Ethiopia – in a world of its own

Land of ancients

For so many reasons Ethiopia, lying in the horn of Africa, defies labeling. Virtually everything to be seen and experienced in the country occurs nowhere else on earth, as if Ethiopia is a world apart and its people live according to their own unique timeline. Right now in Ethiopia it is 2006.

Lalibela priest reading

Lalibela priest reading

Only the sound of footsteps on stone and the slow rhythmic whish-whish of horsehair flyswats can be heard, as pilgrims draped in white cotton step through the narrow carved doorway. Inside the church, the priest sits comfortably on his haunches leaning into a stone window ledge to read by a single stream of sunlight. The holy book he holds is handwritten on raw hide in the dancing letters of ancient Amharic, and embellished with brightly painted pictures of saints and angels with round beaming faces. As pilgrims file past him to pray, the priest continues reading unperturbed, his lips silently mouthing the words.

It’s Saturday afternoon in Lalibela. On one side of town the market is in full swing and trade is brisk for fresh vegetables. Donkeys are being loaded with goods and the atmosphere is lively. Locals are catching up on news and exchanging jokes and pleasantries. It’s face-to-face facebook for Ethiopians, you could say.

In the churches scattered through the town, pilgrims are also going about their business, streaming in and out of the ancient stone churches to pray. For them, market banter is less alluring and daily life pivots around the church. These living buildings are simply and individually decorated by a charming yet disheveled hand, draped with coloured cloth and dotted with incense burners and beeswax candles. They’re cool and dank inside, and as we pad barefoot across the soft rugs strewn on the rock floor, we feel like actors in a movie about another world.

Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches are architectural wonders that are around a thousand years old. Most of the churches – and there are many – are monoliths carved top down from a single piece of rock and then hollowed out on the inside. So the roofs are at ground level, while the rock walls tend to lean slightly inwards and are also thinner towards the top. The 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela are interconnected by an intricate underground tunnel system believed to have been a security feature, but most of the tunnels are now closed. In the mountainsides surrounding Lalibela, more rock churches are disguised. Some are carved directly into mountain sides, others use existing caves, and there are those that can only be reached by the intrepid scaling rope ladders to their entrance. All are completely unique, hauntingly beautiful, and inspired by the dream visions of one King Lalibela.

It’s said the king had the churches hewn after a clear vision to do so. Practically, it’s estimated that 40 000 master craftsmen were needed to carve the 11 subterranean churches just in Lalibela. Still, locals claim that Bet Maryam church was carved in a single night with the divine help of angels. All Lalibela’s majestic rock churches are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, officially acknowledged as treasures.

At 2 630m, the air in Lalibela is thin and dusty and leaves you gasping as you walk between the rock churches, climbing down from ground level to reach the entrance of each. Iconic Bete Giyorgis (St Georges Church) is no different. This church is carved in the shape of a cross and is eerily beautiful. The priest, with a soft mischievous smile stands in the doorway greeting pilgrims as they file in and out of the church. As a human pendulum he swishes pesky flies with his horsetail wisp; in the other hand he holds a worn wooden cross. Each church has its own individual cross, modeled on three core designs from the historic cities of Lalibela, Gondar and Axum.

Ethiopia - Lalibela priest with ceremonial cross

Ethiopia – Lalibela priest with ceremonial cross

“Where’s your cross?” the priest asks our guide Tesfa Tesgaye in Amharic. “Why aren’t you wearing it?” Then he continues swishing flies, smiles again, and motions us to take off our shoes and come inside. We smile back, nod and step into Bete Giyorgis amidst dozens of pilgrims praying softly skywards. We give thanks too, for the privilege of experiencing such rareness.

Tesfa explains that “when King Lalibela had completed the construction of all the other churches, St George, patron saint of Ethiopia, visited him. St George was angry because none of the churches had been named after him. So the king apologized and promised to build him the most beautiful church of all.” And that’s what he did. Bete Giyorgis is breathtaking.

Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches and ‘Orthodox Christian’ religion – which blends elements from many world religions and much fasting – may be unusual to the casual observer, but so too is the food, language, alphabet, clock and calendar. Because they follow the ancient Julian calendar, Ethiopia is permanently about seven years behind the rest of the world. Here, Christmas is 7 January and New Year is 11 September. The year has 13 months of 30 days, and one month of five days when nobody earns a salary or pays rent. Ethiopia’s unique rhythm of life extends to daily time too. They have a 12-hour clock that starts at 6am sunrise and again at 6pm sunset. Translated this means 7am western time is 1am in Ethiopia, or one hour after sunrise.

That Ethiopia is truly unique is not said lightly. In the country over 80 languages are spoken but only one is official: Amharic, an ancient biblical-style language with an alphabet that looks like dancing figures. Ethiopian cuisine is just as unusual. Injera is a grey, sour flatbread made from teff and with the texture of a bath towel. Onto it is piled little heaps of sauce with varying intensities of sting and bite. Using your hands, you tear off bits of bread and mop up the different sauces in the middle, and that would be lunch or dinner done – washed down with vicious coffee.

While Ethiopia was proudly never officially colonized, Italian influence is everywhere – even in the tiniest of towns. Pasta is sold from grain bags in markets along with coffee beans, lentils and rock incense, and espresso machines are never far away. Coffee drinking is ceremonial in Ethiopia, also said to be the original home of the bean. Coffee ceremonies take about 40 minutes with beans being roasted and crushed and brewed to thin black tar, then drunk sweet from tiny cups and accompanied by popcorn and burning frankincense.

Axum in the far north is where Ethiopia’s special brand of Christianity started out life. It’s also home to the aloof Tigrayan people with finely chiselled features and braided hair. This is Ethiopia’s most ancient city, where the Queen of Sheba lived in her heyday and the Arc of the Covenant still does. It’s also where the ethereal stella fields are found, like an African Stonehenge. Each obelisk or stella stands over 20m high and was erected by a past king to proclaim his life story and power. A wizened gatekeeper in dubious military ensemble guards the area, of 2 000 year-old rock spires which includes a fallen stella of 500tons. It’s believed to be the single largest piece of stone that humans have ever attempted to erect.

In comparison to Axum, the royal city of Gondar is modern. Its walled Royal Enclosure in the middle of town has a collection of six castles and banquet rooms dating from the 17th century. Their designs are all different with architecture from Portugal to India, hinting at the many cultures that have touched Ethiopia. The castles are grand and imposing, fitting for royal life back then.

Back in Addis Ababa, the city heaves with four million people and traffic squeezes along narrow roads. There’s everything here from upmarket shopping malls to the Mercato or city market where you can buy old tyres or new shoes. Amidst the chaos we see quiet gardens and a church tucked into them. A priest in white and shaded by an ornate, fringed umbrella is blessing pilgrims in the sunshine. Slowly and methodically, as if time stands still, he touches each pilgrim with the same care as the priests of Lalibela. We watch silently from a distance, transfixed in the moment. Without hesitation, we take off our shoes in awe.

Sidebar

Other attractions:

Simien Mountains – magnificent high-altitude scenery and a popular trekking and hiking area in northern Ethiopia. Ras Dashen at 4 620m is Ethiopia’s highest peak. Endemics here include: walia ibex, gelada baboon, and very rarely the Ethiopian wolf.

Bale National Park – the Sanetti Plateau is the best place to see the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf (the most endangered canid in the world and Africa’s only wolf).

Danakil Depression – Lying 100m below sea level in parts, this depression is one of the hottest, starkest places on earth. The salt-mining nomadic Afar people live there, where temperatures can reach 50ºC in summer.

Hotels and restaurants

Addis Ababa:

Stay: Hilton Hotel – www.hiltonhotels.com

Eat: Various including Top View and Castile and many in Bole Street – www.ethiopianrestaurant.com

Lalibela:

Stay: Panoramic View Hotel – www.panoramicviewhotel.com

Eat: Benabeba Restaurant – www.benabeba.com

Axum:

Stay: Yeha Hotel – www.yehahotelaxum.com

Eat: Yeha Hotel restaurant – www.yehahotelazum.com

Gondar:

Sleep: Goha Hotel – www.gohahotel.com

Eat: The Taye Belay Hotel Restaurant – www.tayebelayhotel.com