I returned to Ethiopia in November of 2018, some 50 years after I arrived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, fresh out of college and looking for adventure as far away from home as I could get, and stayed for three years.
My daughter Jennifer had been gently reminding me every few years that she and I should plan a trip there. In the summer of 2018 she mentioned it again and we agreed, yes we should. So, she juggled her busy schedule, worked out plans for her family’s survival in her absence, and came up with a nearly two-week window for a trip to Ethiopia in November.
We started checking out tour companies. Our goal was pretty simple: we would arrange our own flights there and back, book a hotel for some days on our own in Addis Ababa, and use the efficiency of a tour to get us around the country to the major historical sites.
Our own time in Addis was a must because that’s where I used to live and there were some people and places there I wanted to see.
The historical tour would be a revisit for me to many towns I’d already been to and for Jennifer it would be a terrific way to see the country and learn about the history of it. And, truthfully, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to all that when I was there before anyway.
The clincher was the opportunity for the two of us to hang out together for a couple weeks. How often would that chance come along again in our busy lives? Well, admittedly mine’s not so busy any more, but hers certainly is!
(Note: If you would like to read about and see what life was like for me in Ethiopia 50 years ago, go here.)
Here is my account of our trip:
Day One, Thursday, November 15 Good Morning Addis Ababa!
Wow! I am here!
They say you can’t go home again, but when I woke up this morning I felt like I had done just that. The city smelled the same as I remembered, I could hear roosters crowing in the distance, kids laughing in the school yard next door and merchants calling out as they walked through the neighborhood.
And when I looked out the second story window of our hotel room I saw a sea of tin roofs, some straight and shiny, most of them rusted and battered and held down with
rocks. The shanty construction was what I expected, poles lashed together and plastered with mud/cement to form walls, all topped off with sheets of tin.
All the satellite dishes were a new addition to the tableau, though!
This is sometimes called “informal housing” by folks who study such stuff. Hence this description of Addis on the Newgeography.com website: “As would be expected in a developing world urban area, there is a large urban core with mixture of government and private buildings, literally surrounded by lower income, principally informal housing.”
Whatever you call it, I was happy to see it. I was happy to see that Addis Ababa was still the overgrown village I had come to know and love 50 years ago. Sure, there were now built up, modern parts of town, and suburban areas with mile after mile of huge apartment blocks mixed in with shantys and even developments of single-family housing, but here in the center it was still as gritty as ever, much as it was 50 years ago.
The main difference, as I would quickly find out, is that Addis is really a lot bigger now. It has about three times the population and its geographic area has exploded. The Google Earth graphic on left, from Newgeography, compares 1973 to 2010. The difference is striking. Wherever the city isn’t hemmed in by mountains it has expanded.
One measure for me of the livability of an urban area is how fast I can get out of it and into the countryside. Addis Ababa 50 years ago was perfect for me. Anyone could get around town with ease, by bus, taxi or on foot, and I could go down to the Mercato and hop on a provincial bus and be out of town in a few minutes. Or, if I was up for it, even take a walk from my house and in an hour be up on top of Mount Entoto, with its tremendous view of the city.
Not these days though. Just moving around Addis Ababa, much less getting to the
outskirts from the center of the city is painfully slow, through thick traffic, over potholed and rough, stone-paved streets and through pedestrian-clogged roadways, intersections and roundabouts. At busy times the lines at bus and taxi stands were nearly a block long.
Driving is a matter of moving along at a snail’s pace, grabbing every inch you can, often a half a foot or less away from neighboring vehicles. You don’t have to worry much about the cars next to you if you have your nose ahead of theirs, and you certainly don’t have to worry
about the vehicles behind you. And feel free to create another lane of traffic if you have the space and opportunity to wedge in there.
In foot traffic the rules are much the same. You don’t see much gesturing to let someone get by. If you’re ahead by even an inch you have the right of way–but don’t hesitate or you’ll lose it.
No, I don’t think I’d be happy living there now, but I was sure happy to be there this morning. We were at a small hotel called the Addis Regency, a modest, 33-room hotel right in the thick of things. We had arrived late last night, close to midnight.
I’d picked this hotel because it was close to where I used to live, in the basement
apartment of a three-story building down near the Ras Makonnen Bridge. This part of town is called the Piazza, the gritty, older, commercial center of things back in the day. The area is anchored by a busy, narrow commercial road that winds from Arat Kilo up Adwa Street, around and over the bridge and then back down Haile Selassie Street to the Empire Cinema . That was my old neighborhood.
The night before, as the hotel shuttle van from the airport turned from narrow and busy Benin Street up a pedestrian-crowded, one-lane alley and turned into the postage-stamp parking lot and the hotel manager came out to greet us, I knew this hotel was a good choice. I had wanted to avoid the larger, more touristy hotels on the broad boulevards of the newer and more modern commercial areas of town, and I sure had.
Everything about our arrival into the country, from the wad of comfortably smelly and reassuringly worn Ethiopian bills I got from the female Indian clerk through the narrow window at the dilapidated bank outlet near the baggage claim area, to the airport bathroom, sans paper towels or working hand-drying machines but equipped with a female attendant with a roll of toilet paper for drying if one wanted a few squares, to the shuttle ride through busy streets from Bole Airport to the hotel, screamed out Welcome Back!
To wake up this morning, feeling rested and with the sights and sounds telling me I was right in the middle of where I wanted to be in the city was icing on the cake. The three-hour flight from Florida to Newark Airport Tuesday morning and the 17-hour flight on Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa faded quickly.
Addis Ababa still exists! I am here! It is eight in the morning and I am ready to go.
Today’s plan was pretty simple: A nice leisurely breakfast and then meet up with a man I hadn’t seen in 50 years. In 1967, Wondimagegne Gizaw was a student at Haile Selassie I University and I was a beginning English teacher there. One of the many bright high
school students at the time who’d moved from their provincial roots to attend the university, Wondi lived in a dorm on campus and like most, had little money. These students were the cream of the crop, a tiny percentage of the nation’s youth.
He caught me after class one day early in the term to ask if he could help me learn Amharic, the language they’d tried hard to drill into my head for five hours a day during a summer of training at the University of Utah. The arrangement was simple and one that most Peace Corps volunteers at the time entered into and probably still do. For a few bucks to help a student survive you’d get a service in return. In a village it might be help with some chores. In the big city it was some language lessons.
With only ten years’ difference in ages, we became friends and it lasted through my time there. I never did become fluent in the language. I am just not good with languages. We corresponded for a while after I left, but I admit I did not keep up my end very well. It turned out, as he later told me, that he had kept up a correspondence with my mother until shortly before her death in 2006.
Anyway, when all this trip planning started I decided to get in touch with him and see if we could meet up while I was there. I had an email address on him from several years ago, but I got a bounceback. I also had a post office box number. I remembered that it was a big deal back then to get a box number and once you got one you did not give it up.
So a letter in an envelope went off airmail to the box number. A week later an email appeared from Wondi. Yes! He’s eager for our visit and full of hospitality. He’d graduated from the University, studied abroad, spent years working for NGOs and was still living in Addis.
And at ten in the morning or our first day in Addis Ababa an old Toyota Land Rover pulled into the hotel parking lot. Wondi had arrived. I think he looked more like he did then than I now do, and his voice and laugh were still recognizable. It was great to see him and for he and Jennifer to meet.
I should mention here the Ethiopian greeting customs for men. Fifty years ago it was handshakes at the drop of a hat. In the morning at work, on the street, in a store, wherever and nearly whenever. If you encountered someone, even if you’d seen them only a few hours before, you shook hands. When in doubt, shake the hand, that was my motto.
And that motto served me well 50 years ago until I encountered the one occasion upon which Ethiopian males don’t shake hands: Several of us from the Malaria office in Dessie attended the wake of one of my boss’s relatives. I always liked to hang back in unfamiliar situations to see first what others did, but my co-worker Abeba insisted I enter the house first. People were sitting in chairs that had been set up around the perimeter of the room. I spotted my boss and walked over and shook his hand and turned around to take a seat. And then I noticed all my office mates were just walking in and taking a seat, and not shaking the boss’s hand. My boss and I had a good laugh about it the next day at the office.
