Ethiopia’s Historical North

In the 1st century AD, an extraordinary African civilization flourished in the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Aksumite Civilization was among the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world, enjoying wealth laden trading links with the Greek and Roman powers in Europe and also Arabs and Indians. In the fourth century AD, Emperor Ezana adopted Christianity and since then, Ethiopia has been a Christian enclave in East Africa. The great civilization grew and ebbed from the 7th century until it was broken into provinces in the 18th and 19th century.

We arrived into Gondar, in northwestern Ethiopia, exhausted and suffering from dysentery. At an altitude of about 2,500 meters, it has been cool and relaxing. Instead of avoiding 45 degree midday sun, we hide in cafes and under shelters to escape torrential downpours which turn the stony backstreets to rivers of mud. There is burning sun, but sometimes we wear wooly jumpers and blankets like the locals to keep warm. After a week of recuperation we were ready to look at the highlights of northern Ethiopia. There are so many it was hard to choose. We decided to tour the historical route of Gondar, Lalibela and Aksum.

Aksum was the capital of the great Aksumite Civilization and today the town is an open air museum. Palatial ruins, stellae, and dark tombs litter the town where life goes on as if they weren’t even there. Soaring stellae, or obelisks, marked the tombs of the wealthy families during the pre-Christian Aksumite period. Sadly, many of these granite needles have toppled over, including the world’s largest monolith, highly decorated but broken. Outside the gate of the main Stele Field is the Rome Stella, which has recently returned from a 68 year ‘holiday’ in Italy. It will be re-erected in the field in the autumn.

Down the stone steps of the tomb of the false door, our guide pointed out a seamless rock coffin, which sounded very hollow when knocked! In the Tomb of Kaleb, we lit thin candles to explore the spooky chambers of the dead. Not for the first time on this trip, the lack of tourist facilities and the magic of the unlit monuments made us feel like Indiana Jones exploring the underground passages with crude, home made candles, wondering whether we should brave the bats hanging from the ceiling and circling over our heads.

Across the road from the main Stellae Field is the St. Mary of Zion church. Although nobody is allowed to set eyes on it, any Ethiopian Orthodox Catholic knows that the Ark of the Covenant lies here, smuggled from Jerusalem by King Menelik I.

The ruin of the Queen of Sheba’s Palace lies a couple of kilometers out of town. Only a large plan of the 6th century palace remains, with 8 foot high stone walls marking the ground floor rooms of the extensive abode, like a stone maze. In its hay-day, the splendid palace is said to have stabled hundreds of white camels. Although Queen of Sheba lived over a thousand years earlier, she is attributed to the palace, as well as many other Ethiopian monuments from the last few three millennia.

Often, the high point of a visit is unexpected. For us, the most amazing sight in Aksum was the Saturday Market. Farmers flocked to the market square for the bustling weekly market. Camels, donkeys and people carried goods. Spice, nut and vegetable sellers sat on the ground in long meandering rows, delicious flavours scent the air in a sea of activity and babble.

Lalibela is famous for its eleven rock hewn churches which lie beneath the surface of the town. A guide brought us around the churches and we even managed to peek into one while mass was finishing up, the strong smell of incense mixing with the sound of sung prayer in the dark interior. Robed priests display crosses and ancient parchment bibles in each church. Each cross is unique in design with particular symbolism to the dedicated saint of each church. Large booming colourful drums are used during mass, as are tall prayer staffs which the congregation can rest on during long services.

The churches are reputed to have been built by King Lalibela in the 12th Century, with the help of angels. Each church has been carved out of solid rock, but their construction is so elaborate that it’s hard to remember this as we wander through tall slender outer columns, through beautiful doorways and into the columned chambers. Because the churches are dug from rock, their roofs are at ground level. Magical steps, deep cut gorges and tunnels link the churches. In the sides of the rock around the churches, many small caves have been burrowed for pilgrims and priests to sleep in.

Gondar is known as the Camelot of Ethiopia and that is certainly how we have come remember it. The large town, speckled with beautiful castles and churches, spills up the sides of several heavily wooded hills. We stayed just outside the towering stone walls of the Royal Enclosure. In the 1640s, Emperor Fasilidas moved the administrative capital of Ethiopia to Gondar and built a splendid fortified castle, surprisingly similar in design to European medieval castles and unquestionably as elegant. In the Royal Enclosure, we wandered through the thick stone walls of the castle and those of his successors – each insisted on building their own – but none matched the original in style or splendour.

Later, we climbed the steep hill to the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, similar to the castle with its sturdy stone perimeter wall. This is the most revered of Gondar’s 44 churches. Inside this secret garden, colourful birds forage below elegant tall trees where huge vultures come to roost for the night. Unlike Gondar’s more recently built colourful tin roofed Orthodox Catholic churches, the Debre Berhan Selassie Church is a pretty but robust stone structure. The priest took our entrance fee and opened up the thick wooden doors and some windows to let in the evening light. Unpainted patches of lower walls show 17th century plaster of mud and straw. Wonderful biblical scenes adorn the walls and the roof is a beautiful mass of winged angels. We were delighted to have seen the beautiful church, another unexpected treasure in this green, cool land of surprises.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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