Ethiopia - A Diamond in the Rough

Published: 23rd August 2006
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In Africa, Ethiopia's historical pedigree is second only to that of Egypt. The country claims a history going back 5,000 years, and there are Bible episodes mentioning Ethiopia dating back at least 3,000 years.

The rich history is a blend of fact, legend, and tradition. But a good part of the history is almost certainly correct and remains unchallenged.
Ethiopia is a truly unique destination, whose attractions you can find nowhere else in the world. The biggest draw is the rich Christian heritage. Ethiopia was one of the very first places to embrace Christianity, way back in the 4th century AD. The wonderful churches, monasteries, icons and relics you find here are a legacy of the Orthodox Church.

What ancients referred to as Ethiopia covered at various times, parts or whole of the regions of Kush, Meroe, Aksum, Abyssinia, Sheba and Nubia. Today this would include swathes of present-day Sudan, Ethiopia, northern Somalia and the horn of Africa's Red Sea coast. The ancient Egyptians believed that Ethiopia was the land of their fore-bearers. There are numerous references in ancient Greek, Egyptian and Judaic texts to Ethiopia, and her historical and cultural links to ancient Mediterranean cultures are clear.

Ethiopians claim that the Queen of Sheba -interlocutor and distinguished guest to ancient Israel's King Solomon, ruled over a kingdom located in present day Ethiopia. The queen whom they refer to as Makeda, travelled to the Holy Land to seek enlightenment at the feet of King Solomon, whose reputation at the time for wisdom and discernment was without equal. She journeyed to Israel with 797 ships laden with gifts of gold, precious stones and spices.

The gifts were indeed fit for a king and the gold alone would today be valued in millions of American dollars. Solomon and the queen got along very well. The Bible records, that in return: " King Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty."

An encounter of the queen's visit to the Holy Land is given in the Ethiopian book, Kebra Nagast, which translates as "The Glory of Kings". This book -which is believed to be over a thousand years old, is an important source of Ethiopia's history and legend.

It accounts for the Solomonic lineage of Ethiopia's kings, telling of how Makeda's beauty mesmerized wise Solomon and how he secretly loved her and sired a son. The book also gives an insight into the circumstances that surrounded Ethiopia then.

The queen proselytized to Judaism, perhaps explaining the material evidence that has been found indicating that Judaism was practised in some parts of Ethiopia before the advent of Christianity. It is said that when the queen's only son and heir came of age, she sent him to Israel to meet his father. Solomon was delighted with his son, whom he named Menelik meaning "how handsome he is". Menelik returned to Sheba with a number of young priests and trusted sons of his father's officials, provided to equip him with wise counsel and spiritual guidance.

It is said that these young men took with them the authentic Ark of the Covenant replacing it with the relic given to Menelik by his father. That is how the legend arose that the Ark of the Covenant -an item of immeasurable cultural and religious value, ended up in Ethiopia. There is hardly any Ethiopian who does not believe that The Ark of the Covenant is in their country. Some are even sure of its location- the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum.

Though the story of the Queen of Sheba is a settled matter with Ethiopians, it is still controversial, as some scholars place Sheba in the region where Yemen is found today. But it is also recorded that Axum -an ancient empire in today's northeast Ethiopia, ruled a good part of the southern Arabia peninsula. And indeed, Ethiopia's Amharic and Tigrean languages are southern Semitic languages.

Ethiopia was the first African country to encounter Christianity. The New Testament Bible cites an Ethiopian eunuch, being baptised by Philip - an early Christian. But it is Frumentius in the 4th century AD who is credited with introducing Christianity to Ethiopia. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria sent him as a missionary, and he succeeded in converting the Axumite royal family at around AD 330.

But progress was slow, until the arrival of a company of monks known in Ethiopian church history as the Nine Saints, towards the end of the 5th Century. The Nine Saints who hailed from all over the Byzantine Empire played a great role in spreading Christianity beyond Axum and their influence on the Ethiopian church was profound and long lasting. They translated the Bible from Greek into Ge'ez -the local written language, and also established a strong monastic tradition. The church maintained a strong link with the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, and today most Ethiopians adhere to the Orthodox belief.

Axum and northern Ethiopia have the country's most significant historic sites. Axum - earlier written as Aksum, was the first major empire to rise out of Ethiopia. The 10th century BC Axumite kingdom was at one time considered together with Persia, China and Rome as one of the great powers of the world. It was an important commercial centre, trading with Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, Arabia and Persia. Axum began to decline in the seventh century AD.

The Axum landscape is marked with mysterious monuments and magnificent ancient structures and ruins. The oldest and most esteemed of the treasures are the 3,000-year-old age steles that were sculpted from single pieces of granite rock curved to resemble storied buildings.

The tallest obelisk, which is over 23 m tall, was looted from Ethiopia and erected in Rome by Mussolini's fascist troops during their brief occupation of the country from 1936 to 1941. After decades of debate and controversy, the monolith was finally returned to Axum in April 2005. The relic is now Ethiopia's greatest historic attraction.

