Until recently, all I knew about Ethiopia is that it is a poor country in the Horn of Africa that was once ruled by the emperor Haile Selassie. So when I signed up for a nine-day tour of the country’s historical region offered by the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT), I thought I should do some research of my own.
Among the first things I read was Alan Moorhead’s The Blue Nile, a book that reads like a series of adventure stories. Ever since the 18th century and probably long before, intrepid explorers have set out to discover the source of the Nile, the Earth’s longest river. What I learned is that there are two Niles, the Blue and the White, that come together at Khartoum to form the greater Nile whose annual flood stage has watered the Egyptian desert throughout history.
It is the Blue Nile, rising in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, that provides more than half of the Nile’s water. During our short visit I had a chance to cross this lake by boat and to visit the impressive Blue Nile Falls, which, next to those of Niagara, are the tallest I’ve ever seen. I also encountered the river further downstream at the Blue Nile Gorge, and I can report that it is not blue at all but rather a muddy brown.
It is near Hadar in Ethiopia’s northeast that archeologists found the remains of Lucy, a humanoid who lived 3.2 million years ago. Lucy — so named because when she was found in 1974, the archeologists were listening to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds — walked upright and bares a striking resemblance to contemporary human anatomy except for her short stature.
In area, Ethiopia is twice the size of Texas, and its capital Addis Ababa (New Flower) is the fourth largest city in Africa. Our brief encounter with its noise and traffic congestion was an experience sharply at odds with the rest of our tour through the Ethiopian countryside.
It is in that countryside that we witnessed Ethiopia’s distinctive pastoral life. In a country of 85 million people, more than 80% survive by agriculture and animal breeding. Everyone, it seems, is involved with survival. Old women creep along the roadsides laden with Eucalyptus bundles larger than themselves. Ten-year-olds pass with yellow plastic water containers strapped to their backs. Even the youngest — four, five, and six year-olds — are out in the pastures watching flocks of goats and herds of cattle.
No matter how remote-seeming the location, when our bus stopped for picture taking, three or four very young children dressed in rags would suddenly materialize at our sides, their smiling faces tilted up at us, hopeful for a handout. It was uncanny.
In the towns and villages we passed through, nearly everyone was walking, either barefoot or in cheap plastic sandals. We saw few cars and trucks and almost never any of the motorbikes so ubiquitous in other third-world countries. In this agricultural society I never saw a tractor; men turn the earth as they always have with hand plows and oxen. Everyone in the countryside is stick-thin; the only people with well-fed bodies, besides our own, were in the city.
Leaving Addis, our tour took us to some key historical sites in what are called the Highlands, a vast central plateau averaging 2,000 meters above sea level. Our days there in the month of November were comfortably warm and sunny with no humidity. This is the homeland of the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group and the one that has dominated the country’s politics and society for hundreds of years. Amharic is Ethiopia’s official language.
To digress a moment: in most countries I’ve visited, the past (and sometimes the present) is most strongly evoked in religious architecture and artifact. In the cases of the Ancient World’s temples and England’s shuttered abbeys, these monuments are in a ruined state. Whereas in other cases — the medieval cathedrals of Europe, for instance, and the imperial mosques of Turkey —centuries-old structures are alive and in daily use. Such is the case in Ethiopia. In our tour of Amharaland, its ancient churches were a salient feature.
The most stunning of these religious buildings are the deservedly famous 12th- and 13th-century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. There are eleven of them sited close together. In Turkey, ancient rock-hewn churches are commonplace, but those in Lalibela are different. For one thing, they are larger — as much as three storeys tall in a couple of cases. Also, they were carved from the top down into solid rock, and most are entirely freed from it, meaning that it’s possible to walk entirely around them at base level.
Their exteriors are smoothly dressed with elegantly carved and restrained architectural elements. Small windows symbolizing the Trinity, Christ’s Crucifixion, etc. pierce some walls. To ponder what it took in terms of skill and labor to construct these monuments using the technology of the day is to stand in awe of the accomplishment. Would any comparable effort be possible in our time?
Churches and Church art in Ethiopia have a didactic function. In a country where a large percentage of the population is still illiterate, pictures are a means of instruction. Representations of the Madonna and Child abound. The yellow of Christ child’s garment symbolizes hope, while the red of the Mary’s robe is the color of blood. Gruesome portrayals of martyrdoms are especially graphic.
