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xEurasia Odyssey

Impressions of Contemporary Ethiopia - A Diverse Land in Transition

ETHIOPIA | Wednesday, 14 June 2017 | Views [524]

on the trail

on the trail



Impressions of Contemporary Ethiopia – A Diverse Land in Transition

May 20-June5, 2017 (Logistics, local guides and fabulous driver, Lawgalet, organized by Simeneh at Amazing Ethiopia)


Addis Ababa

The very short time I had in Addis Ababa was devoted to visiting the two national museums and the Entoto Palace.  The museums presented an informative and interesting introduction to the country and its traditions.  The National Museum houses the excellent hominid exhibit with Lucy and her family, while the Ethnological Museum has a more complete selection of religious artifacts as well as tribal memorabilia and a few placards with indigenous myths, which are quite fascinating. The second floor collection of sacred art provides the Western visitor with a glimpse into some of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church legends, which is a good background to have before beginning the tour of the country.  Among the many stories that are shared in the paintings is one that forms the basis of one of the leading festivals in the country, the Meskel. During my journey I repeatedly saw large places with fields in the middle of towns that were designated for the Meskel ceremony whereby a huge bonfire is set. This is done in commemoration of a vision St. Helena had while she was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In her dream vision she saw a bonfire flame that pointed out where the true cross was buried. She then sought out the site, found the cross, and took a sliver of it back to Constantinople. Religion is integral to daily life and this painting and legend are examples of just how engrained the two are.  Up until the 1974 revolution there was no separation between church and state as the monarch descended from Solomon’s line.

The Entoto Palace is just outside the city up a mountain covered with eucalyptus trees. The trees were brought from Australia as a means to provide a renewable wood source to the people who didn’t have enough for fire. The Swiss architect of the palace suggested King Menelik II bring the fast growing highly useful trees to the region.  The King did so and now the northern part of the country’s residential building and firewood needs are taken care of by this invasive species.  As it is, however, an invasive non-native tree, it sucks far more water than the native plants and there are now ground water problems in addition to drought from insufficient rainfall. The original blessing/culprit tree still stands in the palace courtyard.

For those who associate the term ‘palace’ with Versailles, Schönbrunn, Westminster, Petershof etc., the Entoto Palace is a crushing disappointment. The setting is lovely, on a hillside overlooking the Addis Ababa valley, but the structure itself is quite basic.  The complex includes not just the building with the main banquet/reception hall, complete with storage rooms with cow horns as hooks, and separate entrance chambers depending on rank and affiliation, but also a special two story royal bedroom suite, whereby the lower floor was for storage and the upper perhaps 10x10ft space was for the king and queen. There is also a small one story shack-like monastery and both the new fairly large and original small Maryam churches.. The larger church, in an octagonal shape, was closed, but one is allowed to enter into the smaller circular typical Amhara style chamber, which had a narrow altar upon which leaned a poster with a Marian image.  There were a few other images of Mary in both Ethiopian and Western styles on posters leaning against the interior walls.  The church was made from fairly small tree trunks which were placed vertically standing like a circular row of corn that was covered with mud; the outside was whitewashed, although I was told this was a later occurrence; a thatched roof of bamboo covered the sacred space.  Next to the old church and before going down some steps to the monastery outside the palace gate, is a small rectangular building that was used (& some said still is) for exorcisms. The building/room is locked as only the priest and the person who has been possessed are allowed to enter.

The palace itself was made in the same manner as the original church, which is also the same manner in which the locals from the region still construct their dwellings.

Menelik II decided to move his residence to Addis Ababa in 1882. The name means ‘new flower’ (or ‘beautiful flower,’ I heard both translations) which is what his wife, Queen Tuya found when she was visiting the hill site.  When he became King in 1889, he was crowned in the Entoto Maryam Church and not as normally occurred in Axum.  Menelik II is considered to be one of Ethiopia’s great kings, and he and his wife Queen Tuya (whose name has various spellings), are treated almost as saints as they started to modernize the country and provide some much needed social services. The Lion of Judah was the Emperor’s traditional symbol and it can be found in the Entoto Complex as well as throughout the country. It was also a symbol of the Freedom Movement.

