Ethiopian Journey III: Some Cultural Observations

It would be wrong to describe Ethiopia only in terms of its history or topography as my last two posts did; rather its people and its culture are what make it one of the most unique countries in the world. My two week tour did its best to introduce us to these aspects in this fascinating country.


Estimates of Ethiopia’s population generally settle around the 100 million mark, but no one is really sure as no census has been done, ever. Everyone belongs to a tribe; there are about 80 in total, each with their own language, customs and territory. Our guide claimed she could identify some of the tribes by their physical features, flatter lips, higher cheekbones, height, etc. The Amhara are the largest and Amharic is the lingua franca of Ethiopia, with all government administration done in it, along with it being the second language learned in school. English is also studied at a young age and many youngsters joined me on the street, eager to practice English with a native speaker.

It is also very poor, usually ranking in the poorest 20 countries in the world. Signs of poverty were evident everywhere: beggars, lack of indoor plumbing, constant power outages, bumpy, unpaved roads and rampant petty crime in Addis Ababa.  Shanty towns are visible from the air flying into Addis Ababa and in the countryside, shops are mostly made from corrugated metal roofs and plastics siding. Houses are constructed the traditional way with mud and straw walls and thatched roofs. But every child attends daily free public school proudly wearing uniforms, no one went barefoot and little evidence of the drought or famine that plagued Ethiopian in the 1970’s was apparent.


Mostly unreliable figures exist for the breakdown between Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Muslims, but the best guess is 62% of the populace belong to the mainstream church, 35% Muslim and 3% others, including a dwindling Jewish population. Until recently, Muslims and Christians lived side by side, intermarried and displayed a heartening absence of enmity towards each other. Unfortunately, this has changed in the last few years, but I’ll expand later when I discuss politics.

Ethiopians are very conservative and their church is often the most important aspect of their lives. It was the first country to adopt Christianity in Africa. On our tour, we visited numerous churches dating from the 12th century, including a circular one, one of 20  churches/monasteries on Lake Tana. It contains the 3 elements common to all Ethiopian Orthodox churches – the outer chamber, an interior one where communion is done and the inner chamber or holy of holies, where a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.

12th Century Ethiopian Church

Ethiopian Orthodoxy still uses the Gregorian calendar (Ethiopia does in general, thus it is 2012 there) so X-Mas is on January 7. It is preceded by 55 days of Lent, which includes fasting (no meat or fish), no alcohol, no sex and lots of praying. Annoyingly to me, much of the praying is done at strange hours over loud speakers, so I was awoken more than once at 3:30AM to monotone chanting that went on for hours. In the morning, thousands of adherents, the women always dressed in white, would return to their home from church, making the roads impassable.


Ladies leaving Church


Ethiopia is the most mountainous country in Africa and much of the north is above 2500 meters, causing minor symptoms of altitude sickness and shortness of breath doing anything strenuous. The most beautiful chain is the Semien Mountains, which some people trek in up to 10 days. Being far less ambitious, I enjoyed an hour and a half hike, especially the entertainment provided by hundreds of Gelada monkeys, who climb to the streams at the top every morning and retreat to the caves down below at nightfall:

Traditionally, the source of the Blue Nile had been placed in Ethiopia, near Lake Tana, until the well known TV personality, Joanna Lumley, did a program in the UK about it and placed the source in Uganda. Fortunately, she didn’t move the Blue Nile Waterfalls, which were still a splendid sight even in the dry season:


Equally impressive was Lake Tana, the third largest lake in Africa and home to island monasteries, pretty sunrises (except when the clouds are about as on my cruise), birds galore and hippopotamus. We saw sleeping hippos and were entertained by a large flock of pelicans jockeying for fish thrown out by a boatman sailing a traditional papyrus boat:



Few would suggest Ethiopia is a food lover’s paradise, especially during the fasting season when vegetarian menus are the norm and chickens and cows are unavailable, being fattened up for the post-fasting feast, and thus leaving limited options for carnivores like me. Near Lake Tana, there was excellent fresh fish. Luckily, my favourite Ethiopian dish is injera, a thin pancake-like sour grain served cold with a variety of dishes atop like a spicy stew, a chickpea broth or vegetables. Made from teff which is grown only in Ethiopia, it is considered a superfood. However, the export of it is banned as the government is fearful of creating a shortage of local food if export prices increase.

