It was a gift, a birthday gift. My seventies birthday. And what to give a man who has everything? So, I asked for a contribution to go to Ethiopia. A land I just had to visit. Just like Peru a few years ago. I don’t know why, but I had to go there. There was a special tour organized by the well-known and respected travel agency called Djoser. An adventurous trip of three weeks touring all of Ethiopia, including Christmas, I mean Ethiopian Christmas, on January 7th and the Timk at Festival on January 19th.
Let me tell you something about this beautiful, strange land. The Land of Origins, Ethiopia’s official tourism motto. The Source of Humankind. The cradle of mankind. The birthplace of the wild coffee plant and the earliest development of agriculture. The beginning of the Blue Nile. The population is estimated at around 105 million. More than 70% of the population earns a living from the land. Agriculture is the backbone of the national economy with exports of coffee, oil seeds, flowers, vegetables and all kinds of fruits like banana’s, corn, lentils, papayas and more. There is also a thriving livestock sector.
A land with countless churches, monasteries and chapels, all with beautiful colored drawings. And all containing a copy of the Arc of the Covenant. And maybe the original in Aksum. A land with an incredible varied landscape. An elevated central plateau varying in height between 2.000 and 3.000 meters. With huge and impressive mountain ranges and with 25 mountains, in the north and in the south, whose peaks are higher than 4.000 meters. With beautiful, vast lakes, like lake Tana. It is the water reservoir of Africa. With numerous fantastic historical heritage sights. Nine of them are official UNESCO World Heritage Sights, the highest number in all of Africa. With its many national parks, full of wildlife. With its special, independent tribes in the south. With its impressive history. With its wonderful ceremonies, like the Timkat festival. A country, the only country in Africa that has never been colonized. The figurehead of African independence. A country with a turbulent history, but also with an enormous potential to make it one of the richest countries in Africa. But it was also business. Research for my book “The life of the Earth.” For in Addis Ababa I met Lucy the oldest, or almost oldest human being of the world, a woman who lived in Ethiopia 3,5 million years ago.
Let me ‘walk’ you through this magic land, following the route we took with Djoser.
We arrive at 0600 at the airport, very early in the morning. And there we get our first impression of how things work in Ethiopia. Very slow, checks everywhere, waiting, changing money, passport check, getting visa, picking up luggage, it takes hours before we are ready. But it keeps a lot of people at work. The city itself is very, very busy. A madhouse. Over 7 million people are living here. A place with both beautiful modern buildings and lots of houses in disrepair, with paved roads and mud roads, with museums, palaces, churches and with thousands and thousands of people on the road, including cattle. Oxen, goats, donkeys, you name it. Noisy, dirty, but very much alive. It was January 1ste, Happy New Year, at least for us. But Ethiopia has a different calendar. For example, on January 7th it is Christmas day. Haile Selassie is still very much present. In palaces, in the university and in museums. As is the Lion of Judah. And strange enough this Olmec head, the same as can be seen in Mexico.
We have our first lunch and it is one of the best lunches we will get during this trip. In the Trinity Cathedral where Haile Selassie and his wife are buried, we see the first religious paintings. Wonderful. Beautiful colors. And different faces of course. And yes, Mary Magdalene is there as well, standing at the cross. But she is not very important in Ethiopia. Mother Mary is. One of the things that struck me most is that in all the cathedrals, churches, chapels and abbeys we visited, there are numerous drawings and paintings of Old Testament Scenes. That is something you will rarely see in West European churches. And the other thing that struck me is that here are so many construction sites. So many new buildings being put up.
We have a long way to go. So, breakfast is at 0600 as it will be many more times. Something some ‘pensionados’ will have to get used to. We travel south, in 4 Toyota 4 WD’s, four-wheel drives. A long, long drive, almost 500 km’s, over mostly good roads. This is one of the roads built by the Chinese, who are busy spreading their influence, not only in Asia but also in Africa.
Another observation. There are hardly any fat people on the road. They are all so slender. Most of the women wear beautiful clothes, mostly robes. Walking straight up, very elegant.
