Ethiopia - Where Fact and Legend Combine
Words & Images: Jill Worrall
The crocodile looked almost as long as the boat we were using to cross the Blue Nile. But the local boatman at the helm looked totally unconcerned...as, to be honest, did the croc.
I had arrived in Ethiopia only the day before, straight from the glitz in the desert that is Dubai and before that, the traffic-choked streets of Iran’s capital, Tehran. And now here we were, guide Samson and I, deep in the rural heart of Ethiopia and just a few hundred kilometres from the border with troubled Sudan.
The water that swirled around us would eventually empty into the Mediterranean after an epic journey of more than 5000
kilometres. This languidly flowing river contributes about 80 per cent of the water that makes up the Nile itself, the longest river in the world and one of the most fabled.
Once on the riverbank, Samson and I walked past fields of sugar cane and plots of chat, the leaves of which are a stimulant and are chewed in prodigious quantities by people in the Red Sea region. As we walked, azure cordon blue finches flitted among the trees while scarlet red and black bishop birds chattered among tall grasses. Ahead of us was a shimmering mist. There was a low rumble, like thunder. And then before us were the Blue Nile Falls, which the locals call Tis Abay, the ‘Nile that Smokes’. That placid water we’d just puttered across was now tumbling, roaring and boiling, 42 metres down into a narrow chasm on its way to Khartoum in Sudan and a meeting with the White Nile.
We’d reached the river along a 30-kilometre stretch of unsealed road from the town of Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. There were few vehicles, instead almost everyone was on foot, women in white on their way to a saint’s day at the local church, small children in green and gold Ethiopian football shirts herding flocks of sheep and goats and, most striking of all, Ethiopian Orthodox priests with long white beards sitting beside the roadside under multicolored umbrellas, soliciting donations for their churches. In the 4th century AD, the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum became the second nation (after Armenia) to adopt Christianity as the state religion.
For many of us from the Western world, the word Ethiopia most probably conjures up visions of starvation, drought and war, perceptions that linger from the appalling famines and violence of the mid-1980s which killed about 400,000 people and left millions dependent on food aid. But today, Ethiopia is at peace and is one of Africa’s leading agricultural producers.
I was intrigued by the gatherings of 30-40 donkeys in some of the villages. Samson stopped the vehicle so that I could see for myself what was behind the donkey ‘car parks’. The donkeys stood patiently, tails swishing, outside small flourmills. Nearby their owners also sat in the shade, drinking coffee (Ethiopia is the home of coffee) while the wheat their animals had borne to the mill was ground into flour, ready to take home again.
“Ethiopia has the second largest number of donkeys in the world,” Samson explained. “Have a guess which country has the most.” I hazarded a few possibilities. Egypt? No. India? No again. “It’s China,” he said.
A few days later I was standing in a field of yet another plant that originated in Ethiopia: teff. Teff is one of the oldest domesticated plants in the world. A cereal, it may have first been cultivated 4000 years ago. High in fibre, iron and protein it is a crucial crop in Ethiopia as the grains produced by this feathery grass are used to make injera, the country’s staple food.
Injera is a large thin pancake which, when several arrive rolled-up and nestled in a basket, look alarmingly like a beautifully presented collection of slightly damp kitchen sponges. Injera tastes slightly bitter on its own but it’s not designed to be eaten by itself, instead it works as both an edible plate and a utensil for eating Ethiopia’s spicy stews. It’s an acquired taste, which some travellers never get, but thankfully I did. (Although it was indeed disconcertingly similar in texture to a thin cleaning cloth ...not that I have eaten many of those). My favourite accompaniment for injera was the delicious siga tibs, strips of meat (beef, or sometimes goat masquerading as lamb) stir-fried with peppers, onion and spices.
The field of teff I’d inspected was near to possibly the most extraordinary destination in all of Ethiopia: the rock-hewn
underground churches of Lalibela. Lalibela is situated on a volcanic plateau on the edge of the Ethiopian highlands (Ethiopia has 75 per cent of Africa’s highest mountains, the highest of which is 4550 metres) which in turn borders a branch of the Great Rift Valley where three continental plates are tearing apart. Even if these remarkable churches were not here, the scenery would be spectacular on its own, with volcanic peaks and deep canyons beneath plateaux with precipitous cliff edges.
The experts are still debating when the 11 churches were built but, according to Ethiopian tradition, they were constructed between 1181 and 1221 during the reign of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. Like all of Ethiopia’s kings right through to Haile Selassie he was believed to be a direct descendant of a liaison between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. To have hewn these churches from solid basalt in such a relatively short time is nothing short of remarkable, but many Ethiopians still believe the King’s account - that when his workers finished for the day, angels continued the construction at night.
After just a few days of hearing stories where fact and legend have been woven intriguingly, inextricably together, the idea of a host of angels helping to build churches no longer sounded impossible. I’d already stood outside a small church in which the Ethiopian Christians believe the Ark of the Covenant (the actual
tablets on which the 10 commandments were inscribed) has been kept since it was removed for safekeeping from Jerusalem; I’d also seen sights associated with the Queen of Sheba who’d enraptured King Solomon.
Whether earthly and heavenly masons combined to create Lalibela’s churches or not, the result is awe-inspiring. The churches were carved from the top down through solid rock. Once the exterior shape and adornments had been formed (in the case of the most famous called Bet Giyorgis, or St George, in the shape
of a Greek cross), work began on the interiors. Masons created barrel roofs, domes and pillars. They linked the churches with deep trenches and underground passageways, and created a complex drainage system to prevent flooding.
It was astonishing to stand deep below ground level in the canyons surrounding the churches, touch the marks left by axes, chisels and other basic tools and contemplate the tonnes and tonnes of basalt that was hewn by hand to create what the believers at the time called the “new Jerusalem.”
The churches are a Unesco World Heritage-listed site but services are still held here. Ethiopian churches have three distinct areas – the Holy of Holies, a middle space for those taking communion and the outer ring or space which is for the bulk of the congregation. In one of the churches the priest, a friend of Samson’s, disappeared behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies and emerged with the church’s gilded silver processional cross with its intricate filigree designs. He stood solemnly in the gloom holding the cross, as his predecessors throughout Ethiopia have been doing for about 1600 years.