Monday, November 7, 2011

Ethiopia - The Good Stuff

(Long with lots of photos. Enjoy!)

The food: it’s cheap and delicious.  Plus there are huge portions so we can usually split a meal and both eat for less than $2.  The only downside is that Ethiopian food seems to give me horrendous gas so we have to limit our consumption of injera and lentils or chickpeas to one meal a day.  Many menus in tourist areas have a pasta or pizza option and tend to be fairly tasty, thanks to a large Italian influence even though they tried to occupy the country several times in the past.

Coffee: Readily available macchiatos for less than 50 cents that don’t upset Anne’s stomach. I often opt for the 60 cent cappuccinos. 

National Pride: it’s huge.  Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was not colonized and people are very proud of their unique heritage.  There were some rough times and really awful battles against Italian occupation attempts, but Ethiopians prevailed.

Internal flights: they’re cheap!  Ethiopian Airlines has some fantastically cheap internal flights and some really bad roads so we splurged and have saved ourselves days of travel and countless frustrations.  Plus, the guy who worked at the airlines office in Addis Ababa and helped us arrange everything is one of the nicest, most helpful, and patient employees of any company that I have ever encountered.

Lodging: it’s not bad.  Although prices have at least doubled since the printing of our 2009 guidebook, we can still usually find a place for less than $15 a night.  We have splurged a few nights and spent around $30, which was nice.  I have only woken up twice with flea bites and one of those was from the rented sleeping pads from the Simen Mountains.   Our huge splurge was two nights ago where we spent one night in a rustic, beautiful, and very comfortable Italian lodge at $60 per night PLUS $8 each for dinner.  It was quite extravagant but our sanity needed it to get rid of some of our traveling frustrations.

Old stuff: there is lots of it.  Temples and rock-hewn churches and castles galore from as early as 6th century BC.
Some of the information we have learned from our guides is contradictory to what we’ve learned from other guides or our guidebook, and history here is often deeply infused with legend so it’s hard to know what is real versus what is myth.  Plus, we’ve often picked up on times when our guides just sort of make-up answers to our questions rather than admitting that they don’t know, so the history below is a mix of information from our guidebook and what we’ve heard from guides and should be taken with a grain of salt.

National Museum in Addis Ababa: We saw Lucy! Okay, we saw a really good replica of Lucy as the original is currently on display in New York.  This infamous Australopithecus afarensis skeleton was, at the time of discovery in 1974, the oldest and most complete hominid ever found and showed that A. afarensis was bipedal as far back as 3.2 million years ago.  This floor of the museum had a really good display of tooth fragments, skulls, and bones found all over Ethiopia showing the evolutionary changes leading up to Homo sapiens.  It was even more impressive when I thought about how all of these bones were found RIGHT HERE in Ethiopia, many from the Afar region which we will visit later in this trip. In addition to the excellent display on human evolution, the museum boasted a modest but beautiful collection of modern Ethiopian paintings.

Gonder: Although this former capital city has many different spellings, it is not actually pronounced “Gone-door” like in the Lord of the Rings, as I had been saying.  Emperor Fasiladas established Gonder as his capital in 1636 and built a huge castle and palace for himself.  His son and grandson followed him to power and even Empress Mentewab who married into the royal family ruled for 25 years.  They all built more additions inside this Royal Enclosure (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which includes palaces, castles, a sauna, a library, a banquet hall, horse stables, lion cages (seriously, it proved that they even had domination over the king of the jungle), archives, and a kitchen. Some of the buildings were in pretty good shape although many were damaged by Sudanese Dervishes, invading Muslims, in the 19th century, and British bombings from early World War II against the Italian occupation.  Considering most of these were built in the 15th and 16th centuries they were in remarkable shape.
Main Palace at Gondor

Ceiling in different palace -- each king built one to they'd have an everlasting 

Old chapel in Empress' compound
Paintings in the oldest surviving church in Gondor

