Ethiopia is a conundrum for travellers: grindingly poor yet packed full of priceless treasures; so fiercely individual it feels like a parallel universe, but still unmistakeably African. A tour of this madly beautiful country split in two by the Great Rift Valley left Alison Westwood exhilarated, frustrated and wide-eyed with wonder.
A silver cross glinted at the woman’s throat as she raised her long-necked clay pot and poured out a golden stream. Behind her, the Blue Nile thundered over a cliff and rainbows played hide-and-seek in its smoke. Tendrils of incense snaked into the sky, blending with aromas of dust, cow dung and the dried reeds spread at my feet. I sat on a rock sipping sweet coffee from a dainty china cup, bemused. How could a place be so wild and so civilised all at once?
Curious tales on Lake Tana
It was only my second day in Ethiopia, but I was already learning to accept and even enjoy an almost constant state of mystification. It had started the day before at the same place as the Blue Nile: Lake Tana. Our boat bounced across milky-green waves as we sailed past wooded islands sheltering convents and monasteries on our way to the Zege Peninsula. We alighted at a small bay where tankwas, papyrus canoes, were spread on the grass to dry. Vervet monkeys ruffled an indigenous forest of giant ficus and wild coffee. I climbed a narrow path past ramshackle curio stalls whose keepers pleaded with me to take a closer look at ornate handmade crosses, imitation religious paintings and solid silver trade coins.
The entrance to the medieval church compound of Ura Kidane Mehret was a carved wooden door in a thatched hut topped by a clay pot that looked rather like an inflated rubber glove. Inside, large, round, mud buildings were fringed with thousands of little bells, festooned with five-fingered pots or surmounted with circular steel crosses skewering seven ostrich eggs each. It was all deeply symbolic to Ethiopian orthodox Christians and completely bewildering to me.
One building was fronted with dusty glass and its pillars propped up two somnolent guards with big guns. On display, in what seemed an astonishingly casual way, were gold and silver-encrusted velvet robes dating from the 13th century, ceremonial crosses almost 700 years old, bejewelled crowns – gifts from long-dead emperors – and a ninth-century book written on goatskin in a language only Ethiopian priests can understand.
Beside the church, under a mango tree, a group of children clothed in white sang to the beat of drums. I left my sandals on the stone steps and tiptoed through towering wooden doors. The hushed gloom shone with a riot of colour and action. Parchment painted in natural pigments covered the walls from floor to ceiling, peeling in places but still jewel-bright. The pictures all told stories: of saints and sinners, angels and prophets. Some I remembered from Sunday school. Others were entirely unfamiliar.
A panel depicting a worried-looking man surrounded by body parts, holding a knife and eating what may have been an arm, was the ‘kind cannibal’. I could see he was a good guy because he had two eyes and Ethiopian religious paintings show bad people only in profile. A one-eyed woman and her servants were pictured sinking into the ground and turning into monkeys: they’d tried to kidnap Jesus. More would-be abductors were being swallowed by a toothy sea-monster. St George, on a white horse with a blue aura, solemnly slew a squirming dragon, to the dismay of demons and admiration of watching priests. My guide had to drag me away before dark.
Now hooked on Ethiopia’s medieval churches, I was delighted to discover another in the city of Gondar, a former capital of the empire and my next stop. Debre Birhan Selassie was once Gondar’s most important church and the only one to escape destruction when the Sudanese Mahdist attacked in 1888. Legend says it was saved by a swarm of bees. It’s best known for the ceiling, painted with row upon row of angelic faces looking in every direction.
The city itself is most famous for its 17th century castles. No fewer than five of them are grouped in a walled enclosure on a hill in the middle of the city called the Fasil Ghebbi. The oldest, built by Emperor Fasilidas in 1640, is also the grandest. Constructed in a peculiar combination of styles, it has domed basalt turrets, narrow arched doorways and crenellated battlements. Echoing banquet halls lead onto timber balconies from which you can see across the city, some say as far as Lake Tana on a clear day.
Fasilidas also commissioned an Olympic-sized pool at the bottom of the hill, although he probably never used it to do laps. In January each year, it’s the stage for Timkat – the epiphany festival. Cross-carrying priests lead thousands of white-robed worshippers to its side to be sprinkled with holy water. According to my taxi driver, some people (himself included) get carried away and jump in, despite being unable to swim. The pool was empty when I visited, the two-storey castle in its centre shakily propped up with scaffolding. Ancient sycamore figs suffocated the surrounding walls with serpentine roots.
Gondar has relics of more recent rulers too. Although Ethiopia was never colonised, Mussolini occupied the country for five years and made Gondar an administrative centre of what was briefly known as Italian East Africa, combining Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. The fascists were forced out in 1941, but the city’s traffic still revolves sedately around a piazza lined with art deco buildings and cafes where tourists gulp espressos.
Skywalking in the Simiens
Next day, a 4×4 carrying me, a cook and camping gear swept through the piazza, out of Gondar and towards the Simien Mountains. At the dusty, bustling town of Debark, I signed my name in a register and was assigned a guide who called me ‘Allias’ and a scout who spoke no English, but had a woolly red hat, an engaging grin and an AK47. Everyone clambered back into the vehicle and it pushed through throngs of vegetable sellers, goats, mules and sacks of teff, the local staple – it was market day in Debark – onto a lumpy dirt road and up, up and up.
