Ethiopia is one of Africa’s oldest capitals of Christianity, its emperor having converted to that religion in the 4th century of the Common Era. The nation’s cultural center of gravity is the Habesha people, largely speakers of Amharic, Tigrinya, and other Afro-Asiatic languages, who are also largely practitioners of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In their liturgy, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the recently seceded nation of Eritrea continue to share an ancient language called Ge’ez as the medium of liturgy. Amhara is the official national language of Ethiopia, even though Oromo people significantly outnumber ethnic Amhara people in the national population.
While African-diaspora people tend to regard Ethiopia as an African nation and, like Ethiopians, feel pride in the fact that Ethiopia successfully defended its independence from the European empires that colonized most of Africa, Habesha people tend to feel deeply ambivalent about their Africanness. They tend to favor readings of history that identify the origins of their culture and of their past ruling dynasties in the Arabian Peninsula, rather than Africa. Ethiopia played a founding role in the Organization of African Unity and continues to host the headquarters of its successor organization, the African Union. However, Ethiopians tend to assert their superiority to the people they call Africans, and Amhara people tend to distinguish themselves from the more African-looking people whom they call baria, meaning “black” and implying serf or slave status.
Although about one-third of its 97 million people are Muslims, Ethiopia is most famous for the antiquity and architectural splendor of its precursor civilizations, such as the Kingdoms of Kush (at its height from the 8th century BCE to 4th century AD) and Aksum (at its height from the 3rd to the 6th century CE). Habesha rock-hewn church buildings, elaborately cast and etched silver crosses, and Eastern Orthodox-style paintings of Jesus, his family and his disciples are the most characteristic and distinctive sacred arts of Ethiopia. These images illustrate Habesha people’s usual aesthetic preference for Middle-Eastern-looking, as opposed to sub-Saharan African-looking, facial features. On the other hand, some Habesha artists, such as filmmaker Haile Gerima, are deeply committed to Africa, the African diaspora, and the healing of Habesha shame about the nation’s connection to African history, culture, and politics. Gerima’s celebrated film “Sankofa” (1993) specifically presents Yoruba-Atlantic religion as cure for the mental and spiritual afflictions that Africans and African-diaspora people have suffered at the hands of the West.