Wednesday, February 29, 2012


(another long entry, I am afraid, right on the heels of yesterday's two entries, but I have to catch up, after all these days without internet! - I promise, though, this is the last one with churches)

We arrived in Wukro at dusk. The best hotel in town (10 US$ a night) had one single room available, and one double that stank badly. The building looked like a prison, three stories high with rooms exiting on a veranda around a narrow concrete courtyard. Every noise echoed upwards. Our second choice hotel was being renovated, but luckily we spotted a brand new – in fact, the second floor hadn’t been finished yet – and spotless clean small family hotel. Only limitation was that the family didn’t speak a lot of English, but he, we managed in China, in Myanmar, in Laos, we would manage in Wukro, of all places. Dinner menu was entirely local, but with the language pages of our guide book we made progress. Until we realized that everything we wanted wasn’t available; lent had just started, and here they seriously fast for no less than 55 days (no meat, no milk, no eggs, no animal products at all, and no sex!), so why would the kitchen have anything meaty at all? In the end we settled for injera with lentils, basically because that was all there was (Injera is a local kind of leavened bread with the texture – and the taste – of a wet towel, omnipresent in Ethiopia).
The hotel had no running water. Nobody had running water in Wukro, because of water shortage. What was worse, nobody in Wukro had tonic. Hardship traveling, so much is clear! But we loved the place, really, and for two nights we can survive. In fact, on the second evening we did have running water for a couple of hours, and I suspect that the owner put it on, especially for us.
(1) running water being delivered to the hotel

We still had the car for another day, so we set off early again, first in western direction to an area called Geraltha, where another concentration of rock-hewn churches is located. In fact we only went to see one of them, the Abreha we Atsbeha church, possibly the oldest church in Tigray, if the legend that it was founded by the twin kings Abreha and Atsbeha in the 4th Century is true; although scholars think the 10th Century is more likely – you see, this is the problem with Ethiopian history, nobody knows for sure, and discrepancies are not only common, but also huge. To give you an idea, the church is some 16x13 m large, 6 m high, and has been cut out of the rock in cruciform, with a fabulously carved roof supported by 13 pillars. But you really have to come and see this for yourself, no description does justice to the real thing.

(2, 3, 4, 5) The Abreha we Atsbeha church, perhaps one of the nicests ones: a priest opening the door, which is nicely decorated, as is an inside pilar; the door inside the church apparently leads to the tomb of either Abreha or Atsbeha, the two fopunders of the church.

The rest of the morning we enjoyed the country side, and the spectacular cliffs in which many of the other churches were situated – without actually climbing all the way up. We drove to the small village of Megab, where we had coffee in the village coffee house. No espresso machine here, but just a small frying pan to roast beans, and then prepare the coffee on a wood fire stove. The main street – the only street in town – is dominated by small houses and camel traffic.
(6) a fig tree, omnipresent in the landscape - unfortunately, it was not fig time

(7) Geraltha range, sandstone cliffs in which multiple other churches have been carved

(8) industrial chicken farm on the road to Megab

(9) and the only entertainment in Megab - and in many other villages around Northern Ethiopia
After lunch, back in Wukro, we headed south to try to find Mikael Imba, another of the Tigray churches. We had been debating whether we could reach it on and off, the past few days, initially with the car owner who confidently stated that we couldn’t go because road was closed, then after a few phone calls it turned out that the road was open, which was confirmed when we left Aksum, only to be told this morning that the road was in fact closed. But further enquiring, including checking the Wukro tourist office, confirmed that the road was indeed open. So when we arrived at the turn off, the road was in fact closed – but luckily, a detour a little further down led back to the road we needed. The challenges of traveling in Ethiopia.
Even without a church at the end, this would have been a fabulous trip. The road first follows a broad river valley, in between towering cliffs, to a small village. Every conceivable part of the valley, and of the slopes, has been terraced. Thanks to the river, which does contain some water so here and there, irrigation is an option, and the agriculture here look a lot more successful than we have seen so far. Past the village the road begins to climb, and after every hairpin bend the view becomes more impressive. The church itself is reached by a short climb topped by a wooden ladder to the plateau – the amba – where it is located. Again, a totally different type of church, three-quarters hewn out of the rock with a beautiful fa├žade.

