Jan 10, 2007
David Rich 1600 Words
$1= 9 Birr
E T H I O P I A M Y O P I A
A few years after first visiting Ethiopia's main tourist attraction--churches hewn from solid red rock, churches in caves, churches on mountain tops, and churches through tunnels in labyrinths like catacombs--I returned to see a few places I'd missed the first time around, and how Ethiopia had changed. The first smack in my face change, illustrating one facet of Ethiopia myopia, was the infamous Faranji Frenzy: a churn of children shouting, You, Pen! You, Money! You, Birr! Were they guilty of simple myopia, or was it more complicated than it seemed?
This time I'd entered Ethiopia from Sudan, starting with familiar Gondar where I briefly glanced at the impish angels glowing from the ceiling of venerable Debre Berhan Selassie Church and the 16th century castles and palaces of Fasilidas. From the castles' battlements on a clear day you can see the largest lake in Ethiopia, Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. With the view obscured I removed my lazy carcass to the neighboring Simien Mountains to find much needed exercise; over-landers sit too much on their ends, tending to fatten further.
The Simiens are loved for sprouting Ethiopia's highest and Africa's fourth highest peak, Ras Dashen, names pasted on many things Ethiopian, from beer to banks. These redoubtable mountains were formed by massive lava flows 3000 meters deep (10,000 feet)forty million years ago, now eroded. After a millennium of millennia the high plateau has been deeply cut by spider webs of canyons. The result is Arizona-like, a massive escarpment chopped by a plethora of Grand Canyons with Monument Valleys plunked onto every horizon, forming giant chasms, pinnacles, precipices and peaks up to 4500 meters (15,000 feet). Thousands of gelada baboons, looking more like golden lions than primates, caper among the Simien's verdant succulents. Though these playful baboons are not the thieving or interfering sort they're still blamed by superstitious locals for unsolved crimes including rapes and murders. I luckily spotted several stand-offish and rare walia Ibex in groups, once quite close-up, curved horns rising high over their heads like giant archers' bows.
The Nile River Gorge three hundred miles (five hundred kilometers) south of the Simiens, is equally spectacular but, like the Simiens, is heartbreakingly obscured by a miasma of dust. The Gorge myopia will perhaps be remediated in a few years, thanks to a Japanese government grant now paving the main Gorge road. It'll be decades before the Simiens are similarly rescued from an obscuring collar of dust, which effectively precludes landscape photography.
For those stalwart souls perpetually perplexed at the whereabouts of the worlds' largest carved stone, it's in Aksum. The tallest obelisk towered over 100 feet (33 meters). When this greatest of obelisks ominously toppled, Abyssinian paganism crashed with it, inaugurating the Christian era in Abyssinia. However, with the growing number of mosques Ethiopia may, in the foreseeable future, segue toward an Islamic state. This difficult transition may precipitate a bloody civil war that sucks Somalia and Eritrea into the vortex, but our children can deal with that.
St. Mary's Church, of numerous Aksum incarnations, sits next to the great obelisks. It's reputed to house the Ark of the Covenant, the same story I was told about other Ethiopian churches. Recent film footage alternatively suggests that the Ark was misfiled in a government warehouse in Maryland.
More than great obelisks and flaming arks Aksum is known as the fountainhead of the 10th Century B.C.E, Queen of Sheba. She enjoyed a rock hewn bath, recently encrusted with furry green lichen pocking muddy water. She retained an option on a tumbledown palace in outer Aksum, its layout strikingly similar to the Sun Temple in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.
Sheba the Queen caravanned to Palestine and seduced Solomon, begetting a thousands of years of Ethiopian kings. Fanciful details vary. Did Sheba drink a glass of water that obliged her troth to King Solomon, perhaps an overly generous jackpot, or did her sauciness dance across a mirrored floor while Solomon checked for hairy legs? In whatever event or non-event, the resulting son was christened Menelik I. During one summer's visitation with Father Solomon Menelik stole the Ark of the Covenant and spirited it off to Abyssinia for safe-keeping, now cloned and sequestered in a half dozen Ethiopian churches. The Ethiopian royal line ended with Haile Selissie I, Emperor from 1930 to 1974, and the power behind the throne from 1920. Though Emperor has a nice ring to it, the last emperor was about five feet tall.
For purposes of general merriment, Rastafarians worship Haile Selassie I under his precoronation name, Ras (Prince) Tafari, who they consider a divine being, Messiah, and champion of blacks. Rastafarians believe they're the twelfth tribe of Israel, subjugated to the evil and inferior white race as punishment for their sins. What on earth did they do wrong? Eventual deliverance will effect their repatriation to Africa, a new heaven on earth where whites will do all the work. Thus the Queen of Sheba is Bob Marley's adopted grandmother, thirty centuries removed.
