The idiosyncratic Ethiopian version of its history is liberally applied. Italian attempts at occupation failed in 1895/6 and succeeded under Mussolini in 1936-41 but the latter fact is largely overlooked, as the prevailing – and colourful – Ethiopian spin on this suggests: “The Adwa Mountains were the battlefield for the Italians and Ethiopians in 1896 and we were the winners. That’s why we remain only the non-colonised nation in Africa.” Equally tenuous, the Ethiopians used stone to cut food millennia ago: “That’s why Ethiopians are the inventors of technology, there would be no nano technology without Ethiopian use of stone.”
These are two of the many things that make the Ethiopians and their country quirky and compelling, alongside warm hospitality and an ancient history that is evident at every turn. Central to their somewhat contrary approach is use of the Julian Calendar, which magically transformed the day I landed into 13 May 2010, my having left London on 5 June 2018. And to add to the confusion, the Ethiopians number the hours from 1 to 12 daylight (from 06.00GMT) and 1 to 12 darkness (from 18.00); being close to the equator, the daylight hours do not stretch like elastic into the summer months.
I stayed at the Hotel Golden Tulip Addis Ababa, which is less than a mile from Bole International Airport and in the heart of the city, making an ideal place from which to explore. The traffic is as frenetic as any capital, with pedestrians blithely picking their way through the chaos, which is punctuated by blue Trabant taxis, a throwback to the former Eastern Bloc, and yellow cabs. Trabantics involve negotiating a rate with the driver but two years ago, this spontaneous approach to getting around was superseded by metered yellow cars, accompanied by an app that provides a convenient booking service. However, Ethiopians decided they were too expensive and boycotted them, so now you negotiate with the yellow cabs too, although the app can still be used to book.
There is peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews, and here too, Ethiopia claims supremacy: it was the second nation after Armenia to accept Christianity (in 4AD) and one of the Three Kings, Balthasar, was Ethiopian – he was carrying frankincense.
Religious connections are manifold and the Ark of the Covenant is said to be held in a 4th century chapel next to St. Maryam Tsion Cathedral in Aksum, tended by the one monk who is allowed there; it is known as the Holy Prison, although he is allowed out for light and fresh air, covering his face with shawl. The cathedral is round and designed like a mosque, with large, pillar-free space. Bring a shawl to cover your arms and head to visit churches.
Most moving is the town’s spiritual procession, which takes place on the first seven days of each month in the Julian calendar, when people gather at 5am at the cathedral, dressed in white and each holding a candle. Led by priests carrying a replica of the Arc of the Covenant, the procession walks slowly around Aksum, chanting ‘Meharene Kir stos’ meaning Jesus Christ bless us, Ethiopia and our world. It is like drifting peacefully on a white wave.
Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches are one of the country’s proudest achievements and in Lalibela, 13 huge mediaeval monolithic churches – several are more than 10m high – are dug into trenches and linked by a spaghetti tangle of passages and tunnels; it feels like a below-ground village and is an active part of the town’s religious life. The first, Bet Medhane Alem, is majestic in its proportions at 33m long, 23m wide and 11m high and the last, Bet Giyorgis, is cruciform, unusual for Ethiopian churches, and has three striking crosses carved into the roof. Nuns have lived on the site since the 12th century in houses made of the stone excavated to create the churches; the pragmatic sisters live upstairs and keep animals or make beer below.
An evening in Terbido bar in Lalibela is not to be missed. Prepare to be part of the entertainment: a wandering minstrel (asmaki), playing a single-stringed lute (masenqo), approaches each table to serenade guests: “Why waste your time and money on younger women when you can have an older lover like Catherine?” he crooned to me, and to fellow traveller Mike, “Why don’t you give me your women and I’ll give you mine?”
The bar is a short hop from the Mountain View Hotel, a lodge on a headland with expansive views over the valley below. Rooms are comfortable and functional, food good, staff helpful and a sundowner on the roof terrace is a relaxing start to an evening’s lively entertainment.
Daily services from Heathrow and Manchester with the excellent Ethiopian Airlines make the country easily accessible and treating yourself to business class makes a splendid introduction to this fascinating country.