The road up the mountain has been recently updated and the drive is quite pleasant. Once back in town, the streets are lined with stalls selling everything imaginable, including the very attractive traditional white dresses with multi-colored Ethiopian crosses embroidered down the center.  As one comes closer to the center, the traditional stalls disappear and large modern office buildings form the backdrop as in any modern city.

Bahir Dar, Lake Tana, Blue Nile Falls

From Addis Ababa I flew to Bahir Dar rather than driving there, and was glad I did.  The flight on Ethiopian Airlines was quick and the plane took off and landed on time. Bahir Dar city is similar to Addis Ababa and many of the other cities throughout the country in that it is a fascinating mix of recent, yet unfinished, and old construction. New hotels are springing up everywhere, and I couldn’t help but wonder where the people who are intended to stay in all these places will come from.  I was there in low season, but other than one German couple, I didn’t see any other tourists the entire time I was between Bahir Dar and the Simien Mountians. The landscape alone, however, should draw people in.  Bahir Dar sits on Lake Tana, the third largest lake in Africa after Victoria and Tanganika, with its 3600 sq. km. The shallow, no more than 15 m deep, lake lies at about 1,800 m. above sea level, making it pleasant temperature-wise year round. The site was created by a volcanic eruption and is basically the volcanic crater, hence the reason for the primarily lava rock around the lake and at the Blue Nile Falls. The region has been considered a sacred site for millennia and on 21 of the 37 islands there are very old monasteries, eight of which are cloisters for nuns. Beyond the religious significance, the lake is known for its fish that include Nile Perch, Tilapa and Carp, as well as for the hippos, alligators and water snakes that make their home in its fresh waters.

Even if one isn’t interested in sacred traditions, the boat ride to the monasteries and walk through the rain forest on the peninsula is worth the trip.  The walk between monasteries is on small paths lined with Vervet monkeys hopping through the verdant branches above. Passing by some traditional houses that are still occupied, one gets a glimpse of how both hops and coffee form the backbone of the local economy in addition to the souvenir vendors selling icons, crosses, beer mugs made from cow horns etc. The boat ride back to town generally detours to include a float into the mouth of the Blue Nile River, which flows from Lake Tana to Khartoum to meet up with the White Nile and flow through Nubia and Egypt to the Mediterranean. 

The drive from Bahir Dar to the trailhead for the Blue Nile Falls provided once again a glimpse into the transitioning nature of this country.  The road was in the process of being widened and paved, which meant that the people living on either side of the road had to move.  Donkey carts laden with tall eucalyptus trunks vied for space with road construction machinery. The donkey carts were headed further out of town to places where the government has given the people who are to be relocated room to build their houses.  New villages of pole built one room structures are cropping up like mushrooms all over the country and those on this road were my first introduction to the phenomenon.  The houses are built very close to one another, there was no evidence of electricity, and clearly no running water.  There was a pit house that was designated by a pole with some toilet paper every few houses.  A different kind of white flag was on poles designating who had recently made Tata, the local beer, which is drunk out of cow horn cups and made from a mixture of hops and barley, or sometimes corn, or even millet, and water.  The mixture is set to ferment for 2-3 days then it’s ready to drink. People put out a white piece of cloth outside the home to let everyone know that beer is ready. Water for drinking and for washing are carried from the river or, when lucky, a local pump, in different kinds of plastic containers.  The big yellow ones are used primarily for washing, while the smaller yellow ones for drinking water.  Across the country, I found people walking 10-15km one way to fill up their water buckets.  Those who have a donkey cart, often use them to cart the village water needs back and forth.  The communities seem to be fairly closely tied together by family bonds and they all help each other build their houses.  The houses can last as long as ten years, although, I was told they generally start to lean after about six to seven years.  The roofs, if they aren’t the ‘modern’ tin, need to be rethatched with bamboo every few years. Furniture in rural houses consists of bed out of the same wooden posts as the house, plus a few stools/chairs and a perhaps a small table. Each house is for one nuclear family of generally not more than five to six members. People live through subsistence farming and the road was lined with fields of spring onions, red onions, sugar cane, sorghum, and chat, a mild stimulant that provides a large portion of the country’s export income.

