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Sunday, December 1, 2019

And then we were three again

Amber contemplates life, universe and the meaning of it all...

She's back! After exactly one month in Taiwan seeing her family and friends, Shu-E has returned "home". I left the house at six o'clock this morning to meet her at the airport. No heartwarming homecoming shots, but I did take this picture of an old Ethiopian Airlines planes parked in the roundabout in front of Bole International Airport:

Shu-E's welcome upon returning to Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ was our having to detour into oncoming traffic several times on the way back from the airport because local youths had closed off portions of several streets in order to play soccer. What can you do? When in Addis, do as people:

My daughter and I did more than just survive for the 30 days or so that my wife was away, but it feels good to have the family reunited...and to enjoy the goodies Shu-E brought back with her from the homeland. Meanwhile, in other news...

On Saturday I dragged took Amber along on our first hike in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is ringed by hills and mountains begging to be explored on foot. The drawback to doing so, however, is the security situation. Hiking alone or in small groups isn't the smartest of things to do here, as there have been several incidents recently of Westerners getting mugged out on the trails. The solution is to go with a large group of people, and to do so with a hired, armed escort. Which is exactly what one of my work colleagues organized for yesterday afternoon, as we gathered at the Gulele Botanical Garden ጉለሌ የዕፅዋት ማዕከል overlooking the city:

The garden is a joint venture between Addis Ababa University and the Addis Ababa city government. I forgot to check the elevation while we were there, but seeing as our house sits at 2290 meters (7513 feet), I'm guessing we were pretty close to the 3000-meter (9842 feet) level. Our hike began with a short walk uphill that still had me huffing and puffing due to the elevation, though on the bright side my legs (and, more importantly, my knees) felt fine throughout the walk:

The city below us soon began to emerge into view:

We left the road and entered the forest...:

...passing by a small herd of grazing cattle in the process:

We reached the lookout and surveyed the view of Addis below. The conditions were somewhat hazy, but it was still an impressive sight:

The gentleman on the far left was our armed escort for the hike:

Zooming in on the city skyline:

First, swimming practice in the morning in a very cold, unheated pool, then this. Throughout it all, my daughter was a trouper:

The obligatory group shot:

Going back:

A final look down at the city:

A locust. Ethiopia has been suffering recently from a locust infestation, though this was the only one that we saw on the mountain:

On the way home Amber tried taking some photos from the front passenger seat. None of them turned out particularly well, but I like this shot because you can see the photographer's reflection in the side mirror:

Back in town, we rewarded ourselves at Puroamore Gelato:

In other news, I observed my first Thanksgiving in Ethiopia. Notice the personal pronoun - for my daughter it was just another school day, while my wife was still in Taiwan. The weather was sunny, so I made the nearly five-kilometer (roughly three miles) walk uphill to the St. George Golla Art Gallery:

The reason for the trek (in addition to getting out of the house and getting some exercise) was to see an exhibition of handwoven art pieces that was in its final days. The artist is a colleague of mine at work:

It was only as I was about to leave that I noticed the "no photographs" sign on one of the walls. አዝናለሁ...

The surrounding Golla Park wasn't much to look at. On the other hand, there aren't many green spaces in the capital:

Addis Ababa's building boom shows no sign of ending soon:

A pre-lunch lemon meringue gelato. The start of a new Thanksgiving tradition?:

For Thanksgiving dinner, Amber and I splurged (well, I did, anyway) by having dinner at The Kitchen, one of the restaurants at the Hyatt Regency. Traveling there by taxi on a late Thursday afternoon was much shorter than I'd anticipated, so we killed time by having some drinks (Ethiopian-style macchiato for me, banana frappuccino for her) at the hotel cafe:

Inside the dining room. Even after sitting down at 1730, we still had to wait another half-hour for the start of the Thanksgiving dinner set, a fact which wasn't communicated at the time the reservation was made:

There wasn't much of a view from the restaurant, unless you have a keen interest in the first light rail system in sub-Saharan Africa የአዲስ አበባ ቀላል ባቡር:

Dinner was served from 1800:

It was more than I'd anticipated, and the three Castel beers I had during dinner filled me quickly:

Somehow both Amber and I managed to make room for our desserts:

It was a good meal, but more than the two of could handle, which made it all the more difficult coming to terms with the begging children who swarmed our taxi while it waited for the light to change at Meskel Square on the ride back home.