There were no hugs 50 years ago that I can recall. Maybe an arm over a shoulder. But then I wasn’t a hugger in my early years anyway. I’ve become more of one in later life.
So when Wondi appeared today at the hotel. I wasn’t sure about a hug, but I wanted to give him one so I just told him I was going to and he was OK with it. As the day progressed I saw him greeting acquaintances nearly everywhere we went (so much so that we started razzing him: You Know Everyone!), so I observed what today’s custom is, at least for his generation: a handshake, held, and then the right shoulders move toward each other and the heads bow to the shoulders, faces to the left. Pretty efficient.
We piled into Wondi’s car and off we went for a great first day in Addis. We drove by where I used to live. It’s now a beer store. We also took a look at the long block of steps I used to climb to get from my apartment up to my University job at Siddist Kilo (no, I did not climb them this time), and toured a bit of the University grounds. Truth be told there were many days I took a taxi to work and avoided those steps.
Below are photos of the three of us at the steps.
We took a break along the way for coffee and sweets at the Sheraton Addis. As one would imagine, it’s probably the premier hotel in the county, built in the late 1990s by
Saudi Sheik Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi at a cost of about $200 million. The more than 500 families it displaced were relocated. It’s actually no longer a Sheraton, but part of the Marriott chain, and is supposed to be rebranded soon.
It’s posh, there’s no getting around it, and not the kind of place I would like to stay in a
foreign country, but as an important political and commercial center in Africa, Addis certainly needs to have hotels like that.
And it’s handy for folks like Wondi. He has a pool membership and regularly works out there. The view of the city from the pool area is great.
We stopped for lunch later in the afternoon near Meskel Square, at the Linda Restaurant at the Juventus Club, probably the last of the Italian clubs that existed 50 years ago. They were there because of the large community of ex-pats who stayed on after Italy was finally stopped in its attempts to occupy the country full-time. Those who stayed on were pardoned and protected from reprisals by Emperor Haile Selassie I after WWII. There were many Italians still there in the 1960s, but nearly all of them fled when the Emperor was deposed and the communists took over in 1974.
Actually, Italy took two swipes at conquering Ethiopia. The first was in the 1800s, when it seemed nearly all of Europe was intent on colonizing in Africa. It took over Eritrea,
north of Ethiopia, in 1890, and then pushed south, into Ethiopia, angering Emperor Menelik II. War broke out and the Italians were defeated in the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Adwa is about 16 miles east of Axum, where we would be going on our tour later in the week.
The second swipe was under Benito Mussolini, who invaded in 1935. By 1936 he had merged Eritrea, Italian Somalia and the newly conquered Ethiopia into Italian East Africa. Haile Selassie fled to exile in England and pleaded with the League of Nations and the Western democracies for help, but had little success until the Second World War began. In 1940, Mussolini declared war on France and Britain and attacked British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland. British troops and Ethiopian resistance forces joined to fight the Italians and in 1941 Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia, the Italians once again defeated.
In addition to the many pasta dishes they left behind, by the way, the Italians are credited with a lot of infrastructure; mostly in the form of roads, tunnels, bridges, dams and railways. The Italians also started several industries: cotton, milk, cement, minerals and electricity among them.
From lunch Wondi drove us out to see his house. He lives in a gated community in an eastern suburb of the city. I think the drive took about an hour, over a very rough and very busy road that is basically a Chinese construction zone. There has been huge Chinese investment in roads and other infrastructure in Ethiopia since at least the 2000s. The ‘Ring Road’ in Addis, sort of a loop around the city center meant to be a quick way to get around, but now not so quick, was finished by the Chinese in 2003.
The road to Wondi’s is a crowded, major artery to the towns east and south of the city and it’s under reconstruction. There is little or no pavement, just gravel and stones and lots of potholes. There are no traffic lane markings of course, so driving is simply a matter of following along behind the vehicle in front of you and dodging the larger holes or the occasional boulder and once in a while, if the road is wide enough, passing or getting passed.
Wondi’s servant made some wonderful Ethiopian coffee and we looked at some of his book collection. He turned out to be way more erudite than I am, that’s for sure. He’s studied Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s ancient classical and liturgical language, and has several religious books handwritten in that language.
He also collects military medals and in fact has donated some of his collection to the Ethnological Museum. Jennifer and I saw them there on the last day of our tour.
That evening at the hotel, Jennifer and I, still a bit full from our lunch, had a light supper on the veranda at the hotel and unwound from our day.
Well, that was productive, we decided, and that became the catchword for the rest of the trip. It was a great way to describe a day well spent. And we were lucky enough to be able to say that at the end of every day we were there.
Jennifer needed some gum, and I needed some toothpaste so that evening we walked down the alley to Benin Street and the nearest ‘souk,’ the word for one of those tiny hole-in-the-wall stores that are everywhere in Ethiopia and that carry just about anything you need.
I got stumped at trying to figure out how to say toothpaste, so I finally resorted to the old finger rubbing the teeth gesture. The woman clerk’s face lit up. “Ah! Colgate,” she exclaimed. Damn, I had thought of saying that, but I didn’t figure it would work. No, it wasn’t the brand Colgate she had, but it’s become the word for toothpaste.
Speaking of words, I picked up an Amharic phrasebook to do some homework before this trip. I’d had lots of language training for the Peace Corps of course, and Wondi did his best to keep me going, but I am not good at languages, never did get anywhere near proficient while I was there and had forgotten nearly everything over the past 50 years.
The book helped a lot. I quickly relearned most of the greetings and the numbers and a few other key words and managed to surprise the guides we encountered. The one thing I learned very quickly was hulett alga (ሁለት አልጋ). It means two beds, or close enough anyway, and I had to use it often to make sure we ended up with two beds in the room at hotels, not one large one.
So, end of Day One, a “very productive” one and I went to bed happy. First day, seeing an old friend, seeing the city again. It was just great.
Let me insert a bit of modern history in here so if I refer to things later you’ll know what I’m talking about. Haile Selassie I was the Emperor when I was there and had been since 1930.
He was deposed in 1975 by a Russian-backed military junta called “The Derg,” (the word means council or committee) led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The regime set out to transform the country from a mixed feudo-capitalist, emergent economy to a totally centralized, Soviet Bloc economic and social system, nationalizing all businesses and industry, privately-held urban real estate and all rural land.
From the late 1970s and into the 1980s, beset first by civil war and then mismanagement, famine, ongoing rebellion, and decreasing aid from Soviet Bloc countries, the Derg’s power eroded. Along the way, millions were displaced by its enforced resettlement programs and up to 2 million Ethiopians were killed, by some estimates.
The Derg was officially abolished in 1987, but many of its former leaders, including Mengistu, remained as leaders of a new, civilian, but still Communist, regime. Resistance continued and by 1991, all Soviet aid had ended and a coalition of rebel groups was gaining strength.
In May of that year, Mengistu announced he was going to inspect the troops in southern Ethiopia and kept going until he got to Kenya. He then flew with his immediate family to Zimbabwe, where he was granted asylum and where he still lives. In 2006 he was among 73 former Derg officials found guilty of genocide. Zimbabwe has refused extradiction.
With Mengistu’s departure, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, an alliance of four rebel groups, gained control. Still in power, the EPRDF is currently headed by Abiy Ahmed Ali, who was named Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in April 2018. He has launched political and economic reforms, pardoned dissidents, and declared a truce in Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea to the north. He has made Ethiopia the third African country, after Rwanda and Seychelles, to have a cabinet that is half female. In addition, the Ethiopian Parliament approved his nomination of a woman, Meana Ashenafi, to head the supreme court and OK’d naming another woman Sahle-Work Zewde to the largely ceremonial post of President.
