Eternal Ethiopia

Written by  Margery Weinstein

AFRICA ETHIOPIAEarly human anthropological findings, Christianity...and coffee. There’s a place in the horn of Africa with ties to the origin of all of those things-Ethiopia. Churches with ostrich eggs framing crosses, and the Arc of the Covenant, where the original 10 Commandments from the Bible are said to be housed, exist alongside the ruin of palaces, like that of the Queen of Sheba. And that religious history is in a country where the bones of Lucy, the earliest modern human, were discovered. This historical tour of Ethiopia can be complemented by ample coffee breaks, as the beverage is said by many to have originated in Ethiopia, and by sightings of animals ranging from Gelada monkeys in the country’s highlands, to hippopotamuses and crocodiles in its waters, and warthogs ambling through its resorts.

Foundation of Faith
JAX FAX’s visit in January coincided with the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany, a holiday marking when the Ethiopian Orthodox believe that Jesus was baptized. Intricate decorative parasols held over church goers in festive and religious garb could be seen in a street parade down a major thoroughfare of the capital Addis Ababa. The music and high-pitched la-la-la of the eastern African- and Middle Eastern-style ululating chant could be heard as worshipers marched together to a field for community religious services and baptism of the entire crowd.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith is predominant in the country, with Ethiopia said to be the earliest place in the world, outside of Israel, where Christianity was practiced. The people of the country take pride in their religious heritage, as you can see when you visit the Entoto Museum and St. Mary Church in Addis Ababa. Marathon and Olympic medals from the country’s legendary long-distance running tradition, left to the church as a tribute of the athletes’ faith, can be seen in the museum. You also will find the colorful garments and ceremonial objects used in Ethiopian Orthodox worship, and by the Ethiopian royal family. The site of the museum and church also houses royal tombs.
The churches in Ethiopia are unlike any an American or European is likely to have seen. They are low-to-the ground, typically just one-level, and circular. The crosses at the top are framed in a circle that is dotted by ostrich eggs. If you visit the Entoto Museum and St. Mary Church close to an Ethiopian holiday, the smell of spice will be sharp in the air with cooking from local residents wafting in the breeze. You also may find children from a nearby school eagerly running out to greet you and shake your hand, and introduce themselves. The people of Ethiopia, and particularly the children, are not shy, and take pride in welcoming foreign visitors.
The Holy Trinity Cathedral, also in Addis Ababa, offers another view of an Ethiopian Orthodox church, with a more ornate interior with arches alongside the aisle to the altar, and chandeliers. Like St. Mary’s, tombs of the royals also can be found at Holy Trinity.

A couple hundred miles, or less than an hour’s flight, from Addis Ababa, is Bahir Dar, where an hour’s boat ride on Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile, will take you to the Zege Monasteries. On the way, you may spot a family of hippopotamuses peeping heads out of the water within 10 feet of your boat. At Ura port, you can pause along the dirt path to enjoy a traditional outdoor coffee ceremony with frankincense burning, and the coffee brewed over an open fire. The rich, black coffee may be the strongest, and most flavorful, you’ve experienced.
On the monastery grounds you’ll find a bell much different from American and European church chimes-two long, flat rocks tethered to a wooden plank that “chime” when tapped in a particular way. Inside the church JAX FAX toured, which dates back to the 1400s, are African-themed paintings from the 1600s depicting Christian religious history. Like all Ethiopian Orthodox churches, you’ll also find a colorfully painted ceremonial drum, which is played on both ends, one end said to signify the New Testament, the other side, the Old.

Every Ethiopian Orthodox church features a replica of the Arc of the Covenant, the tablet with the Bible’s 10 Commandments. In addition to religious faith, that may be because many believe the original Ark of the Covenant to be housed in the Ethiopian city of Aksum, at St. Mary of Zion Cathedral. Inside the church, with its pastel-colored stained-glass windows, you can see a 500-year-old, hand-written, hand-painted book created by Ethiopian monks.
With such a rich Christian history, it may not be surprising that Ethiopia is home of the “African Jerusalem” city of Lalibela. In the 1100s, Ethiopia’s King Lalibela ordered the building of 11 churches hewn out of one large rock, so his people would no longer have to walk the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. You can still visit the 11 hand-carved churches, filled with art work and other relics. Most stunning is the view from a distance of St. George’s church, carved in the shape of the cross.

Royal Lineage
Judeo-Christian religious history and Ethiopian royal history intersect with the story of the country’s Queen of Sheba, who is said by some to have had a son with Israel’s King Solomon. In Aksum, you can tour the ruins of the queen’s palace, where a guide can point out specific areas of the structure, such as the throne and coronation room, the kitchen, and even
the bathroom.
The ancient empire of Ethiopia, which pre-dated the Queen of Sheba, can also be seen in Aksum, where stelaes, or tall, thin, stone columns, mark the gravesite of royal families. You can even go inside some of the stelaes, and see in a museum, located alongside the stelaes, artifacts, such as bowls and tools, that archeologists discovered in the area.
In the city of Gondar, also, there is royal history to be viewed with a Royal Enclosure, where a knowledgeable guide can show you six castles, including the remains of a steam bath, concert hall, horse stables and banquet room.

