Karl’s Chronicles; Ethiopia – 10 Defining Experiences
All manner of changes came into effect at the border. Not just a change in bureaucratic procedures or a shift from Arabic to Amharic, or even the usual follies imposed by a new government. But a change in the landscape as the dry flat plains of southeast Sudan set forth a roller-coaster ride through Ethiopia’s highlands. The colours, sounds, the physiognomy of its people introduced a shift, rather like the Rift valley that had shifted on a phenomenal scale, the geography of the land—adding another layer of interest to what was already a cultural puff-pasty of layered dynamism. Many of those layers encrypted and exclusive, an endemic showcase that didn’t stop at its wildlife. The national dish Injera, a large, slightly sour pancake came from tef, a cereal grown only in Ethiopia. Perhaps, best accompanied with a glass of tej, a honey-based mead and a performance of shoulder-dancing. These wonderful pleasures, easily discoverable seemed to feel somewhat secretive in a land so traditional, conservative and proud of its religious heritage. Crossing that border did impose change, a step into an enigmatical and esoteric land rather like an African Tibet.
For many, Ethiopia still resonates the awful famine of 1984. An apocalyptic world of forgotten people caught in the crossfire of a communist regime. But several decades on, Ethiopia is now viewed as one of Africa’s greatest treasures. Rich in history, from the finding of Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, the oldest hominid on record which established humanities birth-point, to more recent merits of embracing Christianity in the fourth century, the second country after Armenia to do so. Take all this remarkably well-preserved history, seen in churches, castles, monasteries and tombs, outlay with mind-bending landscapes observed in The Simien Mountains NP, The Danakil Depression, Bale NP and the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana. Amplify further with a bubbling cauldron of ethnic diversity and all those endemic wonders, and you have the myriad and unusual palette of Ethiopia. With so many treasures, it’s easy to lose sight of the crown for the jewels, so I have whittled it down to ten. Unlike the Eurovision Song Contest, there is no questionable order of merit as each maintains their signatory experience.
1 Aksum – Ethiopia’s first kingdom.
The first official written accounts by an Egyptian sailor mention Aksum during the first century after Christ. But modern methods of archaeological dating, take it back centuries earlier to 400BC. Set at the core of intersecting trade routes with Egypt, and the gold-productive plain around the Sudanese frontier. Not far away to the northeast, lay the port of Adulis which ferried trade across the Red Sea to Arabia and India. At its zenith, the empire flooded into vast tracts of southern Arabia and northwest into the Sudanese Nile Valley.
The arts flourished in Aksum, propelled by a prosperous, well-educated society. Impressive monuments rose to announce and promote the powers of several Aksumite families. These can be seen today on several stelae (similar to an Egyptian obelisk) where its believed, buried directly beneath are several unopened tombs. Excavations in the mid-1970s found some tombs had been initially plundered. But fragments of jewellery, weapons, glass, and bronze offered clues to the civilisations customs regarding death and burial. Some of these multi-chambered tombs such as King Kaleb, Gebre Meskel, and Nefa Mawcha are open to the public, giving a fascinating view of Aksumite design, and early religious beliefs.
In between the Old and new churches of St. Mary of Zion stands a small heavily guarded chapel. Off-limits to everybody except one specially chosen guardian. For inside the chapel rests the biblical showcase of all showcases, the Ark of the Covenant. Supposedly brought to Ethiopia by King Solomon and Queen Sheba’s son Menelik in the first millennium BC.
2 The Simien Mountains National Park.
The Simien Mountains, credited as a national park and world heritage site, presents one splendid panorama after another that leaves the face sore from wide-eyed syndrome. The focus, bewitched by a terrible drop over a vast escarpment, leads the eye far out to funnel-shaped mountains, gullies, and shadowy shelves far below. The Mountains of the Ethiopian Highlands, split by The Great Rift Valley effortlessly rival The Grand Canyon or the Atlas range in Africa’s northwest for grand magnificence. Receiving a fraction of visitors in comparison, while ensuring a walk or a multi-week trek here, is one remembered for its nature than human disturbance.
The Simien Massif, mapped out by several plateaus that are divided by broad river valleys, absorb an area of 220 metres square, making it the largest national park in Ethiopia—established back in the late ’60s by Clive Nicol. He penned many of his adventures here in the book Roof of Africa. Almost a decade on, UNESCO awarded the park as a World Heritage Site. The park is home to several endemic species such as the Gelada baboon, Walia ibex and Simien fox.
3 The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
Not just one church to mesmerise the architects and engineers! But eleven in total, all cut and crafted by hand from solid bodies of rock. There are no bricks and nails, no tiles and joists like a standard church, for the worshipping places of Lalibela came directly from the command of God.
