Ethiopia: Cause why build a church when you can chisel it out of a mountain?

“Is beautiful because rainy season. You come back dry season. All brown. Look shit.”
– Abush, the guide

What do I remember most from my time in Ethiopia? I remember eating the dreaded plane food en route and finding the chicken tasty. That doesn’t happen often, guys! I hate plane food… (that’s not really my fondest memory of Ethiopia, don’t worry)…

ADDIS ABABA

I remember arriving in Addis and believing the traffic to be just as chaotic as in Nairobi (how wrong I was, Nairobi is much worse I must’ve been tired). I remember going to see Lucy, the 3.2 mill year old fossil and the guide telling me all the places she’s been sent. I remarked she’d travelled more than me, which (for the time being) is true. I also remember having to take my shoes off to enter the first of about a million churches I’ve seen in Ethiopia (this time the Holy Trinity Cathedral), before checking out the Russian inspired socialist art at the national museum… My guide actually left me at the top floor, told me to take lots of pictures and take my time, while he went downstairs to pretend we were leaving, since the guards complained that they were closing. When we finally left two new groups were allowed access to the museum though, so… yeah… T.I.A. 😛

Upon leaving the Holy Trinity Cathedral we went by the grave of the most beloved prime minister Meles Zenawi. It is always guarded by two soldiers and since everyone in Africa freakin’ flips out if you take a photo of police or army my guide asked them to move out of the frame so I could photograph the (quite elaborate) grave. These were the kind of soldiers that smiled and joked though, they didn’t look grim and chase us off, so I got my photo at the insistence of the guide (he was more into taking the picture, to be honest), and after joking around with the guys holding the AK’s O.o we left for Yama Tours Headquarters to get my plane tickets and itinerary. The lift “didn’t work” so we took the stairs. Good for you, taking the stairs. A lot better for you than attempting the lift by the looks of the empty shaft barely covered with thing sheets of steel… #TIA

BAHIR DAR

The next day I flew Bahir Dar, proceeded to walk straight through the (tiny) airport terminal and forget my checked luggage. #ProTraveler

I met up with my guide, Thila, and walked to the truck, handed him my backpack and had a three second panic attack before rushing back to the airport terminal, going through another scan (which beeped like all hell of course, because I beep EVERY TIME I GO THROUGH THE SCANNER HERE IN ETHIOPIA! Thanks, bra!), got patted down and went to the luggage belt to retrieve my other backpack. Success.

In Bahir Dar, Thila took me out on a boat ride on Lake Tana. It’s the source of the Blue Nile and the largest lake in Ethiopia. Being about 84 km long and 66 km wide, with a maximum depth of around 15 meters (so they say). There is a metric sh*t ton of monasteries built on the various islands that dot the lake (I think my guide said there was like, 37 islands or something). I went to visit one, Ura Kidane Mehret, and the visit was fascinating as well as tiring. It was tiring because I am visiting Ethiopia just outside of high season so I was the only tourist as many places I stopped, which some will say is awesome, and sometimes it really is(!), but when nearly all the locals want you to buy what they make it is borderline stressful. Thila left me with a local guide taking me to the monastery and it was also very clear that he knew one of the guys selling crosses and stuff because he went quickly past all the sellers except this guy on the way to AND from the monastery. He purposefully stopped there so I sort of had to stop too and the guy had a chance to talk to me and try to sell me stuff. Which I found a bit annoying.

Don’t get me wrong here, guys, I understand the difference in out situation and the privilege of my position, and I also understand their attempts – it’s just that after 7 months, I’m not going to lie and write a blog about how cool of an experience this is. It’s not local, it’s not cultural, it’s not “getting a taste of real Africa”. Having a meal with a local family is getting a taste of the real Africa. This is salespeople trying to sell you trinkets for cash. Plain and simple. If you like, you buy, by all means, I like souvenirs as much as the next person, but I can’t buy souvenirs every day for 7 months. I don’t even have an apartment to fill up.

After getting up to the monastery my guide proved his worth by talking about its history non stop for about an hour. He knew a lot. I didn’t fact check, but I’ll believe. The paintings and murials were amazing. So colourful they looked a bit like childrens’ drawings, but some of them haven’t even been restored since they were painted in the 1600’s and they were still fully saturated with vibrant reds, yellows and greens.

The museum was pretty shit, to be honest. I’ve been to a few of them now and they just lock a bunch of old regalia in there in a quite unceremonious way. After seeing 9 umbrellas “used by priests while marching and chanting” you’ve pretty much seen them all. The old bibles were quite cool though, real leather pages, one weighing about 50 kilos. That particular part was impressive.

