Ethiopia

After climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I boarded a plane headed for Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where I would spend a week doing a historical and cultural tour of the country. I would visit Addis Ababa (the current capital of Ethiopia), Axum (the capital of the Axumite empire), Lalibela (the capital of the Zagwe empire), Gondar (the capital of the Gondarine empire), and Bahir Dar (a port city near Lake Tana, a lake steeped in history).

Why did I choose to visit Ethiopia? First and foremost, I was intrigued by its history. Ethiopia is the only African country to successfully resist European colonization; thus, it has developed organically without an imperialist fist to shape it. Furthermore, it is home to one of the most ancient advanced civilizations in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, the Axumite empire during its heyday was considered one of the world’s superpowers alongside Rome, Persia, and China. It was also convenient for me in terms of location: Tanzania (where I had just climbed Kilimanjaro), Uganda (my next destination), and Ethiopia are all in East Africa. I was also looking to balance my outdoors-focused experience climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with some time spent exploring Africa’s rich yet underappreciated culture.

I endeavored to learn as much as I could about Ethiopia’s past, present, and future in a jam-packed week. I ended up picking up a jumble of disparate facts that I will attempt to weave into a coherent narrative (accompanied with plenty of pictures, of course). I will endeavor to accompany my photos with factual/mythical snippets and my humble observations. Apologies in advance if this turns into a data dump.

Random facts about Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a scenically stunning country that boasts some of the most fertile lands in East Africa.

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The lush countryside of Ethiopia

As mentioned, it was the only country that remained uncolonised after the Scramble for Africa by Europeans in the 19th century. Ethiopia was first “discovered” in 1493 by Portuguese explorers who were searching for Prester John, a mythical Christian king who was said to rule over a Christian kingdom in the Orient. Incidentally, the Portuguese incited war between the Ethiopian Muslims and Christians after centuries of peace. The people and culture of Ethiopia have been shaped by an eclectic confluence of African, Judaic, Egyptian, Arabic, and Grecian influences. This is due in part to Ethiopia’s location near major trade routes. Despite the country’s rich history, there remains a dearth of books and ethnological studies on Ethiopia.

Present-day Ethiopia is a federal republic with a population of over 100 million people, making it the 10th largest country in Africa. There are over 80 distinct ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The official languages are English and Amharic (spoken by the Amhara people in north/central Ethiopia); however, there are many other regional languages such as Tigrinya, spoken by the Tigray people in the north, and Oromifa, spoken by the Oromo people in the south. The part of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia is thought to be a strong candidate for the origin point of Homo sapiens; thus, Ethiopia is often touted as “the cradle of humanity.”

Most Ethiopians still rely largely on subsistence agriculture. The main cash crops are coffee and khat (a plant that is chewed and produces a mild stimulating effect that locals liken to a high from nicotine, coffee, or cocaine).

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My first cup of Ethiopian coffee. There are still many establishments that serve Ethiopian coffee the traditional way (i.e., the coffee beans are roasted over a fire, coarsely ground, then boiled. The coffee is usually served in 3 separate servings that decrease in strength. Coffee is consumed multiple times during a day and is usually a social affair). However, as I understand it, many Ethiopians now consume coffee prepared in Western ways, specifically by the Italians (so lots of espressos and macchiatos). I had an espresso here.
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Items used in brewing and consuming coffee the traditional Ethiopian way. Popcorn is usually served as an accompanying snack.
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Traditional Ethiopian coffee service

Mining, horticulture, and tourism are also major pillars of the economy. The main religions in Ethiopia are Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (Ethiopia’s own unique brand of Christianity dating back to the 4th century AD), Islam (dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century), and Protestant Christianity. For the most part, Ethiopians with different creeds have coexisted peacefully for centuries.

Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa (new flower) is the capital of present-day Ethiopia and the headquarters of the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. I was there during the annual meeting of the African Union. Security was tight, with armed guards toting assault rifles on every block.

Addis Ababa was founded by Emperor Menelik II in 1886. Menelik’s wife, Empress Taytu Betul, enjoyed bathing in hot springs near present-day Addis Ababa and built a house and a church there. This, combined with the site’s usefulness as a military staging area, convinced Menelik II to establish his capital city there.

My first stop in Addis was the National Museum of Ethiopia. The museum was separated into 4 levels roughly based on chronology, with the first level examining prehistoric Ethiopia, the second examining Ethiopia’s early history, the third examining Ethiopia’s middling history, and the fourth examining its modern history/culture.

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Map of Africa demonstrating the Great Rift Valley. Ethiopia is highlighted in white along with the Rift Valley, which bisects the country.

Perhaps the most famous exhibit at the museum is the skeleton of Lucy, a female Australopithecus afarensis believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. At the time of its discovery in 1974, Lucy was touted as the oldest and most complete skeleton of man’s earlier evolutionary permutations. The archaeologist who found Lucy named her after the Beatles song “Lucy in the sky with diamonds,” which was playing when they returned to their camp after discovering her.

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This is a replica and the real skeleton is not displayed

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Extrapolation of Lucy’s complete skeleton
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Stone tools believed to have been used by earlier hominid precursors

One of the staple foods of Ethiopia is injera, a flatbread that looks like a crepe. It is produced from a type of grain called tef. There are two types of tef: white tef and brown tef. Brown tef is healthier because it contains more minerals like iron. However, white tef is tastier and more expensive. Tef is hailed as the next superfood due to its low glycemic index and rich nutrients profile (it is, after all, an ancient grain).

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What the tef plant looks like
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Tef is made by grinding the grain into flour, mixing it with water, and pouring the batter onto a flat stove that is heated by firewood.
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Stove on which injera is made, with basket on top to help with cooking
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These are carved wooden seats that double as pillows. They are only carried by adult men. Once a boy has proven himself to be a man, he can carve and carry one of these around.
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I was weirded out when I saw this Olmec head outside of the museum. The Olmec were an ancient civilization in Central America where present-day Mexico is located. This artifact was gifted to Ethiopia by Mexico in the early part of the 20th century when Ethiopia and Mexico had closer diplomatic ties.
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This is Emperor Tewodoros II, a strong military leader who fought to unite Ethiopia against British and Italian colonialists during the 19th century. At the time, Ethiopia was divided into squabbling fiefdoms controlled by local warlords. Tewodoros was one such warlord whose superior martial strength and leadership enabled him to claim the monarchy. He was a controversial figure during his life. For instance, he took it upon himself to redistribute wealth by stealing from the rich and dividing the spoils amongst the poor. Such magnanimity was balanced by the brutal tactics he employed to consolidate and maintain his power. Eventually, he tried to unite his countrymen against a common enemy by kidnapping some British expatriates and instigating a war with the British Empire. His gamble did not pay off, and few rallied to his banner. Left with a meager force and surrounded by a British task force, Tewodoros wrote to the British commander lamenting the backwardness and pettiness of his country before blowing his own brains out. Today, Tewodoros is regarded as a national hero because of his prowess as a warrior and his prescient efforts to unite Ethiopia against imperialism. His image is ubiquitous throughout the country; however, rather than show a gaudy painting of him, I thought it would be more interesting to show an image that demonstrated his origins as a hero of the common people.

