Ethiopia is a country of myth.Thanks to the
invention of the modern mass media, the images
of Ethiopia famine in the 1980s were spread and
amplified toTV screens in every corner of the
globe.They touched the viewers’ hearts, and
stayed in people’s minds. Since then, a name
called Ethiopia remains forever as a synonym of
poverty, malnutrition, drought, famine and war.
It is true that even with the end of the famine
more than a decade ago, Ethiopia remains as one
of the poorest in the world, with $110 GDP per
capita. We are not told, however, that Ethiopia is
a country with extraordinary richness - in terms
of history, culture and natural resources. Being
the cradle of humanity, it is the home of the
earliest known human ancestor, Lucy. 3.2
millions years later, the land has developed to a
country inhabited by a population more than
that of Great Britain or France, along with great
ethnic and cultural diversity.
According to legends, the biblical Queen of
Sheba began to rule ancient Ethiopia in her
capital near Axum in tenth century BC. In quest
of knowledge and wisdom, the inquiring Queen
travelled overland to Jerusalem to visit King
Solomon of Israel, gave birth a child of his, who
later became the first king of Ethiopia. Since
then, the Solomonic line of generations of rulers
has become the foundation of Ethiopia history.
A thousand years later, a powerful kingdom
comparable to Rome, Persia and China began to
thrive here. In its heyday, the Kingdom of Axum
stretched from the southern Arabia to the Nile
Valley in Sudan, and grew rich by trading with
not only countries nearby but also as far as Rome
and Gaul.Today, the sky-piercing stelae serve as
testimony of the glorious past.
land of the faith
However, the most significant impact to the
Ethiopian culture by the Kingdom is perhaps its
transformation by King Ezana in the fourth
century into one of the first Christian State in
the world. From then on, Christianity has
stayed, and deeply entrenched in many
Ethiopians’ daily life.
With the rise of Islam in seventh century, the
centre of Christian spirit was forced to Roha to
the south. But it was not until the twelfth
century during the reign of King Lalibela, Roha
transformed itself into a world-renowned
architectural marvel. Being impressed by the
buildings in Jerusalem, King Lalibela was
determined to create a new Jerusalem on African
soil, accessible to all Ethiopians. He realised his
dream, with the help of angels. A large cluster of
churches with exceptional architectural style and
craftsmanship was finally chiselled out from the
rock in Roha.To commemorate his achievement,
Roha was named Lalibela ever since.
Today, Ethiopia is a country accessible to all
types of travellers. Not only are they able to walk
through the time line of the Ethiopian history
by visiting relics in Axum and Lalibela, but also
experience the modern day diversity of culture
in areas such as Omo River Valley and Harar.
Nature lovers would find a paradise of wildlife
and landscape in this country, where the Simien
Mountains offer a breathtaking scenery of the
Ethiopian Highland, and the LakeTana sources
the legendary Blue Nile and hosts numerous
seclusive orthodox Christian monasteries.
For those who have not had an opportunity to
visit the country, it is my wish that this page
would lead you into the land of wonder, as well
as refresh your images about this country.
Timket Eve (January 18th, about 2pm),
traditional horns herald the beginning of the
three-day festivity (above). Priests in colourful
regalia carry theTabot (the Ark of Covenant, but
actually the tablet of Law housed in the Ark) of
their respective churches gather at the town
centre, accompanied by a troop of clergies and a
huge enthusiastic crowd.Timket is one of the few
opportunities that folks could be close to the
Tabot, which considered to be the most sacred
item in Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However,
no one has taken a true glimpse of theTabot, as it
is always covered by gilded silks.
become the most
salient symbol of
Timket, orTimkat, is Ethiopian language for
Epiphany. Although the holiday commemorating
Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan is observed by
Christians all over the world,Timket is of special
significance in Ethiopia. It is the most important
and colourful event of the year.
The festival starts atTimket Eve, January 18, eleven
days after the orthodox Christmas. Although the
festival is largely religious, it has no lack of secular
elements such as partying and match-making.
According to the Ethiopian epic Kebra Negast, the
Ark of the Covenant was abducted from Jerusalem
to Ethiopia during the first millennium BC. Since
then, it has become the most sacred element of the
Ethiopian orthodox church.
