Home :: NORTHERN ETHIOPIA OVERLAND: A trip through history

NORTHERN ETHIOPIA OVERLAND: A trip through history


by Diana McLeod

DAY ONE: ADDIS ABABA TO BAHIR DAR Our driver Sisay (pronounced see-sigh) picked us up the next morning at our hotel. We had been introduced the day before. At first, he seemed shy and taciturn. It took a few minutes to warm him up and get him talking. But once he relaxed with us, it soon became clear that we were going to become good friends. Sisay means "“lucky"” in The Ethiopian language, and apparently he was lucky. He was newly married after years of bachelorhood, and he proudly showed us pictures of his wife. Wow! If the photo didn'’t lie, and if she had been taller, she could have made a fine living as a runway model in Europe.

The road north to Bahir Dar gave us our first glimpses of Ethiopian scenery. The rolling highlands were dotted with little villages and farms. The first thing that struck me was the extreme tidiness of the little subsistence farms. Every little shack and hut was so neat and clean! Dirt yards were freshly swept. Fences and yards were maintained with pride. Every hut owner obviously did their very best with the little that they had to keep their property as nicely as possible. There was no garbage or mess anywhere. Even by the side of the main road, there was no trash of any kind. I'’ve never seen a country with such tidiness –- not even Bhutan. An Ethiopian farmwife would be appalled by my poorly groomed yard at home! Of course, the lack of garbage is easily explained, to some extent. When you live in a thatched hut, even a torn, tossed aside plastic bag can be a treasure during the rainy season. It can easily be used to stop leaks.

We commented on the fact that there were many groves of eucalyptus trees, which helped to green up the countryside, but Sisay shook his head and told us that they were a bad thing. Somebody had introduced them to Ethiopia, and now they were everywhere. Late in the experiment, the Ethiopian people realized that they consume much more water than the indigenous trees. They were adding to water problems around the country.

As we approached one town, there were hundreds of people walking alongside the road. Many of them were driving livestock. Apparently it was market day in the larger town, and many folk were walking to it. People had walked for miles, leaving home well before dawn. They carried no water, despite the dry heat and the dust. Most of them had probably never ridden inside a vehicle in their lives.

When we stopped the car for a photo, and the inevitable kids swarmed the car, we often gave them our empty water bottles – treasures which they eagerly took home to Mama. The empty bottles would either be sold in the market, or used to store water, oil, local beer or araki (the local liquor). A tossed aside water bottle wouldn'’t last a second in this country.

Along the road, we saw an almost Biblical sight: the threshing of the wheat crop using cattle. The farmer’s cattle are driven around in circles, crushing the grain with their hooves, while the farmer tosses the chaff into the air. It’s a primitive technique that’s been done in exactly the same way for centuries – ever since the domestication of cattle. It was almost hypnotic to watch.

Different towns sold specialized products by the side of the road. We passed one town selling arraki (their liquor). Another town had bamboo mats for sale. Another town had baskets, and another grew chat (an addictive plant with properties similar to cocaine) (more on chat later).

We started to climb up into the highlands. I could feel the altitude tugging on my lungs, and I began to use yogic breathing when it bothered me. Strange rock chimneys stuck straight up out of the sedimentary rock; evidence of ancient volcanic upwellings of lava. Ethiopia is on the edge of the African rift, where the tectonic plates are thin and spreading. We yearned to go to the volcanic region in Ethiopia, to see the world’s only continuously active volcanic lava lake, but the Danakil Depression was just too hot at this time of year (over 120 degrees in the daytime). I would never have made the arduous climb up to the crater….

At one point, we came to a sudden overlook that reminded me instantly of the Grand Canyon. This was the famous Blue Nile Gorge. It extends nearly four hundred kilometers, with depths of up to fifteen hundred meters. We drove down one rugged escarpment, with lots of hairpin turns, and back up the other side. The canyonlands looked just like those like the U.S., but the baboons scampering over the rocks were purely African. Terraced villages with traditional round huts huddled close to the available water.

On the way back up, the road ended in a gigantic construction project. For the next few hours, the road was rough dirt. Construction vehicles were everywhere. At one point, we encountered a giant steamshovel that had fallen over sideways. We were really lucky it didn''’t entirely block the road! That construction accident could have ruined our whole trip. We would have had to turn back! We were on the only real road that passed through the mountains! In Ethiopia, there is usually no such thing as an alternate route.

