Written by eccles1 on 05 Jul, 2003
Ah yes, The Famine . . . OK, so there I was, my flight booked in July 2002, and on November 11, the headline on BBC News is that the rains failed, there’s now a drought, and a looming famine that’s going to be…Read More
Ah yes, The Famine . . .
Well, I’m a tourist and know nothing about ethics, but I’ll wade in anyway: I had no problem during my stay in Ethiopia. My take on it is that, while in Ethiopia I was on the "tourist circuit", which is on a road. If you’re on a road, you’re on a distribution system and food can get to you. But the roads, especially up north, are incredibly rough (gravel the size of baseballs), and if you live 50km off the road and your crop fails, yes you’re in trouble. But the main shortage I saw was a shortage of money –- to buy food with. Go to Ethiopia -- stay in local guesthouses, eat in local restaurants, shop in local markets -- get your money into the local economy and it’ll help.
Here’s another observation -- Ethiopia suffers on average from one drought per decade. During the previous two droughts/famines (in the early '70s and mid-'80s), the government tried to avoid admitting there was a problem and people needlessly starved. This time, the government admits a problem, asks for help, and as a result the local tourist industry crashes. A sad irony.
Photography: I never had any trouble taking photos, with one exception. Mind you, I don’t ever stick my camera in someone’s face and snap away. Using my zoom lens, taking photos of street scenes or markets, not a problem. The exception: Addis Ababa. For a…Read More
"First Day" hassles
I guess what bugs me here is that he’s not poor, but fairly well-off. It’s one thing to deal with the destitute, starving or infirm -- it’s quite another to deal with a healthy, well-dressed, well-educated guy who tries to guilt you into giving him money. In fact, at first I suspected it was some kind of fraternity initiation! I choose to give money to real charities and I’m not going to reward people for being annoying. In retrospect, as I write this, it seems petty and it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the country. But, like India, it’s because I basically "wrote off" the first day in any new town. Once you survive the first day, these guys never bother you again, and people you thereafter meet are the most welcoming and friendliest I have ever known. What this means, of course, is that you meet a lot of Westerners who are stressed-out because they’re doing a whirlwind tour that has too many "first days". For me, the fix is to spend more time in fewer places!
"Second day" bliss
Booking flight: Toronto (where I live) has a large Ethiopian community, so I used a travel agent in that community -- African Wings Travel & Tours. I booked my flight Toronto->Newark->Addis in late July. A bit early, but I wanted to fly on the weekend…Read More
Arrival at the airport
The alternative to a bus is to rent a land rover, but they cost over US$100 per day, so I stuck to the bus!
To decode the prices I give, the exchange (Dec2002/Jan2003): US$1 = 8.58 birr, 1 euro = 9.29 birr, C$1 = 5.64 birr
Another thing -- when you enter the bank, they frisk you down. Guns? Knives?Grenades? NO -- they’re looking for cameras! So leave your camera in your hotel before you head to the bank. I have a bizarre image of an Ethiopian bankrobber: "Give me your money or I’ll take your photo!" "I’ve got ISO 400 and I know how to use it!"
ETHIOPIA TRIP- January 2003
When people think of Ethiopia, most think of famine, drought, war, and Bob Geldof. But there’s so much more to the country -– an ancient history, a vibrant and distinctive culture, a delicious cuisine -- and great beer! Last December (2002) and…Read More
ETHIOPIA TRIP- January 2003
When people think of Ethiopia, most think of famine, drought, war, and Bob Geldof. But there’s so much more to the country -– an ancient history, a vibrant and distinctive culture, a delicious cuisine -- and great beer! Last December (2002) and January (2003), I had a great time spending six weeks travelling around the country, barely scratching the surface of all the things there are to do and see there.
Most of the time I took local buses and stayed in local guesthouses, usually for US$5 to $7 per night. Ethiopia has a fairly cheap and efficient bus system, although the country is so large, it takes quite a while to get anywhere. The roads in the north are very rough -– sometimes the gravel was the size of baseballs -- and gave me a lot of respect for the buses and their drivers, who drove like tank commanders leading a charge. Keep your schedule flexible -– although I always got to my destination on the right day, there’s also a certain amount of waiting by the side of the road as the latest puncture gets fixed.
To save five days on a bus, I flew north from Addis Ababa to Lalibela and Axum. I spent four days in Lalibela exploring 1000-year-old churches carved out of the solid rock, trekking to a local monastery, attending mass, and hanging out at the Saturday market. In the evenings, I’d have tibs (fried meat) and téj (a delicious orange-coloured wine made from honey) and listen to the local azmaris sing, dance, and tell jokes. I didn’t speak enough amarigna to understand the jokes, but they were mostly about me anyway.
Two thousand years ago the city of Axum in Northern Ethiopia (Tigray) was the centre of a mighty empire that stretched across the Red Sea into Yemen, and traded with Greece, Rome, Persia and India. Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba came from Axum, and there are numerous unexcavated tombs and archeological sites that may one day establish the proof. Axum is famous for its Stelae Field, which contains a number of stelae (obelisks) and tombs. Sculpted to look like wooden buildings that existed at that time, the highest standing stele is 23m high. The ruins of the largest stele, 33m long, lies where it toppled just after it was erected in the 4th century AD.