Early afternoon in theTimket Eve, the replicas of
the Ark, covered by silks, are
carried solemnly by priests from
each church to the nearby body
of water. Accompanying the
procession are tens of thousands
of church members and
believers, chanting, dancing,
prayer-stick-waving and sistra(a
simple musical instrument)-
rattling. All in all, it resembles the
scene described in the Old
As evening falls, the priests and
the pious believers participate in
overnight vigil around the Arks
until dawn. Then huge crowds
gather around the water. After
the chief priest blesses the water,
the celebration reaches its climax. Many jump into
the water, the rest are eager to get a splash. After the
religious vows are renewed, some of the Arks are
paraded back with the same celebrating fashion.
The festival does not end until the third day,
dedicated to the Archangel Mikael. With parade no
less magnificent than the previous two days, the rest
of the Arks are carried back to their respective
Timket in the town of Gondar is undoubtedly the
most interesting.The bath pool in the historical
palace built by the Emperor Fasiladas during the
17th century stages a dramatic backdrop of the
event, while the garden surrounding the pool
provides believers a perfect ground for prayers and
Young men in
Gondar celebrate the
festival fervently and
zealotly, with prayer
sticks and horns.
Scenes like this was
described in the
Bible when the
from Mount Sinai
Dressed up in festival
gowns, young women
chant “Haliluya” with
their hands swinging left
and right.While the
celebrations by girls and
young women are more
gentle and melodic, elderly
women also take part in.
The tongue-twisting, high-
pitch squeak can be heard
all over the town.
Drum-dancing is one of the
activities played through out the
three-day festivity by both men
and women.There are
uniformed drum-dancing, there
are also spontaneous ones.
After gathering at
the town centre,
theTabots are then
slowly paraded to
the nearby body of
water - the 17th-
Bath. A little more
than two kilo-
After a long and exhausted procession, theTabot from each
church finally arrives in 17th-century Fasiladas’ Bath
before sunset. Under thousands of revered eyes, theTabots are
brought into the seclusive tower in front of the pool, ready
for the overnight vigil.
Folks light up bonfires in the garden of the Fasiladas’ Bath.
It’s one of the happiest nights of the year!
As dawn approaches, believers
camp in the garden prostrate
toward the tower housing the
holy Tabots. Other monks and
believers pray with the religious
scripts in front of the pool.
Sunlight now emerges from the horizon. A hymn
started spontaneously amid the pilgrims. But very
soon the hymn spreads over every corner of the
Fasiladas’ Bath, turning itself in to a gentle but
soul-touching chorus with every harmony.
As night falls,
turns cold. Pious
believers line up
in front of the
January 19,Timket Day. About 7am.The moment has finally
arrived.The grand priest, gathered around by other clergies,
slowly descents to the pool side. In a breathtaking moment, he
prays while dipping the holy cross into the water. Immediately
after the blessing, the crowd erupted.Young men dive into the
freezing water, others are pushing forward toward the pool.
Religious vows are not renewed without taking a splash of holy
As the last man in regalia disappears into the door of the church, the
three-day festival has finally come to an end. For a foreigner who has
never witnessed the enthusiasm and ardent passion about religious
faith, every bit of sound and action during the festival will not only
engrave into his memory but also remind him forever the hope of life.
in the Garden of
(Below): Christian girls receive
blessing from a priest
Gondar - the Ethiopian Camelot
Icame to Gondar for theTimket. I could have
stayed in Addis Ababa, or pushed further to
Lalibela.The celebrations in both places were
equally colourful, people say.But Gondar had its
own legacy - the castles, the gardens and the pool,
all of which added an ideal backdrop for the ancient
Emperor Fasiladas must fall in love with this fertile
land midway between the vast LakeTana and the
lush Semien Mountains, both laden with resources.
He came here in the 17th century,and built his
capital with impressivearchitectures.
And so did the Italian fascists realised the
importance of this geographical gateway.They chose
Gondar as one of their strongholds in Ethiopia
during the WWII. Until recently,their edifices at
the main streets remainedas the mostmodern
buildings in town, serving various functions from
government’s post and telecommunication bureau to
a cinema and hotels.
Nowadays, tourism has energised the local economy.
When visitors arrive in town, the first modern
building entering their view is no longer the
telecom building but the six-storeyed Circle Hotel
strongly resembles an airport tower.Outside the
hotel, beaten-up taxis and mini-vans provide people
additional means of transportationtothetraditional
donkey-drawn carriages called Garis.Tour guides
lurk around the town centre, restaurants open one
after another.Not far from the town, the Ethiopia-
Denmark joined venture brewery produced beers
overwhelmingly popular in the country
In the morning of theTimket Eve, amid the sound
wave of the celebration horns, I walked through the
gate of the 75,000-square-meter Royal Enclosure.
