One example of Ethiopia's distinct culture is the unique churches of Lalibela. In the early 1200s, King Lalibela came to power in Ethiopia.
During his reign, he directed the building of eleven remarkable churches that workers had carved from ground level downward into the solid rock of the mountains. These amazing structures still exist today and illustrate the architectural and artistic skill of the craftsmen who created them.
Despite their isolation, Ethiopian Christians kept ties with the Holy Land. In fact, some made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They also were in touch with Christian communities in Egypt. Over time, Ethiopian Christianity absorbed many local customs. Traditional East African music and dance were adapted, and their influence is still felt in Ethiopian church services today. In addition, the services are still conducted in the ancient language of Geez.
The kings of Ethiopia claimed descent from the Israelite king Solomon and the queen of Sheba. This belief was recorded in an ancient Ethiopian book called The Glory of Kings and reinforced by the fact that Ethiopians observe some of the Jewish holidays and dietary laws.
Some Ethiopians practiced Judaism, not the predominant Christianity. These Ethiopian Jews lived in the mountains of Ethiopia until the late 1900s, when most evacuated to Israel due to famine and persecutions.
How did Ethiopia's geographic isolation shape its culture?
While Axum declined, a string of commercial cities—including Kilwa, Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Sofala—gradually arose along the East African coast. Since ancient times, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Indian traders had visited this region. In the 700s, Arab traders began visiting this region more frequently, and Arab and Persian merchants set up Muslim trading centers beginning in the 900s. Port cities, as well as offshore islands such as Lamu and Zanzibar, were ideally located for trade with Asia. As a result, Asian traders and immigrants from as far away as Indonesia soon added to the rich cultural mix.
By the 600s, sailors had learned that the annual monsoon winds could carry sailing ships plying the waters of the Indian Ocean between India and Africa. On the East African coast, rulers took advantage of the opportunities for trade that these winds of the Indian Ocean provided.
Traders from Europe, Asia, and the interior of Africa descended on East Africa to trade enslaved people and ivory, gold, and other goods.