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december 18, 2003 -> Heights of History: Northern Ethiopia

Ethiopia's "Historical Route" - a bumpy loop through the northern half of the country - is the country's primary tourist draw-card, taking in unique rock-hewn churches, towering mountains, hilltop castles, island monasteries, and the ruins of an ancient (and wholly African) empire. That said, there are very few tourists in Ethiopia, except during the important and very colorful mid-January festival of 'Timkat,' - when priests thrice circumambulate their churches carrying replicas of the Ark of the Covenant.

I first learned of Ethiopia's history and Christian heritage while hiking in New Zealand. I was reading Graham Hancock's "The Sign and the Seal," a riveting, but highly speculative book that corroborated Ethiopian legends by "proving" that the lost Ark of the Covenant actually resides in a church near the holy city of Axum (in far northern Ethiopia). Incidentally, Mr. Hancock also wrote "The Fingerprints of the Gods," which posited that the Pyramids of Egypt were actually built by aliens.

As the story goes, the Queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to learn statecraft from the sagacious King Solomon. The randy King, bewitched by the dark Queen, was more keen on a dalliance than diplomacy, and so tricked her into sleeping with him. On the return journey, she bore him a son, Menelik. As a young man, Menelik journeyed to Solomon's court to meet and study under his father. While there, he became convinced that the Lord had ordained that the Ark of the Covenant (the golden vessel carrying the original stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written) should be in Ethiopia, so he sneaked out of Jerusalem having stolen the Ark. After a perilous return journey, Menelik installed the Ark in a church in Axum.

Despite the attraction of Mr. Hancock's narrative, and the force of local beliefs, most serious scholars scoff at the entire story. First, the Queen of Sheba was a mythical figure. Second, Axum did not even exist during the time of Solomon. Still, I could not help but recall Mr. Hancock's visits to Ethiopia, as Nori and I visited the same cities, churches and monasteries that he had while he was researching the book. In Lalibela, I noticed the Cross of Malta painted on the barrel-vaulted ceiling of one of the churches. This had convinced Mr. Hancock that the Knights of St. John (the Templars), had been involved in the construction of the rock-hewn churches. On an island monastery in Lake Tana, I met the same aging priest that Mr. Hancock had interviewed.

Today, Ethiopia is much larger than both the "Aethiops" that the Greeks knew ("Land of Burnt Faces") and the "Abyssinia" familiar to the early Muslims. Relations between the already Christian Ethiopia, and the newly Muslim Arabs were so good in the 7th century that Muhammad the Prophet famously ordered his followers to "Leave the Abyssinians in peace." The ancient civilizations and early-modern empires of Ethiopia centered on the salubrious climate and great fertility of the northern highlands; the more arid southern and eastern lands are relatively recent additions to modern Ethiopia.

The Axumite Empire arose in northern Ethiopia in the 1st century AD, succored by Red Sea trade and the fertility of the highland soils. The Axumites developed Africa's only indigenous written language (Ge'ez, the precursor to Ethiopia's national language, Amharic), and built giant stone stele to honor their dead. The architectural legacy of the Axumites would later be resurrected in the churches of Lalibela.

Roughly the same time that zealous Christians were carving churches in Cappadocia, ethiopia, a new Ethiopian emperor, Lalibela (r. 1185-1225) decided that a bit of church-building was what his court needed to establish its legitimacy. Eleven churches were carved into the soft volcanic tufa (as in ethiopia) hills beneath the Lasta mountains. But unlike the cave churches of ethiopia, the Lalibela churches are free-standing, with the surrounding rock carved away, such that the church roofs are at ground level. The churches include columns, vaulted ceilings and beautiful frescoes. The most famous church, Beta Giorgis (the Church of St. George) is cruciform, but with a symmetry that makes it look like a giant, bas-relief 'plus' sign.