From my limited conversations with Ethiopians about all this during our trip, there seems to be huge optimism about the future of the country. And there are high expectations. Any fear seems to be that the expectations will overrun what can realistically be accomplished.
The upheavals of the post-Selassie period saw a huge increase in Ethiopians fleeing—to neighboring countries, Europe, North America and Asia. The present government is openly welcoming them back and certainly encouraging them to support the country, with their talent and their money.
Below is a collage of photos from today. To see captions and larger versions, just click on one and scroll through the set.
Day Two, Friday, November 16, Addis Ababa
Chanting at the neighborhood church woke me up several times last night. I guess I was so tired the first night that I just slept through it. Ethiopian Orthodox Christian priests use electronic loudspeakers, usually beginning about 4 a.m. I don’t remember the chanting being that pervasive 50 years ago, but that’s probably because they didn’t use loudspeakers back then. Check YouTube if you want to hear some.
Ethiopia religions are nearly all Abrahamic, with orthodox Christian about 43 percent, Muslim 34 percent, and Protestant 19 per cent. Freedom of religion is written into the 1955 Constitution and there is no official state religion anymore. Folks seem to get along. The banks were closed one day in Axum when we went to change some money and a guy walking past told us it was a Muslim holiday, country-wide.
Today was going to be our first day with the tour company we’d hired, Awaze Tours. We were to meet up with our guide for the day at our hotel.
Breakfast this morning was a huge lesson that it is indeed a small world. It’s a buffet breakfast, all laid out in a room that is separate from the dining room, which is what one first enters off the lobby. There is an attendant on duty. Yesterday there was a young man on the job and he greeted everyone and served up coffee, told folks where the food was and such. Today there was a woman in his place and she just hung out in the back room. New folks coming to eat who didn’t know the ropes didn’t really know what to do—sit and wait for a server or go foraging for food.
Another white American had come in while Jennifer and I were eating and I could tell she didn’t know how the breakfast routine worked, so I filled her in, and we continued conversing as she was joined by friends.
It turned out that they were all former volunteers from my era, but in a different training group, and were traveling with a colleague, Charlie Higgins, who annually visits his potato project in the country. …And it also turned out that they were going to have lunch with another volunteer from the late 1960s who I had arranged to visit while we were here. …AND it turned out that one of them is the wife of one of the four volunteers I traveled for a month with in India back in 1971! Small world indeed!
I figured we could call this a productive day and we weren’t even finished with breakfast yet!
Soon enough, our guide for the day, Biruk Ezra, joined us out on the veranda and we chatted while we waited for the driver to pick us up. Biruk, who actually goes by the easier spelling ‘Bruk’ and pronounces it like “brook,” is a very friendly guy in his 20s. Like all the guides we had this trip he’s college educated and has also had some specialized guide training. Some of our guides had also worked in different parts of the country, so their knowledge was pretty deep.
The driver came by shortly and with him were two other tourists, a couple of guys from Spain, Javier and Francesc. They spoke good English and were very experienced travelers and we hit it off well. So well, in fact, that when they left to go on a trek after a couple days touring with us we really missed their company.
The first stop today was Entoto Mountain for a good view of the city. The only thing
different about it from when I was here before is that the road’s been paved. The urban sprawl of the city to the north is closer to the mountain than it used be, but the footpaths up remain undeveloped and steep. A lot of pedestrians, especially those carrying something, use the road. The grass is still nibbled short from the grazing sheep and cattle and loaded donkeys still get herded down the hill to the markets in the city.
Entoto was clearly visible from where I lived when I first arrived in Addis and I remember walking up it several times back then.
Bruk had mentioned a couple times that he’d like to take us by where he lives and we agreed, so we stopped there after the mountain. He lives across the street from the American Embassy.
We piled out of the van on a busy sidewalk and followed Bruk between a couple of shops and down a narrow stone-paved walkway. It opened into a small interior courtyard about 20 feet around and the entrance to his house was just off that. In the small sitting room there was just enough space for us all to sit. His parents, Bruk explained, slept in the alcove off the sitting room and he and his brother slept in another small building in the courtyard. His little sister slept on one of the couches in the sitting room.
There were other residences off the courtyard too.
He rounded up some soft drinks for us and showed us his parents’ wedding photos and a small album of photos of himself while we chatted. It was a good interlude from the hustle and bustle of the city and a great way to see how his family lived. I don’t know a lot about them, but from the house and from the photo album and from knowing the small bit about Bruk that I did, my guess was we were seeing somewhat middle class Ethiopia. It’s hard to relate in Western terms of course, but it certainly was a step above hardscrabble subsistence living but below what it would take to have more and bigger rooms, an apartment in a modern building or even a stand-alone house with several rooms in a compound of its own. The abode was certainly what would be viewed from a Western perspective as “informal housing,” construction-wise.
From there we drove on to the National Museum of Ethiopia, home of a model of the
remaining bones of the famous “Lucy,” discovered in 1974 and dated to some 3.2 million years ago. The assembly of bone fossils represents about 40 per cent of a female skeleton and is known as Dinkinesh in Amharic, which means “you are marvelous.” The name Lucy came from the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which was played loudly and repeatedly in the expedition camp all evening after the excavation team’s first day of work on the recovery site.
Lunch today was at the Integue Taitu Hotel. The hotel, which was built in the early 1900s (1898 in the Ethiopian calendar) and located in the Piazza, was the first hotel in Ethiopia. Taitu Betul (1851 – 1918), an Ethiopian Empress and the wife of Emperor Menelek II, established this hotel to provide guests a place to rest and dine.
I am sure it was a great place back in its day, but these days it’s just a pretty impressive old building with a routine buffet lunch and a dining room reminiscent of an old, not so fancy cafeteria, with very high ceilings and a lot of woodwork. Fifty years ago it was likely still pretty posh, which is probably why I never went there.
After lunch we dropped by the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the highest-ranking Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo cathedral in Addis. It is the second most important place of worship in the country after the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, which we will visit later in our tour. It was built to commemorate the defeat of the Italians.
Some photos from the church visit (click on any pic to scroll through them and see captions):
The remains of Haile Selassie and his consort, Empress Memen Asfa, are buried in the north transept and other Imperial Family members are buried in the crypt below the church. When Haile Selassie died in the communist takeover of the 1970s he was buried under the toilet in his palace. The body was discovered there in 1992 and moved to the cathedral.
As with most of the churches we visited, everyone had to take their shoes off and women usually had to cover their heads. The head covering wasn’t consistent in all of them, so Jennifer generally watched what the Ethiopians did or took the advice of our guide on whether to use her shawl.
After that it was off to the Mercato, a massive open-air market area said to be the largest in Africa. Historically, the Mercato is entwined with my old neighborhood, the Piazza. It used to be that the main open market area was in the Piazza near St. George Church close to where the present City Hall stands. That ended during the Italian occupation in the 1930’s, however. The Italians wanted the Piazza to be a more European style shopping area, with actual buildings and windowed store fronts, and the open air market with its mostly Arab merchants was moved further west, to the present-day Mercato area. Over time, the Arab merchants were supplanted by Ethiopians.
The market is huge, bustling, very crowded and definitely local. It is merchandise for Ethiopians, by Ethiopians. You’ll spot an occasional westerner or group of them, usually escorted by a guide, but this is the place where the locals shop and where the locals sell, there’s no question of that. I suspect that many of the loaded burros we saw earlier in the day being herded down the Mount Entoto road were headed right here.
A collage of Mercato photos, click to see captions:
There are many informal merchandise clusters, a pots and pans area, a recycled goods area, food areas, furniture areas, automotive areas, etc., many of them well-established in the permanent, open-front buildings of the market. In addition, there are small merchants sitting everywhere there is a vacant spot, lining the walkways and the streets with some piles of foods or goods in front of them. I think one could buy just about anything one can think of here. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to trip over anything one can think of either. Watching where you walk here is very important. And watching your head. It was nothing for someone to come along with a wide bundle of something balanced on his or her head. It was up to you to duck as you passed.