Injera, with various toppings

One thing Ethiopia is famous for is coffee; it claims to have been the first place to cultivate and brew coffee. All over the country, in even the tiniest of villages, coffee shops/stalls exist where women perform the coffee ceremony designed to get the tastiest cup of coffee. We attended a few ceremonies. After the beans are ground, the woman (always a woman in Ethiopia) spend at least an hour transferring the beans from water pot to water pot to ensure maximum potency. I watched and revelled in the scent of fresh ground roasted coffee beans, but as a non-coffee drinker, cannot tell what the taste is like:


I should mention the wine. Wine growing is in its infancy in Ethiopia, but a few home grown labels are available, including the Rift Valley Chardonnay and Syrah, both of which I found to be perfectly acceptable.

The towns and villages:

Addis Ababa, a city of 10 million, is big, crowded and polluted. Yes, it is the capital, but as a metropolis, it is hardly representative of this country in which 85% of the population are subsistence farmers. Unlike in North America, they don’t live on their farms, but instead live in small villages and walk to their farms every day.

We drove through many small villages; the road options are limited and highways seem to have been built to connect villages, not move traffic along quickly. Life happens along the roads, where people live, work and walk. Animals have the right of way, so highly valued are the livestock, and we frequently waited while cows, goats, donkeys or camels crossed the highway. Tractors or other mechanized farm machines were never seen, but plenty of donkeys pulling carts and camels carrying large loads were visible. Everywhere seemed to have electricity and internet, however unreliable, and most towns had sewers and running water, at least those we stayed in.

The tour company I used, Explore, always tries to incorporate “a small, local town” experience and the tour in Ethiopia was no different. Our “town” was Debark, gateway to the Semien Mountains and a newish university. Its large market encompassed 4 “streets”, but 3 were of the dirt variety and nothing tempted me. Stalls sold fruits and vegetables, spices, clothes, footwear, and jerry cans used for carrying water. The goods were basic to say the least, but all the essentials were on offer.



I’ll end on a bit of a sad note. For centuries, the tribes and religions in Ethiopia had co-existed peacefully. In a nutshell, the emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Communists in 1974 who ruled until 1991 when they were overthrown by a Tigray tribe party. It subsequently entered a coalition, the EPRDF, with parties representing the Oromo and Amhara tribes, which ruled, more of less, until 2018. During this period, the EPRDF always managed to win the elections by a landslide, causing allegations of widespread vote rigging etc. Until 2018, the government could be described as a somewhat benign dictatorship, although disappearances, censorship and imprisonment of journalists and political opponents was not uncommon.

Problems became more prominent in the last decade. Muslim rebels from Somalia and Eritrea had been launching frequent incursions into the country and encouraging religious intolerance. Long festering disputes between tribes also blew up in 2015 with the perceived better-off Tigray people of the north being the subject of violent protests in the south.

In April, 2018, Abiy Ahmed, from both the Amhara and Oromo tribes, became prime-minister, vowing to clean up Ethiopian politics. He freed thousands of political prisoners, flirted with a completely free press and generally relaxed the grip the government held on its people. The trouble is everyone took advantage of their new found freedoms to rally against the government. Militant factions, be they tribal or religious based, are stoking ancient or imaginary hatreds in an effort to gain power. The night before I left Ethiopia, 3 Muslim mosques were burned by Christian mobs, angry after a church caught fire.

Much hope accompanied Abiy’s victory. He was the first non-Tigray to hold power. But aside from entering into the peace treaty with Eritrea (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), he has done nothing to quell the protests and vehement expressions of hatred that have been gripping Ethiopia for the last few years. People are fearful the violence will continue, or escalate, while the prime-minister dithers as to what to do. Already, our tour was rerouted away from the Muslim city of Harar, where Muslims were marking the houses of Christians, and Tigray are fleeing the south for friendlier territories in the north.