That evening, we went to the lake town of Bahir Dar. This is a rapidly developing tourist destination, not only for foreign tourists, but also for well-to-do Ethiopians from the capitol. People come for boat trips on the lake, and to dine at fancy restaurants down near the water. It'’s a local honeymoon spot. We booked into a nice hotel and then strolled back to the lakeside to order some dinner. At dinner we were befriended (accosted) by the first of many young “students’ desperately seeking contributions for his “education.” The story is usually a similar one. The kid doesn'’t want to be stuck all his life as a subsistence farmer, so he tries to get into the University. Mom and Dad are angry that he has left home, and eventually refuse to help him. (More likely, he has already blown all their meager resources, and now he is struggling to pay for life in the city.) At the end of the spiel, we got hit up for a new computer!

Our young friend wasn'’t shy about asking for money! But it is just as likely that his whole “student” rap was entirely a scam. (And why, if he was broke, was he drinking expensive beer in a fancy restaurant anyway?) We didn'’t succumb to the sad story.

Speaking of beer, we discovered, to our delight, that Ethiopia has quite an excellent beer. Saint George beer holds a credible place on the world stage of beers. It also has a great label, depicting St George slaying the dragon. It turns out that the Orthodox Christians have quite a thing for old St George. Many of the most famous churches in the country are dedicated to him. The dinner, on the other hand, was less than perfect. We ordered lamb "Tibes,"(which was plain stewed meat) (probably old goat, not lamb), and rice with vegetables (which meant rice with boiled cabbage and French Fries. We were worried:– were we going to have to eat meat, bread and french fries for the whole trip? At least this meat was cooked….


The Summerland hotel provided a decent breakfast, plus the BBC and WIFI (the holy grail of travelers). We hopped in the car for a sightseeing trip. Our first stop was a scenic one:– the city dump. Say WHAT??? But Sisay was right to stop there, because the nearby trees were impressively thick with flocks of large African vultures, nicely posed for their photo op. Maribou storks also patrolled the nearby fields.

Next, we went to the Blue Nile Falls. The rough dirt road took us to the park by the falls, where we picked up a local guide. The Ethiopian government, in an effort to provide as much tourist employment as possible, has decreed that tourists must hire a local guide from the guide association to visit any cultural or natural place of interest. (In a way, this is not a bad thing, because the official guides have the authority to chase away hundreds of would-be “unofficial” ones). Sisay had a huge folder full of money locked in his glove compartment which he used to pay all the park fees and the guide fees. When I saw how much money he had to spend just for this one waterfall, I began to understand why the tour package was so costly.

Our local guide led us along a trail up the hillsides near the falls. It was quite a lovely waterfall, although, ever since they built the dam upriver, the water levels are much reduced in the dry season. We enjoyed the stroll, chomping on sugar cane, and listening to exotic birds squabbling in the trees. It was very pleasant, until we got to the end. Dave reached into his pocket for a tip for the guide, and the guide saw that Dave didn'’t have any 100 Bir notes. (The Bir is the local currency) He sneered, "“Even if you gave me everything in your pocket I wouldn’'t take it, because it wouldn'’t be good enough.”" We were quite shocked. We were going to give him about two or three dollars for less than an hour’ of his time walking with us. (Which he had already been well paid for). Since he rudely turned it down, we gave him nothing, and our relationship immediately turned to ice. Our driver, Sisay, was also shocked by his rudeness, when we told him what had happened. He did tell us that the guides usually expect tips of between 50 to 100 Bir most of the time. Fifty if it was a short trip, and one hundred for several hours. In fact, the tip we were offering, while on the low side, should have been acceptable. ( One hundred Bir is five bucks, in a country with an average yearly income of $400 per family.) These guide jobs must be seriously coveted! No wonder everyone was trying to practice their English with us! He’'d already gotten much more than that from our driver.

