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Ethiopia – Blue Nile & Lalibela

9 min read
Ethiopia – Blue Nile & Lalibela

Epiphany: my understanding of the word was that it meant a sudden revelation or realization. As it happens this is Oxford dictionary’s definition # 3. The word originates with the baptism of Christ. And where better to celebrate such an occasion than in Ethiopia, a country that embraced Christianity before Europe!

The country’s rich tapestry of history is woven with fascinating facts and legends: the often told tale of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the journey of the Ark of the Covenant; the growth of the ancient Axumite Kingdom; the birth of Christianity; the later rise of Islam; the story of King Lalibela; and the castes of Gondar. Recorded history goes back over 4000 years and ancient contact with Greece, Persia and Egypt nurtured and strengthened the culture of northern Ethiopia creating the Axumite kingdom that dominated the vital crossroads of Africa and Asia for almost a thousand years. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, intellectual culture continued to flourish with the establishment of monasteries, with the writing of successive royal chronicles and with the translation of the texts into Ge’ez. Imperial splendour grew in tandem with these developments and eventually gravitated to the beautiful fortress city of Gondar. At the same time Ethiopia’s mercantile Islamic culture rose up side by side with that of the Christians. The town of Harar is a fine example of this alternative strand of Ethiopia’s broad and diverse heritage and occupies a proud place of its own along the historic route.

And so these were some of the places Explore would take us on our 14 day tour of the Blue Nile and Lalibela. From my notes……

“It is Africa and I am glad to be back on this rich soil. ……the muezzin woke us up about 6:30 this morning with his call to prayer…… you are not in Kansas anymore! We got a taxi to take us to the Mercato – the market. Billed as the largest in East Africa – certainly bigger than anything I have seen in East Africa. We knew it would be best to get a guide so our driver came along with us and a chap in red volunteered to take us around. We had to direct him a bit as we wanted to go to the food areas – spices galore and what aromas. All women in this section with lots of giggles erupting with me encouraging them to smile and not be afraid of my camera. Had my shoes washed – I thought they would be polished – but the guy used hand soap and a sponge. One of the things I love about Africa – expect the unexpected. It is a wild place and we walked around for about 2 hours. Lots of interesting things for sale: baskets, sponge mattresses, shawls, metal piping, bolts of beautifully colored material, and truly more shoes than one nation needs. Ann said there must be a lot of places to go here because there are more shoes for sale than she had even seen. Loved just wandering around and sharing smiles.. people are very friendly and eager to say hello.

Dinner time came around and off we went to a very traditional restaurant. It was built as a traditional hut with a centre pole and struts coming up from the walls to the centre.

Beautiful paintings on the panels (between the struts) of Ethiopian people doing traditional chores. And they had some paintings on smaller pieces of that Egyptian papyrus paper to cover the lamps. The tables (large hollow woven baskets) are covered with a lid and a cloth. They take the cloth away and put down your drinks. Then a guy comes around with warm water, soap and a tin bowl. You are to wash your hands! They move the drinks to a small side table when the food comes. It was a large tin platter about 2 feet across. They put down a piece of “injera” (their word for their local bread) and then spoon out the dishes you order onto the “bread”. The food ( or “wat”) was chicken ( a bit spicy ) and lamb ( a bit spicy) and some veggie goop that I liked. You then take rolled up pieces of the “injera” and scoop up some of the filliings or “wat”, lob it towards your mouth hoping you miss your shirt on the way to your mouth. And when you get to the end bits you eat the bottom layer of injera as well as the food that has soaked into it! When you are done, they come back with the water, soap and bowl so you can wash again! With 2 Sprites, cost was $7. And when we were finished somehow the taxis knew as they appeared back at the door to return us to the hotel. Quite the first day.

My head is spinning. And now as I type this I am listening to the local version of Stand by Me, Green Green Grass of Home and If Loving You is Wrong coming from the live lobby bar band. Saturday night in Addis. Does not get much better than this.

At Bahir Dar we went for a walk to see the Blue Nile and Tississat Falls. The falls are not nearly what they once were as the government built a dam about 6 years ago. The neighbouring town not only lost their tourist attraction and their water supply, the town does not even get electricity! Shameful. Afternoon boat ride on Lake Tana to see a 13th century church built on one of the islands. Delightful. Next town was Gondar which does not mean much to you all but it was the main stop for many of us as that is where we were going to experience Timkat, the celebration of the epiphany of Christ. Every church has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant and these replicas are all brought together by the main priests of each church. A parade heads down to the main “bath” of the town and the “tabots” are housed in tents; the priests and huge crowds spend the night nearby praying and celebrating .The next day starting at 4 am the water in the bath is consecrated and then there is a church service and communion. The” tabots” are then paraded back through town to each church but everyone at the pools jumps in to swim; there is singing and dancing; some people will take a bottle of the holy water home with them in case they get sick later in the year- this holy water will help them get better. The left over bread from communion is burnt and the ashes are kept to bestow upon people a teaspoonful at a time next year …. quite exciting to be a part of it.