At the churches and monasteries of Axum, history comes to life as the icons and historic crowns of ancient emperors tell the story.
The most outstanding church is the 16th century Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, considered to be Ethiopia's holiest site and believed to house the original Ark of the Covenant.

While in Axum, other historical sites not to be missed are: the royal graves of King Kaleb and Gabre Meskel, the 54 room ruins of a palace that supposedly housed the Queen of Sheba, and her legendary Bath. Also look out for the still legible early 4th century stone-pillar inscription, made on account of King Ezana's victory over rebellious tribes.

It is in Axum that the Ethiopian system of writing known as Ge'ez emanated. The Ge'ez alphabet, which has an amazing 231 letters, is thought to have come with immigrants from southern Arabia.

After Axum converted to Christianity, the bible was translated into Ge'ez from Greek. Although Ge'ez has not been a spoken language since about the tenth century, it is still today the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Debre Damo -76 km from Axum, is another important historic site, especially due to the monastery dating back to the Axumite era. The monastery is 24 meters down a cliff and is only accessible by a safety rope pulley, making it an exciting event on its own. The 9th century site holds Ethiopia's oldest intact church and has an extensive collection of scripts and antique texts of scripture and teachings. On account of traditional religious reasons, women are not admitted to this site, and some of the other monasteries in the country.

At Yeha, you will find the 5th century BC Temple of the Moon, emanating from a remote age civilization. The roofless and windowless temple is built of smooth polished stone, and measures 20 meters long, 15 meters wide and is 10 meters high. Its construction is of nearly the same perplexing style and technology as the Egyptian pyramids. Stones of up to 3 meters long were laid carefully, one upon another, to the height of a modern 7-storey building without the use of mortar. The temple holds important Judaic remains and antiques. Yeha is less than 2 hours drive from Axum, on a road that takes you through some dramatic highland scenery.

Lalibela, located south of Axum, was the seat of the Zagwe dynasty that rose around the 12th century. Lalibela lies camouflaged against the landscapes dominated by Mount Abuna Yosef that rises to 4,200 m. The 11 churches of Lalibela were hewn from the pink granite bedrock of the Roha Mountain. Credited to King Lalibela (1185-1225), the rock churches are a sight to behold and are no doubt one of the most incredible creations of man in service to God.

It is reported that King Lalibela's prodigious church building was his effort to recreate Jerusalem. Muslims occupied Jerusalem at the time and pilgrimage for Ethiopian Christians was difficult. The city was initially known as Roha, but was later renamed after King Lalibela, the most outstanding of the Zagwes'. Lalibela is a holy shrine city of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and it is the best place to experience the most colourful Ethiopian church festivals especially during Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas (Genna), and Epiphany (Timket).

Bete Giyorgis -the Church of St. George, is a World Heritage Site; it is the most famous of the Lalibela churches, in addition to being the best preserved and having the finest architectural finish. Bete Medhane Alem -House of the Redeemer of the World, is a replica of the Axumite St. Mary of Zion cathedral and is said to be the largest church in the world. Bete Maryam, -House of Mary, was dedicated to Mary the mother of Christ. In addition to being the most unique, it is also the favourite among Lalibela's bethels. Away from Lalibela town, there are other marvellous houses of worship with equally unique workmanship.

Despite the devotion of Lalibela, the Zagwes' were not of the Solomonic line and were seen by puritans as usurpers. When Yekuno Amlak rose to office in 1268 after deposing the Zagwe kings, he declared himself a lineal descendant of King Menelik I -son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and thus re-established the Solomon dynasty. Haile Selassie (1930-1974), the last Ethiopian Negusa Negest - King of Kings or Emperor, also claimed descent from King Solomon.

Mekele, located at the north most border of Ethiopia, is another home to rock-hewn churches and is famous for its over 200 churches. It was the capital of Emperor Yohannes IV, who reigned in Tigray between 1871 and 1889. The town was then an important camel caravan transit stopover and a thriving trade centre. Today, the emperor's palace has been turned into a remarkable museum with notable exhibits from the past. Around Tigray, you can visit Negash, the site of the first mosque constructed in Ethiopia.

Gondar, a town on the lower slopes of the Simien Mountains northwest of Ethiopia, is home to many old-fashioned castles, palaces and beautifully constructed and decorated churches. Portuguese travellers in the 1520's had little to report on Gondar, as it was then a small village without any distinction. By 1630 however, Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia. Gondar owes it rise to Emperor Fasilidas the Great (1632 -1667) and his successors in the period 1632 to 1855. The city declined thereafter, when Tewodros II moved his capital to Debre Tabor. Muslim dervish subsequently looted the capital in 1887.

The castles were built with the help of Portuguese and other foreign experts; an Indian architect designed the most magnificent of them. The architectural style combines Axumite, medieval European and Arabian influences. Gondar has a spectacular view of the Lake Tana farmlands. Within the area you will also come across the bathing palace of Emperor Fasilidas.