It took two days to get to Debark, the gateway to the Simien Mountains National Park. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of breathtaking mountain scenery –- mesas, gorges, chasms, and spires. A trek in the park was quickly and easily arranged the afternoon I arrived. The cost was about US$40 per day, expensive by third-world standards, but included many mandatory park fees and other costs that could have been shared if I could get a group together (unfortunately there were no other tourists the day I arrived). It was mandatory to hire two men -- a guide and a park ranger. The Park Office rented out the gear I required -- tent, stove, fuel and cooking utensils, and the local market supplied the food. But with all the gear, it became apparent we’d need a horse and an accompanying horseman. And now that we were four people, I might as well hire a cook -– oh well, it helps the local economy! For five days, I (and my four employees plus horse) hiked along the escarpment, marvelling at the sights and encountering troops of gelada baboons. Each campsite was over 3000 metres, so the nights were freezing cold. My trek reached a promontory at 3900m altitude that overlooked the massif’s mesas and rock pinnacles.
The city of Gonder, my next stop, is famous for its 400-year old castles, although after trekking for five days I was more impressed by the washing facilities in my hotel. I spent the time in Gonder relaxing and visiting the city’s kék bét (cake shops), where I could have a fruit juice or machiato, and a pastry. If you ordered an "espris" fruit juice, they would carefully pour mango, avocado, and papaya juice in yellow, green and pink layers in the glass. In the evenings, I would have a beer (or téj) in an asmari bét (a bar where asmaris play). On Leddet (Christmas), I went to dance to a local band: synth/drum machine, sax, and a procession of singers. The style of dancing is called iskista, where the shoulders are shaken up/down, forward/backward to the rhythm of the music, while the hips stay still. Now, when I dance soukous people laugh because I seem unable to move my hips -- I’m happy to report the same goes for my shoulders, which ached the following day. Oh well, at least I gave the local azmaris something to sing about!
The bus to Bahar Dar blasted out of Gonder at 6:30am and arrived at 10am, a rocket on wheels. I stayed at the Ghion Hotel on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Every morning, there would be fishermen fishing from tankwa, a canoe made from papyrus reeds. The hotel restaurant served delicious asa wat, fried lakefish in a spicy sauce. Be sure to get extra awazi (chili sauce) on the side! From the Ghion, it’s possible to get a group together and charter a boat to visit the various monasteries around the lake. I also spent a half-day exploring around the Blue Nile Falls, 400m wide and 45m high.
In Bahar Dar I read newspaper article that described the "2nd Annual Ethiopian Music Festival" taking place in Addis at the end of the week. I wasted no time -– the next morning I was on the bus for the two-day ride to Addis, and that Saturday I was at the Sheraton seeing Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Eshete, Tlahoun Gessesse and Getachew Mekuria, backed by the Ethiosonic BigBand. A fabulous concert –- so nice to hear Ethiopian music as it was played 30 years ago -- no synths or drum machines, just four saxes, three trumpets, trombone, grand piano, guitar, bass, and drums. For his encore "Tis Tis", Mahmoud Ahmed had the crowd on its feet doing the "twist"!
My final two weeks in Ethiopia passed all too quickly. I visited Harar -- a walled, predominantly Muslim city -- exploring the markets and whitewashed buildings, mosques and shrines, and watching the eagles keeping an eye on the butcher shops.
My final week I spent doing a horseback trek near in the forests near Dodola in the south. The forests were lush and green, certainly contrary to popular belief that Ethiopia is a dry desert. Every day we would hire horses from the local village, and ride to the next village, where we would stay at a local guesthouse. (More info is available on www.baletrek.com). It was good to see that the money we spent went into the local economy -- our guide would point out the various schools and clinics funded by money from the project. The guide would also describe the medicinal uses of herbs and plants, as well as other projects to profit from the forest instead of cutting it down.
Written by Madrid on 01 May, 2003
Day Fourteen – I rose early and walked to the large church by the lake. I was not sure just where I was going but, suddenly, I saw a worshipful crowd all dressed in white and flowing out from the church and its compound into…Read More
Day Fourteen – I rose early and walked to the large church by the lake. I was not sure just where I was going but, suddenly, I saw a worshipful crowd all dressed in white and flowing out from the church and its compound into the main street. Nuns, dressed in saffron-colored robes made their way through the crowd and children peeked over my shoulder to see what I was reading. It was the Book of Psalms. They didn’t recognize the English words, but immediately knew that the Christmas card I used for a bookmark was of the Holy Family. "Miriam!" (Mary), they shouted. After that I got a little more respect and continued my reading as the liturgy continued, invisible to all but the very few who have managed to squeeze inside the church.
We drove to the airport for a 3:00PM flight back to Addis since it would be a two-day drive and just a one hour flight. All bags were x-rayed and my crosses were discovered; their "papers" were scrutinized very carefully. The same strictness would be enforced at the international airport.
