Ethiopia's ancient civilisation

Trip Start Aug 31, 2005
Trip End Aug 25, 2006

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

After leaving Gondor we had a hell bus road on dusty bumpy roads over the Simien mountains, risking our lives at many stages - you wouldn't believe how scary it can be watching the bus driver TRYING to do a 3-point turn around a hairpin curve at the top of a mountain... on the 3rd attempt we finally managed to reverse (and not move further forward over the cliff). But anyway, we survived, just. And the scenery was amazing!

We slept the night in the hell-hole wildwest town of Shire where we were accosted by not only potential maleria-carrying mosquito's, but also a naked crazy man with clay on his head, and somewhere along the way even managed to get my bag slashed open. But all in a day's adventure for Kirsty and Hannah. We took all this in our stride and got a good night's sleep!

We arrived in the town of Axum the next morning and checked into paradise at Africa Hotel. Our cleanest hotel yet! We spent all the rest of the day to take the opportunity to clean, everything. Backs, shoes, clothes. Oh, and guess what came out of the bottom of Kirsty's daypack? Only the stooopid ipod we spent all the day in the police station in Morocco trying to file a stolen item police report for! (my stolen camera unfortunately didn't appear in the cleaning up...)

In celebration, we then headed into town for a quick look around, and a climb of the hill to over look the city as the sunset over the mountains. *sigh* Somethings just can't be explained with words.

The next day we spent recovering from our bus journey - reading book after book and catching up on our journals. The next day Kirsty was sick, so another day at home enjoying our freetime. At the end of the day though I was ACHING to go out and so accepted a boy's invitation for a night on the town. It was fun...but by the end of the night I had to nearly break his fingers to convince him that NO, he was not in love with me, and no, there was no way I was going to let him kiss me. This country is so safe though, that the next morning EVERYONE knew about this little incident, and the hotel manager checked in that he didn't do anything inappropriate and that I was OK!! I have never felt safer in my life than I do walking the streets of Ethiopia.

But anyway, enough of what we got up to, the city of Axum is the hero of this story. Axum was not only our little haven when we most needed it, but also the site of Ethiopia's most ancient city. The Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion is the repository of the crowns of some of Ethiopia's former emperors, and according to Ethiopian legend, it also houses the original Ark of the Covenant (see my history section below for information on this!) No-one has actually ever seen the Ark of Covenant here...but all Ethiopians believe it is housed in the church.

Scattered around the town of Axum and its dry hill, part buried part exposed, there are numerous ruins and stone foundations of monolithes, temples, fortresses, and rich palaces. There is now only 1 standing large monolithe. The largest has fallen, and the 2nd largest was looted from Axum by Mussolini in 1937. The obelisk - the only one on two continents weighing over 100 tonnes - was situated in a square in Rome, but has now been returned to Ethiopia (in pieces). It should be re-errected in the next month or so.

We set about exploring the ruins the minute Kirsty got well enough. We set off into stela park where the monolithes and major ruins are. We were one of only a handful of tourists around (as we are everywhere here), and thoroughly enjoyed being able to climb down shaky ladders into the underground tunnels and burial chambers. We next sort out the Queen of Sheba's baths (which the locals use for their local water supply...) and then walked up the hill to an impressive King Kaleb's tomb - complete with stone coffins and bats! Axum is an amazing town, breathing history.

And now, 3 weeks after being in Ethiopia and still travelling slowly around the north (still!) we are starting to realise that we are going to out of time pretty quickly. So today we picked up the pace a little and caught a ride in a minibus with Alisdair and Mark (friend's made along the way) and got off in the middle of nowhere, tried to flag down cars, trucks, anything, to get us south.

Eventually a bus picked us up, and dropped us at the charming city of Mekele. From here we travel to a place called Gashena (near the rock hewn churches of Lalibela) we were are doing a 4 day eco tourism trek through the local villages. All is good here!

FOR ALL YOU HISTORY BUFFS (Grandad) - The History of Axum
Axum is a city with a rich history and a history of riches. Formed by a mainly Arabic community from the 10th to the 1st centuries BC, the Axumite Empire was controlling trade routes from Africa to Asia for nearly 1000 years and minting coins at a time when barely any other country was affluent or sophisticated enough to afford or require such business innovation. The history of Axum survives in stone inscriptions in the local Ge'ez language and ancient Greek. Greek geographers described Axum and its trade in ivory and slaves. The architecture of this period permeates all Ethiopia's historic cities, such as Harar and Lalibela.

It was in Axum that King Ezna declared in the early 4th century that Christianity would be the official state religion. At that time he was head of the Zagwa Empire that controlled trade routes through the Port of Adulis, which is 40 miles south of Massawa in Eritrea. However, the true symbolic transfer of religious power preceded this political declaration by 1300 years, according to legend.

Queen of Sheba & The Ark of the Covenant
The transfer of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Axum is recounted in a medieval epic written in Ge'ez, "The Glory of Kings". The Queen of Sheba heard of King Solomon's wisdom and travelled to Jerusalem to learn about his system of governance. Impressed by her intelligence and beauty, Solomon proceeded to beget a son by her even though they were unmarried; he said that he did it "to fill the earth with sons to serve the God of Israel". Their son Menelik visits Solomon in Jerusalem as a young man, and is then appointed King of Ethiopia by his father. Solomon then instructs the elders of Israel to send their sons to serve as Menelik's counsellors in Ethiopia (the origins of the Falasha, Ethiopian Jews). The young Israelites are so distressed to leave their holy homeland that they carry with them the Ark of the Covenant.