Legend tells us that Lalibela’s mother foresaw her son Gebrel Mesqel Lalibela (1181-1221) as the future emperor, from a phenomenon of a swarm of bees encircling him at birth. A divine blessing would occur during adulthood when stories talk of Lalibela ascending, under the guidance of angels to the realms of the third heavens—leaving his coma induced body, poisoned by the hands of his half brother, for orders of a higher purpose. Bearing witness to the unveiling of a momentous city -a new Jerusalem, with orders from God to return and build it. As the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem by Saladin’s army, had effectively halted all pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Visitors generally recall Lalibela as a shining example of human endeavour and innovation. Time has been somewhat favourable on their condition, surviving the extreme shifts in weather over several centuries. The churches of Lalibela wear a different cloak when thousands gather during the annual festivals of Timkat, Leddet and Fasika. Swaying and circling like churned milk, the dense masses of white pilgrims bring an accentuated reverence to the quiet might of rock chapels and churches. Magnified tenfold when seen at night, for the religion below reflects the celestial swirl of the heavens above.
Some people take one bite of injera – the national dish of a large slightly sour pancake and leave it at that. But apply a little patience, and injera hits the spot. Like rice to the Chinese or curry to the Indians, it is consumed daily. Either served round and flat or rolled up like a college certificate; it comes accompanied with various wats (spicy curries) which the pancake helps to diffuse. The diner tares off a piece of the pancake and uses it to scoop up some of the wat. Made from tef, an endemic cereal grown in the fertile highlands makes the national dish doubly unique. Generally, the batter is left for several days to ferment which gives it the defined sour taste it’s loved or hated over. Lower quality injera is made not from tef, but millet or sorghum. The batter is thicker, darker, more coarse and overall less pleasant. Falling in line with religious sensibilities both Wednesday and Friday are vegetarian as a sign of fasting, so none of the wats contains any meat.
5&6 The Danakil Depression
Dry, furiously hot and for the most part inhospitably barren, the Danakil Depression doesn’t sound like much of a magnet. Driving hours through endless scrub, being buffeted around like a lottery ball and praying that the air-conditioning doesn’t pack up are the trials for a great adventure. For out here, on the western fringe of Ethiopia, riding through the second-lowest point in Africa in temperatures that regularly hit 45 degrees are some of the most surreal landscapes that belie you’re still on earth. The breathtaking magnitude of being inside an active lava-churning volcano guarantee to get the blood pumping. Seen in many natural history documentaries to explain the heating, cooling and shaping of our planet, the Irta’ale volcano doesn’t underperform (though you might want it to). At 613m high, Irta’ale has been continuously active since 1967, observed as a giant beam of fiery-red when ascending during the cooler hours of the night. The volcanoes mood seems to have been adopted by the aggressive and formidable Afar tribe, whose male youths guide you up then down to its second platform. Considering the harshness of the Danakil Depression that the Afar call home, it’s little surprise they have adapted to some of its personality.
Salvador Dalai, David Lynch, Tim Burton, even J.R.R. Tolkien would have been impressed with the bizarre, surreal and creative landscape around Dallol. Closely followed by scores of rock bands who would be sensing déjà vu in its psychedelic colours and shapes. At -125m below sea level, it’s the second-lowest point on the continent (lake Assal in Djibouti -155m takes the trophy) and sixth on earth. High sulphur spewing chimneys, shallow translucent green pools, rust-red desert, clusters of belching air-vents, steam, putrid odours, and every colour of the rainbow banded around like India’s Holi festival. From the heavens, it must look like a splendid jewel. Not so far away is the bright green ring of Lake Afera, whose salt-crusted shores have been mined for centuries by the Afar.
7 The Source of the Blue Nile
Africa’s longest river resembles a doctors stethoscope as the two leads, the White Nile and the Blue Nile eventually merge at Khartoum’s confluence to lose all colour and become just the Nile. Emptying through Egypt’s Nile delta into the Mediterranean. Uganda’s Lake Victoria provides the embryonic stages of the White Nile while Lake Tana in Ethiopia’s north is the source of the Blue Nile.
Scottish explorer James Bruce became obsessed with finding the true source of the Nile, leaving his consular position in Algeria in the late 1760s. Over a decade passed before he happily pinpointed the source at Lake Tana. Quietly wise that Pero Pais, a Spanish Jesuit had declared the same location a 150 years before.
Water from Lake Tana’s southern boundary plummets over an epic curtain of rock as the Blue Nile Falls. Full of pounding energy during the rainy season as it departs Tana in a mighty step down to become a river. Flowing in a big southeastern arc before crossing at Bumbardi for Sudan.