As we left the countryside for the city a few of us reflected on the unusual mixture of reserve, dignity and joy the people possessed. It is obvious life is difficult here, but it is not a trial. Our group, like all tours, was easy to spot by the people so that children and adults would gather in just a few minutes and begin to beg in the direct but perfunctory way they have. It was epitomized by a group of boys who had perfected a kind of hand wave that got you waving back and then the rotated their hand down to the begging position. We couldn’t decide if they were making fun of us or themselves….maybe it was both!
We arrive back at the Ghion in time for dinner and a cultural show that was so long we left after three hours and it still had about ninety minutes to go. The idea was to show as many of the dances of the 75 ethnic groups of Ethiopia as possible. I think they met the challenge.
Day Fifteen – The two "must see" museums in Addis are the National Museum and the Ethnological Museum (on the campus of Addis Ababa University).
The National has the bones of the 3.5 million year-old hominid Lucy. An excellent plaster model is on view as well as related skeletal remains. Upper floors hold a chronological display of Christian items from the highlands, military and royal artifacts and painting and handicrafts. Ninety minutes would be just right to spend here.
The Ethnological Museum is housed in Haile Selasse’s former palace. The palace and grounds were given over to the government to form the state university in the 1960’s. The displays here are of superior quality and depth. The most renowned being the top floor’s display of icons from the past three centuries.
Our last stop was the famous outdoor market. It is one of the largest in all of Africa. Each area has its characteristic goods: spice, produce, clothing, shoes. The most fun to see might be the recycling market. It makes U.S. efforts along those lines pale.! Nearby was a retail coffee shop where two dollars can buy you a pound of some very good beans.
With a final meal and an exchange of addresses, the ten of us said good-bye and took our separate, late-evening planes, shocked and awed at the new international airport that had opened just a few days earlier.
Ethiopian Fact Sheet 2003
Area: Twice the size of Texas
Bounded by: Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan
Population: 70 million
Natural resources: small reserves of gold, platinum, copper, potash, natural gas, hydropower
Land use: Arable land 10%, year-round crops 1%, other 89%
Environmental issues: Deforestation, over-grazing, soil erosion, desertification, water shortages
Population rate: 2.64% per year
Total fertility rate: 6.94 children per woman
Life expectancy at birth: Female 45 years, Male 43 years
Religions: Muslim 40-50%, Ethiopian Orthodox Christian 40%, Animist 10%
Literacy: 35% (45% male / 25% female)
Population living below poverty line: 70% (U.N. estimate)
Labor force by occupation: Agriculture and animal husbandry 80%, government and services 12%, industry and construction 8%
Industries: Food processing, beverages, textiles, metal processing, cement works
Electricity production by source: Hydro 98.5% Fossil 1.5%
Agricultural products: Cereals, coffee, oilseed, sugarcane, potatoes, khat (stimulant), hides, cattle
Gross National Income: $100 (US) per person
Exports: Coffee, khat (stimulant), gold leather products, oilseeds
Export partners: Germany 18%, Japan 11%, Djibouti 11%, Saudi Arabia 8%
Imports: Food and live animals, petroleum and petroleum products, chemicals, machinery, motor vehicles, cereals, textiles
Import partners: Saudi Arabia 25%, USA 9%, Italy 7%, Russia 4%
External debt: $1.54 billion
Econ Aid Received:$308 million
Calendars: Ethiopian calendar is based on the Coptic, which is 7 or 8 years behind the US calendar (Gregorian). The Ethiopian year has 13 months; the year starts on our September 11th. Christmas falls on our January 7th and Epiphany on our January 19th.
Day Nine – Mekele is the birthplace of the current president of Ethiopia and so has benefited from this fact. We visited a multi-million dollar war memorial to those who lost their lives in the civil war that shook loose the Marxist regime. It resembles…Read More
Day Nine – Mekele is the birthplace of the current president of Ethiopia and so has benefited from this fact. We visited a multi-million dollar war memorial to those who lost their lives in the civil war that shook loose the Marxist regime. It resembles one of the large stelae or obelisks for which the first capital of Ethiopia, Axum, is famous.
We journeyed through a region in the Tigray province famous from rock-hewn churches. About three hundred of them are hidden in the surrounding cliffs, most are in a poor state of preservation.
In the middle of the day we came to a town that is the site of a very holy mosque. It commemorates the flight of Muhammad to Ethiopia (615 ). He sought the protection of the Ethiopian emperor from persecution in his native land. This act of kindness would, in turn, protect Ethiopia from harsh treatment by the Muslims until the 16th century. In front of the old mosque was a simple country market, filled with every variety of produce. The sellers sat on the ground behind a cloth upon which their produce is displayed.
Succulents in the form of large trees are eye-popping at this time of year (just after the rainy season.) They are covered with brilliant red-orange blossoms. We instinctively stopped for a picture in front of one enormous grove. Before arriving in Axum, we pass the battlefield of Adwa, site of the famous Ethiopian victory against the Italians in 1896.