It can be very depressing at times seeing the daily struggle that goes on in a developing country. We live well by Ethiopian standards, but our neighborhood is far from a sheltered expatriate enclave, and corrugated tin shacks, potholed roads and begging mothers and children are a fact of life here. Which is probably why for many it's easy to get lost in an expat world of hotel brunches, spa treatments and diplomatic bazaars (with drivers, guards, housekeepers and nannies to smooth over all those unpleasant rough edges) and forget that for many people in this part of the world, going without food isn't the latest dieting fad but instead is a fact of life.

Monday, November 25, 2019

It's Axumatic, or the Greatest Empire You've Never Heard Of

My daughter is tall for her age but she's dwarfed by the Giant Stele

Amber and I have just returned from a two-night stay in Aksum (Axum) አክሱም, a small city of approximately 60,000 people, sitting at 2130 meters (6988 feet) above sea level, 1000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Addis Ababa አዲስ አበባ and 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the border with Eritrea. Why did the two of us go to Aksum? My daughter chose it, actually. And why did Amber choose to go there? In her words, it seemed the "most urban" place on a list of sites in Ethiopia I had her make a selection from. And how did Aksum end up on that list to begin with? Quite simply, architecturally and historically speaking, it's the most important place in all of Ethiopia, and the oldest continually inhabited town south of the Sahara.

Aksum was the capital of the Aksumite Empire, which lasted nearly a thousand years and at its height stretched 2.5 million km² (1.55 million square miles) west to the Sudanese Nile and east across the Red Sea to southern Arabia. It was the most important political and trade center in the Horn of Africa, controlling seaborne trade between Africa and Asia. The empire's rules adopted Christianity in the 4th century CE, making Ethiopia the world's second-oldest Christian country (after Armenia). With the rise of Islam's influence, however, the empire started to decline, and by the end of the 8th century Aksum had become isolated from its former trade routes to Egypt and the Mediterranean, and in the 10th century the city was captured and sacked by the semi-legendary Gudit ጉዲት. Aksum today is a pleasant city that hosts some of the country's greatest architectural treasures.

From Addis Ababa it's a short 90-minute flight in an Ethiopian Airlines Bombardier turboprop plane north to Aksum. The semi-arid, brown scenery of the central Tigrayan Plateau is in sharp contrast to the lush greenery surrounding Ethiopia's capital city:

The airport was unsurprisingly small, and only five kilometers (3.1 miles) east of the city center. Many of the passengers on the plane were foreigners, and we saw quite a few tour groups as well as backpackers while we were in Aksum:

Having arrived at our hotel (the Sabean International) just after 1000, we had some time to kill before our room was ready, so we retired to the ground floor cafe. Being on vacation, I found the perfect drink to quench my morning thirst:

Amber, of course, is the more sensible one when it comes to drinking:

It wasn't long before we were able to drop our bags off in our top-floor twin room and set out to explore some of the sights. The view from our room looking west...:

...and the view from the stairway as headed towards the exit:

First stop was at the Aksum Visitor Center. There's a lot to see in the Aksum area, and visitors are pressured to join organized tours to visit the sights. Amber and I, however, decided it was better to concentrate on just a few attractions, and not try to pack in everything in just the couple of days that we had:

Traffic was light on Friday morning:

The houses in Aksum looked very different from the corrugated tin shacks that are commonplace in Addis Ababa:

As the city is host to Ethiopia's first church, we made our way to the St. Mary of Zion Churches Complex, a twenty-minute walk from the hotel. The New Church of St. Mary of Zion, however, only dates from the 1960's and was built to provide women with a place to worship (more about that later):

A priest showed off a Bible made of parchment and read a short passage in Ge'ez ግዕዝ, the main liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:

After visiting the museum (no photography allowed, unfortunately), we were shown the foundation stones of the original 4th-century church:

Back inside the new church...:

...and then outside once again to take a look at the extremely tall bell tower:

At around 1230 visitors like us were politely shooed out in time for the afternoon mass, and asked to return later in the afternoon. So the two of us walked down the road to the St. George Gallery Axum for a spot of souvenir shopping:

