fortress of Magdala.
Ato (honorific for Mr) Meles was Ethiopian Prime Minister from 1995 until his death in office in 2012. In 1975, aged 20, he dropped out of Medical School and joined the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front to fight against Soviet backed dictator Mengistu. He is considered to have been a brilliant leader and visionary who oversaw the establishment of Ethiopia’s federal system of government and set the foundations of Ethiopia’s rapid, climate friendly economic development.
Ato Haile Mariam was previously Deputy PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He became PM on the death of Ato Meles in 2012 and resigned in January 2018. After 6 weeks of deliberation, the EPRDF ruling coaltion elected Dr Abiy Ahmed as the PM.
Dr Abiy Ahmed was appointed in April 2018. He has rapidly gained the support of many Ethiopians for releasing all political prisoners, opening discussions with opposition leaders whom he just released, starting anti-corruption initiatives and making an historic peace with Eritrea. Dr Abiy is the youngest leader in Africa and has a PhD in Traditional Conflict Resolution. He is a decorated veteran and was a Lieutenant Colonel when he left the military in 2010.
He led the coup d’état that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. After systematically killing his rivals on the ruling military council, known infamously as The Dergue, he became Head of State from 1977 until his overthrow in 1991. He escaped to Zimbabwe where he continues to live in luxury as the guest of recently ex-President Mugabe. An Ethiopian court found Mengistu guilty in absentia of genocide. He is considered responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000,000 Ethiopians.
Ato Haile is considered the greatest distance runner in history. He set 27 world records in distances from 800m to marathons. He retired in 2015 after a 25-year sporting career.
Ato Abebe won his first of two Olympic gold medals for marathon running barefoot in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He was the first sports person from sub-Saharan Africa to win Olympic gold. Today, there is a stadium in Addis Ababa that is named after him.
She has won 3 Olympic gold medals, 5 World Championship gold medals and 5 World Cross Country titles. Her sisters Ejegayehu and Genzebe and cousin Derartu Tulu are also international distance running medal winners.
Ato Tilahun was known as The Voice and was a popular Ethiopian singer from the Golden Age of Ethiopian pop music during the 1960s. He famously staged fundraising concerts during the famines of the ‘70s and ‘80s. A million Ethiopians lined the streets of Addis Ababa for his state funeral in 2009.
Ato Mahmoud is an internationally known Ethiopian world music singer who rose to popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He lives in Addis, supports several local charities and still tours internationally.
Ato Mulatu is the father of Ethio-jazz and known worldwide as a musician, composer and arranger. He made his name in the pre-Marxist military dictatorship years of the early 1970s with a blend of jazz, Latin and traditional Ethiopian music. He continues to tour internationally and record.
She is a famous Ethiopian singer who now lives in the USA. She started her career as a teenager singing in music clubs and later moved to America during the time of dictator Mengistu.
A saint of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, he invented the sacred music tradition of the church and is credited with the creation of Ethiopia’s pentatonic system of music notation. St Yared wrote 5 books of religious chants
Despite being accepted into the Yared School of Music in Addis Ababa at the age of 16, composer and keyboard player Samuel Yirga was subsequently dismissed because he kept diverting from the classical curriculum to blending traditional and new Ethiopian music with Ethio-jazz, dub, reggae, jazz, Latin and classical music. Now in his early 30s, he is developing an international reputation as one of Africa’s brightest new musical innovators and tours extensively overseas. Samuel is now signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records.
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