Ethiopia Opens Its Doors, Slowly
Jehad Nga for The New York Times
A woman enters the Debre Birhan Selassie church, built in 1674 in Gonder, Ethiopia, then the center for Ethiopian Christianity. Dozens of historic Orthodox churches draw visitors to the north of the country.
By JOSHUA HAMMER
Published: September 17, 2006
INSIDE the rock-hewn Medhane Alem Church, in the remote mountain town of Lalibela, the late afternoon Mass was drawing to a conclusion. Barely visible through the cavernous gloom, hundreds of white-muslin-wrapped worshipers huddled beside pillars and prostrated themselves on small rugs, kissing the cold stone floor. In the sanctuary, priests and deacons gathered around tattered Bibles written in Geez, the 2,500-year-old language still used in Ethiopian ritual, chanting prayers that echoed through the vaulted chamber.
Then the faithful turned as one toward the east, in the direction of Jerusalem. Secreted in an alcove behind a scarlet curtain, forbidden from view to all but a select group of priests and monks, lay a golden cross belonging to the revered King Lalibela, and a replica of the Holy Ark, the wooden box encased in gold that supposedly contained the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
I had arrived in Lalibela, fortuitously, just before the Feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6, a key date in the Orthodox Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus’ appearance in divine form before three of his apostles on Mount Tabor. Within a few minutes, my guide had whisked me to the grandest of King Lalibela’s 11 monolithic churches, chiseled out of a single mass of reddish limestone by royal craftsmen at the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th centuries.
In the afternoon drizzle, a group of women — who were not allowed to enter the church, my guide told me in a whispered aside, because they were in the middle of their menstrual cycle — clutched prayer books and bowed repeatedly against the stone facade, strangely mirroring the davening performed by Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It was another reminder of the deep connections between Judaism and Ethiopian Christianity, which combines belief in the Holy Trinity with some of the myths and the symbols of the Old Testament.
The churches of Lalibela, a dirt-poor mountain village that has remained essentially unchanged for a millennium, constitute the most remarkable part of what Ethiopians call “the historic tour” — a several-day circuit through ancient Christian kingdoms that flourished in the northern highlands beginning in the fourth century A.D. According to legend, Syrian monks crossed the Red Sea then and converted the Aksumite king, Ezana, from paganism to Christianity. Over the following centuries, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church spread throughout the country.
Today, it is widely believed that about half of Ethiopia’s 70 million people are Orthodox Christians (though some experts contend that Islam is now the predominant religion). In the northernmost province of Tigray, where the Orthodox religion took root, 3,500 churches cover the landscape, and the practice of Orthodoxy is nearly universal.
For decades, however, access to the historic sites, and to Ethiopia in general, has been subject to the vagaries of politics and war. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Soviet-backed Marxist dictatorship known as the Dergue, led by Haile Mengistu Mariam, sealed itself off from the West, while torturing and murdering tens of thousands of opponents and presiding over the catastrophic 1984-85 famine in which one million people died.
After months of fierce fighting, a coalition of rebel forces overthrew President Mengistu in 1991. (He fled into exile in Zimbabwe.)
Over the next seven years, foreigners — mostly humanitarian aid workers, diplomats, journalists and hardy backpackers — trickled into Ethiopia. I visited the country during this period, when I was based in Nairobi as a correspondent, and it was a rewarding but rough experience — driving along bombed-out roads past the burned remains of Soviet tanks, staying in derelict hotels devoid of running water or electricity.
The door slammed shut in 1998, when a territorial dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted in a savage war that lasted for two years. The conflict, which ended with a peace deal signed in 2000, left tens of thousands of soldiers dead on both sides.
In the five relatively calm years since, tourists have returned to Ethiopia. They arrive in a nation that under President Meles Zanawi, the former leader of the guerrilla army that overthrew President Mengistu and who has been in power for 15 years, remains one of the poorest countries on earth.
In Ethiopia, the per capita income is $120 a year; tuberculosis and other contagions are rampant; and the literacy rate is just 43 percent, a sad figure considering that Ethiopia was among the first societies in sub-Saharan Africa to develop a written language.