We went back to town, and Sisay offered to take us back to our hotel for a Western lunch, but we wanted to explore the local food. He stopped at a charming outdoor cafe and we decided to share a double portion of traditional Ethiopian fasting food with him. Sisay is an Orthodox Christian, and he takes his faith very seriously. We were in Ethiopia just in time for the beginning of Lent, and all Orthodox Christians were required to restrict their diets to fasting food and fish, until the Easter holiday. Luckily for us!! Fasting food was pure vegetarian, so if we ordered it, we could pick up a modicum of vegetables in our diet. They prepared it on round tin dishes the size of a large pizza platter. A giant slab of Enjera was placed over the entire bottom of the pan, and curled up at the edges. Enjera is the staple diet of most of Ethiopia. It'’s a spongy thin brown sourdough bread that you break off and use to sop up the rest of the food with. It was a challenge for me to eat with my right hand only (the left is considered unclean). A number of servings of cooked vegetables and grains were dolloped in a circle around a central serving of “chipoltle” flavored shiro (chickpea paste with spices) in the center. There were lentils, squash, eggplant, cooked spinach - and raw salad, which we unfortunately could not eat (food safety issues). After straight meat and potatoes and bread for two days, we decided that we would order fasting food at least once a day. And the Enjera bread is supposedly loaded with iron and calcium. The three of us had a very pleasant and tasty lunch.

After lunch, Sisay took us to the boat launch for the trip across Lake Tana. We met another local guide. We got into a small powerboat with the guide and the boat operator and we motored across part of the lake, disturbing a few large pelicans who were cruising around some papyrus plants. Lake Tana is very large; big enough that we couldn'’t see all the way to the end. The trip took almost an hour. We passed several island monasteries, but, since they didn’'t allow women visitors, we bypassed them. Instead, we stopped at a large peninsula. The forested shores had gentle trails leading up to two classic old style Ethiopian Othodox Christian monasteries - Azuwa Maryam and Ura Kidane Mehret. These Thirteenth Century monasteries have churches that are built like giant huts. They are circular, with thatched roofs, but they are large enough to hold an entire congregation. Above the peak of the roof stood ornate Ethiopian crosses – and the top and the sides of these crosses were tipped with seven white ostrich eggs. They use seven eggs which represent the seven Sacraments. Ostrich eggs are incredibly durable, so they also represent the strength and the longetivity of the Church.

Inside, many of the walls were covered in artwork of various ages. The Bible stories were told to generations of illiterate people in a series of simple paintings. Most were easy to recognize: Mary and the Angel, Mary with the baby Jesus, lots of pictures of Jesus suffering, the crucifixion, the martyrdom of the Apostles, the Last Judgment. On a side panel, pictures of the stories from the life of Christ, (with an Ethiopian Wise Man bringing Frankincense to his birth). The paintings used simple techniques to explain themselves - the “good” Christian saints were shown with two eyes, and the “bad” people were depicted in simple profile. There was even a picture condemning cannibalism as a mortal sin. Some were surrounded by blue and white decorations, which, our guide explained, were inspired by sixteenth century Chinese pottery designs. Lastly, he pointed out the angels painted around each of the doorways, explaining that they were "looking out in all directions -just like security cameras."”

As we approached the first church, we saw that there was a service going on. Inside the building, there was a circular outer room, and the inner walls of this room were covered with religious paintings. Frail old priests in brocaded robes were chanting, singing and reading from ancient texts. The white-garbed congregation was standing and listening, and occasionally responding with softly spoken prayers. Most of the people were leaning on long canes. The service felt freshly innocent to me; very unspoilt in a way, although there was far too much emphasis on death and martyrdom in the religion for my taste.

The central part of the church had one area that was curtained off, out of public view. Thomas explained that this area was known as the "Holy of holies,"” with access only for priests. He said that each Ethiopian church holds a copy of the Ark of the Covenant. Supposedly the real Ark of the Covenant is kept in a special shrine at the main cathedral in Axum, Ethiopia, where it is guarded day and night by one dedicated priest. (I have also heard another story- that, when the Ark first came to Ethiopia, the priests had thousands of copies made and distributed around to thousands of churches. Nobody truly knows where the original is hidden, except for the one priest who guards the true Ark.) To me, this sounds like the making of yet another Indiana Jones movie. On the other hand, it also gives each and every Ethiopian church a sense of truly sacred legitimacy. Could this one be “the one?” There were many ancient stone churches in Ethiopia which evoked a tingle of sacred presence behind the velvet curtains. My imagination went on fantasy Ark quests.

