|The famous rock churches of Lalibela in the northern highlands of Ethiopia|
were ordered by King Lalibela in the 12th century.
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This is where it all began.
In the second century A.D., two young men from Syria landed on the western shore of the Red Sea with a message that would change the world.
They brought the new religion of Christianity to the city now known as Axum, which became the religious center in the country known today as Ethiopia. The prevailing Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church is one branch of the original Coptic church, which today includes the Egyptian, Armenian and several other living Coptic entities. This quickly spread theology that predated the Byzantine Empire — brought by Roman Emperor Constantine to what is now Istanbul — by about 200 years; it is as alive and powerful now as then.
The Axumite kingdom was one of the ancient world’s great civilizations, with monolithic stone stelae — obelisks in the style of multi-story buildings. One obelisk, stolen during the Mussolini occupation and taken to Italy, was recently returned and repositioned to mark the subterranean tombs of Axumite royals.
The son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon is said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant, containing the first books of the Old Testament, to Axum. It remains there today, preserved in a sanctuary that also houses gold and silver crosses used in holy ceremonies.
Religion pervades daily life in Ethiopia, which is sprinkled with churches in odd and obscure corners, forest groves, mountain tops, villages and towns. A call to prayer is heard several times a day; it is the Christian Orthodox call to Mass — in the original language of Ge’ez. While not spoken now, it is still used in all ancient religious ceremonies. The spoken language of Ethiopia is Amharic, although about 50 others can be heard.
Lalibela churches a marvel
In the northern highlands below the Sudan border, more than 200 rock-hewn churches are chiseled and carved, lovingly and painfully, from the living bedrock. This is where the famous rock churches of Lalibela were ordered by King Lalibela in the 12th century. They represent a marvel of man’s labors. Most are excavated on four sides, with tortuous deep and steep underground paths connecting them. All are underground and must be entered barefoot via steep stone steps. Some are still attached to the rock matrix by one wall, and some are in mountain caves. They display elaborate and colorful decorations painted on the rock walls of the Holy Trinity, saints, winged angels and Bible tales, all peopled with sweet wide-eyed faces of early and contemporary Ethiopians.
Monasteries in odd settings — such as small inaccessible islands in Lake Tana — are likewise adorned with the same icons and panel paintings; they still house yellow-robed monks who conduct daily services.
As a large part of Ethiopian life, religion may be responsible for the country’s almost nonexistent crime rate. Muslim and Jewish populations also occupy their niches, and Ethiopia’s past troubles all result from territorial rather than religious strife.
But life was not always so peaceful here.
Foreigners create, dominate
Once a part of the area known as Abyssinia — including Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia — Ethiopia was formed more than 100 years ago when the British drew arbitrary lines. It was the only country that wasn’t colonized, until the brutal Italian invasion by Benito Mussolini in 1935 during the reign of beloved Emperor Haile Selassie.
Since 1885, Italy had controlled neighboring Eritrea, long enough to have built in Asmara, its ancient capital, a concentration of Art Deco homes, official buildings, post offices and fascist monuments in the same style as Italy’s other African colony, Libya — especially its seaside capital of Tripoli.
Italy’s quest for territory spilled into Ethiopia when its bloody takeover on May 5, 1936, drove the emperor to England, killed thousands of his loyal troops and supporters, and — in a symbolic move — even shot the emperor’s beloved lions, which shared his palace grounds. This occupation only lasted until Italy’s 1941 involvement in World War II; its presence was abruptly curtailed and British troops occupied Ethiopia’s 8,000-foot-high capital of Addis Ababa.
In 1941 the British allies gave the territory of Eritrea to Ethiopia so the landlocked country would benefit from the seaport Massawa.
Selassie, the Lion of Judah, claimed bloodlines to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese wrote that Selassie’s illustrious heritage “made the Windsors and Romanovs look like carpetbaggers.” One of the emperor’s many other names was Ras Tafari; Tafari was his family name and the title Ras meant a great ruler or leader. Thus was born the movement of Rastafarianism, adopted by expatriate Jamaicans who carried it back to Jamaica in the 1950s.
The annexation of Eritrea began a long bloody civil war in which both sides battled to the death until 1993 when Eritrea regained its sovereignty. Selassie was murdered in his palace by a cadre of advisers sympathetic to the Eritrean rebels.