A fabulous drive through the Rift Valley to the next town ( Debark) where we were to stay 2 nights. Good restaurant here – 2 of the best meals on the trip. The day between the 2 nights in this paradise was spent in the Simien Mountains. As we drove through the area it looked like pictures I have seen of the Grand Canyon. Quite beautiful. For the trekkers there was a day of walking and for the rest of us we had lunch in a meadow with 1 horse, 2 dozen goats and 6 little boys avidly watching us and trying to sell us their woolen hats! I think we had the better time reading and writing postcards. Oh yes, we also saw a herd of about 100 baboons digging for roots.

A very long drive the next day to the town of Axum – home of the Queen of Sheba. Lots of stories about her and her romance with King Solomon and the son she produced Menelik. Did she exist? Well the theorists and archaeologists are well into their investigations and the feeling is that she did and her kingdom ranged form Yemen to Ethiopia to southern Egypt. Axum is considered the birthplace of Christianity and herein lies the Ark of the Covenant closely guarded by a hermit. The eyes of only the highest priests have seen the actual Ark as it stays guarded and wrapped and locked in a building in the grounds of the St Mary of Zion Church.

Lalibela has next and was wonderful. Just to think that the people carved 11 of these churches out of the stone hillside. You can spend 2-3 days wandering around town visiting the churches… The church of St George (the one they went to on the Amazing Race for those TV reality show fans) was amazing. The reason why that church in particular was built was that King Lalibela had built about 22 other churches in the area to honour all sorts of the saints. Then St George (the patron saint of Ethiopia) came down to visit on his horse and he was very sad. He asked King Lalibela why no church had been built to honour himself St George. The king quickly realized his error and had this most majestic one built. The Biet Giorgis Church is carved in the form of a Greek cross and approached through a passageway that was also cut out of the rock. Another church you can visit – by mule – is the Ashatan Maryam Church where you are rewarded with stunning views over the highlands. All sorts of fables like this one told here were recounted to us by our guides in each town about the paintings etc that are inside the churches as well. Quite good fun.

Our last stop with Explore was Harar and it is truly an “old” town. Probably one of my favourite so far as it is so alive. Like stepping back into time…. before just about everything we know!!! We took a walking tour this morning and everything is considered useful here… everything is recycled – just one example is car tires that become rubber sandals. The ladies were all smiles in the market and the kids ran after us constantly calling us “ferengi” foreigner. In the markets here you can buy filigree jewellery, shawls and mats as well as many foodstuffs like spices and grains. This old walled city with 87 mosques and 300 shrines has 5 gates only and the explorer Richard Burton snuck into forbidden Muslim stronghold in 1854 by dressing as an Arab merchant. It is considered by many to be the 4th holiest city in the Islamic World. The mosques are filled with the whispers of prayer and the click of the rosary beads.

The eastern part of the country is predominantly Muslim but you know what? In Ethiopia being Christian or Muslim is irrelevant because the people have a great deal of religious tolerance and respect. Muslims, for example, do not demand to build a mosque in Axum because of an understanding that Axum is a holy Christian city. In fact we saw a funeral procession for a Muslim person while in Axum and the cemetery was quite far outside town.

Omo Valley was next when we hired a driver and land cruiser to take us south. We had just a few days taste of a few tribal villages: Dorze, Tsemay Mursi and Konso. Lonely Planet writes” The people of the Omo may lack any form of advanced material culture, but they have developed art forms that allow them not just great artistic expression, but also serve important social and cosmetic purposes. The practice of body painting and scarification developed by the tribes is among the most ornate and extravagant seen anywhere in the world. For most of the Omo tribes, scarification serves as a distinction for brave warriors; the men are not allowed to scarify themselves until they have killed at least one foe. For the women, the raised texture of the skin is considered highly desirable, and is said to hold sensual value for the men.” There is a fee to be paid to visit the villages and a fee for the photos but you will not see the traditional cultures anywhere else in the country. As Lonely Planet put it “Some travelers may be disappointed or even shocked by the seemingly mercenary nature of the different peoples, or the apparent voyeurism of the encounter. Tourism may even help to preserve the groups and their traditions by assisting them economically”.

And finally for those of you who need your coffee every day, it was first grown here in Ethiopia! They even have a special ceremony for serving it…. and sometimes it even comes with popcorn.

So back to what I said in the beginning – expect the unexpected and you will love this wild place!

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