The trailhead for the walk to the Falls is right by the entrance to the Dam and selling souvenirs is clearly one of the main sources of local income. As I was the only tourist that day, and I didn’t buy anything, their economy from this means is not doing well. Once out of the village, the path to the Falls is stunning. Lush green hills and mountains line either side of the gorge and cattle graze peacefully on the fields. The ‘old’ Italian bridge has become a landmark, and I found it amusing that in a country with a history dating back to prior to Lucy, the ‘old’ bridge was built in the 1940s during the Italian occupation. There is no ‘new’ bridge.

The Blue Nile Falls used to be the second largest waterfall in Africa after Victoria.  The first Italian constructed and later Ethiopian/Chinese built dam has stopped the extent to which the waters fall over the cliffs and have changed the color from clear water to muddy red.  It reminded me of the Rio Tinto and the name ‘Blue Nile’ seems completely out of place.  I was told, however, that the names ‘Blue’ and ‘White’ for the two Nile rivers didn’t ever have anything to do with local colors, but instead were named so by David Livingstone in honor of his homeland, Scotland, that has a blue and white flag.  Livingstone certainly found some magnificent sites, and this is one of them.  Some very smart person hung a hammock between branches on a huge tree overlooking the Falls, which makes for a delightful way to lie back and reflect on the beauty and power of nature and the foibles of humanity.


Gondar with its baths, castles, and lions’ dens offers lessons in the power of belief. The capital was moved to Gondar by King Fasilides, who’s father, Susinious, converted to the Roman Church in gratitude for assistance from the Portuguese in his battles against the Muslims and Ottoman Turks, who were trying to conquer the land. Susinious made the country also convert to Roman Catholicism, but that didn’t sit well with either the Orthodox priests or the people.  When he finally abdicated and his son took over, Fasilides brought back the old religion and moved the capital from the Lake Tana region to Gondar as the site is surrounded by seven hills and has good defenses. It lies 2,260m above sea level, which had an advantage over the malaria ridden lower Lake Tana capital. It was also on the central caravan route and lay between two rivers, the seasonal Kaha, and the still active Angrib. In addition to his castle, he built a summer house surrounded by a moat which functioned – and still does – as baths for mass baptisms that happen each year at Timkat (Epiphany) on January 19th. The water for the baths came from diverting the flow of the Kaha River. Nowadays, during the festival boys throw lemons at the girls they are interested in getting to know. If the girl doesn’t pick up the lemon, she isn’t interested. My guide mentioned that he had thrown about 50 lemons so far, but was still without a partner so I’m not sure that this match-making tradition is very successful.

The Gondar Castle complex consists of six different castles, each built by a different king or queen, including: King Fasilides, his son, his grandson, his great grandson, his great great grandson & his great great grandson’s wife and heir. The architecture of the main and largest castle, that of King Fasilides, is a mixture of Indo (Mughal)-Portuguese & Moorish. Limestone was used as a bonding material for the basalt stone. Red tufa was used for ornamentation on the windows and doorframes.

The three story structure is 32 m high and the ground floor has more than 20 rooms.

The next palace was that of Johannes I, Fasilides son. He was well loved as he didn’t charge taxes. His castle and church are fairly small, indicative of the humble man and a scholar he was reputed to be.  He built a grand two-story library instead of a large residence. He is known as Johannes the Righteous. In order to keep the peace he ordered religious separation with the Jews in one place, the Muslims in another and the Orthodox around the palace in the center of town. He was also the first to promote animal rights. The story behind this is that there used to be a bell in front of the palace where those who felt they had been harmed could ask for redress.  One day after a storm a wounded donkey was standing there as the wind hit the bell. King Johannes I asked who the owner was and found that the donkey had been beaten. Since this day, animals were not to be mistreated by royal proclamation.  Johannes I, also spelled Yohannes I, is sometimes identified as the Priester John of European lore. This actually makes more sense than placing the kingdom somewhere in Central Asia.

After Johannes I the warrior tradition reasserted itself as well as taxes.  Each of the subsequent heirs built their own castles until Fasilides’ great great grandson died and there were no more male descendants. The last palace in the complex is that of the wife of the last member; she is well regarded as having been an excellent ruler and protector of the people. During the Italian occupation, the army redid and remodeled some of the castles, mostly on the ceilings and floors so that they could be used.  The Italian built structures in town are yellow-grey painted cement boxes, in typical late 1930s Italian Fascist style. Until 1992, the kings, queen and government kept lions in small cages in the castle complex as a symbol of the empire’s link to the Lion of Judah. The Abyssinian lions must have been going stir-crazy and they had little room to turn around much less run. These cages must have been like torture chambers to them, similar to the jails by the side of the castles.  