Afterward, they showed us their religious “museum” which contained vellum hand-calligraphied illuminated bibles allegedly dating back to the fifteenth century. It was hard for me to see these fragile treasures propped up on their moldering spines in a thatched hut. Supposedly, a new building was being built to house them in the future. The “museum” also housed beautiful Ethiopian crosses, and several antique crowns, donated to the monastery by visiting Ethiopian monarchs.

I enjoyed the jungle walk between the monasteries. Hornbills flew from tree to tree, and monkeys watched us from the branches. The greenery of the jungle was a refreshing change for us after days spent in urban environments.

On the boat ride back, we somehow got into a spiritual discussion with our guide. He was a practicing Orthodox Christian, but he was also a very well read young man with an exceptional intellect, and he was obviously troubled by the contradictions between modern science and the bible. As we talked, he confessed a deeply personal story to us. He had read something that was in direct contradiction to the teachings of his church, and it had troubled him as much as it had fascinated him. He was talking about Dan Brown'’s novel “The Da Vinci Code.” The idea that Christ might have been married and might have fathered a child was deeply disturbing to him, but he simply couldn'’t put it down. He felt so guilty that he turned all of the lights off in his room, so that the eyes of Jesus couldn'’t stare at him from the picture on his wall, and then he continued to read the story by flashlight. In the end, he got over some of his compunctions, and he eventually read the book five times. He even went to find an art book with a picture of the “Last Supper” in it, in order to see the alleged symbolism in it. I greatly admired his language skills to have absorbed such a difficult novel in a second language, and I also admired his courage for allowing his mind to explore such uncharted and taboo territory.

We were almost sad to get off the boat! We had just shared a very meaningful discussion of what happens when you approach the world with an open mind. Our driver Sisay was not as willing to step away from spiritual orthodoxy. He listened politely when we talked to him about dinosaurs and distant galaxies, but he remained firmly convinced that the world was only 6,000 years old. Still, Sisay was thoughtful in his own way. When we brought up the fact that each star is a sun, and that the potential of millions of planets exists in our neck of the universe, with the probability of intelligent life somewhere out there, Sisay brought up a good question. He noted that, in the past couple of decades, U.F.O. sightings have all but disappeared from the news. "If they really were here, where did they go?" he wondered. "Were we too boring for them, or what? Today, everybody has a cell phone to photograph them, so you would think that they would surely be caught on film if they were still around. So where did they go? Camera shy?" Good point, Sisay!



On this day, we went to the medieval city of Gonder. It was a pleasant easy drive through the highlands, through miles of open (deforested) rolling farmland.

Our hotel, the Fasil Lodge, was situated right in the shadow of the ancient walled fortress in the center of Gonder. I was so charmed by its comfortable garden atmosphere of the hotel that I almost failed to notice the disaster that had befallen us. We were short a piece of luggage!! And we had already driven a four hour drive from the morning’s hotel! And this was Africa, a land where my used hiking boots and my ratty old tee shirts were valuable items indeed! The chances were good that it had already “disappeared.”

We called Sisay, our driver, and he came right away, cellphone in hand. The hotel indeed had found the luggage! Now, how to get it to Gonder? But Sisay was resourceful. He had a friend who was driving a group of tourists along the same route we had just taken, and they were planning an afternoon departure. In less than five minutes, Sisay had utterly fixed everything. We gave him the title of Jadugar, which, in Hindi, means “magician.”

In the afternoon, we visited the Debre Birhan Selassie Church. Most Ethiopian churches are round, symbolizing the Alpha and the Omega, but this one was rectangular, symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant. It was originally built in 1694, although most of the paintings inside have been re-done since that time. Once again, I appreciated the simplicity of the church, although the artwork always seemed to focus on scenes of death and the torture of Christ. There was even a picture of Mary being forced to drink poison during the Roman Regent’s efforts to murder Hebrew children. Our guide pointed out many Ethiopian saints (all gruesomely martyred) and a picture of Daniel (Abo in Amharic) with the lions. The ceiling of the church was famous - all covered in hand painted angels. The angels all sported Ethiopian features and hair, and their eyes seemed to follow you around, no matter where you stood in the Sanctuary.

