On a visit to 'magical' Ethiopia, Clover Stroud is beguiled by the ancient and the everyday.
Thousands of people had congregated in the field, including hundreds of priests dressed in brightly coloured, richly embroidered cassocks, carrying ornate staffs topped with heavy silver crosses. Behind them, groups of children were divided into choirs, each wearing their own colourful ceremonial robes, chanting and clapping as they followed the procession. Among them wandered thousands of men and women – some barefoot, some carrying children, some bent double with age – but almost all swathed in the finest white muslin shawls.
The dancing and chanting of the crowds around was wild, hypnotic, but the rituals of their prayers were familiar Christian evocations.
It was a scene that might have been from the long-distant past, except for the fact that among these biblical figures I also saw characters who were a product of the 21st century. I spotted a little girl in a fluffy leopard-print jacket and Reebok trainers, the latter adorned with multicoloured flashing lights.
I spotted a priest, swooping around in a floor-length cassock, a huge wooden cross in one hand, mobile phone clamped to his head in the other. Beside me in the crowd stood a young man, in his late teens, dressed in a flash of bright yellow sportswear, gold chains strung around his neck which made him look as if he might break into gangsta rap at any moment – instead, he joined the psalms sung by the choir in front of us.
The crowd had gathered in a huge, flat field called Janmeda , or the Emperor’s Field, in the centre of Addis Ababa, with Mount Entoto in the distance. I was visiting in January, and the festivities were for Timkat, celebrating John the Baptist’s baptism of Christ.
Timkat might be the biggest religious event in Ethiopia, but there are many other festivals throughout the year which also represent a remarkable fusion of ancient tribalism and Christianity, combined with some thoroughly modern touches, as the priest’s phone and proliferation of flashy sports labels showed.
It’s impossible to avoid religion in Ethiopia. I could not have escaped from it, even if I’d wanted to, because it’s everywhere, and it defines everyone’s lives. And because Ethiopia has been Christian since AD 4 (some believing one of Jesus’s Apostles was Ethiopian), Christianity hasn’t been thrust on Ethiopians by missionaries, instead being woven into their DNA and into their culture.
The church seems to play a role similar to that which it must have played in medieval Europe: a place to worship, of course, but also to air grievances and solve problems, a place to learn and to bind communities together. The church, it’s fair to say, is very much alive to Ethiopians of all ages. Whatever god or gods you do or don’t believe in, it’s hard not to feel moved.
The festivities of Timkat went on late into the night, long after I’d retired at 2am. The chanting hadn’t ceased, but some people had broken up into smaller groups, some lighting fires as women nursed babies, children slept on laps, teenagers darted between fires and the older generation continued to pray.
When I returned to Janmeda the following afternoon, the field was empty, except for a boy riding a white horse bareback. There was not a scrap of rubbish to be seen.
Janmeda lies in the heart of Addis Ababa, a sprawling city with a population of four million, a mix of slums and shopping centres. Eucalyptus line wide streets where cows plod beside school buses and new Mercedes. There are lots of new buildings, too, as poorer areas are cleared, with the city, it is hoped, poised to welcome tens of thousands of new visitors annually as the country shrugs off years of conflict and famine.
For all their religious beliefs, Ethiopians like to enjoy themselves and are not constrained by their faith. I spotted a queue of people snaking past vegetable stores and fancy goods shops, waiting for theatre tickets, because with as many as three plays a day, live performance is cheaper than a movie ticket. I also saw young Ethiopian women dressed in sequinned leggings and satin bustiers, and their sharp-suited boyfriends queuing outside Bailamos, one of the biggest nightclubs, for an evening of dancing and cocktails or tej, a local drink made from honey.
Addis Ababa is a modern city, getting to grips with a modern future, but ancient Ethiopia is more compelling. Axum, for example, was once home to the Queen of Sheba, and was considered a major civilisation during the third and fourth centuries AD, while in Gondar, Ethiopia’s first capital that lies at the foot of the mighty Simien mountains, you can explore the castle of Emperor Fasiladas and the Palace of Queen Mentuab.
Of the country’s many ancient gems, I chose Lalibela, flying there from Addis Ababa, because I wanted to see its famous churches, carved below ground by the Zaghawa, a powerful people that had originated in northern Ethiopia in the fourth century.
The Zaghawa built churches into sandstone and limestone mountain cliff faces, but in Lalibela the churches are dug into the ground, surrounded by a trench. The reason for this was to keep the churches secret, because by the 11th century, the tribe was declining in the north, their churches destroyed.
It took 40,000 people 25 years to complete them, and while they’re not Ethiopia’s most ancient churches, these 13 churches, commissioned by King Lalibela as a “new Jerusalem”, are certainly the most revered, and arguably the most extraordinary.