Group tourists had not yet arrived.The sun was
bright, the sky was blue, the trees were lush, the
wind was still. Camelot and Ethiopia seem to be a
pair of oxymoron
through the palaces,
towers, banquet hall
and library,itwas not
difficult to convince
people had indeed
enjoyed a golden age
in the history of
bath, a few
kilometres fromthe Royal Enclosure, that deeply
impressed me. After the stone gate, tens of ancient
trees surrounded a lush garden.The luxuriant foliage
almost covered the entire sunken pool in the middle of
the garden.The water calmly reflected the image of
the stone tower elegantly stood by the poolside.
I came to Fasiladas’ bath several times during the
Timket celebration. I witness nothing but joyand
piousness. In the evening, folks sang and danced
around the bonfires in the garden. Not far from here,
holiday lights were decorating the tower and the pool.
But as the night went by,noisy celebrations were
slowly replaced by quiet prayers and vigil. Before
dawn, large crowd had already gathered around the
pool.The humming of haliluya spread over the air,
and soon turned into a large chorus…
Not until I sat in the marble floored airport terminal
for my departure flight, I realised that I had been
indulged by the charm of the town. A Camelot was
indeed no longer,but Gondar always remained in
heart as a green andpleasantland.
covering the entire
ceiling of the Debre
Berhan Selasie is
for the fame of the
winged head of the
a slightly different
The Fasiladas’ Palace inside theRoyal Enclosure.
After choosing Gondaras capital, Emperor
Fasiladas constructed a Royal Enclosure that
covered 75,000 square metres, and contained
castles, palaces, libraryand banquethall etc.The
two-storey palace witha rectangular corner tower
and three domed towers oftenimpressed foreign
classic Chinese poem
on the ceiling of
With little domestic
industry of its own,
heavily on foreign
import - heavy
trucks from Italy,
cars from Japan,
light industrial pro-
ducts from China.
The courtyard at the Church of Debre
Berhan Selasie (Church of theTrinity at the
Mount of Light) not far from the town
centre.The church is one of the most
prominent in Ethiopia owing to its
internal wall paintings (see previous page).
At noon, a farmer returns home under
the scorching sunshine.The country’s
unique geographic situation and the
use of Julian calendar prompt the
slogan by the NationalTourist Board
“Ethiopia,Thirteen Months of
Simien Mountains north of Gondar boast one
of the most spectacular landscapes of the country.
Home to a veriaty of endemic plants and
animals (such as the Gelada babooms), it is a
heaven for trekkers and declared by UNESCO a
World Heritage Site.
(Below):The town centre overlooked from Circle Hotel, one of the
upper-end hotels in Gondar. It is so-named due to its resemblance
of a cylindrical airport tower. Each guest room in a storey occupies
about 40 degree of the circle, with wide-opened glass window
and balcony. (Right): Local vs imported beverages. Even though
traditional drinks such as tej have gradually losing ground to
imported beverages, local favourites likeDeshan Beer mural),
Ambo sparkling water and Harar Sofie are holding strong in the
Axum - the Lost Kingdom
In Ethiopia, no other town occupies a more
important position and represents more glory inthe
history of the country than does Axum. Numerous
kings and queens reigned here, including the
legendary Queen of Sheba and King Ezana, who
first introduce Christianity tothe horn of Africa.
Despite that the power and prosperity of Axumite
kingdom once rivaled those of Rome, Persia and
China, Axum is rarely known by outsiders. Its
geographic isolation keeps it from hordes of mass
tourists. It remains as a little town, cozy, charming
and pleasant, for a few keentravellers.There is no
tour couch here, neither are there many annoying
“hustlers” offering unwanted service. Only a few
roadside souvenir shops quietly but perhaps
desperately wait for a few adventurous visitors.
The Axumites have hoped to
bring prosperity through
tourism. Modern hotels are
being built, and hotel
managers greet passengers in
the airport every flight. I was
taken to the new Remhai
Hotel,which had a quality of
service and an indemnity
comparable to those in
European tourist cities.
Axum is tiny, but not dusty.
