by Jenny Makepeace

aksum stele standingThe land around Aksum is littered with ancient monuments, tombs etc, often discovered whilst farmers are ploughing.

The modern church of Haille Selassie is of no great interest, but does contain a wonderful bible written on vellum and illuminated, still being used and getting scruffy, great shame.

There is a rather puny chandelier in the center of the vast dome of the church, given by Queen Elizabeth 11 during its inauguration.

Close by is another old church where women are not allowed. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly housed in a nasty little modern building between the two churches and guarded 24 hours a day.

The ecclesiastical museum houses a wondrous collection of badly looked after robes of richly embroidered velvet.

Crowns of amazing intricacy inlaid with jewels or of gold filigree work musical instruments and other paraphernalia badly in need of conservation. A new museum is being thought about. There is a  gold inlaid saddle  and other horse tack. Mothballs are the only protection.

I think it must be New Years Eve, various celebrations at the hotel amongst the German groups. Apart from the soup, dinner was horrible, cold breaded fish, rice salad, carrots and cold hard chips.

A brazier was lit in the courtyard where I went for a fag and got talking to an Italian biker whose father was here during the occupation, he and a group of friends are visiting the sites where his father was together with the big Italian cemetery in the north. It was interesting.

They have off road machines which can cope with the rough and go all over the world with these bikes. The following morning we set off alone via the little painted church near the Stele Park, slight hassle from a local who wanted to help us.

After exploring the graveyard which has a few headstones, but mainly mounds of earth, we slipped out through a back gate and found ourselves in a delightful little street of mud brick houses along which came a camel train loaded with wood.

These camels joined others, plus a donkey or two at a crossroads and disappeared off in the general direction of the main town.

We came to a big square defined by its enormous mango tree and surrounded by colonnaded walkways. Under one side of which were many tailors working either in their shops or on the pavement, on another side were general merchants where we bought a torch.

It’s a very pleasant place. In one side street was a mud bread oven and an immaculate white, shuttered cottage from which emerged an ancient but elegant woman. Her hair plaited across her skull and tied at the nape of her neck, the tattoo of the cross on her forehead. It is not very uncommon anyway.

A distinguished priest with a black brolly was strolling along with his prayer stick and bible. He deigned to bless the odd supplicant who then kissed the bible.  They are very keen into kissing the holy places – walls of churches, priests, crosses etc.

We found ourselves at the back of the old church next to Haille Selassie’s new one and thought we might venture further into the compound, quickly given the boot.

Arriving back at the Yeha, I went to request some coffee. The five staff were enjoying a break with a platter of injera which they insisted on my partaking.

This was very funny. I accepted a little from one of the women who rolled up some filling and neatly popped it into my mouth. Its just as well I had read the rules on this habit, no hands, several others joined in quick succession until it was noticed by one of the male waiters that I still had a mouthful.

I felt exactly like a young bird, maybe a cuckoo.

Last night we discussed the nature of tourism. It is so difficult to explain to Tour Leaders the need (on our part anyway) to get beyond the required site seeing to the sort of simple but infinitely satisfying experience we had this morning.

Just wandering about soaking up the atmosphere of a small African town so remotely different from anything in the West.

Many of the trained guides are hell bent on sharing their often extensive knowledge of the myth and legend and history. They insistent that we listen and almost resentful of our being sidetracked  either by other people or other (to us) interesting things happening around us.

We did manage to give the two Greeks a lift from the Ezana stone.  This mainly applies to the local guides. Semma was different in that the natural environment encapsulates the uniqueness of Ethiopia.

It does, of course, includes its historical monuments, but these days the monuments, wonderful as they are, are just that – for tourists. The daily grind of a largely rural population, eking out a living from a harsh landscape as they have for thousands of years is the reality and the relevance.

Travel is not enriching unless one reaches below the surface of the perceived interest of the historic offerings towards the modern anthropology.

Towards Lalibela

lalibela bet giorgisThe airport is about 35k from the hilly town of Lalibela – built on the only flat piece of ground available.  The plane was late so we arrived at 3pm at the Tukul Village Hotel.

This hotel was built by a local who has lived in Belgium. It is based on the circular local vernacular, the buildings are two story, our room is circular.

The entrance divided partially from the bedroom and a window curves across a third of the remaining space with a balcony from where there are spectacular views.

The bathroom is marble tiled with a glass enclosed shower, good fittings and lots of hot water, spoilt only by a pervading smell of sewage.

Two easy chairs and a low bamboo table, bedside tables with lights and a very shiny parquet floor completes the picture.

The restaurant is in a circular building which needs a little attention to detail, the owner knows this and he is very sociable, popping in at meal times to have a chat.  There is also outside seating under a canopy and good local guide books both to buy and to borrow.

One of the girls makes divine bread, pretty plaited ones for supper and a different one for breakfast, she is fun and speaks enough English to be able to communicate.

Porridge is a lifesaver.

We visited the first group of rock cut churches all on an East West orientation.  These churches are remarkable because most of them are not carved into the rock but freed from it entirely, standing below ground level.

Some are connected to one another by passages – a particularly long (33meters) very dark one connects two of the churches. One is supposed to walk in the dark with a hand held above your head to guide you.

In front of us was a group of women who ululated as they walked. It is supposed to represent the journey to heaven and is very atmospheric.

The interiors of the churches are wonderful, pillars, high windows, frescoes, bells, all rather dark and needing a powerful torch to get the best out of them. There is usually a certain amount of religious tat lying about.

These churches were built almost a millennium ago and are in a marvelous state of preservation, although there is scaffolding over some of them to keep out the rain and preserve the frescoes. In the surrounding courtyards there are carved niches for the dead, one still holds a skeleton.

These niches are occupied by pilgrims who bag the best to sleep in whilst waiting for the festival, and are hung across their fronts with pieces of cloth.  The maze of passages, steps, arches, doorways are confusing but magical especially with the shrouded pilgrims climbing steps, leaning on their sticks or kneeling in obeisance.

The first three churches represent the body of Christ – his feet, his heart and his head.  A lad accompanied us on our tour to guard our shoes and help us up and down steep steps.  There are crosses carved in the facades of every imaginable kind from the swastika to St George.

If you want to read the continuation of Jenny’s exciting Ethiopian experience
Click here for the sixth part of her story

Click here for the 1st part of this story

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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