My second stop in Addis was St. George’s Church. This church is quite nice by Ethiopian standards and was built by Emperor Hailee Selassie in the 20th century. Religion, especially Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, is a central part of Ethiopia’s history and culture. There are numerous churches throughout the country that are usually the most sumptuous buildings in their specific locale. Furthermore, they are all decorated with the same recurring pictures and themes drawn from the Bible. St. George is especially preeminent in the country. Every church I visited had a mural depicting St. George slaying the dragon.

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St. George’s Church in Addis Ababa.
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Every church in Ethiopia houses a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (aka the Holy of Holies), which is traditionally hidden from view behind a curtain like the one depicted here. Ethiopians believe that the original Ark of the Covenant was brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia by Menelik I (story later on). In fact, the original Ark is reputed to be in Axum, a city that I visited (stay tuned for more).

My third stop in Addis was the Mercato, which is hailed as the largest open-air market in Africa.

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The Bustling and crowded Mercato in Addis Ababa is vibrant and overwhelming.

The Mercato was first established by Fascist Italians when they successfully conquered Ethiopia in the 1930s. The Italians had been soundly defeated by Ethiopia in the late 1800s (story later on) and had craved revenge for decades. With Benito Mussolini at the helm, a Fascist Italian regime mounted an aggressive campaign to assuage their long-seated embarrassment at being the only European country to be defeated by Africans. Ethiopia’s Emperor, Hailee Selassie (holy trinity), fled the country a few hours before Addis Ababa was captured by the Italians (many contemporaneous Ethiopians regarded his lack of resistance as cowardice). While in exile, Hailee Selassie presented the plight of his kingdom to the League of Nations. The world’s superpowers had their hands full with the rising power of the Axis (remember, this was the 1930s) and disregarded his pleas, remaining silent on the matter. The only member nation to express public sympathy and decry Italy was Mexico (recall the Olmec statue head that Mexico had gifted to Ethiopia as a sign of friendship).

The Italian occupation lasted for five years from 1936-1941. It was ended when an Allied invasion. Hailee Selassie was escorted with great fanfare into Addis Ababa by a British force and re-installed as the ruler of Ethiopia. The Italians occupation did not only bring violence, looting, and other negative sundries. In some ways, Ethiopia benefited from their oppressors. The Italians developed the country’s infrastructure by building roads, bridges, and houses. They also started the Mercato. At the time, it was called the Mercato indigensio (the market for the indigenous people) and was mostly frequented by Ethiopians. The Italians built a segregated market for themselves called the Piazza that was presumably nicer and more exclusive. Furthermore, after the occupation was lifted, many Italians (mostly men) remained in Ethiopia and integrated into their adopted society by marrying Ethiopian women.

Today, the Mercato is an enormous, bustling, and organic market where merchants sell just about anything (food, electronics, souvenirs, etc.). I was particularly intrigued to learn that many Ethiopian scavenger will bring broken appliances, various raw materials, and other recyclable items to the Mercato. These items are repaired, refurbished, and resold, exemplifying the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Indeed, my guide told me that Ethiopians rarely throw things away and tend to hoard items. I appreciate that Ethiopian entrepreneurs are at once stimulating the economy and reducing waste in one fell swoop, something Americans could learn from.

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Giant mounds of recyclable materials
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An enterprising courier walking into the Mercato carrying an enormous and precarious stack of mattresses and pillows?
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A sumptuously decorated mosque that I drove past in Addis. Islam is another central pillar in Ethiopia’s unique culture and history. Muslims have co-existed peacefully (for the most part) alongside Christians and other religions in Ethiopia since the founding of Islam in the 7th century AD. The prophet Muhammad sent his family (including the woman who would become his future wife) to seek refuge in Axum, the empire that held dominion over present-day Ethiopia at the time. The Axumite king provided safe haven to the refugees. With his family under the protection of the powerful Axumite empire, Muhammad was free to focus his efforts on defeating his enemies and consolidating his power in Arabia. After completing his campaign, Muhammad sent for his family and instructed his followers to maintain their friendship with the Axumite empire and to never seek a quarrel with Ethiopians. The Muslims have taken this to heart; however, there is one notable exception, which I will discuss later.

Next, I visited the Ethnological Museum, located on the campus of Addis Ababa University. The museum was formally the palace of Emperor Hailee Selassie, who donated the building to the university following a botched coup. The museum housed exhibits exploring Ethiopian history and culture.

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Front entrance of the Ethnological Museum, which houses Addis Ababa University’s Center for Ethiopian Studies and was formally the palace of Hailee Selassie. Inside, they have preserved the bedrooms and studies of the Emperor and Empress.
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The most profound object that I found at the Ethnological Museum was not in it, but rather in front of it. This sculpture was in front of the museum next to a flagpole flying the Ethiopian flag. It is a staircase composed of fourteen steps with a lion on the topmost step. The staircase was built by the Italians after they captured Addis Ababa and the palace as a monument of their successful conquest of Ethiopia and as a slight against the former Emperor Hailee Selassie. The fourteen steps represent the fourteen years it took Mussolini to erase the shame of Italy (Mussolini came into power in 1922, Ethiopia was conquered in 1936). The lion was not originally part of the sculpture and was placed there by Hailee Selassie after he reconquered Ethiopia with the help of Allied Forces in 1941. In Ethiopia, the lion is a symbol of the monarchy and expresses that office’s power and destiny to rule. I found it profound that Hailee Selassie decided to turn the original symbol on its head rather than simply destroying it.

Next, I was driven up to Mt. Entoto, a mountain overlooking Addis Ababa. Emperor Menelik II imported eucalyptus trees into Ethiopia and first planted it around Mt. Entoto after he returned from a state visit to Madagascar. His people were suffering a shortage of wood for fuel and building materials, and he recognized that eucalyptus trees grew quickly and produced straight, strong wood. The eucalyptus trees did indeed help to address some of these issues, but not without repercussions. Eucalyptus trees have invasively spread all over the country. They consume a great deal of water and erode the land, which has created a host of conservation and biodiversity issues around the country.

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View of Addis Ababa from Mt. Entoto. I was there during the rainy season so visibility was poor.

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Ethiopia’s economy has grown quite a bit in the past few decades (GDP of $120 in the 1990s, up to GDP of $1,000 in the 2010s). However, many Ethiopians still live under the poverty line and wealth disparity is rampant. When I spoke to many Ethiopians, it was their opinion that the growth of the economy is an illusion. According to them, many Ethiopians have not benefited from the increased money and the wealth is still concentrated in a select few.

I also learned snippets about education when I was there. Many people around the country complete high school. The courses up until secondary school are officially taught in Amharic. In high school, all courses are taught in English. Thus, many people in Ethiopia are tri-lingual (they speak Amharic, English, and their tribal dialect).

