Well, how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself!
It’s almost five months since I went on my adventure to Ethiopia and only now have I managed to find some time to recollect my rapidly fading memories. The idea was, as a fully fledged member of the ‘Bah! Humbug!’ club, I would escape the country and get as far away as possible from all the hullabaloo of Christmas - big mistake, on two fronts.
Firstly, a sizeable part of the Ethiopian population, around 40 per cent, is orthodox Christian. Christianity was the official religion of the imperial court right up to the time that Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974; even today the church still holds great sway over the Ethiopian people. Consequently, Christmas is celebrated with great gusto - decorations and all - everyone wished us a very merry Christmas.
Secondly (now this is a great one), unlike the Gregorian calendar that we use in the west, Ethiopia still uses the Julian calendar. What this means is that their calendar runs approximately seven and a half years behind ours. So when I arrived there in December 2007, I had just missed their millennium celebrations which took place just three months earlier. More to the point their Christmas day occurred on the 7th January and I was still there. Still, I had the great treat of celebrating two Christmas days for the price of one ... oh great joy!!!
So why Ethiopia? Well, it’s beautifully warm in December, has a fascinating history, unique cultural sites and picturesque mountain scenery. Sadly, Ethiopia's recent history has been dominated by civil wars and famine. Towards the end of Haile Seassie's reign in the mid 1970's, Ethiopia was in turmoil. Corruption was endemic, discontent permeated society and an appalling famine took the lives of an estimated 200,000 people. There then followed civil war and a war with Somalia in the mid 1980's causing another appalling famine which was exacerbated by drought. This human tragedy claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. The news reports of the time captured the emotions of a shocked world and spawned the Live Aid concert which raised millions of pounds to help the people of Ethiopia. In the late 1990's war broke out with Eritrea, culminating with an uneasy ‘peace’ that remains today. In 2006 Ethiopia invaded Somalia as old differences once again surfaced; to date their forces remain deployed although hostilities have diminished.
Off the plane and into holiday mode. Our point of arrival was the capital Addis Ababa. Having been founded around a century ago it was probably the least interesting place that we visited. There were interesting museums and churches, some very nice restaurants, plenty of memorials to this, that, and the other; ultimately, just a gateway to the true treasures that the rest of the country holds in store.
A short internal flight took us to Bahir Dar, an attractive town on the banks of Lake Tana. The shore and islands of the lake are home to a vast number of centuries-old mystical monasteries. These 16th and 17th century monasteries contain old manuscripts, religious paintings and many ancient church treasures. Taking a boat out on the lake and touring the monasteries was a pleasureable day out. I put my shades on, slapped on the factor 10 and imagined how cold everyone would be feeling back home.
Next day we took a pleasant two hour stroll to Tis Isat - the Blue Nile Falls. These falls were once one of the most impressive in Africa. However, thanks to a modern hydro-electric project, the once mighty falls have been somewhat tamed, nevertheless they remain impressive.
Onto the city of Gonder - the former capital of Ethiopia. It was in 1636 that Emperor Fasiladas made Gonder his capital. Surrounded by fertile land, it was at the crossroads of three major caravan routes and had access to sources of gold, ivory and slaves. Based on this Gonder became wealthy and the stone buildings, unique in Africa, are testament to that prosperity. In Gonder there are many 17th and 18th century stone castles and palaces; for this reason Gonder is known as the Camelot of Africa.
The village of Wolleka made an interesting stop-off point. This was once home to the thriving population of Falashas - Ethiopian jews. Before Christianity arrived in Ethiopia, Judaism was the major religion in this part of the country. In the late 1980's most of the Falashas were airlifted to start a new life in Israel. Today all that remains in Wolleka is an empty synagogue and a few houses; a reminder of a once thriving and productive community.
For the next couple of days we endured some tough travelling on unsympathetic Ethiopian roads. Our journey took us through the Simien Mountains - one of Africa's principle mountain massifs - (some peaks rise above 4000 mtrs; the highest being over 4500 mtrs). Now for a mountain junkie like me this was a major highlight of the trip. The Simiens are made up of plateaus separated by broad river valleys. The landscape was formed by countless volcanic eruptions and subsequent erosion over the millennia has produced the jagged and spectacular landscape evident today. As you can imagine I was just itching to get out there and do some serious walking ... unfortunately this was not one of those types of trips.
After a couple of days in the mountains and an instantly forgettable stopover in Debark we reached our next destination - the amazing kingdom of Aksum. Now, this is one of those places that oozes out history and culture: ancient ruins; underground tombs; mysterious stelae; stories from the bible; connections to the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant. Aksum is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and important sites in sub-Saharan Africa and as such is listed as a World Heritage site. The Aksumite kingdom rose to prominence around 400 BC and grew to become one of the most powerful realms in the ancient world. At its zenith, between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the kingdom controlled vast parts of Africa as well as parts of southern Arabia. The capital of Aksum owes much of its wealth and power to its location; conveniently situated at the centre of a network of trade routes. The highly advanced technical and artistic society was a manifestation of its vast wealth - one such legacy is the array of monuments visible today; another was the arrival of Christianity in Ethiopia.
