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Africa » Ethiopia
December 23rd 2007
Published: December 24th 2007
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We were up early to catch our long bus ride to Axum from Debark. Our guide book had called it the most scenic journey in the country which I also read to mean "long"! We had also been warned that the bus did not stop for bathroom breaks or snacks so we needed to be prepared. Waiting on the side of the dusty road in Debark attracted considerable attention from the local children, the braver of whom came over to practice their English and to have their photos taken! Our photos of Canada were a real hit too!

Finally our bus showed up and we were on our way in the front seats - courtesay of a little service fee! Sitting three abreast with a lovely brother and sister we started off our journey in good spirits.

Even now, looking back on this bus trip, I find it hard to understand why the Italians ever build such a road, but it is surely a marvel of engineering and tenacity! Built precariously clinging to the mountains, it follows hundreds upon hundreds of switchbacks first down the mountain and then up in a spiral pattern. The corners are so tight that assistant is required, not to mention a whole lot of praying since there are no guard rails! The scenery is the reward, however, for a more magnificent vista there is not likely anywhere. The Simien Mountains with their pinnacles and mesas out in front, the various burnt umber, browns and wheat hues stratified lowering down to the greens of the trees in the valleys below. An occassional monkey swinging from tree to tree and always, people lining the road herding their livestock to break up the monotony.

Now this seems like lots of fun for the first 3 hours or so, but after approaching hour 7 of what was supposed to be a 6 hour trip, things begin to get tiresome. In my direct line of sight is a huge religious poster whose blue eyes still haunt me in my dreams. The police checks where they ignore us, but ask everyone else for ID just seem to slow things down more. The dust covers everyone in a fine silt and we try to only drink the tiniest amount of water despite the sweltering conditions so that we don't have to stop the bus for our needs only!

loading the camel with Dashen Beer in Axum loading the camel with Dashen Beer in Axum loading the camel with Dashen Beer in Axum

A pretty interesting way to get your beer!
after climbing up again from the river bottom, we ascend to a broad sweeping plain filled with greenery and wonder how a city will possibly emerge in all this, but it does. Shire in all its utilitarian wonder as a transit point is there. The only problem for us is that we have missed our connection since the buses don't run at night! We have the touts trying to find us a truck to take us the rest of the way to Axum, but the prices are so "farengi-fied" that we can not justify it and find ourselves a hotel to bed down for the night.

The next am, we are off the rest of the way in the back seat of the minibus from Shire to Axum. The alleged 90 minute ride is more than 2 hours where we are shaken around immeasurably while the bus jostles down the unsealed roads and we keep stopping to let on more and more people who stand in the aisles (which is not allowed on the regular buses). Just when we don't think we can take it anymore, the bus stops abruptly on the side of the road. We don't see any passengers and wonder what's going on. The next thing we know we see bunches of carrots being flung through the doors! Everyone wants this roadside carrots and the seller does a brisk business! The locals are convinced that we want carrots and try to get the bus driver to halt the bus so we can get our full share, but then we have to explain that as lovely as the carrots look, we won't be buying any today!

A short while later, with pricky pear cactus in full bloom with their red flowers bursting forth, and camels trudging down the road, after 2 days, we make it to Axum where the kind bus driver and workers let us off right in front of our hotel and won't even take a tip for helping us with our bags!

As the book suggests, Axum is a dusty, sprawling little place that belies its great past. With its 41,500 people, the sidewalks are quiet and there is a very laid back feeling. But Axum is just being modest since it has a pedigree with its UNESCO listing as one of the most important ancient sites in Sub-Saharan Africa. Axum started its rise as early as 400 BC. By the 1st Century AD, and for close to 1000 years, Axum was known by Greek merchants as a great city and powerful capital of an extensive empire, dominating the sea trade between Europe, Africa and Asia.

The result is a rich heritage of stelae, some up to 33m and some lying broken and fallen in their place, but also a labrynth of underground tombs with passages and alleyways that were a testament to the fine quality of the masonwork. Fitting like gloves, the bricks fit tightly together without grout and are carved in places with the distinctive Axumite cross. Equally ingenious, skylights were used in many of the tombs as well.

