Top five sights of Ethiopia: traditional tribes, rock-hewn churches, and medieval castles

Ethiopia, ethiopia
As I mentioned on Monday, I’m moving to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months to explore the ancient and unique culture in that medieval walled city. Before settling in, I thought I’d share some of the most popular places to visit in the country. Many of them were covered in my travel series about Ethiopia during my visit last year. All but the Southern Tribes are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Southern Tribes
Perhaps the best known images of Ethiopia come from its sparsely populated southern region. Here there are tribes living much the way they always have, herding and hunting animals and living off the lush hills and open savannah. The most famous tribe is the Mursi, known for their giant lip plugs like you see here in this photo by user MauritsV courtesy Wikimedia Commons. There are many more tribes, and each day will introduce you to a very different culture and set of traditions. The drive is hard going but everyone says it’s worth it.

Lalibela
Lalibela is another famous spot in Ethiopia. Starting in the 12th century the people dug out a series of churches from the bedrock, making fantastic buildings that will keep your jaw dropped for your entire visit. Not only are the stone structures impressive in their construction (or should I say, excavation) but there are rich frescoes and carvings in the interiors. The priests will show you gold and silver crosses dating back hundreds of years. If you’re lucky, you can witness an religious ceremony in which white-robed worshipers chant verses from the Bible and Kebre Negast, a holy book of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

%Gallery-90277%Gondar
Often called Ethiopia’s Camelot, the medieval capital of Gondar offers some of the country’s best architecture. It’s also on some of the best land, a high valley that’s green and soothing, completely the opposite of the parched desert many people imagine Ethiopia to be. Several palace/castles stand here, looking vaguely familiar thanks to the influence of Portuguese mercenaries hired to help the Ethiopians fight off the Somali conqueror Gragn The Left-Handed. I’ll be searching for his capital later in this series. Nobody is exactly sure where that is, so it should be a bit of an adventure.

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Axum
In the dry uplands of the northern Tigray province stand the remains of Axum, one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world and Ethiopia’s oldest city. In the fourth century BC a civilization sprang up here that even the ancient Greeks admired. It reached across the entire region and colonized what is now Yemen. It traded as far as India and China and probably Europe too. It also converted Ethiopia to Christianity in the fourth century AD, making it the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. While the civilization is long gone, you can still admire its huge palaces and lofty obelisks.

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Lake Tana
For several different but amazing experiences all in one day, head to Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. A boat takes you out to where the Blue Nile flows into the lake and you can see hippos wallowing in the water as locals in traditional reed boats steer carefully around them. On several islands are monasteries where monks have lived and prayed for centuries. They’ll show you illuminated manuscripts colorfully illustrated with holy scenes. After a long overland trip, there’s nothing better than sitting on one of these islands, free of electricity and cars, and gazing out at the placid waters of the lake.

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For more on Ethiopia, check out this video below. I know nothing about the tour company that sponsored it and this isn’t an endorsement. They do make informative travel videos, though.

And don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Returning to Harar, Ethiopia’s medieval city!

Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, hararWhat makes an adventure traveler return to a place he’s been before? When so many other destinations beckon, why spend two months in a town you’ve already seen?

Because there’s so much more to see. Harar, in eastern Ethiopia between the lush central highlands and the Somali desert, can take a lifetime to understand. For a thousand years it’s been a crossroads of cultures, where caravans from the Red Sea met Central African merchants, where scholars and poets have traded ideas, where a dozen languages are heard in the streets.

Harar’s influence spread wide in those early days. Harari coins have been found in India and China, and a couple of my Harari friends have subtly Chinese features.

The Harari have always mixed with other tribes. Some say if you live within the medieval walls of the Jugol, the old city, and follow Harari ways, that you are one of them. Hararis have their own language spoken only by the Jugol’s 20,000 residents, yet this language has created literature, poetry, and song for centuries. As Harar faces the new millennium, a dedicated group of artists and intellectuals are working to preserve and add to this heritage.

But this is no Oxford, no Western-style center of learning. Harar is different. The day starts at dawn with the muezzin’s call to prayer. Hararis are moderate Sunnis with a broad streak of Sufi mysticism. There are more than 90 mosques hidden in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Jugol, and more than 300 shrines to saints. Harar is considered the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

The morning is a busy time. Oromo farmers from the surrounding countryside fill the markets with their produce. Camels and donkeys jostle each other in the narrow streets. Kids go off to school. Offices and shops fill up. As the sun reaches its zenith and presses down on the city, people retreat to the cool interiors of their whitewashed houses with bundles of qat under their arm. Groups of friends chew this narcotic leaf during the hot hours of the day. As the buzz sets in, people relax and engage in long, animated conversations that after a time lapse into quiet reflection. One man will go off into a corner to write the lyrics to a song, while another will set to work on a Harari dictionary. Others will remain together, sharing stories about Harar. The afternoon and evening are spent in studious concentration, the main benefit of the so-called Leaves of Paradise.