But under President Zanawi, who has begun to show some dictatorial tendencies of his own, significant development has come to Ethiopia, including mobile phone networks, decent hotels, Internet cafes, reliable electricity, and asphalt roads — phenomena that were unheard of in the outlying provinces a decade ago.
And it is now possible to travel across Ethiopia with some degree of comfort. Abercrombie & Kent, the Kenya-based safari specialist, this month is starting a guided tour through Ethiopia’s historic Christian route: Aksum, Lalibela, Lake Tana and Gonder.
But those who want to venture on their own will discover that Ethiopia is reasonably well set up for independent exploring. They will find a proud, if bedraggled country with ruggedly beautiful landscapes and a unique sense of its identity — shaped in part, by Ethiopia’s stubborn refusal to submit to Western colonizers.
I ARRIVED in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s 8,000-foot-high capital, on a cold, drizzly afternoon in early August, and flew the next morning in a 52-seat Ethiopian Airlines Fokker to Aksum in Tigray. I remembered Tigray, which I had driven through in 1993, as a bone-dry, high-altitude desert, a land of canyons and chronic food shortages. But this time, at the height of the wet season, the plateau was vibrantly green.
“God has blessed us with two years of plenty of rainfall,” I was told by my guide, Sisay Ymer, a 30-year-old former seminarian who greeted me at the airport.
As we rode into town, I could see terraced fields of teff, the Ethiopian staple — a wheatlike crop used to make the spongy Ethiopian bread, injera — extending across the rolling terrain in every direction.
Aksum is a town of about 47,000 that is just beginning to recover from decades of war and political turbulence. Its decrepit appearance belies its rich history. Nearly 3,000 years ago, Aksum emerged as one of the principal cities of the kingdom of Saba, a prosperous commercial state centered in Yemen that controlled the main trading routes between the Red and Mediterranean Seas.
The town’s best-known ruins date to the reign of the first Christian king, Ezana, and his successors: a field of dozens of granite obelisks, between 10 and 90 feet high, intricately carved with rune-like geometric shapes. This strange and mystical place, a cemetery for aristocrats and monarchs, is honeycombed with crypts and treasure vaults that lie several dozen feet underground.
The grandest of these stelae, 78 feet high and weighing 160 tons, was carted off to Rome by Mussolini’s invading army in 1937. But last year, after a decade of pressure by the Ethiopian government, Italy returned the stolen treasure to Aksum, touching off days of celebrations.
The stela was cut into three pieces by the Italians to make it easier to transport back to Aksum, and the three immense blocks still lie in a corner of the field, wrapped in their steel and wood shipping materials, while the cash-strapped Ethiopian government keeps delaying its plans to raise the obelisk again.
Just across from the field stands the Church of St. Mary of Zion, a vine-shrouded stone structure built in the 1600’s. The basilica replaced the original fourth-century church — believed to be sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest — which was burned down by an invading Arab army in the 10th century.
Across from the church is the building known simply as the Treasury, whose nondescript appearance hides its key role in Ethiopian Judeo-Christian mythology. Many Ethiopian believers insist that the building houses the original Ark of the Covenant — the gold-leafed wooden box encasing the actual stone tablets delivered by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. (Some Ethiopians insist that the tablets themselves are inside.)
Menelik I, believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the offspring of King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, is said to have stolen the ark from the First Temple in Jerusalem and brought it to Aksum a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
No one but a single monk is allowed to see the sacred artifact — and few people are permitted to see him — though replicas, known as tabots, are brought out once a year for the Timkat celebration of Christ’s baptism on Jan. 19.
The most revered Aksumite kings were Kaleb and his son Gabremeskal (literally, Slave of the Cross), who spread Christianity from the royal court through the villages of Ethiopia in the sixth century. My guide, Sisay, who was incongruously clad in a bright red jacket and tie, black slacks and shiny black shoes — his official guide’s uniform — led me on foot up a rutted road to the ruins of Kaleb’s palace, at first glance an unimpressive pile of rubble.
Then we descended a stone staircase into a network of subterranean burial chambers, constructed of huge, finely chiseled blocks of granite, that fit together as neatly as the blocks of a Rubik’s cube.
Entering the musty vault, where the monarchs were originally buried, Sisay illuminated the passageways with a thin candle. Fifteen-hundred-year-old carvings of elephants and distinctive Aksumite crosses — formed by four delicately shaped, not-quite-touching petals — were still clearly visible on the granite walls.
Wandering through the ancient burial chamber had evidently moved Sisay deeply. With his eyes closed, swaying back and forth, candlelight flickering against his face, Sisay chanted the Lord’s Prayer in Geez.
After the hymn, we stepped back in the bright sunlight.
“Can you feel this place’s holiness?” he said. “Ethiopian Christianity was born here.”
THE next morning, Sisay woke me early and we set out from my hotel on a hike to the sixth-century Pantaleon Monastery, perched on a hilltop just outside town. King Kaleb spent the last two decades of his life in an ascetic retreat in this monastery, and his bones were eventually interred here.
It was a bright, clear morning: we walked through vibrantly green teff fields, leapt across muddy irrigation ditches, passed the domed Church of St. Michael, built about 10 years ago. We climbed a steep switchback trail hemmed in by cactuslike euphorbia trees.
The monastery, a one-story hut balanced on an outcropping with precipitous drops on all sides, was surrounded by a four-foot-wide ledge that offered panoramic views of the fertile Tigrayan plateau. Sawtoothed mountains rose to the east; to the north, obscured by mist, lay Eritrea.
A wizened, barefoot monk appeared out of nowhere and opened the olive wood door with an iron key, revealing 500-year-old tapestries, and the vault containing the bones of King Kaleb — forbidden to my secular eyes.
Aksum began to decline in the seventh century, and by the 11th century, the Aksum dynasty was gone. In the middle of the 11th century, a new Christian dynasty, the Zagwe, arose in the mountain town of Roha, which later was renamed Lalibela in honor of its most revered king.
According to myth, Lalibela received a vision from angels commanding him to chisel 11 churches out of the soft limestone hills on which the Zagwe capital was built. Over 25 years, master artisans carved both cave churches from vertical cliff faces, and monolithic churches out of bedrock. In 1960, Unesco declared the churches a protected site, citing “a remarkable coupling of engineering and unique artistic achievement.”
Lalibela had modernized since the last time I was there. A paved road, constructed in 1998, ran from a new airport terminal to the town, passing through rugged foothills, with jagged massifs in the distance soaring to 12,000 feet.
Gone were the nausea-inducing hairpin turns and perilous rock slides that I’d experienced on the old, unpaved road back in 1993. Several hotels have been built, and the main street winding through the town has been paved — or rather, covered by an uneven layer of stones and cement.
But Lalibela, with a population of about 30,000, still has the look of a destitute mountain village: round, thatched-roof mud huts, called tukuls, clinging to steep slopes; peasant farmers wrapped in homespun white cloth robes; goats and sheep that scatter frantically, bleating in distress, before the rare motorized vehicle.
In this humble setting, King Lalibela’s 900-year-old creations seem all the more extraordinary. The Medhane Alem church, a 37-foot high, red-ocher edifice, has a cavernous interior broken by dozens of finely carved columns, arches and vaults.
Inside, the rituals have remained essentially unchanged since the church was built. As the Mass ended, the scarlet curtain hiding the Holy Ark replica parted, and six priests, swathed in white satin, wearing yellow-fringed caps topped by tiny gold crosses, emerged from the alcove and headed toward the altar, which, unlike in most Roman Catholic churches, is in the center of the church. They carried urns filled with holy water and poured drops into goblets proffered by the beseeching crowd.
One priest bore a six-foot-high silver ceremonial cross; two shook sistrams, bell-like instruments; another thumped rhythmically on a large barrel drum. Two elderly blind women, their eyes milky white, swayed against a pillar, while beside them, a cross-eyed boy wiggled his head back and forth, working himself into a trancelike state.
Amid a crescendo of rhythmic clapping, ululating and chanting, the crowd spilled from the church into the open air. At that moment, thunder exploded nearby and rain fell in torrents, dousing worshipers and filling the gullies in the limestone courtyard.
“You are lucky,” my guide in this area, Berhane, told me. “You have chosen a good day to be here.”
Early the next day, I visited the Church of St. George, named after Ethiopia’s patron saint. Cut in the shape of a perfect cross, it is perhaps the most exquisite of the monolithic structures.
Descending into the encircling trench via a narrow stone staircase, I noticed, in an alcove, a grinning human skull propped atop a jumble of bones. The partly mummified legs and feet reached to the very edge of the crypt.
Deeper in the recess, other skeletons lay prostrate, yellowing skulls, femurs and tibulas intermingled with scraps of clothing. These were remains of five Orthodox Christian pilgrims, Berhane told me, who had trekked to this holy site from Alexandria in the 13th century, and had chosen to be interred in this open-air vault.
“They wanted to spend eternity gazing at the church,” he said. “They didn’t want anything to block the view.”
The next morning, I flew from Lalibela to Gonder, a bustling, ramshackle city of 250,000 in the Amhara-speaking heartland. It served as the center of Ethiopian Christianity from 1635 to 1855, at which point the capital moved to Addis Ababa.
Gonder’s most celebrated monarch, Fasilidas, constructed an elaborate stone castle — a fusion of Moorish, Portuguese, Ottoman and Moghul architectural styles — on the outskirts, and his successors added their own edifices over the following century.
The ruined castle complex, surrounded by a crumbling stone wall, contains such oddities as sauna baths and a dozen lion cages. Ethiopia’s rulers kept lions here until 1991, when the Dergue abandoned the city and left the animals to starve to death. Rebels managed to save two of them, and sent them to a zoo in Addis Ababa.
Across town from the castle complex is Gonder’s other main attraction: the Debre Birhan Selassie church, constructed in 1674. A local artist at the time covered the small interior with brightly painted frescoes, recently renovated by Unesco, that depict scenes of the life of Christ, St. George and the Dragon, Daniel in the lion’s den, the beheading of John the Baptist, and the Devil and the damned. (Unbelievers, demons, and other unsavory types were painted in one-eyed profile.) Hundreds of beatifically smiling angels adorn the ceiling, each one painted with a subtly different expression.
Gonder is also the cradle of traditional Ethiopian music, and I spent my last evening at an intimate bar called Ambasel, drinking beer and listening to a local band — a female singer, a drummer and a masinko player, whose one-stringed instrument is made of goat hide stretched taut over a box-like frame. Sewbesaw Zebene, my latest guide, translated the vocalist’s energetic Amharic song, a welcome to “the American writer” and a plea to spread the word about Ethiopia.
“Tell the world that Ethiopia is a safe place,” she sang, “The wars are over.”
Sewbesaw took a sip from his beer and told me he wasn’t so sure. That very week, he pointed out, Ethiopian troops had entered neighboring Somalia, and the radical Islamic regime that had recently taken power in Mogadishu was demanding that they leave.
“The region is so unstable, every 5 or 10 years there’s a disruption — famine, war, and now, Somalia,” he said. “It makes us fear that tourism here is not sustainable. We worry how long it will last.”
For now, at least, the ancient Christian route is open and thriving. But in this long-embattled land in the Horn of Africa, one can never plan too far in advance.
Ethiopian Airlines (800-445-2733; www.flyethiopian.com) flies four times a week from Dulles Airport near Washington to Addis Ababa, the capital, with a stop in Rome. Recently, a mid-October round trip was $1,474 online.
Ethiopian teams with Continental to fly to Addis Ababa from Newark through London. Several other airlines, including Emirates, Alitalia and Egypt Air, fly from New York to Ethiopia with a single stop.