We have problems with our car. Suddenly shaking violently. Then we have to slow down. We stop several times but can’t find what is wrong. It does not make for easy driving.
We stop at Tiya, one of the very few stone circles of Ethiopia. It is a beautiful site and I love it. I love all old monuments, pyramids, dolmens, sacred places, and all the signs of ancient civilizations. Several stones have symbols on them. Have a look at the pictures. We stop at a few huts along the road. To see how people live. In no time we are surrounded by children. They come from everywhere and they all smile.That evening we arrive at the beautiful Swaynes hotel, located at Arba Minch.
Arba Minch, Lake Chamo
We stay for two days in this beautiful hotel. I drink a beer and feel good. It is a clear night with a full moon, and I see my first Orbs. Yes, the Orbs are here as well, of course they are. In the morning we drive up the mountain to a special village with the Dorse tribe. And get our first impression of the muddy roads and the dust.
The village is a bit touristic, but it interesting. We have a good guide. We learn about the multiple uses of the fake banana trees. We attend a traditional coffee making ceremony. Roasting the beans, roasting the barley, grinding it, boiling the coffee several times and then drinking it. We bring a toast to life with a nice alcoholic drink, putting us in the right mood for a dance and for buying some souvenirs. In the afternoon we take to the lake, with two boats. A lake full of hippos and crocodiles. Look at these beauties enjoying he mud and the sun. And in the night the air is full of Orbs again.
Lower Omo valley
We drive to the south. First the roads are okay, it is good driving. Along cornfields and lentil fields, the land is very fertile. Along rivers and lakes, with lots of people along the road. With their cattle. And the well-known, yellow 25-liter water cans, carried on the head of women or on a cart pulled by donkeys. There are no pipelines for distributing water. It has all to be carried.
Then the roads change. Becoming hard mud roads and sand roads. Roads full of holes and ribs. Like an old washboard. We drive along a huge mountain range were several rivers originate. Now the beds are dry of course, but pretty deep. Places where we can’t drive in the rainy season. We drive with care. But we have a long way to go, so we have to hurry.
It is spectacular driving this fast over those roads. Bumping, shaking over the washboard type roads. Taking sudden sharp turns to evade deep holes. The cars are also making a lot of noise and are throwing up a lot of dust. For me it is like hell, it is really a bit too much. All my organs are dancing around in my belly, my ears are deaf from the noise and my throat, nose and eyes are full of dust. Then our car gets stuck in the sand of a dry riverbed. Not nice of course, but at least it is a moment of peace. The car has to be pulled out. After a few flat tires we finally arrive at our hotel.
The Omo Rate and Karo Tribes
Now it is time to visit the tribes in the south, in the lower Omo valley. Those special tribes, with their strange customs and their strange looks. I will not go in detail about the different tribes, their culture, their customs, the way they live or why they look as they do. You can see for yourself. Just a selection of the various tribes we visited. First the Omo Rate tribe, across the river. But first we have, for some strange reason, to show our passports to some officials at this side of the river, who are writing everything down. Why, nobody knows, maybe because we are so close to the Kenian border, but we are still in Ethiopia. Never mind. We come to the river. There I am kindly told: “maybe you are too big,” so my place is in a regular boat and not in one of the two hollowed out tree-trunks.
The people are nice. Women with beautiful bare breasts. We buy some souvenirs and take a lot of pictures. Then the women dance for us. While most men are asleep. They hunt at night catching crocodiles and fish. We cross the river again and see how the people are filling their water canisters from the dirty river, next to where the cows are drinking water.
In the afternoon we go to the next tribe, the Karo tribe. The village is located on a hill, next to the river. A beautiful spot. Proud people, beautifully dressed and painted, but it is getting a bit touristic. On the way back, we meet a fierce female Harar warrior who is strongly asking for money because we took some pictures. You have to pay for taking a picture, that is the custom. Costing 5 Birr, which is 0,15 euro for one person, but prices are going up. It won’t be long before the tourists will stay away from those places. Except maybe the Chinese.
