In the Foot­steps of the Ancients

Jakki Phillips dis­cov­ers the fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory and spir­i­tu­al­ity of Ethiopia

Philippine Tatler Traveller - - Contents - PHO­TOS: FRÉDÉRIC LAGRANGE

The honey wine ar­rives not in a glass but a large con­i­cal flask, the type I re­mem­ber from school chem­istry ex­per­i­ments. This is my first—and last—en­counter with tej, a sickly sweet and in­cred­i­bly strong mead that flows freely across Ethiopia. My drink­ing den is Tor­pedo,

an un­ex­pected find in the dusty back­streets of Lal­i­bela, one of the holi­est towns in this African na­tion.

It’s get­ting late and, de­spite a loom­ing 6 AM start to ex­plore the re­gion’s fa­mous un­der­ground churches, I’m watch­ing a man in a mil­i­tary-style suit and flat cap play­ing what looks like a one-stringed lute. There are howls of laugh­ter as he moves from ta­ble to ta­ble pok­ing fun at the drinkers with im­pro­vised songs. He’s singing in Amharic, the coun­try’s of­fi­cial lan­guage, so when he ar­rives at our ta­ble, my guide, Bereket, trans­lates, “He says you have cheeks like or­anges.” I sug­gest he might mean peaches, but Bereket shakes his head. “Nope, the ones they make break­fast juice out of.”

It could be worse, I think, but then the dancers ap­pear—a squad of lithe young men and women who spy the bat­tal­ion of empty flasks on our ta­ble and iden­tify me as an easy tar­get. The women whoop wildly as I’m las­soed around the waist with a beaded belt and herded onto the dance floor. Bereket tells me it’s cus­tom­ary to tip your favourite dance part­ner by stick­ing a 10-birr note (worth less than one U.S. dol­lar) to their fore­head. I press a crum­pled bill to the moist brow of one par­tic­u­larly fierce shoul­der-shak­ing, head-wag­gling woman be­fore beat­ing a re­treat to get some sleep.

The dawn wake-up call comes all too soon, but this is Ethiopia—the birthplace of cof­fee—so we fol­low the aroma of roast­ing beans to the near­est jebena bet (a tin-roofed hut where cof­fee is served) and set­tle on the grass-strewn floor to watch the time-hon­oured rit­ual of grind­ing, brewing and pour­ing, then knock back a much-needed jolt of caf­feine mixed with sugar—not the less palat­able lo­cal favourites, salt or but­ter.

Lo­cated in the north of Ethiopia—a land­locked coun­try the size of Spain with a pop­u­la­tion of 95 mil­lion—this small moun­tain town over­looks a vast ochre plain, a patch­work of dusty farm­land cul­ti­vated with oxen and wooden ploughs. Each year up to 100,000 pil­grims and tourists scale these heights to visit a war­ren of 11 an­cient churches carved be­low ground into mighty free­stand­ing blocks of stone.

As I de­scend into the labyrinth of shady court­yards and tun­nels con­nect­ing the sanc­tu­ar­ies, I feel like I’m step­ping into a scene from a bib­li­cal paint­ing. Bare­foot wor­ship­pers wrapped in white cot­ton shawls kneel, heads bowed, whis­per­ing their prayers. El­derly priests swathed in cer­e­mo­nial robes and clutch­ing tall wooden staffs move med­i­ta­tively through the qui­etly chant­ing crowds.

Like most of Ethiopia’s an­cient trea­sures, this UNESCO World Her­itage Site is shrouded in mys­tery. The churches were built in the 12th cen­tury, ap­par­ently af­ter King Lal­i­bela had a vi­sion in

which God or­dered him to build the “New Jerusalem.” It’s said that an army of 60,000 work­ers toiled for 23 years to chisel the awein­spir­ing struc­tures out of stone, though legend has it that an­gels helped on the night shift.

Set aside a full day to ex­plore the holy sites. The most fa­mous, due to its dis­tinc­tive flat, cross-shaped roof, is the Church of Saint George, a place of hushed rev­er­ence il­lu­mi­nated within by shards of light that cast a ce­les­tial glow on the re­li­gious fres­coes adorn­ing the walls. Nearby, ris­ing from the dry, red earth like a Greek tem­ple, and sur­rounded by 34 stone col­umns, the House of the Saviour of the World is the largest mono­lithic church on the planet. The neigh­bour­ing House of Gol­go­tha Mikael is said to har­bour the tomb of King Lal­i­bela, and the House of Em­manuel was a royal chapel.