Its size makes it free from
bustling mini-buses, taxis and
garis (a kind of horse-drawn
passenger carriage). Strollingdownthe centrally
divided avenue, I could hardly imagine that it was
once the place where a great civilisationthrived.
Ninety-eight percent of the ancient Axum remains
unexcavated. But the road soon turned north when
it reached the big tree at the town’s old quarter.
Within minutes I was greeted with the first sight of
ancient Axum - the stelae field.
Amid the forest of mighty stelae, my imagination
seemed to be evoked by the painting occupying the
wall in the dinning hall of Remhai Hotel.
Thousands of years ago, these monoliths, some
weighted several hundred tons and measured tens
of metres,were cracked from the granite quarry
three miles away, hurled and erected by
the sheer power of men and elephants
as symbols of authority and glory of
the rulers. But perhaps the emperor did
over-estimate his slaves and animals.
The largest stele toppled during its
erection.Today, this 33-metre lying
giant provides visitors a closer look at its
On the way to the hilltop, I stopped by
the Bath of Queen of Sheba.The plain-
looking rock-hewn reservoir has now
become a swimming and laundry pool
for local kids and women. I tried hard
to put myself into the time-tunnel, and imagine
how the Queen ruled an area so big that it extended
from Ethiopia into modern-dayYemen. No one has
left a portrait of the enigmatic Queen. I imagine she
must be as beautiful as Sheherazade.
But there is no doubt about the Queen’s desire and
pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.When she heard
about the wisdom of King Solomon, she defied all
the hardship and travelled toJerusalemto learn from
him.Whether her union with Solomon was a trick
devised by the King himself, or a result of mutual
admiration, or physicaldesire, their tale described in
the Ethiopian Epic Kebra Negast is nevertheless
touching and beautiful.
From the hilltop café at the luxuriousYeha Hotel, I
overlooked Axum’s skyline,which dominated by
Monoliths point heaven-ward in Axum’s stelae park.
For thousands of years, stelae have been used in East
Africa as symbols of power and glory of the ruling class.
But it was the Kingdom of Axum that brought the stelae
making technology to its pinnacle.The height of these
2000-year-old stelea in Axum can range from merely one
to more than thirty metres. Some are plain looking and
others are finely carved with exceptional craftsmanship.
At Denver Road,
the large bayan
tree still serves as
Axum’s centre of
the large spherical dome of the St Mary of Zion
Church. Apparently, Emperor Haile Selassie had
never forgotten his Solomonic linkage. He
initialised its construction in1960s. Since then, the
giant church and its bell tower have dwarfed the
more historical old churches.
Some twenty years after the Queen’s journey, her
son Melenik had decide to travel to Jerusalemto see
his father. During his three-year sojourn in
Jerusalem, the young man was taught and imparted
with books and knowledge. However, his heart was
in Ethiopia, despite the King’s offer to be the ruler
Israel after his death. Reluctantly, the King
permitted him to leave, but not without ordering
twelve thousand Israelis as his company.These
Amid the lush trees, the massive new St Mary of
Zion Church and its bell tower dominating Axum’s
skyline. It was built by the last Emperor Haile
Selassie as a pride of his Solomonic line.
Under the spherical dome of the new St Mary of Zion
Church, a church keeper displaying a holy book commonly
seen in all all Ethiopian churches depicting Virgin Mary
and St George killing the serpent.
of emperors, as well entering the old
church to enjoy some of the finest
murals in Ethiopia.
The three-day sojourn in Axum was
like flipping through a three-thousand-
page book of Ethiopian history in three
minutes. Like other tourists, I stepped
into the plane hastily for the next
destination. However, everything I
witnessed and learnt inthis
unpretentious little town will stay not
only in my films but also deep in my
(Above): Lemons ripe in the beautiful courtyard of the St Mary of
Zion church compound, which consists of the spherical-dome new
church, the rectangular old church exclusively for men built by
Emperor Fasiladas in the 17th century and, most importantly, the
small church housing the true Ark of the Covenant. (Right):The
33-metre, 517-ton Great Stele is the largest single block of stone
that human tried to erect. Carved around 4th century AD, the stele
is now believed to have never been stood. It might have toppled
during it erection.
Israelis were depressed to see themselves leaving the
Holy Land of Jerusalem, and decided to take the
HolyArk of the Covenant with them. It was all too
late when the King discovered the fact, only could
he consoled by the Holy spirit that it was his own
son who took the HolyArk. On the other hand, the
Queen of Sheba, Melenik and his company were
overjoyed when convoy reached Axum.
