Axum was a short but fascinating insight into Christian Ethiopia. The area appears somewhat more westernised than the south and east. The people are tall and fine featured and men and women all wear white prayer shawls, often edged with beautiful colourful braiding and embroidery. This is daily wear but the finery is even more impressive on Sundays. The churches become crowded and many congregants cannot even fit into the churches. The children and elderly are allowed inside as they are considered spiritually more pure and the rest listen to the service wherever they stand. There are so many saints there are saints days several times a week, also associated with religious services. The Ethiopian christians fast over 200 days of the year for religious reasons and clearly they are, in the majority, devout and observant.
As we leave Danekil it is clear Carmen is a casualty of the chefs best efforts and has developed a really upset stomach. Ethiopia , with its lack of sanitation and privacy , is not a good place to experience explosive travellers diarrhoea and Carmen is looking very fragile not to mention dehydrated. We loaded her with Lomotil and Maxolon and gave her IV fluids with some minimal improvement but clearly she is not feeling too good and we need a room with a loo rather than a room with a view. We stop in Wukro to find a suitable standard of room. Easier said than done.
Here there are many hotels but enter the flashy looking doors and lo and behold the rooms have not been built, it is an empty shell. We find a hotel with a reasonable restaurant but it's rooms are under construction and there is no water. We try a couple more. Surprise surprise they look good on the outside but inside there is washing hanging in reception and they look like they have never had a guest. Eventually we find a complete building. It is not exactly the Ritz but it has rooms, beds and water with working toilets and we are in like greased badgers.
We leave Carmen to recuperate and head off the explore this mountainous and verdant area. Tigrey is in the north of Ethiopia bordering Eretria and Sudan and is most famous for its rock hewn churches and monasteries, many at the top of steep cliffs. The monastery at Debra Damo is only accessible by climbing a 25 m rope up a sheer cliff. Happily this one is for men only! The churches date back to the 8 th century and are richly decorated with vivid wall art depicting biblical stories. Each church is looked after by a monk clad in orange, white or brown robes. These men are not necessarily life long clerics but are drawn from the local community, farmers mostly, and will serve for 2 years before returning to their families and livestock and so the role rotates around the village. They are the guardians of the treasures of the churches, art, ancient manuscripts , gilded robes, reliquaries and gold and silver ornaments.
They are also the gatekeepers to levy the tourist birr! There is a standard entry fee but the priest also expects a handsome tip to show you his really precious hidden treasures or to read from the holy book in Ge'ez. The road up to the church quickly fills with the elderly and disabled and generally needy parishioners looking for support so passing from church to church quickly empties the pocket. Each church is different, some are reputed to have secret passages to Axom. Perhaps a quick route out to avoid all the beggars! Some paintings are bright and fresh and some dull and aged. The floors are usually covered in dusty and threadbare Persian carpets. Cleaning is not a strength and a variety of buckets and paraphernalia litter the dark and dusty corners.
After a few of the more easily accessible churches we begin to find the circus a little tiresome and decide we will find one really inaccessible and challenging church to visit. Abuna Yemata Guh Is described in the guide book as a challenging climb and requiring nerve of steel so seemed to meet our requirements. It is on the top of a pinnacle. When faced with the reality Vicky and I decide to sit it out and Dudley and Ian, compete with guide set off gamely. We watch their figures recede up the mountain. Shortly after a South African group come down and tell us how amazing it was. They look really amped and they unload safety harnesses and climbing ropes. Oh dear! Ian and Dudley took a piece of blue string dug out of the car boot. About 2 1/2 hours later the boys reappear down the mountain, also elated but mainly with hysteria. After about a 30 minute walk they were faced with a sheer rock wall with carved hand holds. The locals were there and managed to sell their advice on where the best hand holds and toe holds were.
At the top of the cliff there was a ledge with a 200 m drop and a cave where the remains of the priests who did not make it down the mountain were laid out. Maybe a few tourists in there as well. From there it was a 20m walk along a 20 cm ledge also with a sheer drop. There was much nerve steeling required before making it to the church carved out of the mountain. It was worth the effort because it is one of the best preserved churches. Many of the others were desecrated by the Jews in the tug of war which litters the Ethiopian historical scene. Still, this one was clearly inaccessible and survived in tact. The locals climb up and down like mountain goats and 200 - 300 climb up at Easter and crowd the ledge. While Ian and Dudley were glued to the rock face the locals would just jump over them without any qualms. Once there the priest was demanding of a particularly large tip to ensure their safe descent. Needless to say they returned to the bottom penniless. Oh well they did it and we were all duly impressed, even to a rather desperate celebration with too much beer that night.
Axum is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Africa dating back to 400 BC when it was the capital of the Aksumite kingdom, a trading and naval power. The route there is over hilly terrain with hair pin bends and across the Adwa mountains. This was famously the site of an epic battle in 1896 between Italy and Ethiopia. At the end of the 19 th century much of Africa had been carved up and colonised by Britain and Europe with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia. Italy had its sights set on Ethiopia to complement its territories in Eretria and Somalia and invaded. The Ethiopians rallied all their tribes to combat this invasion and routed the Italians at Adwa . This set the scene for Ethiopia remaining under its own sovereignty and, although Italy tried again in the 1930's and occupied some areas for a while, Ethiopia was never formally colonised. This is a large part of its unique attraction. It is essentially self determined if a little confused.
As the clothes dry your skin is on fire and the water must be added every 30 minutes or so. The evaporation is cooling and the only respite. As we lie there moaning you cannot help but think of the salt miners toiling on through the heat. Well that is if you can think at all as the heat scrambles your brain and sucks out all energy. Visions of showers and cool beers dance through your head but they are far away. The flies buzz but the effort to swat them is too much. The Gara wind springs up , like a blast from a furnace, whipping up small twirlies which carry spare mattresses tumbling over the road. We don't care and have no energy to go and fetch them.
So next day it is time to leave this amazing and challenging place. We return along the mountain track. In the light it is scenic with beautiful mountains and valleys and within 2 hours we are up in fertile valleys and fields. It is hard looking at this to believe that anyone chooses to live in the barren salt plains. We are now in Tigray which is the area renowned for rock hewn churches perched on cliffs The bee eaters and birds have returned to the landscape and we are firmly back into Copt
Axum is an important historical site with massive mausoleums built by the Axumite kings and their dignitaries during the height of the kingdom. These are marked with massive granite pylons or stellae. Some of the stones are said to date from 1400 BC . The Axumite dysnasty started with the Queen of Sheba and her son Menelik the first and continued until around 700 AD. At its height the kingdom stretched almost to India. The stellae were quarried 5 km away in one block. The largest is 540 tons and 33 m high. Each one seems to have been erected higher than the last suggesting some degree of one upmanship. Some have fallen but many are still standing tall. They are ornately carved with doors and windows. The graves are mostly underground, below the stellae, and have up to 10 chambers, rather like the warren of chambers in Egyptian burial sites. The body was buried with its treasures but most were plundered long ago. After Christianity took over the stellae seem to have stopped, presumably different burial rites were adopted.
The Ark of the Covenant ?
Across the road from the stellae park is the church of Mary of Zion. There have been churches on this site since the beginning of Christianity. The present one was built in 1960's by Haile Selassie. Adjacent is the museum, a dark and dingy place but stuffed with treasures, gold and silver crowns and crosses, robes , bibles and other holy books. I think a little restoration and cleaning could be in order. It must be worth millions but you would not give it a second look at the church jumble sale!
We carried on into the church, a large impressive domed building with reverberating acoustics amplifying the cooing of the doves in the roof and the chanting of the priests.