One of Africa’s most interesting countries has just got a new site to visit.
An ancient Muslim city thought lost for a thousand years has recently been discovered. A team of French archaeologists have found the location of the medieval trading center of Gendebelo.
While Ethiopia is famous for being the second oldest Christian country in the world (after Armenia), about half of the population is Muslim and the two communities have lived side by side for centuries, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.
Gendebelo was part of the more peaceful exchange, acting as a focus for trade between the two cultures.
The archaeologists puzzled out the location of the city with the help of an old manuscript that an earlier researcher had found in the Muslim city of Harar, where it was being used for wrapping sugar. The manuscript told the tale of a 16th century Venetian explorer who had found the ruins of Gendebelo in the desert and gave vague references to the city being “the place where mules are to be unloaded and camels take over.”
That was enough for the archaeologists, who realized the explorer meant the escarpment that marks the borderland between the rough highlands and the arid Danakil Depression. It was here that merchants who used mules (the Christians) and those who used camels (the Muslims) met for mutual profit.
The French team was able to pinpoint the site as being a medieval city now known as Nora. It’s been abandoned for years except for the mosque, which is still used by local farmers. Legends say that in ancient times the people of Nora were so rich that on his wedding day one young man paved the road to his bride’s town with injera bread. Allah grew so angry at this conspicuous consumption that he destroyed the town with a rain of ash.
The ruins of Nora are a bit out of the way for modern travel, but planned excavations will almost certainly reveal some fine remains, and the town may become a new tourist sight. In the meantime, one great Muslim center of civilization, Harar, is still very much in use. The city is in the eastern part of Ethiopia and is considered the fourth holiest sight for Muslims after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The people of Harar are majority Muslim, but there’s a large Christian population too. Both speak Harari, a Semitic language related to Arabic and Hebrew. Jews also used to live in the area, but they fled to Israel and other countries during Ethiopia’s civil war in the 1980s.
Harar was founded more than a thousand years ago and is still enclosed by a city wall, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides the walls, there are three mosques dating to the tenth century, and the house of the French poet Rimbaud, who lived here when we was working as a gun runner and hanging out with the local governor, who was the father of Haile Selassie. Another weird sight is the nightly feeding of the hyenas.
Have you been to Ethiopia? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section. I’m taking my wife there for our tenth anniversary and I’m open to suggestions of places to go!