A Town like Addis, Xmas Without Xmas & Other Ethiopian Adventures, Part 2

The Polemicist

by Michael House.

“Etiope . . . hathe a riche contrey. In it be many trees aromatikes and many mynes of fyne gold, and the people of this contrey be so riche that ther be many marchantes housys covered with golde as we do here cover our houses with leade, and that thei have ther dores and wyndowes and marmoldes (pillars) covered with gold.”

Roger Barlow, “A Brief Summe of Geographie,” 1540

Michael HouseKINGS SUTTON England—(Weekly Hubris)—1/30/12—We left our hero enjoying the spectacular scenery and wildlife in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. On the way back to Simien Lodge, we were politely waylaid by a clever shopping opportunity. A group of local children had laid out for sale various items of basket-work, horn cups and jewelry. These kids clearly understood how the Western mind works. They sat apart from their wares, making no attempt to sell anything, so we had to ask how much things were. This lack of hassle made us far more likely to examine the stuff closely and make purchases, so several sales were made.

The Lodge, which claims to be the highest hotel in Africa (10,700 feet—may well be true) provides tukals, the traditional round, thatched-roofed native huts, but with modern refinements. After an excellent evening meal, we switched on our flashlights and headed out to look for our huts, among those dotted about the compound. There was no moon, only myriad stars, so the flashlights were essential—no light pollution here.

Day 4, 21st December. Another glorious, sunny day, but extremely cold in the early morning. We had a long drive ahead of us to Axum, for hundreds of years the capital, supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant and the center of an ancient civilization waiting to be uncovered.

People who know say the drive from the National Park to Axum is one of the most dramatic in Africa. The roads are rudimentary, and 280 kilometres took 12 hours, but no one minded. Among the delays was the dynamiting of rocks for a new stretch of road, a landslide being cleared and many diversions into stony dust-bowls because the rains had washed away sections of road. Add to that the flocks of animals that felt it was their country and they would walk where they liked, and it was slow going.

An Ethiopian vista.

An Ethiopian vista.

All the more opportunity to enjoy the glorious vistas. Combine the buttes and mesas of Arizona and New Mexico with the foothills of the Himalaya, throw in a few Grand Canyons, mix with the Meteora of northern Greece, and you have the Highlands of Ethiopia. Symmetry is completely absent. The fingers of rock, the cones, the great plugs of granite, are scattered randomly around the plunging and soaring cliffs. My poor vocabulary cannot do the landscape justice.

We stopped at a tea-house in the middle of nowhere for the coffee ceremony. Ethiopia is the home of coffee. When ripe, the fruit of the coffee bush is a deep red. Within it is a green coffee bean. A shallow metal bowl is heated until red-hot, then the coffee-beans are roasted. The priestess presiding then goes around the congregation, wafting the fumes over us to demonstrate the quality of the coffee. The beans are then put into a pestle and ground by hand. The coffee is brewed and, once you have tasted it, you will never again waste your money at Starbucks. It is superb. As the Greeks say, coffee should be drunk black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love. And here, it is.

We arrived at Axum at 6.30 and climbed the hill to the Yeha Hotel, wonderfully situated on a wooded hilltop above the town. We sat on the terrace sipping gins and tonics and watched the sun go down. (Yeha is the site of a remarkable temple, at least 2,500 years old, built of huge granite blocks without mortar, with walls 30 feet high, in its way as remarkable as the Parthenon or the mighty walls of Mycenae.)

Day 5, 22nd December. Axum is an enigma. It was the center of a vast empire in north Africa between the 1st and 7th centuries AD, and a major force in world trade with its own port of Adulis. But the site was inhabited at least 500 years earlier, as evidenced by shaft graves found in 1992. The dates are vague because only a tiny proportion of Axum has been excavated, and no substancial results have been published since 1913. Scores of Axumite sites in Tigray Province await exploration. The empire stretched from Yemen to the Sudan. A 3rd-century Persian writer, Manni, bracketed it with China, Rome and Persia as one of the four great kingdoms of the world. My wife, who is an archaeologist, says Axum feels like Mycenae and Troy before Schliemann, or Knossos before Evans.

The stelae field at Axum.

The stelae field at Axum.

The stelae field at Axum are like nowhere I have ever seen. We were shown around by a local enthusiast who had been part of the recent German excavations on what is essentially virgin ground. The solid granite monoliths, single slabs of carved rock are, in some cases, taller than the obelisks of Egypt. The tallest, which may have collapsed during erection, is 109 feet high and weighs 500 tons. There are 75 of various shapes and sizes in the main field. The tallest standing stele is a 78-foot, solid block of granite, which was transported 4 kilometres from the quarry, presumably by elephants. It is engraved with a door and nine windows, vertically, supposed to represent the nine palaces built by King Ezana, the first Christian king of Axun, to whom it is attributed. How it was raised to the vertical remains one of the mysteries of archaeology.

Apart from the stelae, the enclosure contains the vault tombs of many kings of Axum, with very fine precision masonry, huge blocks of granite without mortar. (Sorry, this is beginning to read like a guide-book.)

One last “site.” In the Chapel of St. Mary of Tsion, near the modern cathedral, is supposed to live the Ark of the Covenant. The guardian lives in the chapel and never leaves. He is the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies to see the Ark. The priest selected as guardian holds the office until he dies. In the 60s, a priest appointed guardian refused to serve, fled from Axum into the hills and was brought back in chains to fulfill his gloomy destiny. Women are not allowed in the chapel.

