Wednesday 22 August 2012

Ethiopia is a very strange place in a world with few strange places left


"Encompassed by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten."
Addis Ababa. Thankful to be in the low teens Celsius after Dubai in August and thankful to escape from Ramadan. I had intended to find cheap digs but I am tired and I am persuaded to take a four star place, the Jupiter, for $65 and this includes usefully a transfer.

I am talking to a Montenegrin lady who shares the minibus. She is a scientist who has suspended her academic career, which is her passion, for  her job in the UN, which is a complete waste of time but pays very well. She says the whole UN is like this. I suspect a lot of the aid workers one sees in expensive hotels fall into this category too. She tells me what I didn't know - I have shamefully done no homework - that Addis is the Brussels of Africa, the HQ for innumerable international bodies (mostly I suspect transferring money from the poor of the rich world to the rich of the poor world).

The buzz of a new, cheap, little-known country. The African decor in the bar of the Jupiter is very slightly reminiscent, somehow, of being in a  top hotel behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. The bar is full of UNOcrats seated alone using laptops and I buy a nice, rather weak, St George’s beer for two dollars. 
'About the history of Abyssinia before the Flood we possess no certain knowledge.' 

This is the  beginning of an 18th century history of Abyssinia, quoted by Evelyn Waugh. It has hung in my mind since my early teens. It is one of the reasons I am here. 

Wednesday August 1 Addis

Breakfast in the hotel. The best coffee I can remember drinking. The cappuccino is wonderful because the coffee is wonderful. I never tasted anything with so much flavour. Like seeing my first Old Master after only seeing prints. Or like my first tomatoes in the Balkans in the early 90s. Then Steve sleeps and I try to.

I strongly disapprove of smoking but the sight of ashtrays in the bedrooms gives one an exhilarating sense of freedom. England used to be a free country once where people said and did what they liked. Not any more though.

I post on Facebook:

16°C (= 60°F), overcast, thunder and lightning forecast in Addis Ababa - heaven after Dubai (only 41°C but humid). Nice to get away from Ramadan. All to report so far is wonderful beer and pretty women. Yesterday on the plane there were many beautiful women with European faces and (in George Meredith's expression) queenly rears.

Actually, the pretty girls on the plane were prettier and much more numerous than those in the street. 

In fact, after the plane I didn't see any more beauties until I saw the Muslim girls of Harar who are Hamitic (negro) not Semitic. The Amhara ( a recently coined word for the speakers of Amharic) are the 'people of state' in Ethiopia. They are partly or mostly Semites and have European features. In Gibbon's words:

The Abyssinians, who still preserve the features and olive complexion of the Arabs, afford a proof that two thousand years are not sufficient to change the colour of the human race. 

Abyssinians or Ethiopians were Arab nomads who started  to move into Africa  and become mountain dwellers, according to Dervla Murphy whom I am reading, between 1000 and 500 B.C. But a thousand years later the Ethiopians held parts of Arabia and in 570 A.D. came close to conquering Mecca and converting it to Christianity. 570 is also approximately the year Mahomet was born. As Gibbon says

If a Christian power had been maintained in Arabia Mahomet must have been crushed in his cradle, and Abyssinia would have prevented a revolution, which has changed the civil and religious state of the world.

Instead, the Ethiopians were driven out of Arabia and confined to Africa.

We walk to the Hilton in grey cool weather – Addis is full of strange trees and the green is a wonderful colour. It feels like England in late October, before a storm, in some eccentric place like Cambridge, full of walled gardens. We buy tickets. I buy five internal flights for $280 in total. Am very happy about this and I now have an itinerary. I am enjoying myself. 

Nice chilly drizzly weather like a British summer of my childhood before I moved to the Balkans.It is the rainy season but the rains are light. Actually a good time to come.

