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 Dergue (“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 Dergue between 1983 and 1985. The current regime – which came to power by defeating the Dergue 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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In the Selassie (Holy Trinity) Cathedral, the most beautiful church of Gondar, the Renaissance capital of Ethiopia, on the western wall, to the right and left of the main entrance, masses are waiting for the Last Judgment. Most of them, like here below, humbly descending behind the sword-bearing angel, and comforted by the sound of the Ethiopian harp of King David. Below, however, a strange, ugly naked figure is led to the Judgment on camelback by a devil, to finally get him legally. According to the local guide, this is the prophet Mohamed (je suis Charlie). According to the literature, however, he is rather another great local Islamic leader, imam and commander: Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, that is, Ahmed, son of Abraham, the Conqueror. According to his Ethiopian Christian adversaries: “the Gragn,” that is, “the Left-Handed”.

In the 1520s, Ahmed, the Left-Handed united the Muslim Somali and Afar tribes under the name of Adal Sultanate, and this franchise had a good enough name to get rifles from the Ottoman Empire, which had not been seen here before. In 1529, they invaded Christian Ethiopia, causing terrible destruction. In the Ethiopian mountains, it is still shown that this or that village, monastery or castle was destroyed by the Gragn. The Ethiopian empire, hovering between life and death, finally invited in the Christian Portuguese to help, who had just recently appeared on the horizon. The Portuguese sent Captain Cristóvão da Gama, son of Vasco da Gama, who, in a successful campaign of 1541 and 1542, pushed the Muslims back to the sea shore. The Gragn, however, asked for even more rifles and artillery from the Ottomans, and in the last battle he captured the Portuguese vanguard, including the captain, who were tortured, and when they refused to convert to Islam, executed. Finally, the rest of the Portuguese team, together with the Ethiopian army, defeated the Gragn’s army at Wayna Daga on 21 February 1543. The place where a Portuguese musketeer shot the Gragn is today marked by a simple concrete gravepost. Around this time, on the anniversary of his death, local Muslims bring flowers to it, which are then soon cleared away by the Christians.

The frescoes of the Trinity Church of Gondar are perhaps the most beautiful examples of the Ethiopian “folk Baroque”. The wall separating the sanctuary from the ship is decorated by the Trinity, symbolized by three old men, and by a large Crucifixion underneath, with all the side-figures, darkening day and moon, excitedly bustling stars, at the foot of the cross with the skull of Adam drinking Christ’s redeeming blood, and, beneath the cross, as is usual on Ethiopian frescoes, the lying figure of the donator, Emperor Egwala Seyon. The southern wall of the nave is decorated with the scenes of Jesus’ life, and the north wall with the specific Ethiopian themes: Mary’s life with all the apocryphal scenes of the Flight into Egypt, and, below, the Ethiopian knight-saints, each in St. George’s pose. The empty spaces between the scenes, as well as the ceiling, are filled with lots of double-winged, large-eyed cherub-heads, members of the heavenly court, who, with their multitude, testify of the omnipresence of God. Ad the comets swirling around the head of the crucified Christ also seem to be a kind of a celestial court, which alone recognized the universal significance of the moment.

An old guard in white robe is sitting at the back wall. A young tour guide explains the meaning of the images to two British travelers, who fall from one loud surprise to another, especially when it turns out that the guide is Muslim. In the courtyard, on the porch, next to the little bell made of a truck’s brake disc, some pilgrims are sitting in the sleepy, timeless glow. One of them occasionally stands up, walks around the temple, bows down at each door and kisses it, then sits back in his or her place. It is as if they mirrored the heavenly court down here on earth.