As we wound through the crowded streets and narrow walkways I remembered my first shopping trip here. My roommate Jim and I had just rented a small house up near the University a half mile east of Siddist Kilo. And we needed furniture. So off we went to the Mercato. There, as now, there was a whole section of furniture makers, all churning out identical chairs tables, beds and other items. Wood was used for nearly everything, the designs weren’t fancy and cushioning was non-existent. Jim and I shopped and bargained and when we had what we wanted we hired five or six guys to carry everything back to our house, about an hour’s walk away. We followed along behind them, afraid our furniture would disappear for good if we let it out of our sight.
Because the Mercato was also the terminal area for all of the buses heading out of the city back in the 1960s, it was a place I frequently went to, but I did most of my shopping closer to my apartment.
Here is a collage of screen grabs from movie film I shot in the Mercato fifty years ago. Click on any photo to see captions and larger versions:
After the Mercato we headed to the Friendship International Hotel, where we’d be staying the night as part of our tour package. A larger place, some 100 rooms, it was a bit more upscale and certainly in a more modern area than the Addis Regency. It was on Bole Road, the main artery to the airport, in the southern part of town.
Most of the more modern conveniences, the restaurants and the clubs especially, are down in that area.
The hotel’s website notes that it’s minutes from the Edna Mall, a seven-story building that proclaims itself the biggest family entertainment destination in the city, complete with three movie theatres and Bob and Bongo’s Fun Palace. Yes, things have changed in 50 years!
We met there with Habte Fentaw, general manager of Awaze Tours, with whom I had been email corresponding, signed some papers and paid the balance of the tour price.
After dinner at the hotel we decided to talk a walk and quickly discovered that this area of town is dead after dark, unlike the Piazza. I am sure there are lots of places one could drive to, but there was no street life at all.
Day Three, Saturday, November 17 Bahar Dar
This was a morning to remember! We went to bed after dutifully setting our alarms so there’d be plenty of time to get up, take a shower, have breakfast and meet the driver
downstairs for the ride to the airport.
Today we were flying to Bahar Dar, about 300 miles north of Addis. We were really looking forward to the day: a boat ride on Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile; tour of a monastery on an island; lunch at a lakeside lodge, and a visit to a marketplace. The flight’s about an hour and a quarter and the non-discounted fare is $175. By bus it’s nine and a half hours and costs $13. I wonder if the buses still take chickens and goats?
The main attraction for me was Lake Tana and the boat ride to the monastery. I’d visited Bahar Dar 50 years ago at least once, when Wondi and I took the bus from Addis Ababa to Asmara. We went up the eastern route and returned the western route, which took us through there. But once there today, I didn’t see anything about it that jogged a memory.
Jennifer and I were up and showered and just leaving the room for breakfast when the phone rang. It was the driver. He was downstairs. The flight is an hour earlier than we were told it would be, he said. We need to leave for the airport now. So we hustled downstairs while the driver went in search of Javier and Francesc, who weren’t in their room.
It was barely light outside. There were some cars, but no one else on the street, except for a lone jogger, a white guy. Must be a tourist, I thought. The driver finally found our two traveling companions in the breakfast room and we all jumped in the van and headed off.
The traffic got thicker as we got closer to the airport and the driver explained: It was all jammed up and the main airport road closed because of all the dignitaries in town for the semi-annual meeting of the African Union. Addis is its headquarters.
So we all had to get out of the van on the highway and walk/run to the airport. I am way past running, so I walked fast. Fast for me anyway. It was maybe a half mile, certainly no more. We got there, went through the outside passport check and through the two security checkpoints.
All Ethiopian airports have two security points: one at the entrance to the terminal and another at the entrance to the gates. It made no sense to me that there are two, but it’s not the worst thing I guess. I was just really unhappy that the pants I brought along were a little bit too big in the waist to stay up without a belt. So every trip through security was an adventure in one-handedness, because I needed the other one to hold up the pants.
And all the rush was for naught as it turned out. They had to switch planes and the one they were using was smaller and we weren’t on it. We were put on the next flight, which was delayed. Boy was it! We were supposed to depart at 6 a.m. We actually took off at noon.
We four made the best of it at the airport. There was a nice quiet place to finally have a leisurely breakfast. Javier and Francesc had been found by the driver in the hotel restaurant with full plates, but they hadn’t taken a bite.
We also took the leisure time to get to know each other a bit and we exchanged email addresses, because we wouldn’t see them after tomorrow. After Gondar they’d go trekking in the Simien Mountains. They were on a 23-day tour that also included the Afar region to the east and the tribal areas in the south.
And we also all four agreed that when we got to Bahar Dar our instructions to the guide would be clear: We don’t care about lunch and we don’t care about seeing a marketplace; all we want to do is do the boat ride on Lake Tana and visit the monastery.
And that’s what happened. The guide and a driver met us at the airport and we went straight to the lake. Five of us and the boat captain were in a big, open, outboard-powered tour boat that could easily hold 30 or 40 people. It had long benches on either side and an aisle down the middle.
Good thing the boat was big. The wind was coming straight at us and the waves were high the whole way there. The lake is huge, some 1,200 square miles, 52 miles long and
41 miles wide. All the way out I’m thinking, well the wind will be with us on the way back.
Formed by volcanic activity about 5 million years ago, the lake is fed by seven large rivers and about 40 smaller seasonal ones and sits nearly 6,000 feet in elevation.
Home to numerous islands and monasteries that contain the remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and treasures of the Ethiopian church, Lake Tana is even reputed to have once housed the Ark of the Covenant in one of its churches before it got moved to Axum.
We were on our way to the Azwa Maryam monastery, one of six monastic churches on Zege Pennisula. All were established between the 14th and 17th centuries. On some of the monastic islands in the lake only men are allowed.
A collage of monastery photos:
I remember in 1970 riding on a small reed raft to a men-only island monastery on Lake Haik over near Dessie in with a friend, Abeba. With both of us on it, the raft sank low in the water and our feet got wet, but it still kept us afloat. We used long poles and painstakingly pushed through the shallow water to get to the small island. No, we didn’t dump ourselves over, but came close.
One of the monks showed us around the grounds and then invited us to his house and served us tela, a local alcoholic drink made from a variety of grains and leaves. Most homemade tela usually has some sediment and solid bits in the bottom of it and this monk’s was no exception. In fact, there was so much of it that at one point Abeba spat out a bit onto the dirt floor, an accepted practice. That caused the monk to apologize. There are no women allowed here, he explained, so I have to make my own tela and I am not very good at it. We all had a good chuckle.
Today, our short walk from the boat landing to the monastery included a narrow path between wooden platforms stacked with items for sale by the local folks: clothes and scarves, jewelry, models of the small reed boats that the fishermen use, metal crosses, and other religious items.
It was quite the gauntlet, but actually quite useful to us. Everyone vies for your attention, shouts out prices and tries to extract a promise you’ll buy from them on the way back. We had some items on our shopping list, so I kept my eyes and ears open for objects I thought we might want and got a feel for the usual asking prices. While touring the monastery and walking the grounds Jennifer and I talked it over and agreed on a few things we might want to buy on the way back.
As I do in such circumstances I offered a third of the asking price and was usually greeted with the same astounded look that I’d given the merchant when he first told me what he wanted. It was a game and we both knew the rules. If I wanted something badly enough I would come to a price I was willing to pay for it. He would know what kind of profit he wanted to make and decide whether to sell or not. And by the same token I could walk away if he didn’t come down to what I wanted. A test of how close you’re getting then is whether he walks after you or just gives up.
I had a couple instances where I looked at something but decided I didn’t really want it. The merchant kept offering prices and then finally said OK, what’s your price? Ok, I will tell you, but you’ll probably be insulted. Give it to me anyway, he said. So I did. Can’t do it, he said. I know, I said.
An Ethiopian dollar (birr), by the way is now worth a bit less than 4 cents US. When I was there in the late 1960s a birr was worth about 40 cents US.
