Ethiopia — past perfect, present tense

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Tell people you're taking a holiday in Ethiopia and you'll get a single word response: "Why?" Marius Benson answers that question.

Ethiopia is a dramatic illustration of the dangers of a nation peaking too early in history.

At the time of Christ Ethiopia had established an empire, a culture and a system of coinage which had no equal in Africa and few rivals in the world.

That time lives on in monuments and tombs whose scale and precision makes you think, at times, that you might be in Egypt rather than Africa.

Ethiopia also has one of the oldest Christian faiths, established in the fourth century.

If you have a picture of Christianity coming to Africa only in colonial times it’s a revelation to see beautifully ornamented churches which date back a thousand years and more.

Then and now

But today Ethiopia is close to the poorest nation in Africa. The single term that best describes the country now is pre-modern. This is at different times profoundly wonderful, at others profoundly depressing, but it always the central reality.

It is the past, not the present which draws visitors to Ethiopia.

For any visitor the churches are one of the main reasons going to Ethiopia.

They range from simple thatched structures to the unique beauty of Lalibela, where a complex of churches was carved into sheer rock 800 years ago.

Ethiopia traces its past to biblical times and the churches are illustrated with vibrantly coloured bible scenes and priests display beautiful ancient texts.

Lalibela rightly proclaims itself the eighth wonder of the world, but smaller churches have their own beauty.

In the simple, stone Church of the Trinity in Gondar angels gaze down from the lofty ceiling. Painted in rich colours, the spiritual guardians watch visitors with gentle eyes and the hint of a smile.

‘The angels look in all directions,' a guide explained,' because they take care of the whole world at the same time.’

The figure most prominent in Gondar, and in all Ethiopian church scenes, is Saint George. He’s transcended mere beatification — he’s had the local beer named after him.

On the same route

As a tourist you will travel in a set path, almost certainly flying — the roads are very marginal — between five main centres.

The pre-determined route means that the German couple you saw in the hotel foyer in Addis Ababa may turn up on the back of a mule in Lalibela and you might pass them at the doorway of a church in Bahar Dar.

The route takes you to the main sites of historic and religious interest, and to scenes of natural beauty such as the Blue Nile falls.

Along the way you’re likely to stay in government owned hotels of a standard which makes you wonder why you’re paying near European prices.

One morning I came down to the foyer to find fellow guests, like me, scratching at last night’s fleabites.

In a moment of ill-judged indignation I complained to the manager. Untroubled , he replied the fleas weren’t his fault: “It’s you tourists, you bring them from the churches.”

Away from the churches there is much to see in towns, big and small.

The markets, generally held on Saturdays, are one of the often unnoticed delights.

People walk, often overnight, to bring their goods to sell and trade in commercial centres which are a notch beyond barter, but centuries short of capitalism.

Wheat, chillies, locally grown coffee, sheep, goats and cattle are traded. For visitors there are woven baskets and lengths of local cloth for a few dollars.

You can walk around the markets, and most places in Ethiopia. You’ll be safe, but you will be noticed.

An Ethiopian saying has it that ‘if you walk alone, you die alone’ and in public you’ll usually have some company, at least at a discreet distance.

At tourist sites beggars are common, and the poverty makes travelling wearing at times. You soon become deaf to cries of ‘you,, hungry.’

But some sights are so achingly sad you can’t ignore them.

One I saw was in Axum, where monumental tombs are evidence of its former status as the centre of a great empire.

Now the town centre is a dusty grassless square where I waited for a bus. Standing in the shade of the one tree I watched as the town life played out around me.

Camels waited to be loaded, a tethered mule nuzzled the grassless dirt for food.

A teenage boy idly taunted a goat, grabbing its hind legs, lifting them high and trying to tip it off balance. Bored with the attempt he kicked the goat hard in the side and let it go.

Through the square beggars constantly roamed.

Most were ignored, but one appeal was heeded. A small girl, about five years old, walked with one hand outstretched for alms, the other was leading a second girl of the same age.

The girl behind sometimes stumbled, because she was blind. The first girl accepted offered coins, they were huge in her hand.

She reached back to give them to her blind friend who fumbled them into a purse strung over her arm.

As you travel you are constantly struck by the contrast between the achievements of a nation which two millennia ago led much of the world, but which now does not have the strength to keep the flies off the faces of its children.


Going from Ethiopia to Eritrea is like sprinting from a pre-industrial society to somewhere around the 1940s.

Italian colonisation from late last century wrenched Eritrea into the modern age. Now despite devastating war it is a charming and welcoming country.

Some nations are brutalised by war, violent conflict leaves a violent peace. Eritrea seems to have been cauterised and emerged from decades of conflict with a real sense of community and purpose.

Hiring a car in the capital Asmara we read carefully through the agreement before signing and asked if the insurance covered theft, as there was no mention of it. The sales assistant looked puzzled and explained: "No rented car has ever been stolen in Eritrea."

The main street of Asmara is unique in Africa. Palm lined it is filled with Italian coffee shops where its hard to spend more than a dollar on the excellent range of coffee, beer and snacks.

There you can sit for hours planning trips to the coast or just watching the passing parade and trying to guess just how old those tiny Fiat taxis might be.


If you are thinking of going to Ethiopia and Eritrea check out the latest travel advisories from you country. At the moment the Australian government, for example, is warning of terrorism, disease, pestilence, kidnapping, war and various other nasty fates. These are only advisories — and governments tend to be a lot of nervous Nellies who basically think we'd all be better off if we stayed at home, preferably under the bed. Make up your own mind, but do get the facts.

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