There is a well-developed university system, with programs in engineering, agriculture, tourism, medicine, etc. The best university by far is Addis Ababa University, which has some 40,000 students. I was actually there during the graduation of many of its schools. I also met two high school students who saw education as their ticket to a better life. Their families had been subsistence farmers for generations. Their parents wanted them to focus on learning agriculture and taking over the farm from them. Both high schoolers did not want to do this. They recognized the value of an education and aspired to train as computer engineers and place their bets on social mobility.

My last stop in Addis Ababa was Trinity Cathedral, the burial place of VIPs. Among its more famous tenants is the last Emperor, Hailee Selassie, and the previous prime minister, Meles Zenawi.

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Façade of Trinity Cathedral. The cathedral was commissioned by Hailee Selassie, who attempted to echo the grandeur of Europe’s magnificent churches by instructing his builders to mimic European architectural motifs.
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Interior of Trinity cathedral. It is separated into three sections by the two colonnades. The leftmost aisle is the male section, the center aisle (pictured) is for the clergy, and the rightmost aisle is the female section. Note that the mural above the altar depicts three holy men (i.e., old white guys), representing the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Trinity within trinity within trinity in the church; after all, it is categorical for ecclesiastical architecture to deftly combine functionality and symbolism.
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Tomb of Emperor Hailee Selassie in Trinity Cathedral. Originally known as Ras Tefari, Hailee Selassie ruled Ethiopia from 1930-1974. I didn’t know this, but Rastafarians derive their name from his name and have built a religion (Rastafarianism) around his mythos and believe to this day that Hailee Selassie is not dead. (His moldering body begs to differ, of course). Like many rulers, he was a controversial figure during his lifetime. On the one hand, he was a powerful and respected military leader in his youth and also established many universities to increase education in his later years. On the other hand, he was a coward and fled when the Italians conquered his country and also mismanaged the country’s agriculture and economy, leading to severe famines that killed many of his subjects. Many coups were fulminated during his reign. As Hailee Selassie aged, he became less able to hamstring these coups and control his kingdom. Eventually, a coup in 1974 was successful and the infirm emperor was smothered to death with a pillow and buried next to a latrine. His ignominious end was somewhat mollified when his body was exhumed after the country stabilized. The reputed last emperor of the Solomonic dynasty was reburied in a state funeral and interred at Trinity Cathedral.
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Star of David on the celling of Trinity Cathedral emphasizes the Judaic roots of Ethiopian culture
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Tomb of Meles Zenawi, the previous prime minister of Ethiopia from 1995-2012. Zenawi was the one who stabilized the country after two decades of chaos and violence following the coup that led to Hailee Selassie’s death.
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I also had dinner at 2000 Habesha, a fancy restaurant frequented by tourists that includes an Ethiopian buffet and cultural show. Habesha is another word for Ethiopians, and the restaurant was established in the year 2000.
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Ethiopian food is bomb. The brown crepe-like object is brown injera, the white roll is rolled-up white injera. Injera is traditionally eaten with one’s hands. One grabs a roll of injera, rolls it out on one’s plate, places whatever sauces and other wot onto the injera, then grabs another roll of injera to help with eating. One rips off bits of injera with one’s fingers and pinches the sauces up in the injera and eats the lot. Ethiopian food is broadly segregated into fasting and non-fasting, or vegetarian and carnivore. Traditionally, Orthodox Christian Ethiopians fast (eat vegetarian) on Wednesdays and Fridays. This plate is fasting, so all the sauces are vegetable-based.

Final thoughts on Addis Ababa: a bustling and booming metropolis with an interesting mix of people (and animals!). It is a mix of the old and the new, with large skyscrapers and mud huts in the city limits.

Axum

I boarded a domestic flight on Ethiopian Airlines headed for my next stop, the ancient city of Axum. This city was the seat of the Axumite empire that stretched from the Nile in East Africa across the Red Sea to Yemen (a total of 2.5 million square kilometers). The city is the oldest continuously inhabited city in sub-Saharan Africa. The empire existed from about 100 AD to about 900 AD, though the area had been civilized by an Iron Age society that predated the Axumite empire and probably developed into it. The empire’s golden age was from the 3rd to the 6th century AD. During this time, Axum was considered one of the world’s preeminent superpowers alongside Rome, Persia, and China. The Axumite empire, as a vital artery that connected the East to the West, thrived upon trade and minted its own coins.

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Arrived in Axum!

My first stop was the Stelae fields, where large obelisks built during the Axumite empire still stand, millennia later. The enormous obelisks served as grave markers for Axumite emperors. Their tombs, at one point richly laden with treasures that they took with them to the afterlife, have sadly all been looted. There are also several smaller obelisks that probably served as grave markers for less important personages.

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Several obelisks still stand in Stelae Field. The obelisk that has toppled is the largest obelisk discovered at the site and is attributed to King Remhai. Scientists believe that this one fell over soon after it was erected because it was not built upon a strong enough foundation platform.
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Close-up of King Remhai’s stelae
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Interior of the tomb that is attributed to King Remhai
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The Axumites were skilled masons. Their remaining works, like the tombs of their kings and their obelisks, were made from enormous and skillfully rendered stones. They chiseled their stones from quarries and did not use cement or mortar to stick them together. Instead, they would precisely measure and cut the stones such that they would fit together flush and would be held there by their own weight. To accomplish this, they needed a way to standardize the lengths of stone. They did this by using stone rulers with empiric length gradations, like the one pictured above.
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This obelisk is beginning to fall over and is being supported by steel cords.
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Perhaps the most famous obelisk in Stelae field. Known as the Obelisk of Axum, this 24-meter stela is attributed to King Ezana. King Ezana ruled the Axumite empire with his twin brother Saizana in the 4th century AD, during the height of Axum’s prosperity. King Ezana received a young Christian priest from Syria who converted him and his brother to Christianity. King Ezana decided to convert his entire empire to Christianity from their previous pagan beliefs. He built Ethiopia’s first church and established the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, making the young Syrian priest the first bishop of the church. King Ezana’s obelisk has stood for nearly 1700 years. However, it was looted by the Italians when they occupied Ethiopia in the 1930s and shipped to Rome, where it was erected in the Vatican. There it stood for until 2002, when it was struck by lightning. The Ethiopians believe that the Italians took this as a sign that they should return it. The Italians did return the obelisk after much pestering by the Ethiopians. The obelisk was shipped in three pieces on the enormous Russian jet class Antonov. The Axum airport was specially expanded in order to provide enough runway space for this huge jet to land.
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Picture of King Ezana erecting his obelisk. Orthodox Ethiopians believe that Ezana utilized the power of the Ark to help gather the enormous stones needed to create and erect the obelisk. It is more likely that he had a ton of slaves and elephants do all the heavy lifting.
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Ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace. The Queen of Sheba, Makeda, was a Biblical empress that ruled the ancient Saba (Sheba) empire, which predated the Axumite empire. She was purportedly born in the hills surrounding Axum and descending to build her palace there. Makeda was a renowned beauty and eventually traveled to Jerusalem and met with King Solomon, the leader of the Judaic empire. They were eventually married and, when Makeda returned to her homeland of Sheba, she gave birth to their son, Menelik I. When Menelik I was twenty, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet and learn from his father. King Solomon received his son lovingly and taught him many things. After a few years, Menelik returned to his homeland with a bunch of Jews in tow, as well as the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon had had a dream that he should give the Ark to his son to remove it from Jerusalem. This choice eventually kept the Ark of the Covenant safe when the Judaic empire fell to the Byzantine empire. Menelik I returned to his homeland and established a line of kings called the Solomonic Dynasty that (purportedly) ruled Ethiopia and the surrounding regions until 1974, when the last Emperor, Hailee Selassie, was killed. Today, the Ark of the Covenant is still believed to be housed in Axum, and I was able to visit the church where it is stored!
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Ruins of an oven in the Queen of Sheba’s palace.
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According to my guide, the Italians stole the idea of pizza from the Ethiopians. He drew these pictures in the sand and told me that flatbread with meat and vegetables on top of them were first invented by the Ethiopians and baked in the ovens shown above. The Italians eventually stole this idea from the Ethiopians and created pizza. Hmmmm…
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Ruins of the Necropolis of King Gebre-Meskel and Kaleb, two other Axumite kings. To be honest, the ruins in Axum (apart from the Stelae) are not much to look at. They were not well-preserved and have been looted by Europeans and Ethiopians alike. For generations, Ethiopians have used the stones to build their own houses and the treasures housed within are long gone. I was not too impressed by any of these ruins and there really wasn’t much to see. Yes, the stone work is interesting and pretty well-wrought given the time period (in the BCs). But there are definitely better preserved and more stunning examples in other parts of the world. I don’t mean to denigrate Axum, but their ruins just weren’t as well preserved. It’s a pile of stones with some empty tombs underneath. Big woop.
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Some empty, presumably superfluous sarcophagi, in Gebre Meskel’s tomb
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The Ezana Stone, a tablet commissioned by King Ezana that details his conversion to Christianity. The tablet was written in three languages: Ge’ez (the language of the clergy), Sabaean (the language of the ancient Saba empire), and Greek (the international trade language at the time). It is touted as the Ethiopian Rosetta stone because it has the same document written in three languages. Apparently, it was found by a farmer who was plowing his field and accidentally hit the stone with his plow. Axum is severely understudied and it is believed that a lot of artifacts are just waiting to be dug up.
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Church of Maryam Tsion (Mary of Zion). This church was the first Christian church built in Ethiopia by King Ezana. It was destroyed several times over the years. The current building was built by Hailee Selassie and was even visited by Queen Elizabeth.
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Interior of the church. The replica Ark is hidden behind the central curtain.
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This monk is showing me a Bible that is over 1,000 years old and was written/illustrated on vellum.
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This chandelier was donated by Queen Elizabeth to the Church of Maryam Tsion when she visited.
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The real Ark of the Covenant is kept in one of these two buildings. The Ark can only be viewed by one person: a monk who is elected to serve as a lifelong guardian of the Ark. Once selected, the monk cannot leave the confines of the building where the Ark is kept (a deacon brings him his meals). The building on the right is older, the building of the left was recently built. I was told that some mischievous tourists tried scaling the fence around the building on the right in order to catch a glimpse of the Ark. Naturally, they were caught. The new building on the left is apparently much more secure. However, the Ark can be kept in either building in order to confuse trespassers as to its whereabouts.
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The site where the original Maryam Tsion church was built. You can still see the remains of some stone walls, now overgrown with vegetation.

I found the juxtaposition of these two paintings particularly edifying. Both depict the Virgin Mary holding an adolescent Jesus. The mural on the left depicts them both with swarthier skin. The mural on the right depicts them with lighter skin. The mural on the left predates the one on the right by several centuries. As you can see, Mary/Jesus went from being imagined as dark-skinned to white-skinned. Hmmm…

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This stone in front of the Church of Maryam Tsion is where generations of kings of the Solomonic Dynasty were crowned.

This stone in front of the Church of Maryam Tsion is where generations of kings of the Solomonic Dynasty were crowned.

The Axumite empire began to crumble around the 7th and 8th century AD, mostly because its economy was waning. This was due to the increasing Muslim presence in and around the country. The Muslims controlled the ports around the Red Sea and siphoned off much of the trade that had previously sustained the Axumite empire. Though they never attack the Axumite empire, the Muslims effectively hamstrung the empire’s economy. The coup de grace to the empire was the anti-Axumite campaign led by Gudit, a Jewish princess, in the 10th century AD. The Jews had been segregated and discriminated against for generations. Gudit launched a retaliatory campaign that laid waste to the Axumite empire. She burned churches and monuments, including the original Church of Maryam Tsion, and killed the aristocracy. The Axumite empire was thus reduced to an echo of its former grandeur.

Another interesting thing about Axum: it is quite close to Adwa. Adwa is a hilly region where the Battle of Adwa was fought on 2 March, 1896. This was the famous confrontation between the Ethiopian army, led by Emperor Menelik II, and the kingdom of Italy. The Ethiopian army, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, successfully defeated the superior Italian army. This was because the Ethiopians knew the land and were able to outmaneuver the Italians and take the high ground. The Italians were poorly led and confused, allowing the barefoot Ethiopians armed with spears and single-shot rifles to overrun them.

Today, Axum is the regional capital of the Tigrai region in Ethiopia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The people of Tigrai are called the Tigrean people (trader people) and they speak their own language, Tigrinya.

Final thoughts on Axum: a city steeped in history. You can almost feel the weight of the years in the air. Unfortunately, Axum’s heritage has not been well-preserved and much of its history has been lost or buried. Hopefully one day, historians will be able to unearth what once was lost. This is currently happening; Axum University has an archaeology department that is working on piecing the history of this interesting land together.

Lalibela

After finishing my tour of Axum, I boarded another domestic Ethiopian Airlines plane headed for the city of Lalibela, nestled in the Lasta (thyme) mountain range. Lalibela is the home of eleven monolithic churches carved into or out of the living mountains. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the unofficial 8th Wonder of the World.

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Lalibela was probably the most isolated and least developed city I visited in Ethiopia. The surrounding countryside was mostly large and barren farms. I actually saw many Chinese contractors working on roads along my drive from the airport to Lalibela proper.

Lalibela was the capital of the upstart Zagwe empire, which rose to power in the 12th-14th century after the Axumite empire crumbled. The city takes its name from Gebre Meskel Lalibela, the 5th Zagwe emperor. The word Lalibela means “the bees recognize his sovereignty.” Legend has it that when Lalibela was born, he was covered in bees, an auspicious sign that he was would have an unusual destiny.

Once he was king, Lalibela set out to create a New Jerusalem in Ethiopia (i.e., he wanted to create a mystical and holy center of worship in his homeland). Work had already been done to carve some churches into the mountain. Lalibela expanded upon this work and was responsible for building some of the more magnificent churches in the city that would eventually come to bear his name. Legend has it that King Lalibela was aided in his herculean task by an army of 14,000 workers during the day and angels at night. Lalibela was responsible for building a number of the churches himself and began a tradition of building churches in the area. Most of the churches in Lalibela were built during the 12th and 13th century, when the Zagwe empire was at the height of its power.