Not far from the Simien Mountains National Park gates, the road dropped away on one side and the valley scrambled steeply down until it reached a deep gully, which surged into another, out of which a vast, grooved ridge soared up to support conical towers and tubular protuberances. The process was repeated continually until the ridges, gullies and turrets faded into a distant blue haze. Just looking at it could create that feeling in your stomach when you descend 20 storeys in a fast elevator.
Inside the park, several vehicles had stopped beside a grassy field covered with thigh-high brown forms scratching intently in the dirt. Gelada baboons (also known as bleeding-heart baboons because of the red patches on their chests) are found only in Ethiopia, but your chances of seeing them in the Simiens are high. Park rules permit you to approach on foot within a metre and, if you do so carefully, the baboons will allow it. I spent a fascinating hour crouched a flea-jump away, watching them groom, forage, fight and mate. Then I shouldered a small daypack and began an easy walk to Sankaber Camp.
Trekking in the Simiens can be as tough or as relaxing as you choose. You need to be reasonably fit, however, as some routes involve up to eight hours’ walking at altitude. Many of the peaks rise over 4#000 metres, including Ras Dashen, at 4#620#metres the highest in Ethiopia and fourth highest in Africa. An easy three-night trek like the one I did will take you from Sankaber to the village of Geech, while a more arduous six-night trek could take you all the way up Ras Dashen. Your days are spent walking through mind-bending topography, past Amhara tribesmen tilling vertiginous slopes for barley. Your evenings are whiled away sitting outside your tent, breathing the thin, cold air and staring into a luminous sky.
The keeper of the Ark
Despite all the extravagant strangeness I’d seen so far, I wasn’t prepared for Lalibela. About 800 years ago, this remote highland village was the capital of a sovereign first recognised by a swarm of bees that surrounded his cradle. Later, poisoned and put into a coma by his jealous elder brother, Lalibela had a vision in which God gave him instructions to build extraordinary churches. At God’s command, his elder brother abdicated and the new king lost no time in fulfilling his task. Masons hewed the red volcanic rock by day and angels continued the work at night.
This sounds far-fetched until you see the churches. Superhuman in scale and conception, carved from single blocks of solid stone, they stand hidden in trenches and quarried caves, or burrowed into the walls of labyrinthine tunnels. Regardless of tourists who totter open-mouthed through the tangle, this is a living shrine and spiritual centre for Ethiopians. Monks leant on their prayer sticks in slanting sunlight. Turbaned priests emerged from shadowy sanctuaries, holding ornate crosses aloft in benediction.
While Lalibela was like walking through the set of an Indiana Jones movie, Axum is the place Indy would really want to visit. The city is said to be more than three millennia old, the centre of a far-flung kingdom that dominated the crossroads between Africa and Asia for a thousand years. It has such an embarrassment of archaeological wealth that 90 per cent of it hasn’t been excavated. One scholar, Stuart Munro-Hay, wrote that ‘of all the important ancient civilisations of the past, that of the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum still remains perhaps the least known.’
Each year, scientists from around the world arrive to study the stelae: a group of 75 monolithic granite obelisks transported from a quarry four kilometres away by elephants. The second largest, standing 24 metres high, was only recently returned from Rome where Mussolini took it. The largest, attributed to the third century King Ramhai, lies shattered on the ground. This 33-metre 500-tonne block of stone proved impossible to erect. In the tunnels of Ramhai’s tomb, my guide, Haileselassie Berhe, a leading local archaeologist, showed me where he’d been trapped by the collapse of a secret treasure chamber when he attempted to open it. He had to be sent to Switzerland for surgery to enable him to walk again.
Berhe took me to another equally spooky set of tombs on a hill overlooking the Adwa Mountains: the palace of Emperor Kaleb and his son Gebre-Meskal. Empty stone coffers hinted at plundered riches and Berhe told me that more treasures undoubtedly lay concealed behind walls in chambers buried with rubble. He pointed out the starting point of a mysterious underground tunnel, supposed to run from the palace to the coast of Eritrea, more than 200 kilometres away.
We drove back past the Queen of Sheba’s bath and on to what are said to be the ruins of her palace at Dongar. Local history has it that Makeda (as she is known in Ethiopia) visited King Solomon in Jerusalem. He seduced her and, on her return to Axum, she bore him a son, Menelik I, who became the first Emperor of Ethiopia. Later, she sent Menelik to Solomon with a request to lend her the Ark of the Covenant. The king conveyed Israel’s greatest treasure to Axum with an escort of 12#000 Hebrew warriors.
Ethiopians believe the Ark, or tabot, is still kept in a chapel near St Mary of Zion, but only one man ever sees it. I met the keeper of the Ark at the entrance to his sanctuary: the venerable guardian never sets foot over its threshold. Another tourist, aided by a translator, was eagerly interrogating him, but the answers he received were ambiguous, inscrutable. At last, with a profound and detached dignity, the priest blessed the two men and me, and returned to his solitary retreat. The visitor stood staring at the locked gate, baffled and clearly unsatisfied, but I stole the story and hid it in my soul for safekeeping.