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.
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