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%Gallery-91809%Night falls and people still work. Ethiopia is a developing country and want is never far away, so everyone puts in long hours. As the final evening call to prayer echoes away, the Hararis set down to eat or chat in cafes over a cup of the region’s coffee (considered by many the best in the world) or retire to a shrine to perform all-night ceremonies of ecstatic chanting.

Then Harar’s other residents appear. Packs of hyenas gather at the edge of town, waiting for the humans to go to sleep so they can prowl the streets, eating the garbage or scraps left out for them. The Hararis consider the hyenas neighbors and they share an uneasy but close relationship. The Jugol walls even have low doorways to allow them to pass. Hyenas are magical beings, able to take the djinn, spirits, out of the city. Some say they’re djinn themselves, or blacksmiths turned into animal form. Sometimes as you walk home along a moonlit alley one will pass by, its bristly fur brushing against your leg.

I’m spending the next two months living here. This is a journey measured not in miles traveled but by people befriended and knowledge gained. I’ll sit with Harar’s great scholars and artists to learn about the heritage of this unique city, and I’ll meet the regular people–the Oromo farmers and Harari shopkeepers, the Tigrinya university students and Somali refugees. I’ll watch traditional blacksmiths working the way their ancestors did, and women weaving the colorful baskets that adorn every Harari home.

As a former archaeologist, there are some mysteries I want to explore. I’ll visit the ruins of Harla, said to be the predecessor to Harar, and investigate the prehistoric cave paintings at Kundudo, the region’s sacred mountain. I’ll descend into the Somali desert to visit Chinhahsan, where the 16th century conqueror Ahmad The Left-Handed is rumored to have had the capital of his vast but brief empire. Among the ruined castle and crumbling city walls I’ll look for the truth behind the legend.

I’ll also venture further afield, taking in the sights of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital. If I can assemble the right team, I’ll lead an expedition to Maqdala, a mountaintop fortress deep in the Ethiopian wilderness where the mad Emperor Tewodros defied the British Empire. I might even return to Somaliland.

There’s another reason I want to see Harar again–to catch a feeling that comes only once every few trips. Sometimes you’ll come to a spot where everything falls into place. The person you need to see appears just at the right time, the bit of information you’re searching for comes from an unexpected source, the mood is serene and the hospitality never ends. I’ve had that a few times before, like at Kumbh Mela, a giant Hindu pilgrimage that attracted 20 million people, but this feeling of everyone getting along despite their differences, everyone striving forward despite their lack of material resources, that’s a rare thing to experience.

So I’m going back.

This is the first of a series titled Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints. Join me as I discover more about this fascinating culture. A word of warning: the entire country is on dialup and there are frequent power cuts. I’ll try to post at least twice a week but please be patient! To be sure you don’t miss an installment, subscribe to my Gadling feed and in the meantime check out last year’s Ethiopia travel series.

For some views of my temporary home, see this video of a day in the life of Harar.

Axum Tej: Ethiopian honey wine comes to the U.S.

tej, Ethiopia, Axum, Ethiopian, TejEthiopian food is getting better known in the West. With its interesting blend of spices and unique ingredients such as teff, a nutritious grain, there’s a lot going for it. What isn’t so well known, however, is tej, the Ethiopian honey wine.

While tej is available by special request at some Ethiopian restaurants in Europe and North America, it’s rarely on the menu. I was lucky enough to try a variety of tej while traveling in Ethiopia, but I resigned myself to not getting much of it outside the country.

Now tej is being produced commercially in the United States and hopefully this unique drink will reach a wider audience. Axum Tej is produced by Araya S. Yibrehu, who was kind enough to send me two free bottles to sample. I know a lot of mead makers and decided to share it with them to see what producers of European-style honey wine had to say.

But first, my own impressions. I’m hardly a tej expert, but Axum Tej is remarkably different than any other tej I’ve tried in Ethiopia or Europe. While the tej I’m accustomed to has a bright yellow, opaque color, with a heavy, sweet flavor, Axum Tej has the appearance of a white wine. It has a crisp, sweet taste with a clean finish unlike any other tej I’ve drunk.

