Ethiopia, 2006

Ethiopia: Africa’s Overlooked Gem


Ethiopia is rich with historic and cultural treasures and deserves to be more recognized as a travel mecca. Ethiopian people are friendly and, due to the scarcity of tourists, often eager to converse with foreigners. They tend to like to be photographed as well. While there I was sometimes approached by people who asked me to take their photo. Of course I was happy to do so.

If you fly into Ethiopia you’ll invariably arrive in Addis Ababa, the capitol. ‘Addis’ as Ethiopians refer to it, is by far the largest city in the country. It’s centrally located and acts as the hub of travel throughout the country. I returned to it a few times in the 5 weeks I was in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is no tourist hot spot but of those that do venture here, most head north from Addis. It’s there that the most of the notable historic sites are located. These include the rock hewn churches of Lalibela, the monasteries of Lake Tana, the castles of Gonder, and the gigantic stone stelae of the ancient kingdom of Axum. I was fortunate to have enough time to be able to travel in all 4 cardinal directions from Addis.

Addis is located in one of the highland regions of the country. The highlands are mostly Christian and are home to the majority of the population. The elevation of the highlands moderates the temperature so despite being close to the equator the climate in much of Ethiopia is very pleasant.

When I ventured eastward I bused out to an ancient walled city called Harar. This is a predominately Muslim city that was once an important place for Islamic scholarship. There are many mosques in the city but these are off limits to non Muslims. Harar used to be an important trade center. Arthur Rimbaud, the famed 19th century French poet lived there as a coffee trader in his later years. The exact location of his house has long been a matter of debate.

At night time outside the walls of Harar, the famed Hyena Man feeds scraps of goat and sheep bones to wild hyenas. I went in a taxi on two occasions to watch and photograph this spectacle. The Hyena Man begins by calling out the names that he has given to the hyenas. When the taxi headlights catch the glowing eyes of the hyenas as they approach you can’t help but feel apprehensive. Hyenas are the second largest predators in Africa (after lions) and they don’t have a warm and fuzzy reputation. I was seated on the ground next to the taxi about 3 meters from the Hyena Man so I got a very close view of the action. I was worried that the hyenas might get freaked out by the flash on my camera. Truth is, they ignored me completely as they waited for their scraps. In all my travels this was easily one of the most gripping scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

On my journey south of Addis I went to a small city called Dila. I planned to use it as a base for a trip to a an archaeological site called Tutu Fella. It is here that some large phallic looking carved stones are to be found standing. The purpose and origin of these sculpted stones is not known. Mystery aside, there’s not much to see at Tutu Fella but I’m sure glad I went.

When I arrived in the village of Anole that’s at the base of the hill where Tutu Fella is located my presence caught the attention of the locals. A group of them followed me and my guide up the hill. They were very curious about me and it was obvious that they were not accustomed to seeing white people. I started photographing people instead of the phallic stones. Later when I returned with my guide to the highway to catch a bus back to Dila a small crowd gathered around me. Word of my presence must have leaked out and more people began to appear and stare at me in a friendly but shy manner. I kept photographing the whole time. I ended up with some of my best portrait photos. Man, I was pleased.

My venture heading westward from Addis led me to Jimma. Other than experiencing travel on some of the best and worst roads in Ethiopia this venture was less memorable than the other three.

It’s the monumental places north of Addis Ababa that attract most tourists to the country. Lalibela was phenomenal with its churches cut out of rock faces. I wasn’t there during any significant religious festivals but they must be amazing to see in such an extraordinary setting.

Also in the north I visited Gonder. This city is the location of some impressive castles that are still in quite good condition. The marvelous murals in the Debre Berhan Selassie church are among the most famous religious paintings in the country.

Further north I saw the giant engraved stone slabs erected by the Axumite empire about two thousand years ago. This empire was one of the most important in the ancient world. It straddled both sides of the Red Sea and controlled trade routes between Africa and Asia. One of its rulers was the legendary Queen of Sheba. Many Ethiopians believe that the Queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem and was impregnated there by King Solomon of Israel. A chapel on the grounds of St. Mary of Zion Church in the modern city of Axum is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant. Many devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe this to so. You can forget about seeing for yourself as admittance to the chapel is strictly limited.

From Axum I went on a day trip to the Debre Damo Monastery. The monastery is in an isolated spot and it’s perched atop a sheer-sided cliff. Entrance is obtained by climbing up the cliff with cowhide rope that is tossed down from above. I wasn’t asked if I could do this myself. Rather than expect me to scale the cliff unaided the attendants tied the rope around me and I was pulled up. It’s just as well because I know I couldn’t have climbed that cliff with anywhere near the ease that the local men pulled themselves to the top with.

There are a number of other isolated monasteries in the far north of Ethiopia in Tigre Province. Unfortunately, admittance is generally not allowed for women and girls. At Debre Damo even female animals are barred.

I saw plenty of amazing sights in Ethiopia but the country offers even more. There are very traditional tribes, each with a distinct culture, in the Lower Omo Valley. Also the Simien Mountains offer spectacular scenery and are home to the Gelada Baboons that live only in Ethiopia.

It’s because of its association with the famous famine in the ’80’s that Ethiopia is largely ignored by Western tourists and that’s a shame. It’s a country with a lot to offer the adventurous traveler. I don’t understand why its historic sites are so little known. I’ll always be happy with my decision to sample some of Ethiopia’s offerings and I would encourage others to do the same.



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