Jinka en Ari tribe
A tribe close to the city of Jinka. A big town, dirty, noisy. But the visit to the tribe is interesting. They are completely self-sufficient, they even export some of their products. We see how the houses are built. First a solid framework of sturdy poles, made of acacia wood, used everywhere in Ethiopia and later covered with mud. They grow all kinds of fruits, avocados, jackfruits, papayas and mangos. The children have lovely faces and are constantly being photographed mostly by the ladies in our company. It is a bit embarrassing to see them, leaning forward with their cameras 30 cm in front of their faces, and continuously clicking away. I prefer to use my zoom lens and to take pictures when they are in a more natural state. And finally, I even found a woman who looked really sexy.
The Mursi tribe and the market
We have to get up early again. Not a big problem for most of us did not sleep very well because of the noise and the flies and the poor facilities in the hotel, especially in the bathroom. But bathroom deficiencies occurred nearly everywhere in Ethiopia, with only a few exceptions. It teaches you to appreciate all the luxuries you have at home. The things we take for granted.
We drive up the mountain to the Mursi tribe. A bad road, it takes almost 2,5 hours. We have to pass a police checkpoint and an armed soldier is accompanying us. When we arrive, we have to pay a lot of money to visit this place. And the guide who doesn’t say very much. It is a dirty place, full of flies, goat’s droppings and garbage. But it is the most famous tribe. Where the women, when they are fifteen, have two of their teeth removed and their under lip stretched out. Originally meant to make them less attractive as slaves, but over the time it grew into an attractive feature of the women. But now things are officially forbidden. Viewing the women is becoming some kind of a weird circus. A bad show. Look at the pictures. This is not the way people normally live. On the way back, we are surprised by a group of boys, standing at the side of the road, painted white. What a strange sight those white painted penises’. And look at this woman with those tattoos, painful, just to prove how brave you are.
Then we visit to the local museum, where they show a nice movie about “jumping the bull.” Not like they did in Crete, jumping over the horns, but running over the slippery backs of several bulls placed next to each other.
The market is interesting. It is very busy. And very colorful. Many small traders. People are mostly selling fruit, rice potatoes, onions and clothes of course. And tobacco leaves, pure tobacco this time, without all the dirty ingredients added later by the big manufacturers to make you addicted to the stuff.
It is January 6th, Christmas eve in Ethiopia. A few of us, including me, will visit a Coptic church that evening. We, the men, we do it all wrong. Going in through the door where only women may enter. Having our shoes on while walking into the church and even worse into the room reserved for women. But people were very nice about it. We were gently directed to the room for men and our shoes were brought to us. We stay about an hour. There is not much to be seen. Just the continuous chanting of the priest and his novices. When we go back to our hotel, the air is full of Orbs.
New York, Konso stonewalled settlements
January 7th, it is Christmas day! So, Happy Christmas everyone! We are going east again, direction of Konso. Stopping for lunch at a place where the vultures are flying around, waiting for a meal. The toilets are, as in most cases in Ethiopia, not up to standard. But the countryside is beautiful. Terraced agriculture everywhere.
We drop off our luggage at our hotel, a beautiful place, at least on the outside, called Konso Korebta, have lunch and then drive up to ‘New York.’ Over a small, steep road. Here we see a strange landscape. A beautiful natural phenomenon. A huge earthen wall and tall mud ‘buildings’ sticking out of the valley.
The official name is not New York of course, but some tourists called it that way and the name stuck. Here we meet some-one opening up a small sack and showing us some stones, malagite and quartz. I love those stones, coming from the earth of Ethiopia. And I buy some. Then we go to the stone walled city, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Small paths, huge stonewalls and some beautiful, original wooden statues who really belong here and not in exclusive shops to be sold to tourists. A big man shows us what makes a man in this village. You have to lift up this stone, above your head and then throw it backwards. Then you are a man, and then can you marry a woman.
Back at our hotel we have a meeting with school children. We all adopted the school in the area and gave some money. Our tour leader bought books, pens and papers for them and invited them for a drink in the hotel. They were very shy, but happy.
