July 10, 2007

Ethiopia’s uniquely African millenium

As the country prepares to celebrate its Julian calendar's second millennium, critics say the government is using the year-long festivities to divert attention from its dismal performance.

The millennium is unique to Ethiopia, the only African county that did not experience colonialism. With its unique cultural traditions dating back to ancient times, the Ethiopian millennium is one of the traditions that have passed down from generation to generation without interruption.

The organisers of the celebration believe that it will be a chance to change the image of Ethiopia and show that the country has more to offer the world than the images of misery that were splashed across the world following the 1984 famine.

IT WILL BE AN OPPORTUNITY TO show the world its rich cultural heritage and tourist attractions — such as the 17th century Fasilidas Castle in Gondar, the famous Obelix of Axum, which was recently returned from Italy, and the rock churches of Lasta Lalibela.

Government officials say Ethiopia has survived many phases — from its ancient civilisation to the present economic and social challenges — with its pride intact.

Ethiopia has culture and traditions that date back more than 3,000 years, and any traveller is transported through breathtaking monuments and ruins that were built centuries ago.

The ancient northern city of Axum remains the country’s oldest urban and religious centre.

The Axumite kingdom was once the most powerful Red Sea state between the eastern Roman empire and Persia. Axum hosts the famous monolithic Obelisk, and has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Gondar, founded in 1636, is known for its castle-like palaces and was Ethiopia’s capital until the reign of emperor Tewodros II.

Thus, the concluding millennium has seen Ethiopia prosper and decline both politically and economically.

The new millennium, on the other hand, gives Ethiopia a chance to reflect on the past and an incentive to move forward with fresh vigour.

In Kenya, several activities to celebrate the millennium are under way. They include a procession and parade through the streets of Nairobi, sporting activities, an exhibition of Ethiopian and African traditional artefacts, a gala night to showcase traditional foods, songs and dances of Africa, presentations by scholars on Ethiopia-Kenya relations, Ethiopian history and other related topics.

Ethiopia inspired the world as one of the pioneers of civilisation, not to mention its reputation as the cradle of mankind.

Under former Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia was one of the founder members of the defunct Organisation of African Unity.

But there were times, too, when its eminence hit rock bottom; times when Ethiopia unwillingly developed notoriety for being a land of despondency, especially during the widespread famine of 1984.

But Ethiopians love their unique heritage, including the way they have subdivided the solar cycle into 13 months — a feature used to market Ethiopia as a country with 13 months of sunshine.

This time, it will be an Enkutatash (new year) with a difference, since the millennium comes only once in a thousand years.

The beginning of the new millennium gives Ethiopians an unparalleled opportunity for renewal of their faith in themselves. Ethiopians from all walks of life will be asking tough questions on why their country has declined to the current state.

A recent World Economic Forum report indicates that Ethiopia has slid to the rank of 120th out of 125 countries in 2006 in the Global Competitive Index, down from the 116th place it occupied in 2005.

THERE IS ALSO CONCERN whether Ethiopia will meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Economic analysts point out that the number of Ethiopians living on less than a dollar a day, has nearly tripled since Zenawi took power in 1991.

Still, the Ethiopian Julian calendar remains unique. The calendars of the entire world are based on the work of the old Egyptian astronomers who, 3,000-4,000 years BC, calculated that the solar or sidereal year lasted slightly less than 365 ¼ days.

However, it was left to the astronomers of the Alexandrian school to incorporate this knowledge into some sort of a calendar; it was these astronomers who also came up with the idea of leap years.

Subsequently, the Romans under Julius Caesar borrowed their reformed calendar from Alexandrian science and adopted it for the Western world.

The Coptics later inherited this science as a right and built upon it themselves. In due course, the Coptics handed this calendar, together with their method of computing the date for Easter, on to the Church in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian calendar retains the old Egyptian system, whereby the year was divided into 12 months of thirty days each plus one additional month of five days (six days in leap years).

Ethiopian dates, therefore, fall 7-8 years behind Western dates and have done so since early Christian times. This discrepancy results from differences between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Each Ethiopian year is dedicated to one of the four evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The year of St Luke is a leap year and, therefore, always has six days in the 13th month of the Ethiopian calendar.

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