Today, the HolyArk of Covenant sits quietly inside a
modest chapel in the St Mary of Zion Church
compound full of lush azalea and lemon trees. No
one has the privilege even to take a glimpse of the
Ark, except the life-long guardian who would never
leave the chapel. However, as a male visitor, I did
have the privilege seeing the crowns of generations
The 24-metre King
Ezana’s stele is the
third tallest in
tallest Great Stele
lies broken nearby,
the second tallest,
metres, is standing
at Rome’s Piazza di
Porta as a result of
Visitors can take a peek outside an iron
fence at the exterior of a small chapel,
which appears to be humble compared
with the new church in the St Mary of
Zion Church compound.The chapel is
believed to be the home of the real Ark of
the Covenant - the holiest element and
foundation of the Ethiopian orthodox
church.The Atang, the monk who
shoulders the task of guarding the Ark,
will never leave the chapel until his death.
Some of the numerous murals inside the 17th-
century old St Mary of Zion church. (Right):The
Emperor was so captivated by the music of St
Yared that he unknowingly leaned his spear on
Yared’s foot. Unawared of the pain, StYared
sang on until he finished the song. StYared was
born in Axum in 525AD in a humble family.
During his childhoodYared was a poor pupil
struggling to understand the teaching of church.
One day, he ran away from punishment. Crying
and hungry, he came to rest under a tree. But he
noticed an insect succeeded in climbing up the
tree after six failures.The youngYared learnt the
wisdom of God. He went back to school and
became an outstanding student. Later he also
developed a unique musical notation used by the
church.The example of StYared has become an
inspiration of young
priests who face
enormous challenge in
nine Saints of Ethiopia.
For generations, these
Saints have served as
bedrocks to the
church for education and
outside the huge
of St. Mary, Axum.
Debre Damo - Home of the Hermites
There was a time I thought that Axum was enough
“isolated” to be reached by tourist crowds. But
“isolation” soon changed its meaning on my way to
Debre Damo, one of the most prominent and
historic among Ethiopia’s twenty thousand plus
churches and monasteries.
Axum has an airport, an avenue, a few hotels, a
handful of shops and a bank. It has bus connections
to other towns. Debre Damo has none of these.
Located eleven kilometres off the mid-point of the
bumpyAxum-Adigrat road, the monastery perches
on top of a 2,800-metre plateau surrounded by
Which explains why a visit to the monastery came
with a price - $110 for a Land Rover with a driver.
Poor pilgrims have to endure much more hardship to
reach their goal. I was not surprised to see a pilgrim
woman who stopped my car by pouncing herself on
the hood, just begging me to tag her along. She was
going to Kidane Mehret monastery built specially
for women at the foot of the cliff. It remains a
mystery as why females are not permitted in Debre
Damo. One commonly accepted theory is that
sexual contact should be avoided between females
and the monks or hermits. But this can not explain
the exclusion of female livestock.
Debre Damo monastery was built in the 6th
century byAbuna Aregawi, one of the nine Saints
who taught Christianity in Ethiopia. Aregawi had a
vision of an isolated place ideal for a solitary life.The
construction was sponsored by Emperor Gebre
Meskel and, according to the local legend,withthe
help of a huge snake. Upon its completion, the
Emperor asked if the stairs leading to the mountain
top should be kept or destroyed. Aregawi answered
“Dahememo”, meaning “wreck it”.Over the years,
“Dahememo”has corrupted into “Debre Dahm’mo”
and eventually Debre Damo.
When vehicle could go no further, everyone, rich or
poor, had to rely on their own power to propel
himself to the destination. But the real challenge
was to scale the twenty-four-metre cliff by means of
a rope.The local monks seemed to have developed
an uncanny skill in climbing the cliff with
minimal effort. As for the sole visitor of the day, a
little help was necessary. A rope of hide was tied on
my waist in case I lost my grip.
After fifteen centuries, the monastery of Dabre
Damo has experience little change. Rare visitors are
usually led to the home of the high priest paying
respect and fee, then they would be escorted to
appreciate the interior of the monastery and
surrounding area,which boasts a spectacular
panorama viewof theTigray Highland.Today, there
are about 600 monks and priest live in the 150
stone houses on the mountain top.Their life is
almostentirely self-sufficient,with cisterns collecting
rain water, home grown crops and (male) livestock.