The people and their foods
Coffee is Ethiopia’s best-known export, but its low per-capita income of $330 is probably influenced by its other wealth — some 80 tribal entities that contribute nothing to the country’s economy. These tribes live mostly in the southern highlands toward the Kenyan border. The Mursi are known for lower lip plates and deep crescent incisions sported by warriors, each indicating an enemy killed in battle. Karo tribe members body-paint each other for fun with clay and vegetable pigments. The Omo tribe wears polka dots of white clay. The stunning Hamer women wear their hair in dense ringlets smeared with mud and clarified butter. Naked from the waist up, they adorn themselves with multiple strings of cowery shells and beaded necklaces, chunky metal armbands and leather skirts decorated with nailheads.
The country’s basic food is injera bread, a large flat pancake with a vaguely fermented taste. Injera is usually made from tef, a wheat-like grain; depending on its base grain, it may be beige, gray or pink. Ethiopians use it to sop up a cuisine of lentil, chick pea and hot chile pepper concoctions, with spices added also to more expensive lamb, beef and chicken dishes on special occasions.
All societies concoct a high-voltage alcoholic beverage. The Ethiopian tej is produced by women pounding hops and honey together in tall stone mortars. The result after fermentation is a sweet and powerful mix.
Origins of man
Ethiopia’s history is related in regional museums by displays of pottery, Roman glass, physical adornments and stone architectural fragments found in foreign-sponsored archeological digs throughout the country. The new Axum museum contains relics from a three-year dig by the University of California at Berkeley, and an ongoing joint Ethiopian-German restoration is bringing the 10th century stone palace of Yeha, the country’s earliest kingdom, back to life.
On a flat plain in the 8,000-foot-high northern plateau is the ancient site of Tiya, a sort of tropical Stonehenge with stone stelae monuments; carved with daggers, swords and spears, they mark graves of warriors of an unknown tribe.
This part of Africa represents the true origins of humans on Earth. Probably the best-known Ethiopian find is the skeleton known as “Lucy,” painstakingly found and pieced together by paleoanthropologists Donald Johanson and Tim White of Berkeley in 1974 in the blistering Afar desert region to the south. This stunning find pushes back the known origins of man on the African continent to 2.5 million years, and eclipses earlier discoveries by Richard, Mary and Louis Leakey of such finds as Lake Turkana man, dated to 1.5 million years, and Zinjanthropus, at 1 million years.
Another part of Ethiopia, the northeastern Danakil Depression 130 meters below sea level, is known as the hottest place on earth. Pools of boiling lava and still-smoking volcanoes punctuate hundreds of miles of black volcanic rock, poisonous steaming lakes, noxious gases and searing heat. Intrepid British explorer Wilfred Thesiger crossed this forbidden terrain in 1933, with his Bedouin bearers, through hostile tribal areas. After several months, they reached the Eritrean port of Massawa, having found the source of the Awash River not in a dramatic mountain cataract but in a hot Danakil lake.
Lake Tana, where the reed boats of antiquity are still used, is home to several island monasteries with walls of painted Biblical subjects. Lake Tana, with its spectacular cataracts, also is the source of the Blue Nile.
Ethiopian rains feed the Blue Nile and, in fact, all of Egypt and the White Nile. If the rains fall, the fortunes of Egypt are adversely affected and hardships ensue along the two rivers. There is currently a “water war” raging against Egypt and Sudan, which were given control of the Nile in 1929 by the British. Upstream countries of Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda seek irrigation projects to lessen the flow into Lake Nasser, the vast man-made reservoir that straddles the Egypt-Sudan border.
Ethiopia has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country except Egypt, including the Lalibela churches, the Danakil Depression, Tiya, the Omo River Valley — home to many indigenous tribes and fossil remains of early man — and the stelae and tombs of Axum. It also has vast forests of eucalyptus trees imported from Madagascar by King Menalik in the early 20th century for firewood, as deforestation for charcoal was an ongoing threat.
Also growing in abundance is the mildly narcotic quat shrub, a staple in Saudi Arabia and Yemen where men chew it daily. Ethiopian Airlines was founded for the transport of quat before it became a cash crop.
Africa’s Rift Valley bisects Ethiopia on its way from Tanzania through Kenya to the Red Sea, the result of tectonic plates moving apart over eons, causing vast dramatic events along its path. Ethiopia’s high Siemien Mountains, at 12,000 feet, and its below-sea-level Danakil Depression are but two of the reminders of the Rift Valley’s influence. The rich volcanic soil left behind from its early origins ensures a full yearly coffee crop and fertile farmland.
Ethiopia offers much to curious, open-minded travelers for whom the daily comforts of home are not a necessity. A few nights in Addis Ababa’s Hilton or Sheraton hotels offer First-World relief, but the magical time spent in Ethiopia’s exotic outback is equally satisfying.