The school, the long road, Aregash lodge
0530 Overall. Suddenly, all lights that went out at 2300, light up again. Apparently, a way of saving energy. There are a lot of complaints. Not sleeping very well, noisy, mosquitos, diarrhea. Me too!
We are heading north, towards the Bale Mountains, a National Park. But first we visit the school. The children are really happy. They should be, they are lucky to be able to be at school. Only 30% of the children can attend a school. The rest has to work, take care of the family, must tend the land or they live too far away. Then here is a special ceremony. All he children line up before the flagpole. Boys and girls separate, and separate classes. Then the Ethiopian flag is raised and next they all sing their national anthem. Very impressive.
On the road we meet another Djoser group, heading south. Both tour leaders exchange their experiences. Always useful. We pass fully loaded trucks, markets, rivers, birds, and lakes. We have lunch in a nice place, admire the building projects, softly hate the bad roads and the dust and finally arrive at our hotel, Aregash lodge. A beautiful place, in the middle of the jungle. Great hospitality, beautiful cabins, magic. There are even hyena’s in the area, but they keep away from people. The cabins are very well built, just look at these structures. We should have stayed here for two days instead if one. Such a good place to relax.
The fishing village, Bale Mountains, walking high
It will be a long day, again, so we get up at 0515, breakfast at 0600 and on the road again. First visiting a fishing village. Not very romantic, only the birds are worth seeing. The fish market is a poor spectacle; better leave it out next time. At the side of the lake there is a tree full of monkeys. My colleagues seem to go ‘crazy’ about animals in the wild, so they are clicking away like crazy.
We go on. We still have a long way to go. Getting higher and higher. No more trees. Then another accident. There are many accidents in Ethiopia. And all the cars, busses, taxis, trucks are fully loaded. Finally, we arrive at the national park. A nice lady welcomes us. With a guide we enter the park and see some great animals. The Niala, a big deer, Menelik the forest antelope, wild boars and monkeys. We stop at our hotel and have a quick cup of tomato soup. It is not a very nice hotel. Then we have to go on, into the mountains. Higher and higher, up to a rocky plateau, over 3.600 meters high. Here we are ‘invited’ to get out of our 4WD’s and walk. The cars will follow us. A curious ‘move.’ It is cold, there is a fresh wind and there is not much to be seen. The landscape doesn’t change much. After 45 minutes we have had enough. I am not walking any further, it is useless. 10 minutes would have been enough.
Soon I am joined by some of my fellow travelers, who are thinking the same thing. Then we go back to our hotel.
Back to Addis Ababa
We go back to Addis Ababa, to our old hotel. It is a long drive. In the Bale Mountains we meet some monkeys and take more pictures. We pass endless fields of grain. This is the granary of Ethiopia. At last we come at a beautiful road. A four-way lane highway. Built by the Chinese. They are really investing in this country, but what do they get in return? Ethiopia has no ‘natural resources’, no gas, no oil, no coal, no gold, no diamonds, nothing. And no harbors either since the province of Eritrea, following a referendum in 1993, became independent with the name ‘Democratic Republic of Eritrea.’ What then? Water, bananas, agricultural products, hotels for increasing tourism, tax advantages. Or is Ethiopia a stepping-stone for the rest of Africa?
Anyway, the motorway is a beauty. A wonderful change after some of the bad roads in the south. It is a toll road, but we have to pay only 50 Bir, that is 1,50 euro, for a drive of over an hour. No doubt prices will go up in the future. It is good to relax in our old, familiar Ghion hotel. First, we say goodbye to our four drivers. In spite of the many problems we had with our car, the driver stayed calm and friendly. So, they all got a nice tip.
That evening I go to a Chinese restaurant close to the hotel and order the spiciest food I can get, starting with what they call the Devils soup. And it works. The next morning all my diarrhea problems are over!
