The country where it’s still 2016

Damond Isiaka
14 Min Read


CNN
 — 

On September 11, 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, 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? And how does that work for Ethiopians living on an increasingly interconnected planet that mostly operates in an entirely different era?

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

Unique calendar

A choir member sings during the Ethiopian New Year's Eve celebration marking the beginning of the year 2015 on the Ethiopian calendar in Addis Ababa, on September 11, 2022.

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 has kept its own.

“We are unique,” says Eshetu Getachew, CEO of Rotate Ethiopia Tours And Travel. “We [were] never colonized. We have our own calendar. We have our own alphabet. We have our own cultural traditions.”

Thought to date back at least 1,500 years, the Ethiopian Calendar has many similarities to the Coptic calendar of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, an Oriental Orthodox Christian church based in Egypt.

Following 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.

Travelers visiting Ethiopia are often stunned to learn that they’ve gone “back in time,” with some taking to social media to express their bewilderment.

As international businesses and schools based in the country tend to follow the Gregorian calendar, many Ethiopians have little choice but to use both the traditional Ethiopian calendar and the Western calendar simultaneously.

“It’s very difficult,” Ethiopian archaeologist Goitom W. Tekle, currently based in Germany, tells CNN Travel. “I still can’t switch into one… It’s quite a challenge.

“I need to think of the hours, the days. Sometimes the months, and sometimes even the year.”

Tekle explains that some institutions have to keep switching between the two calendars, incorporating the different dates and times, when corresponding with Ethiopians, especially those based in rural areas, and those outside the country.

Even something as simple as applying for a birth certificate can pose problems when attempting to merge the Ethiopian system and the Western system.

Date confusion

Ethiopian Orthodox worshippers gather next to a rock-hewn church in Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on January 7, 2024.

“Let’s say, a baby is three years old, and you file for their birth certificate with the city or with the local government,” says German historian Verena Krebs, who specializes in medieval European and African history.

“And then you state according to the Ethiopian system of time, and then you have to trust that the clerk does the conversion well.

“So there are certain variables, which can then result in doubled or tripled birthdays.”

While she notes that this may seem unusual to those who aren’t accustomed to it, it’s not something that she gives much thought to anymore.

“You just adapt to the system,” she says. “You switch from one to the other. So you’re not even actively aware anymore that this is a thing that people might find striking, because it’s become so normal.”

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Krebs also acknowledges that the traditional Ethiopian calendar isn’t the only separate calendar, pointing to the ancient Egyptian calendar, where the year 2024 corresponds to the year 6266, as an example.

“That is clearly a very, very different way of counting time,” she says.

Saudi Arabia has traditionally prioritized the Hijri calendar, made up of 12 months and 354 days, but recently approved the use of the Gregorian calendar for official dealings. Meanwhile, the Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of Israel.

Krebs feels that interest in the Ethiopian calendar has increased in recent years, suggesting that this may be linked to the fact that it’s “very close” to the Gregorian calendar, and yet different.

‘Logical’ approach

Photographer Abel Gashaw is among the many Ethiopians who have adapted to moving between both calendars relatively comfortably.

However, he admits that he prefers the Ethiopian calendar, describing it as “more logical,” particularly in reference to the start of the year.

New Year, or Enkutatash, which translates to “gift of jewels” in the Ethiopian Semitic language Amharic, arrives towards the end of the rainy season.

Adey Abeba, a flower indigenous to Ethiopia, blooms during this period and has become a symbol of the Ethiopian New Year.

“That’s like a fresh start,” says Gashaw. “It’s a new beginning for us… After that, the amount of rain becomes low, and everywhere you go, it’s so green.”

He goes on to point out that having the New Year on January 1 wouldn’t make any sense in Ethiopia, as the date falls during the dry season, whereas September 11 (or September 12 during a leap year,) which also marks the beginning of the Egyptian year, works well.