Next, we went to an unusual place: a miniature castle built right in the middle of a deep manmade swimming pool. This was apparently built as a recreational area for the royal family in medieval times. Since then, it has been preserved as a monument, and it is still used once a year for the Church ceremony of Epiphany (the baptism of Christ). Huge crowds come to be rebaptized by the Orthodox Priests. The little castle in the center of the lake was enchanting! Too bad we were not allowed in.

Lastly, we went to the castles on the hill. These were once the residences of the kings of Abysinnia. The castles themselves looked great from the outside, but inside, they were lonely, empty places, mostly in ruins, and smelling of bats. What caught our attention more was what was going on outside. Apparently, it was fashionable to photograph wedding parties in front of the castles, because two different wedding parties showed up, horns blaring, in the parking lot. They crowded around the bride and groom, and danced and sang their way onto the castle grounds, accompanied by drums and Ethiopian “violins.” Their music was catchy and fun, and the ladies sometimes ullulated (that shrill trilling sound that is common in East Africa and Arab speaking lands). The wedding parties were all in Western dress, with brightly colored matching bridesmaids'’ dresses and rented tuxedos. Our guide said that about half of the weddings in Ethiopia today wear Western dress, and the other half opt for traditional clothing.

While the bridal parties posed for pictures, the rest of each family danced and sang and got the party started. I got close, in order to watch, and one teenage girl befriended me. She was really sweet and she taught me how to dance in the traditional style. It requires a peculiar movement of the shoulders, very similar to the American inner city dance move called “krumping.” She dragged me into the center of the circle, and I gave it a try. Dave also wound up joining in, which amused the locals, but then one of the ladies started smacking her forehead with her hand. She gave us an impatient look, like we were supposed to know what that meant. When we failed to respond the way she wanted us to, she indignantly shooed us away.

Puzzled, we asked our guide. He said that that’'s one way of asking for money in Ethiopia. What an odd gesture! We never would have guessed! He also told me that the young lady who asked me to dance was, coincidently, his niece. Small town!

That night, we experienced our first Ethiopian Sunday morning. Because it was Lent, the loudspeakers on all the Christian church steeples started prayers at three o'’clock in the morning, and they stayed on for the rest of the night. There were at least ten different churches broadcasting. Each church had its own singer, or singers, and the sound they made was unmusical, rambling and just intermittent enough to drive me crazy. It was as if you took ten drunks, put one inside a separate bar, so they couldn'’t hear the others, and let them amplify their drunken diatribes and slurred remnants of half remembered songs, in a hellish, whiskey-soaked, karaoke marathon “battle of the bands,” all over the town, all night long. I'’m sorry, I know it'’s religiously insensitive of me to say so, but I think all religions should be denied the use of outdoor loudspeakers after nightfall. All together, it just sounded like caterwauling. Especially when one nearby church turned their P.A. system over to a series of small children at four o’clock in the morning. Honestly, if God is everywhere, does he really need to ruin everybody’s night's’ sleep once a week? Does he really need loudspeakers to hear our prayers? Is he deaf? The pictures in the churches depict scene after scene of suffering and torture. Is this the twentieth century version? (Once again, I apologize to those who I may have offended)


and the strangest form of racism we’'ve ever encountered.


Our driver Sisay was right on time in the morning, as usual, and we headed up into the Simien Mountains. The scenery became more and more dramatic, with deep canyons and towering stone monoliths that occasionally put Monument Valley to shame. Our trip took us to the homely little truckstop town of Dubark, where we got a room at the Giant Lobelia hotel. The Lobelia was apparently the only hotel option in town, which wasn'’t saying much. The lobby floor was strewn with cut grass (easier than sweeping it), and the hotel “restaurant” was serving raw meat (an Ethiopian favorite) for lunch. We bought snacks at a local “convenience shack” instead.

In the afternoon, we signed in at the Simien Mountains National Park Office, where we picked up a local guide and a jack-booted camouflage-clad soldier armed with an automatic weapon. (Apparently this was required – Sisay explained that some locals were a bit hostile to tourists. And, technically, the man wasn'’t really a soldier; he was more of a park ranger and peacekeeper). The guide was blandly nice, but the soldier was memorable. He was the strong, silent type: tall and fit, with a marvelously rugged, craggy face, the perfect soldier’'s stance, and deep set dark eyes that missed nothing. He would have made a great extra in a war movie!