GeographicallyYeha is not far from Debre Damo.
But it still required some effort for a vehicle to reach.
Few realise that it isYeha, not Axum, that claims the
titles of the earliest capital of Ethiopia and the
birthplace of Ethiopia’s civilisation.Tucked away at
the highland in northern Ethiopia, the village and
monastery inYeha surrounded by an idyllic
landscape that rivals Switzerland. Sadly, there is not
much left inYeha today except the ruin of a temple
believed to have been built by the southern Arabs
in5th century BC. Nevertheless, I was happy to
discover the best kept secret in Ethiopia.
Timbers and slab-
stones that make up
the wall of the
has withstood wind
and raid a thou-
sand plus years.
Perching high on top of a 2,800-metre mountain, the
Debre Damo monastery is an ideal place for hermits.
The mountain is 11 kilometres from the main Axum-
Tigray road. Only the toughest 4x4 can access to the
nearby village, from where pilgrims and visitors alike
start a steep ascend in the cactus-scattered slope
A test of faith.
rope and foot-
holds, a monk
scales the cliff to
reach the mona-
stery 24 metres
above with little
The monastery of Debre Damo.Windows
of various styles are cut through the stone
wall. It took Aregawi two years to build
(perhaps with the help of the huge snake)
in 6th century, maily with slabs of stone
and timber. Since then, the monastery has
stood firm even without renovation.....
Today, there are about 600 monks reside in the
150 houses on the mountain top, which
comprises an area of about half of a square
kilometre.The village is almost self-sufficient
with their own rock-hewn cisterns collecting
rain water, and herds of (male) livestock.
The surreal blue sky ofTigray and
the lush meadow land create an
idyllic backdrop for the village and
ancient temple ofYeha.
The massive wall of the 5th-century-BC
pre-Christian temple serves as the only
remaining relic of this oldest capital of
Ethiopia.The temple represents the highest
architecture achievement of the time - large
blocks of sandstone fit perfectly together
with mortar.There is no room for a blade
between the blocks even after more than
two thousand years of erosion.
A priest reciting his holy book in Geez in
the Church of Abuna Aftse inYeha. After
the introduction of Christianity in
Ethiopia, the church was built in 6th
century to replace the century-old temple.
ing a residence
Lalibela: Jerusalem in the Mountains
“My coming here is like my going to Jerusalem”, told
me an Ethiopian American on our way to Lalibela.
He lived in Washington DC. Indeed, to most
Ethiopians, Lalibela is Mecca to the Muslims, or
Jerusalem to the Christians in other parts of the
enormous project that rivaled any of those in other
ancient civilisations - carving out a cluster of eleven
churches from volcanic rocks.
Scholars were still debating the manpower and time
needed to complete such monumental work with
architectural grandeur and artistic intricacy. Privately,
I tended to accept the Ethiopian legend, in which
angels were mainly responsible for this world wonder.
Navigating through the labyrinth of deep passages,
stairs and tunnels of the eleven churches, I saw a
picture which seemingly frozen in time since the era
of King Lalibela. Carrying prayer’s sticks, priests,
monks and pilgrims in medieval robes scattered
around the courtyard. Hermits sat still, studied and
prayed in the niches on the stone wall surrounding
the churches; religious chanting came out from
hidden crypts and grottoes; the smoke of incenses
and bee wax candles carried a sweet odor…
As I approached some rock hewn churches, the high
priests often scrambled to unlock the doors, then
eagerly demonstrated the crosses with complex
patterns unique to their very own churches. Hey on
the floor provided sitting comfort for the residents
during the scripture studying, the sacred Arks of
Covenant were always hiding behind the heavy
curtain.Through the door, the sun shed light onto
the ceremonial drums on the floor, as well as the slick
door sides touched and kissed by thousands of
pilgrims over the centuries.
I met the Ethiopian American again at the departure
lounge in the airport. As a devoted Christian, he
carried a bottle of sacred water in his suitcase. For
other tourists, there were plenty of gifts and
souvenirs in their baggages. As for me, I carried
nothing but a historical lesson and images captured
by my own.
But reaching Lalibela itself requires tremendous
effort.The village is there as if it wants to test the
resolve of every pilgrim. Until recently, the road to
Lalibela was not always passable all year round.
Even today, a two-day arduous journey from Addis
Ababa is far from a guarantee, except for the lazy
tourists who want a quick in-and-out, a small
airport is built 30km from the village, and the
Ethiopian Airlines shuttle a few times a day from
here to other major towns.