The pottery, glassware, crowns bedazzled with jewels and frocks of velvet sewed with gold and silver thread as well as ancient books with gold covers and detailed illustrations highlight a prosperous and highly developed ancient society, rivalling that of anywhere in the world.

Since many of these tombs have only been found recently, there is likely a whole other world left to locate and much more to discover about these ancient treasures since there remain many mysteries like how the huge stones were transported from the quarry - many kilometres away -to be carved in Axum. Did they use elephants or sheer human force?

Beyond the wonder of the stelae and tombs, lies a lovely countryside and smiling, friendly people, especially the schoolchildren in their matching, torn purple sweaters who besiege us for photos and chatter away to us "Welcome to Axum". Everytime we walk by the school, we know we will be treated to "farengi frenzy", but it is all par for the course as are power outages and no water in this driest of desert areas. Showers are a luxury and not to be taken lightly.

Fortunately we also meet up with other travellers to share stories and Harar beer over candlelight at the local restaurant. There are other Canadians including Rene who is travelling on his motorbike which is an amazing feat in and of itself and also a great American family, Steve, Susan and Noah with whom we decide to head to the Rock Hewn Churches of Tigray for a day or so while we wait for our flight to Lalibela, next stop on the tourist historic circuit.

So we find ourselves in good company and on the road - unsealed - again from Axum to Wukro following close to the disputed Eriterian and Ethiopian border where the presence of soldiers is high and the Chinese are building a new sealed road ...

Spectacular vistas abound yet again as we wind away around the mountains, hugging their curves and tasting the dust of the passing trucks who use this road as their main thoroughfare. We stop at Debre Damo which is perched on top of a hill and consists of one of the oldest churches in country. It is unique because it requires a steep ascent using ropes to access it and is only for men. Apparently, as legend goes, Axum's monarchy used to coop up members of the royal family there to decrease any possible challenges to their reign!

For now, it is a self contained community of monks and others and even cows get hauled up on the rope and live up there! While the men showed their prowress and scampered up the wall, Susan and I stayed down below only to find out that if we died we could have our bones buried up there! Great! I think we'll pass.

After Debre Damo and its powder soft roads, we made our way slowly to Wukro, via Adrigat, population 88,342 and Negash which is famous for being the first Muslim settlement in Ethiopia as they freed persecution in Saudi Arabia in the 7th Century. For this reason, for many Muslims, Negash is the most holy Islamic site after Mecca.

Finally landed in Wukro, a tiny village on the sealed road between Adrigat and Addis Ababa and centre of the rock hewn churches. There experienced the cutest type of "farengi frenzy" when the kids ran out just to hold our hands and walk us to the church just being happily in our presence while the older ones practiced their English with us.

Wukro and its surrounding environs is the home to the rock churches of Tigray of which there are over 120 carved into the rocks. Some of them require steep ascents using small toe and footholds made smooth by centuries of priests climbing their walls and others are more easily accessible. While their development is disputed, most historians place their construction between the 9th and 15th centuries. With moderate infrastructure and some long hikes, this area and its treasures requires several days to explore, but unfortunately we had only one so we had to be selective.

The nicest church that we explored included a drive down a dusty track which wound through the countryside including crossing the schoolgrounds while the children came running from every direction in glee. Next up a small school with no buildings where the children sat outside under the trees with a blackboard set up on one side. We were impressed with their discipline as we shot pictures of them and they stayed quite still, listening to their teacher.

The Medhane Alem Kesho church required a short 10 minute climb and then a wait for the priest to come with the key. Carved into the rock and including frescoes which we lit up by candlelight, the church was a marvel. Arched doors and carved ceilings added to the mood and ducking to get in through the front door was just part of the experience! Outside pilgrims were camped to worship there and receive holy water. They had walked very far for this privilege.

For us too, it was a privilege to be in the company of something so old and finely hewn. During our long drive back we thought about the country and what it had been like in that time of splendor. It seemed in juxtaposition to the realities of today, but things are changing for this wonderful country. We hope that they continue to for the better.

So on Xmas Eve, we wish you Merry Xmas and Season's Greetings from Ethiopia. Enjoy some turkey for us!

Allison and Kurt

PS - Still taking over 15 minutes to download photos so unfortunately can't add too many more. Will try again at our next town, but expect we will have to wait until Addis to see anything that resembles higher speed!


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