Ethiopia is the cra­dle of an an­cient form of Chris­tian­ity dat­ing back to the first cen­tury AD that claims to be the cus­to­dian of the Ark of the Covenant, the golden chest de­clared in the Old Tes­ta­ment to con­tain the tablets on which the Ten Com­mand­ments were in­scribed. The ark—said to have been brought to the re­gion from Jerusalem by Mene­lik, the son of Is­rael’s King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, some 1,000 years be­fore the birth of Christ—is sup­pos­edly housed in a chapel in Ak­sum, 390 kilo­me­tres north of Lal­i­bela. The only per­son al­lowed to see the sa­cred arte­fact is a vir­gin monk who guards it with his life. Ev­ery church in Ethiopia houses a replica of the ark in a holy al­cove hid­den be­hind the­atri­cal red cur­tains. Stray too close and cas­sock-clad priests will emerge from the shad­ows to shoo you away.

The day af­ter ex­plor­ing the Lal­i­bela churches, Bereket prom­ises us an “Ethiopian mas­sage.” It turns out to be one of his lit­tle jokes—a bone-shak­ing, but­tock-pound­ing three-hour drive on dirt tracks to Yem­re­hanna Kris­tos, an 11th-cen­tury church in­side a moun­tain­top cave. The sound of chant­ing car­ries on the breeze as we trek up a steep, ju­niper-lined path, ex­chang­ing smiles with young shep­herds, el­derly pil­grims and di­shev­elled­look­ing her­mits. In­side the sanc­tu­ary, once our eyes ad­just to the gloom and st­ing of burn­ing frank­in­cense, we wit­ness a re­li­gious cer­e­mony con­ducted in the an­cient lan­guage of Ge’ez, an al­most ex­tinct tongue to­day spo­ken only in Ethiopia’s churches. This cave is the fi­nal rest­ing place of thou­sands of pil­grims who, over the cen­turies, have made their way here to die. Their bones are piled high to­wards the back of the cav­ern.

The long drives nec­es­sary to ex­plore Ethiopia’s far-flung trea­sures are win­dows into the daily lives of the coun­try’s tribes, which num­ber more than 80. Each group has its own di­alect and, most in­trigu­ingly, its own unique sense of style. The peo­ple of Lal­i­bela dis­tin­guish them­selves from neigh­bour­ing tribes by sew­ing cross-shaped pat­terns of white but­tons onto their clothes. Women from the Daasanach tribe wear wigs crafted from bot­tle tops. Men from the Bana group dec­o­rate them­selves with colour­ful hair slides and plas­tic flow­ers. Mem­bers of other tribes have jacket lapels adorned with rows of plas­tic dig­i­tal watches and head­gear fash­ioned from stacks of sun­glasses. With their vary­ing no­tions of beauty and in­trigu­ing mash-up of tra­di­tion and moder­nity, the tribal cul­tures are an en­thralling draw for vis­i­tors. While it is still pos­si­ble to meet peo­ples al­most un­changed by mod­ern times—such as the Mursi, who wear lit­tle more than body paint, an­i­mal skins and clay discs in their lips—they are des­tined to dis­ap­pear as ur­ban­i­sa­tion and tourism grow.

A 30-minute flight north­west from Lal­i­bela takes us to Gon­dar, known as the Camelot of Africa. Founded by Em­peror Fasilides, who reigned from 1632 to 1667, it served as the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal un­til 1855. To­day you can ex­plore seven tum­ble­down cas­tles and palaces within the walled royal en­clo­sure, each of which has a his­tory of treach­ery, mur­der and revenge (four em­per­ors were as­sas­si­nated in one par­tic­u­larly bloody 15-year stretch). Watch out for the lion cages that housed the big cats be­long­ing to the 225th em­peror, Haile Se­lassie, whose over­throw in 1974 brought an end to 3,000 years of im­pe­rial rule by the House of Solomon.

To­day, the bathing house of Fasilides lies de­serted, a large stone basin empty ex­cept for a few skulk­ing vul­tures. But it’s a dif­fer­ent story on Jan­uary 19 each year, when thou­sands of Ortho­dox Chris­tians flock here for Timkat,

a mass bap­tism. Wa­ter for the cer­e­mony is brought from a lo­cal river and blessed overnight by priests. As dawn breaks, men and women im­merse them­selves in the pool of holy wa­ter and re­new their bap­tismal vows. The cer­e­mony is fol­lowed by feast­ing, danc­ing and a rather fruity mat­ing rit­ual. To sig­nal their ro­man­tic in­ten­tions, sin­gle men throw lemons at their love in­ter­est. If the le­mon is thrown back, then it’s a match and dat­ing can be­gin.