Day Ten – Axum contains amazing things and many more could be uncovered. It goes back 3000 years and possesses a field of pre-Christian granite stelae which probably mark the graves of Emperor Kaleb and Emperor Gebre Meskal. The markers are carved all over in a distinctive stylized pattern that represents a moon god.
Money for proper excavation of the site is not yet available. One tomb-like series of chambers is open, but it is not directly beneath the stelae . Two of the stelae have fallen in the course of the 2000 years since their construction. The largest of these (78 feet) was taken by Mussolini to Italy sixty-five years ago and placed in Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena, near the Coliseum. Various Italian governments have made promises to return the obelisk to Ethiopia, but none so far has honored its pledge. The obelisk was badly damaged by lightning in May 2002 which caused some stone pieces of the monument to crumble to the ground.
The 16th Century Cathedral of St Mary of Zion housed the Ark of the Covenant for many centuries until its transfer, in the 20th Century to its own nearby chapel building.
Just outside town were the legendary baths of the Queen of Sheba and what is said to be her palace. In front of the palace, was a large field strewn with great stone markers; right now it’s being leased by a farmer. It may be the burial place of the Queen of Sheba, but until funds become available for excavation, cows will pasture there.
Day Eleven – We spent a long and difficult day on the road (dust rags covering our mouths just like cowboys most of the time) but the scenery was spectacular. The Simien Mountains are really the edge of a huge volcanic plateau and dramatic cliffs drop down to the hot lowland plains to the north. Occasional volcanic plugs rise out of the plains. Vistas of jagged peaks stretch across the entire horizon. A section of the Simien Mountains has been designated a National Park and within this area the remnants of the once magnificent Afro-Alpine moorlands are being protected from the further encroachment of cultivation. There remain fine stands of groundsels, ericas, lobelias and other high altitude vegetation. Fox, ibex and baboons can be seen. Our lunch was by an enormous fig tree – not in season at the time.
We arrived in Gondar, the third capital of Ethiopia, just as the electricity was being shut off for a few hours as part of the national power conservation plan.
Day Twelve – Gondar’s unique, imperial compound contains a number of ruined castles built between 1632 and 1855 each one by a succeeding emperor. Debre Berhan Sellassie Church (1682-1706), surrounded by a wood of olive and juniper trees, is famous for the number and beauty of its frescos, especially the ceiling which is covered with a host of angels. The bathing palace of Emperor Fasilidas (1632-1667). Is used during the celebration of Timkat, many plunge into the deep pool in front of the palace on that day in imitation of Christ at the Jordan River.
Empress Mentewab's castle and the adjacent Kusquam Church (1730-1755) provided a quiet and beautiful place to wander. The ruins here are softened with the growth of ficus, pepper trees and fireweed. You can walk the grounds imagining how the enlightened and liberal-minded, Mentewab succeeded in reconciling the followers of the two major monastic orders, who had for centuries engaged in bitter disputes over church doctrine. She was also a great patron of the arts and literature, financing the building of many fine churches and stimulating the production of richly illuminated manuscripts and paintings. The Scottish explorer, James Bruce, who was in Gondar in 1770 and 1771, considered her his friend and benefactor, describing her as "bountiful and unfailing in good deeds, intensely kind and charitable, extremely devout". He observed that, though she had never been there, she was "perfectly well acquainted" with Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary, the City of David and the Mount of Olives.
In the afternoon we drove to the resort town of Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana. It is just lower than Gondar enough to necessitate malaria protection. On the way, we passed rusting tanks and jeeps from the 1991 war with Eritrea. There seems to be no interest in removing material from the fields where they were first disabled.
We arrived in Bahir Dar just in time for another scheduled blackout.
Day Thirteen – In the morning we drove to the trailhead leads to Blue Nile Falls. We were accompanied by a group of women sellers for the entire hike. This does not help one commune with nature! The women did step back a few paces as we admired the falls and then went back to their haggling with us. In Sudan, the White and Blue Nile converge to form Egypt’s Nile. Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile. The river pours out from it at a nearly invisible clearing in the reeds.
In the afternoon we took a boat ride to two monastery complexes, one on a peninsula and the other on an island in the Lake. Again a constant chatter from boys wanting to sell icons and religious goods as we made our way through the wild coffee trees to see the churches. The quality of the icons at the monasteries on Lake Tana is exuberant. The pictures are constantly being "refreshed" by artisans. It would not be what Western museum restorers would prefer, but here the images are being used in worship, as are the ancient and fragile manuscripts. It is simply a different way of relating to such objects of beauty and culture.
