Story and photos by John Coyne
Part One - Ethiopia A Land of Culture, Faith, and Beauty
It was the Peace Corps that first took me to Ethiopia in the fall of 1962. Arriving at dawn in Addis Ababa after a long overnight flight from Europe, and at the end of Ethiopia’s “big rains” when the highlands are blanketed with bright-yellow Maskel flowers, I stepped out of a DC-7 and smelled for the first time the burning of 100,000 eucalyptus cooking fires ”Africa distilled at 8,000 feet.” It was love at first sight.
Ethiopia in the early Sixties was not a tourist destination. With its tin roofed, mud-and-dung houses, Addis Ababa from the air looked like scrap metal scattered at the foot of the Entoto Hills. A city of less than half a million, it had only a handful of restaurants, fewer hotels, and limited public transportation. One walked to a destination, or grabbed one of the blue-and- white Fiat “Seicento” taxis, which normally ran a shuttle service along the main streets, accepting passengers until they were full. The standard fare was 25 cents and the driver would decide if he wanted to take you where you wanted to go. All vehicles, trucks included, shared narrow streets with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep heading towards the Mercato, the largest outdoor market in Africa.
Foreigners, known as faranjoch, were gawked at if they walked the city streets, and most of them were Peace Corps Volunteers, in from the provinces. Tourists were few and seldom seen on foot.
We did not know it then, but this was the end of an era, the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s long imperial reign. With his fall from power in 1974, the country suffered years of Communist rule, a civil war, and famine, only to be revived, starting in the 1990s, thanks to an influx of Chinese investment and construction. Addis Ababa is now a modern city with towering skyscrapers, thoroughfares, and the first sophisticated light-rail system in sub-Saharan Africa.
Today, Ethiopia is a country that the intrepid traveler wants to see, one of the top 10 tourist attractions in the world. Ethiopia’s treasures... its history, geography, and culture... are the same today as they were when I first arrived in 1962. Now, however, these treasures are much more accessible. New hotels, museums, art centers, and paved streets and highways, as well as a much-improved domestic airline, make it possible for more people to see more of the old Empire.
While Addis Ababa has transformed into a 21st century city, provincial Ethiopia is as it always was, a cloistered world caught in the web of long ago. If you want to seek the sophisticated, historic, and authentic, go to Ethiopia. You won’t be disappointed.
Treasures of Addis Ababa
When I arrived in Ethiopia I was housed in what was then the dormitory of Haile Selassie University at the Arat Kilo Roundabout. Today, this area of the city is the center of the major museums of Ethiopia. Walk five minutes uphill from this roundabout and you'll see the new four-story National Museum, a treasure chest of Ethiopian historic wonders. Among the archaeological exhibits are the bones of the 3.5 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton known as Lucy. President Obama famously was allowed to touch the real Lucy bones when he paid an official visit to Ethiopia in 2015. Less well known is that when he was on the way to the airport, at the end of the visit, he asked to stop again at the museum to for a second look at Lucy. (Do you think it was love at first sight?)
Just north of the National Museum is another roundabout, Siddist Kilo, where a monument in the center is dedicated to the Ethiopians who died in 1937 fighting the forces of Mussolini, who had invaded and occupied the country in 1935.
Across the street is the entrance to the main campus of the University of Addis Ababa, which was once Haile Selassie University and, before that, was the emperor’s palace. Inside the impressive stone gates, you’ll find the two-story Ethnographic Museum and Library, considered the finest museum in Addis. It includes a great gift shop, where you’ll find all kinds of souvenirs and presents to take home. The prices are reasonable and the proceeds go to support this museum.
Before leaving Siddist Kilo, walk across to the southeast side of the roundabout to the small Lion Zoo, home to a handful of dark-maned Abyssinian lions. The ancestors of these rare creatures once roamed the grounds of Haile Selassie’s palace; now, the lions in this zoo are all that remain of the emperor’s famous pride.
Head downtown on the wide boulevard King George VI Street to Meskel Square, where there are two more museums. One is the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, dedicated to the victims of the country’s former president Mengistu Haile Mariam. From 1976 to 1978, thousands of citizens who resisted his Marxist regime were tortured and murdered in the so-called Red Terror Campaign, memorialized here. A short distance away is the Addis Ababa Museum, located in Haile Selassie’s last royal residence, known as Jubilee Palace. This low-key museum has a wonderful collection of photographs from the early days of Addis Ababa, as well as a display of the ceremonial and official clothing from the days of the dynasty. It was here, in the fall of 1962, that I and other Peace Corps Volunteers were welcomed to Ethiopia by His Majesty. It’s also where a small group of us Americans (Volunteers and embassy personnel) sang Christmas carols to the Emperor and the royal family in December 1963.
I would often see His Majesty when I was walking down Churchill Street to the secondary school where I taught English. He would often tour Addis after lunch in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes limousine with his pet dog, Lulu, sitting proudly beside him in the back seat. Traffic would halt. Ethiopians would bow deeply or prostrate themselves as he passed by, waving imperially. His Majesty would always recognize a faranj and nod as we bowed in return to his passing.