Simen Mountains: When you talk about steep cliffs, towering views, and undulating plateaus it is hard to rival the Grand Canyon, but I have to admit that views from the Simen Mountains did just this.  We did a 4-day hike with a scout who spoke very little English, a mule, and a muleteer who spoke virtually no English.  The scout was required and he came armed with a rifle although I’m still unsure as to why.  He was good at warding off the begging children and two really, really mean dogs.  The office recommended a mule and muleteer due to the elevation and since we were renting gear (tent, sleeping pads, and cooking gear) we thought it wise to get the mule as they did not provide quality, lightweight backpacking equipment.  The climax of the hike was out to Imet Gogo, a precarious cliff surrounded by absolutely stunning views at 3926m/12881ft.  We had no problems with the elevation, likely due to our recent Kili hike and the fact that a mule was carrying most of our gear.  It was cold at night but perfect hiking weather during the day.  Our visit here followed a few rainy months so it was incredibly green and lush.  One thing that struck us both was how covered the landscape was with farm plots.  It was astonishing to see crops growing on plateaus at the tops of vertical cliffs in every direction.  Despite the annoying kids on the way here, this view was worth every ounce of frustration.

Farmland covered everything

This doesn't come close to capturing it

Our rock star scout, Tafil

Gich village

Barely adequate photo from Imet Gogo

Cool plant
Sunrise -- we had to wake early to hike 23 km to get the bus to Gondor that day. We went super slow because Anne was sick. Icky.

Along the way we also stopped at a local woman’s house to see how traditional coffee is prepared. Using an old USA food aid can she washed unroasted coffee beans then roasted them on a flattened metal plate over the fire. She crushed the beans with a heavy mortar and pestle then brewed the coffee. The subtle flavor lacked the bitter aftertaste of coffee that we’re used to and for once didn’t even need sugar. 
Fatima pounding coffee

Fatima's house where she slept on a loft above the livestock

Gelda Baboon, not actually related to other baboons and much friendlier

Aksum: The two biggest tourist attractions here are the giant stelae erected over several tombs and the Ark of the Covenant.  A stelae is a massive, narrow rock planted upright in the ground. Some are carved, others are just rock, depending on whose grave they represented. Aksum was a very important center for trade beginning around 1 AD and flourished for four or five centuries and was presumably the home of the Queen of Sheba in the 10th century BC.

The Northern Stelae Field is right on the outskirts of town.  I would have found it more impressive if not for the buildings surrounding it and the giant crane holding one of the stelae up. The modern setting really takes away from the aesthetic appeal of the ancient structures.  An enormous 10 room mausoleum is beneath a fallen 33-meter-long stelae.  Many other tombs were also accessible, built in a similar style with a room in the middle for the coffin and then surrounding rooms to hold numerous treasures.  Most of the tombs were robbed well before archeologists entered them.   The stelae are up to 33m high (the largest is lying in pieces as mentioned above) and were likely erected to commemorate the burial of someone important, however, due to the grave robbers, it is unknown who was buried in many of the tombs.  The stelae are one giant piece of granite taken from a quarry 5 km away likely with a combination of elephant power, giant wheels , and fierce determination.  They were quarried, carried, carved, and erected sometime between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.

The largest stelae, which fell hundreds of years ago

Tomb underneath the Great Stelae

Rome Stelae, broken in three by the Italians to steal it and move it to Rome. They just got it back recently.

The One with the Crane

Ethiopians firmly believe that the Ark of the Covenant is held within a chapel no tourist can get near in the St. Mary of Zion Churches complex.  This chapel is guarded by one man who never leaves the building and is in his year of duty.  Our guide said he will pick his successor when he starts getting old, but if he dies suddenly a church council will choose the next guardian monk.  Legend has it than Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, went to visit his father in Jerusalem and absconded with the Ark back to Ethiopia.  It is rumored to have been housed in several places in Aksum, including the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, before finding its current home in a building where only one man every 20+ years sees it.  A skeptic could say this is somewhat dubious but Ethiopians firmly believe it and that is what counts.  Besides, the Indiana Jones-like curiously of this ancient relic was enough for me to pay the steep entry fee to see the building.
Chapel housing the Ark

Illustrated prayer book

We also saw the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, called Dungur. Most archaeologists actually think the ruins are from 10th century AD, well after Queen of Sheba’s reign. Most Ethiopians believe otherwise. A recent excavation showed that another building was built before the top layer of ruins and that could have been the Queen’s true palace. Regardless of the exact history, the ground floor of this massive palace was well preserved and interesting to walk through.  A platform was erected just outside the palace that affords visitors a bird’s eye view of the area.
Little stelae field near the Queen's Palace

The King of Ezana’s Inscription is a Rosetta stone-like giant monolith containing inscriptions in Greek, Ga’ez (an unspoken language that predates Amharic), and Sabaean from around 350 AD.  The inscription speaks of King Ezana’s military conquests and contains a curse upon he who dares to move it.  Our guide said this tablet was found by three farmers lying on its side and was re-erected exactly in that same spot.

