Installment: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by Elliott Hester
on photos for more images of Ethiopia
spite of its location in drought and famine-prone northeast Africa,
Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, is a historical
and anthropological gold mine.
traveling around the country I visited island monasteries, grandiose
castles, 2000-year-old sculpted monoliths, ancient churches carved
out of volcanic rock, and the fossilized remains of Lucy –
our 3.2 million-year-old human ancestor, the "missing link"
which seems to prove, once and for all, that humankind evolved from
refer to Lucy as Dinqinesh, which means "Thou art wonderful"
in Amharic, the local language. The nearly complete plaster-cast
skeleton of this phenomenal half-human/half-ape is housed in an
unassuming glass display case at the National Museum in Addis Ababa.
(The actual bones are hidden away in the museum archives.) A 3-foot,
60-pound female hominoid, she was discovered in 1974 at Hadar on
the lower Awash River in the country's Danakil region.
to previous theories which suggested that our ancestors didn't begin
to walk on two legs until after they developed larger brains, Dinqinesh
stood erect and had a tiny brain. This, along with the fact that
her jawbone, pelvis and legs are undeniably human, makes Dinqinesh
the world's most important anthropological find and distinguishes
Ethiopia as the "Cradle of Humanity."
is more than old bones, however. But I had to leave Addis Ababa,
the sprawling capital of 5 million, to find it. For about $290 U.S.
I purchased tickets on Ethiopian Airways and flew north to the historic
sites of Bahar Dar, Gonder, Aksum and Lalibela.
source of the Blue Nile is less than two miles outside of Bahar
Dar. But on nearby Lake Tana, Ethiopia's largest, I found equally
compelling attractions. There are 37 islands upon which some twenty
16th and 17th-century monasteries exist.
about 250 birr ($30) I hired a boat captain and guide. We embarked
from the southernmost point of the lake and motored across it for
nearly an hour before reaching the Zege Peninsula. After tying the
boat to the dock, we walked up a dusty trail, past local women who
stomp-washed clothes in huge bowl-shaped boulders filled with soapy
water. Fifteen minutes later we reached Ura Kidane Meret, the most
famous of the island monasteries.
Kidan is a circular mud and straw structure with 12 massive wooden
doors representing each of the apostles. The 16th-century house
of worship is still used for services today. Interior walls are
covered with 450-year-old cotton cloth upon which a compendium of
religious tales (St. George slaying the dragon, the birth of Christ,
etc) are painted.
collection of old crosses and royal crowns jam the shelves of the
tiny museum. The crown of Emperor Libnedingle, who ruled from 1508
to 1538, is the oldest on display. I looked through a collection
of religious books written in ancient Ge'ez (the predecessor to
modern-day Amharic). The Story of the Apostles, is said to have
been written in the 9th century.
we boarded the boat and sailed to the Kebran Gabriel and Dega Estefanos
monasteries. Unfortunately, both are open to men only. As is the
case with Ura Kidane Meret, the interior walls are adorned with
religious paintings and each monastery has an impressive collection
of ancient books.
Bahar Dar, I flew to Gonder which is often referred to as "Africa's
Camelot." It was here in 1636 that Emperor Fasiladas founded
Ethiopia's first permanent capital. Over the next 40 years, Gonder,
which lay at the crossroads of three important caravan routes, grew
to become a powerful and prosperous town. The Royal Enclosure, a
walled-in compound of palaces, banquet halls and bathing pools,
gives evidence to this fact.
the Royal Enclosure's four palaces, Emperor Fasiladas' was the only
one to survive the bombs dropped by British war planes during the
liberation from Italy in 1941. The palace is in fact a grand, two-story
castle made of rough basalt stone with domed towers at the corners.
Although the massive first floor dining and living areas are now
empty, I could almost feel the old opulence as I walked through.
From his bedroom on the top floor, the Emperor could look out over
his kingdom and see Lake Tana where the island monasteries were
soon to be constructed.
flew farther north to Aksum. Between the 3rd and 6th centuries,
the Kingdom of Aksum grew even more powerful than would Gonder hundreds
of years later. In addition to the ruined palace of the legendary
Queen of Sheba, there are huge granite obelisks (some of which are
2,000 years old), reminders of more prosperous time. The obelisks
or "stelae" were erected as tombstones for local rulers.
Many of these stelae stand as tall as high-rise buildings and are
carved with faux windows, doors and handles. The taller and more
ornately carved the obelisk, the more prominent the ruler.
a quick flight south, I came across Ethiopia's most impressive historic
structures: the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
during the 12th or 13th century in this remote town nestled in the
Lasta Mountains, 11 churches were carved out of volcanic rock. Like
pieces of cake cut from the center, craftsmen carved square trenches
out of nearby hillsides. From the resulting blocks of rock they
fashioned steps, windows, doors, facades, and then scooped out the
insides leaving only support columns. These elaborate churches,
which were said to have been constructed instead by angels in the
night, are connected by a series of courtyards, tunnels and bridges.
best preserved and most visually stunning of Lalibela's churches,
St. George stands approximately 75 feet high. Having seen how unusable
land could be transformed into a beautiful place of worship, it's
easy to understand why locals believe the angels built it.
here for more images of Ethiopia
stop: Dahab, Egypt.
TO TOP OF PAGE
RETURN TO HOME PAGE