April 18, 2009

An Ethiopian Excursion

After Djibouti, I headed for Ethiopia, a country that is like no other in Africa or, I imagine, the world.

Ethiopia has a unique history in Africa - it was never colonized and actually defeated the Italians in the late 19th century. They use a unique language (Amharic) that has its own alphabet. They use a different calendar and keep time differently (that was endlessly confusing). Unlike the rest of Africa, they have an indigenous Christian church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, that traces its lineage to the fourth century. They also have (or had) indigenous Jews, a remnant, they believe, of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. And the people themselves look different than many other sub-Saharan Africans. It’s hard to describe how but many women, for instance, have straight hair and everyone has higher and more-pronounced cheekbones than I’m used to seeing in South Africa.

All this difference adds up to a unique people who take great pride in their heritage: they’re different, they know it, and they’re proud of it. In my brief experience in the country, I’d say Ethiopians are more nationally solipsistic than any other Africans. Naturally, as an American, I fit right in!

While they are indeed different, that doesn’t obscure the fact that the country is quite poor. The back of the 10-birr note has a picture of a tractor plowing a field on it. I did not see a single tractor in my entire time in the country. I did see many oxen-pulled plows, however, plowing up huge tracts of land in the rural parts of the country in preparation for the rainy season. There are so many beggars on the streets of Addis Ababa and many of them are profoundly crippled, with appendages bent in unnatural directions. Several times, I passed distributions of food aid, primarily from the U.S. government. Paul Theroux, in his book Dark-Star Safari, likens Ethiopians to “a family of aristocrats who’ve pawned the family silver.”

In transit between Djibouti and points in northern Ethiopia, I ended up with three nights in Addis Ababa. It is a gigantic city. I know this because I’m thrifty and walked most everywhere, including to and from the airport a few times. There are fancy hotels, like the Sheraton, overlooking sprawling slums. All the road signs are misspelled (including, incredibly, “Hale Silasie Drive”) because the Chines re-did them several years ago. I tried several times to see a movie in one of the theatres but I kept getting stymied by the different time-keeping methods Ethiopians use. Their 10 o’clock is not my 10 o’clock.

I visited Holy Trinity Cathedral, one of the holiest sites of the Orthodox faith. It is also where Haile Selassie is buried in a gigantic tomb. Selassie has clearly been rehabilitated in the eyes of Ethiopians and he is in several paintings in the cathedral, including one that shows him making his famous (to Ethiopians) plea to the League of Nations when the Italians were threatening the country.
I also visited a museum in Selassie’s old palace. The museum had some interesting exhibits on the many fascinating aspects cultures in Ethiopia but what I liked best was you could see the Emperor’s bedroom and bathroom.
But my main destination was northern Ethiopia. There are a tremendous number of world-class historical-tourist destinations there and spending a week among them is liking reading the first chapter of “War and Peace.” It barely hints at the entirety and leaves you wanting more. But a week is all I had. I saw this trip as a down payment on a return visit.

I went first to Bahir Dar, a good-sized town on the south edge of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. (In Uganda, I went to Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.) It is a huge lake and on many of the islands in the lake are monasteries, still active and hundreds of years old. I couldn’t find anyone with whom to share a full-day journey on the lake so I only spent the morning on the lake, visiting three monasteries. They are remarkable places - old churches with beautiful paintings, libraries with ancient translations of the Bible, simple living quarters of mud and sticks, prayer caves half-way up cliff faces.

I went out in a 15-foot motorboat but locals ply the lake in small craft made of papyrus. That’s the stuff that is used to make paper. Used another way, I guess, it’s watertight.
That afternoon, I rented a bike and rode along the Blue Nile to Haile Selassie’s old palace. It is through beautiful countryside, agrarian and obviously poor. The road was once paved - the only paved road in the area, I am sure - but is now cracked and returning to dirt. There are more horses and donkeys on the road than cars. The palace is not open to visitors but the view from the hill over the river and Bahir Dar is great. It was easy to imagine Selassie being driven to his life of luxury in the palace while his people toiled and starved around him.
What do you think American tax dollars are being spent on in this sign?

