A Stroll Through Ethiopian History

How old is Ethiopian cuisine and the current fashion of eating it? That depends, in part, upon what you mean by "Ethiopia." But even if you could circumscribe the sprawling history of this complex country, very little documentation exists to confirm exactly when Ethiopians began to eat the way they do now.

For a few reasons - one ancient and historical, one modern and political - "Ethiopia" is as much an idea as a fact.

Today the term refers to a country with borders. But millennia ago, the civilized world of southern Europe and northern Africa used the term "Ethiopian" to refer to all of the dark-skinned people who inhabited the horn of Africa - that is, the lands immediately west of the Red Sea, in some cases stretching as far west and north at Egypt.

The name "Ethiopia" derives from two Greek words that together mean "burnt face," so it's easy to see how fairer-skinned culture would give this name to the Africans they encountered. The name appears in Homer's Iliad, referring to people who lived in the far east and far west, although Greeks regularly used the word "Aithiopia" to mean African people south of Egypt, and more generally, darker-skinned people they encountered anywhere in the world.

By the fourth century, the western world often used the word to refer solely to the kingdom of Aksum, the first great civilization in the territory that's now Ethiopia. A millennium later, the modern country formally took its name from that origin.

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ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman