The land that forgot time

Ethiopia is like no other country in Africa. Almost five times bigger than the United Kingdom, and ranging from 120m below sea level to 4,500m above it, it’s a place of size and extremes.

It’s also a place where exorcisms of the AIDS-infected are supposedly still held in a rock-hewn church; where you can drive for 1,000km, but only 60km are on tarmac; where drinking coffee is turned into a lengthy and blessed ceremony; where torrents of rain can fall from an inky sky, making roads into rivers and turning hillsides lush-green, despite the country’s reputation for famine; and where, no matter how remote you are, a tumble of Wayne-Rooney-T-shirted kids will always appear, running everywhere, effortlessly.

And it’s a country with its own unique sense of time, which it measures in 12-hour cycles starting at our 6am. One hour afterwards (UK 7am) is one o’clock and, logically, two hours afterwards is two o’clock... Also, its calendar is nearly eight years out of sync with the rest of the world, hence 11 September 2007 marking the second round of year 2000 celebrations.

In light of this new dawn, I wanted to visit Ethiopia; to see its highlights for myself and document the transition of this fascinating, ancient land and its charismatic people from one millennium to the next.

 Lake Tana & tis isat

‘A kind of stupor’

The sun rose quickly over the brown, tranquil waters of Lake Tana, birthplace of the Blue Nile. Egrets swooped hungrily about the river’s exit from the lake, here no more than 50m wide – with nothing to suggest that just a few kilometres downstream it would broaden to a canyon and plunge spectacularly in a mighty 400m-wide waterfall.

Viewing Tis Isat – the Blue Nile Falls – made it easy to comprehend how this powerful river had contributed, thousands of years before, to the fertility of the Nile Valley and the consequent rise of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

The 18th-century explorer James Bruce was the first European to see Tis Isat, which he described in his book as ‘a magnificent sight that… would not eradicate from my memory; it struck me with a kind of stupor and a total oblivion of where I was.’

Climate change has messed with rainfall and water levels since Bruce’s day, with some writing off Tis Isat as a “small trickle”. However, I can assure you that the sight of the Blue Nile river in full flow is still simply awesome.

Lake Tana is also renowned for its monastic islands, which were virtually undiscovered until the 1930s. After being sprayed by the falls we hired a boat to visit one of the more accessible monasteries – and one of the few that permits women to visit-– on the Zege Peninsula.

From the boat dock the 14th-century Ura Kidane Meret monastery was a half-hour walk uphill through thick, wet foliage. The rocky track wound up through dense forest and the only sound was the incessant chirping of cicadas. Tropical birds are prolific here, and within minutes we’d spotted a pair of magnificent Abyssinian hornbills.

The church was circular and somewhat unprepossessing from the outside but the interior contained an incredible mishmash of icons, some 3m high,- reflecting the artists’ extraordinarily imaginative interpretation of life during the Gothic twilight of the late Middle Ages. Amid this jumble, monks glided watchfully, ensuring the church’s treasures were not pillaged or vandalised.

As we emerged back into the daylight, a group of monks beckoned us over and, with a glass of tej – an extremely alcoholic honey moonshine that tastes like flat British bitter – I toasted Tana’s watery and monastic legacy.

Don’t miss: Taking a boat trip to the monasteries – Kebran Gebriel, Debre Maryam and Ura Kidane Meret stand out; gazing through binoculars at Tis Isat to watch parrots in the spray; watching out for hippos at the outlet of the Blue Nile.


Africa’s Camelot

We knew we were getting close when we were 30 minutes away: the rusting hulks of Russian tanks that had dotted the plains – evidence of the Soviet Union’s support of the Mengistu-led Derg in the 1970s – were replaced by throngs of people.

As the road threaded on, we passed about 1,000 villagers (but no other tourists) walking to Gonder, accompanied by their donkeys and mules, each burdened with every conceivable item for sale. Some were carrying a live goat across their shoulders; others had a chicken tucked under each arm – it was market day.

“They might easily make a weekly round trip of 40 or 50km to attend the market,” explained our guide Tariqu. “This is the only opportunity for them to get any kind of weekly income.”

Gonder was founded in 1635 by King Fasilidas, and for around 250 years was the Imperial capital of Ethiopia. Today, it felt a rather drab, dusty-brown town, enveloped by cloud, thanks to its position up at 2,400m on the edge of the Simien Mountains.

Dusty maybe, but the city probably has more castles per square kilometre than any other in the world. The finest is the Castle of Fasilidas – more Scottish Dunsinane than Ethiopian Gonderine. The next day, as I gazed across from the terrace of the Goha Hotel, the early morning mist hung around the valley below and through it appeared the massive ramparts of Fasilidas’s stronghold – a truly romantic view of Africa’s Camelot.

Don’t miss: Craning up at the ceiling of the Debre Berhan Selassie church, where 80 cherubs stare back down; lounging at the remains of Fasilidas’s sunken bath; feeling regal amid the Royal Enclosure’s clutch of castles.

Simien Mountains

Peak perfection

For nearly 30 years the Simien Mountains National Park has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. In 1925 intrepid traveller Rosita Forbes described them in her book From Red Sea to Blue Nile, as ‘the most marvellous of all Abyssinian landscapes’ – their topography is unmatched by any other range in Africa.

We registered with the Parks Service and were assigned three local guides – each with a rifle. What they were going to protect us from I was never able to establish, but Ethiopians respect weapons and guns; it’s an expression of their manhood.
With our armed escort, we trekked for several miles along an escarpment 3,500m high; it was like an alpine meadow, covered in gleaming yellow meskel ‘daisy’ flowers. As we walked on, the escarpment dissolved into an enormous plateau with a network of easy-to-follow undulating tracks, naturally defined by the movement of the locals and their flocks.

The clouds were hundreds of metres below us as we ventured towards the edge of a precipice that dropped sheer for about 2,500m; at the bottom, like a shimmering piece of silver thread, flowed the Tekeze River. Even at this height huge numbers of livestock roamed all over the lush highland slopes: cattle, mules, donkeys, goats, sheep – and thick-coated gelada baboons.

All of them jostled to find the choicest blades of grass.

Suddenly, out of the mist, dozens of child-shepherds appeared shouting: “You, you, you! Gimme, gimme, gimme!” hopeful for a few coins or a pen, and wearing their distinctive knitted hats. With little or no education, 85% of the country’s population live in rural areas, tending their animals.

Don’t miss: Getting close to the endemic gelada baboons, walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf; planning a multi-day hike into the wilderness, allowing time for acclimatisation (the high point here is 4,533m).


Where religion rocks


In Ethiopia, the most interesting churches and caves are often hidden away above 3,000m, requiring a strenuous hike (or ride) uphill. High above Lalibela, the monastery of Ashetan Maryam was no exception. Sitting astride wiry but sure-footed mules we steadily weaved our way up to its 3,150m perch.

The higher we climbed, the narrower the track became, and the more boulders obstructed the path. In the end, even the mules couldn’t cope with any weight on their backs and we hopped off for the final 300m push.

But when we reached the top, it was worth it: the Ethiopian countryside – verdant valley sides dotted with villages – spread out before us. It was easy to see why the monastery’s resident priests say that, up here, they are “closer to heaven and God”.

We could see back to Lalibela where, the day before, thousands of pilgrims had gathered in the courtyard of the Church of Bet Maryam to celebrate, with passion and religious fervour, the festival of Kiddus Yohannes – New Year’s Day. This was a day of immense importance for Ethiopians, being the first of their new millennium. Being the only country in the world to adhere to the ancient Julian Calendar, Ethiopia is seven years and eight months behind the rest of the Christian world.

Celebrations aren’t limited to new centuries, however. Christians have been worshipping and rejoicing in the medieval city’s 11 extraordinary rock-hewn churches for the past 800 years. As I strolled between the monolithic buildings, around the maze of damp, moss-covered rock paths and tunnels that connect them, meeting devotees in flowing robes along the way, I felt I was in a subterranean time warp.

Don’t miss: Hiring a guide to explain the details of Lalibela’s churches; getting lost along the twisting tunnels that connect the sites; timing your trip with a local festival or one of the saint’s days.


Ethiopia’s spiritual heartland

It seemed I was the only visitor to the cathedral complex of St Mary of Zion that morning. Despite this being the holiest point in Ethiopia’s holiest city – supposed resting place of the biblical Ark of the Covenant – it was just me and the guardian priest.

With nothing much else to do, he offered to show me some of the chapel’s treasures – fancy crosses and jewel-encrusted gold crowns – tucked away in a nondescript hut. There was no burly security monitoring this booty, just the priest, dressed in a simple smock, keeping an eye on them.

In the garden of this male-only church I watched as a succession of monks in their traditional white robes and blue woollen caps slowly walked around the perimeter, first gently pressing their faces to the wall, then trailing their fingers along the surface as if the sanctity of this most holy building might be transmitted into their bodies.

Others sat quietly in contemplation on benches along the walls while others gathered luxuriant grasses from the garden to lay on the floor – a daily spiritual offering “to bring in the freshness and fragrance of nature”. There were no other tourists.

There were no other tourists at the stelae either. Aksum’s 1,700-year-old giant granite obelisks – tombstones-cum-monuments, with doors and windows – were sculpted from single pieces of stone and dragged into position. I’ve no idea how – the largest weighs 517 tonnes and the quarry is 4km away. Some say it was the power of the Ark; others say elephants.

In 1937, during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Mussolini shipped Aksum’s second-largest stele to Italy and re-assembled it in a piazza in Rome. After years of negotiation, it has just been returned; I saw it resting safely under an awning, awaiting re-erection with specialist heavy-lifting gear.

The hope is to have it raised in 2008 as part of the millennium year celebrations – a potent symbol of a richly historic nation looking forward to an even richer future.

Don’t  Miss: Staring at the stelae – get a feel for the scale by wandering the Northern Stelae Field; feeling devout in the St Mary of Zion complex; spending your birr at the Saturday main, animal and basket markets