At one point I was bartering with an older gentleman about a metal Lalibela cross I wanted. We went back and forth for a long while, inching closer together and drawing a crowd of his fellow merchants. At one point my offer was 120 birr, a little over $4. That was what I was comfortable with given what I knew about these things (all modern-day knockoffs of the real thing of course). So I stuck to my price and a couple times made a move to walk away. After a lot of gesticulating and anguished gestures he slowly kept dropping his price until he got to 140 birr. I looked him right in the eye and said “130.” I could no longer keep a straight face and neither could he. I started laughing, he started laughing and the crowd joined in. We both appreciated how much fun we were having.
So, after all the shopping we finally made our way to the boat, where the others were
waiting for us. The weather had turned. The wind had turned. It was now against us and the dark clouds were moving in. It was a rough ride home. The rain started and between that and the wave spray we had to bring the curtain down on the upwind side of the boat.
Despite the conditions, however, the guide and the boat captain took us on a detour on the way back to where the lake narrows and becomes the Blue Nile so we could maybe see some of the hippopotamuses that hang out in that area. So we cruised around a bit in the shallower water, the guide and a couple of us hanging over the front in the near darkness with I-Phone flashlights.
We never did find a hippo and it was well after dark when we got back to the boat dock. Jennifer asked the boat captain if he goes out after dark very much. Never had, he said. These boat rides are usually scheduled in the morning, before the afternoon winds pick up. We now know why.
The driver and guide drove us to the Abay Minch Lodge and dropped us off for the night.
It’s a nice old African resort-type place in a very garden-like setting, with individual duplex buildings housing the rooms and a separate building for the front desk and the restaurant. It had a vacation-like feel to it, but also the feel that it was a bit past its prime.
But as with all the hotels we stayed at on the tour it was more than adequate for us. And the showers, in all of them, were terrific.
We’d certainly made the best of our truncated day. So, we went to bed that night in agreement: Another Productive Day!
Day 4, Sunday, November 18. Gondar
There was chanting in the very early morning again, but it was very different than what I’d been encountering. This time there was a good sound system, not the tinny varieties I’d been hearing elsewhere. And this time the priest had a terrific voice. Even though it
was close and loud, I don’t think it even woke me up entirely. I sort of heard it and I remember thinking that it sounded really good and then I went back to sleep.
We had a pleasant breakfast in a dining room with a nice view of a garden and a defunct fountain, watching the hotel workers sweep the sidewalks and walkways with homemade straw brooms in between their chatting sessions.
Soon the driver came by to pick us up for the ride to Gondar, about 100 miles north on Route 3. The road was pretty flat, straight and smooth for about half the way and then got twisty and hilly as it hit the mountains closer to Gondar. Most of this northern area of Ethiopia is very rugged, with constant signs of erosion. Hard to build roads across that’s for sure.
I remember being on foot in terrain like this a lot when I was with the Malaria Eradication Service my third year here. I was based in Dessie, a provincial capital, and walked up and down many mountains and through many valleys getting from village to village. Dessie is about 225 miles almost directly east of Bahar Dar. Lalibela, where our tour would take us in a day or two, is in the area that I covered.
The drive to Gondar was a nice change of pace from the hustle of Addis and airports. It was nice to get out and see the countryside.
It was all very much the same as 50 years ago:
Children out with the cows and goats, their job to take them to grazing areas and keep an eye on them. But they always gravitated to other kids doing the same thing so soon there’d be several involved in a pickup game of football or something else while their charges mingled and munched. I am sure they knew well how to sort them out when it was time to go home.
There was still a lot of pedestrian traffic, folks with loads on their heads, adults standing around chatting, women in the streams washing clothes, farmers carrying tools to the small terraced fields where a pair of ox would be used to pull the plows.
Every time we crossed a stream I looked to see if there were women down there washing clothes and there usually were. Several of them were also water sources, so there was the flow of folks coming and going with water containers, usually plastic.
But there were differences too:
I saw tin roofs and modern rectangular construction in areas where 50 years ago there would be just round huts with thatch roofs. Often seen were cell phones in the hands of the young, even when they’re herding cows. We didn’t even know what a cell phone was 50 years ago, did we? I also spotted high power electric transmission lines in the distance, climbing up hills and down hills and across valleys. And there were shoes, albeit ragged and often plastic, on feet that would have been barefoot 50 years ago, adults as well as youngsters.
And something else: I had noticed crosswalk markings in Addis and now I saw that they had even made their way to highways in the countryside wherever there was a small town or cluster of houses. But they were basically ignored by Addis drivers and it was no different in the countryside. It would be suicidal to depend on a driver stopping for one.
Some photos from the road trip today. Click on any one to scroll through the larger versions and see the captions:
We got to Gondar and drove up a very steep road to our hilltop hotel, the New Goha, dropped our bags there and headed out to lunch in the courtyard at the Lammergeyer Hotel. It’s again what I would call a very nice place, past its prime but very comfortable. There was a band playing and several groups of middle to upper class Ethiopians enjoying lunch outside on a very nice day.
Some photos at the hotel:
A word about our meals: All were included in the tour and they were all–except for the final night–at pretty westernized places, with typical western menus. All of them offered some traditional Ethiopian dishes too, but often the selection was pretty limited. No doro wat in several instances, for example.
Both Jennifer and I eat at decent Ethiopian restaurants in the US a few times a year anyway, so we didn’t mind the lack of authenticity. In fact, I’ve never stopped eating Ethiopian food. Traveling around the US in the late 1970’s I checked the Yellow Pages (remember them?) in every major city and usually found an Ethiopian restaurant. Jennifer had her first encounter with doro wat at an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago when she was four. We have a favorite in Hartford, the Abyssinian, and I recently discovered the Queen of Sheeba in West Palm Beach.
And the talk of food leads me of course to teff, the grain that injera is made of. Injera is the spongy, unleavened, flat, circular bread that is served with every Ethiopian dish and is used instead of utensils to get the food from the plate to your mouth. It is often used also as a base in a serving platter, upon which a variety of foods are served. A good eater will finish off that injera during the meal too, as it has sopped up lots of good flavor.
Modern marketing of course calls teff a ‘super food’ and ‘one of the most ancient of the ancient grains.’ It is ancient, for sure, thought to have started between 4000 and 1000 BC, and is one of the earliest domesticated plants.
It’s an annual, known formally as Eragrostis Tef and also Williams lovegrass or annual bunch grass. The tiny, edible seeds are naturally gluten-free. The grass of the plant is used to feed animals, and stacks of it in the countryside are reminiscent of the haystacks of yore in the western world.
Interestingly, the name teff is thought to originate from the Amharic word teffa, which means “lost”. This probably refers to the size of its seeds, which have a diameter smaller than 1 mm.
Native to Ethiopia and Eritrea, it is now grown in lots of places around the world. In fact, Ethiopia seems to be losing its exclusivity grip on it: a Dutch company, Health & Performance Food International, has claimed patent rights to the grain and registered it in Italy, England, Germany and Austria.
Legal action is contemplated all around I suspect. (clicking on a photo will allow you to scroll through larger images and see captions)
The attraction in Gondar is the Royal Enclosure, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring five castles built by a succession of Ethiopian kings beginning in the early 17th Century. Until Emperor Fasilides, who reigned from 1632 to 1667, emperors in that region mainly traveled around their kingdom, dwelling in tents and living off the production of their subjects.
Fasilides founded Gondar as his capital and constructed his palace and surrounding walled compound, the Royal Enclosure, or Fasil Ghebbi. Subsequent emperors built their homes within the walls. Today there remain the partial ruins of the castles, some stables, three churches and some of the other buildings that comprised the compound. Gondar would remain the capital for two centuries, until the middle of the 1800.
Photos in the Royal Enclosure:
Addis became the capital in 1889 and remains so today. In addition to Addis and Gondar, the other major capital in Ethiopian history was Axum. Historically, Axum came first and then Gondar and then Addis Ababa. We were visiting Axum and Gondar in reverse historical order. Today we’re in Gondar, tomorrow we’ll be in Axum.