“I know it’s a bad day for the world,” says Gashaw, referencing the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “But the Ethiopian calendar happens annually on that day.”

Meanwhile, Krebs stresses that “there’s no reason beyond basically the Christian appropriation of pagan holidays from the Roman Empire” to suggest that the New Year should begin “at the threshold between December and January.”

“So I think it makes much more sense, in that it often coincides with the tail end of the rainy season. It’s not over yet, but it’s going out,” she adds.

It’s not just months, days and years that differ in Ethiopia. The country also runs on its own time system.

12-hour clock

Ethiopia follows a 12-hour clock system that runs from dawn to dusk.

While most countries begin their day at midnight, Ethiopians use a 12-hour clock system that runs from dawn to dusk, beginning at 1 a.m.

This means that what most people outside of the country would consider as 7 a.m., Ethiopians would class as 1 a.m.

Gashaw explains that this is reflective of life in Ethiopia – the hours of daylight in the country are pretty consistent due to its proximity to the Equator – and feels like a more sensible approach.

“To be honest, I don’t know why the European time changes at midnight,” he says. “Because everybody sleeps.”

Understandably, this can cause confusion, particularly for travelers visiting the country.

When making appointments with international visitors, Gashaw always makes sure to clarify whether they’re referring to Ethiopian timings or Western time.

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“If somebody says let’s meet at 2 p.m. I will double-check [whether they mean morning or afternoon.]” he says.

“Also, when I buy a flight ticket, the airlines use the European calendar, so I double check three or four times, to understand in my time.”

However, even he’s gotten it wrong on occasion. Gashaw once missed an exam because his university schedule was set to Western times, and he misunderstood.

“When they said 2 p.m., I thought it was in Ethiopian time, and that means in the morning,” he explains. “So when I go there’s nobody there. I think. ‘Okay, the exam got canceled.’”

Tekle suggests that there may be something of a disconnect between residents who live in more rural areas of the country and don’t necessarily have to consider different timings and calendars, and those based in the cities who are regularly exposed to the Western system.

Time of change?

Foreign visitors don't need to worry about getting their flight times and dates mixed up. Ethiopia's airlines use the European calendar.

“Ethiopia is a very conservative Christian country where the majority of the people don’t care about the rest of the world,” he says, explaining that the way things are done in the Western world would be of little interest or concern to many Ethiopians, particularly those who live in the countryside.

“They tell you a time… Sometimes they don’t even know that there is another way of counting time.”

Of course, Ethiopia has made it all the way to 2024 – or 2016 depending on which system you’re using – without shifting its approach to timing, changing its calendar or amending its method of counting the years.

But is that likely to change in the future as more people based in rural areas of the country become connected to the rest of the world?

“I know that a lot of farmers nowadays already, of course, have smartphones,” says Krebs, noting that this could potentially affect the way they view the Ethiopian approach to things.

“It will be interesting [to see] how that plays out in the coming decades with even more connectivity and whether that will have an impact.”

Gashaw doesn’t feel that this is a particularly pressing issue, or something that will make much of a difference to Ethiopians either way.

“In my opinion, as long as there’s complete months and days difference, the year coordination will not matter that much,” he says.

Tekle stresses that the traditional Ethiopian calendar, based on the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, isn’t even the only functioning calendar in the country. It’s also worth noting that Ethiopia has the third-largest Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa.

“There are at least two other calendars, to my knowledge, that work for people who use them in southern Ethiopia,” he explains. “So you know, you can use a lot of other calendars.”

For Krebs, the notion that a country with a population of around 130 million should alter one of its long-standing traditions in the name of “practicality” is difficult to champion.

“There is no real reason, other than practicality, that anybody should adapt to it [the Western method of tracking time] in a globalized world,” she says.

“From an outsider’s perspective, I don’t think that any other nation should lose their own local system, which has much more cultural significance and meaning [to them].”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Ethiopia’s location in Africa.

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