Ancient history rules in Ethiopia
Friday, August 15, 2003
Addis Tribune (Addis Ababa) by Elliott Hester
In spite of its location in drought and famine-prone north-east Africa, Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, is a historical and anthropological gold mine.
While traveling around the country I visited island monasteries, grandiose castles, 2,000-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" that seems to prove, once and for all, that humankind evolved from apes.
Ethiopians 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.
Contrary to previous theories that suggested 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 helps to distinguish Ethiopia as the "Cradle of Humanity."
Ethiopia 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.
The source of the Blue Nile is less than 2 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 20 monasteries from the 16th and 17th Century exist.
For 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 Mehret, the most famous of the island monasteries.
Ura Kidane Mehret 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 cloths upon which a compendium of religious tales (St. George slaying the dragon, the birth of Christ, etc. . . .) are painted.
A collection of old crosses and royal crowns jams the shelves of the tiny museum.
Afterward, 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 Mehret, the interior walls are adorned with religious paintings, and each monastery has an impressive collection of ancient books.
From 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.
Of 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.
I 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.
After a quick flight south, I came across Ethiopia's most impressive historic structures: the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
Sometime during the 12th or 13th century in this remote town nestled in the Lasta Mountains, 11 churches were carved out of volcanic rock. Craftsmen carved square trenches out of nearby hillsides, like pieces of cake cut from the center. 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.
The 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.