The other main site in Gondar is the Debre Birham Selassie Church which has beautiful floor to ceiling paintings and a ceiling filled with a thousand angels. The Sunday School site is outside the Church walls. It consists of a circle of rocks around a chair under a tree. The scene reminds one of teachers and students from ancient times. The flow of stories from the master to the pupil, from one generation to the next as the tradition stays perennially current.

Driving through this country where ancient ways and modern technology meet I was continuously confronted with confusing images on the side of the road.  Sick people wrapped in white linen carried by four people long distances on wooden flats to the nearest hospital.  Children and old women hunched over carrying firewood or yellow water buckets on their backs. Young women in traditional dresses with filled bags on their heads and shoulders talking on a cell phone. Men wrapped in shawls over their t-shirts spouting US football teams and jeans carrying their prayer sticks.  People carrying wooden plows for their oxen or cattle over their shoulders. Farmers struggling to till the fields and upturn the innumerable rocks, and young shepherd children watching their flocks of sheep as they crossed the newly paved road. And the houses, that changed in construction style based on region, but in the rural areas were mostly without power and water. It is a land where the people are constantly on the move – literally! On the drive to Simien National Park, I saw colonies of people walking many miles carrying things to market. They were often accompanied by load bearing donkeys or donkey carts. Everything from grains to firewood to onions etc. were being moved to market.  The people regularly walk 7- 10 miles one way on market day, which is traditionally on Wed. and Saturdays

Simien National Park

Simien National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site and has sponsorship from the Austrian as well as Ethiopian governments. The Ethiopian government has offered young people and those who live in the National Park new housing so that the area – including the trees - and the wildlife can be protected. There are new hamlets, villages and towns sprouting up, still with the same construction as I had seen before but in the north the houses are somewhat larger and near Debark, the last city before the Park, they are also mud-straw covered and painted.  The earlier houses lacked any color beyond the natural mud-straw mix. The poverty, however, is the same throughout the northern & middle parts country. (I didn’t to the South, so can’t speak to that area.)  Young and old gather water in the yellow containers and get it from a central distribution center in the village-city or from the rivers. 

Simien National Park is the smallest of the three national parks in Ethiopia, but it is nonetheless quite large.  The area’s claim to fame is the Gerada grass-eating baboons.  It is easy to spend hours just watching their antics, from young ones mock fighting to two adult males going at each other, to the perpetual grooming that takes place with incredibly human like expressions, to the 30 second quickies that cannot possibly be satisfying to either partner. After intercourse, the female then shows her respect by grooming the male, after a fairly lengthy period he has the decency to reciprocate.

On the hike through the park in addition to the baboons, I saw bushbucks, small antelope, jackals, and heard a leopard. My guide and I ended the day with a view of a very narrow, but over 500m high, waterfall.  It was a delightful hike through some beautiful scenery. 


The road from the park to Axum was quite long, filled with hairpin turns through the mountains on an improved jeep track. Rock slides were common, even once one had eventually reached the asphalt at the beginning of Tigrai territory on the other side of a bridge that separates the two regions. The Italians built the jeep track road when they occupied the country and a number of soldiers died in the process. There is a memorial to them on the side of the road about ¾ of the way down the mountain range.

Firewood is collected in piles and set by the side of the road for transport to the village or town.  A truck comes by to pick up the piles and pay for them.  A pile costs about 40-50 BIR (around $2 and less than E2). The lower altitudes do not have any firewood, so this is how the people obtain what they need.

On the Tigrai side of the river, there are a few things I noticed right away, including, the difference in construction of the houses, the shape of the churches and the hairstyles of the women. The Tigrai region has little wood and a tremendous amount of rocks, so the houses are made from the rocks in the fields. The houses are in the same shape as the churches, i.e, squares or slightly modified rectangles and not the circular construction from Amhara. The women no longer shave their heads, but have their hair neatly done up in braids. 

