It’s taken a decade for Ethiopian tourism to gently lift off, from only 227,000 visitors in 2005 to 750,000 in 2015. These numbers should soar exponentially due to so many MENA (Middle East & North African) countries being off the tourist radar. Fears of terrorism or actual war keep visitors away – think Tunisia and Turkey for the first, and Syria and Libya for the second. So those in search of the exotic are having to go that much further.
Make way for Ethiopia, with its nine World Heritage sites, ancient Christian culture, spectacular landscapes and fast improving infrastructure. As a result it is bagging a good number of baby-boomer travellers. When I was touring the country a few weeks ago, most visitors seemed to be over 50, educated, relatively well-heeled and American or European (including Brits). Definitely not beach-bums and very few backpackers.
One reason for its expense is that, unless you have infinite time for bumpy bus-rides, Ethiopia’s rugged mountain ranges push you towards domestic flights, while a guide and driver will alleviate a pile of angst in between. And those World Heritage sites do beckon. Decent hotels don’t come particularly cheap either. That said, some backpackers find their way round – but it’s time-consuming, and certainly not Asia.
The number one site that no tourist misses is Lalibela, a sprawling town at an altitude of 2600m which is home to 11 extraordinary rock-cut churches. Dating back to King Lalibela’s 12th century reign, they are still in use today and Ethiopian pilgrims flock to see them. From our hotel room, before dawn, we could hear the dreary, monotonous chanting that starts the day as a stream of white-robed figures climbed the hillside of churches opposite – like ants.
For Orthodox Ethiopians, white means purity of belief, and men and women alike wear beautiful hand loomed shawls of natural cotton (shemma, as above) whenever they go to church. I was surprised, too, to find that even young, educated Ethiopians are scrupulously devout; the grip of belief is immense.
Not stupid, the government now charges $50 per (foreign) person for access to Lalibela’s cluster of churches – but it’s worth it to squeeze through passageways in the rock, along trenches, up slopes or down steps – each element symbolising a Biblical place; it was in fact conceived as Lalibela’s ‘New Jerusalem’.
A deal has been struck with the priest of each church who placidly puts up with snappers such as myself, while proudly displaying beautiful church artefacts. They know tourism brings in the birr (local currency), yet continue to lead prayers and beat drums according to tradition, though some prefer a snooze.
I loved the contrast between the uneven beaten earth beneath a patchwork of rugs, and the long swathes of rich curtain, occasional murals, but mainly plain rock walls – plus a bell or two. I could understand how awed a country pilgrim must feel.
One huge caveat though – these exquisite structures hewn out of the volcanic rock centuries ago are now marred by clunky UNESCO-imposed canopies raised on hefty supports (above), allegedly to protect them from the elements. I was so infuriated that when I looked up their designer I wasn’t surprised to find an Italian architectural practice from Ravenna which has only accomplished two substantial projects – in Ethiopia, and nowhere else. A highly suspect commission, you can see their unsuitability.
The only monolith free of a canopy is the most iconic, and most photographed – Bet Giyorgis, aka Saint George (above). Carved in the shape of a cross, it sits below ground level in a sunken courtyard. Of course there’s a legend that St George actually rode his horse into the entrance tunnel – leaving hoofprints as proof. Believe it if you will; as a mere mortal, you use your feet. Here it is seen from the entrance way down below.
One morning we set off for a remote monastery, Asheton Maryam crowning the highest local peak, Mount Abune Yoseph. Our driver and guide took us up a spine-jarringly rough road which some visitors do on mule back (no thanks, too slow) to The views were stupendous, dotted with thatched, circular huts (tukul) while all around people were farming, carrying water-containers or huge loads up the steep slopes – all of them industrious, fit and using a stick. Many villagers think nothing of walking 50km to a market – it puts me to shame.
A group of energetic American hikers, seriously but incongruously kitted out, oozing health and wealth, loped past as we panted up the last stony stretch. Then, shock horror, we saw a long narrow ledge edging the cliff with a sheer drop below – this was the daunting access to Asheton Maryam, carved out of a cleft high above. By now we were well over 3200m and our lungs were suffering. Wisely perhaps, my partner chose to stay put with a family who lived there. But I continued with Desale, our guide who, infinitely patient, helped me over loose rocks and dragged me up the last stretch.
Finally we made it and, after stumbling through a tunnel of steps, entered a simple, roughly carved little church – no comparison to those of Lalibela itself. Yet in this case the priest displayed some exceptional treasures – a stunning silver cross and an 800-year old, hand painted bible in which the hooded eyes looked identical to his own (below). And the sweeping views from outside capped it all.
Back down the path we rejoined my partner and his adopted local family to indulge in the usual excellent Ethiopian coffee, before the woman showed me into her circular hut. I found it shocking as, apart from the lack of space for her family, the air was choked with smoke from a fire (much needed at night at this altitude) without any ventilation. She was lovely though (below), trying hard to make a living serving coffee to intrepid tourists. Long may she prosper, and keep that smile. It’s the people that make a country, after all.