No one knows exactly when and how Christianity first came to Ethiopia. It is said that this country was the world’s second (after Armenia) to make Christianity its state religion. What we inferred from our visit is that religion and the Orthodox Church have provided cohesion and continuity throughout many turbulent centuries.
Does Ethiopia’s particular brand of Orthodoxy have its roots in Judaism? One of the most intriguing of all local legends concerns the 10th-century BCE journey to Jerusalem of the beautiful, cloven-footed Queen of Sheba where she knew (in the Biblical sense) King Solomon, resulting in the birth of a child who would become Menelik I the founder of the royal line from which every subsequent Ethiopian emperor claimed descent.
The story goes on to tell that when Menelik was grown, he went to Jerusalem to meet his father and returned to Ethiopia bearing the famous Ark of the Covenant. According to our excellent Ethiopian guides, the Ark still resides in a secret place in the north of the country guarded by a single man whose life’s work it is to do so. Furthermore, each church we visited had a curtained-off area containing a replica of the Ark. There was no way to verify this claim, as these “Holy of Holies” are accessible only to priests.
That religion plays a considerable role in Amharic society was evident in its numerous monasteries and in the random sightings of priests in action throughout the week of our tour. On one occasion we spotted a marriage procession containing at least a dozen priests identifiable by their white cotton shawls and their prayers sticks. The latter are fitted with a t-shaped metal top that can fit in a man’s armpit and provide support during long stretches of the liturgy.
On the subject of sticks, it’s worth noting that most Ethiopian men in the countryside carry them. Our guide explained that in the country, men are allowed to carry guns, but if they can’t afford a gun, they should carry a stick. It is a man’s duty to protect his woman and family.
Of course, a man’s stick has other uses as well. On one occasion our group had to ford a swiftly moving stream that was part of the Blue Nile. To do so we removed our shoes and socks, rolled up our pant legs and crossed on a series of slippery, underwater stones. At the ford were a group of young men, there to help us across – for a price, of course. At first two of them grabbed me and were going to carry me bodily until I signaled my preference to walk. One of them then lent me his shoulder and gave me his stick to support my opposite side. We reached the far bank without mishap where I offered him his fee. He pocketed the money and then said there would be an extra charge for the use of his stick. I could have been in New York City.
This tour, put together by the folks at ARIT, was not for the faint of heart. For one thing the compressed schedule didn’t allow us much sleep for the first couple of days. Then came the mule ride. This was a planned excursion from the town of Lalibela up the side of a mountain to a monastery at the top.
After breakfast we were driven to a point where about fifty mules and their handlers awaited us. An authority figure in the role of dispatcher paired me up with my mule and its handler. With cries of “Mut! Mut!” we began a climb that lasted nearly two hours. At times I dismounted and went on foot. I still can’t say which was easier. The going on foot was steep while clinging to the back of a plunging beast took energy and focus as well. At those moments when I could think straight, I marveled at my mule’s surefootedness. Over passages of closely spaced, softball-sized rocks that would have been a challenge for me on two feet, my mule’s four hooves never slipped. Nor did they make a wrong move at those times when we negotiated a narrow path only inches from a precipice.
All through the morning, up and down, my skinny muleskinner watched over the mule and me. I learned later that the job of handling and caring for mules is a course of study in the local vocational school. At the end of the morning, when I handed this young man a hundred-birr note (about $6.00) as a tip, he was visibly pleased. Pointing to the broken plastic sandal on his left foot, he gave me to understand that he would use the money to buy a new pair.
I can’t end the account of this adventure without mentioning one of its most satisfying pleasures. The landscapes of the Ethiopian Highlands are spectacular. The terrain is rarely flat; instead it is rolling with significant mountains breaking the horizon. There are fields of golden wheat and tef, the endemic grain used to make injera, Ethiopia’s sour, spongy, bread-like staple. In places, fields and pastures are dotted with dark green trees and shrubs. Occasionally, there are stunning rock formations and prospects down across terraced hillsides to valleys far below. Driving through a lot of countryside, I never tired of what I saw through the bus window. Ethiopia has been a very pleasant surprise.