Ethiopia: Escape to the “Land of Origins”
By François Misser. Initially published in The Brussels Times
This year’s escape could well be Ethiopia. A number of elements are coinciding to make this dream come true. The country has made tremendous efforts to develop tourism. Both these efforts and Ethiopia’s unique assets have prompted the European Council on Tourism and Trade (ECTT) to select Ethiopia as the “Best Tourism Destination” in 2015. About 25 Belgian travel agencies are proposing trips to Ethiopia, including Alexandre Lembourg’s Almatours whose ten-day all-in packages, at a cost of about EUR 3,000, will be ready by May-June of 2016.
In many regards, this enthusiasm is justified. Ethiopia can offer a unique cocktail of sensations, combining visits to archaeological sites, trekking in a variety of landscapes, wildlife discovery and a vibrant nightlife in the capital, Addis Ababa and other places.
“The European Council on Tourism and Trade selected Ethiopia as the ‘Best Tourism Destination’ in 2015.”
Ethiopian Tourism Organization’s brochures describe Ethiopia as the “land of origins”: of humanity, of the Blue Nile, and of coffee. Indeed, Ethiopia is a blessing for palaeontologists. A must for any trip there is a short visit to Lucy and Selam, our remote hominid cousins described as Australopithecus afarensis whose reconstructed skeletons can be seen at the National Museum of Ethiopia. The quest of origins also motivates archaeology fans to admire the Aksum obelisks, erected 1700 years ago in the Northern Highlands of Tigray, in single-block stones, allegedly transported by men and elephants.
In addition, Ethiopia provides followers of the three revealed religions with the spiritual feeling of walking through the pages of the Old Testament. Visitors to Aksum learn about the love story, reported in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and about the legend of their son, Menelik, who went to visit his father. On his return journey he was accompanied by the firstborn sons of some Israelite noble who allegedly stole the Ark of the Covenant, which Ethiopian Christians believe is now located in a chapel at Aksum. In Lalibela, “the new Jerusalem”, stunned visitors discover in the wall of the legendary monolithic churches windows with a swastika-shape, which suggest that ancient Ethiopians were in contact with the Indians who first used this symbol of luck. The presence of the Star of David on the crown of Ethiopian emperors is a reminder of the deep connection with Judaism, along with similar dietary kosher laws set in the Leviticus and the practice of circumcision.
In a nutshell, a trip to Ethiopia is a call to spirituality. One example among many is that Ethiopia, according to Rita Marley, the widow of Bob Marley, reggae music’s pope, represents the “spiritual home” of her husband. The same can be said for the members of the Rastafarian movement, who were invited by the late emperor Haile Selassie to settle in the town of Shashemene in the Rift Valley and whose daughters and sons are still living there.
Many more cultural shocks are in store for those visiting the old Abyssinia, where admirers of Russian icons discover a parent iconographic art in the dozens of 14th century monasteries of the Lake Tana islands and shores, in the churches of the former royal city of Gondar and in the cave churches of the Lalibela area. All these marvels are the product of a living faith, which expresses itself through magnificent processions that remind movie fans of the splendid scenes of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Thousand and one nights.
The “churches in the sky” of Tigray, like Abuna Yemata Guh are one of the most inaccessible places of worship on earth. They are perched on top of a vertical spire of rock, with sheer, 200 metre drops on all sides, and reminiscent of Mount Athos in Greece. A visit there provides a unique opportunity to combine culture and sport. Beyond that, Ethiopia offers lots of opportunities for hikers ranging from the climbing of the peak of the 4,550 meters high Ras Dashen to expeditions to the Danakil depression, 120 meters below sea level, and the Ert Ale Lava Lake, probably one of the hottest places on earth. Other activities include rafting on the Omo and Awash rivers, rock climbing and caving in the Sheikh Sof Omar caverns, which are also an important Islamic shrine. These are all elements of the adventure cocktail Ethiopia can offer.