My mead maker friends agreed. They said that it was much lighter than any other mead they’d made or sampled. One commented, “It’s halfway between a mead and a dessert wine.” They did comment favorably on the well-balanced flavor and the high quality of production. We all liked it.

I think perhaps Axum Tej has been lightened up for Western palates, much like the Indian food you get in London or LA is different than the Indian food you get in New Delhi or Calcutta. Mead is not a widely popular drink principally because it’s so rich and heavy, and perhaps the folks at Axum Tej worried that a more traditional recipe would turn consumers off. Or perhaps I didn’t try enough tej while in Ethiopia. This lighter variety may be popular in some regions or venues I didn’t get to visit. I’ll have to hunt around some more when I go back next month! If anyone out there can recommend a good tejbet in Addis Ababa, the Rift Valley Lake region, or Harar, I’m all ears.

If you’re looking for something different in a sweet wine, give Axum Tej a try. It may not be what I was expecting, but it’s certainly a quality, sulfite-free drink that would go well with fish or dessert, or simply by itself.

Axum Tej does not currently have a webpage. You can order by emailing them at info@theheritagewines.com or calling 1-888 TEJ-AXUM (1-888 835-2986).

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The Ethiopian coffee ceremony

We’ve all heard of the Japanese tea ceremony, but in Ethiopia they have an elaborate ceremony for that other great caffeinated beverage–coffee.

The Ethiopians discovered coffee, surely the greatest of their many cultural achievements, so it’s not surprising they developed a ritual around it.

It was my wife’s birthday last week so I took her to Madrid’s one and only Ethiopian restaurant, Mesob Restaurante Etíope on Calle Manuela Malasaña. Madrileños will know that Malasaña is one of the best barrios in town for eating out, and I’m happy to say this outpost of East African culture is holding its own against some tough competition.

We arrived at the restaurant to find the settings laid out on a mat in front of our table. A portable stove, some handmade pitchers, and an incense burner were the main items. Our hostess sat on a wooden, three-legged stool and filled a small pot with unroasted coffee beans. She fired up the stove and started roasting them over the open flame.

As she shook the pot back and forth to turn the beans, she explained that the coffee ceremony is one of the cornerstones of social life in Ethiopia. Women go from house to house to see friends and end up attending four or five coffee ceremonies a day. She was also kind enough to teach me some Amharic and not smile too much at my bad pronunciation.

The beans were beginning to roast now and occasionally she took the pot off the flames and wafted the steam under our noses. Heaven! To keep us from going crazy waiting for the coffee she brought out some fatiira, which is sort of like a crepe made with honey. It’s a common dish for breakfast or at a coffee ceremony. As we munched she finished roasting the beans and lit an incense burner, which she passed close to our faces so we could get a good whiff. Then she ground up the beans and put them in a ceramic pitcher called a javena.

The javena went onto the stove and she poured some hot water into it. Not too much, mind you, because Ethiopian coffee is best served strong. We each got a nice cup and our hostess went back to making another javena of coffee. It’s interesting that only just enough is made at a time for each person to get a small cup. That way none goes to waste. You can, of course, just keep filling the javena if you want more coffee. We each had three cups but I’m sure the workers who carved all those churches at Lalibela out of sold rock probably drank more!

The whole ceremony took about an hour. I found it very relaxing, with the smell of the roasting beans and incense filling the air, and the soft rattle of the beans as they were shaken in the pot. The coffee was great, of course, but the best part was chatting with our hostess about life in Ethiopia and learning some Amharic in preparation for our trip in February. I’ll be interested to see if the coffee ceremonies are any different in the various regions of Ethiopia.

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Ethiopian stowaway lands in Dulles – will be sent back home

Baggage handlers at Dulles International airport got quite the shock when they noticed a arm sticking out from the bags in the hold of an Ethiopian Airways 767.

The arm belonged to a stowaway, who was naturally suffering from dehydration. For some reason, stowaways are often smart enough to get past airport security, but not smart enough to bring water on board.

The plane had arrived from Addis Ababa and made a stopover in Rome, so the man had been locked in the luggage hold for about 20 hours. He has been transported to a federal holding facility, and will be sent back to Ethiopia after being charged.

Officials were quick to point out that the man was not considered to be a terrorist threat.

Despite the large number of international flights arriving in the US every day, stowaway passengers are still fairly rare, and I’m sure the common misconception that the cargo hold is unpressurized helps scare a lot of would-be stowaways out of the idea. Of course, reading that stowaways are immediately sent back to their homeland also makes the whole idea of hiding in the cargo hold rather unappealing.