Walking to the churches from the village, my guide and I scrambled down dirt steps cut into a deep trench, once used to mark the division of holy land, passing a gang of wide-eyed children from the village who were darting in and out of niches dotting the walls, some packed with dusty bones.
My pilgrimage was worth it, for the churches are simply extraordinary.
I was grateful I had set aside two days to explore them, for each has its own character and appeal. Holy Saviour Church, for example, is the world’s largest rock church, and the house of Emanuel is considered the most holy.
The Church of St George is arguably the best preserved, but I didn’t spot it until I was on top of it, as the entire grand structure is built underground, a dramatic flat cross forming its roof.
Dusty rugs line the floors, and faded frescoes decorate the walls. I passed a lone priest, sitting, seemingly unaware of the visitors around him, reading scripture. Elsewhere, a handful of priests stood in the half darkness, incense spicing the air as they chanted by candlelight, accompanied by boys who’d joined the church, devoting their lives to their belief. It was a medieval scene.
Back on Lalibela’s main street, children played football alongside donkeys and cattle wandering about the dirt road, the children’s mothers gossiping outside the Women’s Vegetable Store and Rural Drug Store.
As dusk fell, I joined an ancient coffee ceremony in one of the village houses, watching the aromatic beans roasted over a charcoal fire. The smell of charcoal and roasted coffee scented the evening, as I reflected on this odd and mysterious ceremony, one more timeless episode in a magical land where the ancient and the everyday still mingle happily and strangely.
WHAT TO AVOID
Saint Lalibela’s birthday falls on the same day as Ethiopian Christmas Day, January 6, and the town gets particularly busy, with up to 40,000 people packing the churches. Best advice is to avoid it altogether then.
Avoid missing arrangements to meet guides and so on by double checking times when making an arrangement with a local. For example, Ethiopian New Year starts on September 11, and the day is divided into two, 12-hour shifts, starting at daybreak, not midnight. Confusingly, some locals convert to GMT when talking to visitors, but you cannot guarantee this.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the onslaught of teenagers in Lalibela who’ll want to tell you about their education, and how you can fund it for them. Charming at first, their attentions become relentless unless you entirely ignore them. However, Cox & Kings works with the charity Link Ethiopia (linkethiopia.org) across Ethiopia to improve education in the country.
I travelled with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk). It offers an Ethiopian Odyssey package, an 11-night escorted tour, from £2,889 per person, including international flights, transfers, excursions and accommodation.
THE INSIDE TRACK
It’s worth visiting during one of Ethiopia’s many religious festivals. Timkat is January 19, but autumn marks the Finding of the True Cross, or Maskal, on September 26, and the end of the rainy season, which starts in June. Expect festivities in Addis Ababa, with colourful religious celebrations around a bonfire in flower-filled Maskal Square.
Lalibela is a good place for souvenirs, including crosses, fabric and coffee – all of it will be from Addis Ababa, but prices are lower in Lalibela.
For an amusing evening, find a bar playing masinko music, where a man on a wooden instrument called a kivar sings comic insults in exchange for money.
Ethiopian food is an acquired taste. The local bread, injera, is fermented for three days, and several courses are served on a large “tray” of it, then ripped off and used to scoop up the food. Fried tripe features prominently in the non-fasting menu, although lamb and beef fried with spices is tasty.
The Ethiopian currency is the birr. £1 equals approximately 27.7 birr.
In Lalibela the churches are open 8.30am-12pm and 2pm-5pm. Entrance costs £12.50, and you’ll have to pay a fee of £12.50 to a local guide, even if you don’t use him.
THE BEST PLACES TO STAY
Adot Tina Hotel £
Justifiably popular hotel in the heart of the city that attracts business travellers and visitors. Roof terrace, gym and sauna (1250 Addis Ababa; 00251 116 673939; adottinahotel.com; from £40).
Ghion Hotel ££
Beautiful gardens, a swimming pool and large rooms situated within walking distance of the museums (1643 Addis Ababa; 116 513222; ghionhotel.com.et; from £69).
Mountain View Hotel £££
Fantastic mountain views in Lalibela, and clean, simple rooms with similarly stunning views. Western menu available (Lalibela; 333 360804; mountainview-hotel.com; from £90).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Yod Abyssinia £
Traditional restaurant with lots of dancing and music, and good food (the Bole Medhaniyalem area by the Brass hospital, Addis Ababa; 116 612985; yodethiopia.com).
A modern take on traditional food, with a beautiful garden (Bole Rwanda, Addis Ababa; 116 631096; bataaddis.com).
Armenian restaurant popular with a stylish local crowd (Zimbabwe Street Bole, Addis Ababa; 116 614109).