Overlaying all of Ethiopian history and culture, both religiously and politically, is the legend of Solomon and Sheba and the Solomonic line of monarchs, which started about 900 BC with Menelik I and continued with a few interruptions until the fall of Haile Selassie in 1975. Now there’s some history!
Solomon of course, was the King of Israel from 970 to 931 BC. The Queen of Sheba was from an area now thought to be present-day Yemen.
The legend of the two is whatever you believe it is, depending on your inclination and sourcing. It’s covered in the Bible, the Quran, the Copts, and the Talmud, not to mention other various manuscripts and scraps of papyrus. Most all have slightly different versions.
For my purposes, I am going to go with the Ethiopian version of the legend, as contained in the Kebra Negast, a 14th Century account of things written in Ge’ez. It is considered to hold the geneology of the Solomonic dynasty, which followed Judaism and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
So, here’s the Ethiopian account of how the Queen of Sheba met King Solomon and what transpired: The Queen learned of King Solomon from a merchant in her kingdom and traveled to Jerusalem to visit him. Enthralled, she vowed to worship the God of Israel. He seduced her the night before her departure and she gave birth to Menelik on the journey home. (This version leaves out the glass floor and her hairy legs. You’ll have to go to one of the other manuscripts for that.)
Sheba, meanwhile, ended up in Ethiopia as part of her family’s royal line, and ruled Axum for 50 years.
When Menelik turned 22 he traveled to Jerusalem to see his father. Solomon wanted Menelik to stay and succeed him as king, but the boy insisted on returning to Ethiopia. Solomon settled for sending him home with a retinue formed from the first-born sons of his kingdom’s elders. This group, pretty upset by this, smuggled the Ark of the Covenant out of the Temple and took it with them. Solomon ordered his priests to remain silent about the theft and had a copy of it placed in the temple. (The Ark, a gold-covered chest said to hold the two tablets on which are written the ten commandments, is now in Axum, supposedly. More about that later)
Menelik, the first of the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia, reigned from 940 to 915 AD, and the line of governance continued, again, with some interruptions, through the reign of Haile Selassie. Direct male descendency ended with Menelik II. There was another male line, through one of Menelik’s cousins, but he didn’t like that side of the family so they never got to power. Haile Selassie was in line through his paternal grandmother or because he was the son of a first cousin in the female line, depending on which source you look at. His heir to the throne, which obviously doesn’t exist anymore, is Zera Yacob Amha, a 65-year-old grandson said to be living in Texas.
The dynasty has always been deeply entwined with the religion of the country, first pagan, then Judaic, then Ethiopian Orthodox. For example, even during a century and a half of chaos from 1700 to the 1850s, when there was no central rule and the country was divided into several regions governed by feudal lords all fighting with each other, the monarchy, though powerless, remained intact in Gondar, protected by its seemingly divine status.
I remember when I was there in the late 1960s there was a saying: “Haile Selassie moot.” It meant basically “if I am lying may Haile Selassie die.” The divinity of the monarchy was taken very seriously.
Also in the late 1960s there were photos of Haile Selassie everywhere, certainly in all the public buildings and banks and stores and restaurants, and probably in many houses. This photo, on the side of a small bus, was the only one I found of him outside the museums on this trip.
So where was I before that digression? Oh yes, the compound of the kings in Gondar. It’s a large, peaceful, green oasis in the middle of bustling Gondar. From the grounds we could see our hilltop hotel, with its huge sign, looking over the town.
We also visited Fasilides’ Bath, the site of massive crowds during Timkat, or Epiphany, every January. It’s a stone building with a large sunken area in it and around it which is filled for the celebration by channeling water from a nearby river from a point upstream and returning it through another channel to a downstream point. The photos are in the collage below, click on any photo to bring up captions and the scroller.
The next stop was at the smallish and unassuming Debre Berhan Selassie Church, a short drive from the Royal Enclosure toward the edge of town. What it might be lacking in outward appearances, the place more than makes up for in the magnificent religious artwork over all the walls and ceilings. It’s one of the many churches built by King Fasilides and his successors during the two centuries Gondar was the capital of the kingdom. Photos are below.
There was one more stop before we headed back to our hotel for the evening. We crashed a wedding! It was a wedding in a small compound in a pretty average neighborhood near where we were parked. I’m sure the guide had arranged our visit, because we were ushered right in to the crowded festivities just in time to see the ceremony performed. Some wedding photos below.
Little did we know that it was only the first wedding we’d crash that day.
Our hotel, the Goha, is the biggest we’ve stayed at so far, and certainly has a slicker
website than any of the others, but again, it just seems past its prime. It sat atop a mountain of sorts, overlooking the town and was therefore well away from the normal hustle and bustle of the city. The huge patio offers a breathtaking view of town. According to the photos on the website, the swimming pool, located in the middle of the patio, was a grand place to be in its heyday. But from the looks of it now, it’s been just a dangerous rectangular hole in the concrete patio for a long time. And there are no barriers around it to keep someone from toppling in. The rust on the hotel’s huge sign at the edge of the cliff, visible from the city below, was pretty unattractive too.
Anyway, that’s just me being picky I guess. For my plebian tastes it was a grand palace. The rooms were nice, the staff were friendly and the view was terrific. And I would have killed to be able to stay in a place like that in Gondar 50 years ago. For this tour it was just fine.
And it was the scene of our second wedding. When we got back to the Goha in the late afternoon we walked out onto the back terrace and a well-dressed crowd was already being seated in white-linen covered chairs. The band was all set up and a covered seating area for the bride and groom was also draped in white. There was even a drone camera being readied by the guys hired to do photos and video.
We took a seat off to the side where we could watch everything and be out of the way. It turned out this wasn’t even the actual wedding, but one of a series of parties that would be taking place all week long. This was obviously not the middle-class kind of wedding we crashed in a modest neighborhood a few hours ago. This was a big deal.
The party started about an hour before sundown and wrapped up a couple hours later. We’d expected to hear the music until real late, but it didn’t go on very long at all. And fortunately no one toppled into the open pit of a swimming pool. Photos from this second wedding are below:
As the party wound down we headed in for dinner. It would be our last meal with friends Javier and Francesc. They would be off trekking in the Simien Mountains tomorrow and we’d be on a plane to Axum, a little over 200 miles north, in Tigray province.
Two weddings, a church and a Royal Enclosure. Yes, today was productive indeed.
Day 5, Monday, November 19, 2018 Axum
The ride to the airport was uneventful, but when we got there things got interesting. I had noticed yesterday that on the paper Habte had given me in Addis our flight today was in the afternoon. So I’d asked the guide to talk to him about it and make sure the paper was wrong and that we were on the morning flight. Yes, word came back, we were on the morning flight. So the driver picked us up accordingly.
No so easy, unfortunately. We got to the counter and the agent said no, we were booked on the afternoon flight. As aggravating as it was, everyone was as helpful as they could be. A woman in line behind us offered her cell phone so we could call Habte, as did the agent behind the counter.
The agent also told us he’d put us on standby for the morning flight. Phone reception was terrible and though we did get through to Habte, communication wasn’t the best. Worst-case, I figured as I sat there knowing that if I had looked at that piece of paper when Habte handed it to me days ago none of this would be happening, would be that the driver would be sent back to get us and we’d probably end up having to skip Axum and go right on to Lalibela later in the day or in the morning.
As it turned out, however, best-case applied; there was room for us on the morning flight, for a total 600 birr change fee (about $20). And when the guide met us in Axum he apologized for the mixup.
We’d expected we might have more company on the tour today, but no one else joined us. In fact, for all of Axum, for two days in Lalibela, and the final day in Addis, it would just be the two of us and a driver and a guide. That was pretty sweet.
Axum is the original capital of the Kingdom of Axum (later to become the Ethiopian Empire) and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. As of 2010 population was 56,000.