So we are in Addis and not as we had hoped in Lalibela and we make the most of it by visiting the National Ethnological Museum which is the least impressive museum I ever visited. Lonely Planet said it was better than the National Museum so we gave that one a miss even though it houses Lucy reputedly the world's oldest human remains. Though this is now in doubt.

Oh let us never never doubt 
What nobody is sure about
The best thing about the National Ethnological Museum is the building and the park in which is situated - a former palace of the Emperor Haile Selasse.

Wooden pillows in the museum - they didn't look very comfortable.

Burial statues look sad in this sad museum.

We wander and pick up Beru, a student of logistics from Harar, who helps us to find our way and visit both the cathedrals one by one. 

The first known Ethiopian Christian was the Ethiopian eunuch converted by St. Philip, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40). Everyone thinks Ethiopia is the third oldest Christian country in the world (325 is the date given in the books), shortly after Armenia (Wikipedia says in 301 or 314) and Georgia. But Christianity became the state religion in Georgia only in 337 so I calculate Ethiopia came second. By comparison, Constantine, Emperor, saint and ruthless warlord, was converted in 312. Christianity became the state religion, which I imagine means compulsory, in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Salonica in 380. 

Hugh Trevor-Roper well said that 

'There is properly no history of Africa. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa.' 

This would be more accurate had he mentioned the history of the Arabs in Africa and the Ethiopians, which is why I am here (and going to Zanzibar). Though the Ethiopians might be considered the exception that proves the rule. They are, at least partly, Semites.

A bookseller sells Communist books. Here Communism killed great numbers but still there are people in the world who say real Communism was never tried and I met Ethiopians who hanker after Communism. The Ethiopian version of Communism was not, it is true, very canonical. The tyrant Mengistu, who overthrew Haile Selassie and the ancient Ethiopian monarchy, did not get round to setting up a Communist Party here before he had murdered almost every Marxist-Leninist in the country. 

I was interested to learn that Mengistu is now said to have personally smothered to death the venerable Haile Selassie. How like a Jacobean tragedy. Perhaps Titus Andronicus or  something by Webster.


Holy Trinity Cathedral (above). Then St George’s Cathedral . Both had museums with ancient manuscripts in the ancient dead language of Ge'ez which is preserved for the liturgy and in other obscure tongues plus less interesting things in the case of St. George's related to Haile Selassie and his coronation in 1930. This will be remembered only because Evelyn Waugh attended and wrote about it in 'Remote People' a book I recently bought but lost unread. I can very warmly recommend his account of his second visit, Waugh in Abyssinia, which I reviewed here. But what most people will read and reread are his two great novels inspired by Ethiopia, Black Mischief and Scoop

Waugh writes in Remote People:

It is to Alice in Wonderland that my thoughts recur in seeking some historical parallel for life in Addis Ababa. There are others: Israel in the time of Saul, the Scotland of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Sublime Porte…. But it is in Alice only that one finds the peculiar flavour of galvanised and translated reality, where animals carry watches in their waistcoat pockets, royalty paces the croquet lawn beside the chief executioner, and litigations ends in a flutter of playing cards.
Waugh did not take Ethiopia as seriously as he might have done but his idiosyncratic, sometimes facetious vision will live as long as Black Mischief is read, which means as long as English novels are read. 

At St. George's it was overcast and drizzling. At two separate locked doors two men were pummelling the doors with their heads. The second man got pulled off by a tall man in a grey army coat and top boots who looked like a deserter from the white side in the Russian civil war except that he was black. Having detached the man from the building he struck him fairly  lightly with a sort of whip.  The drunk man didn't seem to mind.  I knew that here was another civilisation as old as that of Georgia, older than that of Syria. And yet the interiors of these churches look like those of a Baptist church built in the same era the 1890s in my home town or rather  a Baptist hall. The paintings in the church are cheap European daubs.

The priest sang to us. Ethiopian liturgical music is very beautiful but does not sound like religious music. It faintly resembled jazz.