Horses are used in the upper altitudes for plowing and pulling, but cattle and oxen are used in the lower levels. I was told that this was because the slopes are too steep for bovines. All the livestock looks skeletal. It seems that since the harvest in Jan/Feb. there has been little to no grass for them to eat.  The short shoots that are now appearing as still too small for them to find sufficient nourishment, but they will fatten up with the rains.

The landscape in this region is similar to that of Arizona, including an Ethiopian version of Sedona’s Cathedral Rock and Courthouse.

On the way to Axum we passed a large Eritrean refugee camp, which supposedly houses 10,000 people. I was later told that there are over 400,000 Eritreans in Ethiopia.  Further along the road we passed a UNHCR office as well as the signs saying that migration isn’t the solution.

In Axum we came across a procession for St. Gabriel’s Day as flocks of people came to town to pray at St. Mary’s.  There was also a wonderful market under the very large perfectly shaped fig tree in the center square where colored baskets of varying shapes and sizes were being sold. Axum has a number of religious and historical sites including, the Queen of Sheba’s palace and pool, only small portions of which have been excavated, the Maryam Tsion Church, the oldest in the country and, according to Ethiopian tradition,  home of the Ark of the Covenant, the Halie Selaisse Maryam Church, the Church treasury museum, the “Rosetta Stone” stele for Ge’ez, the ancient sacred language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, stele that are larger than those in Egypt and the tombs of 6th C rulers  Kalab and his son Gebre Meskel.

Axum was the center of the empire for centuries and it remains the center of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  No trip to Ethiopia would be complete without spending some time in this complex and fascinating city.

Wukro to Mekele

The Italian owner of the Gerhalta Lodge mentioned that there was a new museum in Wukro, and I asked Lawgalet, my driver, to make a detour there. I was very glad I did and would recommend this museum to everyone visiting the country. It is a joint effort with the Berlin based Deutsche Institut für Archeologie and the Ethiopian government.  It is a wonderful small museum that has just a couple of rooms. In the first are two generators, which are the ones that gave power to the town.  Their modern local history is based in these generators, which have been carefully restored by the German team.  The second room hosts artifacts from three sites in the region, one around the Yeha Great Temple period as Yeha is referenced on the sacrificial altar, and the other two Axumite, i.e., early Christian sites. The artifact restorers and museum staff have done an excellent job presenting the materials and creating legible and informative placards by the display cases.  They have additional information on each of the major exhibits on laminated pages for those who want more information.  The information is now available in English, but they are hoping for new materials in Tigrai soon.  They do have workbooks with descriptions in Tigrai for the local school children.  I was incredibly lucky to be there right when a team from Germany was there, including Prof.Wenig, who was the lead on the excavations, and the organizer of the museum, Prof. Katrin Hinz, and leading technological restorer. They were very generous with their time and insights and I’d like to thank them for that.  They also mentioned the ancient Temple site where a figure of a seated woman was found and although it was Sunday and the ticket office was closed, the docent from the museum graciously said he would take us there.  The site lies on a hill outside of the town and there was a story about it being a ‘bad place’.  When they wanted to build a new road directly from the new factory that lies directly below the hill to a village behind it, the local people advised them not to do so as even the rains don’t visit the spot.  It rains everywhere else but not right at this particular location.  This got the archeologists curious and they started digging, finally uncovering a 7th-8th C BCE sacrificial altar and artifacts identifying it as a Temple to Alamaqah. The headless woman was associated by the local people with Judith who killed all the Christians and destroyed the Churches, so they said that as God was so mad at her her head was sliced off and the place was cursed.  The locals are not versed in historical timelines, but it does make for a good explanation to avoid the site.

Mekkele is a rapidly expanding city.  Construction is everywhere, from houses to industry to roads to new railroad lines. There was a brand new huge stadium directly in front of my hotel, which was in the middle of a row of unfinished hotels. Ethiopians are largely responsible for the residential construction, but the roads are being built by the Chinese.

The road from Mekkele to Lalibela was paved for the first part of the trip. The road winds and there are a number of very large crater-like potholes that cause accidents.  I saw at least seven completely flipped over trucks and one car accident on the paved portion of this section. Road blocks and traffic jams can also occur, caused by camels, oxen, cattle, sheep and kids simply not paying attention.