Lalibela is more rural and poverty-stricken than
anywhere else I visited in Ethiopia. It is a village
with some humble houses and huts located on the
ridge of a lofty mountain. It has few vehicles, no
paved road, no bank. A five-year-old can remember
the days without electricity. Few outsiders would
believe that a historical and architectural wonder is
just living yards away.
Although it was the Axumites who first embraced
Christianity in the 4th century, ever since the Arabs
seized the trading seaport to the north, Axum
started to wither and eventually crumbled.
Christianity fled to Roha, whose rugged terrain
provided a safe sanctuary.
Here in Roha in 12th century, King Lalibela was
determined to establish a new Jerusalem in the
African highland, away from Islamic threat yet
accessible by all Ethiopians. He initiated an
Lying on a 2,630-metre ridge of the rugged Lasta
Mountains, Lalibela remains as an isolated and poor
village, despite its historical treasure and religious
Monks studying the Bible near the tomb of Adam.
Bieta Giyorgis, St. George Church, is
undoubtedly the most famous and
photographed among the churches in
Lalibela. Cut from volcanic tuff more
than 800 years ago, the church is still
remarkably well preserved.Worshipers
and visitors can reach the 13-metre-
deep courtyard through a serpentine
tunnel (upper-right in the picture).
A hermit studying the Holy Book outside his living cave.
The stony walls surrounding the churches of Lalibela have
been carved with numerous niches that are no more than
2 square metres inside.With the ardent religious faith,
hermits and pilgrims live in these caves at night, while
pray, study and meditate during the day.Their very
survival depends upon the meager donations from the
nearby villagers and tourists.
(Right):Pilgrims exit from the tunnel of Beta Meskel. After almost
a thousand years, many of the churches have developed seepage
problems. A project funded by the European Union has used
corrugated-iron roofs as a temporary solution until a better one is
found. (Lower Right):Sitting in a 12-metre-deep trench and
measuring 34x24 metres in area, Bieta Medhane Alem (Church
of the Saviour of theWorld) is the largest monolithic church in the
world.The entire church is supported by 72 square pillars
representing the 72 saints in Ethiopia. Depite its history and
age, the church is still offering service everyday.
If I were to live in Ethiopia, I would choose neither Addis
Ababa nor Gondar, but BaharDar. EmperorHaile Selassie
would certainly agree, as he built his palace, and once
tempted to move the Ethiopian capital here.
Now a regional capital, Bahar Dar has not grown into a
metropolitan like Addis Ababa.Unlike Gondar, on the
other hand, it has every thing it needs to qualify as a city.
Situated at the southern shore of the LakeTana, it is the
most charming and pleasant city in the entire Ethiopia.
Palm trees grow along the centrally divided avenues.
Offices, banks, hotels and, alas, internet service, start to
spawn around the town.The 3,500-square-kilometre Lake
Tana provides a haven for a wide range of flora fauna, as
well as the Christian hermits. It also nurtures the city with
abundant water and food source. Some thirty kilometres
east of the city, near the bustling village of Tis Isat, the
water of the lake thunders down the forty-meterTis Isat
Falls, following the Blue Nile to the Mediterranean, leaving
arcs of rainbow behind.
In the modern and comfortable Papyrus Hotel, I finally
relax and washed away the dusts collected in the past two
weeks. Hotels like this with hundreds of guestrooms and a
swimming pool aimed to compete with the incumbents
such as the Ghion andTana Hotels. However, their older
counterparts seemed to survive well in competition owing
to their precious assess - the lakeshore.
In the waterfront garden of Ghion Hotel,visitors sap tea or
juice under the large canopy of the banyan trees while the
birds sang.The sunset added a golden tone on the flocks of
dancing pelicans. After dusk, candles lit dimly the garden
in the breeze, the silver moon rose above the wave on the
lake. On the distant islands from the shore, I imagined,
Christian hermits inthe monasteries mustbe reciting scripts
under the moonlight.
For centuries, monks on these islands and peninsulas had
enjoyed their very own sanctuary with tranquility and
peace. As twenty-first century tourism flourished, this
isolation was more vulnerable than ever. Fromthe small pier
at the Ghion Hotel, it only took a few hours for the
motorboat to reach the centre of the lake,where the muddy
water turned green like a halo surrounding the holy Dek
Island under a dense forest canopy. Hidden in the trees, an
arc cloisterenclosed the circular thatch-topNarga Selassie
While the priests were busy lifting the curtains covering
the religious murals for other tourists, I sneaked out of the
monastery to experience a halcyon picture of the island.