The priest explains the ceremonial drum and its significance. The cords represent the whip with which Our Lord was scourged, the smaller end our birth and the larger end our death (do I remember right after almost 3 weeks?)  and he demonstrated its use in the Mass. 

The  ambulatory or whatever it is in the cathedral is you see decorated like a very down at heel Baptist church hall in 1970s Britain - Ethiopian churches are like that.
most things squalid but the occasional jewel shining in the mud.

Ethiopia is a very strange place in a world with few strange places left. I like it.

We had dinner in Yad Abyssinia near the airport and tasted and very much liked Ethiopian food. Most of the faces were black but whether they were Ethiopians or foreign visitors I don't know.  Wonderful buffet. I gorged and drank the local wine of Goudar.

 Ethiopian curries are wonderful - other food too. Wine odd but drinkable - tastes like dryish sherry. 

They play traditional music from every region and tribe but although on the streets of Addis I am constantly hearing really wonderful music here every song sounds exactly the same. 

We shared a table with an American couple, well-meaning, sexless and innocent, who have just succeeded in adopting a child who had been abandoned in the street and taken to the police. What a good thing of the Americans to do. How wrong Lady Nicholson is to rail against international adoptions in Romania.

Ethiopia still keeps the Julian calendar. It is 2004 here. That I knew this fact astonished Steve, especially as I said I had done no research into Ethiopia (a lie - I had read Waugh in Abyssinia).

At 7.00 a.m. is 1 o'clock here and at 19.00 it is again 1 o'clock which is wholly logical. That I knew this also impressed Steve.  Steve is aghast that this is what I consider general knowledge and I considered him the cleverest candidate I ever placed.  I seem to be better informed  than other people and this makes me feel I might have wasted my gifts.

I thought this system of telling the time was an Ethiopian idiosyncrasy but in Zanzibar I heard of an old 19th century clock that told time in this way and it was described as the old Swahili way of counting time. 

I did not know however that the Ethiopian calendar has thirteen months. Nor that Ethiopians instead of shaking hands like Americans or Europeans do (or doing nothing like the British) bump shoulders.

I never finished Rasselas which I got my Dad to buy me as a present for doing well in my O Levels - the Folio Society edition cost him five pounds second hand - but I am shocked how many people with have not heard of it. I thought it was a book you 'had' to read, meaning you should know it by repute at least. This place is not the Happy Valley, but flying in to Addis reminded me of Rasselas's escape from Abyssinia on wings - a fantasy of Dr Johnson's which is now banal. 

Thursday 2

Plane to Lalibela stops first at Gonder. At both airports there is room for only one plane and both are aerodromes which feel they are at the very top of the world. The thin mountain air, the cool light, the hills, the deep green.

We drive across beautiful country and to the hotel which I select at the airport because the hotel rep offers $25 when the rest want $30 and I realise afterwards it is the Seven Olives where Dervla Murphy stayed in 1967. She is my great friend on this journey – I am reading her In Ethiopia with a Mule and what a reviewer called the Gothic levels of discomfort that she willingly endured make me feel very soft. She disapproved of Lalibela because two or three years before she arrived the tourist plane service from Addis was opened and Lalibela had become 'transformed by greed'. She disapproved of the hotel for being a simulacrum of Home Counties comfort and being terribly overpriced. But Steve said Lonely Planet said it had the best food in town and it had a great terrace overlooking tree filled vista. Behind the trees was I suppose the town. 

For lunch I ate a simple version of tibs which was quite wonderful. Pieces of lamb in a sauce piled high in a mound and sizzling over a flame, ate with injera which is made from a cereal unique to Ethiopia, called teff. Injera is grey and looks like grey foam rubber. The Romanian equivalent of injera is mamaliga, known in Italy as polenta.

The wonderful coffee at my hotel in Lalibela was grown in the garden. I suspect Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world - best I ever drank. They claim to have invented coffee.  I suspect or want to think the Ethiopians did invent coffee - though whether Muslim or Christian Ethiopians I do not know.

