Ethiopia: Africa’s Land of Ritual and Mystery

June 7, 2012

Ethiopia:  Africa’s Land of Ritual and Mystery

Filed under: Africa

The name conjures up dread, the place unknown geographically, and the question of ‘why, WHY are you going there?’ always follows. A reaction of confused horror by the mere mention of this landlocked country. A smile overwhelms me and I know full well that I am traveling to one of the most sublime places on earth. I say keep to your trodden path and I will make a new one, on timeworn and centuries old trails, known only by oral tradition and the people and animals that have come before me.

I’m talking about Ethiopia, a country with a history that spans the modern era and then some. Tradition asserts that the descendants of this country – an area about twice the size of Texas – came from the offspring of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem. What is true today is that people still believe in this Solomonic dynasty, or the Imperial House of Abyssinia. Ethiopians are highly devout and can at any time be seen praying and paying homage to their maker. A number of religions are practiced but about 44% of the population follows Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, followed by about 34% who practice Islam. This was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century AD.

What strikes you right away on arrival in Addis Ababa, the small and incredibly delightful capital where the temperature hovers about 70F year round, is how friendly, helpful and unassuming the people are. This is Africa. It should be in your face, and it surely is in the city’s bountiful Mercado, the largest open air market on the continent. But even here there is organized chaos, delightfully so and magically enthralling at every turn. I’ve been to hundreds of markets worldwide but this one is like no other. At any turn you can encounter drums of oil or cattle barreling down the street, groups of ladies wrapped in meticulously woven white cotton shawls or Gabis on a terror to shop, barefoot men like beasts of burden with mountains of wood, plastic or metal on their backs. Children follow you not for the demand of sweets or pens, but to share their place, their story, mostly with amazingly good English and angelic humour. At any given moment the scene is a tableau of juxtapositions, modern art, and originality in its most purist form.

The Historic North is a popular route for most first timers as it is densely steeped in cultural and religious history. The island monasteries on Lake Tana are unlike any in the world. Part Buddhist shrine, part mosque and church, these circular and often thatched structures are nothing but fascinating. From the outside they are bland, but once your shoes are off and you step over the threshold it transforms into a sacred realm. You enter a pictogram from floor to ceiling, revealing the miracles of Christianity painted with dazzling color from a unique perspective. Proud priests dash in and out of the inner – and off limits – sanctuary but stop to bless those who come for reverence, and almost always pose with their hand held crosses and enigmatic smiles.

Further north is Gondar, the once imperial capital of the Gondarian Kings. Up until the 16th century the rulers lived a fairly nomadic existence, living in tents and off the land. The city was founded by Emperor Fasilides and grew as an agricultural and market town. Today the hollow remains of half a dozen Portuguese design inspired, red stone castles sit in the centre of town, surrounded by a crenellated wall containing mature and exotic trees. If you visit around March, the grounds are blanketed in thousands of lilac-blue Jacaranda flowers while white shrouded pilgrims visit the site. The colour palette seems other worldly. Perhaps one of the most amazing sites is during Timkat, or Ethiopian Epiphany, when thousands gather to celebrate at Fasilides’ Bath, a small reservoir that is blessed and then opened for reverential bathing.

Surely one of the most inspiring places on earth is Lalibela, an isolated town set high in the mountains of Lasta and famed for its monolithic rock-hewn churches. Little known outside of Ethiopia this 13th century architectural wonder was recognized by UNESCO in 1978. It is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and a centre of pilgrimage for much of the country. The layout and names of the major churches and buildings are widely accepted to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. Simply staring at the stone ground, you think of a time when someone did the same, prophetically, and uttered the words, ‘lets all dig a life-size 3D church out of the ground, and guys – no margin for error here!’ After a day or two of visiting these living structures, you can’t possibly imagine the magnitude of inspiration and determination that carved these structures out of the ground. It leaves you with a message of hope, and the idea that indeed anything is possible.

One of the last stops on the Northern Route is Axum, a strange inland city situated near the border of Eritrea, and the place where the Queen of Sheba lived. It was the original capital of the Kingdom of Axum, a naval and trading power that ruled the region from 400BC well into the 10th century. What remains today are the fabulous Aksumite Stelae or burial stones, of which there are upwards of over 700. They rival anything found in ancient Egypt both in monumentality and creative genius. Equally enthralling in legend is the small Church of St. Mary of Zion which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant, the chest containing the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. A tall order indeed, and less believable when you consider the dodgy security that protects this treasure today. Most amazing is the sleepy countryside where if you were to dig a hole you would most certainly hit a layer of antiquity in seconds. The so-called Queen of Sheba Palace situated at the edge of town is a reminder that not so long ago, believers, traders and missionaries made this now sleepy outpost a thriving metropolis. If you look hard into the eyes of the kids that run around selling dubious coins, Axumite crosses and trading beads, you see the descendancy of ages past, the true, spiritual essence of the people that still make this harsh land their treasured home.

My next stop: heading south across the Great Rift Valley to tribal South Omo, to visit the dramatic landscapes and indigenous tribes that still inhabit this truly off-the-beaten track part of the world.

Richard Koegl
Written By : Richard Koegl

For almost three decades, Richard Koegl has journeyed extensively, back and forth to over 120 countries on all seven continents. His world is a daily immersion in cultural and educational realms which he passionately shares with fellow travelers and friends.

Richard Koegl has written 2 articles

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