I also spent some time in Bahir Dar’s market. It is much like markets all over Africa, I am sure. What is fascinating is spending time in the clothing section. All the clothes we donate in the rich world get packed up and re-sold in places like Bahir Dar. As a result, you can find all kinds of brand-name clothing for pretty cheap. And you see Ethiopians wearing random t-shirts, like “Marist Cheerleading” or “Smith Family Reunion 2003.”
From Bahir Dar, I flew to Lalibela, truly a wonder of the world. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Zagwe dynasty built 11 churches out of stone. When I say “built,” I should really say carved. The kings looked at a cliff face, I imagine, and said, “Let’s make a church.” And they did. The workers set to it, carved away the excess rock, and left behind these churches that are hewn completely from stone. The craftsmanship is remarkable. What’s even more remarkable is that the churches are still in use.
I went through the churches with a tour guide and then on my own. The most memorable part is a 50-meter or so tunnel through a cliff that connects one church to another. It didn’t matter if my eyes were opened or closed as it was pitch black. The guide encouraged me to turn off my head lamp and, guided by his voice and hand, I made my way through, thinking of all the people over the centuries who’d been through this passage before me. (In several places, especially on the stairs leading into the churches, the stone is worn smooth and slippery from centuries of use.) I have never been so relieved to see the literal light at the end of the tunnel.
There are priests in each of the churches, prepared to show you some of the artefacts they have there, mostly finely-worked crosses. They’re happy to let you take their picture but they put on their sunglasses first to guard against the flash.
If the Lalibela churches were in the U.S., they’d be roped off, with cautionary signs and railings everywhere. As Lalibela is still developing as a destination and the churches are still used, there is none of that. It was fun, then, to roam freely around the rocks and churches, peeking into caves where monks once lived and finding out where various passageways lead. It reminded me of what Tolkien’s Moria might have been like or Aragon’s journey through the mountains. Apparently, some people still live there; wandering off the usual guided route, I came across a woman sleeping in one of the hideaways. She was not happy to see me.
We may be nearly a millennium removed from the construction of the churches but the way of life in the area is still largely similar to what it was when the churches were built: rural, agrarian, feudal, and poor. It strikes you as soon as you drive out of the Lalibela airport. The homes are made of sticks and stones and mud and straw, making the rondavels I know in South Africa seem like mansions and reminding me very strongly of how Rohan was portrayed in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. I was there on a Saturday, which is market day. Because Lalibela is on a mountain, you can see people streaming into the market from all the surrounding villages.Coming home from the market with her purchase.

I took a morning trip out to Yemrehanna Kristos, one of many churches scattered around the area that surrounds Lalibela. This one is built into a cave, high on a mountain, and is made of wood and marble. How’d they get the marble there, when there is no obvious source nearby and it’s up a steep mountain? I asked my guide and he said it came from Jerusalem on clouds. Works for me. At some point, you’ve got to start believing in miracles to come to grips with what you see in Ethiopia. As it was Sunday morning, church had just let out and people milled around outside in an Ethiopian version of Coffee Hour.

In the back of the cave, there are thousands of skeletons, just thrown helter-skelter. People just wanted to die there, I guess, and the priests granted their wish. There are skulls everywhere, some partially hidden so you keep stubbing your toe on them. Some of the faces have fascinating expressions on them.
From Lalibela, I went to Axum. I hadn’t intended to stop here but that’s how the flights worked out and I was glad they did. Axum was the capital of an ancient empire that spanned the Red Sea and was known to Rome and Greece. As a tourist destination, it’s now known as the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (if you believe Graham Hancock’s “The Sign and the Seal”) and for the tombs and obelisks left behind by the Axumites. (And no, I didn’t see the Ark.)

I didn’t have much time but I made the most of it. The obelisks are stunning. They are carved granite, taken from a quarry a few kilometers from town, somehow transported to town, and then erected… all more than 15 centuries ago. There are several that are beautifully carved and quite tall. Others are smaller and plainer.
The biggest one collapsed, likely when it was being erected, split into several pieces and crushed the tomb it fell on. That, it is theorized, was the end of that.
The obelisks are in all the tourist pictures of Axum but what I really liked was the old tombs, scattered all over town. They’ve all long since been raided but the craftsmanship is quite impressive. And they are located right in the middle of ongoing life. To find one - it dated to the time of Jesus - I had to walk down a side street in a residential neighbourhood. After exploring the tomb, I looked around for a few more burial sites the tour book said were nearby. I found them and then saw a similar-looking rock structure 10 feet away. I poked my head over it only to find it was someone’s cooking area, clearly still in use. On my way back to the main road, I played soccer for a little while with some of the neighbourhood children.
Jesse Zink, tomb raider.