The Debre-Libanos Monastery, the Portuguese bridge, the valley of the Blue Nile
We now take a bus, a touring car. It can easily hold 17 passengers, but it was a bit tight when they stowed our entire luggage in the back. And dangerous. For after a sudden break, some bags flew forward and hit one of my colleagues. From that moment on the bags were stowed on top of the bus. We first drive to the famous Debre-Libanos monastery, next to a museum. Where they have a wonderful collection of crosses. The Ethiopians love their crosses; they are all different and have a special meaning. In the church we see a panel with some interesting regulations. Look at rule number 2. “Men and women who had sexual – intercourse are not allowed to enter the church and the cave with in forty eight (48) hours.” I know we have to go in without shoes, barefoot or on our socks, but this is new to me. I have attended several spiritual seminars in Europe, some with special rules, such as no smoking or drinking alcohol for three days, but this is new to me.
It is a beautiful church, built in 1965. Previous churches had all been destroyed by Muslim fanatics. Or it is rather a monastery, but the church itself isn’t the monastery, the whole area around the church is. A saint who lived in a cave up the hill and who had performed several miracles, is now buried in the church. The cave where he lived all his life looks a bit like the Cave of Mary Magdalene in the Baume Massif, rock formation 15 miles northeast of Marseille. The people are very pious and very tolerant. They accept us as visitors to the church and allow us even to attend some of their ceremonies. At the end of the church behind, the altar and covered by a white sheet, is a copy of the Arc of the Covenant. And there are beautiful stained-glass windows. What a privilege to be here.
We go on, driving over the high plateau to the Portuguese bridge. The Portuguese were the first to sail around Africa, remember Vasco da Gama, and he first Europeans to visit the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. The kings of Ethiopia saw the might and firepower of Portugal and wanted a treaty with Portugal. The Portuguese were there for a while, and built the bridge, but then moved on to more accessible and more profitable areas.
We descend into the Nile valley. It is a long and very dangerous road. A road with some bad holes. A road where many accidents took place. We drive very slowly. At the bottom we get out of the bus and walk across the Blue Nile, it is not really blue now, over the old bridge. And take a good look at the new bridge. It is a magical sight.
At the end of the afternoon we check in at the new Abema hotel in Debre Markos. A good hotel.
Lake Tana and its islands
The next day we travel further to Lake Tana. One of my favorite destinations. For the story goes that when the Arc of the Covenant was carried from the Holy Land of Palestine to Ethiopia, it rested for a while on one of the islands in lake Tana. It is the largest lake in Ethiopia. We check in at the luxurious hotel Tana, situated at the lake.
In the afternoon we get into the boat. It takes about two hours to get to the islands. On the way we see two men fishing in their canoes made of reeds. The islands are beautiful. We take a small path of about 600 meters to get to the church. The path is literally ‘littered’ with little stalls with all kinds of the most wonderful gifts. On the islands live about 3.000 people. They exist on coffee, agriculture and tourism. Muslims are welcome to visit the place but are not allowed to stay there.
We see the most wonderful paintings. So expressive. And to be clear, the black painted people are bad people. And the people with only one eye are bad people too. There is even a painting of the Arc of the Covenant. Thank you, Jenny, for this picture.
And look at this gentle priest. So wise, so understanding. On the way back, a young boy is painting some of the scenes shown in the church. And beautiful, young ladies are selling their products to the tourists. About 100 people visit the isle every day. In the second church I found this strange painting. I don’t know what it means, maybe you do? And then back to the hotel and watching the sun setting over the lake. Magic.
The Market, The Waterfalls of the Blue Nile
From our hotel we go by bus to a place from where we can walk to the waterfalls of the Blue Nile. They are building a new road, but unfortunately it is not yet finished. So, we have to turn back halfway and travel over the old road to the place where we can start our walk. We are lucky. There is a market. So, lots of people from all over the place are walking to the market, carrying all the goods they hope to sell. It is a steep, rocky path and we have to step aside several times to let groups of people or donkeys pass. The women are amazing; they are amazing anyway, but even more so now. Carrying heavy loads on their head and walking like a gazelle up the hill. While we have lots of trouble just walking there, with hardly any luggage at all. I did hurt my knees badly while walking and stumbling over the rocks. Even with a stick. Well, just look at the pictures.