Beginning of Human History
As impressive as Ethiopia’s biblical and royal history is, visitors can get a sense of the beginnings of all of humanity at the country’s National Museum in Addis Ababa. A mold of the original bones of Lucy, which many believe to be the oldest specimen of modern man, can be seen. Lucy, perhaps the most renowned archeological finding of humans, was discovered in Ethiopia. The museum has other artifacts from the days of the earliest humans, giving visitors a feeling for the country’s ties to the beginnings of civilization.
In addition to its museums, the ancient culture of Ethiopia can be experienced by visiting with traditional Ethiopian tribes. In the southern part of the country, in Arba Minch, JAX FAX spent time with the Konso and Dorze Hayzo tribes, witnessing a traditional ceremony with song and dance, and animal-skin costumes, which had been passed down through
the generations.

Natural Beauty
The bounty of the country’s natural resources is on proud display at Simien National Park, where JAX FAX spent a memorable morning interacting with Gelada monkeys, a kind of monkey that can only be found in the Ethiopian highlands. As you climb the mountainside, the smell of thyme strong in the air, you find yourself surrounded in close proximity-10 feet away or closer-by these gentle creatures. You can witness the Gelada monkey’s grooming and foraging behaviors, and their
social interactions.
Along your hike in the Simien Mountains, you may also see Ethiopia’s thick-billed raven, with its unique white marking on the back of its neck. The Simien fox and Walia ibex, a kind of goat not found anywhere else in the world, also roam these mountains.
Biblical and royal history, combined with such natural wonders as the Simien Mountains, makes Ethiopia a great place to experience your first taste of Africa, or, for the experienced African traveler, a fresh and exciting view of the continent.

Getting There
JAX FAX flew Ethiopian Airlines, economy class, from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in Newark, N.J., to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with a one-hour stop in Lome, Togo. Passengers bound for Addis Ababa remained on board. The flight from EWR to Lome, Togo: 9 hours, 45 minutes. Flight from Lome, Togo, to Addis Ababa: 5 hours, 35 minutes.
Smiling and welcoming service greets you on Ethiopian Airlines, which JAX FAX traveled both internationally, and domestically, within Ethiopia. Each economy seat is equipped with its own screen for viewing movies, TV shows, documentaries and other features, and for those preferring to be entertained by content on their phone or tablet, each economy seat also has its own mobile device charger.
Along with that ease-of-entertainment-a priority on any long-haul flight-the food service offered diverse choices, ranging from vegetarian options to meat and fish. The food is plentiful, so that even in economy, passengers feel well nourished.
The best part of flying this airline from the U.S., or another international destination, to Ethiopia, is it makes booking your travel within Ethiopia easier, as Ethiopian Airlines has a multitude of flights from city-to-city inside the country. For example, JAX FAX, within a two-week time frame, flew from the capital Addis Ababa to Bahar Dar; Gondar to Lalibella; Lalibella to Aksum; and Addis Ababa to Arba Minch.
The airline calls itself the “New Spirit of Africa,” and it really is a great option for those traveling to that continent. The many flight options, coupled with the high level of service on board, make it an easy choice

Where to Stay
In Addis Ababa, JAX FAX stayed at the Golden Tulip. The rooms were luxuriously comfortable, with complimentary Wi-Fi that was mostly strong and well-functioning.

In Bahir Dar, JAX FAX stayed at the Blue Nile Resort Hotel. The hotel is located in a picturesque spot along Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. It’s the perfect location for those looking forward to exploring the wildlife of the lake, which includes ample opportunities to view hippopotamuses.

In Gondar, JAX FAX stayed at the Gondar Landmark Hotel, which is a convenient place to stay for those interested in exploring Simien National Park, where you can spend time in close proximity to the Gelada monkey, and other wildlife exclusively found in Ethiopia. The hotel is an approximately two-and-a-half-hour drive from Simien National Park.

In Aksum, JAX FAX stayed at the Sabean Hotel, which is in an ideal location for those interested in touring the city’s famed stelaes and St. Mary of Zion Cathedral, where some believe the Arc of the Covenant to be housed.
In Lalibela, JAX FAX stayed at the Mountain View Hotel, with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and landscape. Perfect for visitors seeking to tour the city’s famous rock-hewn churches.

In Arba Minch, JAX FAX stayed at the Paradise Lodge Arbaminch, where guests each get their own safari-themed luxury “hut,” with beautiful views of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. There is a swimming pool on site, and you are likely to see wildlife, such as warthogs, on your walks around the property.

Tips for Travelers
The Ethiopian rainy season is May-September, but the Ethiopians JAX FAX spoke with said that, for most parts of the country, it typically only rains for a small part of the day during that time, so that it may rain every day during those months, but sometimes for as little as an hour or two, with the rest of the day clear.
The terrain in the parts of the country JAX FAX visited was often uphill and rocky, and of a high altitude, so that even casual sightseeing outside required physical stamina and good mobility.

A visa is required for citizens of all countries except Kenya and Djibouti, and if you are coming from a country with known cases of yellow fever, proof of a yellow fever vaccination also is required. You may want to consult with a travel health clinic prior to your trip. The travel health clinic JAX FAX consulted recommended Hepatitis A, yellow fever and typhoid vaccinations, and malaria prevention pills.

Developed by Interwave Concepts, Inc.