Going Back (page 3)
Going Back
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Click on any of the photos shown here to go to a site where there are more than 40 photos from the trip. The password is "lalibela."
Each photo can be clicked on to see a larger version
There are also many photos taken by John during his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia from 1963 to 1965.

The Historic Route
The day after our visit to DZ, we began our tour of the "historic route" flying from place to place. We chose to set a leisurely pace: 2 nights in Bahir Dar (BD), on Lake Tana; 4 nights in Gondar, and 3 nights each in Lalibela and Axum. All except BD are in the highlands — and even BD is well above sea level. In most places the climate was ideal: bright sunny days — we had some rain only late in our trip — cool, comfortable nights so that one could easily sleep with an open window, never requiring a jacket or a sweater.

Bahir Dar
In Bahir Dar we made a strenuous hike to the Blue Nile falls on one day and also saw the ears and heads of hippos in the river further downstream.

On another day we visited the monastery (mentioned above) of Ura Kidane Meheret. Lake Tana is the third largest lake in Africa, and there are monasteries on many of its islands, but this was the only one we could visit. Set in a lush forest inhabited by a large population, the monastery walls are covered with fascinating paintings, some portraying the Jews in negative roles, documenting an animosity dating from a 9th century conflict when Judaism almost triumphed over Christianity here, though the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today has many Judaic elements in it.

Gondar’s attractions include the castles and palaces of its 17th century rulers. The architecture is highly influenced by
the Portuguese, who were in contact with Ethiopia at that time. There is also the Debre Berhan Selassie church dating from the same century, with wonderful paintings on the walls and ceiling, including one of the Prophet Mohammad on a camel following the devil (150 years after a major conflict with Islam in Ethiopia) and a scene of the Last Judgment with a black devil devouring the sinners.

Near the Simien Mountains
Near the Simien Mountains

From Gondar we hired a driver and vehicle to drive north to a point where we could see the beginnings of the impressive Simien Mountains — as impressive as the Copper Canyon area in northern Mexico or parts of the Rocky Mountains.

About 30 minutes outside of Gondar, the vehicle broke down. We assured the driver not to worry about us as he headed on foot back to town to get help. We began to walk slowly down the road back to a supposedly Falasha village we had passed on the way. The Falashas — or Bet Israel as they prefer to be referred to — are the Ethiopian Jews who almost entirely have emigrated to Israel. So this may really be a former Falasha village, and the people who sold us some supposedly characteristic carvings of the Falashas were probably not Falashas. Nevertheless, the stop provided some entertainment. The countryside people were amused to see us walking down the road and to hear us speak some Amharic. As we passed one small village a young girl approached me and asked in perfectly accented English, "Would you like to see how we make injera?" Unfortunately, the timing was not right.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) Ploughshares had some sort of project in this village according to a sign.

Eventually our driver returned with another vehicle and we completed our excursion. By the way, it was striking the way the driver simply left the disabled vehicle in the road where we stopped, never fearing it might be stripped by thieves, though I did see him lock the door.

Our next stop was Lalibela with its 11 rock-hewn churches. It is difficult to describe the impression these remarkable churches make on one. Imagine a sculpture the size of church, some even with a second story, because that is essentially what these churches are: sculptures carved out of one gigantic rock in the place where the rock is found. The roofs are often at ground level, and trenches surround the churches. They date from the late 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century. Some have carvings and paintings in the interior, especially in one chapel where women are not allowed to enter.

The little town itself is not especially interesting except for the two-story houses characteristic of the area. Except for the relatively new main highway to the town, there is not a single paved road, and the area is very dry, suffering from a shortage of water — including at the hotel where we stayed. The dusty streets and beggars discouraged one from walking around the town.

Here we also made an excursion outside of town to see an even older church built in a cave, Yemrehanna Kristos. (On the way we saw monkeys along the road.) Not a rock-hewn church, but in an interesting setting with wonderful paintings inside. Our guide in Lalibela, appropriately enough, was quite religious and very inquisitive about the status of religion in the U.S. Fervently religious Ethiopian Christians seem to have the impression that nowhere are Christians as religious as in Ethiopia. One old monk even assumed that we were Muslim since we were not from Egypt, which he seemed to think was the only other Christian country in the world!

In many places, including AA, we could hear the chanting and praying from the churches early in the morning (5 am or even earlier). In AA, the hotel was near the patriarch’s church and residence, where the services were broadcast by loudspeaker.

At our next stop — Axum — we saw evidence of the devotion of Ethiopian Christians: we happened to be there on one of the many feast days of Mary — who seems as
venerated there as in Poland, and that is saying something! Chanting at the church within ear-shot of the hotel seemed to go on all night — it was going strong at least until 1 am. Crowds of people filled the streets — there are few vehicles in Axum in any case — coming home from the services in the morning.

Our guide explained that it was the 16th of the month by the Ethiopan calendar and the 16th and 21st are days dedicated to Mary. (The Ethiopian calendar differs from ours and has 13 months. Ethiopians also tell time differently: more than once this caused confusion since for them 7 am is 1 o’clock.) It is in Axum that the Church of St. Mary of Zion claims to have the original Ark of the Covenant that was handed to Moses! As it is the holiest city of Ethiopian Christianity, local residents resisted the building of a mosque for the local Muslim minority — according to the guide, building materials would be stolen a night to prevent the completion of the mosque.

Axum stelai
Stelai at Axum

The ancient capital of Axum is noted for its stelai or obelisks, which date from the late 3rd and early 4th century, the tallest standing stele being 75 feet high carved from one stone. How the technology of the time managed to transport and erect these stelai is a mystery. (A taller stele lies broken on the ground, apparently having fallen during the attempt to erect it.) The next tallest stele stands in a square in Rome, having been taken by Mussolini during the Italian occupation — and worse, cut into three blocks to be transported.

We visited some 6th century underground burial sites in the area, some made with finely dressed stone illustrating the skill and craftsmanship of the time. We also were shown a stone from the 4th century with a text in Sabean (the ancient language of southern Arabia), Ge-ez (the language of the Axumite state), and Greek (then the language of commerce, attesting to the links with the Mediterranean world).

From here we made an excursion to the ancient temple at Yeha mentioned earlier. The village there is entirely Orthodox Christian: the guide said that no Protestant or Muslim would be accepted. The guide was curious about religion in the US. He had heard stories of devil worship and asked how prevalent it was. He said Ethiopian Christians blame the devil for inexplicable evils that befall them and place crosses on their rooftops to ward off Satan. He also talked about the Church’s resistance to change and fear that it will lose its hold on people as they become more educated and realize that certain practices of the Ethiopian church have no justification in the scriptures.

On the way to Yeha we saw fantastic mountain scenery, with terraced hills — every inch of land farmed, which of course is part of the problem, contributing to erosion of the soil when it does rain, though in Tigre we saw more hills than elsewhere planted with trees against erosion. The town of Axum seemed neater, cleaner, and perhaps more developed than other towns. It seems that the Tigrean-dominated federal government does spend more on infrastructure here as some Amharas complain.

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