It was the epicenter of the Axumite Kingdom, which had its beginnings as early as 400 BC and rose to real prominence from 100 AD to 940 AD, becoming a major player on the commercial route between the Roman Empire and ancient India. Remember, all this is before Gondar.
The monarchy mostly covered the present-day Tigray region in Ethiopia and the country of Eritrea, north of Ethiopia, but at its height included most of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, with commercial trading access to the Red Sea and the Upper Nile.
The stelae, the obelisks that mark the graves of emperors. were erected in pre-Christian, pagan times. It was under Ezana (320 to 360 AD), that the kingdom adopted Christianity as the state religion.
It remained a Christian state during a several hundred year period that saw lots of pushing and shoving in the area among various rulers and religions. At one point the Islamic Empire controlled Egypt, the Red Sea, and what is present-day Sudan, but Axum survived and indeed bounced back.
Those conflicts, coupled with climate change and trade isolation, resulted in the decline of the Axum hegemony. The Axumite dynasty was succeeded by the Agaw Zagwe, a short-lived dynasty centered in Lalibela, for a brief period of about two hundred years, until Yekuno Amlak killed the last Zagwe ruler, in 1270. Amlak was descended from the last Axumite emperor, Dil Aa’od, who was himself a direct descendent of Solomon. This restored the Solomonic line and was the beginning of the modern Solomonic dynasty, also known as the Ethiopian Empire. Gondar would later become its capital of course.
Back to the present. The obelisks are in a quiet, open field, right in the center of the city. Across a small square is the old St. Mary of Zion Church, built during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian king of Axum. It has been rebuilt at least twice, once by Emperor Fasilides (remember him from Gondar?). It is in this church that Ethiopian Emperors have traditionally been crowned. And it is in a smaller building in the same compound that the Ark of the Covenant lies, watched over by its guardian monk, the only person who can look at it. The guardian monk names his successor and if he dies without doing so the monks of the chapel elect one. (There is a copy of the Ark in every Ethiopian church).
Only men can enter the old church, but next door, a new cathedral built by Haile Selassie in the 1950s welcomes both men and women. The new building is more modern of course, but a little shabby, with a bare bulb hanging from the ornate chandelier that Queen Elizabeth is said to have donated for it.
The stelae are stone towers that mark graves and are carved to represent a magnificent multi-storied palace. They are decorated with false doors and windows in typical Aksumite design. The largest of these towering obelisks would measure 33 meters (108 feet) high had it not fractured. They have most of their mass out of the ground, but are stabilized by massive underground counter-weights. In the modern era, posts and wires have also been used for stabilization.
One of them, the Obelisk of Axum, had collapsed in the 4th Century and was on the ground in five pieces when it was taken in 1937 as war booty by Italy. It was transported by truck on the tortuous road to the port of Massawa and shipped from there. It took five trips over a period of two months. I’ve been on that route. It’s just under 200 miles, but goes over two mountain ranges.
It was reassembled and put up at Porta Capena Square in Rome. In a 1947 U.N. pact, Italy agreed to return it, but with technical difficulties, costs, and differing opinion about who agreed to what and when, that did not happen until 2005. It came back by plane. Reassembly in Axum took another three years. Below are some photos, including one of Jennifer and I trying to re-erect one of the fallen monuments. We failed.
Viewing them up close and personal was pretty impressive. We also drove out a few miles from the city to view the ruins of the tombs of Caleb and Gebre Meskel, two Axumite kings of the 6th Century AD. Of interest out there also were some folks harvesting and grinding teff, the native grain used to make the ubiquitous Ethiopian bread called injera, and a great view of the hill of Abba Likanos.
On the way out we drove past the Queen of Sheba’s bath, a large rectangular lake devoid of even any remains of the bath houses and changing rooms that probably were once on the site.
Axum is a pretty flat city compared to Gondar and certainly compared to Lalibella, where we’d be going the next day. Our hotel, the Sabean, was a tall building on Airport Street in the center of town. Airport is a boulevard of sorts, with wide sidewalks, lots of shops and trees down the median. Traffic didn’t move too fast though, and there were lots of bicycles and horse-drawn wagons, so it had a nice small-town feel to it.
Here are some street scenes from Axum:
Jennifer was thinking of buying a couple of native Ethiopian dresses for her daughters. We’d seen some small dress shops when we arrived at the hotel so we took a walk after lunch down the street to see what we could find. These were the real thing, small shops with one counter, folks sitting around embroidering and very little English spoken. Once we got the point across, people were helpful. One shopkeeper even disappeared for a while, probably checking his house, or even other merchants, to see if he could find the sizes and style we wanted, but nothing turned up.
We went for a nice walk in the evening after dinner and sat outside for coffee until the mosquitoes found us.
Another productive day! We congratulated ourselves.
Day 6 and Day 7, Tuesday and Wednesday, November 20 and 21, 2018 Lalibela
Up early and out to the airport for the flight to Lalibela this morning. We’d be spending two nights there. The flight was a bit delayed, so we had time to do some leisurely
shopping amongst the vendors at the airport.
I was looking forward to Lalibela more than I had the other towns. For one thing, I knew its churches were really amazing and for another, I had some small history with it.
I had visited Bahr Dar, Gondar, and Axum 50 years ago, but only for a day or so each and I didn’t have much of a recollection of them, but Lalibela I remembered more clearly.
It is in the area of the Malaria Eradication Service zone that I worked in my third year in the country, the Dessie Zone. I lived in Dessie, but my job entailed traveling about three-quarters of the time all over the the area, which covered the highland regions north, south and west of Dessie as well as the deserts east of it.
I had had Lalibela high on my list of places I wanted to visit and finally, near the end of my year on the job, it all came together. Four of us set off in a Malaria program jeep, a driver, myself, and two other employees. It’s only about 140 miles from Dessie, but it took us about eight hours to get there. For the first not quite 100 miles we were on a decent gravel highway and made good time, but the last 40 miles we crawled in four-wheel drive up what could barely be called a road.
From back then I remember a tiny little town and a grass landing strip, on which a northbound DC-3 would land in the morning once or twice a week with maybe a tourist or two from Addis Ababa. But it would land only if the grass wasn’t too wet, so there were many times during the rainy season it didn’t come at all. There was no terminal building. And there was very limited or no electricity in town.
Then and now: A DC-3 on the grass runway at Lalibela in the 1970’s and today a prop jet on concrete and a terminal building:
We stayed in a dump of a hotel back then, complete with bedbugs. Even the two Ethiopians I was with were complaining. I don’t think there were any tourist lodgings there at the time. My recollection was that whatever tourists flew in on the morning flight left on the afternoon flight when the plane returned on its way back south to Addis.
Here are some shots from the airplane on the way to Lalibela:
These days, twin-engine Bombardier Q400 turbo props holding up to 90 people land there twice daily on a concrete runway and passengers pick up their bags at a terminal building! (The carousel wasn’t working the day we were there, though)
The town’s still small though, the roads are a mess and the churches are still fantastic. There are a number of touristy hotels there that did not exist 50 years ago and there are newish housing areas that have been built as the population grew. One such area that we could see down on the valley floor from our hotel isn’t inhabited yet.
There’s a massive Chinese road building program in the works, but no progress was being made while we were there. The large Chinese construction and residential compound was empty and quiet, with construction machinery sitting idle.
The road from the airport, which is now located down in the valley where flat runways can be made longer, makes for a long and bumpy hour-long ride and even once in town the roads are no smoother.
Our hotel, aptly named Panoramic View, was perched on the edge of the escarpment with a terrific view. At 8,000 feet the clear sky, cloud formations, and soaring hawks are right there in front of you. We enjoyed the place and it was nice knowing we’d be there for two nights and could unpack a bit. Here are some views of, and from, our hotel:
The phrase “rock-hewn churches” is the definition of Lalibela and that’s what the attraction is. There are 11 of them. I might have skipped seeing a couple. Some of them are in deep holes and some are in shallow caves.