Day Five – A hard bit of driving brought us to the small town of Lalibela by afternoon. Lalibela was the second capital of Ethiopia and is home to a dozen rock-hewn churches that date from the 12th century. The churches are in two clusters…Read More
Day Five – A hard bit of driving brought us to the small town of Lalibela by afternoon. Lalibela was the second capital of Ethiopia and is home to a dozen rock-hewn churches that date from the 12th century. The churches are in two clusters in the rocky cliffs quite near the town. We wound our way through all twelve. St George is the most famous. No one knows exactly how it was so perfectly carved out of the large stone slab that both forms a wall around its courtyard as well as the church itself. Some churches were small and cave like, others like basilicas; some were in the shape of a cross. Paintings from the 12th century were visible, but often austere carvings into the rock were the only decorations. Windows and doors were all placed with precise symbolic meaning. Most church courtyards had small rooms carved out of the walls for the resident hermits. In some churches we listened to chanting and drums and the unmistakably deep echoes only solid rock can produce.
We finished our tour just in time to see the priest begin the procession of the replica of the Ark of the Covenant from one of the churches. After a large crowd of deacons and priests passed, the rest of us followed to what would be the "River Jordan" site of the vigil service the following early morning. Our lodgings were just across the road from this site.
The hotel had about sixty-five rooms –- all were taken and the courtyard was jammed with four-wheeled vehicles like our own. About 500 tourists were in this small town as well as 2000 Ethiopian participants. For the next three days we would be guests at the hotel’s tent camp –- a huge collection of two-person tents that stretched over several acres behind the hotel. For the next three days, I knew the joys of cold, outdoor showers, brisk nights and sharing the one public restroom at the hotel. Although we went through the rigors of pilgrims, most of just were simply cultural observers and sometimes arrogant ones. This would become clear after the ceremonies began.
It would be an early night since the sunrise service would begin around 3:00 AM.
Day Six – My tent mate and I stumbled over a field of ropes and pegs to arrive at the "River Jordan" location just across the road from our hotel. A brilliant moon was beginning to set behind the mountains and the stars had the intensity of the first Christmas; no Western "light pollution" was around the dim them. As the hundreds assembled in the starlight, we stood and listened to the amplified chanting (as we had all night!) Somewhere in the second hour of the service, a young priest took the microphone and gave us a history of the golden cross of Lalibela. It is the most sacred object in Ethiopia and was stolen by a Belgian three years ago. Unfortunately it was an "inside" deal, but when something highly valued is at stake in a poor country, wrong choices can be made. The Belgian actually left, free and clear, with the cross in his suitcase. It was a wise and suspicious security agent in his own country who alerted police. But by that time the cross had been transferred to a dealer who had paid $25,000. The Ethiopian government paid this amount to the innocent party to reacquire the religious treasure. Boys went through the crowd for the next three days offering cards commemorating the cross’s return for a small donation to the church.
It is difficult to keep something of value from slipping away in a country like Ethiopia. Before going to this trip, I came across a book that contained a substantial record of the icons now on deposit in the Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa. The forward told about how friends of Ethiopia put together a "war chest" to buy icons from dealers to keep them from disappearing from the country. I was offered such an opportunity on the streets of Addis. It was suggested that if I wanted to purchase an old icon (normally banned from export), I could have a dealer get papers that would indicate I only had a modern copy. It seems the only way to be sure such treasures remain in the country is to buy them outright and keep them under lock and key.
About an hour before the sunrise service came to an end, both sun and moon were hanging in the sky, the stars were slowing disappearing into the blue sky. The scene was more beautiful than any fresco.
Day Seven - After Mass at the "River Jordan" the crowd was asked to move to the cross-shaped baptismal pools behind us. The blessing of the water, which marks the end of the ceremony, now took place.
This is where "cultural tourists" decide if they want to permit the faithful their service or obstruct it so they can have their pictures and their prime locations. A number of tourists were blocking the priests from the water and were jostling the crowd for the best position. When asked to leave room politely, they went on as if nothing had been said. The service was delayed by this until finally the priests were able to take their position and begin the blessing. Toward the end of the ceremony buckets appeared from the crowd and were filled by deacons as a hermit stood with the priests and encouraged the crowd to become more animated in their singing and praising. Finally the entire crowd was soaked with buckets of water thrown over everyone. Later in the day the children would jump into the pool and splash in the water until it was all gone.
A final procession involved spontaneous dancing by groups from various villages and a display by the priests of the crosses which they had carried throughout the entire event. Their vestments were of rich, bright brocades and they each had an attendant with a brocade-covered umbrella which served to keep out the sun and also mark where they are in the crowd.
In the afternoon we took part in the procession of various Ark replicas from the twelve churches to the "River Jordan" site. On this, the third day of the festival, no one seemed tired or bored but many had hardly slept. Most activities in the town, aside from the festival, had shut down and all were focused on participation in each and every ritual. In the afternoon, while shopping for crosses, I met a man who was a trained accountant (as was his wife). I asked him if keeping the shop was a sideline, he said that he could not find much work in his field, so he returned to his village for the time being.
Due to the heat and altitude, only one from our group took advantage of a hike to a monastery high up on a cliff. When he returned he said he was well-treated by the monks who interrupted their meal to show him their church and its holy books and crosses.
Day Eight – We left at 5:30 AM so we could drive the long and miserable road Mekele in daylight. The green trees and burnt grass recall the rolling hills just east of San Francisco. (Currently road-building companies from three countries are working to pave the roads between major towns in the highlands.)
