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           MY TRIP TO ETHIOPIA
                                 
                          by Maureen Patricia Halsall


After a Friday afternoon flight with Ethiopian
Airlines from London Heathrow, our group arrived
early the following morning in Addis Ababa
("New Flower", the modern capital built by King
Menelik the Second in 1887).

Here we spent Saturday morning visiting Trinity Cathedral, where we were surprised to see the grave of the English suffragette leader, Sylvia Pankhurst, who was accorded the rare honour of burial there as a "friend of the nation" [see photo on right]. 

In addition, that afternoon we visited two important museums: the National Museum, where the 3.5 million year old fossil remains of the upright walking hominid dubbed "Lucy" are housed; and the Ethnological Museum, which furnished useful  background on the dress and customs of  the various peoples we should meet on our tour.

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On Sunday, we made an excursion to Mount
Entoto, just north of Addis Ababa.  This is where Menelik and his court first settled, before
the king decided to rebuild his new city on lower
ground--where water supplies were more abundant and near the hot springs that arthritis obliged his wife, Queen Taitu, to visit regularly for relief. 

Here, outside St. Raguel Church, we encountered a group of young people (segregated into two groups according to sex), being instructed by student volunteers from Addis Ababa University, who were giving up their Sundays in order to promote literacy [see photo on right].

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On Monday, we flew north via Mekele to Axum, Ethiopia's oldest city, dating back over two thousand years.  Here huge stelae (pillars), made of single blocks of granite and standing as high as thirty-three metres, mark the sites of chambered underground tombs [see photo on right of the Axum Stelae Park, with the Giant Fallen Stela in the foreground].

Supposedly, the original Ark of the Covenant is reposited in the nearby Sanctuary Chapel of the sixteenth-century Church of Saint Mary of Zion, making Axum the holiest city in Ethiopia.  According to Ethiopian belief, King Solomon gave the Ark to Menelik the First, his son by the Queen of Sheba and the first king of the Lion of Judah dynasty.  As a result of the Ark's presence, it was here that for many centuries the successive kings of Ethiopia came to be crowned.

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From Axum we flew south on Tuesday to Lalibela, the "New Jerusalem" built in the twelfth century by King Lalibela, in an attempt to reproduce locally all the features of the original Jerusalem, then rendered difficult of access by  the Muslim conquests. 

Lalibela's eleven rock-hewn churches, several carved completely free from the surrounding bedrock, are among the unsung wonders of the world; and the remote little town remains to this day an important centre of pilgrimage. 

Its most spectacular church, in my opinion, is Beta Giorgis, which is carved in the form of an equal-armed St. George cross, in honour of the country's patron saint [see photo on right, where a tourist is engaged in sketching the roof of Beta Giorgis, assisted by a couple of young locals].

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On Friday we flew west from Lalibela to Gondar, viewing the jagged volcanic Simien Mountains en route.  Nestling in their foothills at the north end of Lake Tana, Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from 1632 to 1868.

It boasts a number of castles and palaces built by successive emperors, the oldest of which was constructed by Fasilidas, who ruled  from 1632 to 1635 [see photo on right, taken from high up on Fasilidas' castle].

The Church of Debre Birhan Selassie, built by Fasilidas' grandson, Iyasu the Great, is justly famous for its painted "angel" ceiling as well as for the other highly colourful religious paintings that cover the surfaces of the walls.

Of special interest also is Kusquam, the ruined abbey of the long-lived, powerful, and highly controversial Queen Metoub.

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On Sunday, we drove overland by bus to Bahar Dar at the southern end of Lake Tana.  The landscape en route was flatter and characterized by the distinctive shapes of volcanic plugs, thrusting up from the surrounding countryside, which has been almost denuded of trees in the perennial Ethiopian quest for firewood [see photo on right of precious firewood for sale by the roadside].

Also, in the vicinity of Lake Tana, where road-
building and hence the rapid deployment of armed forces prove easier than in the mountainous terrain traversed earlier, we began to see much evidence--in the form of ruined tanks and wrecked military transports--of the recent war which resulted in the 1991 ousting of Mengistu.