Lake Tana, Ethiopia's largest lake is the source of the Blue Nile. The lake is dotted with 37 islands hosting some enthralling 13th century churches, monasteries, monuments and archaeological treasures. Of particular interest, is Dek Stephanos, which has a treasury of priceless religious icons, and is the burial place of several medieval emperors, including Yekuno Amlak and Fasilidas. Once here, be sure to visit Kebran Gabriel, and Ura Kidane Mehret -which is renowned for its colourful frescoes.

Bahir Dar, south of the lake, is the focal point for touring the Lake Tana region. Visitors enjoy boat cruises around the lake, which is also excellent for bird viewing and is a nature lover's paradise. Make sure to enjoy views of the magnificent Tisisat Falls, formed as the Blue Nile cascades down 45 meters, over a river width of 400 m.

Harar is an amazing and amusing place to tour. This early 16th century eastern Ethiopian city was once an important trade centre and is famous for its ancient Arabic structures, great city walls, and the French poet Rimbaud's house. Harar is an Islamic centre with at least 99 mosques, and is considered to be the fourth holiest Islamic city, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

If the evening finds you in Harar, you may witness a most bizarre spectacle courtesy of the so-called Hyena Men. With wild howls, these fearless men summon hyenas from the hills. They then get the ruthless scavengers to snatch pieces of meat from their hands or even their mouths!

Still to the east of the country, in the Afar region, the banks of Awash River make an important pre historic and archaeological site. This is where the hominid 'Lucy', -believed to be the missing link between man and his ape ancestors was excavated. Recent findings in neighbouring Kenya have however come to challenge this position. The local name of the hominid is Dinknesh -meaning "thou art wonderful".

Lucy is the fun name given to her by the scientists who found her, after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". This archaeological gem today rests at the Ethiopian National Museum in Addis Ababa. Many other archaeological treasures have also been found in the area.
Most overseas visitors will start off from Addis Ababa. Addis, as the city is popularly known is Ethiopia's capital city and home to Bole International Airport. The city rests at the foot of the Entoto Mountains. By Ethiopian standards, it is a new settlement and came into being in 1887. Addis Ababa means New Flower and its foundation is credited to Queen Taitu -consort to Menelik II.

In Addis, make sure to visit the Ethnographic Museum and the National Museum. The Giorgis Cathedral, which was built in 1896 to commemorate victory over Italian invaders, is also worth a visit.

The Menelik Mausoleum at the Ba'ata church, built in 1911, was purposed to be the tomb of Emperor Menelik II. It later on served to entomb other emperors, royalty and martyrs of freedom as well. The Trinity Cathedral is a striking European style church erected in 1941 to commemorate Ethiopia's emancipation from Italian occupation.

Other interesting attractions include: Merkato -the grand marketplace, Entoto Mariam -an 1885 basilica that looks out over the city, Mt. Entoto Museum, the 1896 octagon St. Georges Cathedral, Jubilee Palace and the Emperors Palace -both Emperor Haile Selassie's grand palaces, Martyr's statue -a tribute to the thousands massacred by fascist Italian forces, and the Menelik Square, which has an equestrian statue of Menelik II erected after his victory over the Italians in the battle of Adawa.

Despite early contact with the outside world, Ethiopia developed in relative isolation and was actually once known as the "Hidden Empire". The country was suspicious of outsiders, and the welcome given to foreign experts in the building of Gondar was rare in Ethiopian history. European missionaries were singularly unsuccessful in converting the locals to the protestant faith.

The country was never colonised, though it suffered a brief period of Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941. Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, sought to raise his country's prestige by expanding her domains. Mussolini saw Ethiopia as a logical candidate for his ambitions for three reasons: it could easily be consolidated with neighbouring Eritrea, which was an Italian colony, it was militarily weak and it was not occupied by another greater power. To rouse nationalist passions, he portrayed the invasion as an avenging mission for the defeat Italy had suffered at the hands of Ethiopian nationalists in the Italian-Abyssinian War of 1896.

Though mercifully short, the Italian period was harsh and cruel, and up to a quarter of a million Ethiopians are estimated to have perished. At the same time, Mussolini's fascist army put to death the monks of Debre Libanos and the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The country was liberated with the assistance of the British, in a sideshow of the Second World War.

True to her history, Ethiopia lives in her own time. The country still uses the Julian calendar, which has 12 months of 30 days each and an additional month of 5 days, with 6 days in a leap year. Relative to the Gregorian calendar used in most of the world, Ethiopia is 7 years behind between 11th September and 8th January and 8 years for the rest of the year.

You will find good quality Addis Ababa hotels to suit the budget of most travellers. A few other towns and locations on the Historical Route and other tourist attractions also offer reasonable accommodation. Unlike in other countries that receive many tourists, the budget traveller will find accommodation rates to be very reasonable. Due to the relatively undeveloped tourist infrastructure, the best way to see the country is by buying a packaged Ethiopia tour, which includes accommodation, meals, guides, and transport logistics.

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