Day Two -– Today was the day to find the Ghion hotel as I would be checking out of my "one star" for the "four star" luxury of the Ghion the next day.
Addis Ababa was founded only 125 years ago. It means New Flower because…Read More
Day Two -– Today was the day to find the Ghion hotel as I would be checking out of my "one star" for the "four star" luxury of the Ghion the next day.
Addis Ababa was founded only 125 years ago. It means New Flower because Empress Taitu wanted her husband to move the capital to a better location and she found a blossoming plant by a hot spring here, as any traveler's description of Addis will tell you.
The Ghion could be right on that spot. It is surrounded by large and lush gardens and two hot-spring-filled swimming pools. In the morning the birds were out in force. I saw many species, but one tree especially caught my eye –- it had ten nesting ibis. The large birds took up just about the entire tree. It turned out that the Ghion was within walking distance from the Buffet de la Gare so I could take my luggage and walk to it! There is nothing like walking, gear in tow, to your hotel. It inspires independence and a certain amount of control. This is especially important when the illusion is everything.
Having discovered my new home, I was ready for more wandering. This time I made my way up another hill, at the top of which I was assured would be St. George’s Cathedral. On the way was the National Postal Museum; though not for everyone, I am a stamp collector -- stamp collecting fanned the flame of my desire to travel--so it was with some self-assurance that I asked to have the museum unlocked so I could tour it. The director of the museum took right over to the first panel of stamps and asked what perhaps was always his first question: "Are you a stamp collector?" I imagine that the answer to this question determined if you got a half-hour breeze-through or something more in-depth . . . After answering in the affirmative, the director told me the story of the collection: It had been looted during the past decades of political unrest and had to be repurchased in Europe. Now the museum was gathering the entire collection back, both in mint and cancelled states. He then called my attention to a picture of a postal worker of the 1890s; he carried a single letter high above his head on a stick made for that purpose -- that's what I call special delivery! The director impressed upon me how important it was to deliver the mail in pristine condition and with devotion. Since 1894, when Ethiopia joined the International Postal Union, the mailer's doing the right thing was key. It was reassuring to see this kind of attention to the mail since many other countries do not have it.
We continued on our tour of the collection and paused at a dramatic set of stamps with illustrations of birds that spoke of the need for a strong ecological movement in the country. A few panels later, I pointed out a stamp that provided additional revenue for eradicating tuberculosis. The director paused and looked at me. He said that once TB had been eradicated, "but now it is back because of AIDS." The challenge to do more than perhaps can be done at the moment is always with you in Ethiopia.
It was now noon and the tour was over, the lights turned off in the museum, and the director asked for the admission fee, about 25 cents. It was ceremoniously put away and I received a half page, stamped receipt, which was only fair, given the nature of the place.
The heat of the day could now been felt even at 9000 feet, but a light breeze helped in the ascent to the cathedral. Soon, however, the busy downtown faded away and I was in a region of street people who seemed to have taken over most of the boulevard on both sides for their homes. This did not deter pedestrians and even small herds of goats from making their way uphill. I followed suit until I reached the crest of the hill, where my map got very confusing. I started asking shopkeepers where the cathedral was and they seemed to be directing me down the hill again. I resisted but finally went down a few side streets and came upon a large church and school building. Under the trees were a group of priests. One of them accompanied me into the church. It was then I discovered that this was the Roman Catholic cathedral. I guess I did not strike the shopkeepers as particularly Orthodox! In the quiet and cool church we discussed Roman Catholicism in a country in which it is practiced by a distinct minority. The priest spoke English very well and I asked him where he learned it; he said that for three years he helped out at a parish in Florida. He also mentioned that an ecumenical meeting of bishops would take place in the Cathedral next week. Finally I had to ask him -– where was the Orthodox cathedral? With a vague gesture in the direction from whence I came, he left me to the heat and the sun and the 300 children playing strenuously at recess.
Do not give up when thwarted by maps and dismissive "assistance." I returned to where the map gave out and began asking other shopkeepers. I thought a music store would be a good place, and a boy there was evidentually going to pass right by St George’s, so he accompanied me through a passageway and across a parking lot and I was at the top of the hill looking at a gargantuan government building underneath whose shadow was the cathedral.
I had arrived at the right time. Noontime prayer had concluded and the museum and church were both opened. It's true that the electricity had gone off, something I would get used to in all the larger cities and towns. But this allowed us to view the museum by taking a few candles with us which seemed even to add to the tour. Alongside the gifts of holy objects for the liturgy from Emperor Haile Selassie, was the uniform worn by a famous general in the victorious battle against the Italians at Adwa on March 1, 1896. It was a very smart outfit, covered with a complicated gold embroidery, and the helmet was topped its original ostrich plume. Clearly, the Italians had been out-manned and out-dressed at Adwa! The lights came back on and we proceeded to the church. My guide had a great interest in showing me all the icons and in demonstrating the drums that were part of the ritual. This would happen again when I returned to Trinity Cathedral and got the tour. It is always a pleasure to be shown through a church by someone who is a true believer!