I again rented a bike and rode out through Axum towards the old quarry. It is hard to believe Axum was once the capital of a mighty empire. Now it is just a big, sprawling, city with very few paved roads. I saw a donkey and camel talking to each other.
I also checked out the Ethiopian Rosetta Stone. It’s a big - bigger than Rosetta - and carved in Greek and Ge’ez, Amharic’s predecessor. Apparently, the stone curses anyone who tries to move it so the Ethiopians have sensibly left it where it is and built a stone hut around it. The Rosetta Stone is guarded by the full resources of the British Museum. This stone is guarded by this guy.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Because Ethiopians believe the Queen of Sheba was one of them and they share in a Solomonic inheritance, there is interesting Jewish iconography in some of the churches, like a random Star of David occasionally with a cross in the middle.
I had several tour guides at various points but I don’t think I ever heard a single one say “Jesus.” Instead, it was “God died on the cross,” “Mary gave birth to God,” etc. One repeated painting I saw depicted the Trinity as three identical old men. That didn’t seem very helpful to me.
I think there are also elements of Islam in the faith, though I bet they'd deny it. All the churches face east and the body language of people at prayer was reminiscent, though not identical, to Islamic forms of prayer.

It also has many characteristics of a pre-Reformation, pre-Vatican II church. The liturgy is conducted in Ge’ez, a dead language. The bread and wine are consecrated in a separate location (appropriately called Bethlehem, literally “House of Bread”) and then brought back to the church for distribution. The priests are obviously a separate class (and they have to be married to be priests). There’s a separate area in each church called the Holy of Holies that only priests can enter. People approach priests to kiss their cross and be lightly tapped on the forehead with it. In one airport, an obviously high-ranking priest walked into the departure area and virtually everyone in the lounge stood up and made their way to him to be blessed. He looked obviously disinterested.
It is also an established church in that I understand church and state are closely intertwined. I found myself wondering to what extent a church like this can exist only with an uneducated and poor population and thus to what extent the church is complicit in the continued poverty and under-development of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian food is quite good. If you’ve tried it, you’ll know that its major component is injera, a sort-of bread that you tear into pieces and use to scoop up the rest of the food. I say “sort-of bread” because it reminded me more of a cross between a pancake and a sponge and tasted about that way too. I was never quite sure what I was ordering because English is not widely spoken by waitresses, it seems, but it was always good. I could never finish all the injera that I was given, which turned out to be fortuitous as I always finished my meals with messy hands and had plenty of injera left to wipe them on. Its spongy nature cleaned my hands just great.
It’s possible to have too much of a good thing and I eventually had to start looking for meals that didn’t include injera. They were tough to find.

Ethiopia is a very inexpensive country, especially compared to Djibouti. I’m used to bargaining but I occasionally felt bad doing so because the initial price was so low. When I rented a bike in Bahir Dar, the first price he offered was less than 50-cents an hour. It’s hard to argue with that. (On the other hand, some people try to take you for all you’re worth. The guy I rented the bike from in Axum quoted me a price of 55-birr for five hours. I offered 20. He said, “If you want to bargain, I say 55, you say 50.” That didn’t seem like such a good way to me.)

Given the world-class historical sites in the country, the tourist infrastructure is, shall we say, still developing. You can either stay in expensive, ritzy places or down-at-the-heel hotels. Guess which I choose? But given all that I had been lead to believe about the quality of accommodation in the country, I was favourably impressed. Sure, most didn’t have hot water or toilet seats or shower curtains or any of the finer (or necessary) things we associate with hotels but they were clean and safe and cheap.

Ethiopia has trended notably authoritarian in recent years and there are lots of security people with big guns on the street. You have to go through security to get into the airport and then again to get on the plane. They are always checking your passport in the airport. It is also (relatedly) quite a closed society. Uniquely, in my African travels, the country did not have a single ATM capable of taking my debit card. (Visa is not everywhere I wanted to be.)

Obama is very popular in Ethiopia. In fact, he’s probably on more shirts than Bob Marley and Selassie combined. (Sometimes the picture is not of him so much as it is a random black guy who looks vaguely Obama-ish.) They may love him but they won’t go so far as to credit him for his work. You can still get an obviously pirated copy of his books on the street for cheap. They’ve been photocopied and rebound.
Speaking of reading, I had several flights and Ethiopian Airlines makes you get to the airport two hours early so I had plenty of time to read and rapidly made it through what I’d brought with me. To my surprise, there were actually quite a lot of books for sale in Addis. Most were in Amharic but I found several interesting English ones. Even then, however, by my final flight out of Axum, I had absolutely nothing to read and amused myself in the departure lounge reading every word in my passport twice. It was the most horrendous waiting experience I’ve ever endured.

Everything I’ve ever read about Ethiopia mentally prepared me to get the worst gastro-intestinal infection ever. Knock on wood, I’m fine!

I’ve posted more pictures to Facebook, which you can view - even if you’re not on Facebook - by clicking on this link.


Ethiopian said...

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Thanks agian!

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