After almost 3 weeks in Ethiopia in April, I formed some strong impressions of the country. It is in many ways a truly remarkable place.
What is important about Ethiopia, is that there is a strong sense that this is the home of man (sic woman). Visiting Lucy where she lies in the National Museum in Addis Adaba, the oldest human remains and accepted as the missing link, was a moving and awe-inspiring moment. She was beautifully displayed in a room as she appeared in the silt of the rift valley floor. Days later standing on the crest of the rift valley looking over a massive uninhabited expanse of the valley forest, forged a deep connection for me both in space and time to realize that the evolution of humankind emerged here and that I was looking over an expanse of the globe that held all of Lucy's forbearer's, and also her brothers and sisters and all of her descendants that led us to where we are now.
Visiting the tribes in the Rift valley was like walking into a time warp. The Hammer, Oromo, Bani, Mursi and Kanso tribes live simple lives, almost no different to those of prehistoric man. Not only do they have no electricity, gas, water, or even candles, they live virtually without any modern utensils or implements. They herd goats and cows as a sign of status but farm small plots using a wooden hand carved plough blade behind two oxen. Walking into one of their villages is like walking into a living museum. Visiting with them, their scarred bodies, with elaborate hair-dos made from butter and red clay, masses of beading and brass and copper, body tattoos and markings and in some cases lip plates was truly riveting. It was a remarkable experience just to observe them living out their daily lives, with their sleek black bodies adorned so fantastically.
If ever there was a garden of Eden it must have been here in the verdant green valley of Ethiopia where Lucy was found buried 3.2 million years ago. Even the roadways, etched through the valley, are lined with wild Adam and Eve poisonous apple trees!
What is also important about Ethiopia is that it is a profoundly Christian nation. As the official religion of the country, one of only two countries known to do so, Christianity is a daily part of life here. It is in your face like no other country I have ever visited. While there is a 30 % population of Moslems, overall the major cities are dominated by Christians. The small pockets of Moslems are found in various parts of the country but they are basically invisible in the major cities and towns. Churches are filled to overflowing every day of the week here. The Ethiopian Orthodox church dominates and the Patriarch resides in Addis despite the fact that that Axum is one of the holiest churches in all Christendom. There is a strict adherence of lent and the weeks I visitid, the 55 day fasting called Surga, which begins on Palm Sunday ends on their Easter Sunday. Fasting is religiously adhered to and in restaurants, when available where I camped , only offered fasting menus with no meat or dairy products.
The week long visit to the north, which is commonly called the historic route, was an immersion into a unique form of Christianity and a home of many surprising, largely ignored civilizations by the west. In Bayar Dal, after visiting the headwaters of the Blue Nile and the largest waterfall in Ethiopia, I took a boat tour out on to Lake Tana where over 20 monasteries from the 13th century still thrive, each with their own circular thatched church housing elaborate paintings depicting biblical events. I was not too keen on another church tour all the way high up on the Ethiopian plateau at Lalibela, but I gamely went along for the ride. Was I wrong. As one author wrote “Were it virtually anywhere but in Ethiopia, Lalibela would rightly be celebrated as one of the wonders of the world, as readily identified as the Pyramids or the Sphinx in Egypt". Why? This African Petra was carved out of volcanic rock in 700 AD. 11 churches were carved out of the rock down from ground level employing 40,000 free-masons and craftsmen to carve all these churches in 10 years. Everyone said it could not be accomplished without the hand of God. To come upon one of these 30 foot churches below ground simply takes your breath away. These churches are considered by the cognescenti as some of the foremost pilgrimage sites in all of Christendom and recognised as such as a UNESCO World Heritage site. They are astonishing and defy description. Like the 16th century Portuguese traveller, I can't possibly describe it , he wrote, “because it seems to me I should not be believed if I write more. " Nor shall I.
What is also important about Ethiopia is its fascinating and pervasive Biblical nature. The myths and legends of the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, Adam and Eve, even Prester John permeate everyday life in the country. The Ark of the Covenant plays a dominant role in the mythology and rituals of Orthodox Christian life here. This ark was believed to be built by the children of Israel to hold the tablets of law given to Moses by God. It is believed to be housed in the historic church Maryam Tsion in Axum. which I visited.
What is also important about Ethiopia is that it is profoundly African. It is the only country of Africa that was never colonized. I stood on a crest of a plain of Adwa where in 1896, Italy attempted to colonize the country and in the battle of Adwa. After weeks of stalling the Italian king ordered his generals to move on and get the job done . They were defeated so soundly that they left the country humiliated. This stands all over Africa as the first time that Africans defeated a European power in a battle of any significance. Italy under Mussolini also attempted to occupy Ethiopia and in 1936 he occupied parts of the country for nearly five years under constant insurrection, but was firmly ousted by the Ethiopians, with the support of England and retreated. Haile Selassie, despite guilty of many grievances and corruption, was a progressive leader who advocated a society that supported all faiths and ethnicities, and is today regarded by many Africans as one of the great modern leaders in Africa. So there is a tradition, a mythology, of an historic nation, free of foreign occupation or colonization.
So, what is most important for me about Ethiopia is that it is the hope of Africa. Despite its enormous problems as one of the poorest countries in the world and still today facing yet another massive famine, it is still a model of democracy, of an independent economy, of a country that has always maintained its independence and has a long history as a proud and accomplished nation with a diverse population and an astonishing history of many remarkable civilizations and with artistic achievements that stun!
I have two albums of photos of Ethiopia. Go to: http://travel.webshots.com/album/563312808EnaOQs