Even to my foreign eyes, it was easy to see that Ethiopia has all the trappings of a powder keg, waiting to explode, another Rwanda or Somalia. I hope I am wrong and this wonderful country finds away to stop the unrest and live, like it has done for thousands of years, in peace.


Next: Oman

Ethiopian Journey II: Historical Sites

Ethiopia has a long and proud history, an ancient civilization once amongst the most powerful in the world, and a religious heritage going back to the time of Solomon. My tour of the country highlighted its historical legacy and dispelled me of any notions of Africa being a dark, savage continent. But a word of caution: Ethiopians are believers, and some of what I repeat here was learned from local guides/believers and may not necessarily be borne out by archeological or other historical data.

The Cradle of Civilization:

The bones of the first humanoid, a half man-half ape who walked upright on two feet, was discovered close to Harar in eastern Ethiopia in 1974. The anthropologists who discovered it went back to their camp that evening, where Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing on the loudspeaker. After determining the skeleton was female from the pelvis, she was named Lucy. She is estimated to be 3.2 million years old, about 12 at her death and possesses both human and chimpanzee features. Scientists have recreated her image, which rests in the National Museum of Ethiopia, along with replicas of her bones. The real bones are protected in a non-accessible laboratory.

The Sabeens, the Queen of Sheba and Axum:

Fast forward 3 million years, to Biblical times. Some Ethiopians believe the flood in Noah’s story destroyed the original Punt civilization and buried Atlantis, which was located in Ethiopia. Others believe the Egyptian civilization originated in Ethiopia and there are similarities between the peoples, including sun worship and pyramid building. I’m not sure if the Egyptians would agree.

More scientifically acceptable are the Punt’s successors, the Sabeens, who occupied the lands comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen beginning in the second millennium. Their most famous monarch was the Queen of Sheba, who ruled in the 10th century BC. Although she was born in Yemen and her main palace was there, her bathing place is said to be in Axum:

The pool today, said to have been built for the Queen of Sheba

The Queen journeyed to Israel to meet Solomon, to acquire his wisdom and to open up trade routes between her kingdom and the Israelites. Frankincense, gold and ivory were in high demand in Israel. Once there, she and Solomon shared a romp, resulting in her becoming pregnant. She returned to Ethiopia, converted to Judaism and gave birth to a son, Menalik. At age 22, Menalik returned to Israel to visit his father. He came back to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant, the tablets God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the box containing them. Menalik also brought 12,000 Jews with him, thus (maybe) beginning the long history of the Jews in Ethiopia. Others believe the Jews were one of the lost tribes on Israel who disappeared after the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the 7th century BC. Still others suggest most Jews arrived in the 1st to 4th century AD, as traders who settled in the area.

Meanwhile, the great Axumite or Aksumite kingdom was establishing its capital at Axum. Its emperors, like all former and subsequent emperors, claim to be descended from Solomon and Menalik. The Axumites bear similarities to the nearby Egyptian dynasties; its kings built tombs and stellae to aid in their ascension to the afterworld. They worshipped the sun and the moon and such symbols, along with doors and windows, decorate the stellae:

Stellae with door to tomb

The Ethiopian Rosetta Stone, with text in Greek, Sabeen and Ge’ez (the local semitic language and predecessor to today’s Amharic), is on display in Axum:


The Axumites were great travelers and traders, considered one of the 4 most powerful kingdoms in the first century, along with the Romans, Greeks and Chinese. Their most famous is King Balthasar, one of the 3 wise men who visited Israel during the birth of Christ. The King abdicated after his journey to Jerusalem, so his tomb was never used. His bones were initially buried in Constantinople, but Crusaders carried them back to Cologne, Germany in 1164, where they rest today.

In 330 AD, the Axumite king Ezana embraced Christianity. He forcibly converted everyone, but the Jews who refused to convert left for the mountain region near Gondar, where they established their own kingdoms. Meanwhile back in Axum, an estimated 70,000 people lived in the city. The empire encompassed all of today’s Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen. Remnants of a 4th century palace, built upon the Queen of Sheba’s palace foundations, are still visible near Axum:

Ruins of an Axumite palace

All good things must come to an end. Beginning in the 7th century, Muslims from across the Red Sea started invading Africa, eventually capturing the Axumite port of Adulis, leaving the Axumite empire a landlocked country. Trade deteriorated, the plague arrived, overgrazing and deforestation weakened the kingdom. Sensing weakness, nearby kingdoms attacked and captured land; some Muslims but most significantly the northern Jewish kingdom, led by Queen Yodit Gudit. She is blamed for the destruction of many early churches, but most of the guides admitted she was a scapegoat for all the woes of the 10th century Axumites.