Time for a snippet of geology. My guide told me that much of the rock around Lalibela is volcanic rock with high amounts of Fe (iron), which helps to make the churches stronger and more waterproof. This lends the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela a beautiful, warm, rusty red color. The churches are also made out of hard stone with high amounts of iron. I find it incredible that the workmen chiseled these churches out of the mountains.

My first stop was to visit the 8th Wonder of the World, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela!

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Bete Medhane Alem, one of 11 churches hewn out of living stone. The overhang was built by UNESCO to help maintain this world treasure.
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Close-Up of Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World)
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Baptism pool
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Drainage ditch carved into the stone
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Another close-up of Bete Medhane Alem
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Vaulted arches in Bete Medhane Alem help to support the massive weight of the overlying rock. I found it amazing that all of this was carved, not built, out of one piece of stone.
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The churches all had windows to let in natural light. The churches are now electrified with fluorescent lightbulbs but there are still few of them and the churches are still mostly lit by sunlight. I preferred this, the dim light added to the holiness and mystical appeal of the churches.
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Bete Maryam (Church of Mary)
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Closer up to Bete Maryam (Church of Mary)
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Wall of Bete Maryam demonstrating the different cross designs employed in the windows for ornamentation. Left (top-bottom): Totanic Templar Middle (top-bottom): rectangular window, Latin cross, Axumite cross, Templar cross Right: rectangular window, Axumite cross, Totanic Templar
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Fertility pool for virgins. It does appear to be quite fecund at the moment.
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Carved entrance to Bete Maryam
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The inside of Bete Maryam is notable for having highly decorated frescoes
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Star of David fresco on the ceiling of Bete Maryam
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Maltese cross fresco on the ceiling of Bete Maryam
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Closer look at the ceiling, which is still roughly hewn
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A monk who acts as the guardian of the church. The picture on the right is a ubiquitous portrayal of St. George slaying the dragon.
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Arabic windows at Bete Golgotha Mikael, which is believed to contain the tomb of King Lalibela
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Carving of one of the Four Evangelists (so it’s either Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John)
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Portrait of King Lalibela holding the shish-kebab of destiny and accompanied by an angel. This painting is housed in Bete Golgotha Mikael, where the king is believed to be entombed.
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Bete Giorgis (Church of St. George), the most architecturally striking and sophisticated of the eleven rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. This picture highlights how the churches were carved into the mountain. Note how the top of the church is carved into concentric crosses, with an outermost Greek cross and an innermost Latin cross
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Bete Giorgis. The churches of Lalibela were built sequentially, not simultaneously. Thus, it is probable that the Ethiopian craftsmen became more skillful over time. Their increasing technical proficiency is inferred by comparing the intricacy of the latter churches to the earlier ones. Incidentally, Bete Giorgis was the last church to be built. Oh, and I forgot to mention, but visitors to churches must always remove their shoes at the church entrance, demonstrated by the man removing his shoes.
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Walking down a passageway hewn from the mountain to get to Bete Giorgis
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Entrance to Bete Giorgis
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Bete Giorgis
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I like this picture because it depicts the juxtaposition of tradition and innovation that is commonplace in Ethiopia. Observe the monk dressed in traditional clothing in front of the centuries-old church, chatting with a friend or family member on a cell phone. For me, this picture sums up the chimeric and wondrous country of Ethiopia where the old and the new are seamlessly blended together.
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A wooden screw that acts locking mechanism for a drawer I found in Bete Giorgis.
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Ni hao, shi wo. I’m clutching my little travel diary.

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Bete Gabriel-Rufael (Church of the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael), which was built in the 8th-9th century during the waning years of the Axumite empire. The architectural design of this church is much less sophisticated when compared to the Bete Giorgis.
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Chisel marks on the walls of the church
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Picture demonstrating the sides of the walls around the church that were carved out of the mountain
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These rough patches were created by hot gas bubbling out of the molten stone that formed the mountains.
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Hi me again, I’m in awe
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Hole for rainwater drainage
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Bete Lehem (Church of Bethlehem), which was also created in the 8th-9th century during the Axumite empire. It is much more primitive than the churches created later under Lalibela, like Bete Giorgis.
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Bete Mercroeus (Church of St. Mark), also built during the time of Axum. Part of the ceiling collapsed some time ago.
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Bete Amanuel (Church of Emmanuel), built during the Axumite empire. This church was much more technologically and architecturally sophisticated than its brother churches.
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Bete Amanuel.
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Vaulted arches within Amanuel
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According to my guide, these holes in Bete Amanuel were created by Italian preservationists who were trying to maintain the church by adding cement to its façade. They had to roughen the stone with iron nails to do this and consequently destroyed the façade. Not sure how much I trust his story, though…
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Bete Abba Libanos, carved into the side of a mountain.
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Village hewn into the mountain where many of the priests, nuns, and monks of the churches live
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There were quite a few grottoes hewn into the sides of the walls surrounding the churches. These grottoes served as quarters for monks and, sometimes, their final resting place (as demonstrated by the bones of the chap above).

After completing my tour of the eleven monolithic churches of Lalibela, I headed for my second stop, Asheten Maryam Monastery on Asheten (good smell) mountain. Presumably, this mountain bears its moniker because of the thyme and other fragrant plants in the area. The monastery was 3,600 meters above sea level so I had a bit of a hike ahead of me.

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10 kilometers to go to Asheten Maryam!

Asheten Maryam Monastery was built in the 11th century and was also hewn into the living rock of the mountain. Its architecture is more primitive and my guide claimed it was built by Lalibela himself, though this seems to be anachronistic. Interestingly, the mountain is partially composed of sedimentary rock that has been overlain with volcanic ash. Presumably, this means that the sedimentary rock predates the volcanic rock mountains that was used as the building material for the monolithic churches.

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Looking back towards Lalibela as I hiked up
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More views
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More views
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Passing some mud huts on a plateau of the mountain
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These are aloe and agave plants that are mainly used as boundary markers for people’s property. They also have the added effect of helping to slow soil erosion. The Ethiopians use aloe as a salve for skin conditions. They do not use the agave plant for anything (should have asked the Mexicans to teach them to make tequila).
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Terraced fields on the side of Asheten Mountain
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Sedimentary rock wall along the trail to Asheten Maryam
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Some petrified wood in the sedimentary rock walls of the mountain
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The sedimentary rock is covered by volcanic ash, according to my guide
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Entrance to the Asheten Maryam Church (not much to look at, if I was to be completely honest). I must confess I was a bit crestfallen when I got up to the top.
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Some ancient and ornately designed crosses, artifacts of the monastery. These crosses are centuries old.
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A centuries-old flip book demonstrating scenes from the Bible (St. George slaying the dragon, Jesus on the cross). I found it interesting that the figures are distinctly non-European, which I appreciate given the Euro-centric (and ultimately skewed or downright factually inaccurate) art/history that I grew up with.
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A centuries-old Bible written in Ge’ez, the official language of the clergy. Ge’ez can be likened to Latin in that the only people who know the language are the clergy, scholars, and assorted nerds. The black letters are normal words, whereas the red letters signify that the name/place mentioned is holy.
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More views from Asheten monastery
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The monastery wasn’t actually at the top of the mountain. The top is pictured here; apparently, there is a little church on the top of the mountain that is only accessible by a rope ladder. My guide said I wasn’t allowed to go there. Oh well.
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On the way down from Ashetan Maryam, I took a pit stop to visit some eco lodges that my guide was building. It turns out that my guide is also an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He is building the eco lodges with the help of local investors. The lodges will help to attract tourism and the proceedings will go towards bettering the lot of the community. I was touched by his enterprise and made a small donation to his effort. These lodges are built in the traditional Ethiopian style (i.e., round houses with straw rooftops).
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Arched entranceway to one of the incomplete lodges
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Ornamental pieces that are to be put on the topmost spire of the roof
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My guide was particularly proud of the scrollwork on these support beams, telling me that all the labor was done by local craftsmen and workers that he had hired to help stimulate the economy
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This is ensete ventricosum, the false banana plant. Though it looks like a banana tree, it doesn’t actually grow them. The Oromo people of southern Ethiopia harvest the flesh of the trunk by scratching it down with a rock. The flesh is then buried underground and allowed to ferment for some weeks. This fermented material is then mashed, mixed with water, and baked into qocho, a main staple food of these people. My guide has planted this in front of his eco lodges.
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Passed this decorated marker on the street in Lalibela that depicts the cultural heritage of the surrounding area.

I also had an unofficial jaunt into Lalibela’s nightlife scene. I had befriended one of the clerks at the hotel I was staying in. He was a young man in his 20s by the name of Selam. He offered to take me out to a cultural show/bar, where we would be able to listen to live music and drink some tej (more on this later). I was pumped to explore the nightlife scene, so I said yes.

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The bar
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Inside of Torpido Tej
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Selam and I having a drink. I’m holding a glass of tej, a type of mead (wine made from honey). It is traditionally served in Ethiopia and Eritrea, which used to be the same country before colonialism happened. I saw several paintings in the museums I visited of banquets thrown by various emperors where they would serve this golden-colored liquid to their guests. It is traditionally served in these glass Erlenmeyer-flask looking thingamabobs called berele. To be honest, Western mead is much tastier than this and it definitely wasn’t my favorite drink. But I was glad to have tried it!
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Doing some traditional Ethiopian dancing with one of the bar’s entertainers. I was told (and observed for myself) that different regions of Ethiopia dance with different parts of their body. In Lalibela and the surrounding environs, the people dance mostly with their shoulders. We are wiggling our shoulders to the music in this picture. I’m very glad that this isn’t a movie, I’m a terrible dancer.

The third (and last) stop of my tour was to visit Lalibela’s weekly market, which is typically held on Saturdays from 9am-4pm. Farmers from all the surrounding regions (within a radius of 20 kilometers) come with their wares packed onto the backs of mules. The market is divided into several sections: livestock, produce, spices, prepared foods, goods like clothing and bags. I asked my guide to tell me some prices; apparently, oxen are 5000 birr, goats are 1500 birr, chickens are 100 birr, donkeys are 1500 birr. Purchasing is mostly reliant on money (birr), but bartering is common. The market was crowded and bustling and hectic, with people and animals walking all over the place. I was amazed and overwhelmed at the scene, wondering if there was any method to the madness. If there was, it was certainly beyond me.

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Farmers wake up very early in the morning on Saturdays and head for the market, leading their mules laden with goods.
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Heading into Lalibela’s market
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People sitting next to their chickens
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Donkeys and sheep
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Where people tie up their donkeys. My question is: how do people tell which donkey is theirs? They all look the same to me.
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Mounds of brown tef, the grain used to make injera
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Mysterious and tasty spices
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Piles of fresh produce
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No idea what’s going on here
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Scale for weighing goods
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Scale for weighing goods

Today, life in Lalibela continues much as it has for the past few centuries. The churches continue to be maintained and administered by dedicated clergy members. All the churches are active Christian shrines and many Ethiopians make pilgrimages to Lalibela. The native people in Lalibela also regularly worship at the churches.

Final thoughts on Lalibela: probably my most favorite stop on my tour of Ethiopia. The rock-hewn churches were awe-inspiring and architecturally stunning. I also appreciated getting to hike around Lalibela and up the mountain to Asheten Maryam, where I was rewarded with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains of Lalibela. Visiting the market helped me realize how Ethiopians in the countryside live and get a sense of the flow and rhythm of life there. I found Lalibela to be a pleasing mixture of mystical and mundane, a city that has developed somewhat but has largely remained frozen in time. I would highly recommend a visit to this magical place.

Gondar

I boarded yet another domestic flight through Ethiopian Airlines and jetted away to Gondar, leaving Lalibela and its imposing churches behind me. Gondar is in the Amhara region of Ethiopia and previously served as the capital of the Ethiopian empire. Gondar was established as the capital of the empire by Emperor Fasilides in the 1600s. Emperor Fasilides rose to prominence out of a squabbling cadre of local warlords who had been incited to violence against each other by European expatriates. When Fasilides consolidated his power, he promptly deported all the Europeans in the country and established a closed-door policy to Europeans only (other peoples were allowed into Ethiopia).

Gondar and the surrounding environs are hilly and strategically defensible, which is why Emperor Fasilides chose to establish his capital there. There were also major trade routes running through this fertile land, purportedly the best area to grow tef. Sesame is the major cash crop, which is processed into oil and exported to China, Pakistan, and Israel. Fasilides and his line built five imposing castles in the area.

My first stop was the castle compound in Gondar.

