Our Adventure in Ethiopia

In March of 2015, our family and some friends took a 3½ week trip through Ethiopia, one of the most unusual of sub-Saharan African countries.  Ethiopia is exceptional in two ways;

  1. It became a Christian culture in the 300s, whereas Christianity did not spread from there into the rest of sub-Saharan Africa;
  2. It successfully evaded colonization until 1936, when it was conquered by the Italians and held for five years before it was liberated by the British in World War II.  This episode is regarded by Ethiopians as the ‘occupation’ rather than a colonization, because it was so brief.

I don’t have photographs for this expedition like I did for my San Andreas Fault Tour a few years ago, mainly because my wife is so mad for taking pictures that I didn’t want to compete with her, and the San Andreas Fault expedition was a bachelor trip, which this was not.  In her defense, she gives illustrated lectures on art and architecture, and if she takes her own pictures, she owns the images – a big deal nowadays when people are sensitive about intellectual property.  If you are interested, and are a member of Instagram, she has a site there under the name “@balticlight.”

Incidentally, the country called ‘Ethiopia’ or ‘Cush’ in the Bible was probably not this Ethiopia, but Northern Sudan.  The Ethiopians would like to believe that the ‘Ethiopian eunuch’ of the Book of Acts came from their country, of course; but Professor Phillipson, who traveled with us, informed us that the word ‘Kandake’ means ‘queen mother’ or ‘queen dowager’ in Nubian, the old language of Northern Sudan, and doesn’t mean anything in Ge’ez, the Ethiopian liturgical language, which is ancestral to Amharic and Tigrayan, two languages spoken in northern and central Ethiopia today.

Our tour concentrated on the northern and central sections of the country, which are the regions dominated by the ancient Orthodox Church.  For those who are interested, it is a non-Chalcedonian church, sister to the Copts and the Armenians, though it is a lot more Judaizing.  Part of that was because there is a national legend that Solomon seduced the Queen of Sheba and she gave birth to a son called Menelik the First, from whom the recent emperors of Ethiopia claimed descent.  It is also claimed that the Ark of the Covenant somehow ended up in Aksum; we were told that once a year it is taken out and paraded through the streets under blankets, so nobody can see it.  Every Ethiopian church has an ark, which is kept in a section of the church called the Holy of Holies where only priests are allowed to enter; Aksum has a second ark, that is paraded through the streets somewhat more frequently than the ‘original’.

[Ethiopia was enlarged somewhat in the late nineteenth century beyond its original territory; the north and center of the country as it is today is Orthodox, the east is Muslim, and the south is Protestant.]

We had as our guide the esteemed Professor David Phillipson, an Englishman who could be the Hollywood idea of an English professor; he and my son David planned the trip in such a way as to move forward through history.  So after a couple of days in Addis Ababa [a new city, founded in 1881, that is at the southern end of historic Ethiopia; its name means ‘New Flower’ in Amharic], we flew up to Aksum, which is near the Eritrean border.


Because of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea about the year 2000, it is not possible to travel between the two countries; but I looked it up and found that despite its proximity to the Red Sea, Eritrea is also half Orthodox, and its largest language group is the same Tigrinya language that is the language of the province where Aksum is.  The hostility comes from the fact that the political culture is different; Italy held Eritrea for more than 50 years instead of the five that it held Ethiopia.  Think of Canada versus the United States for another example of similar cultures but different political cultures.

Aksum became an important kingdom before the time of Christ; the Ethiopians would like to think it was the ‘Sheba’ of the Bible, though it is more likely that Sheba was actually in Yemen.  The Red Sea, however, is very narrow at its southern end, and there has always been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the Ethiopia-Eritrea region and Yemen.  In fact, Ge’ez, Tigrinya, and Amharic are considered South Semitic languages, related to Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic.  Whether the Semites originated in Africa or Arabia is a matter of some debate, as you can imagine.

One of the major things to see in Aksum is its ‘stelae’, or tall obelisks shaped like tombstone, and the tombs underneath them.  About 300 AD, the king of the time tried to make the biggest one yet, and it fell over and cracked, and is still sitting there.  Shortly afterward, the country became Christian under the great kings Ezana and Kaleb and prospered.  After about the year 600 or so, it disintegrated into small states.  Aksum remained in later years the coronation city for Ethiopian monarchs, though it was never again the capital; today it is a fairly pleasant country town of about 150,000.

Besides the stelae, we made a day trip to the Abba Garima monastery, somewhat to the east.  There, we saw what may be the oldest illuminated manuscript in the world, older than the European ones.  Near Adwa, another city in that direction, we had pointed out the valley where the Ethiopians defeated the Italians in the first Italian attempt to conquer the country; the famous Battle of Adwa, in 1896, which was the one time during the Scramble for Africa that a ‘black’ army defeated a white one; thus Ethiopia became somewhat of a symbol to the rest of Africa, and many African nations today use the red, green, and yellow that were originally the colors of the Ethiopian flag.

From Axum we headed into Eastern Tigray, where there were more old monastic churches carved out of mountains [some of which I opted out of climbing up to].  The countryside looked very much like Arizona, though it was more thickly settled. Though I couldn’t help wondering what it looked like at the end of the major rainy season in the summer months!  Occasionally we would see what looked like a large new church; it turned out to be a mosque.  Whether anyone attends the mosque, I don’t know.  The Saudis are paying for the building of mosques in all parts – whether that leads to the conversion of anyone, I don’t know.  I’d like to be in one of those little towns and count the attendance on Friday and Sunday.  I personally doubt that “if you build it, they will come” works.  The nicest hotel we stayed in was the Gheralta Lodge on the outskirts of Hauzien; the worst was a place we stayed in for one night in Mekele.


Then we arrived in Lalibela, one of the chief tourist sites in the country, which is located at the top of a cliff overlooking a valley.  Here, under the Zagwe dynasty in the thirteenth century, at the same time as Europe was entering the Gothic era, King Lalibela began the excavation of two large complexes of rock hewn churches.  The rock was a kind of volcanic rock called ‘tuff’. They would dig a ditch on all four sides a long way down, then dig into the block of rock to carve out the church.  They would in fact leave ‘beams’ of rock in the roof, so that the church would look like the old Axumite churches from the inside.  Then they realized that they had to dig out drainage, because of the rainy seasons.  By the way, there was supposed to be a mini-rainy season in February and March; it had failed, but on the late afternoon of Western Saint Patrick’s Day, the clouds rolled in and there was thunder and lightning and rain fell.  And this happened every late afternoon for the next week or so.

It must be said that at Lalibela, more than other places, I felt a little bit of the atmosphere of a Lourdes or a Fatima, which was, to me, a bit of a negative.


When we left Lalibela, we descended back into the desert and two hours climbed a steep slope and intersected, wonder of wonders, a paved road.  This paved road was called the China Road, because the Chines built it, along with most of the newer hotels.  It was not as busy as some roads, because it runs from the Mekele-Addis road to between Bahir Dar and Gonder in the west rather than running in and out of Addis.  It ran along a high ridge between two deep canyons on both sides; at one point the ridge became very narrow, and it was kind of like getting two Grand Canyons for the price of one!

This ridge came to an end and we descended to the fertile brown grassy plains around Lake Tana.  We stopped at the little utopian commune of Awra Amba, where they make fabric and cloth to sell; then when we hit the north-south highway we turned right to Gonder.

By 1500 the Zagwe dynasty had been replaced by another one, called the Solomonic, which claimed descent from Menelik I, the illegitimate child of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and from the kings of Axum.  But in the 16th century came the first Islamic Jihad of any note; about 1530 one Ahmed Gragn invaded and devastated large portions of the country, and it took a Portuguese intervention [the Portuguese dominated the Indian Ocean during that century] to defeat him.  The Portuguese kept a close relationship with Ethiopia for a while, but when one of the Ethiopian kings tried to lead his country into Catholicism, he was overthrown.

Not long after that, the monarchy, which had moved around, established a capital at Gonder, somewhat north of Lake Tana in a valley surrounded by a range of hills.  There they built a permanent compound, enclosed by a wall, and for several generations each king built his own palace in the compound; this at the same time as Europe’s Baroque era.  At another location in the town one of the monarchs built a huge baptismal pool; this is kept empty most of the year but filled up for the annual Timkat [Epiphany-Baptism of Jesus] festival on January 23 each year, when the pool is blessed and then as many people as possible try to jump into it simultaneously.

After about 1750 the Ethiopian monarchy disintegrated into small states for about a century.  Then after 1855 it began to reunite under Tewodros II of the ‘Solomonic’ dynasty.  He mistreated some British delegates and was killed fighting a British punitive expedition about 1868 [the so called Scramble for Africa did not really kick off till ten years after that].  Then in 1885 the Mahdi movement in Sudan captured Khartoum, killed General Gordon [this is covered in the 1960s film Khartoum] and then invaded Ethiopia.  Yohannes IV was killed in battle against them in 1889, and the Mahdiites captured Gonder in a raid and destroyed most of the old churches except two that bordered on the palace complex.

On the day we left Gonder we drove down a dirt road under heavy construction to a place called Gorgora, on Lake Tana, where there was a beautiful painted church.  Then we had to backtrack all the way to the outskirts of Gonder to take the road to Bahir Dar, on the lake, our next stop.  It is curious to me that, given that that lake is one of Ethiopia’s best tourist assets, that there is not a road closer to the shore.  Although it is only 175 kilometers between Gonder and Bahir Dar, it is about a three hour drive because of the donkey carts, the tuk-tuks [a three wheel taxi common in Africa and South Asia], and the pedestrians on the road [most Ethiopians walk everywhere].