Descendants of the Solomonic dynasty (the continued genealogy is debated) gradually moved their capital to the city of Roha, renamed it Lalibela after its king and set about creating a new Jerusalem between the 11th and 13th century, resulting in 11 rock hewn churches. The actual dating and length of time taken to build all the churches is also debated, but what is certain is the magnificence of the structures. Each was carved out of a single rock, and until UNESCO erected scaffold roofs over them in 2004, were not visible except close up. The most famous, and scaffold/ artificial roof free, is St. George:

Controversy surrounds the why and architecture of the churches. Historically, Ethiopia had not built into rocks and because some of the elements are suggestive of the Knights Templar, conjecture abounds that Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem provided the designs and techniques. In terms of why they were constructed in the rocks, some suggest it was a symbol of humility; others believe it was to hide the churches from invading Muslim armies.

Whatever the purpose, the churches are both a major tourist draw and a pilgrimage destination for the millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The churches accommodate both; sermons are carried out in the morning when tourists are banned; foreigners are allowed in only between 2:00PM and 5:00 PM, following the payment of US$50. Divided into the north and south clusters, we reached the first church by walking about 20 metres down rough, rock cut steps. After taking our shoes and hats off and ensuring our shoulders and knees were covered, we entered our first church. Inside, carpets cover the uneven floors and windows in the shape of crosses or moons (the symbol of eternity) lit the interior. Most contain the three room construction common to Ethiopian Orthodox churches- the outer chamber for chanting and listening to the sermon, a second chamber with pictures from the Bible where communion is taken and the third chamber, the holy of holies, where the replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept and only priests are permitted to enter.

After spending a few minutes inside, we proceeded to the next church. Each church contains a trench surrounding it, with tunnels or narrow passageways leading to the next church. Our guide led the way, with our shoe man (hired to watch our shoes outside each church) knowingly offering a steady hand to climb the tall steps and help us keep our balance on the rocky path. All the churches are dedicated to a particular person: St. George, St. Emmanuel, the Virgin Mary, our guide explaining the sometimes unique Ethiopian story attributable to each, all illustrated by the paintings inside.

One of the trenches between churches

In the 14th century, Muslims continued their invasion of Ethiopia, capturing large swaths of land along the Eastern coast and the highlands. To assist in stopping their march, Ethiopia invited the Portuguese to their country. The Portuguese ended the Muslim progression, but took to converting Ethiopians, including one of its emperors, to Catholicism. This led to civil war, the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church eventually prevailing. They executed or expelled the Portuguese and Ethiopian Orthodoxy regained its predominant role.


In 1635, Emperor Fasilides, still from the Solomonic dynasty, founded the city of Gondar and made it the capital. He and his 6 successors embarked on a building scheme, each constructing their own palace, resulting in the remains of 7 palaces being open to the public. Fasilides’ is the best preserved, and the grandest:


The Emperors erected other buildings necessary for emperors, including loads of churches and a very ornate bath, which is used today during the Timkut ceremony:

Church with empty pool being prepared for Timkut

Gondar is popular due to its cooler location in the mountains and near Lake Tana. So popular that the Italians, when they occupied the country between 1936 and 1941, designed buildings in what has been called the Fascist style, including a cinema and the Post Office:

Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa became the capital in 1886, following Ethiopia’s reunification after centuries of splinter. The Emperor Menalik II began the process of modernization, but is best known for defeating the Italians, who invaded in 1896 seeking to add another colony to its holdings. Italy was roundly defeated at the Battle of Adwa, enabling Ethiopia to avoid colonization. It was the only African nation to do so, as well as the only African nation to defeat an European power, facts of which the Ethiopians are very proud.