After making a rather hasty retreat down through all the salespeople lining the only path to the boat again, Thila took me to see the source of “the Blue Nile” (it’s not blue at the moment, it’s brown and muddy). We saw a couple of hippos with a baby and loads of birds and I marveled at seeing the lake look like a desert in the distance because of the sandy mud in the water.

Bahir Dar is also where I stayed at the hotel shaped like a vagina with the “super safe” balcony… Railings didn’t even go up to my knees *lol* #SafetyFirst!

 

TRAVEL TO GONDER

After Bahir Dar I met up with new guide Abush and we went to see the Tis Isat waterfalls (The Blue Nile Falls). That was a long drive through some small, muddy villages on what Abush consistently called “African Massage”-roads. The trip up to the falls was filled with more people trying to sell me more stuff, especially since I was the only “Ferengi” (meaning “foreigner” in Amharic and yes, it is like the alien race Ferengi in Star Trek #LOLWhat!), but it was worth it for the views (and also the locals were funny and nice, so I had some laughs on the way up)

After Tis Isat we drove all the way to Gonder where I met up with another local guide who told me all about Emperor Fassiledes, his family and their “little cluster” of castles (the Royal Compound of Gondar also called “The African Camelot”). He built a castle, his son built a castle, his grandson built a castle and a chapel, some other dude built a castle and some freakin’ huge stables and then, when he died, his wife built her own castle and some beauty parlour thingy. In addition there were lion cages, a sauna(!) and several bathrooms. Also, a great hall for singing and dancing, because why the hell not. Bread and circus, people. Bread and circus.

This place was fascinating. I love that you can walk around and touch everything, every ruin, wall, door, anything you see is tangible and allowed. We even climbed up the stairs of one of the old buildings to catch the view and you could literally walk through the door and faceplant several meters down if you weren’t careful. No H&S here, guys. If you’re dumb enough to fall down, you can blame yourself.

SIMIEN NATIONAL PARK

Spent a day in Simien with Tedi and Sise (that is absolutely not how they spell their names, btw) and I’ve never seen so many baboons. I was a bit worried because I had a banana in my bag (as you do) and after spending time in South Africa my instinct told me I was going to get mauled by the fluffies around us for carrying fruit. The baboons in Simien are all out of fucks to give though. They hang out with their families, eat grass or whatever (I squealed so much I missed that part of the educational tour) and look at the stupid humans with polite disinterest. I’m serious, that one monkey was definitely judging me.

Other than that I saw a humongous bird and found some ledges to go stand on. I love me them ledges. #GonnaDie

 

AXUM/AKSUM

I got to Axum and got a really sweet hotel room so I kinda hung out there when I wasn’t out and about looking at old rocks. Axum was warm, sunny and full of ruins… Which suited me fine. Apparently, Denver is their sister-city, how’s that for random information (I learned this when the guide explained why one of the biggest streets is Denver Street).

Anyway, they have some massive obelisks that where made around 4th century AD and one of them is quite impressive with regards to size. The 33-metre-long,  520 tonnes “Great Stele” is believed to have fallen and broken during construction. So, unfortunately, it’s toppled over, but you still get a feeling for the scope (especially when you stand under it trying to lift it, because why not, right?). It’s important to treat these old places with the utmost respect.

This place also has old grave sites that you can walk into, including the Grave of the False Door (because the stone “lid” on the grave was carved with the image of a door, so it couldn’t be opened like a door, cause it was just a carving, omg false door!!)  I also got to see the Church of Saint Mary from a distance. This is where they say the original Ark of the Covenant is being held, of course no one is allowed in there except one special ark-protecting monk (I bet he’s got some serious ninja shaolin skills to get THAT job). The church museum was another mish-mash of old artifacts a bit haphazardly put on display… Situated near the overgrown patch of land housing the ruins of the oldest church in Africa (again: allegedly) and the New Church of St. Mary (which I got to go inside). This is also where you can tip a monk and a guide to unwrap a 500 year old bible to show you. It’s actually kind of expected so I went with it. The bible was a work of art though so not sad I gave the enormous sum of $2 for it. The guide threw in a little drum show for me too “Free of charge” ;-D Joking aside the church was cool to see because it was so insanely colourful. I looked a bit like kids’ drawings everywhere (good kids’ drawings mind you, but still). I’m used to the mosaics in the windows and the rest of the church being kind of subdued colourwise. Not so much here in Ethiopia…

