Some thoughts on travel in Ethiopia

One evening I was walking near my home in Madrid and in front of me there was a group of people discussing where they should go to dinner. They were just passing Mesob, the only Ethiopian restaurant in Madrid. One of them said, “Look, Ethiopian food!” and they all started laughing. Several stupid comments about empty plates and starving children followed. Needless to say they didn’t go in, and didn’t learn about Ethiopia’s flavorful and varied cuisine, or the relaxing Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Ignorance is self-perpetuating.

Ethiopia has an image problem. We all have those horrible pictures of war and famine burned into our minds, but as our series on Ethiopia has shown, Ethiopia is a safe and welcoming place to travel. Tour operators such as Abey Roads say tourism is picking up, and considering how much the country has to offer, it’s amazing it isn’t a major destination. Ethiopia has something for pretty much everyone:

Hikers and rock climbers: The rugged Semien Mountains are fast becoming a destination for serious trekking. The more verdant Bale Mountains also offer good hiking opportunities. Rock climbers are beginning to make a foothold in the country, and with many untouched routes there’s plenty of opportunity to be the first on some challenging climbs.

History buffs: Grandiose castles, towering monoliths, and medieval cities help you delve into the past.

Adventure travelers and package tourists: You can rough it on public transportation or fly in comfort from site to site. You can camp or stay in five-star hotels. With facilities for all sorts of traveler, your level of comfort is dictated only by your inclination and the thickness of your wallet.

Budget travelers: Ethiopia is cheap. Even the airfare isn’t bad. I flew Egyptair from Madrid to Addis Ababa for 550 euros ($728) and it’s easy to travel in relative comfort on $20 a day.Students of religion: Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian nation in the world, and has large number of followers of Islam and traditional African religions. For the most part these different faiths get along, despite an embarrassing and atypical religious flame war on this very site. Angry people always make the most noise, but the vast majority of Ethiopians are easygoing and tolerant.

Nature lovers: The southern part of the country offers many safari opportunities with a chance to see rare black-maned lions, elephants, baboons, and much more. If you really want to get up close and personal, go to Harar and feed the hyenas.

Birdwatchers: An estimated 850 species, including scores of endemics, plus bird-themed tours makes this a great destination for the adventurous birder.

Friendly folks of any description: The best aspect of any trip is the people you meet. Ethiopians are open and friendly, and hopefully they’ll stay that way as tourism increases. Communication can be a problem in the more rural areas, but in cities and towns there’s always someone who speaks English or another European language, and everyone is happy to teach you their own language.

With all this, Ethiopia could and probably will be a major destination in ten years. The worst part of their history is behind them and Ethiopians are busy taking their nation to the next level. Now is an exciting time to see it, if only more people knew. Hopefully the government will invest in a campaign to get the nation’s public image out of the 1980s and into the present day.

This is the last installment of our series on travel in Ethiopia. Hope you enjoyed it!

Coming up next: a series on Somaliland, the other Somalia.

Exploring Harar, a medieval city in Ethiopia

In my last post I wrote about how Harar is an alluring walled city that made me throw away my travel plans and stay for three weeks. A serene atmosphere and an ever-widening circle of knowledgeable, hospitable acquaintances were what kept me there, but what is there to actually see?


The main attraction, of course, is the city itself, with its crowded markets, quiet back alleys, and mixture of Ethiopian, Egyptian, Arab, and Italian architecture. A long wander in the Jegol, as locals call the old city, will give you a feel for life in this unique place. Don’t worry about getting lost. While the winding little alleyways make it inevitable, the city is so small you won’t stay lost for long. Walking at night is safe and very romantic with the right company and a full moon.

Harar’s most famous attraction is the hyena man. Yusuf Mumé Salih is a local farmer who lives just outside the walls. He sits out every night feeding the hyenas with raw donkey meat just like his uncle did before him. The Hararis and the hyenas have an unusual relationship. The city wall has small gates to allow the hyenas in at night and one Harari told me he was more afraid of dogs than hyenas! Hyenas are useful for eating garbage left on the streets and also take away djinn, harmful spirits that sometimes possess people. The hyena man will allow you to feed the animals yourself, and they’re surprisingly gentle. Walking in Harar at night one will occasionally slip by you and disappear down an alley. After visiting the hyena man, I didn’t worry about it.

