Thursday, 9 August 2007

The ancient kingdom of Axum

A travelling day that started predictably at 5am, with a quick wash and a 15 minute walk to Gondor's muddy bus station. It was not going to be an easy day anyway, and it started with a bun fight outside the gates of the depot as a bus had got itself stuck there and couldn't seem to move forwards or backwards. We were torn between risking life and limb and darting between it and the gates, or staying where we were and getting increasingly jostled by the growing crowd. After about 10 minutes, the bus lurched backwards, miraculously avoiding everyone, and in we all surged. The next wee drama (all a bit much while it's still dark, and I haven't had a cup of tea yet) was that our bus had apparently changed, which necessitated every passenger who had a ticket (including us) getting a new one written by the increasingly tense ticket guy. They usually open the doors of the bus and get everyone on board, and then sell the tickets, but we've now been standing around the cobbled yard for about half an hour and the bus doors were still firmly closed. Eventually the tickets were all reissued, and the bus boy got on, gave us the nod and let us have first pick of the seats. It was a bit embarrassing, but we've done our fair share of riding at the back of the bus, so took advantage.

The trip is written up as spectacular, and they're not wrong - we crossed numerous passes alongside the Simien Mountains (home to one of Ethiopia's very few national parks). From Debark (about halfway) the road was a series of startling switchbacks, clinging to the mountainside. The Italian engineer was buried on a particularly scenic corner. There was very little other traffic, and in spite of the cloud/fog the views were stunning, reminiscent of the peaks of Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia.

This first leg of 300km or so took round 9 hours, not too bad considering the road. The next leg, 60km from Shire to Axum, was on a minibus, which we found quickly enough, but which then in classic African fashion, waited the next 90 minutes or so for who knew what. First there was the usual drive round town looking for more passengers, and then the return to the depot. It transpired that our driver was looking for three more fares before he would leave; this provoked a mini-riot among the passengers, about two-thirds of whom stormed off and surrounded the poor bus boy, demanding their money back. A policewoman intervened, calmed things down, the driver saw sense, and off we went. We were close to Axum when the driver stopped, and got our bags off the roof and put them inside the van. He knew his weather and soon the skies absolutely opened and there was a fantastic late afternoon thunderstorm. We were dropped off across the road from the Africa Hotel, and got drenched just running into the reception area. We arrived as the power went off, a slightly disorienting feeling. Good news awaited though: the room is only 50 bir, there's hot water and a bar and restaurant on site. The only downside is that we have to go back outside to get to our motel-like room, but a large St George umbrella helps.

One story has it that Ethiopia was named after Ethiopic, the great grandson of Noah, and that Askum was founded by Ethiopic's son Aksumai. The Aksumai dynasty ruled till it was replaced by the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, beginning the Solomonic dynasty in round 900BC, the last ruler of which was Haile Selassie. Aksum's time was between the first and tenth centuries AD, and during this time it was comparable to Rome and Constantinople in power and importance. Ge'ez, the still-used liturgical language, was developed in Axum. It's the root of contemporary spoken and written Amharic and Tigraic. Axum is in Tigrai, dubbed an "open-air museum", a highland province known for its fiercely independent stance, which came to the fore in 1896 when the Italians were routed at nearby Adwa, and again in 1991 when the Tigrain People's Liberation Front led the overthrow of the Derg. Today Tigrains still dominate Ethiopian politics.

We spent two days trekking around the muddy hills and fields of Axum (the spelling used for the modern-day town), resurrecting its fabulous past. The archeological remains ranged from elaborately carved stelae, one broken one 33m high, one recently returned from Italy in three pieces, one still standing at 27m high; to a huge complex known as the Queen of Sheba's palace which has 50 or so rooms and boasted a very effective stone and bamboo drainage system; to a number of underground tombs notable for their Inca-like interlocking stones and the huge slabs of granite used in their construction. It's all very evocative and mysterious. We were told that 600 elephants once lived and worked in Aksum, and were used to bring the granite from the quarry about 4km away. Who knows?

Alongside these ruins are the very much alive monasteries, churches and other holy places. We visited, of course, the most holy of these - St Mary of Zion church complex. This is where the genuine, real deal, original Ark of the Covenant is, according to Ethiopia anyway. The compound was quite large, with a new 1960s church built by Haile Selassie so that his wife could worship at St Mary's, alongside the pools used for baptisimals and Epiphany rituals. The original St Mary's, built by King Fasil of Gondor fame, and in a similar style, was out of bounds to me (and Mrs Haile Selassie, hence the new church) being female, but Max informed me that it was pretty cool. We were shown the church treasures which were kept in a couple of steel crates under an awning (they called this the "museum"). Still, the treasures were impressive - a range of crowns and crosses donated by various kings, all loving wrapped in brocade, securely locked and watched over by a deacon. The small domed building that houses the Ark sat alone, and the picturesque monk, the only person allowed to see the Ark, and solely responsible for guarding it (one story has it that he tried to run away when he was nominated by his predecessor) played possum with us and the camera - but we did manage to get his picture by pretending to leave and then coming back. I reckon this is probably the most fun he ever has! However, all in all, after reading so much about this place in the end I was a bit disappointed - possibly because I didn't get to see the really atmospheric parts of the complex, and possibly because these days it is so overwhelmed by the modern church.