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To the west of Lake Tana, in Qwara Province lived a beautiful girl, whose beauty and prudence surpassed all imagination, so much that instead of her original name – Welete Giyorgis –, everyone called her “Mentewab” – “oh, how beautiful you are!”. Her fame came to the emperor, who wished to see her. As soon as he saw her, he fell in love with her, and he married her. In Gondar, the Fasil Ghebbi royal fortress, founded a century earlier by Emperor Fasilidas, he built a separate palace for her. In 1723, there she gave birth to her son, who in 1730, after the early death of his father Emperor Bokassa, came to the throne as Iyasu II. Together with the minor emperor, Mentewab was also crowned empress. No woman before her reached such a high rank in Ethiopia, and she really built out a great power. She received as a lover the young nephew of her late husband, Prince Iyasu, of whom three daughters were born. The prince died in 1742, falling from a rock around Lake Tana. Allegedly, he was made to kill by Emperor Iyasu II, who was ashamed that his mother had a lover. In 1755, the young emperor also died – some said, Prince Iyasu’s sister poisoned him –, and after his death, his widow, Wubit, demanded for herself and her minor son, Emperor Iyoas the same power hitherto practiced by Mentewab. The conflict of the two queens went so far that they both called to Gondar the armies of their relatives, the Qwara and Oromo people. In a situation that threatened to become a civil war, Mentewab called for  the mediation of the powerful and violent Ras Mikael Sehul (“Sly Michael”), Governor of Tigray. Ras Mikael solved the situation in his own way. He went to Gondar with his army, expelled the relatives of the two queens from there, then strangled Emperor Ioyas, married one of Mentewab’s daughters and crowned himself as emperor. This was the beginning of the Zemene Mesafint, the hundred years of Ethiopian civil war. The broken Mentewab retired, with the corpses of her son and grandson, to Kuskuam Fortress, founded by her, where she spent the rest of her life.

Kuskuam Fortress has been in ruins for two hundred years. Only Mary’s Church has been preserved intact. It is only open in the morning for an hour, and the pilgrims who come later pray before its gate. Sheep are grazing among the ruins, a pilgrim in white clothing is sitting in the fortress gate, and singing a long, monotonous melody. In the corner of the small room furnished as a museum – memento mori – the bones of the empress, her son and grandson are kept in a coffin.

In the fortress of Emperor Fasilidas, the Italian invaders installed their military headquarters in 1936, and thus in 1941 the British army bombed down most of the palaces.

Well, such ballads are produced in the Ethiopian highlands.

The palace of Emperor Fasilidas – “the Ethiopian Camelot”, according to the ads – in the fortress of Gondar

Empress Mentewab as a donator, lying at the feet of the Virgin Mary in the Nerga Selassie Church on Lake Tana, 1748

The Simien Mountains are the “Roof of Africa”. Over the past seventy-five million years, the same rivers that have nourished the Nile, also carved canyons and shaped staggering rock formations in its huge basalt plateau. One of the world’s most diverse, most exciting mountainous regions, with stunning panoramas at every turn.

We head to the mountains from the town of Debark. We have to pay an entry fee, sit in a jeep, with an armed guard in every jeep who accompanies us to the end on the mountain roads. Five or six Western tourists with full equipment are a rich and easy booty in the unpopulated mountainous area. Before a jeepful of travelers gather together, we look around in the Friday animal fair. Time is short, we cannot talk to the locals and inquire about the price of the animals like we did in Armenia.

Up there, other kinds of animals are waiting for us. At our first stop, the plateau where we get out is densely covered by gelada baboons, like a herd on pasture. Sitting in small groups – one or two mothers and their children – they dig out clumps of grass and eat their root stems. The herd is overseen by a few large males. They are not afraid of people, you can walk among them, take pictures. The young are still suspicious, they jump away before us, the mothers reassure them, explaining to them that man never harms anyone. Later we also meet ibex antelopes, who are also not afraid of us.

We are at a height of three thousand and nine hundred meters. On the third day we are supposed to reach up to four thousand two hundred, at the base of Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dashan (4533). Our trail winds on the edge of the plateau, we can see into a depth of hundreds of meters and many kilometers away, on a golden brown sea of newer and newer peaks and ridges. In the autumn, after the rainy season, all this will be brilliant green. Crows circle around us with planetary precision, and in a more distant orbit, vultures, perhaps hoping for falling hikers.

