Ethiopia, minute by minute


Africa begins in Budapest. The drone I brought expressly for taking pictures of the wonderful Ethiopian landscapes, and I chose expressly to be able to take on board any aircraft, is banned only at Franz Liszt Airport. I have to check it into the hold. But I have no bag I can check. The officer does not hesitate to prepare some protective clothing for the drone from my nice Armenian cotton bag decorated with pomegranates. He affixes the luggage tag on the bag’s handle, and it is already flying far away from me and yet nearby, via Cairo, to Addis Ababa.

At the Ethiopian airport, however, I wait in vain for the small white cotton pack to pop up on the conveyor belt among the man-size suitcases and countless boxes of mineral water (!). Everyone has already rolled away with their luggage and the belt has stopped when I go to declare the loss. The officer also takes my Berlin address, in case it takes so long to find the package. Good-bye to you, wonderful Ethiopian landscapes. We get to the hotel at five in the morning, we fall asleep immediately.

At six they call me to say that they have found a small package, but they don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s mine. But I should immediately go for to get it, because after the change in work shift they may not find it again. I go back to the airport by taxi. I get through the four passport controls and one security check. There is a large amount of spilled grain and some sticky liquid around the screening machine at the entrance, and  it also gotten into every tray. I have to put my jacket in one of them. By the time I reach the lost luggage office, the shift has changed. The new officer knows nothing, but points to the found luggage heap for me to look for it. And lo, there is the little white packet with the red pomegranate and the luggage tag of Budapest. Where was it hiding while I was worrying about it? Verify it, I take it over, sign for it. Back by taxi to the hotel. At eight in the morning I’m already in bed, after eleven hours of flight and before a long first day in Ethiopia.

Forensic autopsy at the hotel

At breakfast we sit together with an Arab grain trader. That this is his profession becomes clear within two minutes. In a further three minutes, we get to know that he seized his significant business advantages as a head of department of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture. In further five minutes he tries to sell products through me in Hungary. Ethiopian red beans, white beans, raw coffee, dates. After a further few minutes, had an Ethiopian merchant not arrived with samples of goods in small plastic bags, maybe I would no longer deal in blogging. The Ethiopian supplier, however, completely takes over the attention of the Egyptian businessman. Looking back from the stairs, it begs for the canvas of an Orientalizing painter as the two serious men lean together over the light seeds on the ebony desk of the old wood-paneled hotel, building the future of their common continent.

Ethiopia is no dark past, but a bright future!

There are also others who assume an unselfish role in the building of the continent. Since the millennium, modern Addis Ababa has been built up by Chinese investments and loans. The African Union Conference Center – “the Parliament of Africa” –, the tallest building in the city, was “donated” to the brotherly country as a joint investment of the Chinese state and the Chinese State Construction Company. But its height is already surpassed by the tower in the above picture, the future center of the Ethiopian Commercial Bank, just being built by the same company. The district-sized construction site is surrounded by stone walls, on which huge Chinese characters announce the new conquest. Inside, Chinese workers do the job – they are supposed to have bugged the AU Conference Center as well –, and the industrial water, Africa’s treasure, abundantly flowing from inside, is collected in private buckets by the owners of the surrounding small stores. “What do locals think about this?” I ask the taxi driver, who also carries the Chinese engineers. “That it is indirect colonialism”, he replies with an eloquent English. “The time of direct colonialism is over in Africa, now it has come to the indirect one. We would rather be attached to Europe or America, but the Chinese were quicker, now they dictate. And you cannot get a job from them with your own benefit.”

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Message to the invaders: “YÁNJÌN XĪYĀN!” (No smoking!)

While walking to the bus station, a twenty-some-year-old boy turns to me, and then another to Lloyd: where we are from, what we do, where we go next. I also ask back, mine comes from the northern Gondar, and studies history. That of Lloyd remains unclear. Their pushily joyful interrogation is extremely cumbersome, while we also check the route with GPS and also negotiate with each other on which bus to take to the northern monastery region. When arriving to the ticket office, they say hello first, as if they were our guides, and then ask for a tip. “And why, my friend?” I interrogate him. “Well, for my service.” “For what kind of service? If you had announced at the beginning that you uphold me by profession, I would have dropped you off right then. Like this, now go to hell.” They are shocked, they make several more trials, but eventually they disappear. We agree with Lloyd that in the street we only return greetings, but do not engage in conversation with suspicious people. “In Iowa we used to talk to everyone in a friendly way.” Lloyd apologizes, but he understands it. We will have lots of benefit from this decision.


At the office, we want to buy a ticket for the early morning bus. “Yes, for ten thirty”, the cashier suggests. “No, no, at four thirty”, we fix it. Slowly it turns out that the Ethiopians – just like the ancient Romans and Greeks – count the hours of the day from six to six, from dawn to dusk, and those of the night also from six to six. Thus they call our four-thirty “ten-thirty”, and at five in the morning the receptionist tells me to bring back the hot water jug for tomorrow breakfast – that is, in three hours. For security, she writes both times on the ticket, first the Ethiopian one, and then the international time in parentheses. The date of the ticket – 28th of the fifth month of 2011 – also has some trick in it, but we don’t get stuck over it.



Leaving the ticket office, we encounter another archaic phenomenon, the picture-teller. Earlier I saw such epic singers in Iran and India, who were pointing on the illustrations of the Shahname or the Indian epics while singing or explaining them. An interesting version of this was that paraphrase of the Shahname in 1943, in which the British invaders presented the truth of the Allies to the people of Iran, and explained it to them with the help of the Persian café singers. The narrator of Addis Ababa has two tables before him, with the portraits of the historical celebrities of Ethiopia and of the world, respectively. He goes on pointing at them with a rod, and apparently chanting a short summary of domestic and world history to his attentive audience. The summary is likely to have an intent of topical politics, since he has before his feet a large pile of poster-sized photos of the recently elected prime minister Abiy Ahmed. He is certainly going to distribute them among his convinced audience after the performance. We, however, will not wait for this.



The Tiglachin (“Our Fight”) Monument stands in a park next to Churchill Avenue. As the red star and the golden hammer-and-sickle coat of arms shows, it was raised in the socialist period, and the “our” also includes, besides the Ethiopians, the Soviet and Cuban (!) brothers-in-arms, who, in 1978, won a victory over the Somali imperialists in Ogaden region.

Ogaden (marked in red on the map), the large desert plateau lying to the east of Ethiopia’s great central mountains alternately belonged during history to the Somali Sultanate and the Abyssinian Empire. It is mainly inhabited by Somali muslims. Somali President Siad Barre, who came to power with a coup d’état in 1969, invaded the region in 1977, hoping to create a future Great Somalia. The piquancy of the thing is that Somalia at that time still enjoyed the support (and shipments of arms) of the Soviet Union, but the Kremlin had already started negotiations with Mengistu, who had become President of Ethiopia in February 1977, and who, because of the Red Terror he launched, was considered a loyal disciple of communism. In the armed conflict between the two Moscow-friendly states, the Soviet Union finally stood beside Ethiopia, and sent troops, and likewise commanded Cuba and the People’s Republic to Yemen to do so, too, and the GDR to ship weapons. Somalia interrupted its relations with Moscow, and the USA quickly moved in and made it an ally in return for American military bases. The united peace army eventually expelled the imperialist invaders from Ogaden in March 1978.

In memory of this victory, a friendly North Korea donated to Ethiopia the Tiglachin Monument on 12 September 1984, on the tenth anniversary of the Derg (“the Party”) having strangled Emperor Haile Selassie in the basement of his own palace. Thus one side of the monument also represents the emperor, sitting on horseback, as he looks out over the suffering of his hungry people. He probably foresees the future great famine, which would exact a price of millions of victims under the Derg between 1983 and 1985. The current regime – which came to power by defeating the Derg in 1991 – can neither spit out nor swallow the monument. After all, it commemorates a great patriotic war, many of whose participants still live today. So they just let it be, overgrown by weeds, left to decay. Some day, any day, it may be demolished.

When I first visited the Hassidic cemetery of Bolechów/Bolekhiv in the Ukrainian Galicia, its Ukrainian caretaker, Zenon – a robust man even in advanced age, with a face burned in Afghanistan – told me that he had served as a commando officer in the Soviet army, and fought in Vietnam and Ethiopia, in places where, according to our official knowledge, no Soviet soldier ever set foot. I will take him from here a bag of Ethiopean coffee.


In several places you can see this poster, where the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs calls for an abolition of harmful traditional practices on women and children. The open palm suggests that this may mean domestic violence. In the reality, it is even worse: genital mutilation, called euphemistically “female circumcision”, when the clitoris and labia minora of girl infants are cut off when they are only a few days old. This practice is mainly performed at home in the eastern plateau of Ethiopia, in the above mentioned Somali region and the Afar region to its north (see map). In 2000, the Ethiopian government launched a campaign against it, and was also able to win over the Afar Islamic leaders, who now announce that this mutilation has no Islamic basis in tradition, and it should be stopped. However, this custom is still practiced by 70-90% of the region.


Among the beggars of Addis Ababa, there are a lot of attractive, often well-dressed young mothers with one, sometimes two or three little kids. Usually two or three mothers are begging together, supporting each other. What could be the reason? Do so many men leave their wives, who then, left without a bread-winner, must go on the street? Or is female and child begging itself part of family maintenance? Some studies suggest the latter. Begging – and living from international support – is an accepted and widespread industry in Ethiopia. In 2008, Danish director Jakob Gottschau made a film about two of these young women who come to the capital from Northern Ethiopia after finishing the seasonal farm work, to beg for the rest of the year.

Catastrophe tourism is not my bread, nevertheless I make a picture of two young female beggars to share it here on the blog. The female student coming behind me asks me outrageously: “Why are you taking pictures?” “To show to my friends at home what I had seen.” “But why do you have to photograph what is wrong? Why not what is good? Then it goes on TV and everyone will think badly about Ethiopia.” “I’m not working for the TV,” I shut down the conversation. In fact, I wanted to say that they should make their squalid capital better, so one may take more good photos.


A beggar family on Churchill Street

But then I look into myself, and go to take some good photos where they can most easily be found: the pubs. The Piazza, the modern main square formed by the Italian conquerors, is flanked by strictly non-alcoholic café-confectioneries, and shamefully hidden pubs. Inside, satisfied people are talking, doing business, courting – this can be rarely seen elsewhere –, or just daydreaming. Unlike in other macho societies, single women or girlfriends can also enter the pubs, nobody will expel them or stare at them.

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Haile Selassie Street leading up from the Piazza, is the western border of the Armenian neighborhood. Armenian traders have been operating in Ethiopia for centuries. Since the expulsion of the Portuguese in 1633, they were the only contact to Europe. This was also facilitated by the fact, that both the Ethiopian and the Armenian churches belong to the so-called Monophysite (in their own terms, Miophysite) branch of Christianity, which, by rejecting the Chalcedonian Council of 451, emphasizes the divine nature of Christ at the expense of the human nature. During Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913), the renewer of Ethiopia, many Armenians fled here from Turkish persecution, and many of them held posts in imperial service, such as Haigaz Boyadjian, Ethiopia’s first court photographer, Krikor Howyan, court astronomer and chief architect of Addis Ababa, his successor, Minas Kherbekian, creator of modern Addis Ababa, or the historian Haig Patapan, Nietzsche’s Ethiopian translator. Emperor Haile Selassie saw in 1924, in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem, a brass band put together from the orphans of the 1915 genocide, and he invited them to his court. Known as Arba Lijoch (“forty children”), the band played a major role in the renewal of Ethiopian musical life, and ultimately in the creation of Ethiopian jazz.

The Arba Lijoch band. Photo by Haigaz Boyadjian

Haile Selassie and Queen Menen. Photo by Haigaz Boyadjian

Armenian taxi drivers in the Armenian quarter of Addis Ababa in the 1930s

Many of the Armenians emigrated from Ethiopia under socialism. Maybe one hundred of them still live in the capital. They still have a school, but it is mainly attended by the children of diplomats; and a church, but, in the absence of a priest, they only hold lay worship.

An elderly man sits at the table next to the entrance in a pub in the upper part of Haile Selassie Street. His European profile and ironed black suit is in sharp contrast to the locals. I go to him and politely ask him if he is an Armenian. Looking out the window, he replies barely audibly: “I’m Ethiopian.”


The Oromo people, the largest (34%) ethnic group in Ethiopia, lives in the south of the country. Traditionally, they were the most important targets for Arab and Somali slave traders, who dragged them into Arabic and Ottoman lands for centuries. Their territories were occupied and attached to Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik II only at the end of the 19th century. They have been marginalized since then. In recent years, the government has  massively ousted them from their lands, to put them in the hands of large investors. In the summer of 2015, mass protests were launched against this practice, which ended with hundreds of dead and an introduction of a state of emergency in the country.

The gorgeous modern building of the Oromo Cultural Center in Addis Ababa stands next to the bus station, allowing pride to fill the hearts of the Oromos coming to the city from the countryside. A bus has just stopped, a huge, colorful crowd swarms out of it. A tall, young man marching at the front of the crowd stops at the sight of our cameras, and also signals the crowd to stop. “These here are the refugees of Oromea. Our lands were taken, our houses destroyed. We came up to demonstrate. Please take pictures of us, spread the word about it in the world.” The crowd encircles us, everyone take position for being photographed. Meanwhile, everyone recounts at once: “Soldiers came…” “They surrounded us, drove us out of the house…” “We were sitting in the church for two days…” “They destroyed every house…”



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In the former imperial palace, both the Ethiopian founders of the 1910s, and the Italian invaders of 1936-41 managed to bring together everything that is petty and provincial. A golden monumental row of columns in a countryside villa-sized building, nastily grooved basalt masonry, a gilded pair of candelabras in the form of American Indians wearing Roman dress on the concrete columns under the balcony. In front of the building, a flagpole, around which the Italians built a concrete staircase with 14 steps, as many years as Mussolini spent in power. This interrupted concrete calendar was crowned in 1941 by the returning Ethiopians with an imperial concrete lion. This small museum of bad taste was finally abandoned by the emperor himself, and in 1960 he donated it to the university. Today it houses the Ethiopian Department; for that, it goes. And a small museum of ethnology, which has a little of everything: icons, tribal jewelry, church objects.

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An especially interesting item in the exhibition is a tribal gravepost, if I remember well, from the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. The grave looks like a whole big family resting beneath it, but it is actually for one single hero, with a big penis on his forehead. The other figures mark his greatness: on the one hand, his two wives, and on the other hand, the other heroes killed by him, as well as their wives, a leopard killed by him, and finally his spear, with which he achieved this whole performance, the chef-d’oeuvre of his life.

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They also display a similar gravepost in the tribal section of the National Museum, though with fewer figures, and no explanation. However, the great aces of the museum are the hominid finds, which especially abound in Ethiopia. The best-known is Lucy, the three-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis girl, but the best appreciated is the 160-thousand-year-old Homo sapiens idaltu, the oldest known representative of our species, discovered in 2003, so much that his skull and reconstructed image are exposed in the central room of the museum, in the middle of the Ethiopian crown jewels.

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Italy invaded Ethiopia twice. First in 1895-1896, then in 1935-1941. In both cases, basically to divert attention from economic hardship at home with military success abroad. First time they did not succeed: the great organizer and commander Menelik II defeated the Italian troops at Adua. The second time, the less eminent Haile Selassie gradually retreated to Addis Ababa, then organized partisan raids, and finally knocked them out of the country with British help. Kassa Wondimagegehu’s “naive icon” of 1977 in the National Museum summarizes the second invasion. The Italian aircraft on the horizon bombards Ethiopian villages and sprays them with poisonous gases. In the foreground, the Ethiopian and Italian infantry (the latter with Askari auxiliaries from Eritrea) shoot at each other. The real winners are the vultures and the striped (Hyaena hyaena) and spotted (Crocuta crocuta) hyenas, discussed in the guidebooks as typical animals of Ethiopia.

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We cross huge mountain ranges, leave stunning panoramas behind us. Small, colorfully painted villages fly by, large big fields worked with donkeys or oxen, herds of ten or twelve cows with a shepherd leaning on an eucalyptus stick and one leg, dried riverbeds, and, in the distance, the promising contours of the vast northern mountains. Plenty of Ethiopians dressed in white or color working on the fields, keeping cows, or going to the nearest market on the roadside with a donkey or only with a basket on their heads. There are many market villages with lots of shops and colorful crows. We stop in such a place, Debre Markos – the town of St. Mark’s Monastery – for lunch and taste for the first time the flavors of the Ethiopian countryside.