Monks in bright yellow robes sat in niches in the rock enclosing the churches, reading scriptures while they fiddled with prayer beads. Early one morning, we followed the sound of chanting to one of the churches and sat and watched as Mass was performed. At one point, an acolyte brought out a wooden stand and opened up an ancient book upon it. A priest began to read from it, singing and speaking alternately. Men and women unable to enter the small church watched and listened intently. No one paid attention to the village idiot - naked save a long purple T-shirt - who scampered about and howled.

From Lalibela, we journeyed by bus and 18-wheeler to Bahar Dar (a two-day journey). The nearby Blue Nile falls were but a trickle of their former selves. Over 75% of the river's flow had been diverted to a hydroelectric power station, leaving most of the arcing escarpment bone dry. Of course, none of the tourism propaganda had been updated, so we were somewhat disappointed. At the same time, we could not begrudge the Ethiopians electricity.

At Bahar Dar, the Blue Nile flows south from Lake Tana (Ethiopia's largest lake), curving west into the Sudan, and then north, before joining the White Nile at Khartoum. From there, the enlarged Nile flows north into Egypt. As we traveled to the island monasteries of Lake Tana, it amazed me to think that the water spraying off the bow of our boat could soon be washing the shores of the Mediterranean.

We visited three of Lake Tana's monasteries, all built on a basic circular plan. Three ambulatories: an outer ring for the parishioners, a middle ring for the monks, and the inner sanctum (or 'holy of holies') containing the 'tabot' - a replica of the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Bright murals on the middle ring illustrated the life of Christ, the deaths of the apostles, and the deeds of Ethiopian saints. There was a strict iconography: apart from minor stylistic changes, the panels were remarkably similar.

In Gonder, we wandered through the Royal Enclosure, a series of castles, churches and other buildings built by successive emperors in the 17-18th centuries. One does not expect castles in 'uncivilized' Africa - and these are 300-400 years old. The castles were built with a pastiche of styles: domed towers, crenelated parapets, and carved niches in the Central Asian/Rajput design. On a hill above the town sits one of Ethiopia's finest churches: Debre Berhan Selassie - or Trinity at the Mount of Light. Colorful winged cherubs' heads stare down from the beamed ceiling, and dramatic frescoes cover the walls - including a rather inflammatory painting of Muhammad, riding on a donkey being led by the Devil.

The Simen mountains (about mid-way between Bahar Dar and Axum) are unlike any range I have seen. For two days we hiked across a high tableland dominated by giant lobelia - imagine a small palm tree with a long ear of husked corn on top. The tableland actually lies above the mountains: from tapering promontories you look down sheer cliffs and across a crumpled, arid plain where mesas and pinnacles rise. The Simens are rich in wildlife. We saw many troops of endemic gelada baboons (also known as "bleeding heart" baboons for the bright red triangle of bare skin on their chests), jackals, ibex and giant lammergeyers (birds of prey).

Ras Dashen, standing at 4543 meters, is the tallest mountain in the Simens and in Ethiopia, and is the 4th highest in Africa. Though Ethiopia comprises only 4% of the African continent, it contains over 80% of the land over 3000 meters (12,000 feet). For this reason, Ethiopia is known as the "Roof of Africa."

Ethiopian roads are horrible, but they are particularly bad in the north, where deep gorges, high mountains and greater rainfall make road building and maintenance difficult and expensive. When figuring trip times, we learned to assume an average speed of 30 kph (less than 20 mph). Even this was optimistic, as it did not include time for either frequent breakdowns or the numerous unscheduled stops to buy or sell chaat, a mildly narcotic leaf.

We rode in buses, vans, and even on top of an 18-wheeler transporting wheat donated by the USA. The 100-km journey between Bahar Dar and Gonder - two major cities - took an astounding nine hours by minibus. To see the four main cities on the "Historical Route" (Lalibela, Axum, Gonder, Bahar Dar), and including 3-day hike in the Simen Mountains - would take at least three weeks using public transportation and hitching. We were forced to skip the arduous journey north to Axum - we simply ran out of time.