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The next day we made a boat excursion to the Zegi Peninsula on Lake Tana, to visit one of the many monasteries that found safe havens on the lake. 

Here on Lake Tana, the primary means of transport for both people and cargo is the tankwa (papyrus boat), often seen laden to almost unbelievable heights with all varieties of freight [see the photo on right of tankwas beached on the Zegi Peninsula].

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From the dock on the Zegi Peninsula, we climbed the steep path up to the monastery of Ura-Kidanemeret--one of the very few of the lavishly-painted monasteries that is open for viewing by women [see photo on right of a wall-painting depicting equestrian warrior saints].

Later we anchored, while the men of our group visited the island monastery of Kebran Gabriel, whose sacred ground must not be polluted by female feet.

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The following day we made an excursion by bus along the Blue Nile to Tissisat Falls, the first falls along the river after it issues from its source in Lake Tana.  Tissisat Falls are four hundred metres wide and fifty metres deep--impressive, even if  (like me) you happen to live near Niagara.

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On Wednesday we flew south to Addis Ababa
and from there proceeded further south by bus
to Debre Zeit, where we lunched at the Ras Hotel, which is perched on the rim of a crater lake in the East African Rift Valley--amidst bougainvillea, flame trees and jacarandas, all alive with monkeys and a stunning variety of birdlife.  Then it was onward to the bustling cattletown of Nazaret for the night.

Everywhere we looked, as we travelled down through the Rift Valley Lakes, the rich, deep soil was under the plough--in stark contrast with the barren stony uplands visited earlier [see photo on right of ploughing in the Rift Valley].

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The next day we proceeded further south, past the Zik Wala volcano, the Awash River, Koka Dam and Zwai Lake, stopping for lunch at a hotel on the shore of Lake Langano.  Then it was on to the hot-springs resort of Wondo Genet for the night.

The area abounds in great herds of cattle, which we encountered often, as they were driven to or from their daily watering at one or other of the Rift Valley lakes or rivers [see photo on right, where cattle being watered share the river with clothes being laundered].

On Friday our trip's southernmost destination was reached: Lake Awasa.  Unfortunately, by this time a number of our members had succumbed to various ailments, mainly of the digestion, bladder or skin; so very few were tempted to take a swim.

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The next day we spent ten hours driving north to Addis Ababa, stopping for lunch once more by the shore of Lake Langano. 

En route, we stopped numerous times to photograph the ubiquitous birdlife, as well as such diverse subjects as termite mounds or the very interesting Muslim grave monuments, which often go into great detail depicting the accomplishments of the deceased [see photo on right of a monument erected to a noted cattle-breeder].

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IN SUMMARY

Ethiopia is a fascinating, but very difficult country for the Western traveller.  The archaeological, historical and cultural sites are
impressive.  The scenery is often breath-taking.  The people are handsome, physically elegant and both gentle and charming in manner; and their piety is inspiring [see photo on right of a pilgrim monk, complete with pilgrim's staff].
The social and economic situation, however, is heart-breaking. 

Much of the country has lost its original forest cover; and, as a result, the highlands are badly eroded and the minerals have been leached out of the soil there to the point where the water in the Blue Nile is now practically sterile.

The harsh nature of a great deal of the terrain makes the bulk transport of essential goods (food, medical supplies, fertilizers, etc.) almost impossible without a massive expenditure of funds that simply are not available.

Everywhere one sees curable evils: lepers lacking fingers and noses; people blinded by bilharzia; child cripples, whose limbs easily could be straightened by modern medical techniques.

In Addis Ababa and in other reasonably accessible towns, efforts clearly are being made to educate the population.  Elsewhere, however,
it is obvious that children have no access to teachers, books, or even paper and pencils.
In fact, the overall population is still sixty-five percent illiterate.

Thus, Ethiopia remains a very poor and under-developed country; and, lamentably,
as far as I could see, conditions there seemed likely to deteriorate still further.  Increasingly frequent droughts, potential crop failure, disease and illiteracy are shaky foundations for a nation entering  the third millennium, whether or not they are the favoured guardians of the Ark of the Covenant.

The End


For other trip diaries, see the index to my trips and the related links at: