Ethiopia is a beautiful and fascinating country. A country which defies cliché. Yet the legacy of the vicious Marxist government, and the terrible droughts and famine of the 1980s, still frame people’s perceptions of it and it’s people. It is a country like no other, where received wisdom is hopelessly out of kilter with reality. Our twelve days in Ethiopia, splitting our time between Axum in the north, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana and the extraordinary Lalibela, would only be a taster of this amazing country.
My first impression of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, wasn’t great. I arrived at 2am, and the drive through the dark, silent streets was at high speed. When my taxi arrived at the hotel I discovered my room had been given away. I could see my name on the reservation list, but a European tour group was stranded by a cancelled flight – one of the group was happily sleeping in my bed. Ironically, the tour group organiser came to my rescue, suggesting another hotel. I finally got to bed around 4am.
Not honouring hotel bookings is small fry compared to some of Ethiopia’s more entrenched problems. I was thinking about my trip a few years ago, while reading a recent news article. The only opposition member of the Ethiopian Parliament, Girma Seifu Maru, was quoted saying that the government’s suppression of opposition was storing up trouble for the future. Thats putting it mildly. On my first day in Addis Ababa, a taxi driver pointed out the university, adding that, thanks to a government crackdown on student protests, most of the students were completing their studies in prison.
Things don’t seem to have improved much between my visit and now. Corruption, poverty, a lack of transparency and accountability continue to blight the country’s 94 million inhabitants. As does the proxy war Ethiopia is fighting in Somalia on behalf of the United States and its allies. Yet if Ethiopia’s present is beset with problems, its ancient history might point toward a glorious future.
Boasting Africa’s richest historical heritage, the human history of the country can be traced back to some of the earliest stone tools (around 2.5 million years old). Around 800 BC, when the Phoenicians were founding Carthage, an ancient kingdom existed in Ethiopia. This gave rise to the Aksumite Empire which, by 300 AD, stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen, and was considered one of the world’s great powers (alongside the Roman, Persian and Chinese Empires). The famed Axum Stelae are evidence of the sopistication of the Aksumite civilisation.
Global trade routes, and proximity to the Middle East, meant the Aksumite Empire was heavily influenced by the monotheistic religions that flourished there. There is an ancient Jewish tribe, the Falasha, which has existed in Ethiopia for centuries. The Ethiopian Queen, Makeda, also known as the Queen of Sheba, is supposed to have visited King Solomon’s Jerusalem. Allegedly, Solomon is the father of her child, Menelik, who established Juadism as the religion of the Aksumite Empire.
This may be myth, but it was the foundation stone of legitimacy for Ethiopia’s monarchy. Part of the King Solomon story relates how the Ark of the Covenant was brought and hidden in Ethiopia by Menelik. It apparently remains under lock and key in Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church, and only one living person has actually seen it.
When Christianity emerged it was adopted by the Aksumite Empire, which in 324 AD became one of the first Christian kingdoms. The legacy of this can be seen across Ethiopia. There are monasteries and churches throughout the country, many over 1000 years old – the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela being some of the finest examples. As Islam spread across the region, Ethiopia became isolated from developments elsewhere in the Christian world. This isolation has bequeathed the unique Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity to the world.
Given this, it’s ironic that Ethiopia is the site of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries related to human evolution. In 1974, in the remote and dangerous Afar Depression, teams of scientists discovered numerous Hominid bones that are a major piece of evidence that our ancestors evolved in, and migrated out of, Africa. This includes the 3.5 million year old skeleton of Lucy, an iconic human ancestor and an evolutionary ‘missing link’. Lucy wasn’t on display when I was in Addis Ababa, she’d been packed off to tour the United States.
Unique amongst African nations, Ethiopia was never colonised. During the 19th Century ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia fought tenaciously for its independence from would-be colonisers. The continuity of hereditary monarchy was only interrupted once, between 1936 – 41. The brief Italian occupation left little behind other than second rate pasta and third rate wine. The culture, religion and cuisine remain uniquely Ethiopian.
The hereditary monarchy held on to power into the modern-era, ruling over a largely feudal society. This all came to a dramatic end when, in 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a hardline Communist military government, the Derg. Ethiopia became a Cold War satellite of the Soviet Union, and the Derg unleashed a period of terror. It was the failed policies of the Derg which led to the famine of the 1980s. Propped up by Soviet military aid, it was only in 1991 that the Derg was finally forced from power.
Since then, Ethiopia has fought a crippling war against its neighbour, Eritrea; a conflict that still flares up periodically. It also adopted a democratic constitution, but has lurched from one rigged election to another, keeping the same party in power since 1991. New elections are expected in 2015, their outcome may determine the course of Ethiopia’s future and whether-or-not the bottled-up dissent spills onto the streets.
Ethiopia is also the home of one of humanity’s defining pleasures: coffee. The coffee bean originated in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian varieties are considered some of the finest in the world. Coffee plays a special role in Ethiopian society, including an elaborate coffee ceremony – the ritualised making and drinking of three cups of coffee for each person. As a visitor, you’re regularly called upon to drink coffee several times each day. Its easy to spend your entire time in the country permanently wired.