Bahir Dar is a fairly pleasant town on the lake front where the Blue Nile flows out to begin its journey to the Mediterranean. We stayed in a hotel that was imitation African architecture – one oddity is that the electric plugs were British, whereas Ethiopia uses continental European plugs – they solved this by power panels plugged into the British outlets that accepted Continental plugs.  We took a boat ride to a couple of painted churches; the second one we saw was on a remote island, but the first one featured a whole line of souvenir and craft booths on the way to the church – and back; the ladies spent a fair amount of money on the way back to the boat.  International tourism isn’t that big of a thing yet – I can only assume that Bahir Dar is sort of a resort spot for affluent Ethiopians – and there are some now in the larger cities.


After three nights there most of us got on the airplane to go back to Addis Ababa.  We had thought of going the 350 miles by car, but the experience on the road three days before had persuaded most of us that it would be a long journey of slow trucks, donkey carts, pedestrians, etc., etc.  The vehicles that transported us did go by the road with most of our luggage, and David our son, Thomas the security person, and Bella and Solomon went with them.  As it turned out, it took them eleven hours!

Addis Ababa is actually a fairly new city, founded in 1881 and called New Flower in Amharic.  It is actually an enclave in Oromia, an Amharic island surrounded by an area where Oromitha, which is a Cushitic language rather than a South Semitic one, is spoken; the population of Addis is supposedly about 41/4 million, about the same as Phoenix, but ‘slum clearance’ has pushed a large portion of the less affluent of the city over the state line and I suspect the real metro population [if you throw in the parts in Oromia] may be more like 51/2 million.  One day we actually drove southwest into Oromia to see another church and a site of pre-Christian stelae or markers.  When you crossed the state line, still in the suburbs, a language in the Roman alphabet with lots of aa’s and ee’s and oo’s began to appear on signs along with Amharic.  Actually, Oromitha has more speakers than Amharic; but the political leadership of the country has always been Amhara or Tigray.

I knew about three words of Oromitha, oddly enough, because when I was a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington forty years ago, a program associated with Summer Institute of Linguistics, one of my academic tasks was to do a description of a minor language.  There were lots of international students at UTA.  There was a large Iranian community and the hottest political issue on campus was the Shah; so I was not surprised when he was overthrown four years later! Anyway, with a 1975 level technology tape recorder I was able to retain an Oromo student for an hourly fee and do a description of the grammar and some of the vocabulary of the spoken language; it was called Gallinya then, a term not considered politically correct today.

In Addis, we went back to the Anthropological Museum [this time the lights were on] and to Castelli’s Restaurant, an old landmark.  But we also got to spend the afternoon with Desta Heliso, from one of the small southern Protestant nationalities, and his English wife.  He is president of the Evangelical Seminary and he talked about the struggles building trust between the Evangelicals and the Orthodox, who had often regarded each other as non-Christians [an old story].  Frankly, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has not been as open to modernity as their sister church, the Copts of Egypt.  The Copts translated the Matthew Henry Bible commentaries into Arabic and have regular Protestant-style Bible studies.  The Ethiopian church has not followed their example.  When a fairly open minded Ethiopian Patriarch died in 2012, the less open minded party got in control again of the Church.  It must be said that the Coptic Church has never been ‘in charge’ in Egypt, facing first Chalcedonian Byzantium and then Islam, whereas its Ethiopian sister has been ‘in charge’ of the culture of its country for 1700 years.  It makes a difference, I think.  And during these 1700 years the gospel did not move on to Kenya and places beyond.

The day we flew out of Ethiopia saw the only really negative incident we ever had with Ethiopians.  Our two Canadian friends had, for some reason, visas that expired four days before the date of our departure.  They were told by both the Professor and Solomon that that would not be a problem.  It was.  First, Solomon was not allowed to enter the airport terminal, evidently because he was not flying.  Then, at passport control, it was discovered that our Canadian friends had a visa that expired four days earlier.  They were taken aside.  We had to give them $170 in cash, and they had to wait for the receipt.  And then when we got to the plane, we found that the government agents had not stamped the visa, and they were stopped again.  A government agent actually suggested that the Canadians should go back into the city, get a visa extension, and fly on a later day.  The agent declared, “this is our country, you follow our rules.”  Our friends groveled and apologized for their mistake, and they got the stamp and got through – it seemed to be a case of “white man needs to grovel to black man” – but they got on the plane just in time.  It must be said that this was the only incident of this kind we ran into on our whole trip, for which we are very thankful.  The whole trip was a worthwhile adventure.

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