And of course there were plenty of people selling stuff everywhere, but they were nice enough when I said no, though, didn’t hassle me too much (apart from this guys who wanted $27 dollars for a bracelet made out of nickel… come on, dude…)

At the end of the tour we visited the Ethiopian “Rosetta Stone”, a slab of rock found by three farmers who decided NOT to destroy it and get it out of the way, but rather informed the government who had it dug up and transported safely to a “museum building” (baiscaclly a shack near the field, but hey…) This stone has Amharic, Ethiopian and Ge’ez languages carved on it and therefore functions exactly like the original Rosetta Stone – as a translator. I also got to see Queen of Sheba’s old temple (which is now a ruin) and walked around checkin’ out her old pizza ovens and baths and I managed to find another slab of rock to lie down on for that awesome shot of the fields of Teff, Ethiopia’s staple food. Mission accomplished #ThumbsUp

 

LALIBELA

The place I met two lovely Aussies, Veronica and Robyn, travelling together. We shared a couple of bottles of wine and I thoroughly enjoyed talking travel with two like minded people. Hope to see them again when I get to Aus.

The reason I wanted to go to Lalibela was to see the Church of St. George. I had seen the pictures online when I googled Ethiopia and this church building carved out of a single piece of rock, a mountain, looked fantastic. Turns out Lalibela has 11 of these carved-out-of-rock churches, commissioned by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (and built with the help angels, naturally) in the 12th and 13th centuries. Unesco identifies 11 churches, assembled in four groups (northern, western, eastern and “so far away you need to drive there” #TIA) so we spent a whole day going through 11 of them. With me was Scott, the American I had befriended the day before when our plane from Axum got delayed by about 5 hours. We got to talking and he ended up joining my little, private tour. Scott’s whole reason for coming to Lalibela was St. George as well, best tourists ever…

I didn’t quite catch what they meant by “living rock”, but this was repeated almost as much as the story of Sheba and Solomon. Which says a lot. Trust me.  We ended up seeing:

  • Biete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), home to the Lalibela Cross.
  • Biete Maryam (House of Miriam/House of Mary), possibly the oldest of the churches, and a replica of the Tombs of Adam and Christ.
  • Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael), known for its arts and said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela)
  • Biete Meskel (House of the Cross)
  • Biete Denagel (House of Virgins)
  • Biete Giyorgis (Church of Saint George), thought to be the most finely executed and best preserved church
  • Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), possibly the former royal chapel
  • Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St Mercoreos/House of St Mark), which may be a former prison
  • Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos)
  • Biete Gabriel-Rufael (House of the angels Gabriel, and Raphael) possibly a former royal palace, linked to a HOLY BAKERY.
  • Biete Lehem (Bethlehem Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם, House of Holy Bread)
  • The monastery of Ashetan Maryam and Yimrehane Kristos Church, a 40 minute drive away situated inside a huge cave

 

 

LAST STOP: ADDIS ABABA & THE MESKEL FESTIVAL

“Meskel is an annual religious holiday in the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox churches, which commemorates the discovery of the True Cross by the Roman Empress Helena (Saint Helena) in the fourth century.”

You can’t just walk in to this festival, because of the president and all the foreign dignitaries attending you have to be granted access and given a card to wear around your neck. My tour company fixed this for me well in advance with no problems, so I was golden. I ended up going to see this crazy thing with a couple from Australia and heir daughter, before having a traditional Ethiopian dinner with a guide and driver in a restaurant with singing and dancing. We had teff and meat for dinner. It was glorious. My most prominent memory though is the huge truck/float that held a whole ton of priests who were chanting and jumping so much it swayed precariously on several occasions. Being Africa I was expecting it to blow up at some point or at the very least break down, but they seemed to manage… It looked a bit like the “Russefeiring” we have in Norway when high school kids graduate and march in huge throngs through Oslo…

I would also like to thank whoever designed the access cards we were given that had the word “Tourist” prominently displayed on the front. Cause my very appearance doesn’t scream tourist enough, right? ;-D

This post turned out longer than my English exam at uni, so I’ll just post some final pictures of the cray-cray colours, people, costumes, sunset, bonfire, everything…

 

Ethiopia turned out to be one of my favourite countries in Africa. I hope to come back here some day to see the south and the Danakil Depression… For now, it was a great way to end my trip in Southern Africa ❤

 

 

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