We then took a stroll around the neighborhood, passing the 1950's Arabtu Ensessa Church, also closed for mass...:

...and the Da'Ero Ela Fig Tree, which was, of course, open...:

By this time we were getting hungry so we returned to the center of town to the AB Traditional Restaurant, where I had my first Dashen Beer...:

...which turned out to be the perfect drink for washing down some shekla tibs, sliced lamb served sizzling in a clay pot above hot coals, and with no vegetables in sight:

On our way back to the churches, we were passed by a procession that I assumed to be that of a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, as that morning a priest had told me the Ark replica is taken for a tour of the surrounding area:

The procession stopped for a while in front of the church complex, where I took some short videos:

It was only when the procession started up again, and was brought up in the rear by a contingent of white robe-clad wailing women did I realize this was a funeral, and I immediately felt like an insensitive voyeur.

Speaking of the Ark, it's housed inside the Ark of the Covenant Chapel. Or at least that's what most Ethiopians believe. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims the Ark was brought to Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik I, with a forgery being left behind in Jerusalem. Not being one to lend much credence to Biblical tales, I doubt the actual Ark is located in Aksum. In fact, I strongly suspect it's been locked up in a crate and stashed away in a huge U.S. government warehouse somewhere:

The real highlight of the church complex is the Old Church of St. Mary of Zion, built in 1665 by Emperor Fasiladas. Supposedly because of the destruction of Aksum caused by Queen Gudit, women aren't allowed inside, which meant my daughter had to wait outside. I also had to bide my time, however, as the mass was still going on inside when we returned in the mid-afternoon. There was more waiting once the mass was finished, though, as the priest who had the key to open up the interior couldn't be found. In the meantime I took a look around the exterior:

The Throne Stone at the top of the stairs in front of the old church is where the coronation of 261 Aksumite kings took place:

Another angle of the Ark of the Covenant Chapel:

At last the priest turned up and the male visitors were allowed inside to have a look at the original murals:

A white Virgin Mary...: to a black Virgin Mary:

Facing the Ark of the Covenant Chapel. This is as close as foreigners are allowed to get, apparently because previously some faranji tried to scale the fence and rush into the chapel!:

The priest who had opened up the old church was a friendly soul who enjoyed speaking to us despite my bad Amharic:

It was late in the afternoon when we finished at the St. Mary of Zion Churches Complex, so Amber and I headed back to the Sabean where had dinner. Following a last Dashen of the day in the hotel's bar downstairs while my daughter was showering upstairs in the room, we eventually called it a night.

The view from our hotel looking east on Saturday morning:

The Sabean International Hotel. Only $75 a night:

The pleasant streets of central Aksum. Traffic was light, with bajaji (the local version of a tuk tuk) outnumbering cars and trucks. Plus the sidewalks were relatively intact, and the town itself is fairly level:

The Saturday basket market was underway under the large fig tree in the heart of the piazza:

We were quoted prices of 500 ETB ($16.75) for a large basket, and 450 ETB ($15.05) for a small one. Not wanting to carry around a basket all day, we declined. Later in the afternoon, on the way back to the hotel, we passed by the market again, and bargained the price of a large one down to 200 ETB ($6.70). By "bargain", I mean all I had left in my pocket was 200 ETB:

Our destination on Saturday morning was the Northern Stelae Field የሰሜን የመቃብር ትክል ድንጋዮች መስክ, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Egypt's pyramids, Aksum's stelae served as monuments and tombstones to its local rulers. The first tomb we checked out was the Tomb of the False Door, uncovered in 1972. Dating from the 4th century CE, the false door in question failed to deter tomb raiders from looting whatever treasures may have been inside. In fact, all of the tombs uncovered in Aksum have been pillaged by robbers, with the result being little is known of Aksumite burial customs and who exactly was entombed within:

The stone base that once held the sarcophagus can still be seen:

Next up was the star of Aksum's show, the Great Stele (also known as the Remhai Stele). But not before first going into the mausoleum, the entrance to which can be seen to the left of the collapsed stele:

The portal leads to a passageway with ten (empty) burial chambers:

The Great Stele - 33 meters (108 feet) in height and 523 tonnes (577 tons) in weight - has been described as the largest single block of stone human beings have ever attempted to erect. Unfortunately, it most likely fell soon after its erection in the 4th century CE - the failure brought an end to the long tradition of obelisk construction in Aksum:

The force of the obelisk's collapse crushed the roof of the Tomb of Nefas Mawcha:

Busy traffic outside the stelae field:

Looking at the Great Stele from the other side:

The so-called Rome (or Roman) Stele stands 24.6 meters (81 feet) high and weighs 170 tonnes (187 tons), and is the second-largest stele after the Great Stele. The obelisk collapsed sometime between the 10th and 16th centuries, breaking into three pieces. It gets its name from having been shipped to Italy in 1937 on Benito Mussolini's personal orders, where it was reassembled and raised in Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena. Known as the Aksum Obelisk, it was eventually returned to Ethiopia in 2005, and was raised in its present location in 2007:

Next to the Rome Stele stands the Ezana Stele, 23 meters (75 feet) high. Although it appears to be tilting, evidence suggests it was erected at that angle. In any event, measures are in place to prevent it from toppling over:

Birds of prey enjoy a prime vantage spot in the neverending search for food:

We tried to have a look inside the Enda Iyesus Church, only to learn our admission ticket to Aksum's archaeological sites did not include admission into churches:

A tombstone in the church graveyard:

Back in Stelae Park:

We also visited the Axum Museum, with its collection of artefacts including Axumite household items and coins. Photography wasn't allowed. It seems people don't mind pictures being taken inside venerable churches, but photos of relics in museums are a different matter.

After the Northern Stelae Field, we headed back into the downtown area for some lunch at the Ezana Cafe. I ordered the "Special Fata" - bread firfir (basically leftover injera) served with egg and yogurt;

Following lunch, it was a 25-minute walk (just over 2 kilometers or 1.2 miles) to the Dungar (or Dongar) Palace ደንጉር ቤተመንግስት, located just outside of town:

The Dungar Palace is also referred to as the Queen of Sheba's Palace የንግስት ሳባ ቤተመንግስት. There's no evidence such a person ever existed outside of the Bible, but most Ethiopians fervently believe she was real and that, furthermore, the Ethiopian imperial dynasty descended from the union between her and King Solomon. Most likely the "palace" was a 6th-century CE nobleman's mansion. An observation tower at the back of the site provides an overview of the 50-room layout:

The scenery surrounding the palace was stunning and truly African:

Either a strange tree or a very large cactus:

Amber poses in front of what was possibly a throne room:

Hmm, perhaps we should've paid the 100 ETB ($3.35) to have a guide explain everything to us...The problem I find with guides is that you end up moving around at their pace, whereas I prefer to take my time:

The kitchen wasn't hard to identify:

What I took to be a private bathing area:

On the other side of the road from Dungur Palace is the Gudit Stelae Field, containing more than 500 stelae, most of which are small and half-buried. Archaeological digs at the site in 1974 and 1996-8 turned up artefacts from the 3rd century CE, suggesting this was a cemetery active at the same time as Stelae Park. Nowadays farmers use the field to store hay:

Despite my suggesting several times we should take a bajaji back into town, my daughter said she was fine with going on foot. Later, back at the hotel, she complained that her legs were sore from all the walking we did that day. Like mother, like daughter:

Taking a much needed drink break (in this case sweetened mango juice) at the Axum No-Name Cafe:

Another bout of souvenir shopping, this time at the Abyssinia Handcraft Shop-Sunlight Fitsum:

Encountering some friendly kids in the Old Quarter area. Everywhere we went in Aksum, adorable children would say hello to us, though some also asked for money or "pens" (which are sold back to the shops for cash):

Sunset over Aksum on a Saturday evening. We ended up having dinner again at our hotel:

Daybreak over Aksum on a Sunday morning:

Outside Aksum's airport terminal. We were back home in Addis Ababa by noon:

New additions to the Africa shelves in our living room:

Because Shu-E has expressed in interest in visiting Lalibela (famous for its rock-cut monolithic churches), we decided to wait until she's back from Taiwan before going there. Aksum isn't for everybody - without a desire to learn more about Ethiopian architecture or history, it probably wouldn't be of much interest (Amber was a little bored with the churches, though she liked the stelae park). I liked it, however, and I'm looking forward to further opportunities for getting out of our Addis comfort zone and seeing more of what this ancient country has to offer.