Double high fives to Saint Augustine of Hippo, the philosopher and theologian from the ancient Roman kingdom of Numidia in Northwest Africa, who pondered and penned these prescient lines way back in 397 C.E.:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
Surely in the ocean of our collective consciousness we all resonate with his sense of the ambiguity of time and the abysmal lack of human language to express what "time" even is in the first place. But buckle up and prepare to be mind-boggled (and pretty impressed) as we explore and try to grasp some facts about how Ethiopia calculates time.
Most of us use the Gregorian (aka Western or European) calendar marked with 12 months comprising 28 to 31 days each. We measure time based on four distinct seasons, and our new year rolls around like clockwork one week after Christmas on each and every January 1.
Not in Ethiopia.
According to the Ethiopian calendar (aka Ge'ez or Geez calendar) a year consists of 365 days, six hours, two minutes and 24 seconds. That adds up to 13 months, 12 of which have exactly 30 days each. The 13th month (called pagume — from the Greek epagomene — meaning "days forgotten when a year is calculated") has only five or six days. Once every four years, the six hours add up to 24 hours and become the sixth day in a leap year. And once every 600 years, those two minutes and 24 seconds add up to one whole day and become a seventh day, which the Ethiopians call rena mealt and rena lelit.
Messing with our heads even further, the Ethiopian calendar is several days behind the Western calendar. While that may seem bizarre, it's actually not super strange for some countries to have their own calendar — for example, Israel officially uses the Jewish calendar and Saudi Arabia has an Islamic calendar.
But what about a country with its own unique way of telling time? Turns out, Ethiopia guages the whole concept of time differently: Instead of a 24-hour day, Ethiopia is the only country in the world with a 12-hour time system. And this is where it gets really complicated.
A show of hands if you'd like someone from Ethiopia to break this down for us?
Meet Genet Teka, born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city. An aspiring student and a server at one of Atlanta's most culturally diverse and iconic eateries, The Flying Biscuit, Teka came to America in 2013 — leaving most of her family behind in Ethiopia — to live with her aunt and cousin and work her way through school with an eye toward becoming certified in IT. Luckily for us, she agreed to help us understand how her home country measures time.
How Does the Ethiopian Calendar Work?
But before she begins, here's the real gobsmacker: The Ethiopian calendar is seven years and eight months behind the Western calendar. It's 2015 in Ethiopia.
Genet Teka of Addis Ababa, please help!
"First thing to understand," explains Teka, "is that Ethiopia has 13 months and all of them have 30 days — except the last month, which has 5 days, or 6 days during a leap year. So when it was September 11 (aka Meskerem, "a gift of jewels," Ethiopia's New Year) on the Gregorian calendar, it was the first day of the first month on the Ethioipian calendar. Note that doesn't mean that it will be the first day of the second month again, let's say for example, on October 11, because even though the Ethiopian calendar has consistent 30 days in its 12 months, the number of days in a month changes to between 28 and 31 days on the Gregorian calendar. That's what creates the date difference as well as the month difference," says Teka.
Confused? Stay with us ...
"So, say today on the Gregorian calendar is the second month, 11th day of the year 2023. But on the Ethiopian calendar it's the sixth month, fourth day of the year 2015. If we look at the next month for example, the third month, 12th day of 2023 on the Gregorian calendar will be the seventh month, third day, of 2015 on the Ethiopian calendar," clarifies Teka.
Daylight is the key to understanding how Ethiopia keeps time. Because it lies about 15 degrees north of the equator, that close proximity means that the days remain relatively consistent throughout the year. So while most of the world begins the new day at midnight, Ethiopia begins the new day at dawn.
"The day pretty much starts at 12 o'clock when the sun rises, and midday is 6 o'clock, and the end of the day is 12 o'clock when the sun sets. People living over there don't really use a.m. or p.m. ... For example, if they're going to meet someone at 2 p.m. American time they would say, 'Let's meet at 8 o'clock in the afternoon.' Or they might not even mention the afternoon part because the other 8 o'clock is in the middle of the night — so it's automatically understood it's in the daytime," says Teka. "For the sake of clarity, 12 o'clock sunrise is 6 a.m., 4 o'clock is 10 p.m., 6 o'clock midday is 12 p.m., 2 o'clock at night is 8 p.m., 6 o'clock midnight is 12 a.m. and so on."
Got all that? Wait, there's more.
Dawn to dusk is the first 12-hour cycle, called the daytime cycle — and dusk to dawn is the second 12-hour cycle, called the nighttime cycle. Because of this dawn-to-dusk and dusk-to-dawn cycle, local time in Ethiopia is six hours behind East Africa Time (EAT). So, that means that 7 a.m. EAT is 1 daytime hours in local Ethiopian time.
Make sense, or is your hair on fire? It actually kind of does make sense and is even practical in a country where the length of the days doesn't vary a lot from season to season. But it must be a bit confusing to anyone who has their watch and other devices set to East Africa Time.
So what's the history behind all this, and how do the people of Ethiopia apply their unique calendar and time difference when relating to the rest of the world?
Long story short, the Ethiopian calendar is based on the ancient Coptic calendar and is seven years and eight months behind the Gregorian calendar, due to alternate calculations in determining the birth date of Jesus. The calendar begins counting days from 7 B.C.E. onwards, while other calendars start with the birth of Jesus on 1 C.E. The Roman Catholic Church heavily influenced many countries that use the Gregorian calendar, but Ethiopia was never colonized and kicked out all the missionaries. Since it didn't accept outside influences, it has continued to use its own historic calendar to this day.
"People who live in Ethiopia mostly use the Ge'ez calendar unless they're doing anything globally, in which case they use the Gregorian calendar. Otherwise the difference doesn't really affect us other than having to switch calendars back and forth when needed," Teka explains.
"Most people, especially in the countryside, don't really use the Gregorian calendar because they don't care that they're behind more than seven years. And those who do use the Gregorian calendar may or may not know the history of why it's behind," says Teka. "Ethiopia has a different Christmas day than most of the rest of the world, except Coptic Orthodox Christians — who celebrate it on January 7 or on the Ethiopian calendar Christmas — or Genna, is celebrated on Tahisas 29."
Ms. Teka, our "time traveling" citizen of Ethiopia, continues.
"The way I think about it is that time is just a reference — just a human construct. I mean, we might say it's 2015 in Ethiopia, but in reality we all live in the present time. Therefore, even though it sounds like Ethiopia is behind seven years and eight months literally — it's just the way our calendar is calculated and doesn't mean that people over there are really living in the year 2015."
Now That's Interesting
Ethiopia isn't the only country with a notably different calendar. Thailand's calendar is based on Buddha, not Jesus, and is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. So in Thailand it's already 2566!
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