We cross the Blue Nile, the modern bridge built as a gift of the Japanese state. At the foot of the bridge, there is a small chapel, with the icon of Archangel Rafael on its external wall, who, as in Tobias’ book, catches the healing fish: This is a large, fat specimen, as it only breeds in the Nile. The Blue Nile comes from Lake Tana, where we are heading. This gives 60% – in the rainy season, 80% – of the water of the Nile, this brings the famous annual flood and spreads the valuable humus of the Ethiopian plateau over the Egyptian fields, when rain falls on the Ethiopian mountains. Although it is a dry season now, we have experienced such a night storm in the mountains, a terrifying experience. The river descends in a huge – sometimes one and a half kilometers deep – canyon to the Black Earth, with several waterfalls, although now, at the end of the dry season they are not very spectacular, because most of the water is being diverted for watering. Along the water, flourishing agricultural microcultures. “We used to harvest only once a year, but since there is the Agricultural University in Bahir Dar, with international support and instructors, most young farmers study there, and we have sown three times a year, grain, sugar cane and corn”, says the ferryman who takes us across the Nile to the waterfall. Hippopotamus eyes and mouths rise and fall below the water level, anacondas pass through the canals, pelicans form a well-trained stunt group with an old fisherman who feeds them with fishes to amuse tourists.

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Tradition dates to the 14th century the foundation of the twenty-some monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana. Their churches are simple, square-planned adobe shrines surrounded by round-planned galleries for the believers: from outside they look like huge African huts. The walls of the shrines are covered with fascinating frescoes in vibrant colors. With their naivety and banded narratives they recall the frescoes in the churches of Maramureș and Bukovina, and also because they follow the same folk Baroque style: a style that was brought here by the Portuguese. The pictures are a complete encyclopedia of the Ethiopian faith. The iconography, of Coptic and Byzantine origin, is complemented and made dazzling for the Western art historian by the apocryphal Ethiopian books: the Holy Ghost as an old man riding on a rooster, the symbol of lightning, St. John the Baptist left in the desert by his mother who died at birth, and breast-fed by an antelope, the adventures and miracles of the little Jesus during the Flight to Egypt (which, due to the local proximity, may have been of particular interest to the Ethiopians), the emphasis on the seven (!) archangels, the perverted person devouring seventy people who made his way into heaven by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, for having once given to drink to a leper. And the rest. As if we were to see the illustrations of the biblical stories interpreted by the African-American preachers of Roark Bradford. Meanwhile, the ceremony also focuses on an apocryphal element, the Holy Ark of the Covenant, which, according to the Ethiopian tradition, was brought from Jerusalem by Menelik, the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba of Ethiopia (!), and is now hidden somewhere in the vicinity of Aksum, but was kept for a time in each of several Tana monasteries.

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Late afternoon, the sound of a violin penetrates the hotel room from below, a stubborn, energetic melody, accompanied by applause and shouting. We go down to find out the source. We find it in the neighboring pub. Fifty-sixty people in a tight place, apparently the local young middle class, like in a Budapest ruin pub. Among them, a fiddler-singer – azmari – goes up and down, improvising rhymes on the situation and the listeners. “America, America, a beautiful country, / and much more if they grease our bow with one or two dollars”, he sings to Lloyd. Their fiddle is called masenko, what immediately recalls the recurrent monolog in Alex Haley’s Roots, where Kunta-Kinte and his descendants revive the few words they still remember from Africa: “…and ko is violin…”.