The road winds through small hamlets that are losing people to the increasingly growing country towns. New houses and industries continue to pop up all over. The Chinese firms are easy to recognize by their white-silver aluminum/metal buildings with blue metal roofs that stick out amid the surrounding green and brown fields. This is contrasted with the farmers who still plow their fields with oxen and wooden shafted plows. The fields are dry, and so are all the river beds, although the landscape has a green tinge as the grass started to grow with the rains a couple of weeks ago.  Normally the rains wouldn’t come for another three weeks, but they are early this year – although that hasn’t helped the water table. The hills are brown with the up-tilled fields yearning for water, while the people do the back -breaking work of digging through the tremendous amount of rocks.

For most of the local people the main form of transportation is per pedus, or via Blue Mosquito, i.e., a tuk tuk – which are imported either from China or India. Normal cars would not be able to make some of the jeep tracks that the roads turn into when the pavement stops in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  The first part of the gravel road to Lalibela was fine, but then it severely deteriorated and I was very glad to be in a Toyota Landcruiser that could negotiate the uneven terrain. Along the jeep track were several small villages that are supported by USAID and Save the Children.  I have to wonder how they will survive without support from the U.S. and the European Union, which was supporting neighboring villages.  As the roads are so bad, the drivers keep in touch with one another to warn them about whether or not to attempt this particular road or take a paved longer route. As we left Mekkele at 8am and didn’t arrive in Lalibela until after 5:30 with less than an hour rest stop in between, I can’t imagine what the longer route would take.

We finally arrived at the mountain behind Lalibela and wound around to the front side, where I was greeted by memories of Shimla in Himachel Pradesh.  The two towns are remarkably similar, although, in development the Northern Indian town is now about 20 years ahead of Lalibela, although construction is mushrooming here as well. Tom Lehrer box houses in various stages of readiness now line the hillsides.  Both towns are situated on beautiful hillsides with vast views across the surrounding hills and valleys. 

The internet was unfortunately incredibly slow, but at least it worked until the government shut everything down due to the Grade 10 exams.  The government is very concerned that everyone receive an education.  School is mandatory and parents are punished if their children skip.  There used to be fines, but as the rural people couldn’t pay them, the mothers are now arrested if a child misses more than a few days of school for very good reasons.  The Grade 10 Exam is the crucial point when those who do well academically can go on to university and those who don’t do as well in the academic subjects go on to trade schools. Last year someone stole the exam, so this year the government shut down the internet in the entire country for a complete week. How the international businesses functioned without connectivity is a mystery to me. Even when the system is working, many of the sites are censored, including Facebook and Skype so one really needs a VPN here.

Lalibela is known for the rock-hewn churches built by King Lalibela after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There are three distinct sites in town and more than can possibly be visited in the surrounding country-side. The three sections in town represent earthly Jerusalem, heavenly Jerusalem and Noah’s Ark as the new Jerusalem.  The sites are discussed in the previous blog on ‘Impressions of Religious Sites and Traditions’.

From Lalibela I caught a morning flight to Addis Ababa where I reconnected with my driver, Lawgalet, who had left me earlier in Lalibela to do the two day drive back to the capital on his own.  On the long drive to Harar, we stopped at Awash National Park for a safari drive and look at the waterfalls.  The area is flat and savannah like, with a deep gorge and river in the middle.  It is much more like the Grand Canyon in Arizona than the gorges and cliffs in the Simiens.  Awash National Park is filled with wildlife including oryx, caracals, baboons, jackals, all of which I saw, and lions and other big cats, which I didn’t.  The time in the national park was simply too short; it would have been better to spend a night there rather than in Awash town. New lodging is becoming available in the park, so hopefully others can take advantage of the stunning location.

The next day we continued the journey to Harar.  We drove by fields and fields of chat and towns with chat markets. It may be one of the main financial pillars of the economy, but the plant causes people to be high and go a bit crazy.  We saw a number of accidents that were related to people chewing chat and not seeing where they were going or driving.  Tuk-tuks that plowed into people, or people walking in front of oncoming trucks, or people just stoned on the ground. In addition, chat requires a great deal of water, and at least one large lake has mostly dried up because of the increase in chat production. Chat is primarily exported to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. (& I have to wonder about the connection between chat and extremist ideologies… Give me my chat and I’ll do anything you want….)