The emperor was deposed on September 12, 1974, by a military junta. At the Addis Ababa Museum, you can visit the room where Haile Selassie was seized by soldiers, who forcibly removed him from his palace. The Emperor, who had ruled Ethiopia for half a century, was taken away to prison not in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes limousine but in a small blue Volkswagen.
The Historical Route
While Addis Ababa still has a few glimpses of ancient Abyssinia, it is in provinces where you find the largest treasure house of culture, Coptic Christianity, and history. There are numerous sites, but the outstanding historical treasures are in these locations: Bahar Dar; Gondar; Lalibela; and Axum.
All of them can now be easily reached via Ethiopian Airlines. It’s possible for you could visit all of them by car, but you’d need to drive a total of 1500 miles to do so.
I first traveled to this small city, located on the southern shore of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, by taking two-day winter bus ride from Addis Ababa. Now you can fly there from Addis Ababain less than one hour. This lake is the famous source of the Blue Nile (also known as the Abay River), which flows from here to Khartoum, in the Sudan. There it joins the White Nile and flows into Egypt, then on to the Mediterranean Sea.
Dotting Lake Tana are small islands where ancient Coptic Christians built monasteries and churches. Twenty of them have survived and are still occupied by Coptic priests; you can visit them by hiring a boat.
For a spectacular view of the river leaving the lake, take a short walk north of Bahar Dar to the bridge begun by Haile Selassie in 1961 that crosses the Blue Nile. From there you can spot hippos, especially in the early morning or late afternoon, the occasional crocodile, and always beautiful and abundant water- and woodland birds.
Farther out of town, but within a 15-mile drive, are the Blue Nile Falls (called, in Amharic, Tisisat, meaning, “water that smokes”). This is one of Africa’s most spectacular waterfalls, but has been diminished, in recent years, by the construction of large dams. So, before taking the drive, check with the hotel to make sure the water level is at a high point.
Two hours north of Bahar Dar (or 20 minutes by plane) is Gondar, the capital of Begemeder Province. Gondar is famous for its castles, which date back to 1635. It was here that one of the great emperors, Fasilidas, built the largest castle in Ethiopiaâ”three stories of stone, wood, and lime mortar, combining influences from Portugal, India, and Axum, the ancient capital of an empire in what is now northern Ethiopia. Gondar has several other historic castles, as well as famous Coptic churches; one of the most interesting and well-maintained is the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, well worth a visit.
The highlight of the historical sites is the complex of rock-hewn churches in and around the village of Lalibela. I first went to Lalibela by mule in 1963; it took two days over bare terrain and across remote landscape. I had to travel in the dry season, because otherwise the dirt roads were impassable. Admittedly, I could have gone by Land Rover or charter plane, but mules were the preferred transport for those who preferred to think of ourselves as adventurous types. Now Ethiopian Airlines offers several flights daily to Lalibela, no mule required.
No matter how you get there, you must go... you can’t say you have seen Ethiopia until you’ve visited this stunning cluster of 13 medieval churches and chapels. They aren’t just made of stone; they were carved... sculpted, really... out of pure rock at the direction of Lalibela, a 12th century king famed for his piety. According to Ethiopian legend, angels helped the king build these churches after he received an order from God to create a new Jerusalem in Abyssinia.
Lalibela is rightly known as the unofficial eighth wonder of the world. And since 1978, the churches have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each is a monolith of stone, detached from its surroundings and hollowed and decorated with the most exquisite care. Except for the ground floors, each of the churches is entirely separated from the surrounding rock walls.
Make sure you arrange your visit to Lalibela for a Saturday. That way you can first visit the local market, which will take a full day to tour, and on Sunday you can attend religious services in one of the churches. A morning Mass lasts at least three hours and is a beautiful ritualâ”though people have been known to slip out quietly somewhere in the middle.
Axum, a day’s drive from Lalibella is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1980), and one of the oldest inhabited cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Axum is a city cloaked in legends. As the story goes, the Queen of Sheba... who, according to the Bible, was the Queen of Ethiopia... went to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon. During her visit, Solomon seduced her, and upon returning to her own land, she gave birth to her only son, Menelik I. When Menelik came of age, he went to visit his father, and brought home to Ethiopia the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem. The Ark was subsequently carried to Axum, where it is still housed in the sanctuary of the Church of St. Mary of Zion. This story is well told in Graham Hancock’s fascinating book The Sign and the Seal.
Axum was probably founded during the first century B.C. and reached its zenith between the third and fifth centuries A.D. In the third century, the Arab historian Mani placed the Axumite kingdom among the four greatest empires of that time: Babylon, Rome, Egypt and Axum.
Well, clearly, Axum has seen better days. It is not a world-class city today.
But left over from Axum’s glory days are great obelisks known as stelae, created between the third or fourth centuries AD and notable for their size and their extraordinary design. At the base of many of the stelae are large chambers which probably served as tombs, leading some to theorize that the stelae were meant as memorials.