%Gallery-91953%There are also a few museums. The Harar Museum and Cultural Center has a reconstructed traditional home that should not be missed. Harari homes consist of several rooms, including a common room with different platforms for sitting and colorful basketry hanging from the walls. If you stay in Harar for any length of time you’ll be invited into a real home, but it’s nice to poke about here because you can see the private quarters that are otherwise off-limits. Another excellent museum is the Abdullahi Sherif Private Museum, run by a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who has devoted his life to collecting, preserving, and studying artifacts from Harar’s past. The museum is housed in the palace that Emperor Haile Selassie grew up in. Examining the various coins, swords, dresses, and medieval manuscripts will show just how eventful Harar’s history was, and how it was a nexus of influences from all over the world.

Admirers of literature will want to see Rimbaud’s House, an elegant mansion that, in a surprising display of honesty, the curator told me was never Rimbaud’s. Be that as it may, it is now devoted to the memory of the poet, with many of his photos of old Harar and information about his life and work. Rimbaud introduced photography to Harar when he moved here in 1880 and his photos are priceless documents of life in the city more than a hundred years ago.

And there’s much more to explore. I’m planning to go back for two months next year to do an in-depth research project on some aspect of Harari culture. Exactly what aspect I’m not sure. As one Harari friend advised, “Don’t come here with an idea in your head. Let the city give you the subject.” Harar is that kind of place.

An excellent introduction to the city and its people is Harar: A Cultural Guide (Shama Books, 2007) by David Vô Vân and Mohammed Jami Guleid, with beautiful photographs by Alain Zorzutti.

Don’t forget to read the rest of my series on travel in Ethiopia.

Next time: some final thoughts on travel in Ethiopia.

Harar: Ethiopia’s medieval masterpiece

If you’re lucky, every now and then when you’re on the road you’ll come to a place where a little voice will say, “Stop here. This is what you were looking for.” You’ll have other plans, a nice neat schedule you made up in your head of what you wanted to see in the time you have for your trip. If you stop, if you listen to the little voice, you’ll miss a lot of things you had planned to see.

Do it.

For me that place was Harar, a walled medieval city I visited halfway through my two-month trip around the Horn of Africa. My wife had flown home, having thoroughly enjoyed the lifetime of memories I gave her as a tenth anniversary present. Now I was free to go anywhere I liked without consulting anyone else. Or I was free to go nowhere.

Harar is reached on a ten-hour bus ride from Addis Ababa. That’s not as bad as it sounds. The road is paved and the two main bus companies, Salaam Bus and Sky Bus, offer modern, comfortable transport. The scenery gradually changes from the hilly green of the Amhara and Oromo provinces to the rockier, drier region around Harar. The city is at a lower elevation than Addis or most of the north and I could feel the change in temperature.

Nobody knows how old Harar is. Hararis say it was founded in the early part of the Muslim era, perhaps in the 7th century AD, but given its location on the border between the core of the Ethiopian empire in the western and northern highlands, and the Somali lowlands and the sea to the south and east, it was probably a trading center long before that. Harar has always been a place where different cultures meet.

The first thing I noticed about Harar is how small it is. It’s more of a town than a city, with a bit of sprawl in the surrounding hills. The area encompassed by the 16th century walls can be walked across in fifteen minutes, and walked around in little more than an hour. It’s slightly less than 120 acres. Yet within these walls there’s an entire history and a unique culture rich in symbolism. For example the Jegol, as the old city is called, has five gates, corresponding to the five pillars of Islam. There used to be 99 mosques in the Jegol to correspond to the 99 names of Allah. The list of symbols both in the geography of the city and in the shape and layout of the buildings could and does fill volumes.