The churches. These thirteen churches were hewn from rock in the eleventh century by King Lalibela who had been told in a dream to create a new Jerusalem.

The guide we met at the airport Birhan talks us into spending what I realise is a very large amount of money - $180 for two for one day to see three churches quickly and the church of  Yemrehana Kristos  and we never get back our $20 change. This is indeed the greed which Dervla disliked at its inception but he was a good guide and I am very grateful indeed he suggested Yemrehana Kristos.

Yes Lalibela is touristy – Sighisoara some years ago – say in 2002. Our hotel is for foreigners and for backpackers you would think but it is mostly people in their 30s 40s and 50s. But the tourists are very very few compared to any tourist place in Europe in August. Lalibela has a population of only 20,000 yet it absorbs its tourists well. You don't see them.

A paper I read in Addis said that last year visitors to Lalibela reached a record number of 50,000. I callously wished the number were one tenth of that.

B is brisk and takes us round three churches at slightly too brisk a pace but there is almost no limit to the time that I can stay in an interesting church. The church of St George is fascinating but though the interior is extremely interesting indeed I did not find beauty in it.   

I was not much interested in Africa except Ethiopia and Zanzibar and Ethiopia proves to be absolutely fascinating and enchanting. Like Romania where I live and the House of Lords where I had my first job, it is Gormenghast. I wonder why I like it more than India. The people I suppose, although I like Indians. The Ethiopians are more manly than the Indians and less mercantile. Ethiopia is most traditional country I ever visited. A very High Tory country.

Then we were driven in an uncomfortable four wheel drive van  to the Yemrehana Kristos Church, Lasta - a 90 minute drive from Lalibela and the part along an unmade road was pretty painful for me in the back of the van. I regretted coming until I arrived. The church is of wood but built in a vast cave and stands on a raft which floats on a marsh. A pile of skeletons stands behind the church and has done for centuries but it is not clear why they are there.

Dervla found the priests insisting on five dollars before they opened up - the priest we met was wholly delightful. It seems they get up to fifty tourists a day depending on the time of the year (August is low season) but we were alone. 

I found the climb to the church hard, unlike Steve, and I this is because we were at above 3000 metres above sea level though he is fitter than me. 

The priest showed us the golden cross, which was stolen from the church but recovered, and the liturgical drum.


We were invited to coffee in the village by someone we met. Unlike in Dervla's time when almost everyone was illiterate now they read and write and speak English. They burnt frankincense for us - I made a mental note to buy some in the next market I visited but forgot. The smell of frankincense was pretty unremarkable I can record.

People gather firewood and take it several miles.Often they are barefoot but the majority are shod.

The journey back in which I sat in front was blissful and was followed by a great dinner at the Seven Olives after which I went to bed and Steve went off into the town with the restaurant manager to sample the local delicacy honey wine,  a decision that proved the next day to have been mistaken.

Thursday, August 2

Steve departs, suffering from the sequentia of the honey wine. 

Ethiopia in August is the darkest green imaginable, drizzly, cool. Today is cool but my linen jacket is enough, though I see other white people, who have done their research, are wearing things that look warm and zip up to the neck, not a linen suit. I am grateful I have a long sleeved shirt and wish I had packed a pullover.  It rarely reaches 20 degrees Centigrade in Lalibela in August. Ethiopia is one of the very few places to go in August in the Northern Hemisphere which is (i) interesting and (ii) not too hot.

Mass goers in white translucent robes carrying staves and wearing curious headgear.   

Mass in Lalibela on the day of the Salvation of the World was one of the most extraordinary wonderful experiences of my life. And I got a few minutes on film despite disapproving of filming these things. 

The roof built by UNICEF a few years ago may be necessary but is a dreadful eyesore and ruins the magic of the place and I wonder why it is necessary. Is the rock porous or apt to crumble?