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In Bahir Dar we find a good fixer, who, among other things, organizes for us the tour to the Simien Mountains, one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful regions. With his recommendation, we stop along the way in the village of Awra Amba (“On the hilltop”), a community created in 1980 by a visionary – and slightly autistic – founder, Zumra Nuru. The basic principles of the community of more than five hundred people are markedly different from patriarchal Ethiopian standards: equality of women and men, respect for children’s rights, care for the elderly who are unable to work, avoiding bad speech and bad deeds, and instead emphasizing mutual respect, cooperation and good deeds, and considering all people as brothers and sisters. The latter is particularly important in a society where the Christian majority and the Islamic minority are still rigidly separated from each other. The working members of the community cultivate land or weave. Twice a week they sell the products of their work on the market, they put the proceeds in the common budget, and at the end of the year everyone receives an equal share of the profit. The village, the houses, the workshops are much more orderly and well equipped than elsewhere in Ethiopia, and the members of the community also seem more satisfied, more confident and dignified.

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Jews have been living in Ethiopia for almost three thousand years. According to one of their origin traditions, which has become virtually official in Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia (!), during her visit to Jerusalem, conceived a child from King Solomon. As the boy, Menelik, grew up, he also went to Jerusalem to visit his father, who initiated him in his wisdom. He returned home with a retinue of Jewish escorts, and he also brought with him the Holy Ark of the Covenant, which is now hidden somewhere around Aksum. Another tradition, preferred by the Jews, is based on the statement made in Egypt in the 9th century by an Ethiopian Jew named Eldad ha-Dani. According to this, his people belonged to the tribe of Dan, and they fled to Egypt and then further along the Nile up to Ethiopia after the death of Solomon and the subsequent division of the kingdom of Israel and the civil war, and finally during the Babylonian occupation. In Ethiopia they are known as falasha, “landless,” because, in terms of the laws of the Christian kingdom, they could not possess land, only work as craftsmen. They built, for example, the magnificent palaces of the Renaissance capital, Gondar. In the second half of the 20th century, Jews lived in some 500 villages, mainly around the two old capitals, Aksum and Gondar. The majority of them were saved from the horrors of the communist system of Mengistu between 1979 and 1990 by the Israeli state, fleeing to Israel, where today they are about 120 thousand. They have not really managed to fit in: they are in a marginal position, doing bad jobs, if they get a job at all. In Ethiopia, hardly any of them are left, mainly those living in mixed marriages.

The village of Wolleka, the best-known Ethiopian Jewish settlement, is four kilometers from Gondar. Once it was inhabited by the 16th-century builders of Gondar, who, after completing the job, worked here as potters. Nowadays, after the Jews’ aliyah, the craft is taken over by those who stayed here in mixed marriages, and the Christians who moved in. They mainly make archaic Jewish gift figures, of King Solomon, the Lion of Judah, prophets, and the like, which look very good, as if they were following thousands of years of tradition. Arriving in the village, we stop in front of such a pottery workshop, where they have put up a “Falasha Village” signpost for Israeli visitors. A fourteen-year-old girl is offering her wares. She is called Hannah, her mother was Jewish, her father Christian, but they both have died. She is extremely intelligent, she studies accounting in the city. She wraps the purchased figurines in pages ripped out of her school booklet. She gives me her e-mail to practice English via the Internet, and I also give her mine.

We go up to the synagogue which stands a few hundred meters uphill. Hannah offers to lead us. This includes the benefit of her disarming the merchants who pounce upon us along the way, by telling them that they have nothing to do with us, we buy from her. The synagogue is a simple, square building, with a pointed wooden roof. According to the foundation stone next to it, it was built in 1942 by Gola Tesema and his partner, Takaye Elyas. Sometimes it is still used for worship by the Jews visiting from Israel. The nearby building of the jeshiva and library is completely empty. In the synagogue, a great stack of faded photographs, sent home by the Ethiopian Jews from Israel, to show pride in how they are living. In Ethiopia, this is considered a great success.

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To be continued

Two monkeys


Bruegel’s smallest picture (only 19,8 × 23,3 cm, 1562, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) depicts two monkeys. They are sitting in the window of a thick-walled building, chained to the windowsill, and beyond the window you see the port city of Antwerp. Next to them, on the windowsill, the empty shell of a crushed hazelnut.

If someone who usually expresses himself with two hundred figures, in one picture unexpectedly uses only two, that must mean something. But what?

According to some authors, the painting, like Bruegel’s many other small pictures, is an illustration of a Flemish proverb: “to go to court for a nut”. Whoever goes to court, should not be surprised for being arrested there. And if he went for nothing, then he himself was looking for trouble. The two free birds flying in the sky over the city form a sharp counterpoint to the two monkeys chained next to the hazelnut shell.