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Path to the castle compound of Gondar, enclosed within a rock wall
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The castle of Emperor Fasilides, the first to build in Gondar. Fasilides modeled his castle on the architecture of European castles and sought to make them imposing (it is 32 meters high) and defensible structures. Emperor Fasilides enjoyed swimming and hunting and was a great warrior.
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The structure on the right is the castle (really a manor) built by Yohannes, the son of Fasilides. I presume that he built this house as a private residence apart from his father and that they relied on the castle for defense if they were ever attacked. Yohannes was a lover of animals and was popular among the common folk. He was known as Yohannes the Righteous because he stood up for the rights of the marginalized (he even tried to reduce animal cruelty to donkeys) and sought to reduce sectarian violence/tension between different religions by segregating them into different parts of the country. The structure on the left is the Royal Archives, I will return to this building later.
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The castle of Iyasu, the son of Yohannes and grandson of Fasilides. Iyasu was a powerful famous and a famous womanizer. His sexual appetite was so voracious he eventually contracted a venereal skin disease that caused him intense discomfort (hypothesized as syphilis). He was the first Gondarine king to break Fasilides’ anti-European edict. He let a French doctor named Charles Jacques Poncet into the country who promised to cure his skin disease. Poncet advised Iyasu to build steam baths and sit within them, which apparently helped mollify his symptoms and gained him the friendship of the King.
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Destroyed ceiling of Iyasu’s castle. My guide told me the ceiling was destroyed by the British when they bombed Gondar during WWII. The Fascist Italians had retreated to Gondar and were attempting to make their last stand in the city against the British.
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Steam bath on the castle grounds that may have been used by Iyasu
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The Royal Archives, where many books detailing Ethiopia’s history were kept. It was apparently looted by the Scottish and British. The most famous book was Kebre Negast (Glory of Kings) that detailed the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s fated meeting. The Kebre Negast is housed in the British Museum.
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Cages where lions, the symbol of Ethiopian kings, were kept
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Castle of Dawit, the 4th Gondarine king and the son of Iyasu. He was a great lover of music and was eventually poisoned after 5 years.
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Castle of Bakafa, the 5th Gondarine king and the brother of Dawit. He was never crowned due to suspicion that he had poisoned his brother to seize power.
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Beehive. Bees are mystical creatures in Ethiopian lore and are a recurring motif in many of their stories and legends (e.g., Lalibela).
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Unfortunately many buildings on the castle grounds have not stood the test of time
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This castle was built by Mentaweb, the wife of Bakafa and the Queen of Gondar. After Bakafa died, she installed her young son Iyasu II on the throne and ruled as Queen Regent for 39 years. Mentaweb was a proponent of women’s rights and built many schools to increase education and improve their household skills.

After finishing my tour of the myriad castles in the Gondarine castle compound, I ventured into the outskirts of the city to explore two sites: Emperor Fasilides’ swimming pool and the abbey of Empress Mentewab. Emperor Fasilides built himself a private retreat away from his castle complete with a swimming pool (remember, he enjoyed swimming and hunting). There, he could relax and indulge in one of his favorite pastimes. Similarly, Empress Mentewab constructed an abbey and domicile away from her main palace as a retreat from the rigors of court life. Both structures were located in the hills surrounding Gondar.

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Emperor Fasilides’ swimming pool and estate
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Close-up of Emperor Fasilides’ swimming pool. The water for the swimming pool would be funneled into the depression surrounding the house. It also doubled as a moat in case the structure was attacked.
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Hole that water was funneled through
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View of the back of Emperor Fasilides’ swimming pool and estate
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Abbey of Empress Mentaweb. Mentaweb built this abbey away from the castles as a retreat when she wanted to relax.
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House of Emperor Mentaweb at her abbey
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Again, the structures around the Abbey have not withstood the test of time too well
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Lamenting the inexorable passage of time and the inevitability of man’s destructiveness
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The bones of Empress Mentewab, her son, and her grandson.

There were also 44 churches in Gondar. All but one of them were destroyed when the Sudanese invaded Ethiopia after the wane of the Gondarine empire and put the capital to the torch. Many of the burnt churches have been rebuilt. The one original church that survived the Sudanese invasion was Debre Brehan Selassie (Mountain Light Trinity). The legend goes that the church survived the onslaught because it was protected by a swarm of honeybees that drove the Sudanese away.

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Original façade of Debre Behran Selassie, the only church to survive the sack of Gondar
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Interior frescoes in Debre Brehan Selassie
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The top depicts St. Peter, who was baptized upside down. The bottom depicts some other Christian martyr being beheaded in a rather graphic fashion. I was interested to learn that the Ethiopian artists depict believers with two eyes and non-believers with only one eye showing (note how the Christian martyrs have two eyes but their antagonists have only one eye depicted).

Final thoughts on Gondar: definitely the most architecturally imposing buildings I saw on the entire trip. However, I wasn’t as impressed by the castles of Gondar as I was by the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela or the obelisks at Axum, mostly because these structures had so much mysticism attached to them and because they had been built centuries before. The castles at Gondar were built in the 1600s when technology was much advanced, which decreased the impressiveness of their construction for me. Furthermore, I was disappointed that the castles and churches were not well-preserved and had been looted over the years. I am saddened that Ethiopia has failed to adequately preserve its heritage as well as some other countries. Of course, I do not think it is from negligence and acknowledge the many outside forces that contrived to harm the country and its people. Nonetheless, the crumbling nature of many of the buildings and the lack of anything besides the structures themselves was disappointing to me. I can only hope that Ethiopia preserves what is left and makes some efforts in piecing back what was lost.

Bahir Dar

After finishing my tour of Gondar, I boarded a car and drove for about three hours to the city of Bahir Dar.

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Saw this rather unique rock formation on my drive from Gondar to Bahir Dar

Bahir Dar is the capital of the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Though the city does not have much historic significance, it does hold pride and place in terms of natural importance. It is situated next to Lake Tana, an enormous inland lake in Ethiopia that has been settled for millennia and is the largest lake in Ethiopia. Lake Tana is also the source of the Blue Nile, one of two major tributaries of the Nile. The Blue Nile travels north from Ethiopia to join up with the White Nile and form the Nile that courses all the way to the Mediterranean.

My first stop was the Blue Nile Falls, a large waterfall along the course of the Blue Nile. This was a bit of a drive from Bahir Dar (about 1.5 hours) plus a 30-minute hike through rugged terrain.

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This bridge on the way to the Blue Nile Falls was built by the Portuguese and was the first bridge built by Europeans in the country
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The Blue Nile is a bit of a misnomer. As you can see, the water is decidedly brown, not blue.

Apparently, the river acquires a bluer hue a few hundred miles north. I imagine the person who decided to name the river the Blue Nile lived in this region and that the name stuck. It does seem that the water is incredibly rich and would nourish a great deal of farmland. I mean, it looks like chocolate milk.

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Blue Nile Falls. The Ethiopians call it Tis Isat (Smoke of Fire) as a reference to the rising plumes of water vapor caused by the massive water pressure.
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A small dam on the Blue Nile. The Ethiopians are currently building a much larger dam north of Bahir Dar. This multi-billion-dollar venture is projected to bring power to millions of Ethiopians. This is a sore geopolitical issue, however. The countries downstream of the dam, such as Egypt, are worried about the long-term environmental effects of this dam. There is currently armed and political conflict over this dam in the north of Ethiopia.
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Well that’s one way to travel if you’re disabled.

After returning from the Blue Nile Falls, I took a boat ride across Lake Tana to visit a church called Ura Kidane Mehret that was situated on a peninsula in the lake.

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Ura Kidane Mehret located on the Zege peninsula of Lake Tana. Note the stone bell used to call the monks to service in the left foreground.
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Quite frankly, I was sick and tired of the endless parade of religious iconography in Ethiopia’s points of interest. I appreciate the fact that the country is devoutly religious, but one can only stare at so many depictions of Christ on the cross or St. George slaying the dragon before they seem pedestrian. I did chuckle a bit at this painting of a Christian martyr impaling himself on a trident. I suppose I am a bit of a sadist.

