You know you are somewhere very special when even a drive to the airport is enrapturing. It was our last day in Ethiopia, and we were on our way to catch an internal flight from Lalibela to Addis Ababa, en route to London.
We had been to Lalibela – one of the most celebrated stops on the so-called northern circuit of the Ethiopian Highlands – to see its stone churches. And remarkable they were, carved into and out of the pink-hued rock between the 12th and 15th centuries, both delicate and monumental, and still very much alive – full of priests and monks and nuns and hermits and worshippers, all of them wrapped in white, as every good Ethiopian Christian is when he or she visits church.
Read more: the world’s most spectacular churches
Virtually every day of the year there will be a church somewhere in Ethiopia celebrating its saint’s day, but it’s best to time your visit to coincide with one of the great Orthodox Christian festivals, such as Easter. Known as Fasika, it usually occurs a week to two weeks after the Western Church’s Easter. It follows eight weeks of fasting from meat and dairy, and culminates in a church service on Easter eve lasting several hours and ending at 3am. Afterwards, worshippers break their fast and celebrate the risen Christ.
My own visit coincided with Timkat, in January, one of the most important festivals of the year. It’s a kind of mass baptism in which locals gather early in the morning by their church’s pool (each church has one) to be splashed and sprayed with holy water. It was such a joyous thing to witness, as everyone – from very young to very old – excitedly waited en masse for jugs of water to be thrown out over the crowd.
But it is that drive that sticks in my mind. It was market day in Lalibela and, as our charming and indefatigable guide Sammy Tilahun told us, people walked from more than 12 miles away to attend. At 8am the road was packed, not with vehicles – driving around this vast, beautiful, often mountainous country, you usually have the road to yourself – but with people and animals on the move. Many of the women and children were dressed in the traditional embroidered cotton dresses, the men wrapped in large swaths of cotton, or – on a couple of occasions – bath towels (evidently something of a step up). Some were herding goats, others cattle with enormous horns, others heavily loaded pack mules. Some – usually women – were carrying vast Byzantine bundles of twisted firewood on their backs, or unidentifiable bunches on their heads. For them it was a long walk, hard work, but it was also a social occasion – people were talking, smiling, hanging out, step by step, hour by hour.
Faithful dressed with traditional clothes attend the Timkat celebration on January 18, 2015 in Addis Ababa. Photo: Alamy
Those 30 minutes from the window summed up much that is wonderful about Ethiopia. You see a life largely untouched by this century, and a couple of earlier ones. You see a society in which profound spiritual belief (Christianity came here in the fourth century) is interwoven into every aspect of life. Most people here have very little, but those you meet and talk to – and having a guide makes it easier to do that – seem rich in ways that many of us in the developed world have lost. Of course it is easy, and distasteful, to be dewy-eyed. Poverty is everywhere. But so too is a kind of peace, contentment. This is a country that makes even an atheist like me ponder organised religion as a force for good.
The build-up to Timkat had begun the day before, when each church’s tabot – a replica of the Ark of the Covenant – made its processional way down to the water’s edge. We were in Gondar for Timkat, a popular option because of the high number of churches and, above all, the 17th-century Fasilides’ Bathing Pool, a particularly picturesque place to witness the mass baptism (but not for the faint-hearted: it is so packed, you can’t even get into the walled pool enclosure if you are there after 5am). We visited a couple of smaller churches early on in the day to see their procession begin – a gloriously multicoloured cacophonous mash-up of worship and carnival.
Around the covered tabot were the priests, each attired in jewel-hued robes and shaded by spectacular parasols (which are believed to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit); as they walked, a succession of red carpets were rolled out in front of them so their feet never touched the ground. Behind them were the church’s choirs, each wearing a different colour and in strident song. Alongside were the followers, alternately singing and ululating. For the European traveller it was a fuse-blowing mix of a recognisable brand of Christianity and a very foreign, African one.
A rock-cut church at Lalibela. Photo: AP
The followers were mostly in white again – the women’s hair spectacularly braided – but there were other fantastically weird Sunday-best outfits on display. A particular favourite with young people is to dress like the Ethiopian freedom fighters who took on the Italians in the Forties. There was an endless blowing of small curved horns, and tapping of beautifully carved long staffs – both symbolic acts in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – plus mass dancing of the distinctive Ethiopian shoulder shuffle variety.