Another Solomonic descendant, Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor in 1930. In 1936 the Italians under the fascist Mussolini, still smarting from their earlier defeat, returned to occupy Ethiopia, a brutal affair lasting until 1941 when the British invaded and removed the Italians. Haile Selassie had fled to Bath, England, in 1936, but returned in 1941 and ruled until his overthrow in 1974. More about that in the next post.

Apologies for the somewhat long history recitation, but I’ll end this narrative with one final photo, that of Selassie’s bedroom in his palace in Addis Ababa:


Next: Ethiopian Journey III: The Culture

Ethiopian Journey I: A Most Inhospitable Place

Do not get the wrong impression. Ethiopia is wonderfully hospitable, full of friendly, welcoming people. But it is also home to the most inhospitable place on this planet. Some background…

I have been twice thwarted in my attempts to visit Ethiopia, first in 2006 due to a famine and again in 2017, when violence caused by tribal tensions forced my tour company to cancel the trip. Optimistically, I signed up for another tour in December, 2019, but when an e-mail arrived from the tour company 10 days before the start date, I feared the worst. I opened the email to read that violence had broken out in the medieval Islamic town of Harar (more about that in a later post), but rather than cancel the trip, the tour would now visit the Danakil Depression and the Dallol hydrothermal field. CNN had recently broadcast a story about it, titling it the most inhospitable place on earth. I couldn’t wait to visit.

The Depression is located in Northern Ethiopia close to the Eritrean border where 3 tectonic plates collide deep beneath the earth where Asia once met Africa. Above the plates, a depression forms one of the lowest places on earth, 100 metres below sea level, and a very dry desert with the world’s hottest average temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. The plates below are still moving, still separating the earth, still playing havoc with the ground above; geology at play, Mother Nature at her best and her most frightening.

In the Dallol, volcanic activity mostly deep below causes pools of sulfuric acid to spout, congregate in multicolour pools, then disappear after a few days. The landscape is ever changing. A sulfur pool there one day is gone the next.

Our visit started early from Mekele, 3:00 AM early, in land cruisers, along with a local tour guide, for a 3 hour drive on a newly paved road (thanks to the Chinese) to arrive at the Depression for sunrise. Our goal was not so much to see the sunrise but to beat the worst of the heat when we walked into the Depression.

We also picked up a local guard, complete with a rifle. The area was relatively safe; the British foreign office had rescinded its NO GO advice about a year ago when the current Ethiopian president signed a peace treaty with Eritrea, ending a war that had been raging since 1998. Raiding parties from Eritrea, just 100 kilometers away, had been common, including the killing of 2 foreigners, but the peace has held here. The guard was mostly a make-work project, offering employment and engaging the locals in the tourist trade.

After 3 hours and the sunrise, the road petered out but none was needed. We had reached the salt flats, miles and miles of white salt perfect for driving on to our destination. Although not quite as extensive as those in Bolivia, and lacking a salt hotel, they were still impressive:

We reached the start of the Depression and began the 20 minute walk to the sulfur fields, gingerly stepping on large, craggy stones rising out of the earth, punctuated by mini-rock toadstools and rounded dried up pools of salt, all very unworldly:

The stench of sulfuric acid greeted us as we neared the first pool, followed by puffs of smoke floating in the air. Our guide showed us the safest path, reminding us not to get too near to the springs and to stay away from anything damp – an indication the earth below was not stable.

The hot springs were all around, in the most vivid colours produced by nature – bright yellows, lime greens, rusty oranges- with blue indicating the newest pool, progressing to green, yellow and orange before finally turning brown and drying up. Pictures speak louder than words:

Scientists have recently begun studying the Dallol, seeking to determine if anything lives in it. Tiny little microbes have been found, leading to examinations as to how life might form in outer space. But I saw only an occasional fly blown in by the wind, buzzing haphazardly about before dropping dead in the dry heat.

Just a few kilometers away, back on the salt flats, men laboured in the blazing sun, carving out blocks of sand and placing them on camels, 7 blocks per camel. Thus laden, camel caravans will walk for days to the market, as they’ve done for time immemorial. The Depression rightly earns its moniker The Most Inhospitable Place on Earth but life teems all around it.


Next: Ethiopian Journey II: A trip through history