An un­ex­pected down­pour sends us run­ning into a maze of back al­leys, sprint­ing past tin-roofed shacks, wad­ing through mud and hur­dling the oc­ca­sional stray goat in search of lunch. Ethiopian food is one of the world’s most un­der­rated cuisines, with few if any spe­cial­ist restau­rants in Asian cap­i­tals, so each meal­time is a wel­come chance to in­dulge. It’s a com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence with tapas-like dishes such as mar­i­nated meats, bean stews, spicy veg­eta­bles, dips and salad served in in­di­vid­ual mounds on in­jera, a large cir­cu­lar flat­bread made from teff, an in­dige­nous gluten-free grain. Eti­quette dic­tates that you break off a piece of the in­jera’s rolled edges with your right hand and use it to scoop up the de­lights within. The bread’s rub­bery tex­ture and slight sour­ness don’t ap­peal to me, so I cheat and use cut­lery in­stead.

Un­like many African coun­tries, Ethiopia is a dream for ve­g­ans and veg­e­tar­i­ans be­cause Ortho­dox Chris­tians, the bulk of the pop­u­la­tion, are obliged to re­frain from con­sum­ing an­i­mal and dairy prod­ucts for 180 days of the year—ev­ery Wed­nes­day and Fri­day, Lent and other spe­cific pe­ri­ods. As a re­sult, restau­rant menus have a gen­er­ous se­lec­tion of “fast­ing dishes.” Also of in­ter­est to those with less ad­ven­tur­ous palates is the plethora of Ital­ian food, thanks to Italy’s long re­la­tion­ship with the coun­try, which in­cluded oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing the Se­cond World War.

A five-hour drive north­east from Gon­dar takes us into the sur­pris­ingly lush Simien Moun­tains, known as “the roof of Africa.” This vast UNESCO-pro­tected wilder­ness is home to Ethiopia’s high­est peak, the ma­jes­tic 4,550-me­tre Ras Dashen. Un­for­tu­nately, our ar­rival co­in­cides with a fierce elec­tri­cal storm and im­pen­e­tra­ble fog—and the dizzy­ing heights leave me bedrid­den with al­ti­tude sick­ness. Our plans to hike ver­tig­i­nous ridges, hang out with in­quis­i­tive gelada mon­keys and track rock-climb­ing walia ibex are scup­pered.

Thanks to the un­branded anti-nau­sea pills “pre­scribed” by the vil­lage doc­tor, I feel like I’m on a warm, fluffy cloud for the 12-hour jour­ney south from the moun­tains to Lake Langano, which en­tails a flight to Ad­dis Ababa fol­lowed by a 200-kilo­me­tre drive. The fuzzy tran­quil­lity is main­tained by a large glass of sur­pris­ingly good Rift Val­ley mer­lot that greets me on ar­rival at our lake­side lodge in the heart of the East Langano Na­ture Re­serve. Like the lo­cal hip­pos (which, thank­fully, I don’t en­counter), I spend the day wal­low­ing in the vast fresh­wa­ter lake, which is tinted gold by its mineral and sul­phur con­tent, watch­ing ex­otic birds dance in the breeze, and camels, wart hogs and ba­boons pa­rade along the shore­line.

Ethiopia is home to one of the hottest places on earth, the Danakil De­pres­sion, where the mer­cury reg­u­larly climbs above 50 de­grees Cel­sius, but it also boasts the con­ti­nent’s largest sweep of wild alpine ter­rain, the Bale Moun­tains 250 kilo­me­tres south of Lake Langano, where tem­per­a­tures plum­met to well be­low zero and snow reg­u­larly dusts the lu­nar-like land­scape. On the mys­ti­cal Sanetti Plateau, in the heart of this alpine na­tional park, spikey gi­ant lo­belias and the flame-coloured blos­soms of red hot pok­ers look alien against the oth­er­wise bar­ren high­land. It is here that we catch a glimpse of the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Ethiopian wolf, a leggy, fox-like crea­ture stalk­ing gi­ant mole rats popping up from bur­rows as golden ea­gles soar ex­pec­tantly over­head.

Dusk falls as we de­scend through a fairy- tale for­est shrouded with mist, tree trunks coated in glis­ten­ing moss and branches draped in sil­very lichen. Re­mote, dank and eerily silent, it feels like Tolkien’s Mid­dle Earth. Sud­denly, out of the ghostly fog steps a black horse. On its bare back is a boy of no more than seven or eight wrapped in a heavy blan­ket. We ex­change smiles as he glides by. We’ve seen no form of shel­ter or any­one else for hours. As with the many lo­cals we’ve passed dur­ing our jour­ney—from bare-foot chil­dren herd­ing don­keys along truck-in­fested roads to el­derly farm­ers laden with sticks tread­ing dirt tracks stretch­ing to the hori­zon—I can’t help won­der­ing where the boy is go­ing and how long it will take him to get there?

This is the lux­ury of an Ethiopian odyssey—chance en­coun­ters with no­madic tribes, glimpses of an an­cient way of life and jour­neys into mys­ti­cal land­scapes—and with tourism still in its in­fancy, you’re likely to be the only one there.

Past Times Ethiopia has more than 80 tribes, some al­most un­changed by mod­ern times

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