Yeha: This giant sandstone structure is dated between the 5th to 8th centuries BC making it the oldest I have ever laid my eyes upon.  The masonry was absolutely impressive with giant “bricks” laid together so smoothly and without mortar that you still can’t slide anything between them.  Our guide said this was likely a temple built for the God of the Moon, the same god worshipped by the ancient kings of Axum before the incursion of Christianity.  There were archeologists at work here restoring the structure so unfortunately there was some hideous scaffolding all over the inside but was fascinating to see anyway.
Ancient Temple of Yeha

Adwa Mountains

Rock-Hewn Churches of Tigray: (It’s Anne writing now. Before it was Jeanette.) Tigray looks like a dusty area of land covered in grain fields with massive red cliffs sprouting up out of nowhere. The chunks of primarily sandstone mountains provided spectacular views and inspiring places to carve churches. Once again it’s unclear if the 120 churches were carved by saints and kings during the 4th century as all of the guides profess or by others between the 9th and 15th centuries. Either way, they were impressive. The architects carved away enough stone by hand to create free-standing pillars, geometric designs on the ceilings, and cavernous spaces for prayer and congregation. The churches are still used to this day and have portions curtained off to protect the Holy of Holies, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Most of the churches are fitted up with small but ornate chandeliers that come straight out of the 1980s and have wires crisscrossing the ceiling along with other curtains.    

Many of the church walls had murals of varying ages and conditions depicting Jesus, Mary, a cadre of Ethiopian saints, and other orthodox imagery. My favorite was a picture of the Holy Trinity depicted as three different colored orbs with faces. Typically the Trinity is drawn as three old white men. Our guide said that many of the original murals were destroyed by an evil Jewish queen who tried to burn down all of the churches. Though the physical evidence doesn’t support this belief, as previously mentioned, legend is fact in Ethiopia.

Visiting the churches isn’t exactly straight forward. To get to Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor churches we climbed up a steep, rocky crevice in the cliff then over sandstone to the churches carved on the top of the mountain. It wasn’t very strenuous. But to get from those churches to Abuna Yemata Guh, the nicest church we saw, we got off the beaten path, if you will. By which I mean we followed our guide down six foot drops into rock crevices to a river bed. In the process of Jeanette and the guide patiently helping me into areas that I simply shouldn’t be going, my arm rubbed against some random plant and – you guessed it – I got a really itchy rash. Needless to say, despite the spectacular views, I was not in a good mood by the time we got to the base of the hike to the actual church, where most tourists start.

Despite this, I hauled myself up the mountain to the point where we had to take off our shoes and climb the sheer rock face barefoot. For any of you who have ever met me or even followed this blog, you know this falls into my category of Really Stupid Things That Only Crazy People Do So Don’t Make Me. So of course the guides, a contingent of scouts who had decided to join our trek, and Jeanette coaxed me up. The cliff had a series of hand and toeholds worn into it, but they still had to tell me exactly where to put each part of my body. Then, we climbed up not quite so sheer cliffs over massive drops and walked across a ledge over nothingness to the church. Actually, I’m over my fear of ledges, so that wasn’t so bad. Luckily, the church was actually worth it. The paintings were bold, simplified figures and the colors still shone magnificently. Our guide commandeered our camera and took about 100 photos. I made it back down the same route, too, in a slight drizzle. Still think it was stupid, though.       
View of Tigray

Rock-hewn pillars

Happy apostle in hard to get to church

Lots of sort of happy apostles

Not-so-scary ledge

Do you see why climbing that was so stupid? I mean seriously, who came up with that idea?

Geometric designs carved into ceiling

Paintings covered most surfaces of churches


  1. This was a fascinating journey! I cannot believe that you two have done all of this!

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