Ethiopia: How Ethiopians Reckon Time, New Year's Tip –

by Zelalem

My impressions about time

Have you ever wondered about the passage of time?

In my case, I do.

Take some moment to leaf through a yearly family photo book (if any) or any album that keeps your memories fresh with still pictures. Then, roll your eyes over the older ones. Gaze a little bit on the images to grasp your previous looks. Your hair might have turned gray, the smoothness of your skin too may no longer be like the one on the image, and your eyes may not be as bright as they were before.

No problem, if you are still in full harness or intact with all the warmth and strength of young age, it seems that it is a good time for you to capture your appearances for later reference. Without a shadow of doubt, time ticks; and ticks,… in our body… and when the body gets on in years, the beauty of young age slowly but surely gives way to an old age, of course a season that brings out another beauty . Isn’t it?

Plato’s the Republic tell us more on the old age: For the great poet Sophocles an old age is a time that man get a relief from or break loose from bad habits which he referred “mad masters” such as drinking on parties, feasts and all the other things that go along with these.

But for Plato the real cause is the way people live, if they are moderate and contented … an old age is a blessing as is a young age. So, no worries. If one is moderate and contented, an old age too is a time of happiness. But what is, “moderate” and what is to be “contented”? And this seems Socratic… and let’s leave this polemic issue for philosophers.

Anyway, time moves swiftly forward, leaving memories in dozens behind, and leaving its imprints which we call history. Days go and Nights come. Or Nights go and Days come. Here comes again the ontological debate of the egg and chicken! Which precedes, and which follows? But the bible has it that night preceded day: (Genesis 1:2-3): “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light… ” Most astounding is the Sun, Moon and Stars were created on the forth day, or Wednesday (but I do not think God’s clock counts 24hours). So, where did that light comes from? …. A question for theologians.

I feel and see that time rushes both inside and outside our body–the beats of our hearts and the flow of our blood for instance inside, and the rotation and revolution of heavenly bodies outside. An average of 120 heart beats at toddler age will slow down to 70 or so when we grow up… and would stop forever when the soul take leave of our body.

Why then time run?

To leave a charming boy

A bearded gentleman,

Transforming an adorable girl

A graceful woman,

Can’t its hour arm gets broken,

So that, at one place, it gets frozen.

But, frankly speaking I do not want it to get frozen. As time moves, changes occur. That is a seasoning to life’s wonderful cuisine. Isn’t it? As it moves on, we get born anew from childhood to boyhood/girlhood then adulthood and old ages. All have their own pleasures and pains… So, that modes poem of mine you read above could seem foolish to you.

But, how about this one?


How wonderful you rhyme,

Rhyme our body, from infancy to old age,

With your pencil, painting image after image.

Let me wrap up jotting my impressions and move onto a related topic, which is how Ethiopians’ reckon time.

Ethiopians began reckoning time very, very long ago. With due understanding of time, Ethiopians recorded past in carved stones, and communicated their wisdom with the future. Other Africans in many places too did that–one issue that may discomfort a previously held time/culture dynamic. For Africans (Periphery), time goes circular with uncertain future. For others (CentRE), time goes linearly, it could be wasted, and schedules are serious.

Ethiopians have allotted their time properly to carry out their tasks, not for one year … but they predicted and wrote about the future, though the trend is not studied well. As is the case with most people of the world, Ethiopians relate time with their agricultural tasks. Through this, they measured, divided and mentally scheduled time or in other words they put mental representation of time. It is these methods that helped Ethiopians to understand the past, to use the present and to schedule the future.

Fractions of time, hours, days and nights, weeks and seasons as well as years are distinctly known. I mentioned these to the best of my understanding, but time is beyond these when it comes to Ethiopian scholars in the area. I am not referring to secular scholars here. But religious ones. Such scholars, for instance, in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, have a deep understanding of time.

As diversity is the hallmark of Ethiopia, nations and nationalities have amazing kind of time reckoning system. Fiche Chamballala of Sidama, a UNISCO registered intangible heritage, and the Borena people of Oromia that developed such system,in 300 B.C , are few to mention.

But, EOC’s system of calendar is also the source of civil calendar in Ethiopia. Various books are available on Ethiopic calendar. And most prominent ones are kept at different monasteries. Merha Ewere (Guide to the illiterate), Bahare Hasab (Sea of thought), Abushakir (one which was named after a Coptic cleric).

Ethiopians reckoned time centuries ago, as studies show. But Christianity gave it a unique shape. And Ethiopians well observed the movements of celestial bodies ahead of the institutionalizing of Christianity. From this fact, it follows that, Ethiopic calendar is not a derivation of either Coptic or Jew calendars as most would think.

Theologian Abba Yohanis Worku, who also studied Ethiopic calendar in acclaimed monasteries of Ethiopia, and who also made his master’s thesis on the construction of Ethiopic calendar and that of Coptic, argued that the present Ethiopic calendar of Ethiopia is closely associated with Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But he is also convinced that all the calenderic arrangements are not the product of the church.

Allocation of New Year in Ethiopia for the most part is related to the climatic change and environmental sights, shortly, it is much related to agricultural practices, he argued. And Coptic New Year’s allocation is related to Year of martyrdom which was 284 AD where Roman ruler Diocletian acquired a throne. And the Ethiopian church was not established during that period, or it was not a metropolitan until the coming of Saint Frumentius.

Egyptian New Year allocation is related to astronomy (appearance of Dog Star) and arrival of Nile flood. But Ethiopia marks New Year at the end of its major rainy season. And Ethiopia marks the New Year on the fist equinox month (September), also believed as the day that the sons of Ham arrived in Africa. By the way, Abba Yohanis also on his paper stated that the second equinox month (April) also necessarily begins with the same day the first starts. Say, this year Ethiopian September 1 falls on Sunday, and April first will also necessarily fall on Sunday, what a calculation!

Plus, Ethiopians’ reckoning of time also gradually transcended into astrology. According to Abba Yohanis, there is a claim that modern zodiac system seems to have been much influenced by Ethiopians. “Astrology in Ethiopian tradition mainly utilizes, by adding the alphabets of given name and mother’s name, whereas the rest of the world makes use of the day of birth to find out a person’s fine or dreadful future,” as his paper states.

To cap it all, the ancient wisdom of Ethiopians calendar system needs further investigation. Not because it is a mere heritage, it can have practical uses for human and economic development.

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