...and some facts on Ethiopian history
* Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Sub Saharan Africa. The earliest evidence of Ethiopian history was in around 1000BC when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon.

* The first recorded kingdom in Ethiopia grew around Axum during the 3rd century BC. Axum was an offshoot of the Semitic Sabeam kingdoms of southern Arabia, it became the greatest ivory market in the north east.

* Christianity was adopted in the country by a Syrian youth named Frumentius who grew up in Axum and converted the King; the youth was later made the first Bishop in 330 AD.

* Axum conquered parts of Yemen and southern Arabia and remained a great power until the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

* Islam was expanding which had the effect of cutting off Ethiopia from its former Mediterranean trading partners and allies, Muslims replaced the Egyptians in the Red Sea ports. Ethiopians were allowed to consecrate their Bishops in Cairo and pilgrims were allowed to travel to Jerusalem.

* Unfortunately, the Ethiopians did not have such a good relationship with the pagan tribes in the south and pressure from these tribes forced the Ethiopian emperors to adopt the life of nomadic military commanders living in makeshift cities. The priests were forced to become monks and hermits. After some time these tribes were pacified and Ethiopia recovered enough to take the provinces of Amhara, Lasta, Gojam and Damot. At a similar time the capital was moved to the south to the Amhara province.

* In the 12th century Muslim expansion began. As independent trading kingdoms grew up along the coast of the Red Sea they expanded down to the Awash Valley. Their wealth was based mainly upon a trade in slaves, gold and ivory.

* During the 13th and 14th centuries the Red Sea Kingdoms became Ethiopian vassal states.

* During the 15th century with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Ethiopian fortunes were reversed. The Turks who succeeded the Mamelukes in Egypt supported the Muslim kingdoms providing both firearms and artillery; the only thing that saved the Christian empire from collapse was the Portuguese. In 1542 as a result of this, missionaries from Portugal attempted to persuade the Ethiopians to accept the Pope in Rome as the leader of the Church.

* In the 18th century the empire broke down into constituent provinces, and a hundred years of constant warfare between existing war lords and their successors followed.

* Ras Kassa had himself crowned as the emperor at Axum under a different name, Tewodros. This happened in 1855 when he constructed an army to reunite the provinces of Tigre, Amhara and Shoa.

* Tewodros shot himself because the British, in 1867, blockaded his fortress. He was succeeded by John the 4th who took power by using British arms and was forced to accept a powerful young vassal King of Shoa as his heir, named Menelik. He built up large stores of European arms which he used to defeat the Italians in 1896 at Adowa.

* John the 4th enlarged his empire at the expense of the Afars, the Somalis of Harrar and the Ogadam, and the Gallas.

* In 1916, Haile Selassie, born Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen, led a revolution and became Prince Regent, heir to the throne. He was proclaimed Emperor in 1930.

* Mussolini, from Italy overran the country in 1936. Haile Selassie fled to England where he lived in exile. He appealed for help, but none was offered although the western nations condemned the action. The Italians remained present in Ethiopia until 1941. Haile Selassie returned as Emperor.

* After World War 2 Ethiopia's course as an independent nation continued although the province of Eritrea remained under British control until 1952 when it was federated with Ethiopia, a result of a plebiscite, organised by the UN. The Muslims were unhappy about the federation and so in 1962 the federation was dissolved and the province was annexed by Haile Selassie. The consequence of this was the outbreak of guerrilla warfare, the Muslims against the Christians.

* The Eritreans regarded the annexation as tantamount to being colonised by another African nation and there were many years of inconclusive fighting which also led to mutiny and made more people aware of the revolutionary current which was sweeping through Ethiopian society. This was one of the principle factors leading to Haile Selassie's downfall.

* Haile Selassie was respected as an African statesman and as a key person in the construction of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

* Wealth went to nobility and the church. Many thousands of people died due to famine and the war in Eritrea.

* In 1974 amid a wave of demonstrations, mutinies and uprisings, Haile Selassie was deposed and held under armed guard in his palace. He died several months later.

* Ethiopia was then plunged into a social revolution and a group of junior army officers imposed a military dictatorship. The leader was Mengistu Haile Miriam. He threw out Americans and then instituted a number of radical reforms. He jailed the opposition; many people were massacred by vigilante groups; opposition arose everywhere; the Eritreans stepped up the guerrilla campaign and the Somalis decided that the time was right to press their claims over the Ogaden desert and invaded in force.

* By 1978 the Somalis had managed to overrun Jijiga which was an important Ethiopian military base and were threatening to take areas through which the vital railway ran.

* The military regime in Addis Ababa was at a point of collapse but then the Russian and Cuban troops intervened with the help from Moscow, Mengistu was able to turn the Somalis back across the border.

* Mengistu's policies included creating 'people's committees' called Kebeles which controlled the everyday lives of the people in great detail. Large numbers of people were forcibly moved around the country in an attempt to counter famine. Conscription into the army eventually called on ever man from 18 to 70 years old.

* Matters went from bad to worse. Mengistu found himself with a discontented population, frequent famine, war in Eritrea, Ogaden and Tigray. Finally, in 1991, when the rebel forces were about to seize Addis, Mengistu hastily left the country for Zimbabwe.

* A new government was led by Meles Zenawi who set out a policy to pursue multi-party democracy. Eritrea became independent led by Isaias Afwerki, a friend of Zenawi.
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