The empty tombs of Abraham Isaac and Joseph. I am very ashamed of how little I know about the Ethiopian Coptic church which despite being until the 1950s being ruled by a monk sent from Alexandria is I suspect very different from Egyptian Coptic Christianity.

Apparently, according to Dervla the Ethiopian Coptic Church for centuries only knew the Septuagint. According to Evelyn Waugh they regard Pontius Pilate as one of the great saints. They follow the Jewish dietary rules and also forbid camel meat and (rightly) smoking. Saturday is the Sabbath. You take off your shoes to enter a church and religion revolves around savage fasting. They have beautiful church music. All is an odd mix of kitsch and piety. Dervla is unimpressed by their religion which she sees as ritual without depth. I wish I could judge. I shall return to learn more.

I just bought this ten year old boy a pair of shoes for $9. The most enjoyable purchase I ever made. His last pair broke a year ago. I also left money with Birhan to buy him a football and hope he got it.


Waiting at Lalibela airport - Ethiopian Airlines planes are usually delayed but at least they very rarely crash. Lalibela airport does not have internet even in the airport offices so instead of blogging I talk to my fellow passengers..

I am talking to a Russian student who looks and sounds like an American. He tells me 'I have to admit that most Russians are extremely racist.' How different Russian undergraduate conversations must be from their British equivalents. I wonder which students are more open minded. I hope the Russians  are more interested than the British students in an education, as opposed to getting a better chance of a good job, but I doubt it.

A plane to Gonder, and I put up in the Taye Hotel. It is a year old and the best hotel, cost $45 and was very comfortable. It has three stars but might have had four. As we drive from the airport, an estate of detached suburban houses reared up, each exactly like the others, standing like three rows of soldiers. They looked like they belonged in the USA or England. They were being sold I was told to Ethiopian-Americans who had been given political asylum in the USA during the Communist era and were coming back with money. These houses, for some reason, utterly revolted and depressed me, whereas the poverty of Ethiopia does not at all.

Gonder is remarkable for a number of handsome castles built in the 17th century, which show Portuguese influence, though my guide denied this. 

The 17th century Debre Berhan Selassie Church at Gonder, Ethiopia. Attractive paintings from the 18th century, but not beautiful or comparable with the ones in Romania. 

Of the 44 churches in Gonder most were destroyed in the 19th century by the Emperor Theodore (my guide denied this too and blamed Muslims quite unfairly) but this one has interesting, though not beautiful, wall paintings. Interesting too that the angels on the roof are black but Jesus Christ is whitish. One wall painting shows Mahomet being drawn up from hell by the Archangel Michael to prove he was a false prophet.

I wish I had seen the castles without the chattering guide although he explained the wall paintings in the church which was useful. I had not slept the night before and did not spend long enough walking round the decrepit Mussolini era central square. Mussolini intended Gonder to be the capital of his East African Empire.

I first knew of Abyssinia as a little boy, when I read of the Emperor Theodore's holding captive British subjects, in a book my grandfather had given my father as a boy, called The Royal Portrait Gallery. It  chronicled the history of England from the Heptarchy to the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, when it was published, and I memorised it at the slightly precocious age of four. Yet I am ashamed that I did not do my research before I came.  I now discover that, after the Emperor took his own life rather than be taken alive and General Napier released the captives, he brought the orphaned son of the Emperor back to England where Queen Victoria took the young prince under her protection. He was sent to school at Rugby where he died at the age of eighteen 'of pleurisy and despair'.

August 5

The Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia says that adultery is very widespread 'among men as well as women' and warns women travellers that a wedding ring is no deterrent against male advance, but has the opposite effect. How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen. Muslims are chaste though, I feel sure.

Ethiopia should convince anyone, if they doubted it, that the short period in which Europe colonised Africa did a great deal of good, as well as some harm. On the other hand, Ethiopia is so compelling because it has not been Europeanised and it represents the only African country with history and an ancient culture. 