Without doubt Aksum’s most famous site is the fields of great monolithic stelae; spectacular enough to rival any of Egypt’s more famous obelisks. These great stelae, to all who set eyes on them, announce the power, authority and greatness of the kingdom. Their sheer size and pristine state of preservation and workmanship, make these monuments equally impressive today as they were when they were first erected over 1800 years ago. King Ezana's stele, the tallest standing stele, towers 24 metres. The Great Stele, at a monumental 33 meters, lies broken where it toppled over 1600 years ago. This stele is believed to be the largest single block of stone that humans have ever attempted to erect. Legend has it that its toppling instituted the collapse of the Aksumite Kingdom. The Rome Stele, at almost 25 metres is the second largest stele produced at Aksum. Like the Great Stele it is adorned with carvings of multi-storied windows and doors on all four sides.
Inside a carefully guarded chapel in the grounds of the old church of St Mary of Zion is Aksums most famous treasure - the biblical Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, as legend has it, was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik; son of the liaison between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel. Apparently, Menelik appropriated the Ark in Jerusalem and returned with it to Ethiopia, since when in the strictest security and isolation it has remained ever since. Viewing this treasure is forbidden to all. It’s kept inside the chapel guarded by a priest - this is his vocation in life. Menelik’s dynasty lasted for over 3000 years. The dynasty ended with Haile Selassie who claimed direct descent from King Solomon.
Moving onto Lalibela, which is sometimes known as ‘Africa's Petra’. This World Heritage site is home to eleven medieval rock-hewn churches. The churches are believed to date from around the 12th or 13th century, during the reign of King Lalibela. The complex was conceived and re-created as the New Jerusalem by the pious Ethiopian monarch. The churches either represent sacred sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, or are dedicated to key figures like the Virgin and St George. The churches hidden crypts and grottoes were carved down into the volcanic rock almost a millenia ago. Although having been cut from the solid rock they have the appearance of being underground. Each church has its own resident priest complete with highly embroidered vestments, as well as various holy crosses and ancient manuscripts. Being one of the world’s greatest religio-historical sites, Lalibela draws pilgrims from far and wide. The narrow alleyways and tunnels between the various churches exude an incredible atmosphere: with priests and monks moving amongst the religious devotees; clouds of incense and the sounds of chanting filling the air. The most famous and enigmatic of all the buildings is Bet Giyorgis and in this church, you can appreciate the high point of the rock-hewn craft. Standing free from the rock it was excavated from on all sides, the church stands fifteen meters high and has a three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross. Looking at this building leaves you in no doubt that you’re in the presence of Ethiopia's masterpiece; a truly unique work of highly gifted master craftsmen.
The next few days were the relaxing part of the trip - visits to the beautiful Lake Langano and the Lake Abiata-Shala National Park. Lots of wildlife to get up close to, Marabou storks, flamingoes and much to keep the birdwatchers drooling.
Wendogenet - a hot springs resort set in a forest was our next stopover. Now, this place had ‘chill out’ written all over it. There are lovely trails to walk in the surrounding forest, monkeys and baboons playing in the trees, but most importantly an outdoor swimming pool heated from the hot springs ... heaven.
On our drive back to Addis Ababa we passed through the interesting town of Shashemene. Its claim to fame is to be the home of Ethiopia's Rastafarians and pictures of Bob Marley are everywhere. The Rastafarian religion was created by Marcus Garvey in Jamaica in the 1930's. The religion was named after Ras Tafari - Emperor Haile Selassie's name before his coronation. The movement identified itself with the Emperor as having fulfilled the ancient biblical prophecy that "Kings will come out of Africa".
Our last couple of days were spent back in Addis Ababa and gave us time for some last minute shopping, a meal in the Top View restaurant (which lives up to its name). The food was great but the view was to die for. Perched on a hill the restaurant gives spectacular views of Addis and it is an unforgettable experience. The last day of the holiday was one of indulgence - after a couple of weeks of hard travelling it was decided to ‘slum it’ at the Addis Hilton hotel. Well, what a tough day that turned out to be. We spent our time sunbathing around the pool, swam a few lengths of the pool to cool off and had waiters proffering drinks and ice creams; all finished off with a full-body massage and dinner in the Hilton's swanky restaurant - I feel exhausted just writing about it.
Well that’s it from this destination ... back home it was cold and my post contained nothing but bills. Next morning, bright and early … back to work.