Ītyōṗṗyā

27 01 2009

osted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 10.11.08 – 10.26.08

We’ve laid it on pretty thick in our posts but in case you haven’t read, busing around Africa can be tough and draining.  Fortunately Ethiopia Airlines is one of Africa’s most well organized airlines and we lucked out on a deal for 5 flights within the country for about $250, saving us what would have been 10 days of pure bus travel.  If you fly into Ethiopia via Ethiopian airlines be sure to check up on this deal and whatever other specials they might have.  We checked out several towns before heading back to Addis Ababa: Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela, and Axum:

Bahir Dar: The Ethiopian Orthodox church was acknowledged as independent from the Coptic Orthodox church in 1959 and while the differences are subtle and probably incomprehensible to anyone not Orthodox themselves, these churches differ from Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox branches.   But the Ethiopian branch is one of the oldest Christian religions in Africa and Orthodox was made the official religion of the  Axumite Empire back in the 4th century A.D. bahir-dar-04

Lake Tana can be reached by Bahir Dar where there are several island monasteries that can be explored by boat.  The Monasteries are simple in structure with colorfully painted Christian passages on the inside walls.  The men are dressed in beautiful colored robes, usually yellow, and recite their prayers as you walk around.    Inside they burn Frankincense and take out massive bronze crosses whose different styles represent different regions of the country.   In one Monastery, I was allowed to see and take pictures of huge Bibles written over a thousand years ago (if in Europe these books would be locked up behind glass in a museum; here, they were still being used).  There were also the crowns of some of the Kings of Gondar, brass crosses, and other religious relics.  Some of the Monasteries are for men only though, and Laura wasn’t allowed on this one.

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Laura liked the cool looking “puff plants” everywhere (which we later discovered were papyrus), and we also saw the source of the Nile.  There was an Ethiopian from Gondar who was also sightseeing with us.  Funny thing was, the boat driver charged him more than he charged us, so it looks like even the locals get screwed if they don’t bargain right.  A day trip nearby here can be taken to “Tis Abbey” which is the 2nd largest waterfall in Africa (after Victoria Falls).

Gondar: The “Camelot of Africa,” who knew there were medieval castles in Ethiopia?  Although facts might get in the way of the following, it is a generally accepted belief in the country that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a son, Menelik I, who became king of Ethiopia and started a long line of rulers claiming King Solomon’s descent and thus became one of if not the oldest ruling dynasties in the world (they were deposed in 1974).

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During the 16th & 17th centuries, Gondar became the capital of the Ethiopian empire where it remained until 1855, and rulers proceeded to build up the area.  The result is a large European medieval castle influenced in one way or another by the Portuguese that once lived in Ethiopia.  Around the area aregondar-kids-running-with-laura-01 also churches, and a massive pool called Fasaladis’s Bath where every year a blessing ceremony is held.

This country is famous for long-distance athletes with Haile Gebrselassie toping that list as perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time.  On one run, Laura had a couple kids tag along (something that’s become a pretty common occurrence in Africa).  I meanwhile watched 2 guys practicing 100m sprints; not on the grass or a track, but on the stadium rows which were made out of stone and lacked any sort of railing.  Barefoot.    During another run Laura was heading along the sidewalk, passed a cafe, and as she passed everyone started clapping for her.

Lalibela: In response to Jerusalem being sacked by Muslims in 1187, King Lalibela started what he wished to be a “New Jerusalem,” a city that would rival Axum in religious importance.  Some say he visited the Holy land himself and others claim there must have been architects from other civilizations due to the complicated engineering.  But so far the facts suggest that Ethiopia constructed the churches themselves during the 12th & 13th centuries, carving out of pure granite 11 rock-hewn churches.  Most are free standing connected only at the base while the interior has been carved out, complete with arches, doorways, and reliefs.  Similar to Petra in Jordan (the church in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and the Ellora caves in India.lalibela-09

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An extremely religious city, it is said out of the 8-10,000 people in town, 1,000 are priests.  The smells of Frankenscense abound, along with kind (but difficult to locate) priests who keep the keys to the churches, this middle of nowhere town feels ancient.  Strangely, there are more flies here than anywhere in the world and walking down the street can be almost unbearable at times as they swarm.  You’re also guaranteed to be followed for miles by children (and adults) aggressively demanding candy, pens, money, etc.  But if these churches were in somewhere other than Ethiopia, it would be a well known Christian site.  Instead, you’re pretty much alone wandering through.

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Axum: The largest Obelisks in the world, Axum is also home to the Axumite Empire whose language, Ge’ez, can still be heard around the country.  To be honest, we thought the place was a dump and changed our flight to leave the following day.  The Obelisks are cool, especially since Italy has finally returned one they stole back during their occupation, but they stand on a pretty lonely field that takes away from the feel.  The museum was moderately interesting, and we read of several more things that could be seen around the area, but we were kinda dis-interested at this point.  Locals claim the Ark of the Covenant was moved here and rests in a chapel near the Church of St. Mary of Zion, but you have 0% chance of getting near it (how convenient). axum-02axum-01

We did manage to set our personal highin a game we call “let’s screw the tourist.”  Here, we go into a store and ask how much an item is, in this case a necklace that we know we can buy for under $5 at the least (they have the same stuff all over the country to buy).  One store tried to sell it to us for $40, convincing us that locals watch way too much “Cribs” on MTV.

Back in Addis: More coffee, more fantastic food, and a lot of time spent with some Irish friends we met in Lalibela.  Gary and Suzanne helped cement a future trip to Ireland regardless of how much it rains.  They traveled down through Sudan and the Middle East and like everyone else we met who has been to Sudan, they claim it holds some of the kindest, most welcoming people in the world.  Of course, there’s not much there to see besides the people, but hey.

We spent a couple mornings in the gigantic outdoor market buying gifts like spices, frankincense, a wooden cross, embroidered fabrics, jewelry, and all sorts of unique items that cannot be found anywhere outside of Ethiopia.  We also had to watch our back pretty hard as we caught several people blatantly tailing us.

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Ethiopia is one of my favorite countries but many people hate it and it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the rougher side .  The trend sems to be if you come up from South Africa/Kenya/Tanzania, then you will like it more.  If you travel down and enter Ethiopia after the Middle East and Sudan (basically the Arab world), then Ethiopia is too harsh a change and some of the people too frustrating.   To quote Bradt (a respected guide for African backpackers), there is a part of the population that “once all the patronizing excuses are made, are rude, racist, and cowardly.”  Pretty harsh words, but you gotta appreciate that he has the balls to call it for what it is.  Beggers, especially the kids, can be aggressive and threatening.  Some children get so excited, they start throwing rocks at you.  You might be loved, hated, blamed, or idiolized, but you won’t be ignored.  There are two different sides, but it is without a doubt unique and one of the few countries that can claim such a distinctive personality.  There is little tourism and you’re likely to be the only Westerner around in some parts, so expect stares (don’t worry, their mostly innocent and just curious).  By the end of it I was drinking 6-7 macchiatos per day, discussing American politics with locals, eating Kitfo (raw beef), and haggling over the price of frankincense.

***Click here to see the rest of our Ethiopia pics on our Flickr account

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