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Ethiopia: The Country Where It’s Still 2016

Travellers visiting Ethiopia are often stunned to learn that they’ve gone “back in time,” but the country's calendar really is (intentionally) years behind the rest of the world.

St. George Church, Ethiopia.
St. George Church, Lalibela, Ethiopia.

On 11 September, Ethiopians will celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another. However, when the East African country rings in its New Year in a few months time, it will technically be 2017, according to the Ethiopian calendar.

So why is Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, seven years and eight months “behind” much of the rest of the world?

The answers lie in traditions that date back centuries - and a firm sense of national identity.

In Ethiopia, the birth year of Jesus Christ is recognized as seven or eight years later than the Gregorian, or 'Western' calendar, which was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. According to experts, the Roman Church adjusted its calculation in 500 CE, while the Ethiopian Orthodox Church opted to stick to the ancient dates.

Although much of the rest of the world went on to adopt the Gregorian calendar, Ethiopia elected to keep its own. “We are unique,” says Eshetu Getachew, CEO of Rotate Ethiopia Tours And Travel. “We [were] never colonised. We have our own calendar. We have our own alphabet. We have our own cultural traditions.”

Ethiopia's year follows a solar-lunar system: it’s 13 months long, with 12 of those months lasting for 30 days. The final month consists of just five days, or six days during a leap year. That, of course, is all very well if you don't need to communicate with the outside world. However, lots of people and businesses need to. So, international businesses and schools based in the country tend to follow the Gregorian calendar, meaning that many Ethiopians have little choice but to use both the traditional Ethiopian calendar and the Western calendar simultaneously.

By the way, New Year (or Enkutatash, which translates to “gift of jewels” in the Ethiopian Semitic language Amharic), arrives towards the end of the rainy season - so it is actually a perfectly logical time to start another year. But you just have to remember which one it is if you're communicating with the outside world.

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