(10, 11) the view, terraced fields along the river, and the same from much higher up, and (12) another typical farm complex
 (13) the Mikael Imba church from the outside - just so you get this right, all the rock around it has been removed (as well as the rock inside, of course)
(14) I cannot illustrate cross-bedding better than through this picture, now, can I? (Geological reference - for those who don't get it, don't worry)

(15) every church has its characters hanging around
One of the problems with these churches is that the priests insist that you take of your shoes, sometimes not just in front of the church, but way back. A pretty useless exercise, I think, because we are subsequently made to walk on our socks through sand and dust, and then through the pigeon shit around the church, before we enter the church on these same socks. The floors of the churches are often covered with carpets, paradise for fleas – but not as much paradise as our socks, which somehow seems an even more attractive place for the fleas than the church carpets. Hardship travel, I told you.
Wukro itself is not very exciting. It is just one very long street, sort of Wild West town built along the main road. The local rock-hewn church, Wukro Chirkos just outside town, isn’t very impressive, nothing compared to the others we have seen. But the stadium, this is something special indeed. No grass on the pitch, and no nets in the goals, but the stands are reminiscent of a Roman amphitheatre!
(16) the cows coming home, late afternoon near Wukro

 (17) Wukro's Roman amphitheatre, now the football stadium: no grass, but what about the stands!!

(18) future local beauty queen of Wukro - I get a little tired of all those kids wanting to have their picture taken, but this one was worthwhile

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

the travel day (2)

After the Debre Damo adventure we deserved lunch: remarkably good roasted lamb, in the border town of Adigrat, some 20 km from the Eritrean border. Well, border town, in fact the border has been closed for quite some time now, since the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000. I suspect if any smuggling is going on, it will be going from Ethiopia towards Eritrea, not the other way round.
South of Adigrat is the small town of Freweyni, which apparently means wine fruit. Right! Certainly no grapes here, the country side is bone-dry, not a drop of water to be seen. Still, there is plenty a cattle and sheep and goats being walked by small boys with big sticks, so however unbelievable it looks, somehow they must still find something to eat and drink. But no grapes, for sure.
(1) Tigray country side, steep mountains and dry land

We were now entering the area of the Tigrean rock-hewn churches. Tigray is name of the area, and province, bordering Eritrea, and is also the historical heartland of Ethiopia, until perhaps the 17th Century, when subsequent capitals were moved ever further southwards.
There are some 120 rock churches documented here, but there may well be many more. The first of these became known to Westerners, or indeed anybody outside Ethiopia, only in the 1960’s, so hermetically closed had Ethiopia been. Fifty years later, some of these are well established on the tourist circuit – but many remain elusive, far away in the mountains, difficult to locate and even more difficult to reach, built as they have been high up in the steep sandstone cliffs. (Indeed, I forgot to mention that since Lalibela we have left most of the basalt behind us, and moved into thick sedimentary sequences, including a few massive sandstones; the entire Yeha temple is built out of fine-grained sandstone blocks.)
I was a little concerned that these churches would, after a while, be very similar to the previous ones, so we had carefully selected just a few of the more accessible ones, starting with what is known as the Teka Tesfai cluster, three churches relatively close together. We had anticipated a 2-3 hour walk to cover them all, including some steep climbs to the individual churches, but it turned out that we could come pretty close to each of them by car, leaving only the steep climbs. In a way disappointing, we had looked forward to the walk – and time-wise, due to the rather poor road, we would probably have taken about as much time walking as by car. On the other hand, walking we would have been accompanied by all the children of the area, pestering us continuously for pens and money. It is really incredible, the universal begging culture in this country, as soon as a foreigner appears – I may be repeating myself, but the begging, the “give me money”, “give me pen”, is so pervasive during this trip, that it is bound to come up a few more times.
Anyhow, the churches. Access to the first one, the Petros and Paulos church, has been improved significantly with the construction of a rickety wooden staircase, so that we don’t have to clamber over the steep rock-face anymore. Only part of this church is hewn into the rocks, but the setting is impressive enough, and provides super-views; besides, this is one of the few churches that has been decorated with beautiful frescos – definitely worthwhile the effort.
(2) access to the Petros & Paulos church has been dramatically improved. Really!

