His name was Simon, and he gave me fleas. I forgave him, though, for without his four sturdy hooves beneath me, I would have struggled to scale the steep, stony trail that switchbacked up to a plateau more than 3,000 feet above the Ethiopian town of Lalibela.
I savored the vastest of vistas. Low, flat-topped mountains stretched to the distant, curved horizon. I inhaled the cool, thin air and was thankful Simon the mule had done most of the hard work getting me here. My traveling companions had also ridden. Curiously, all their mules were called Simon, too.
We set off at dawn in order to be atop the plateau before the harsh sun blunted the view. By late morning the mountains are pale and hazy, and the temperature is uncomfortable for man and mule.
We enjoyed the panorama for a few minutes before striking out across the plateau, riding through fields of teff (a grain related to millet) on our way to the cave-church of Ashetan Maryam.
The final stretch of the route, up the sheer side of a cliff, was too narrow for our herd of Simons. We left them grazing in an unfortunate farmer’s field while we completed the journey on foot.
Access to the 800-year-old church is through a narrow, partially concealed tunnel. When we emerged, the priest greeted us and invited us into the sacred building. The interior was painstakingly carved into the rock and was carpeted with old straw. It smelled like a stable.
The priest lit a beeswax candle. In its fragile glow, he showed us several centuries-old manuscripts written in Ge’ez, an ancient language thought to have died out in its spoken form more than 1,600 years ago. These written texts are enduring artifacts of an indigenous thread of Christianity that has survived in this formidable terrain for centuries.
The most incredible legacy of Ethiopia’s homegrown brand of Christianity is the town of Lalibela itself. Thousands of craftsmen were commissioned by 12th-century King Lalibela to carve 10 churches out of solid rock. These architectural masterpieces earned Lalibela its status as a World Heritage site.
I spent a full day exploring each of the churches. They were linked together by a confusing labyrinth of tunnels and trenches. In Bet Maryam (House of St. Mary), I stood in front of a cloth-covered pillar upon which Jesus Christ, in apparition, is said to have personally inscribed the entire history of the world, from start to finish. Another church, Bet Gabriel (House of Gabriel), is protected by a frighteningly deep moat spanned by a rickety bridge. “Welcome to Heaven,” said the priest when I reached the other side.
The most impressive of all the churches is Bet Giorghis (House of St. George), a carved monolith excavated in the shape of a Greek cross. I approached the entrance, 50 feet below ground level, through a descending trench pitted with what are reputed to be the hoofprints of the steed Lalibela himself rode while supervising construction.
The resident priest was proud to show me a fabulously old painting of the patron saint slaying a hideous, fire-breathing dragon. Outside, within a cave burrowed into the side of the etched cliff face, he pointed out three mummified corpses. “Tourists,” he said, chuckling. “They died of thirst many centuries ago. Don’t let it happen to you!”
That evening, I quenched my thirst in a local bar, drinking tej (honey mead). The place was full of laughter, animated talk and arabesque music. I sat in the corner, scratching. I retired early in order to sprinkle myself and all my belongings with flea powder — one of the essentials on any trip to rural Ethiopia.
The following day, we made a short flight across the mountains to a rough airstrip on the shore of Lake Tana. From there, we traveled by Land Cruiser into Gondar, which, like Lalibela, is a former Ethiopian capital.
Gondar’s heyday was more recent than that of Lalibela. The town rose to prominence in the 17th century under the rule of Emperor Fasilides. At the heart of Gondar is an imposing castle which at first appears to be of European design but on closer inspection reveals many indigenous Axumite architectural details.
I hastily walked past the rusty cages in which Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, kept his pet lions, and waded through long grass beneath pine trees into the lengthening shadow of the great building. Inside, the rooms were empty apart from fluttering, dust-stirring doves.
A short drive from the castle, we entered Gondar’s most famous church, Debre Berhan Selassie (Mount of the Light of the Trinity). Built by Emperor Zara Yaqob, the church boasts an incredible ceiling painted with the enigmatic faces of 104 angels.
From afar, Ethiopia appears to be just another African country, beset with the usual problems of corruption, conflict and famine. Over the past 30 years, news headlines bolstered this perception, overshadowing an entirely different story. Uniquely, Ethiopia has never been successfully colonized and until 1974 was ruled for almost 2,000 years by the Solomonic dynasty, which claims direct descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
The heartland of that dynasty lies in the arid north, in the town of Axum. Here, the tombs of some of the early rulers are marked by incredible stelae: Carved with doors and windows, these towering 2,000-year-old granite monoliths stand as the world’s first skyscrapers. One of the finest was looted by the Italians during their brief occupation in the 1930s and stood for many years in the center of Rome. It was finally returned to its original site in 2008.
Not far from the main stelae field there is a modest chapel said to hold one of humanity’s most sacred objects, the Ark of the Covenant. The chapel is protected by a perimeter fence and is guarded night and day by a resident priest.
“How would Indiana Jones get in?” we speculated in the hotel bar on the night of our arrival in Axum. Using glasses and beer mats to mark out the lay of the land, we devised several schemes involving elaborate diversionary tactics.
Our bravado had worn off by the time we faced the actual building the following morning. The guardian, dressed in holy robes, stood at the gate.
“We could always ask him,” I whispered. My companions smiled sarcastically. Yeah, right.
I walked up to the gate. The guardian watched my approach through rheumy eyes. I nodded in greeting. He nodded back.
“Can we come in?” Without a word, he applied the key to the rusty padlock, untangled the chain and opened the gate.
There were two catches. First, he insisted the three women in our small group remain outside the fence. The men readily agreed. We avoided eye contact with our fairer companions as we filed through. Second, we would not, under any circumstances, be permitted within the Holy of Holies, the curtained inner sanctum in which the Ark — said to contain the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments — is reputed to lie.
After a few minutes in reverential silence, we returned outside, content to let the secret of the Ark endure. But another secret had been revealed to us. We discovered that Ethiopia — for so long blighted with war and famine — is one of the most beautiful and fascinating countries in the world.
Info To Go
International flights arrive at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (AD). There is an extensive network of domestic air routes. Local tour operator 2020 Ethiopian Tours offers a range of itineraries taking in the main tourist attractions, including Lalibela, Gondar and Axum.
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