The trail began soon after the park entrance. We walked along the jagged edge of a cliff, gazing straight down at least two hundred meters to the valley below. It was a beautiful day. Hawks circled gracefully overhead, and Cliff Springer antelope grazed on the next ridge. Wild quail scattered into the bushes as we approached. The gorge itself was very impressive:– a gigantic amphitheater with a slender waterfall cascading down into a deep abyss. Nearby, we found soft shimmering white crystallized stone that broke easily between our fingers. Could this possibly be non-gem quality Ethiopian Opal? After all, they are finding Ethiopian Opal in this area.… After our hike, Sisay picked us up in the car, and we took the road back.

Before we left the park, we encountered a troupe of Gelada baboons, so we stopped to watch them for a while. They were incredibly blasé about having humans nearby. We crept closer and closer until we were only a few feet away, and they accepted our presence fearlessly. Most of the time, they were so intent on grazing on the sparse vegetation that they didn'’t even bother to watch us, even though we were almost close enough to touch them. Each baboon was scrabbling in the dirt and tearing up plants by the roots. The gentle sounds that they made were hauntingly human, almost as if they were developing the beginnings of language. Their calls seemed to signify contentment as they ate.

Our guide told us a startling bit of information about the baboons. The local people dislike them, because of the damage that they do to their grazing land, and occasionally they throw stones at them and chase them away. White people, on the other hand, just gawk at them and take pictures. The baboons have learned to trust white people more than blacks. Is this a bizarre form of animal racism or simply a culturally learned behavior? Or, do they simply regard us as a different and less dangerous species? Anyway, this was the one time on the whole trip when our guides hung back near the car and left us alone. They knew they would scare the baboons away if they got too close.


DAY 5 – THE ROAD TO AXUM: More lessons in Animal behavior

Sisay warned us. The road to Axum was under construction. Virtually all of the 253 kilometers of it were a choking, dusty, bone-jarring mess. I’'ve never seen so much construction equipment working on one road at one time in my life! The Ethiopian government had obviously hired every local company in the region, and supplemented them with foreign companies. Some of the contractors were Chinese. The mountains presented the workers with a colossal engineering challenge. Most of the time, the road builders had to dig into the sides of dangerously steep, unstable cliffs, creating series after series of jackknife turns. At one point, we encountered a huge pile of gravel and small boulders entirely blocking the road. We had to wait for the bulldozer to dig it out and create a temporary roadway for us before we could continue.

Luckily, we always found plenty to talk about. We were really getting to know our driver Sisay, and the jokes and stories were always flowing back and forth. We amused him with our travel stories (especially the racy ones from Thailand) and he recounted an old Ethiopian folktale about how various types of domestic animals deal with roads and traffic. Here'’s the story: An Ethiopian donkey, a goat and a dog once got on a bus. The donkey paid the full fare. The goat got on, took his ride, and fled without paying at all. The dog didn'’t have the correct change, so he overpaid. He had to leave the bus without getting his change. This is why these animals behave the way that they do. The donkeys have paid the fare, so they act like they own the road. The goats haven'’t paid, so they always run away. And the dogs always chase every car, because they are still looking for their change. After hearing that story, it became a standard joke for us. In restaurants, Dave and I would threaten to behave like the goats and run away without paying.

Domestic animals, people, and potholes were a constant hazard on the roads in Ethiopia. I have never seen any country with so much livestock! Large herds of cattle were constantly being driven right on or across the road, and Sisay had to brake hard to dodge strays. Heavily laden donkeys often trotted right down the middle of the road, just like their famous brother on the bus. (Many of the donkeys are tiny; only waist-high to a human.) Sheep and goats flowed around oncoming traffic, and chickens, dogs, and young children appeared out of nowhere, testing Sisay's’ reflexes and making me thankful for my seatbelt. There were very few horses in the country, but the ones we saw were decorated with red tassels and colorful blankets. The most sensible creatures in the country were the slow-paced camels, who were the only domesticated animals clever enough to stick to the curb.

The second half of the journey took us through some desolate places. The fields were full of sun-blasted dry rocks. I cannot understand how they possibly farm these areas. How can anything grow out there? No wonder Ethiopia suffers terribly during the drought years!

