We set off for the Central Highlands, aiming first for Gondar, then the Simien Mountains en route to Axum where the Queen of Sheba is thought to be buried.
We stopped to walk through a market and were back 2000 years; donkeys, mules, blacksmiths, grain, herbs and spices, women inspecting a baking tray and then tying it on their backs. Children and more children. Severe irredeemable poverty marked the clothing, the skin and faces. The children talked gaily about football; Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea. They quoted names and the pedigree of the players and for the African players their nationality. Didier Drogba, Femi Martins, Babayaro, Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Kanu, Kalu, Obi Mikel, and Yakubu. Also Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera. Names of runners from my childhood: Abebe Bikila, KipKeino, Akii Bua and others. These names were chanted, repeatedly like talisman, to conjure with.
Next stop, Gondar. Fasalidas and his castles. The internecine and fratricidal wars with the ultimate decline in Gondar. The highlight was the frescoes. 400 years of Ethiopian interpretation of the scriptures. The young deacon reading aloud the scripture in Ge’ez. Most amusing were the tales of Roman Catholics discovering Gondar in the 1600s having come by way of South india and wanting to convert the Ethiopians who have been Christians since the 3rd century.
On Good Friday we arrived at the Simien Mountains, climbed all the way to the roof of heaven, 15,000 feet of it and then walked for 2 hours. The most breath taking views ever, the world opening out to the farthest gleam. The sun shone for the most part, a breeze cooled the skin. The effort of climbing at altitude, acting to quicken our breathing and to make the heart startle and skip.
This land, the whole of it given to us. The very poorest in their rags and dirt, their children’s unshod feet and their own, walking on and mapping each geological feature, inheritors of the place where us, all humans were born.
Our rest house in Debark, the most basic four walls and shared bathrooms and toilets.
It was a cold evening.
We drove 10 hours on a dirt track built by the Italians in 1930s. It was dusty and unending. Debark from which we set out was a dusty godforsaken station. Between Debark and Axum, the most desolate on the planet eke out a living. This is scrub land, with pebbles, and rocks, the basis of the land. For miles, in this infernal furnace, the people, men, women and children, walk with their donkeys and mules. The children in rags, more or less, their faces covered in dust and snot.
They walked barefoot, the men carrying their customary sticks.
The landscape is vast, dramatic, biblical. The potential for tragedy is ever present! Famine, monumental dying. All this has already come to pass.
Axum is the Queen of Sheba stellae, the Church of St Mary of Zion, Queen Sheba’s palace, the Ark of the Covenant. Here is Jordan, there Golgotha, across the way Calvary.
And, Lalibela! What can anyone say of Lalibela? You walk in silence, you marvel and stand in awe. You walk again: St Giorgis, Bet Medhane Alem, Asheten Maryam, Bet Makarios.
The poverty is in extremis. How is it that here, away from worldly goods, away from chatter, here where living is pared to its most basic, to the barest breath and even less, whatever it is that is soul rises and blossoms, and comes to know itself for what it is, something that is nameless, but real.
Photos by Jan Oyebode