(3, 4) fairly old, and attractive, frescos inside the church
The other two churches are equally impressive, more built inside the rocks. The church of Mikel Melehayzenghi sports a high, domed ceiling, and the church of Medhane Alem has one of the prettiest exteriors I have seen amongst the churches, with four carved pillars and a decorated front entrance. As so often in Ethiopia, timing is difficult, as is distinguishing between legend and factual history, but perhaps 10th or 11th Century seems currently the best academic guess.

(5) the view from, and (6, 7) the interior of the second church. Just in case you didn't get this yet, the church is hewn out of the rock, so imagine how much must have been removed!

(8, 9, 10) the outside facade of the Medhane Alem church, the decoration above the door, and a window
As enchanting as the churches is the country side. All over the land concentrated farm complexes have been built, groups of buildings – a house, a barn, a pen for the animals at night, hay stacks, and all protected by an often circular wall. Very attractive, very picturesque. Cattle is often found in the vicinity, cows with impressive long horns. Each complex is surrounded by cactuses, roads and paths are also lined with them, and with aloes. In this time of the year they are blooming, bright red or orange; the cactuses also have small yellow flowers on the tops of the large green leaves. At least a little colour in this forbidding, but beautiful dry landscape.

(11, 12, 13, 14) a typical farm building complex, inhabited, obviously, and cattle in front of the complex
(15) and some colour in the dry and grey landscape of Tigray

the travel day

(no, we have not been kidnapped, just didn't have a lot of internet access, the last few days. This is why I feel compelled to post multiple entries on one day - if it works. I have been critisized that this blog was not enough of a personal account, so I'll try to bring in more personal experiences, unfortunately I don't think the most personal of all, on video, will work with the limited connection in the hotel)

The various sites in the very north of Ethiopia are difficult to reach by public transport, so we decided to rent a vehicle, for two days. Monday morning early departure – well, not as early as most public busses leave, but still.
I woke up with a hangover, from the local gin & tonic and the subsequent bottle of Goudar Red, the local wine we had the evening before. Breakfast in the hotel is almost always omelet and coffee – there is just nothing else to eat that would appeal to a Western palette in the morning, so imagine the cholesterol levels after the kind of trips we make. Breakfast was slow. The highlight, or lowlight, was the cockroach floating in my coffee, which I almost swallowed. Not a good start of the day.
But, just after 7:30, we were on the way, with Mikael, our driver, and Cise (?), his young helper. Having our own wheels, even if we weren’t operating them ourselves, felt good. The road out of Aksum is being built by the Chinese, as every road is in this country. Four lanes, dual carriage way – at least close to town -, yet there seem to be very few cars to enjoy it. (A great moment in Philip Marsden’s book is when he asks someone living close to a new tarmac road whether it is busy, and the answer is, yes, nowadays there is a car almost every day.)
(1) the road outside Aksum, Chinese-built, four-lane, dual carriage way.... and no traffic
We passed Adwa, and the Adwa Mountains – a curious collection of irregular peaks -, where the Ethiopians famously defeated the Italian army is 1896. The country side around Aksum was relatively green – green for Ethiopian dry season standards -, but the further east we get, the dryer it becomes. At the moment, not much is growing here, but people go about their business, with donkeys and the occasional camel, transporting wood and fodder.
(2) the Adwa Mountains, series of peaks - phonolites, apparently, for those interested

The first target of the day is the Yeha temple, a pre-Axumite ruin. And ruin it is, three stone walls and a fourth with a big hole, the entrance. This thing has been standing here for perhaps 3000 years, but just when we visit, they have decided to put scaffolding around. In fact, the whole complex is rather underwhelming, although the precision of the construction, perfectly flat building blocks stacked together, is impressive. The local church is closed, and is not going to be opened, and the museum is the usual humble collection of old books, crowns and crosses, of which we have seen too many by now. We feel thoroughly ripped off. It needs more to make this day a success.