Directly across from the Park of the Stelae is the “new” church of St. Mary’s. This Byzantine-style church was transplanted to Ethiopia in the fifth century A.D. and was modified into a uniquely Ethiopian form. It was re-dedicated and opened in 1965 by His Imperial Majesty, on the occasion of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Axum.
So you can say, Axum has been graced by the Queen of Sheba and the Queen of England.
Ten miles from Axum is the small village of Adwa. While overlooked by most tourists, Adwa is famous to Ethiopians because it was here, in 1896, that the Emperor Menelik II defeated an Italian army and stopped further European invasions, thereby ensuring that Ethiopia would be the only African country not colonized by a European power in the late 19th century.
Nearby are the monastery of Abba Garima, founded in 494, and the church at Abba Garima, which is said to be 1,500 years old. Abba Garima houses an extremely rare collection of ancient crosses, crowns, and other artifacts donated throughout Ethiopian history by emperors and nobles. Also here are two illuminated gospels that were supposedly written by Abba Garima himself. Carbon-dating tests done by Oxford University have shown that the Garima Gospels were written between 390 AD and 660 AD, making them the oldest illustrated Christian manuscripts in the world.
Next month, I’ll talk about the wildlife of Ethiopia, from the Gelada Monkeys to the Hyena Man of Harar. Yes, I’ve seen him. Well, that was a long time ago, so maybe it was his father.
ADDIS ABABA HOTELS
Addis has a number of first class hotels. I’d recommend the Sheraton Addis Hotel, which is considered the best in Ethiopia, if not the whole of Africa. The hotel has seven restaurants, a swimming pool, nightclub and several shops.www.sheratonaddis.com
A new contemporary highrise is the Radisson Blue. This hotel has a very Westernized atmosphere and you can feel sealed off from the city, which can sometimes be relaxing.www.radissonblu.com
One of my fondest memories of Africa is the Ghion Hotel. Once the palace of Haile Selassie, set on beautiful wooded grounds that offer great birdwatching, it was turned into a hotel in 1950. Located in the center of the city, near Meskal Square, the hotel has a variety of room, from private bungalows to singles, and a huge swimming pool, where I loved to take a break back in the ‘60s. It also has four restaurants, and Ethio-jazz every night. www.ghionhotel.com
ADDIS ABABA RESTAURANTS
Where to Dine
Ristorante Castelli: You must have one evening meal at Castelli, in the Piazza. Established in 1948, it is still owned and operated by the same family. This is Addis’s most famous restaurant, as well known for its history as for its antipasti, and you’ll likely see visiting celebrities at nearby tables. Book ahead.
Yod Abysinnia: Located near the airport just off Cameroon Street it is the city’s best and busiest “cultural house”, meaning a place where the focus is Ethiopian music and culture. There are wonderful dance performances every night and the traditional food is excellent. It’s always full of tourists as well as Ethiopians celebrating special occasions, so book ahead.
Where to Stay
Kuriftu Resort & Spa: Located on the shores of Lake Tana, this relatively new hotel is quite charming. The stone-and-wood bungalows are spacious, with four-poster beds and private patios. And thereâs a swimming pool, as well as good food in a tukul-style restaurant, the traditional round shaped Ethiopian building. http://www.kurifturesortspa.com/
Where to Stay
Maleko Lodge: This new lodge, close to Gondar and the airport, is set in a compound of gardens and individual cabins, plus a swimming pool and a spa. http://www.maylekolodge.com/
Goha Hotel: Built on a hillside, this hotel has spectacular panoramic views of the city, plus an outdoor swimming pool and a restaurant deck overlooking Gondar. www.gohahotel.com
Where to Stay
Mountain View Hotel: In 1963, I camped out by the historic churches, but today there is a sophisticated architect-designed hotel that provides a panoramic view of the valley below the town, first-class rooms, and a rooftop terrace bar, perfect for sunset drinks.
Where to Dine
Ben Abeba: Located within a short walking distance of the Mountain View Hotel is Ben Abeba, a new hilltop restaurant. Its multi-deck structure is a little bizarre, but the decks provide incredible views of the valley below. This joint Scottish-Ethiopian venture offers traditional local dishes as well as home-style European fare. Friends tell me the shepherd’s pie is a winner.
Where to Stay
Sabean International Hotel: Built in 2013, this well-run hotel is in the center of Axum. It is small and comfortable.
To read the Second Part of the Ethiopia story click here.
Ethiopia by Philip Briggs, 7th Edition published in 2015 (The Globe Pequot Press). This is not only a great guide book, it is also jammed with historical data and tidbits. www.bradtguides.com
The Map Addis from Addis Guides. 1st Edition 2016. www.mapofaddis.com
Overland Ethiopia Tours
Dinknesh Ethiopia Tour
Boundless Ethiopia Tours PLC
Abeba Tours Ethiopia
Village Ethiopia Tours
John Coyne, a novelist and travel writer, is the author of “Long Ago And Far Away”, a novel partially set in Ethiopia.
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