Then, far away, we see the waterfall of the Blue Nile. Even now, almost at the end of the dry season, it is spectacular. First, we have to cross a long bridge made of steel. A bit narrow, but I love it. Even if it means leaning back when a fully loaded donkey has to pass. I get as close as I can to the waterfall and enjoy the view. This young woman is my companion. She took some pictures of me, so I was obliged to buy some cotton scarfs from her. Still very cheap and wonderful presents for my children and grandchildren. Then we cross by boat to the other side where the bus is waiting. Lunch in the hotel and then on our way to Gonder, or Gondar. We enjoy the landscape with its markets, street views and strange rock formations.
Gonder or Gondar, another UNESCO World Heritage Site
We check in a hotel situated a little outside the city. Where we have a nice view over Gonder. The city is known as the ‘Camelot of Africa.’ We visit the impressive royal compound and are lucky to have, for a change, a wonderful guide. Someone who speaks perfect English and knows what he is talking about. The city of Gonder became the capital of Emperor Fasiladas in 1636. He gave orders for the construction of the first castle. Other castles, churches and other buildings, including a sauna, were later built by the emperors Yohannes, Iyasu I, Dawit III and Iyasu III. Gonder was the capital of Ethiopia for over two centuries. At that time about 100.000 people lived in Gonder. It was the economic, cultural and political center of the country. The imperial city of Gonder is enormous. A city surrounded by huge walls. We take several pictures.
Then up to the Holy Trinity Church, the Debre Birhan Selassie Church, where people are preparing for a special ceremony the next day. The church is famous for its Holy Trinity, shown as three identical men. When I remark that with us, in the west, the Holy Trinity is The Father, The Son and The Holy ‘female’ Spirit, people are shocked. The ceiling is covered with a hundred angel faces.
Then we move to the bathhouse. A place that is now filling up with water. Preparing for Timkat. The festival where the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is re-enacted. After the local bishop has finished his chanting and has blessed the water, people will jump in the water hoping to be blessed themselves.
On the field next to the bathhouse some boys are playing basketball. They have some kind of a ball but nothing else, so two of the boys act as baskets! Isn’t that nice?
We have lunch at the famous restaurant ‘The Four Sisters.’ Well known from the Lonely Planet guide. Always useful to carry that book with you. The food is excellent and so are the ladies. Then we get in the bus again and drive to the north, climbing from 1800 to 2800 meters, finally arriving in Debark, in the Giant Lobellia hotel.
Simien National Park, the first Unesco World Heritage site
The hotel is shit. Pure shit. A lot of noise during the night. No hot water. There was no breakfast; at 0700 people were still sleeping on the floor. We got some bread and honey. Just look at our faces. The service was bad and still people were haggling over prices. Later, the next day, I discovered that my suitcase had been opened, that part of my money, a 20-dollar bill, was stolen from my backpack and that my glasses had disappeared.
So please Djoser choose a better hotel next time. NB. All these things have of course been discussed with our tour leader. And I have sent a separate letter to Djoser.
But it is a beautiful day. We first went to some kind of military post, paid for our entry in the park, embarked an armed soldier and a guide, picked up our packed lunch and left the city. We are climbing to about 3600 meters and then stop. We get out of the bus and start walking. It is beautiful. The landscape is magnificent; it’s like a fairy tale. Huge mountains, lush vegetation even at this height and a guide who is proudly telling us how special this area is. There is a lot of water stored in the mountains. They have 14 mountain peaks here that are higher than 4.000 meters. Their highest mountain is Ras Dashen (4543m). They have a unique vegetation and many kinds of wild animals. It is a magic walk. With incredible views. A pity that my left knee is playing up again. So, I buy a stick for 100 Birr (3, - euro), a magic stick, which I kept with me all the time and even brought with me to the Netherlands. We meet an Israelian group who is also struggling with the path.
At a small plateau we can buy some souvenirs. Placemats, heats and my stick. We have lunch at a nice spot with an incredible view. Some throw their boiled potatoes from their packed lunch away. They are immediately picked up by birds of prey.