(3) the Yeha temple, 3.5 walls and a hole, and (4) a door to the local church, that was not going to be opened by any of the priests

After another two hours or so, through increasingly dry landscape, vegetation dominated by cactuses and aloe, we reach the Debre Damo monastery. Now we are talking business. Here is a 6th Century church, part of a larger monastic complex, perched on a 3000 meter high amba – a flat-topped mountain. The reason it still exists, I presume, is that it is not easily accessible: we climbed perhaps a 100-200 meters up from where we parked the car, and then there was this last 15 meters. The guide books were talking about getting in a basket, which would be hauled up by monks, but the reality is that you have to haul yourself up, with a rope, finding holes for your feet in the vertical wall in front of you. Half-way up, I had serious qualms about going on, but what choice do you have then? There is some form of harness, which hopefully catches you if you fall, but how reliable that is, I was not going to test. In the end I made it, and from that moment onwards I have been worrying about how I would be going down again! Lucky women: the monastery is, as so many others, men-only.
(5) the Debre Damo monastry, high up a cliff; how on earth do you get there?

(6) well, this is how.... the cliff is vertical, by the way, need to rotate the video 90o; my camara woman, down at the base of the cliff, was filming   (NB: I don't think I have a good enough connection to upload videos, will keep on trying - after all, it is quite funny...)
I have to say that the little church was worth the effort, quite beautiful indeed. Interestingly, in the corners the same type of masonry had been applied as seen in the Yeha temple; the rest of the construction, using wooden beams and flat stones, was also attractively executed. Several other buildings were housing the approximately 100 monks that live up here – of whom I saw very little. Needless to say, the views were spectacular.

(7, 8, 9) the 6th Century church on top of the hill. Pretty old, come to think about it - if it is true, of course. In any case, a pretty church

Somehow, I made it down again. The muscles of my arms are still sore.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Aksum (2)

Despite an absence of impressive landmarks, we stayed three days in Aksum. It turned out to be a pretty relaxed town, with pretty relaxed people. OK, the children still demanded money and pens, but they were somewhat less insistent than in Gondar and Lalibela. Or perhaps we learn better how to deal with the situation.
Saturday is market day in Aksum. In the outskirts is the cattle market, within a walled compound. Actually, sitting on the wall was the thing to do, seeing people from far driving their animals to the market, and at the same time observing the process inside. Apparently, a fat cow goes for around 6000 birr (the local currency), equivalent to some 300 Euros. No camels were traded today, but there were plenty of them in the general market, closer towards the town centre, competing with the donkeys for a place in the parking lot. The general market was a complete chaos, with everybody right on top of each other. It didn’t seem that there were many different things for sale, but with hundreds of individuals selling one chicken each, for instance, you can imagine how crowded it can get. Similarly, there were small scale pulse sellers, tomato sellers, onion sellers, garlic sellers – not very efficient, it looked. Round the big tree, the true center of town, was a third market, the basket market: colourful, but it didn’t seem that trade was brisk. Perhaps because all the baskets looked rather similar.

(1, 2, 3) the cattle market from the wall, two traders, and one of the younger participants offering his donkey for sale!

 (4) camels in the general markets

(5, 6, 7, 8) pulses in multi-colour, whole chillies, pots and plates, and the cooking oil station, in the general market
(9) the basket market, under the big tree; I have no idea who buys this, I don't think it is targeted at tourists

High up on a mountain above town are two small churches, reputedly established by two of the nine so-called Syrian monks, the first missionaries. The churches have obviously been rebuilt many times, since the 5th Century, and aren’t very attractive, but the walk towards them was pleasant enough, despite every child we met trying to sell us a cross, or a piece of amethyst or just asking for money or a pen – the one in my pocket, probably. We ended up at the furthest church, the one of Abbe Panthaleon. In fact, there are two churches here, an old one (men only) and a new one, which has as absolute highlight an electronic device that contains all those standard paintings we have seen so far, and rotates then round and round on a moving screen. Who makes these things!
The churches often have a small museum, with a few books, crosses and other paraphernalia, but this one beat them all: the priest carried two books, two metal crowns, four crosses and a drinking vessels to the front, and that was all, the collection. Oh, and a few new, copper crosses that the priest offered to sell to us, as a souvenir. There is a thin line between opportunism and shamelessness.
 (10) the littke church of Abba Panthaleon, high above Aksum

(11, 12) decoration in the old church, and in the new church: a rotating selection of the standard scenes depicted in the churches we have seen so far, but then in techni-colour on a moving screen!!