Ethiopia: Religion & Culture

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

From its food to its music, Ethiopia is a diverse and vibrant country. In this lesson, we will explore the religious makeup of Ethiopia and discover some of the cultural practices and norms of East Africa's most populous country.


Ethiopia is a country situated in East Africa, with a population of nearly 100 million people. About twice the size of Texas, Ethiopia encompasses an enormous area, and the people who inhabit it are just as diverse as the sprawling landscape. Let's take a look at some of the major cultural norms in Ethiopia, including food and gender roles, as well as the country's most common religions.


Ethiopia has a vibrant culture all its own. In this section, we will explore the people and practices that make Ethiopia such a unique society.


Defining 'one' Ethiopian culture is a pretty difficult thing to do. After all, there are over 80 different ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia's population, each with its own specific customs, practices, and rituals. The largest of these groups is the Oromo, which makes up roughly 35-40% of Ethiopia's population and traditionally inhabits areas in central, southern, and western Ethiopia. The second-largest group, the Amhara, makes up approximately 27% of the population and traditionally inhabits the highlands in central and northern Ethiopia. All other ethnic groups hover at around 6% or less of Ethiopia's population.


Similar to other countries, one thing that brings many Ethiopians together is food. Injera, a spongy flatbread similar to a Western crepe or pancake, is an important staple in Ethiopia. Most dishes are served with it or, more commonly, on top of it. Other Ethiopian dishes, such as wat (also spelled wot), a spicy stew, are served on top of a large plate of injera. Diners can then tear the injera and scoop the food on top of it using their hands. Ethiopia is also famous for its diverse and flavorful coffees, known locally as bunna.

Gender Roles

Within the Ethiopian family, men and women traditionally inhabit separate spheres. Men do most of the manual labor and work outside the home, while women are typically expected to live a domestic life and take care of the home and family. However, these traditional gender roles are changing in some parts of Ethiopia, especially in urban areas. In places like the capital, Addis Ababa, educated women regularly work outside the home, and men and women share a more equitable distribution of domestic duties.


Ethiopia has a rich cultural history, highlighted by the Ge'ez language. Though functionally extinct, the Ge'ez language is still used in Ethiopian Orthodox churches and is one of the oldest African languages. Some of the oldest surviving texts in Ethiopia are biblical translations of the Old and New Testaments into Ge'ez.

Art and Music

Traditionally, Ethiopian artwork and music have been heavily influenced by religion. Though contemporary Ethiopian music has recently begun to diversify, traditional instruments are still widely used. For example, a common traditional dance in Ethiopia, the eskista, is performed with the accompaniment of traditional instruments, such as a drum (kebero) and a single-string violin (masinqo).


Religion is extremely important to understanding Ethiopian society. The two largest religions in Ethiopia are Christianity and Islam, though small groups of followers of Judaism and traditional African religions also exist. Ethiopia has its own form of Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also referred to as Tewahedo. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church began in the 4th century A.D., when pilgrims first brought Jesus' message to the ancient Ethiopian capital, Axum (also spelled Aksum). The king in Axum adopted Christianity soon afterward, making it the state religion for centuries.

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