%Gallery-91809%Walled cities have an atmosphere all their own. Damascus, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Segovia. . .they all feel like they’re worlds unto themselves. The wall is more than just a physical barrier. In the days when city gates were closed at night the walls provided a very real social and psychological barrier. The people who grew up inside the city will be subtly different than those who lived only a few miles away. In the case of Harar the difference isn’t so subtle. Hararis have their own language spoken only within the walls of the Jegol.

My education in the ways of Harar started on the first day. I hadn’t been inside the Jegol for more than an hour before I was invited to join a meeting of the Harar Revitalization group, which is rebuilding dilapidated old buildings and wants to restore three of the five city gates that the Emperor Haile Selassie knocked down in order to allow access to cars. We sat on a carpet on the floor in the back room of one of the museums as a local poet and songwriter coached a group of young people who were recording a CD of songs about their city.

I soon found that the shopkeepers and office workers sitting around me were some of Harar’s intelligentsia–writers and historians and lexicographers. I’d tapped into a rich vein of scholars who cared about their city so deeply that they spent their spare hours learning its secrets and preserving it for future generations. As a former archaeologist turned writer, I couldn’t ask for better company. Over the following days and weeks I found many doors open for me, and over endless rounds of rich Harari coffee I met people who shared vast amounts of knowledge, and were curious to learn what I knew.

I soon settled into a rhythm. Every morning I’d sit at my favorite cafe on the main square sipping an excellent macchiato and watching the world go by. A Somali friend would often join me, and sometimes some of the Harari researchers. After some leisurely conversation it was time for a stroll around town, followed a conversation in some shaded alley or courtyard. Afternoons were spent in one of three homes, drinking coffee and talking about everything from linguistics to travel to history. Then as the sun set it came time to walk the darkened streets of the Jegol under the light of the moon.

It wasn’t long before I became a familiar face. The touts in the main square stopped trying to get me to go on tours and people always knew where to find me. Once I was headed down one of the main streets to find Amir, the assistant curator of a local museum. As I passed down the street someone I didn’t know said, “Amir is in the cafe.” He didn’t tell me which cafe, but I figured it was the one people usually saw me at. Sure enough, there sat Amir. Now this fellow couldn’t have known I was looking for Amir, hell, Amir didn’t know I was looking for Amir, but Harar is that sort of place.

So when you get to Harar, slow down. Skip the sights for a while and sit in the shade with a good companion. Or don’t. Perhaps you need to stop somewhere else.

Don’t forget to read the rest of my series on travel in Ethiopia.

Next time: more on Harar (with suggestions on what you can actually see there)

Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s new flower

When I talk to NGO workers who have worked all over Africa, most say their favorite posting was Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s capital is a young city, founded by the Empress Itegue Taitu in the late nineteenth century. She named it the “new flower”, and while the pollution and crowded streets don’t give a very flowery impression, it’s still an enjoyable and easy city to visit.

I’ve already mentioned my first impressions and talked about the cafes of Addis Ababa, but there are many more things to do than simply sitting around sipping world-class macchiatos. Here are a few highlights.

Art Galleries. “Addis”, as residents affectionately called their city, is home to a thriving arts scene. Two galleries rise to the top. The Asni Gallery in the Entonto hills overlooking the city offers a cool, green getaway from the busy city. A ramshackle old house features exhibitions by local painters and multimedia artists, while the garden outside has an interesting collection of sculptures made from found objects, like this curious contraption beside which yours truly is posing in such a dignified manner. The gallery of Kristos Solomon Belachew next to the Itegue Taitu Hotel will enchant anyone who appreciates art. This third-generation painter has a style rooted in traditional themes, with vibrant colors depicting historic or Biblical scenes. His works are quite affordable and make unique gifts or mementos. We bought three pieces. Kristos is a fascinating man to talk to and a visit to his gallery/workshop will give you a deeper appreciation of Ethiopian art.