The much easier half hour walk to the majestic Blue Nile Falls is also part of this “trip to the origins” and the discovery of natural beauty, which should include a visit to one of several national parks. Owing to the diversity of its landscapes and climates, this large country, equivalent in size to France and the Iberian Peninsula combined, offers a wide range of species. One of them is the harmless Gelada baboon, in the Simien mountains, which can even be seen after a short stroll by lazy walkers. Oryx, kudus, and ostriches are endemic to the Awash National park. A trip along the Omo Valley enables travellers to watch elephants, buffalos, zebras and lions, as if they were in Kenya.
Yet, Ethiopia is not just an ancient art museum, a wildlife reserve or a collection of landscapes. It is also a symphony of exotic tastes, which leads tourists to discover the delight of coffee, which was originally an undomesticated plant is Ethiopia. Some scholars believe that the ancestors of today’s Oromo ethnic group, who lives around Addis Ababa, were the first to have recognised the energizing effect of the coffee plant. The coffee ceremony is an absolute must. It is an integral part of Ethiopia`s social and cultural life. It is not difficult to succumb to the charm of a ceremony whose hostess, usually a young woman, dresses in the traditional white cotton garment and roasts the coffee beans over a tiny charcoal stove. This produces an aroma of incense and myrrh.
Coffee is at both at the heart of tradition and modernity. Since the 1930s, Addis Ababa’s Coffee House has had the unique privilege of hosting Ethiopian jazz concerts, one of the highlights of the capital’s urban culture. Not only Addis but smaller towns such as Gondar also have a vibrant nightlife offering traditional breathtaking shoulder dancing shows, which can end up with the visitor performing on stage. Nostalgic dreamers may prefer a journey in the footsteps of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who in 1880 settled in the ancient walled city of Harar, now a World Heritage site, or visit some of its 180 mosques and shrines.
As with most things of value, there is a price to pay for whoever wants to enjoy this fantastic destination. One has to accept some inconveniences of a transition economy, which is trying to make its way out of poverty. “Some patience and understanding is needed by the visitor but at the end of the day, problems get solved”, says Alexandre Lembourg. One of the challenges is infrastructure. Ethiopia’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, Aisha Mohammed Mussa, says that “power infrastructure is our top priority so as to support this growing economy”.
Indeed, during the dry season, the levels are so low in the reservoirs of the country’s hydropower dams that power cuts can occur. The government is trying to improve the situation, as confirmed by the inauguration of four turbines of the 1,870 MW Gilgel Gibe 3 dam on the Omo river in mid-February. By the end of the year, the two first turbines of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam should also be operational. Another bottleneck is the saturation of traffic at Addis Bole international airport, where passengers may queue for some time before boarding planes to international destinations. But the Ethiopian authorities claim they are doing something about it and promise to expand the airport capacity to 22 million passengers compared to the current 6 million, within two years.
The growth in the number of visitors is expected to treble between now and 2020, to over two million per year. This striking increase is stretching the country’s limits to accommodate visitors. The problem is not the number of hotel rooms but the lack of trained staff, explains Susan Atchison, a former economics teacher in Glasgow, who owns the Ben Ababa restaurant in Lalibela. There is also a shortage of multilingual guides and professional drivers, who are crucial in a country where road safety remains a problem. Nevertheless, as far as he’s concerned, Alexandre Lembourg says he has solved these problems for his clients during a reconnaissance trip he made to Ethiopia last February in Addis Ababa and Abyssinia.
The good news is that owing to the professional standards of Ethiopian Airlines, which flies to 20 domestic destinations, air safety is guaranteed. Tight security checks are carried out by polite but firm staff in the airports and in the main hotels, which is reassuring in a country surrounded by a number of unstable countries. Thanks to its vigilance, Ethiopia has managed to successfully keep any threats at arm’s length.
Discover Ethiopia: The easiest way to get to Ethiopia from Brussels is via Ethiopian Airlines or Turkish Airlines. Both airlines operate several flights per week to the capital Addis Ababa.
Republished with the kind authorization of The Brussels Times.