The site museum is excellent. Displayed are the crowns and vestments of successive emperors, as well as ancient bibles exquisitely hand-illustrated in colours that have lost none of their brilliancy.

A priest shows a painting from an ancient Bible.

A priest shows a painting from an ancient Bible.

Day 6, 23rd December. A transit day, driving from Axum to the Gheralta Lodge in the remote northeast corner of Tigray Province. En route, we visited the Yeha Temple (see above) and one of the celebrated rock-cut churches of Tigray. These are hewn from the solid sandstone or built into caves on inaccessible cliff-faces. They have been described as “the greatest of the historical-cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people.” They were unknown to the outside world until very recently, when a serious attempt was made to locate and catalogue them. Fewer than ten were listed in 1963 but, ten years later, the number had shot up to 153. They are difficult to get to, difficult to get into (travelers in Greece will be familiar with “the key problem” when visiting Byzantine churches), and the priests can be rapacious and reluctant to allow ferengi* to enter. But they are worth the effort. The frescoes are almost univerally ancient and stunning. The locations are magnificently mysterious—one is visited by being hauled up a sheer cliff in a basket.

There were no problems at the church we visited—the priest not only welcomed us, but posed in the doorway in his ceremonial robes and with his processional cross. Many birr (the Ethiopian currency) must have changed hands.

The main road was paved, so the going was much easier than on previous drives. En route, we encountered the salt caravans of the Danikil Depression. First a mule train, each mule carrying two large slabs of salt, to be sold in the towns in Western Ethiopia. Then, a train of camels appeared with their slow, swaying gait and their look of superiority (because they alone know the hundredth name of God). We stop to take photos, and children appear as if sprung from the earth. They ask for pens, cash, and plastic bottles. One of our group conducts an informal English lesson on parts of the body.

We stop for a picnic lunch on a ridge far above a deep river valley. Sandwiches, bananas, wine and our guide’s mother’s home-made pannetone—his mother is Italian; his father Ethiopian. Someone produces a premature Christmas cake (carried from England!).

My day off.

My day off.

Day 7, 24th December. A lazy day at the wonderful Gheralta Lodge, reading, sunbathing, watching wildlife and strolling about. The lodge stands on its own in a few acres of alpine meadow at around 7,000 feet, overlooking a valley thousands of feet below and fringed with dramatic, jagged peaks. It is largely self-sufficient, with its own vegetable gardens, and our dinner wandering around, enjoying its last day on earth. It has an excellent library of hard-to-find books about Ethiopia. A perfect place to relax after six hectic days.

In the evening, we were treated to an exuberant display of local dance by a troupe of six men and two women, enormously energetic. Also a solo recital on the masinko, a sort of one-string lyra, basically a wooden box with a stick attached to it, which sounds like a soul in torment.

Day 8, 25th  December. Warm sunny Christmas day, the first we’ve had since Sri Lanka, 2004, when the tsunami almost got us. A long drive south through stunning countryside to Lalibela, unsurprisingly the country’s number one tourist destination, for reasons that will be explained in Episode Three.

* Ferengi and similar terms are Arabic names for European traders, or for Westerners in general. The name is likely derived from the Arabic word faranj or ifranj, or Persian farangi, meaning “Franks.” In Ethiopia, ferenj or ferenji has the same meaning, as does farang in Thai. The source of the name is likely from the Byzantine Greeks who were the Westerners’ neighbors; this usage spread to the Near East, Asia, Africa and even China. Greeks still sometimes use fra[n]gkoi (φράγκοι) as an exonym for Western Europeans, and the Modern Greek term ferengios (φερέγγυος, ο φέρων- εγγύηση, ο δυνάμενος να εγγυηθεί) literally translates as “the able to [“bear” (=carry)] guarantee (himself),” the trust-worthy, and not only in a financial way. The term was used as a partially derogatory term in India to denote the British. (Source: Wikipedia)

(To be continued.)


About Michael House

Michael House was born, of rural, peasant stock, in Somerset, England. He read law at Exeter College, Oxford and was elected President of the Oxford Union. In 1974, along with five colleagues, House started up a set of barristers' chambers in three little rooms in Lincoln's Inn, London, specializing in human rights and in representing the poor and dispossessed. The set now comprises 170 members and occupies a 17th-century building that was home to the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated (Spencer Perceval, 1812). In 1987, depressed by Mrs. Thatcher's third election victory, House fled to Greece for three years, where he was published in The Athenian and The Southeastern Review. He also there met his archaeologist wife, Diane. The pair returned to England in 1990 after a half-year, round-the-world trip, and settled in London and Northamptonshire. Since then, by way of escape from humdrum criminality, House has traveled in Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Ladakh, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, Syria, Jordon, Libya, Mongolia, Kashmir, and Sri Lanka, where only the stout walls of Galle Fort saved him and his spouse from being swept away by the tsunami. House returns to Greece, his second home, almost every year. He has written for, inter alia, History Today, the Universities Quarterly, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Rough Guide to Greece and www.greecetraveler.com. House practices criminal defense law from Garden Court Chambers, Lincoln's Inn Fields, in London, and hopes that if he keeps on practicing, he may eventually get the hang of it. His yet unachieved ambitions are: to farm alpacas; see Tibet liberated from the Chinese jackboot; and live to see Britain a socialist republic.
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