Museums. The National Museum of Ethiopia is justly famous for its collection of fossil hominids, including the famous Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. One gripping display shows the precursors to modern humans arranged in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance, shattering Creationist mythology in a single room. Other rooms show the evolution of animals such as the horse. The rest of the museum is less impressive, with meager collections from Ethiopia’s many ancient empires poorly explained with minimal signage. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies is more user-friendly. Housed in one of Haile Selassie’s old palaces on the green and pleasant campus of Addis Ababa University, it features a beautiful collection of Ethiopian art as well as cultural artifacts. Long descriptions help the visitor put what they’re seeing into context. You can also visit the upper stories of the palace, where the emperor’s private quarters are still preserved, right down to his baby blue bidet.

Dining. With Ethiopian food being consistently good, few restaurants really stand out. The one at the Finfine Hotel and hot springs is the oldest in the city and serves flavorful national food and sweet, smooth tej. If gloppy stuff on injera is beginning to get tiring, go to Castelli’s, a old-school Italian restaurant run by very old-school Italians. It attracts an interesting mix of expats, tourists, and upper class locals.

Shopping. Addis boasts the largest open-air market in Africa, the Merkato. It’s as big as a medium-sized town and sells anything you can imagine that’s legal, and many things that are not. While a trip through its myriad lanes is popular with visitors, a trustworthy guide is essential as the area abounds with thieves. There are plenty of other shops and smaller markets throughout town that sell the usual tourist knick-knacks, a fine selection of leather goods, Ethiopian music, and colorful crafts from Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. For some reason there’s a severe shortage of postcards; they’re almost impossible to find outside of the main tourist areas so buy them when you see them!

Where to stay. We tried only one hotel in Addis, the Itegue Taitu. It was the first hotel in Ethiopia, and features a grand old wooden staircase and balconies. It’s a bit worse for wear and desperately needs the remodel they are slowly getting around to. Even with the creaky floors and dingy bathrooms, it’s a wonderful place to stay. The back porch is relaxing, the restaurant is one of the best in the city, and the staff are truly kind and helpful. It makes for a good introduction to Ethiopia, both the good and the not-so-good. When I go back, I won’t consider staying anywhere else.

Getting around. Addis is spread out and not very walkable. Luckily there’s an excellent and cheap network of minibuses. A bit of experimenting and asking for directions will help you figure out how to get from A to B, and you’ll usually end up in some interesting conversations on the way. City buses are also numerous, but are crowded, only marginally cheaper, and popular with pickpockets. Taxis are everywhere but as with many countries it’s best to settle the price beforehand. In general, Ethiopian taxi drivers are far less annoying and greedy than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

So if you go to Ethiopia, spare a few days for Addis Ababa. Of the thirty capital cities I’ve visited, it’s one of the most enjoyable.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel articles.

Next time: the medieval walled city of Harar!

Lalibela: Ethiopia’s ancient jewel

For an agnostic I’ve certainly been to a lot of holy places.

I’ve always been skeptical of received wisdom, and fascinated that so many people dedicate their lives to a deity they can’t see, can’t prove exists, and who has left them in the lurch on more than one occasion. I’m also fascinated that this strange behavior called religion often makes people better people, and just as often is used to justify appalling crimes. Nor am I impressed by atheists who claim to “know” there is nothing higher, since that’s unprovable too.

So when I travel I always end up at the holy places–camping among the 70 million pilgrims at Kumbh Mela, or sitting with sadhus at the burning ghats in Benares, or discussing Islam in the shady courtyard of a mosque in Isfahan, or climbing up a dubious-looking rope to reach the clifftop monastery of Debre Damo.

One of my friends, a devout Catholic who likes to debate theology as we go on pub crawls, is convinced my interest in religion means I’m going to convert. I could tell him that devoting his academic life to studying the works of Samuel Beckett means he’s going to become a nihilist, but that hardly seems sporting.

I wish he’d been along for my visit to Lalibela, because not only is the town a monument to Ethiopia’s faith in God, but it also brews the country’s best tej. We would have had a hell of a metaphysical boozer.