After many hours of bone-grinding bumps and eating our own dust; we finally arrived, tired and gritty, in Axum, the ancient capitol of Ethiopia. Sisay looked especially worn out after such a long and difficult drive. That night we stayed in a motel style place called the Africa Hotel. It was certainly better than the Lobelia. There was a far fancier option across the street where we had dinner. That evening, a dramatic thunderstorm struck; which was quite something in such a dry, dusty province. It was a wonderful relief to feel the rain, but the soil swallowed it right up, and, twenty minutes afterward, it was as if it never happened.


On this day we met Sisay in the morning, and he drove us a mere two hundred yards up the street to the fancy hotel for breakfast. He is so used to chauffeuring tourists every minute of the day that I think he forgets that some of us are capable of walking around an Ethiopian town by ourselves! (Although I'’m also sure there are some tourists who actually feel so intimidated that they do expect his service even for the tiniest of distances).

After breakfast, we picked up our local guide and we went to visit the famous stone obelisks of Axum. The largest of these huge carved stone monoliths is the biggest known stone obelisk ever created in the ancient world - even bigger than Egyptian ones. They were made as burial markers over the tombs of ancient Ethiopian kings more than two thousand years ago. Decorations on the stelae indicate that the ancient religion of the time was based on worship of the sun and the moon. This primordial religion existed in Ethiopia until around 380 A.D., when King Izana converted everyone to Christianity.

There are many stelae in this sacred burial ground but three of them are truly exceptional. These three were commissioned by kings. They each have a false door at their bases. Levels of false windows in the obelisks indicate how many family members were buried below them. The biggest of them all has fallen over, and it is now in pieces, exposing the tomb below. The tomb is empty now, but the subterranean rooms are open to the public and they are nicely preserved. The engineering is impressive, considering that the edge of the tomb had to hold up a block weighing more than 160 tons without collapsing. The second largest obelisk was actually stolen by the Italians when they briefly colonized Ethiopia, and it was set up in Rome, but this national art treasure was eventually returned to its home in 2008.

UNESCO has recently been buying up nearby land because they are aware of significant unexcavated tombs beneath local dwellings. Inside the museum, we saw many treasures, including carved elephant ivory, glass chalices, gold coins and more. Axum may have many more archeological discoveries still hidden beneath its current neighborhoods! Persistent legends of secret doors and underground tunnels have led to archeological investigation. It has now been determined that there are several mysterious tunnels between the tombs, some of which lead to a tomb that has yet to be excavated. NOTE: (For those of you wishing to look up pictures of these amazing obelisks on the Internet, please note that Axum is often spelled Aksum).

Other historic places of note in town were the ruins of a palace complex which supposedly belonged to the Queen of Sheba and a reservoir called the Bath of Sheba. This water well was chiseled right into the sandstone hillside, with carved steps leading down into it. For two thousand years, it has been used by the people of Axum, and we saw that it was still providing drinking water to the town.

After lunch, we went to the St Mary of Zion Church. This modern cathedral was built by Emperor Haile Selaissie. Behind the main modern church was a small (rather homely) chapel where Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe the actual Ark of the Covenant is kept. (It is important to note that there is a second Ethiopian legend regarding the Ark: that, in order to keep it safe, thousands of copies have been made of the original. These have been distributed to churches and monasteries all over the country. The original ark was actually sent to a secret location, along with the priests chosen to guard it. It could be anywhere in Ethiopia. It is exciting to imagine that it still exists, and that it is still hidden in a secret room in some unknown, windswept, cave monastery on a mountaintop, like the one we were about to visit on the next day of our journey…)

The church museum displayed a fine collection of royal ceremonial robes, royal crowns, manuscripts, and antique crosses. One of the crowns supposedly had over 200 diamonds on it, (probably all paste, since the crown was donated to the church after the royal visit.) We were also lucky enough to see a major church procession in the afternoon. The priests led the congregation three times around the church, stopping at the end to bless people with their crosses.

After the church service, I made an attempt to go shopping for Ethiopian crosses to give as gifts, but frankly, the merchandise was cheap, stamped out junk in white metal, and the prices were absurd. One shop owner proudly showed us an impressive collection of antique hand-calligraphied and hand-illuminated bibles on parchment paper. Surprisingly, these were for sale, but of course these precious artifacts should never leave the country.

Thanks for reading! Diana

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