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“Traveling the roads of Ethiopia is arduous and often risky. In the dry season, the car skids over gravel on a narrow shelf cut into the flank of a steep mountain; the road runs along the edge of a precipice several hundred meters deep. In the rainy season, the mountain roads are impassable. Those on level ground turn into muddy quagmires, in which one can get stuck for days.” (Ryszard Kapuściński: „Lalibela 1975,” from his Shadow of the Sun: My African Life)

The situation has improved somewhat since Kapuściński. Mountain roads were enlarged, and most of the national highways paved. Nowadays we can get from A to B not only with a casual truck, but also by regular bus services. However, transportation has not become much faster. From Gondar to the monasteries of Lalibela it still takes about 10 to 12 hours to make the 350-kilometer journey. The buses therefore stop at noon in an intermediary “bus station”, where passengers can eat and do shopping. Not only some snacks and water for the road, but everything they need at home: a big sack of flour, hardware, seeds, live hens. Therefore, the noontime bus stations, be they in any small, backside location, are encircled by a large marketplace, where all kinds of goods, services and people can be found. The butchers sell not only half goats and cattle, but they also immediately cut up and grill the meat for spicy tibs, served in clay dishes upon braziers. A vivid, smart boy sits at our table. He came from a small village to study in Lalibela, he wants to be a veterinarian. He invites himself to a cola, and then passes over a collecting sheet: he collects money for textbooks on behalf of the school.

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“A while later Tadesse suddenly grabbed me by the arm. I thought that he wanted to ask me for something, but then realized he was only preventing me from falling into a chasm. For just below was a church carved out of stone. A three-story-high structure cut into the massive mountain beneath our feet, inside it, as it were. And farther on, in the same mountain, also invisible at ground level, was carved another church, and another. All together, eleven great churches. This architectural wonder was constructed in the twelfth century by Saint Lalibela, ruler of the Amhara kingdom, whose inhabitants were (and are) Oriental Christians. There is a Church of the Virgin Mary here, of the Savior of the World, of the Holy Cross and St. George, of Mark and Gabriel, all of them connected by underground tunnels.

“Look, sir”, said Tadesse, pointing down to the courtyard in front of the Church of the Savior of the World. But I had already noticed the sight myself. A dozen or so meters below where we stood, in the yard and on the steps of the church, surged a crowd of lame beggars. It is odd to say “surged” when speaking of discrete human beings, but that word best describes the scene. The people below were so tightly squeezed together, their crippled limbs, stumps, and crutches so tightly interwined, that they formed a single crawling mass, out of which dozens of arms stretched upward like tentacles, and, where there were no limbs, innumerable gaping mouths extended upward, waiting for something to be thrown into them. As we walked from one church to another, this gnarled, moaning, expiring creature below crept after us, and from it dropped every now and then an inert, already lifeless member, abandoned by the rest.

There had been no pilgrims here in a long while, to throw down their alms, and these cripples were unable to get out of the stony chasms.

“Did you see, sir?” Tadesse asked me as we made our way back to the village. And he said it as though to suggest he thought this the only thing really worth seeing.”

(Ryszard Kapuściński: „Lalibela 1975”, from his Shadow of the Sun: My African Life)

Since Kapuściński, this has also changed. The eleven majestic churches, cut into the rock, still are there. But before and in them, no beggars and cripples surge any more, but a multitude of pilgrims in white or yellow robes. They pray, meditate, sit in silence, they retreat into themselves just as the churches do into the rocks. And if the temples did not testify enough of the power of the Ethiopian Church, which has survived for two thousand years at the margins of Christianity, among Muslim enemies, the slowly flowing mass and silent concentration of the pilgrims does testify to it. This was indeed one thing really worth seeing.

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Beyond the monasteries, there are the traditional circular houses of the old village, which have been nicely restored, due to the World Heritage status afforded to the complex. In front of one of them, a small table, around which a dozen of students learn to read by reciting from the Bible, as in pre-war Eastern European church schools and yeshivas. Their teacher sells icons painted on goatskin, exhibited on the wall of the house.