Through the foliage, the sun cast a motif of shadow on my
path, and the air was loomed with the scent of wild
lemons.The white-domed watchtowers stood in siesta. A
papyrus boat and a fishnet laid sun-bathing on the stone
fence, forever looking the green ripples on the lake. But it
was the thousands of robust papyrus by the water did not
seemto lay rest.Their slander trunks swayed gently with
the breeze and wave, as if they were greetings this stranger
As the moon rose again, the water birds stood tall on the
treetop watched the motorboat made its way back to the
mainland. Like the lake water, I soon would set off my
journey, going back to where I belonged. However, unlike
the lake water,which bore no memory, I would be forever
haunted by the beauty of this exquisite land.
The Source of the Blue Nile
Water from LakeTana thunders down theTis Isat Falls, and heads to the Blue Nile without ever turning its back.
Sunset over LakeTana, viewed from the
garden of Hotel Tana in Bahar Dar.
Although tourism in Ethiopia is still in its
enfancy, high-end hotels with all western
comfort and amenities have long been
established in major tourist attractions, such
as the HotelYeha in Axum, Hotel Roha in
Lalibela, Hotel Goha in Gondar.These
incumbent hotels, however, have recently
been challenged by new-comers like the
Papyrus in Bahar Dar and the Remhai in
Axum, which offer about a third of the price.
(Left): Moon rise over LakeTana. Covering 3,500 sq km, it is not
only the largest lake in Ethiopia but also the home of the numerous
orthodox monasteries on some of its thirty-seven islands. As a source of
the Blue Nile, its water is like the milk which quenches the thirst
and provides the livelihood for more than a hundred million people
in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. (Above): Just outside the city of
Bahar Dar, water flows calmly at the mouth of LakeTana, before
reaching the thunderingTis Isat Falls.The water and the isles
provide an ideal ecosystem for not only water birds but also hippos
You are Africa’s black soil that produce life; You are the milk that quench the thirsty multitudes
You are the messenger of my gospel, O Nile; That bring my abundant harvest to the mouth of the needy
You are the elegant pilgrim of my mercy; Your are the first fountain you are the first ever Ethiopia
You are the appeaser of the lustful greed; You are the first Earth Mother of all fertility
Rising like the sun from the deepest core of the globe; You are the conqueror of the scorching pestilence
You are the source you the Africa you are the Ethiopia; You are the Nile.
Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, Ethiopian Poet Laureate
The main church at the Narga Selassie
Monastery at the Dek Island of LakeTana. It
boasts a typical Ethiopian Orthodox church
architecture with circular porticos and thatch
Another halcyon day at the Dek Island.
Papyrus grows robustly around the shore
and islands of the LakeTana. Boats
made with dried papyrus are widely
used by locals for fishing and
The intricate Ethiopian Orthodox
crosses in different churches have always
been unique and rarely identical.
(Upper Left): A priest at the 17-century Kebran Gabriel Monastery at the middle of LakeTana. (Upper Right): A
young monk at the Narga Selassie Monastery. (Lower Left):The warden of the Nagar Selassie Monastery. (Lower
Right): At the Monastery of Nagar Selassie, a priest is demonstrating his holy book to the visitors. Nearly every church
in Ethiopia possess similar books with Geez written on sheep skins.The ages of these books are often unknown but
believed to be a few hundred years. Among the bible stories, the killing of the serpent by St. George is the most common
graphic depiction. Exhibition of the books to visitors has become a standard procedure of the churches.
Following the footsteps of gen-
erations of hermits, author J.-L.
Gao ascends the 24-metre cliff
to cover the story of the 6th-
century Debre Damo Monas-
tery, one of the oldest and most
important ones in Ethiopia. In
recalling his sojourn in the
country, the author is indebted
to those Ethiopians, who took
care of him, and passed him
along from one caring hand to
another. He also remembers
the anonymous shoeshine boy,
who gave him a complimentary
service, so that he could step in
the plane home with shoes free
of mud. On the other hand,
fleas infected from the country
still annoy him even a month
after his return, and would likely
leave permanent marks on this
torso like the Ethiopian experi-
ence in his memory.