Ethiopia is a country of stones, ancient and modern. The Bale Mountains in the south and the Semien Mountains in the north are 15,000-foot-high cliffs of stone, often bare and stripped of vegetation. Stones are the building blocks of churches and houses, fences and walls, villages and cities. Men stand on the roadside breaking up stones. Piles of stones from fields of grain line the roads, ready for the next construction project.
Although Ethiopia with all its stones may sometimes look primitive, it is an ambitious country. It wants to be the center of Africa. It may also be the future of Africa.
Its government-owned monopoly airline has recently become the largest gateway to Africa, with more than 100 planes connecting America, Europe and Asia through its hub in Addis Ababa.
Home of the 56-nation African Union, Ethiopia has managed to balance friendship with the U.S. and China. It needs both.
China is paying for its first satellite, due this year, and China financed its $345 million airport reconstruction. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is America’s most dependable ally in Africa, and its military is carrying the U.S. torch in war-torn Somalia. It has deployed more U.N. peace keepers than any other country.
But to my mind all this is not what makes Ethiopia interesting. The truly extraordinary aspects of the country are its culture and history. It is the only African country never to have been colonized. Its recorded history is 2,700 years old, its anthropological history millions of years older. Ardi, the oldest hominid skeleton ever found, lived in northeastern Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago, giving Ethiopia as good a claim as any to being the birthplace of mankind.
When I stood in the balcony of one of Addis Ababa’s towering churches and listened to a white-robed chorus chant to a rhythmic drum beat, I had to shake yourself to realize I had not awakened in a cathedral in Central Europe a thousand years ago.
Outside, men with white shawls thrown over their shoulders kissed the church’s stones. In front of the separate entrance reserved for women, a woman shrouded from head to toe energetically kneeled, touched her forehead to the stone floor, jumped to her feet, then repeated the exercise over and over again while chanting a prayer.
For the annual November pilgrimage to the holy city of Axum, half a million worshippers, shawled and blanketed in white cotton, crowded the narrow streets of the town of 60,000 until nothing—no car, no bus, no cart, no pedestrian—moved.
In the tiny Yea church museum, the priest removed from a cabinet a hand-written, 1,000-year-old book with a goat-skin cover and allowed me to touch it. For a writer, the moment was a kind of miracle.
The churches of Ethiopia are unique. In the city of Lalibela monoliths are carved out of solid rock.In the mountainous province of Tigray churches were built into nearly inaccessible cliffs. I scaled a cliff to one of these churches, with the aid of halters, ropes and the local priest’s helpers, to see the medieval paintings that adorn the walls.
Ethiopia also has a lot of Muslims—some one-fourth of the population—as well as one of the oldest and holiest Muslim cities, the walled city of Harar. It is laced with narrow alleys and lined with the comatose bodies of men stoned out of their minds on khat, a locally grown narcotic. I had planned to sample khat, but changed my mind when I witnessed the vegetative state of much of the population.
I was told over and over again how well the Muslims and Christians of Ethiopia get along. “We do everything together except eat meat and marry,” an Orthodox Ethiopian remarked. Members of the two faiths dress so conservatively and are so focused on fasting, prayer and other forms of religious observance that it is often difficult to tell them apart.
Ethiopia does everything differently. It has two written languages, one ancient and one contemporary, with their own alphabets. It has its own calendar, 7-1/2 years behind ours, and its own way of keeping time in which 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. are 12 o’clock.
It has its own food, based on a grain called tef, from which it makes injera, a huge, gray, rubbery, sour pancake that serves as platter, fork, spoon, knife and sandwich. It is eaten with the right hand with spicy stews of vegetables and meat (sometimes raw) poured on top of it.
Ethiopia also has its own version of history, featuring the likes of King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Prester John and one of the three Magi who witnessed the birth of Jesus. According to legend, the Ark of the Covenant was supposedly sent to Ethiopia for safe keeping and is still protected in a small church, although no one, not even the priests and the specially selected guard, is allowed actually to see it. Everyone just has to take it on trust that it is there.
Because the Axum Empire was one of the few peaceful and powerful states at the time, Mohammed also supposedly sent his wife there for safety.
Add up all the history and culture, the facts and the fables, the isolation of a mountainous, landlocked country and the oddity of a once powerful empire in the middle of nowhere and you have something unique on Earth.