Andrea Alciato also imagines the courtier in chains, with freely flying birds above him. Los emblemas de Alciato traducidos en rimas españolas, Lyon: Roville-Bonhomme, 1549, «In aulicos» (on courtiers), p. 146.

In other opinions, the painting is only a study, in which the master depicted for later use two of the exotic animals regularly brought to Antwerp. However, we do not know any other similar sketch from Bruegel, and the detailed elaboration of the small painting also suggests a finished picture.

At the same time, it is a fact that Bruegel also produced two other pictures in the same year, where he used the lessons of this study. One is the painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg, Amsterdam, Museum van den Bergh, inv. no. 788). In the picture, an uprooted, helmeted woman runs swiftly with a sword, with female soldiers behind her, who seem to want to lay siege on Hell. This hell is populated with the monster figures of Bosch, which Bruegel had imitated so many times; but this is the first time he also includes monkeys, and the two monkeys looking out of the round window of the castle are very similar to the two in the small painting. The interpretation of the picture is uncertain, but it might be an example of the carnivalesque swap of roles, so popular among Renaissance authors: here, women take on the role of warrior men. The monkeys emphasize this role change by playing a human role in the hellish castle.


griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet griet

The other picture is the print The monkeys rob the sleeping pedlar, made by Bruegel for the publisher To the four winds of his regular companion, Hieronymus Cock. In this, the monkeys take on the goods pulled out of the pedlar’s basket, and the human roles associated with them. The great number of small figures amounts to a complete study of simian movement. The monkeys’ round dance in the middle evokes a similar motif from Dulle Griet.



We do not know what piqued Bruegel’s interest in monkeys that year, and why it abated later. He may have found some inspiration in the unexpectedly seen exotic monkeys, and he painted them with the exclamation this will be good for something, but then one of his humanist friends begged for the painting for his curiosity cabinet. He may have wanted to dominate the genre of exotic animals sought by the Kunst- und Wunderkammers and encyclopedias, similarly to the other contemporary themes, such as landscapes, peasant scenes or Bosch’s devilries, that he tried and succeeded in, but this time it somehow did not come in. Nevertheless, the master never discarded anything he had created, so he also used the motif of the Two monkeys in the later painting and print.

And just as Bruegel created the genre of modern landscapes and peasant scenes, so these few monkey representations also had an impact on later art. In 1575, his popular monkey print inspired Pieter van der Borcht to publish a whole print series, where monkeys behave like human beings, thus emphasizing the comicality of a situation. With this series starts the genre of singerie, the monkey scenes parodying human society, which holds its popularity from the late Renaissance to the 20th century. Bruegel’s son and grandson, the Elder and Younger Jan Brueghel also took part in the early dissemination of this genre.

Pieter van der Borcht the Elder, The Quack, 1575

Pieter Feddes Harlingen’s version on Bruegel’s print, early 17th c

Jan Brueghel the Elder and the Younger, Monkey feast, c. 1620

Abraham Teniers, Monkeys arresting a cat, mid-17th. c

But the genre’s most touching representative is not a painter, but a poet, the Nobel Prize winner Wysława Szymborska, who wrote her ekphrasis on Bruegel’s painting shortly after 1981, the ban on Solidarność and the introduction of martial law in Poland.

Dwie małpy Brueghla

Tak wygląda mój wielki maturalny sen:
siedzą w oknie dwie małpy przykute łańcuchem,
za oknem fruwa niebo
i kąpie się morze.

Zdaję z historii ludzi.
Jąkam się i brnę.

Małpa, wpatrzona we mnie, ironicznie słucha,
druga niby to drzemie --
a kiedy po pytaniu nastaje milczenie,
podpowiada mi
cichym brząkaniem łańcucha.
Bruegel’s two monkeys

This is my great dream about final exam:
two monkeys in chains sit in the window,
behind them, the sky is flying
and the sea taking its bath.

The exam is in the history of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares at me sardonically, silently,
the other naps,
but when the question is followed by silence,
he prompts me with a gentle
clicking of his chain.