Now it was time to see where the elite stay when in Addis, the five-star Sheraton Resort. It was not far from my route back. Obviously Sheraton had gotten to Addis late, the best two city locations being taken already by the Ghion and the Hilton, but what the place lacked in location, it made up for in luxury. The building bears no relationship to its surroundings, which are tumble-down. This is especially clear when taking a turn around the large pergola in the back gardens: instead of a beautiful view, one sees a battered brick wall and a vacant lot, reminding you instantly to the real neighborhood around you. It is thanks to a Saudi investor that the Sheraton is here and it seems that he made the right decision. The Sheraton was filled with guests, although a few rooms were available for $100 if purchased online through a discounter (retail is $250). Although the shops were fewer than the Hilton, they had the ambience of a good Fifth Avenue boutique. A store that only sold silver had some very reasonable prices and well-designed pieces. The sales people walked about in that hushed and deferential way that soothes the weary traveller. A spectacular pool, which is also open to the public for a fee, caps the Sheraton experience. If a vacation from your vacation is required, it will definitely fill your needs.
Darkness was falling and I took refuge in my hotel by the train station for the last time. By the way, Buffet de la Gare did have a buffet! It was a very popular night spot. I’m just not sure that word was out about the spartan wing of rooms I was staying in.
Day One – I arrived in Addis Ababa at 2am. The airport was old and small, but ours would be one of the last planes to land here. By the time I left the country, the new airport was opened. It is a modern showplace…Read More
Day One – I arrived in Addis Ababa at 2am. The airport was old and small, but ours would be one of the last planes to land here. By the time I left the country, the new airport was opened. It is a modern showplace of glass, steel, and marble and its opening coincided with a high-level diplomatic meeting of delegates from African states.
On the plane I spent some times trying to read the small downtown map of Addis in my Lonely Planet guide. My goal was to find the cheapest -- and still not scary -- hotel. At first I attempted to stay at the airport, but it swiftly became clear that the place simply closed after the night plane arrived.
I settled on a little place called Buffet de la Gare. It was French, after all! I decided not to make use of the uniformed National Tourist Office representative since she was quoting prices that were twice as much as were in my book. I simply took a $6 cab ride with a driver who was swathed in blankets (it was about 60 degrees.) and hoped for the best.
One of the nice things about the Buffet de la Gare was that it was in the center of town and was, of course, by the train station. No one is allowed into the train station as it runs very irregularly, but it was nice to be near it.
The cab sounded its horn loudly, its headlights right up to the formidable metal gates of the hotel. Finally an attendant, who looked just like a shepherd, sleepwalked out . . . and yes, they had a room!
I had brought water and chocolate-covered cherries with me and these became my little stash of food and drink for the next two days. When I awoke at about 11am, I had my first collation.
The day’s wander around the city gave me the impression of a populace with a lot of energy, and everyone going somewhere. As the day progressed, I realized that I saw almost no private vehicles. Most of the transportation was by foot or by organized van. Drivers would shout out their destinations and passersby would climb in. They left when no one else could fit. Everyone seemed more polite than I expected, especially young men who would offer to show me the city. Some said they had "plenty of time" as they were "off duty." Some wanted to "practice their English" but eventually all would come around to the point of wanting to arrange a tour or some sort of pleasant entertainment. I turned them down, but not before I was taken to their "office," a street corner that happened to be right in front of the Ghion Hotel, where I would stay when my tour officially began.
The Addis Ababa Museum is noteworthy because it is housed on one of the oldest residential buildings in town and sits majestically above the vast Meskel Square. As so often is the case in American museums these days, the shop is more enlightening and entertaining than the museum itself. Half of the compound is devoted to an art gallery that carries crafts, painting, and furniture. Some very well-dressed local people were browsing and relaxing at the outdoor bar. I decided to take advantage of the saleswoman's good English to get an idea of what else it was possible to see. She directed me up a wide boulevard which would eventually lead to the landmark Hilton Hotel and Trinity Cathedral, on the brow of a hill.
Before arriving at the Hilton, I made an attempt to see the most famous stained-glass window in Ethiopia. It was constructed in 1961 and takes up an entire wall of the main building of the Organization of African Unity. The window is by Ethiopia’s award-winning artist, Afewerk Tekle. The center panel features a family advancing forward into the future, bearing torches; panels on either side feature various evils of the past and present: slavery, colonialism, ignorance. I know it would have been a beautiful thing to see, but I will have to go by the guidebook description and the post cards I bought because, after three phone calls, it was just not possible to make an appointment for a viewing. Someone I talked to later said it was "closed to the public." But the adventurer encounters many such ambiguous situations.