Final Thoughts on Bahir Dar: this was the shortest visit I made to a city in Ethiopia. I’ll admit I was a bit burned out at this point, having been on the move for a week and in a new city every day or two. I had also absorbed an enormous amount of information about Ethiopia in a very short time. It was interesting and relaxing to visit the Blue Nile, see the falls, and sail across Lake Tana for an hour. But the visit to the church was lackluster, especially when compared to those in Lalibela. I can say that I was ready

Back to Addis and Final Reflections

On the morning of July 10, my driver took me to the Bahir Dar airport two hours before my flight. I sat there patiently waiting for my domestic flight to Addis Ababa, where I would have lunch with Yared, the director of GETTS (the tour company that set up my tour). However, my flight was delayed by almost 2.5 hours. The passengers of the flight, including myself, were annoyed at the lack of communication and professionality of the Ethiopian Airlines staff at Bahir Dar airport. They didn’t tell us the plane was delayed or how long it was delayed for, even when we asked. We just had to sit tight and hope for the best.

When I finally touched down in Addis Ababa, I was quite worried that I would miss my flight. The delay had caused me to land at 1:30PM, and my flight to Entebbe, Uganda was at 3:30PM. It took me about forty minutes to debark and get my checked luggage. I then hauled ass to the international terminal and rushed as best I could through security. Luckily, Ethiopian Airlines gave me a priority sticker to skip to the front of security and customs lines. Long story short, I was able to make my flight.

Final reflections on visiting Ethiopia: Ethiopia is a complex and fascinating country with a rich history and an eclectic mix of different cultures. Its people are an ancient and proud race that are aware of the vast potential of their country and the African continent as a whole. Ethiopia has a unique mix of old and new that are seamlessly blended together. On the one hand, many Ethiopians are devoutly religious and adhere to traditions that have remained unchanged for centuries. On the other hand, the country has been developing quickly in the past few decades, with new roads and cellphones and other technologies being integrated into the society. I predict that Ethiopia will be very different in a few more decades. I would definitely recommend a visit to this absorbing land and would love to return to Ethiopia when I am older and see how the country has developed.

I’m off now to Entebbe, Uganda, where I will meet up with my boss Dr. Ross Boyce, an infectious disease fellow at UNC Chapel Hill. I’m excited to finally be a contributing member of society and earn my keep by doing some malaria field research. Stay tuned!

Appendix of Random Tidbits

 Geopolitics/economics

  • Cell phone and Wifi networks are inexplicably cut off in Africa. I experienced this in Ethiopia when I couldn’t get the Wifi to work. I went down to the desk and asked them about it and they told me that the Wifi and the cellphone network were all down. At first, I thought it was a power outage (a common occurrence in Ethiopia) but realized that the lights were still working. When I asked my guide about this phenomenon, he told me that African leaders have fallen into the habit of turning off the signal in selected areas to reduce communication between possible terrorist groups and thereby reduce threats to their person. Bizarre.
  • The former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, was a Tigrean from the Tigrai region and was biased towards this group. He and his wife were very rich and corrupt. Zenawi preferentially installed Tigreans in positions of power in government and commerce. I was told by my guide that Zenawi ordered the demolition of a church and homes to make way for a sugar cane factory owned by one of his cronies. The displaced local people prayed seriously that Zenawi would die. He shortly developed brain cancer after this and died in a Belgium hospital.
  • My guide told me one cannot trust the political situation in Ethiopia. In his words, “one bullet stops our jobs.” The people are treated very unfairly by the government.
  • The Ethiopian population has been increasing rapidly; despite this, the government continues to evict people from their land with minimal compensation so they can sell the land to foreign investors
  • The birr has been devaluing (currently 23 birr to 1 US dollar)
  • There were massive protests after a radio station in Ethiopia leaked state secrets, much like Wikileaks
  • Ethiopians have mixed feelings about Obama. On the one hand, they like him because he was the first black president. On the other hand, they dislike him because he permitted same-sex marriage.
  • I noticed quite a few stores selling coffins around Ethiopia.

 Foreigners

  • The Chinese have invested massive amounts of money in developing the infrastructure of Ethiopia and other African countries. The Ethiopian government have allowed many Chinese companies into the country as sub-contractors because they are cheap, fast, and build much better roads than the Ethiopians could.
  • There is little mixing between Ethiopians and the Chinese workers, they both mainly keep to themselves. Average Ethiopians do not mind the presence of the Chinese and see their presence as a pure result of a transaction between the Ethiopian and Chinese governments.
  • Many young Ethiopians want to go to China to learn engineering. There is a good relationship between the two countries, and China sponsors many visiting students from Ethiopia.
  • The Ethiopians do not trust Chinese-made trucks and refer to them as Al-Qaeda. They have had several truck accidents that were caused because the trucks had braking issues and the driver lost control of the vehicles.
  • Many Chinese companies are involved in telecommunication
  • Many Koreans are teachers in technical schools
  • Many Indians are teachers at universities

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A construction yard where Chinese contractors keep cement pipes and tiles for use in infrastructure projects. Note the Chinese characters on the sign.
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Longhouses where Chinese workers reside while working on projects in Ethiopia

Medicine

(Note: I’m probably butchering the spelling of these words, I wrote them down based on what my guides told me)

  • Wobba = malaria
  • Beesh a wobba = yellow fever
  • Ethiopians believe that evil spirits (wolete) are the causative agents of wobba. So, in the case of malaria, Plasmodium parasites are referred to as wolete, whereas the actual disease they cause (i.e., malaria) is called wobba
  • It is believed that one must not go alone to the river. If one goes alone, one will be cursed with wobba. Mosquitoes that transmit malaria can be found near water, which helps to explain this phenomenon.
  • It is believed that one must eat a lot of fat and garlic to cure wobba (malaria)
  • Endote = a plant that is used as a traditional cure for schistosomiasis and as a abortifacient (abortion agent). It was formally described by Ethiopian professor who was once a farmer and combined his rustic upbringing with his scientific training.
  • Koso = plant whose leaves can be squeezed to remove an oily liquid that is a cure for tapeworms
  • Eucalyptus leaves = anti-fungal and cold remedy, can also be used for soap
  • Goiter and cataracts are a big problem due to iodine deficiency and contaminated water
  • Cancer has become a bigger problem in Ethiopia in the past few decades. My guide blamed this on the dissemination of pesticides, GMOs, and processed foods, coupled with the reduction of natural, organic foods that Ethiopians had been consuming for decades.
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Dr. Bernard was a surgeon from Jamaica who moved to Ethiopia. He built a private hospital in Gondar to treat the poor and was famous for pioneering liver transplants. A multitude of people turned out for his funeral.
  • I was able to make a brief, impromptu visit to Gondar university when I was in the city. The university is the best in medicine behind Addis Ababa University, and is particularly adept at treating fistulas. Gondar university provides free TB and malaria treatment, as well as free fistula surgeries
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    Sign at the Gondar University hospital
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    Board depicting the various tests offered at the university, with attached costs. I found this board fascinating because it allowed me to peer into the Ethiopian medical system and measure their capacity and their costs.
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    Sign detailing the inpatient service provided at Gondar hospital, another way of measuring the capacity of a major referral hospital in Ethiopia
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    Gondar medical school. The students were on summer break so I didn’t run into any of them

    -Lawrence

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