8 The Castles of Gondar
Gondar became the first fixed capital since Lalibela, founded in 1636 by Emperor Fasiladas. The city stood defiant for over a century which was a considerable achievement in light of the Muslim-Christian wars and tribal conflict from the migrating Oromo that had preceded it. Before its decline in the late 18th century, the royal court had progressed from a temporary camp (favoured by past kings) into a reinforced complex of Fasil Ghebbi. A concentration of twenty palaces, royal buildings, ornate churches and monasteries including the castles of Emperor Fasilidas and Iyasu, the library of Tzadich Yohannes and the palace of Mentaub, all shielded behind a 900m long wall, accessed by a dozen entrances and three bridges. Not far away, just northwest of the Qaha river is the pavilion styled bathing complex of Emperor Fasilidas, fed by a canal from the nearby river. The site was approached via a stone bridge, part of which could be raised for defence.
Though Gondar eventually lost its throne, it still retained crucial importance as a commercial and transport centre for Ethiopia. Today, some of those buildings maintain a spiritual function for the beliefs of local people.
9 Bale National Park
A chain of mountains strung along the vast Sanetti plateau, comprising half a dozen volcanic cones and dozens of rivers that feed into a further five. The landscape is wide and open, dotted with glassy blue lakes, waterfalls and hora springs.
Of all the national parks, Bale is synonymous with wildlife. Home to the endangered Ethiopian wolf and African golden wolf, mountain nyala, bushbuck, duiker, klipspringer, spotted hyaena and the Bale mountains vervet. Plantlife is just as impressive with surveys recording over 1300 species, 163 being Ethiopian and 23 of those found solely in Bale. Ethiopia stands well documented for its magnetism to birdlife, 9.5% of the worlds bird diversity (39% of Africa) has been recorded, backed up by the African Bird Club who rate Bale as the fourth-best site in Africa. Endemic species include the blue-winged goose, spot breasted lapwing and the wonderfully confused Abyssinian catbird.
Little was known about the Bale Mountains despite a telegraph line linking nearby Goba to the capital. A few Europeans had passed through, noting down various animals, the Vicomte du Bourg observed elephants whilst Smels had seen the locals driving their cattle to the Sanetti plateau for dry-season grazing. Honey gatherers were often present in the Havenna forest.
During the mid-1960s, Dr Leslie Brown, a British naturalist, recommended the area be protected by natural park status, finalised four years later in 1969.
10 The Derg
With the Italians gone and the emperor re-instated from exile during WWII, discontent began to manifest from the government’s autocratic role and the emperor’s increasing clench on power. Student demonstrations erupted against corruption, famine and progress which was realistically stagnant. By the early seventies, the Derg, a military group meaning Committee had evolved. Undermining government authority and inciting workers strikes. New policies came too late, and on the 12th September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, bringing to an end the old imperial order.
Colonel Mengistu took control of The Derg, supported by communist ideology, Ethiopia was declared a socialist state later the same year. Land and businesses were nationalised and peasantry status raised. Soviet Union support quickly came when Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1977, donating heavy artillery and advanced weaponry. Internal differences within the Derg were quickly suppressed by the Red Terror campaign to extract political opponents. Varied estimates suggest a hundred thousand perished.
In response to the Derg’s violent measures, several resistance parties took shape, supported by the Afar, Oromo, Somali and Tigrayan tribes. When famine and drought decimated much of the Tigrayan region in 1984, Colonel Mengistu ignored the unfolding catastrophe. Their plight exasperated by ineffective projects and by a conceited desire not to have media attention distracted from upcoming Socialist celebrations. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) gradually merged with other fighters to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, making a concerted push on the capital. With the EPRDF on one side and Eritrea upping the pressure through the EPLF on the other, Mengistu was soon cornered. Internal squabbling called into doubt his leadership capabilities, the Soviets had withdrawn, and Ethiopia lay financially bankrupt. Mengistu fled the country in May 1991 to seek asylum in Zimbabwe.
The Martyrs’ Memorial monument in the university town of Mekele poignantly honours the fallen and goes some way to explaining the massive sacrifice that war demands. The adjacent museum tells the story of the TPLF and how the Derg came to force.
Note: Visits to Ethiopia currently involve a week’s self-isolation in Addis before onward travel. FCO travel advice has yet to change from its Yellow warning against –All but essential travel. Travel insurance will not cover you and the UK government have imposed a 14-day term of self-isolation for when you return.
Visas, required before arrival can be obtained by e-visa from www.evisa.gov.et The Embassy of Ethiopia in London, is only dealing with clients by pre-arranged appointments. www.ethioembassy.org.uk Tel: 020 7589 7212. Mon-Fri. 10:00 – 16:00. A Single Entry 30-day visa costs $52 and a Single Entry 90-day visa is $72. The application doesn’t require a Yellow Fever Certificate.
For additional information, try these websites:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20160614-the-people-and-creatures-living-in-earths-hottest-place for the Danakil Depression.
https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/18/ for Lalibela churches.
https://www.ancient.eu/Kingdom_of_Axum/ The Aksumite Kingdom.