Ethiopian’s domestic service has improved greatly over the last decade. A fleet of turboprops does a daily Addis Ababa-Gonder-Lalibela-Aksum circuit. Flights are sometimes canceled because of rough weather during the rainy season (June to September), but the service is generally reliable, and the whole circuit costs around $400. You can book domestic Ethiopian flights in the United States.
Tourist visas cost $40 for United States citizens and can be purchased on arrival at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. See www.ethiopianembassy.org for details.
The amenities outside the capital are getting better, but they’re still pretty spartan. You’ll find a handful of decent hotels on the ancient Christian route; restaurants, except those in the best hotels, tend to be holes-in-the-wall, serving traditional Ethiopian food (typically injera and tibs, or spicy goat), spaghetti and not much else.
WHERE TO STAY
At these places, pricing can be in either dollars or birrs (it’s about 9 birrs to the dollar), but dollars are accepted.
In Addis Ababa, the Sheraton Addis (Taitu Street; 27-11-5171717; www.luxurycollection.com/addis), which opened half a dozen years ago, is the preferred destination of the upmarket tourist crowd. It has 293 rooms and suites, a sauna, 5 restaurants, 6 bars and outdoor swimming. Rooms start at $310.
The Hilton Addis Ababa (Menelik II Avenue; 251-11-5518400 or 251-11-5170000; www.hilton.com), also very central, has been my hotel of choice over the years. There’s a great Ethiopian coffee bar in the lobby, a heated pool and pleasant grounds, but this summer two elevators did not work and it seemed a bit rundown. Its 356 rooms start about $130 a night.
In Aksum, the hotel choices are minimal. The best is probably the Remhai Hotel (251-34-7753210; e-mail: email@example.com), a modern, concrete-block building with 74 rooms on the eastern outskirts; it has satellite television, sporadic Internet service and a decent restaurant. Doubles are $30.
The alternative is the Yeha Hotel (251-34-7752377), part of the government-owned Ghion Hotel chain (251-11-5513222; www.ghionhotel.com.et). It is a pleasant place near the stelae, with 63 rooms, a good restaurant and that necessity in rural Ethiopia, a stand-by generator. Doubles begin at $40.
In Lalibela, by far the best choice is another Ghion property, the Roha Hotel (251-33-3360009). Situated about a mile outside the center of town, it is beautifully decorated with artifacts inspired by the rock-hewn churches. The Roha has 64 rooms, a friendly staff and an excellent restaurant. It costs $40 for a double.
In Gonder, the best hotel is the Goha Hotel (251-58-1110634), another part of the Ghion chain. Set on a hilltop with magnificent views of Gonder and the mountainous countryside, it has 65 rooms and a good restaurant. Doubles are $40.
Probably the best alternative is the recently built Kapra Walia Inn (251-58-1120315). Within walking distance of downtown, it has three dozen rooms, with doubles for $27, and an Internet cafe.
Just down the street from the Kapra Walia is the similarly priced Fogera Hotel (251-58-1116673), with a dozen rooms; doubles from $25. Unlike the Kapra Walia, it serves meals, though the food is mediocre at best.
Ambasel, on Gonder’s main road, in the Piazza neighborhood, offers traditional Ethiopian music every night in an intimate setting. As long as you don’t mind being serenaded by the band, and attracting the amused attention of the rest of the clientele, the bar makes for a great evening out.
In Aksum, Sisay Ymer was well informed and reliable. He should be booked in advance, especially for the tourist season, from December to February, at 251-34-7751501 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His rate is about $40 a day, but negotiable.
In Gonder, Sewbesaw Zebene (251-91-8770214 or 251-91-1827171; e-mail: email@example.com) charges around $100 a day.
Abercrombie & Kent (800-554-7016, www.abercrombiekent.com) offers nine-day tours, “Ethiopia: An Ancient Dynasty,” for $2,995 to $3,255 a person, double occupancy, not including air fare.
JOSHUA HAMMER, a former correspondent in Africa for Newsweek, is the author of “Yokohama Burning,” published this month by Simon & Schuster.