Recitation of the students of the Lalibela monastery school. Recording by Lloyd Dunn, 12 February 2019.

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On the other side of the monastery ensemble, a modern tin town has been created, this is Lalibela’s livelier face. On the road between the two, people come up and down from the morning, going to church or coming from the Mass, shopping or delivering goods, or just showing themselves to the others. All of them with an elegant posture, dressed well. We sit down in a cafe with a few steps below the street level, watching and photographing the fashion show taking place on the street as a catwalk.

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At the time of Kapuściński, the seven-hundred-kilometer journey from Lalibela to Addis Ababa took two days by truck. Knowing that, despite the better roads, the buses have not sped up significantly, I ask in the Lalibela bus station already on arrival, how long the road will be, for when should I buy a ticket. The young station supervisor who plays the insider says it starts at six in the morning and gets there at five in the afternoon. Fine. Still, the world has advanced. However, you can buy a ticket only the previous day, because the current ticket block comes with the latest bus from Addis Ababa. In any case, I book two tickets. Over the next few days, the supervisor calls me several times, or, when passing by with his friends, he stops at our hotel, to announce that the ticket is going to be ready, or rather to boast of his European contacts. Finally we do have them in hand, for about 10 euros per person. Already at 5 a.m. we are at the bus, which is important, otherwise we would not get a seat. Passengers travel with huge stocks to the capital, where, they seem to believe, there will be nothing for them to eat: they carry large flour sacks, baskets of vegetables, live chickens.

The bus goes slowly, but actually how slowly, we only realize later, when we arrive at Dessie, the largest town on the road, at 4 p.m. This is only 300 km from Lalibela, with 400 more to go to Addis Ababa. “At what time do we get there?” I ask the driver. “Four in the morning”, he announces the new time, but now I think they just gratuitously invent these times, without actually counting and taking responsibility for it. Our flight leaves at 4 a.m., we should be there at 2, at least. We take the risk of leaving the bus at a cafe, and asking for a taxi that would take us to the Addis Ababa airport in time. The waitress calls someone who soon will arrive to organize it. A short, thick Muslim businessman arrives with a jeep. He inquires about our requirements and starts a crazy calling session. In a quarter hour he says there is a taxi driver who would take us for 8000 birr, that is, about 250 euros. “Couldn’t it be 6000?” I ask him, not as if the price were unpayable, but rather to prevent him from going higher. We agree in 7500. We go to the bank to change money. As I produce the banknotes, he tells me to change 8500, because he also needs 1000 birr (about 30 euros) broker fee.

The taxi comes in, we agree to cover the 400 km in eight hours. He takes it. But we circulate almost one more hour in Dessie, partly for various business of the broker, and partly in search of fuel. There is apparently no gasoline in the city. We drive from place to place, and finally at a gas station, where you can only refill with a voucher, our driver gets a full tank at a black price. At this point, a long bargain begins about how much to pay them in advance, because of course they want to get the whole amount right there. We agree to pay half of it then, and the other half on arrival.

We set off on the road, if it can be called a road. There are many unpaved sections, dangerous mountain bends. Our driver is not accustomed to driving in darkness, he gets tired again and again, and buying energy drinks. Finally, I take the wheel from him, I drive a long while, but he can’t sleep, he trembles for his car. When he takes it back at midnight, there are still 140 km left. But he does not realize that this means he should go at least 70 to be there. We crawl along in the Ethiopian night, and sometimes we urge him. Finally, we reach the airport at two-thirty, still in time for boarding. We pay the other half of the agreed amount, but he holds up his hand with a sneaky smile: “It’s not so simple!” We are also supposed to contribute to the gasoline, for we heard that on the black price it was more expensive. “That’s your problem”, I say, and leave the money on the hood.

With this paradigmatic story, Ethiopia says goodbye to us.