Some of us carry on, and some are going back to the Simien Lodge (3.260 meters or 10.700 feet). The highest lodge in Africa. Near the lodge is a large colony of apes. And in the lodge is shadow and cold beer. When we go back to our hotel we don’t want to eat there. So, we go to another restaurant, also known from Lonely Planet, accompanied by lots of Orbs.
From Debark to Aksum
Located in the northern Ethiopian Highlands Aksum once stood as the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. The ruins, dating from the 1ste and 13th centuries, range from giant obelisks to royal tombs, and from ancient castles to special churches.
It is a long drive from Debark to Aksum. Over 280 km, over a winding road. A road that has been constructed by the Italians, using 60.000 men. We see beautiful mountains and deep valleys. Sometimes it looks as if we are driving through a painted desert, similar to the painted desert in the USA. We see poor villages and even an Eritrean Refugee camp. After lunch and a coffee break our tour leader has organized a quiz. To break up the long voyage. And it works, it was great!
In the afternoon we check into our hotel. There is even some time to go into town, do some shopping and, using a Tuk Tuk, to go to an ATM to get some more money. Maximum is 4.000 Birr (130, - euros). And we get great a tip. A nice book about Ethiopia. It is called “20.000 Engelen,” by Jan Boonstra.
Aksum, obelisks, royal tombs, the Arc of the Covenant
The next morning, we visit Aksum properly. The Aksumite Empire came into existence around 300 B.C. Aksum was an important city. Its buildings included impressive stone palaces and temples. Its rulers put up the famous obelisks, or stelae, which were beautifully cut out of single pieces of stone. The people of the Aksumite Empire were great traders. They were in close commercial contact with Arabia, Egypt and India.
First, we visit the obelisks. Indeed, an awesome sight. The largest still standing obelisk is 24 meters high. The broken one was even larger. At the graves of the old kings we find stones, altar stones with holes that very much look like those in Petra, Jordan. And even more curious we find notches in the stones that look exactly like those in Cusco, Sacsayhuaman and Machu Picchu in Peru. Notches that were filled with hardened bronze to keep the stones together during earthquakes. And under one large fallen stone we can even see a drawing of the Arc of the Covenant.
Across the square are the ruins of the oldest church in Aksum, dating from the 4th century AD. Behind the ruins is the old church where they say that the original Arc of the Covenant is placed. Next to that church is a new church, for the roof of the old church is leaking. But the Arc is still in the old church. Guarded by one priest who stays in the church and in the area around the church for his whole life. The area is closed off by a fence. The story goes that the Arc of the Covenant was brought by Menelik I, the son of King Salomon and the Queen of Sheba, to Ethiopia in the 10th century B.C. There is another story that the Arc was brought to safety around 600 B.C. before Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C. First going to the Temple of Elephantine in the Nile until 400 B.C., then brought to an island in Lake Tana and finally, from there brought to Aksum.
In front of the square a huge new cathedral has been built, the new Seyon Cathedral. There are wonderful paintings. A priest is showing us an old book from the16th century, with beautiful drawings. Next to it is a museum with incredible artifacts. All the crowns of the kings of Ethiopia are there. Alas we were not allowed to take pictures and there was no booklet available of all those treasures.
Then we, that is to say the men, for the women are for some reason not allowed to go into this church, then we go to the old Seyon cathedral. It is magic, we can feel the energy. There are beautiful ancient drawings. Look at the white star with its 8 leaves, a symbol for the Arc. On our way back, we meet the high Priest of Aksum who gently poses for us.
After lunch, at the end of the afternoon we visit the palace of the queen of Sheba. A few miles out of Aksum. We don’t know if that’s her real palace, but it doesn’t matter. I am more interested in the field of stelae or standing stones opposite the ruins of the palace. What are they hiding?