The Simien escarpment abuts northern Ethiopia's 120 Tigran rock churches, primitively sculpted into rock faces or hidden in caves and adorned with colorful murals. One of the most striking is Yemsehanna Kristos forty kilometers (twenty five miles) northeast of Lalibella, studded with ornate ceilings but without electricity. So bring a flashlight, torch or flash to see Yemsehanna Kristos, built by the king of the same name between 1087 and 1127. The church is whitewashed marble with windows in ancient olive wood, foundations floating over a marsh on olive timbers, and several decades older than the famous Lalibella rock-hewn churches. This eye-boggling apparition sits in the front of a deep cave next to the King's tomb. Crammed under the cave ledge at the back are thousands of monks and unlucky pilgrims' skeletons slip-sliding way beyond their use-by-dates.
We arrived in Lalibella on Orthodox Christmas eve: January 6, at the exact spot where thousands of pilgrims converged after walking from all over Ethiopia. In short, we arrived in a mini-dust storm created by tens of thousands of dusty feet. Many savored this convergence of pilgrims while I found it allergenic and claustrophobic. After the hordes snaked out of Lalibella on Christmas Day the cloistered tourists popped out of their hidey holes to see the famous churches then liberated from occupying pilgrims.
Of Lalibella's eleven exquisitely-carved churches, the best is St. George (Beta Giorgis), which UNESCO called the 8th Wonder of the World. The locals, knowing little outside Ethiopia, consider Lalibella the most important dimple on the planet, the same as most regard their own planetary dot. But then, strikingly-situated Lalibella was named for a Prince who become a King and gave World Heritage a kick-start in the 12th Century.
Under the spell of drugs administered by his blackguard brother Prince Lalibela dreamed of carving bedrock. The Prince became King when his rogue brother abdicated. The new king promptly commandeered an army of craftsmen. Legend says the churches were carved by angels in a single night, or maybe three months. In reality the sculpting took two centuries. Saint George is carved from a city-block sized monolith carved into the shape of an orthodox cross, the most common postcard scene in Ethiopia. The reddish stone is coated with streaks of gold and canary-yellow lichen like pollen, lending St. George, patron saint of Ethiopia and England, an extreme patina of age.
On the way out of the church complex I was surrounded by another cauldron of squalling kids, You, Pen! You, Money! But I grinned and bore it, thinking of an adventure a few nights previous. Shortly after parking our big overland truck for the night, Mayor Liabnbnlqe of Debre Tabor, the closest town five miles (eight kilometers) from our parking spot, showed up to say hi and ask what we were up to. After a short discussion I hitched a ride back to town with the Mayor: my mission, to find a case of beer for thirsty fellow-truckers. Not only did the mayor find a cold case at wholesale prices but he bought me a couple solitary brews while we waited the loading of the Mayor's Land Cruiser to fetch me back to our lonesome roadside camp, all gratis and with good cheer. Which outweighs what, the beneficence of cold beer or suffering rude children? I plead Ethiopia myopia no matter how often I'm tempted to smack the noisy little blighters on their pointy little heads.
When You Go: Addis Ababa is served by many European and Middle Eastern airlines with fares far more competitive than most of Africa. From Addis you can fly to Gondar and Lalibela for $230 return and spend as much time as you wish in both. In Lalaibela stay at the Asheton or Seven Olives Hotels for between $9 and $15, grabbing a self contained double, or splurge and stay at the government-run Ghion, opulently renovated, for $37. But beware that prices quadruple during Orthodox Christmas. Eat at the Seven Olives for an extensive European menu. In Gondar I recommend the Belegez or the Fogura for $9 to $18, self contained double, or spend a few dollars more at the newer Circle Hotel. If you visit the island monasteries from Bahir Dar stay at the Ethio-Star Hotel, nicer than the Ghion, with great views and private balconies in self contained rooms from $13.
Entrance to the Royal Enclosure in Gondar is 75 Birr ($9), good for a full day. Entrance to Lalibela's eleven stone carved churches is 200 Birr ($24), good for as long as you stay in Lalibela. The Asheton Monastery high above Lalibela charges 30 Birr ($3.50) entrance, as does the rock monastery in the wall at Na'akuto La'ab and most of the island monasteries on Lake Tana. A day tour of the island monasteries will cost between $12 and $25 for boat transportation depending on whether you prefer a half or full day, including a foray into the outlet of the Blue Nile.