Dr Johnson said 
'Outside the Christian and Mahometan worlds all is barbarism.' 
In Rasselas, as a literary device, he describes Ethiopia as the Happy Valley but I am not sure if he would have considered Ethiopia barbaric or not. Gibbon says

Christianity had raised that nation above the level of African barbarism
but elsewhere

in their lonely situation, the Aethiopians had almost relapsed into the savage life. 
But then what did either of them know about the matter? Evelyn Waugh, who wanted Mussolini to bring Catholic civilisation to Ethiopia, thought only Harar and Muslim Ethiopia civilised. Harar is where I go next.

I'm growing tired and so are you. 
Let's cut this poem into two.

For my journey to Harar please click here.


  1. Ethiopia is one of those few "exotic" places I truly long to visit - all the more after such an excellent exposition on it. The photographs reveal what beautiful architecture and level of civilisation one can find built by native Africans on their own continent - I believe many Americans could benefit from some experience with Ethiopian culture, to teach us that all of Africa is not defined by the Congo and gold-, ivory-, and other various-valuable-items-coasts.

    As I've said before, I have met very few Ethiopians who are not extremely devout and strong believers in Tradition, duty, and other typically "conservative" values. There can be little surprise why they were never colonised or subdued (unless you consider Italy's conquest colonisation - which would ignore how evenly matched the two were) - they are by and far one the most resilient and impressive of African nations - and certainly the most admirable of all Sub-saharan Africans.

    I would comment critically in one regard (little qualified though I am): I am very close friends with an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, and my experience with him teaches me not to regard Ge'ez as nearly so ancient or so dead as it is often supposed by we Europeans. It is very much like Latin in many respects, which rather encourages us to consider it purely liturgical, but among priests and seminarians, especially, though by no means solely, at the stricter monasteries, it is a language still frequently used in conversation, not merely for liturgical training and official documents.

    Then again, I doubt it appears in the streets of Addis Ababa or Lalibela with any great frequency, and one does need to go to religious circles to encounter its use, but I still tend to add this caveat to any claim that it is a dead language.

  2. As always, beautifully observed and written. "I wonder if Hararis have heard of Paris Hilton." More people should read this.

  3. Paul, this was really a great story. You seldom sound as happy and content as you seem to be in this journey. Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Paul have you ever considered collecting your writings together and having them publishing book form? I have read 5/6 of the writings you have posted on the TBG page and they are all fascinating. Andrew Thickett

  5. "Addis is the Brussels of Africa" - funny you should say so of the head of a federal state built of ethnic regionalism... Unintended ?

    Ethiopia comes up in the news as a would-be Singapore:

    Interesting place

  6. This rather worthy and pious piece says something interesting about Africa (if true).

    Though it is of course nonsense to say colonialism crippled development - au contraire. Ethiopia was the most backward country in Africa because it was not colonised.

  7. Hm... colonialism... maybe... what do I know... Too much of a hot potato; I rater like them cold: my favorite itch is centralization - a less historic notion, if one wants it so.


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  10. Thank you for letting me travel with you. Lavinia Pirlog

  11. Wow, what a wonderful post. I've always been interested in Ethiopia however casually and apathetic toward Ethiopian Americans, but this post has made me want to visit Ethiopia immensely.

  12. Fascinating travelogue

  13. Ethiopians are a black race/ indigenious. We are in 2nd oldest race in Africa, after the Sans. Sans are believed to originally come from east africa.To classify as not based on language classification which more so created to racial divided . Straight nose do not define a race of people. I have seen many whites with broad noses, does make them black or african. By the old fable of semitic speakers Amhara coming from southern saudi pennisula is fictional. It had been proven, the Ethiopia had a abundant of indigenious semitic languages, thus fable is fable, at best.

  14. The Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia says that adultery is very widespread 'among men as well as women' and warns women travellers that a wedding ring is no deterrent against male advance, but has the opposite effect.