Speaking of ambiguous, what was going on at the Hilton? Guards and metal detectors and shouting, but impeccably dressed diplomats –- no one loved the super-security instituted at the hotel in the days before the international meeting that would be the occasion for opening up the new airport. One imposing guest berated a hotel guard so badly that all around me was embarrassed; after all, the security was the result of fears of terrorism after 9/11. Beyond the entrance of the Hilton is a hassle-free, air-conditioned shopping experience that is completely mall-like. Most souvenirs are there, but without the excitement of the hunt. If you are only spending a day or two, this must be the right place to shop, but prowling around is part of the fun of travel. Soon I would find my one item of quest: the inexpensive ($8) metal hand crosses used most often by Orthodox priests. Eventually I would collect five from various towns.
Just to check my suspicion, I asked the concierge if he could give me walking directions to the cathedral. No, not at all: "It is very far." As I would learn, in most places outside Addis, nothing is very far, you just dedicate enough time to walk there. So, up the gentle incline of the hill I went, forging ahead just like a New Yorker, dodging pedestrian traffic in the pursuit of Trinity Cathedral. Why get into a screeching cab when you can take in the city as it unfolds before you?
Well, there is one good reason why: Most tourists understand the road signs which say "this side of street closed" to be about parking for vehicular traffic. Actually not. In Addis, since the various threats to the government from inside and outside the country, a strict closure of sidewalks around certain government buildings is enforced. I found this out when an armed soldier came at me as I bounded by the National Palace, thinking I could make a short cut. Without even speaking the language, I knew it was time to cross the street!
Finally at the top of the hill I was turned away from entering Trinity Cathedral. It seemed that only tourists with a guide could enter, but I was finally allowed to walk the grounds and meditate on all those who lost their lives fighting the Italian invasion and colonization in the 1930s. The wooded cemetery for these patriots provides a pleasant screen from the sun and bustle of the city outside. It was here that I first observed how people pray in Ethiopia. There really was no need for the church to be open since everyone was simply facing a wall or standing a bit further back and looking in the direction of the church sanctuary inside. The well-known use of meditation and imagination in prayer by the Orthodox was in full force as locals celebrated one of the feasts that lead up to Timkat, Orthodox Epiphany. My group would be attending the three day celebration of Timkat in the ancient capital of Lalibela, two days journey from Addis.
It was getting dark at six, as it does all the time when you are close to the equator, so I made my way back to the Buffet de la Gare for a collation of water and chocolate-covered cherries and a night of reading my book.
Ethiopia and Islam
Islam was expanding which had the effect of cutting off Ethiopia from its former Mediterranean trading partners and allies. Muslims replaced the Egyptians in the Red Sea ports. Ethiopians were allowed to consecrate their Bishops in Cairo and pilgrims were allowed to travel…Read More
Ethiopia and Islam
Islam was expanding which had the effect of cutting off Ethiopia from its former Mediterranean trading partners and allies. Muslims replaced the Egyptians in the Red Sea ports. Ethiopians were allowed to consecrate their Bishops in Cairo and pilgrims were allowed to travel to Jerusalem; such concessions were willingly given since it was an Ethiopian emperor who protected Muhammad during his time of persecution in the 7th century. (Islam was founded in 622.)
In the 12th century Ethiopia emerged from its dark ages under the leadership of a new Zagwe (Zague) dynasty. The Zagwes were from central Ethiopia and of dubious background. Later ecclesiastical texts accuse them of not being of the pure Solomonid lineage -- that is not being descended from Menelik, the son of the biblical king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In part to establish their religious credentials, in part to stake a claim to God’s favor, in part to create a focus for religious devotion inside Ethiopia and particularly at the Zagwe capital, in part to re-direct the energies of pilgrims from Jerusalem, and in part out of genuine religious devotion. King Lalibela had a set of twelve churches built in his capital of Roha, which has since been renamed Lalibela. These churches, carved out of the living rock, are a World Heritage Site and are a remarkable monument to the skill and craftsmanship of the 13th century Ethiopians.
During the 15th century with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Ethiopian fortunes were reversed. The Turks who succeeded the Mamelukes in Egypt supported the Muslim kingdoms providing both firearms and artillery. In 1529 Ethiopian troops were defeated by Ottoman-backed forces. During the next twenty years, Christian shrines were plundered and destroyed and only one in ten Ethiopians remained Christian. During this time the non-Semitic, Oromo people took over south central Ethiopia.
The Portuguese expansion around the continent of African led them to encounter Ethiopia just as it was engaged in a difficult struggle with the Ottoman Empire. Legendary tales of a Christina king (Prester John) had, for centuries, been known in Europe; now the same country was losing its war with Islam and perhaps could be converted to Roman Catholicism! In 1542 missionaries from Portugal attempted to persuade the Ethiopians to accept the Pope in Rome as the leader of the Church. In 1610 the emperor Susenyos turned to a small group of Jesuit missionaries for assistance in solving chronic military and social unrest, which had undermined his position. In the 1620’s he supported a disastrous attempt to convert the country from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits sought to eradicate everything distinctive about Ethiopian Christianity and to replace it with European practices. The result was to worsen every problem the emperor wanted to solve. Social unrest increased, and in 1632 the emperor abdicated (He later committed suicide.) in favor of his son.