But there were other, much quieter experiences that also helped make my time in Ethiopia so remarkable. Here is a country with incredible cultural riches, including religious art that to me in its sublime colour and creativity matches the Byzantine churches of Ravenna and the Chora Church of Istanbul. And it allows you an intimacy with art that is an impossibility in the developed world. In the Nakuta La’ab monastery, for example, built into a cave in the cliffs near Lalibela, we were alone with the priest, who showed to us and only us the pages of a beautifully illuminated 700-year-old manuscript with wide-eyed Madonnas and horse-riding martyrs, all rendered in dazzling reds and blues.
Again, at the incredible Ura Kidane Mihret monastery, on the shores of Lake Tana, we were alone in what was, quite simply, one of the most remarkable places I’d ever been. A circular building, one of the two favoured structures in the Ethiopian Orthodox church, its interior walls are covered with… well, where to begin? With the Madonna again, or saint Mary as the Ethiopians call her; with assorted other saints; with the two archangels-cum-dudes complete with Afros (looking straight out of Earth, Wind and Fire); with martyrs (40 of them, their heads in a row in the sea); with leopards and lions; with the disembodied heads and wings of a choir of angels; with the three Kings. The paintings are between 100 and 250 years old, and were designed to be “read” by the illiterate worshippers. They tell stories we know from our own Bible, but also those from the additional 14 books in the Ethiopian bible. One of my favourites, and one of the most important to Ethiopians, is of the saint Abune Gebre Menfes Kidus. He is pictured with fur on his body, flanked by the lions and leopards that are his friends; beside one eye is a little bird who drinks from the tears he sheds whenever he prays.
I could go on. And indeed one day I hope to: Ethiopia is such a fascinating country that I am already planning to return. To be continued…
Scott Dunn (020 3411 8425; scottdunn.com) offers a 16-night North to South Ethiopia Exploration itinerary from £4,540 per person including accommodation, flights and transfers. Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) flies from London Heathrow to Addis Ababa, via Doha, from £681 return. You need a visa to enter the country: it can be bought on arrival at Addis Ababa airport for $30 (£20); no photograph is required. Standard medical advice is to take antimalarial tablets.
WHEN TO GO
The climate in Ethiopia is variable – it encompasses the hottest place on earth (the Danakil desert) as well as the Bale Mountains, where it snows. If you are focusing on the vast Highlands area, the climate is temperate, averaging 60F (16C) year round – but when the sun goes in, or if you travel to the higher altitudes of the Simien National Park, it can get cold. The conventional wisdom is to avoid the rainy season (July to early October) but aficionados say this is one of the best times to visit as the rains don’t amount to much and the countryside is verdant. The post-rains period offers the best of both worlds. Also consider the big religious festivals: Christmas and Timkat in January, Easter, and Meskel in September.
Ethiopia is home to the hottest place on Earth – the Danakil desert. Photo: AP
WHAT TO BRING
The Ethiopian Highlands are fertile and green, but also dusty. Pack simple, and take layers for the varying temperatures (see above). My light down jacket-in-a-bag proved indispensable. In churches, women should cover their head, shoulders and knees; do as the locals do when it comes to headgear and buy one of the lovely white cotton scarves with pretty coloured borders that you can get for a couple of pounds. The best guidebook is one of the two Bradt editions by Philip Briggs; other options contain lots of mistakes.
THE BEST HOTELS
Outside of Addis, which offers bland internationalism, accommodation is basic. Even at the top end of the market – double rooms £60-£80 a night – no hotel has got it all right. Some have great food and bad rooms, others vice versa. The exception was Simien Mountain Lodge (simiens.com), more expensive at $210 (£140) but in a stunning national park, which sports the highest bar in Africa (3,260m). Another must-stay – despite unimpressive food and bathrooms and grumpy staff – is Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela (mountain-view hotel.com), with its incredible views.
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Ethiopian food is another delight to be discovered. The meat, chickpea stews and injera, pictured right – a kind of flat bread made with tef, similar to millet – can become repetitive, but they are delicious and the adventurous eater will have fun. Food at the hotels is not always great – though I ate well at the Goha Hotel in Gondar (gohahotel.com), the Tukul Village Hotel in Lalibela (tukulvillage.com), and the Radisson Blu in Addis Ababa (radissonblu.com). Better to go where the affluent locals are – such as Barkot in Addis (in the city’s stadium area) and Fassil Lodge in Gondar (near the castle enclosure) .
Ethiopian food is excellent, based on injera, a flat bread made with teff flour. Photo: Alamy
If you become injera-phobic, there are plenty of Western options: “spiggitti” and “makaronni” to name but two. Make sure to try the honey mead (tej) – though not too much. You will soon discover why. Ethiopians are coffee addicts: their beans are distinctive and beyond fresh, and will often be roasted in front of you.
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