We walked the hills at the back of town, past Mai Shun (aka Queen of Sheba's bathing pool) which resembled nothing so much as the Te Marua lakes to me. We continued past the pool, up a muddy rocky track to the twin tombs of Kings Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel. Both tombs were built beneath now vanished palaces, during the sixth century. The guard (a sprightly octogenarian) nipped down the stairs, putting on the fluorescent light (for atmosphere you understand), and lighting candles to show us the raised crosses carved on the walls, and the great slabs of granite used in the construction. Still, it seemed that neither tomb was used by its namesake as King Kaleb was buried at the nearby monastery of St Pantaleon, and Gebre Meskel may be there too, or then again he may be at Debre Damo.
We bade farewell to the Kings, and continued our muddy walk through pretty country scenery to the hillside church of Debre Liquanos. We were accompanied by various children up the hill, and then entranced by a boy's chanting (presumably the Bible in Ge'ez), who, when he eventually appeared, seemed to be suffering from leprosy. Debre Liquanos is hard to describe - sited at the top of a hill, on a small flat piece of land, was a church (which we were not allowed to see), and a couple of other small mud and corrugated iron huts and some shelters of sticks. It seemed that the priest and his family lived there. The priest seemed pleased to see us, and very pleased to see our money. He brought out an old book from a battered leather satchel, and proceeded to read to us. Kind of a surreal experience, surrounded by children, being read to in Ge'ez by an old priest, in the late afternoon sunshine looking across the hills to the monastery of St Panteleon, and the surrounding country villages. Lovely though it was, after 20 minutes or so, we felt the need to bring the reading to an end and take our leave. We still hoped to get to St Pantaleon, and back to town before the inevitable afternoon storm.
St Pantaleon was an advisor to King Kaleb, and apparently stood on one leg and prayed for 45 years without food or water, till told to stop by the Archangel David (according to a young boy from the monastery, told to us with complete and utter belief). The same young boy proved our saviour when we discovered we were out of change and unable to pay 40 bir to see the monastery. "I'll pay for you, take you the short way back to town and you can pay me back, plus some extra." Astonishing. We haven't seen a kid this age with anything more than pennies to their name, but he fished out the 40 bir and the deal was struck. We then had the funny sight of the priest sitting in the doorway of the storage hut busily writing out the receipt while the boys got out the treasures, put them on a chair, and told us all about them. It seems that during the holidays it's quite common for the village boys to spend time at the monasteries, learning Ge'ez, helping the monks and making a bit of money from tourists on the side. The church on the site was one of the oldest in Ethiopia, and predictably I was not allowed inside. Still, the whole place is atmospheric, and I did get to see the treasures, the graves of five saints and kings (the identities of which were difficult to ascertain with any certainty) and the new church that's been built on the site. As agreed, we were taken down the dry riverbed shortcut and were in Axum before the rain. It was a really good day, and was topped off when we discussed a trip to Debre Damo (a hilltop monastery that has to be reached via a leather rope - men only of course) with the hotel, and they pointed us towards Stephen and Jo, an Australian brother and sister. We all agreed to go the day after tomorrow, sharing the costs of a car and driver, and spent a nice evening having dinner together at the nearby Remhai Hotel.

It's the rainy season in the north and I can safely say that there'll be no drought this year. The afternoon thunderstorms have been regular and torrential. The rain that falls on the highlands eventually flows into the Blue Nile, and thence through Sudan and into the Nile proper, providing 90% of the water responsible for flooding the Egyptian banks. The highland farmers have used stone terracing on both the hills and flat cultivated ground to stem the loss of water and of topsoil. I guess it helps, but the rivers and streams still run red.
It's ploughing time in Tigrai, but nowhere have we seen a piece of mechanised farm equipment. We have read that the plough was perfected in Axum, and it seems that the BC prototype has stood the test of time. Land here is measured in timats - the amount of land two oxen can plough in a day. Ploughing seems to be the dominion of males, and it's good to see them doing some hard work! The number of times we have seen dignified men strolling in spotless white carrying nothing more onerous than an umbrella or an AK47, accompanied by a woman struggling under the weight of a hessian sack across her shoulders, and usually a baby on her back. The hessian sacks, many of which carry US AID branding and once held wheat, are put to good use once emptied. We have seen them used as shelters, donkey blankets and remade into smart holdalls.
The animals most commonly seen - sheep, goats, cows and donkeys (plus the occasional dog, or perhaps Simien wolf) have been joined by camels - a sign that it's not always as damp as it is right now. We were in Axum on a Saturday - market day - and the camel trains were in town. They parked under the large trees at the town's main intersection, along with the donkeys and the groups of women selling brighly coloured injera baskets and wall hangings, in between gossiping. The main market was a few blocks away and was typically colourful and eclectic - piles of spices and salt, the usual fruit and vegies, together with raw and spun cotton, second hand plastic sandals and bottles, live chickens (I was quoted an outrageous 22 bir for one), cured hides and bits of metal pipe. Saturday's also wedding day and we saw a series of injera (the flannel-like pancakes that are a staple) processions from the outskirts of town - the injera is prepared and placed in large cane baskets that are carried ceremoniously on the heads of bearers.

Camels parked while their owners are at the market in Axum.

We have loved our couple of days here, enjoyed the sights, the weather and the atmosphere. The Africa Hotel has been an oasis of calm and comfort, with cold beer and good food too.

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