Lalibela is off the main highway and reached after many miles bouncing along ass-punishing dirt roads. It is here, starting in the 12th century, that a series of churches were dug out the bedrock. This construction-in-reverse was the brainchild of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, a king of the Zagwe dynasty. The eleven churches he dug here were meant to be a New Jerusalem, in response to the Muslims capturing Jerusalem and making it difficult for Christian pilgrims to visit. The river flowing through Lalibela is called the River Jordan and a pilgrim can visit the Ethiopian version of Bethleham, Golgotha, and the Holy Sepulchre.

The most grand is Biet Medhane Alem, the largest rock-hewn church in the world. It’s a massive block of stone with 72 towering pillars symbolizing the 72 disciples of Christ. A stone passage leads to Biet Mariam, possibly the first to be built and easily my favorite. As our eyes adjust to the dim interior we see 800 year-old frescoes decorating the walls and ceiling. They show scenes from the Bible and their rich colors blend with the shadows to create a soothing, otherworldly effect.

%Gallery-90277%The most famous of the churches, the one seen in all the tourist brochures, is Biet Giyorgis. It blends with the surrounding stone even while standing out and dazzling the eye. It’s retained the same color as the surrounding rock–none of the churches are painted on the outside–and the builders cleverly left the roof pitching at the same angle as the rest of the slope, making the church seem like a natural part of the ground. At twelve meters high, it is the highest (or I should say deepest) of Lalibela’s churches.

At each of the churches a priest will come out on cue, bearing an elaborate medieval silver cross and wearing his colorful raiment. While this makes for great photos, I feel it cheapens the place somewhat, a bit like the monks trotting out illuminated manuscripts at the monasteries on Lake Tana. Still, it’s their choice how they respond to tourism, and tourist money helps maintain the churches and monastic libraries.

Lalibela is one of the most touristy places in Ethiopia. Touts and self-appointed guides abound. While this is nowhere near as annoying as the situation at the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, it can still be hard to find a decent guide. If you already have a driver, like we hired from Abey Roads, he can find you a reliable local guide. We went with Taye Abebe, who was knowledgeable, spoke good English, and took me to extra places for no additional charge simply because he knew I was interested. He can be contacted at taye_lalibela@

On the second day of our visit, Taye takes me to a predawn mass. I leave my wife asleep in the hotel, skip breakfast, and go with him through the darkened town to Beit Gabriel. It’s Gabriel’s holy day today. Because of the steep incline of the original slope one wall of the church seems to soar to the sky. The Ethiopians call it the “Stairway to Heaven”. We cross a narrow stone bridge, with a sheer drop several meters down on either side, and enter the packed interior.

Inside, the rough stone walls are aglow with the light of candles, and resonate with the sound of chanting. Everyone is wearing white, from the aged priests leading the service to the village women leaning wearily against the pillars, exhausted from having spent the night in prayer. We stand next to a religious class of sleepy-eyed kids who take turns reading aloud from a holy book written in Ge’ez. None of them take the slightest notice of me, the only foreigner in the room. Instead they concentrate on puzzling through the ancient liturgical language.

The head priest comes out of the holy of holies bearing an elegant silver cross. One by one the faithful go up to him and kiss it, and he rubs it along their bodies to give them a blessing. We stay and watch as the sun rises and beams its first golden light into the interior. At last we go, but the priests and townsfolk and pilgrims stay. They’ve been praying all night, and they’ll pray all day too.

For the rest of the day I wander around more of Lalibela’s churches, amazed that people can be so sure of something they can’t prove that they’d dig out more than a dozen buildings from solid rock. I’ve met atheists who sneer at such feats, saying it’s a means of social control, a waste of money and effort to worship something that doesn’t exist. But that’s missing the point. People need these festivals and rituals and grand monuments. It takes them out of their day-to-day life and shows them something higher. Even a religion hater like atheist author Sam Harris says spirituality is an important part of life. And that’s what these places provide, even for a cynic like me. Because every now and then, you need to feel that rarest of emotions–awe.

And you don’t have to believe in God to figure that out.

Next time: Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s New Flower.

Check out the rest of my travel articles about Ethiopia.