After passing through some fairly bizarre chat markets, we arrived in the fourth holiest Muslim city, Harar.  This walled city is considered a testament to religious harmony, solidarity and peace as Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries. The wall was constructed in the 16th C and is ca. 5km in circumference. The King ordered hyena doors to be cut out of the walls so that the scavengers could come and clean the streets at night. Since the 50s, a man has fed the local hyenas at night and this is one of the main tourist attractions of the city.  When I was there, a group of Peace Corp. volunteers, who were teaching in Ethiopia and were on school break due to the exams, decided to join in and feed the immensely strong jawed sharp tooth creatures from a wooden stick held in their mouths. I decided that walking with lions was safer than feeding hyenas from my mouth….

There are a couple of museums in the city, including Halie Selassie’s family house and that of the French poet, Rimbaud. A traditional house is also open for tourists to visit and it is a fascinating glimpse into local history as they all have four black jars, one each for coins, medicine, jewelry and coffee/seeds on a special shelf. They also have a spear by the entrance; when the spear tip is pointed upwards, all is at peace, downwards means the owner is ready to defend his property.


Harar is famous for its market, which has three main sections, the Smugglers 'Market, the Recycling Market and the Spice Market.  The government wanted to move the smugglers out and offered them space across the street never expecting them to come up with sufficient funds to pay for the new building, but they stuck together and the new site is under construction.  Apparently if one is caught with smuggled items, like smartphones, tvs, etc, outside of the city one can be arrested, but if the item is bought or sold at the smuggler’s market in town it is okay.  My guess is that someone is collecting taxes somewhere. Harar is after all the place where the first bank in Ethiopia, the Bank of Abyssinia, was started as the city had the first currency in the area.

Normally I try to avoid street food in places where I don’t know what I’ll be eating. I generally stick with the peel it or boil it rule so that I don’t get sick, but the sizzling momos in Harar were just too good to pass up. People line up at the vendors for lentil or beef based fried momos at dusk during Ramadan.

Throughout the country, the mornings are filled with chanting, in Lalibela the Orthodox priests sang non-stop from 6 to 9 am, and in Harar the multiple daily prayers to Allah filled the air. It is a deeply religious country, regardless of religion. There is not much Roman influence left, other than in the images of Mary, but there is a French Roman Catholic Mission in the center of Harar that runs an excellent school, based on entrance exams, and an orphanage. 

Dire Dawa

My last stop in Ethiopia was in Dire Dawa to see the market.  I had wanted to see the ancient cave painting site, but was told it was closed and that the paintings are too faded to see anyway.  The market, however, provided for enough amusement.  On the way from Harar to Dire Dawa, we traced back through Abu Daigh and the chat market with its spaced out people and chat chewing goats to get to a huge market in a dry riverbed, where I saw a tomato mash eating horse, lots of kids wanting their picture taken, and a recycling market that had everything from screws to recycled oil cans from USAID to tin cans being reused as lanterns.  It was an amazing spectacle. 

During my time in Ethiopia I was confronted with paradox after paradox, modern construction and technologies vying for their place amidst ancient beliefs and traditions, Chinese infrastructure construction in the middle of hamlets without power or water, beautiful lush mountains, stark red rock cliffs, and dried out desert riverbeds.  Throughout it all I met wonderful kind and friendly people while witnessing a poverty that rivals the worst in India and Nepal. I simply do not know how the country’s people would exist without the assistance from the international NGOs.  CARE, Save the Children, UNHCR, World Vision, USAID and the European Union all have signs throughout the country by the hamlets and villages they are supporting. At the grain distribution sites, people came from miles around to get their allotment and carry the heavy sacks of wheat on their backs long distances to their homes. This help is needed and, from what I saw, greatly appreciated.

The poverty and lack of tourist infrastructure in many parts of the country can be a challenge for the traveler. Water does not always flow from the faucets and sometimes one has to pump the toilet for it to flush, sometimes it simply doesn’t work.  But while I was frustrated with this, I kept reminding myself that I have so much much more and am incredibly privileged to be here and to be able to travel. Ethiopia is a land of contrasts as it is one that fosters reflection and gratitude.





Tags: country tour, religious sites


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