The Lalibela churches are not just made of rock, they are carved out of rock, below ground level. They were declared a World Heritage Site in 1978 and research has been ongoing. Huge metal roofing over some of them protect them from the elements and aid in the archeological efforts.
Here are some photos of Bete Ghiorgis, visually the most famous of the Lalibela Churches.
The churches are dated to the reign of one of the Zagwe kings, Gebre Mesquel Lalibela (1181-1221). The layout and names of the major buildings in Lalibela are widely accepted, especially by local clergy, to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. Emperor Lalibela, who built the town as his capital, spent his youth in Jerusalem. Lalibela, by the way, means honey eater.
I must admit I took a pass on some of the climbing involved in seeing all of these churches in their entirety and let Jennifer and the guide go on their own. I had my own great time though, just sitting in the shade and watching the world go by. I never tired of people watching when I was in Ethiopia the first time and it was no different this visit. Here’s some of the results of my people watching in Lalibela:
My nature is to say hello to folks who walk by, but this often led to confusion when the person started up a conversation with me. I just kept saying I’m fine, thanks, how are you, and they eventually realized my language was limited and I didn’t understand and we just smiled at each other and they moved on.
One stop I particularly enjoyed was when we drove out of town to visit Yemrehanna Kristos, a rock-hewn church in a shallow cave that predates the Lalibella churches. It was a bit of a walk from where we had to park the van, so I stayed there with the driver and Jennifer and the guide pushed on.
As often happens, this very small settlement at the end of the road had a couple of coffee houses, so the driver and I settled in the outside sitting area of one of them and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the world, such as it was in that small corner of Ethiopia, go by. The viewing was complete with donkeys being herded back and forth, women carrying water jugs and kids playing hide and seek. And every once in a while a priest would happen by and would stop so folks could kiss his cross and they could exchange pleasantries. This kind of stuff, to be honest, interested me more than the churches, and I was happy to be able to enjoy it.
On another occasion I was sitting in the shade overlooking the Church of Saint George, to me the most impressive of the Lalibela churches, and a young Ethiopian with a camera came over to chat. He had the identical Canon model that I had. It turned out he’s got a small business going taking photos of people who are touring the church and selling them prints. He had a small, battery operated printer with him that made pretty decent 4 by 6 prints. He said it’s a pretty tough sell these days though; most folks just laugh and tell him they’ll do selfies with their phones.
We happened to be in Lalibela on Nov. 21, which this year was the day for the annual celebration to commemorate Archangel St. Michael. The event included a feast, a special mass, and a procession that included a replica of Ark of the Covenant being paraded through throngs of Ethiopian Christians dressed in white.
Our guide led us skillfully through the throngs at just the right time and we ended up in a huge white tent with hundreds of worshippers watching priests do their ritual dances and chants. The procession passed right by the tent. I spotted only a half-dozen other tourists the whole time we were in that mass of people.
One of our lunches in Lalibela was at the mountaintop Ben Abeba restaurant, which was built by a Scottish woman, Susan Aitchison, who partnered with a Lalibela resident to create it. The view from anywhere in the restaurant is spectacular and from the upper levels it is 360 degrees.
Here are some other photos in and around Lalibela:
We also did some shopping in Lalibela and in the course of that made friends with a student named Kidane. When out and about in Ethiopia, westerners often attract students, who want to make friends, practice their English, etc. I am sure some of them would like to make a buck, either through a handout or doing something you’re willing to pay them for. I never found it obtrusive or bothersome and if I didn’t want them tagging after me I just said so.
Kidane was one of those. We went out for a walk from the hotel to the commercial area of town and he latched onto us. He actually turned out to be pleasant company and was very helpful. We got him to scouting in the shops for some children’s dresses and he sent all his friends out looking for a Haile Selassie T-shirt in double X large size for me.
Let me explain about the T-shirt: One of the guys who was a guide for a tour group we’d seen around town and in the hotel and at lunch was wearing one. As a joke, I told him I’d either find one or steal his, so we had a bit of fun whenever we saw each other. And in a small place like that, over a two-day period, that was pretty often. With Haile Selassie not having been a major figure in this country since the mid-70s, T-shirts with his image are not plentiful to begin with.
Anyway, Kidane and his buddies looked for one for me in Lalibela and came up empty. And neither did we find any kids dresses we liked, but we did find some scarves and a few other things.
Kidane lives across the street from our hotel and he insisted we stop at his house on the way back there. We met his aunt, which whom he lives, and in a really nice gesture he gifted us with two kid-sized scarves, explaining that his grandfather had made them. He refused to take any money for them.
The morning we left for the airport and the flight back to Addis we made sure we found him and gave him a bag with a few bucks and a whole assortment of snacks we’d brought that with us that we weren’t going to use. We’ve been in email contact with him since our return. And yes, he has a Facebook page.
In about a day and a half in Lalibela we saw lots of the churches, squeezed into a St. Michael’s Day festival with hundreds of Ethiopians, ate lunch at a mountaintop restaurant, traveled out of town to a church that predated the ones in town, shopped for children-sized dresses, hunted for a Haile Selassie T-shirt and had time to just sit and enjoy being where we were.
Need I say it? It was productive!
We celebrated at dinner that evening out on the verandah of the hotel at sunset with a bottle of tej, the Ethiopian honey wine. I had asked: it was homemade, not bottled.
Day 8, Thursday, November 22 Addis Ababa
The same driver we’d had the last couple of days picked us up at the hotel in the morning for the drive to the airport and the flight back to Addis. Ephrem was his name, and, like a few of the other drivers and guides we met, his dream was to someday operate his own tour company.
The company we used on this trip, Awaze Tours, is a small firm that’s been in business six or seven years. It was recommended to me by a facebook friend, another former Ethiopia volunteer, who had revisited the country a few years ago.
Our tour experience was a very good fit for us. As I said, we were with two other people for a couple days and on our own for the rest. To have been in a large group would have been a good experience too, but a very different one for sure.
I was looking forward to getting back to Addis. We had one more day there as part of the tour and then a second day all on our own. It was sort of like going home after a trip: We’d be staying in the same “family suite” (two adjoining rooms, 200 and 201) at the Addis Regency that we’d had on our arrival days ago.
The flight into Addis afforded us a great view of the city. The approach pattern brought us in low from the west and because the airport is on the southeast side of town the view out our window on the left of the city was dramatic. A lot of the city sprawl was clearly visible; mile after mile of apartment blocks mixed in with massive areas of tin-roofed “informal housing.”
We had a nice surprise upon landing. An Awaze driver was waiting of course, and with him was Bruk, the guide we’d had here days ago. He was as surprised and delighted at seeing us as we were him.
It was going to be a very productive day!
From an email chat I’d had with Habte of Awaze earlier I knew that we could pretty much decide what we wanted to do that final day. Jennifer and I had discussed it and had some plans.
So we huddled with Bruk and told him what we wanted to do: The only museum left that we wanted to see was the Ethnographic Museum. And after that our preference was to shop for kids’ dresses, find a Haile Selassie T-shirt for me and visit a Tomoka store to buy some coffee beans as gifts. Bruk added a few things later in the afternoon and a celebratory final dinner and, bingo! We had a full day.
The museum is in the former administration building at the University, where I used to
teach. I’d been in and out of that building many times in my years there. We also visited the law school building over by the soccer field. Hanging on the wall there was a photo of James Paul, founding dean of the law school when it was started in 1963 and vice president of academic affairs for the University when I arrived in 1967.
The university’s old administration building, where the museum now is, used to be Haile Selassie’s palace. He turned over the palace grounds and all its buildings to the university when he founded it in 1962.
As we walked up the steps I recounted for Bruk a scene there back in 1969. It was just boring
ancient history to that 20-something, I am sure, but he seemed interested. Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta was visiting Ethiopia and he and Haile Selassie were going to visit the University. As I recall, Kenyatta was getting an honorary degree. All the faculty members were invited to put on their gowns and be on hand for the occasion. I had a terrific viewing spot, on this very porch at the top of the steps where we were standing today, I explained.