Whose New Year, Whose Millennium?

September 12, 2007

On the eve of the beginning of Ethiopia’s third millennium according to official count, local and international media are raising various questions about it. Most, if not all, seem to lump two things together and talk about it as if they were one, or originated from the same foundation.

The first and the fundamental factor is the basis of the New Year, which falls on September 11 except during leap years according to this Ethiopian calendar, in which case it falls on September 12. What has not been answered meaningfully is whose New Year is this New Year? Which people around the world were the first to observe this season as a New Year season? What natural object(s) did this specific people use to observe the end of one year and the beginning of another year?

A quick survey of the calendars of various people’s around the world suggests that ancient people used the sun, the stars, or the moon as objects of reference to adopt annual cycles. In what appears to be a long political writing, Prof. Mohammed Shamsaddin Megalommatis gave some clues about who used this calendar in ancient times. According to him, what has now become the Ethiopian calendar was an absolutely Coptic calendar: “… the Gueze Calendar became Ethiopian Calendar, without of course ceasing to be an absolutely Coptic Calendar according to which the years start on September 11 (except the leap years that start on September 12). The Coptic Calendar is an offspring of the Ancient Egyptian Calendar, slightly modified and synchronized with the Julian Calendar.” In addition, he suggests that the Coptic calendar may have been in use well over 2000 years before BC.

The Oromo people have been acknowledged to have developed a sophisticated ancient calendar system based on “astronomical observations of the moon in conjunction with seven particular stars (or star groups).” A field study of this calendar system was conducted by Professor Asmerom Legesse in the 1970’s. In 1977 Drs. B.M. Lynch and L.H. Robbins came upon what they believed was the first archaeoastronomical site ever found in sub-Saharan Africa at Namoratunga in Kenya. They suggested that the site may have been 300 BC. According to Laurance Reeve Doyle of NASA’s Space Research Division, “If the date that Drs. Lynch and Robbins suggested was correct, the site would then correspond to the time of the extensive kingdom of Cush, referred to as Ethiopia in the Bible but actually centered about present day Sudan. One would then conclude that the Borana calendrical system was old indeed, having been developed by the Cushitic peoples in this area about 1800 years before the development of our present day Western Gregorian calendrical system.”

Irrecha, an Oromo day celebrated about the third week of September, marks the time of Oromo New Year. Even though it is not clear if the Egyptian tricolors of black, red, and white is based on an ancient Egyptian heritage, the fact that they are the same as the Oromo tricolors calls for attention to any possible relationship between the tricolors of the two peoples. Add to this the fact that the Cushitic people of East Africa had influenced ancient Egypt, the speculation about the relationship between the two sets of tricolors becomes even stronger.

Oromo Traditional Colors
Oromo Traditional Colors (black at the top, red in the middle, and white at the bottom.)

National Flag of Egypt
National Flag of Egypt

Nearly three decades ago in 1979, Bates pointed out that "The Gallas (Oromo) were a very ancient race, the indigenous stock, perhaps, on which most other peoples in this part of eastern Africa have been grafted".

It is very likey that all the above clues point to the possibility that this New Year may have been observed by the ancient Cush people.

The second factor, which is dubbed the Ethiopian millennium, does not seem to be as authentic to the ancient people of Cush as the timing of the New Year. Unlike the date of the Ethiopian New Year, which is nearly 111 days apart from the date of New Year according to the Gregorian calendar (from September 11 to January 1), Ethiopian Christmas day is only about 13 days from the Christmas day according to the Gregorian calendar (December 25 and January 8). While the Christmas day according to the Gregorian calendar precedes the respective New Year by one week, Ethiopia’s New Year precedes its Christmas day by nearly 17 weeks, or 119 days.

This may be a clear indication of juxtaposition of two systems. One is for observing the New Year and the other is for counting the years since Jesus’ crucifixion. While the first seems to have been developed a long time ago based on sophisticated astronomical observations, the other seems to have been superimposed on it at will. Perhaps, the grafting process that Bates observed might not have been seemless enoguh as to hide the root of the Ethiopian New Year.

Therefore, a detailed objective study of these factors will be one of the interesting ventures in the future.

In the meantime, as we say it in Afan Oromo, baga ganna nagaan baatanii booqa birraa agartan. Saddeenni sadeetatti isiniif haa naana’u. These statements are not easy ones to translate into English without compromising their concepts. The rough translations may be It is good (congratulations) that you are through the rainy season peacefully and saw the light of the blooming season. May the octate turn around for you in peace. The Gada cycle comes every eight years, and the octate term may signify this cycle.