What comes to mind when Ethiopia is mentioned? Horrendous droughts and images of starving people? The coffee?
Perhaps history buffs recall Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, who was deposed in 1974. Maybe some will know of his link to Rastafarians (Ras Tafari was Haile Selassie’s birth name). All are real links to this increasingly important country in northeast Africa that is larger than Spain and France combined.
Thankfully these days the likelihood of a repeat of earlier droughts has largely been averted thanks to more enlightened agricultural policies and a stable government. The coffee is still very good and Haile Selassie is remembered somewhat fondly by the older generation although no one seems to want a return to the monarchy. However his reverential status among Rastafarians who worship him as a god incarnate is a belief arising in the 1930s and allegedly confirmed when rain broke a serious Jamaican drought at the exact time of his arrival on the island in 1966.
My short 10-day Ethiopian trip was not really influenced by any of these links. Instead I was interested to visit two of the most culturally and historically rich locations in the country — Gondar and Lalibela. They are also the only two Ethiopian entries in the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” book that I usually consult for some guidance in my travels. After an overnight stop in the rapidly developing capital, Addis Ababa, I flew from there to Gondar and then on to Lalibela before returning to the capital.
After a two and a half hour flight from Addis Ababa, I arrived in Gondar. The town center was largely built by the occupying Italian forces between 1936 and 1941 and is a rather crude, architecturally uninspiring Italian piazza. Of more interest were the castles Gondar is famous for, which were just a short walk away.
Gondar, founded by Emperor Fasilides in 1635, was the capital of Ethiopia until 1855 , and as such the rulers built castles both to reside in and defend themselves from invaders; not always successfully. The ruined state of most of the castles is testimony to the invasion of both Muslim armies from Sudan in 1887 and British bombing between 1941 and 1943 to defeat the Italian Army. However, the worst cultural damage was done by the invading Sudanese Mahdist Dervishes who sacked the city in 1888. As a result, 42 of the 43 ancient churches in and around Gondar were burned and destroyed.
As a result, much of the local artistic and cultural heritage of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was eliminated. The one remaining church in Gondar dating from this period, the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, gave some idea of the scale of the destruction based on the sole surviving beautiful interior wall paintings featuring biblical scenes and the lives of saints. These all reflect the long-established traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to which more than 38 million Ethiopians, about half the country’s population, belong.
Most of the monolithic churches for which Lalibela is famous (and for which it is now listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site), are in a compact area within the town and can be visited easily on foot in a day. However, the maze of corridors and routes to access them means a guide is almost mandatory. Official guides can be hired at the ticket office.
The 11 existing ancient churches in the town of Lalibela were carved from above out of a 20-meter thick layer of basalt stone and then excavated internally so they exist below ground level and yet remain part of the surrounding basalt rock in either their foundations or in foundations and walls. Apart from being a gigantic and time-consuming building task (which angels are allegedly supposed to have played a major part in), the monolithic churches themselves are each architecturally distinctive in their interior and exterior design and decoration. However, the fact that these churches are active places of daily worship and ritual was of most interest to me.
As I sat in the churches in both Gondar and Lalibela, the physical construction and history was secondary. In the semi-darkness, I was overwhelmed by the chanting of ancient scriptures and liturgies, the wafted incense and the faithful, both young and old, following rituals handed down over centuries in these ancient places. Here were churches that had seen the ravages and destruction of history yet retained unchanged the practices and the faith they represented. Beyond the history, the massive building task and the architectural beauty, was an innate spiritual atmosphere, a reality for all those present. Being there, I felt an affinity to these worshippers, otherwise so different to me.
For a brief time I was part of a living, rich spirituality that in the dim interior, I could live and share too.
Hugh Collett is a teacher at Jakarta International School, a long-term Indonesian resident and a lover of travel.
Emirates flies from Jakarta to Addis Ababa via Dubai daily. Ethiopian Airlines flies out of Bangkok direct to Addis Ababa five times per week. Flights within Ethiopia are on Ethiopian Airlines, which has an extensive network and regular flights to most tourist-related destinations. The Addis Ababa-Gondar-Lalibela round trip on Ethiopian Airlines booked in Addis cost $169.
Visa: Most nationalities can get a visa on arrival, which costs $20. Indonesians, however, will need a letter of invitation stating the purpose of travel or be attending meetings, seminars or workshops organized by the African Union. The alternative is to get a visa at the nearest Ethiopian Honorary Consulates in either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
Entrance to the castles in Gondar was 100 birr ($5.65) and entrance to the monolithic churches in Lalibela was 350 birr. The entrance ticket for Lalibela is valid for four days.
Official guides cost from 300 to 400 birr per day depending on the itinerary.