Lalibela, the Rock Churches
It is too long to drive. So Djoser has organized air transport. That is great. But why all those checks? Starting even before we reach the airport itself, on the road to the airport. And further ‘deepening’ at the airport. Shoes, watch, wallet, belt and all our luggage of course, everything is checked twice. Well, maybe it is the proximity to Eritrea, still an inflammable situation. But we are used to waiting and there are several shops selling all kinds of wonderful stuff. And a nice painting showing three possible configurations of the Arc of the Covenant. The plane, a new Bombardier DH8-Q400 is almost full. It is a good flight with a grand view of the Simien Mountains. And look at this heart shaped hill. After almost two hours we arrive at Lalibela airport. A bus is taking us to our hotel. The place crowded. It is full of busses, touring cars and what have you. Thousands of tourists have come to Lalibela for the Timket Festival, the Ethiopian Epiphany, celebrated on January 19th.
But first we visit the rock churches. It is not cheap. We each have to pay a 50-dollar entrance fee. A guide takes us to the first church; there are 11 of them. Hewn out of the rocks in the 13th century, with the help of angels, so they say. This was done so that they wouldn’t be visible from a distance. And the intention was also to make the place look like Jerusalem, the “New Jerusalem.” There is still a strong connection with the Arc of the Covenant, with Israel and with the many Jews that lived in Ethiopia. We are late, the first church is closed. They built a huge roof over the church, for protection. It is not a pretty sight and Unesco is working on another solution. But it is late. We briefly visit another church and then we go back to the hotel for we will have to get up very early tomorrow morning, in order to secure a place on the grandstand facing the Timkat spectacle. The religious dignitaries in their beautiful costumes, the chanting, the blessing of the water, and finally the spraying of holy water over the believers.
Lalibela, the Timkat or Timket Festival, the Procession
We get up very early for we have to be at our place no later than 0500 in the morning. There are thousands of people on the street. Tourists with camera’s and strange clothes and the true believers all dressed in white. We make it to the grandstand in time. Together with a few hundred other tourists. It is still dark. There are lots of Orbs in the air, as can be expected at a sacred place or a place where important ceremonies will take place.
Slowly it gets lighter. Then the bishop arrives. And more and more religious dignitaries. All dressed in different costumes. It is a colorful spectacle. Continuous chanting, reading verses from the Kebra Negast, their holy book. Drumming. Rows of priests moving forward and backward. Finally, after four hours of waiting, the moment is there. The bishop and two of his aides walk three times over the wall of the blue cross that is filled with water. Then they dip their crosses into the water and ‘wow’ now the water is holy water!
Priests are spraying the water all over the believers. What a sight. And it doesn’t take long before the people, mostly young boys, jump in the water. An enormous mass of people is gathered in the area around the blue cross. For a fleeting moment I think what would happen if some fanatic would blow himself up in there. Don’t think about it!
We go back to the hotel and walk to the balcony. There we have a great view of the procession that will carry the Ark of the Covenant, the Lalibela version, back to the church. After lunch we visit some more rock churches. We walk through the narrow passages and tunnels from church to church. There is a special lady who takes care of our shoes, for every time we enter a church we have to remove our shoes. A group of young girls is entertaining the tourists by dancing in the courtyard. They have a lot of fun.
At night we have our traditional dinner, the dinner where we say goodbye to our wonderful tour leader. With a speech, in this case a poem and a nice tip from every-one of us. He really did a great job. It made a lot of difference.
The next morning, we fly to Addis Ababa, check in at our old hotel, fresh up and pack our luggage. Then we have dinner, look at the last Orbs in the air and are off to the airport. I will spare you the hardship of finally getting to our plane, for the first row of people already started outside the airport building. But we all made it. You really need at least three hours to pass all the hurdles.
The flight back is via Milan this time. Where we unload a hundred Italians. We arrive at Brussels airport at 0600 in the morning and have to wait for 15 minutes before the doors are opened.
It was an adventurous holiday. Absolutely. We saw and experienced a lot of things. Many wonderful things and a few not so wonderful things. But one thing is sure, we are all glad to go home. Where everything really works.
Jaap W. Rameijer
8759 LE Exmorra
tel: +31 515 85 65 64
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