Ethiopia’s Northern Historical Circuit – Part Two

July 7th – Axum

A visually stunning yet interminable 12 hour bus ride through the Simien Mountains started off with us arguing with a bus terminal employee at 5:15 in the morning when we were shuffled off one bus and onto another, only to find that the only available seats were in the dead last row where we had less than 12” of legroom. Once underway, though, up, up, up we went, traversing a series of laughably steep mountains, often with just a few precious inches between us and a several hundred meter precipice. The bus driver was suitably cautious, although we would have preferred he spend less time on his cell phone, especially while navigating the hairpin turns of the never-ending switchbacks. The farmland was brown and the oxen and plows were out in expectation of the coming rain. Again, trees were scarce.

In the height of the afternoon, we passed two immense refugee encampments, a result of the on again off again Eritrean conflicts, no doubt. These settlements had been dropped by whoever decides such things smack dab in the middle of the least promising land we’d yet seen in Ethiopia. No surprise. For a few minutes as we rumbled through, all the passengers became tourists, turning their heads to gawk, and perhaps ponder their own good fortune. At least I did.

Other sights included several wrecked and rusted tanks, some camel trains and vistas that for some reason looked Egyptian to me, all of which confirmed we were now in North Africa.

CeCe contemplated attempting the remainder of the circuit on camel. The asking price is 5000 birr ($450). However, shipping cost back to the States might be prohibitive and she’s doubtful Milo will appreciate a new stepbrother.

July 9th – Axum

Who’d have thought that remote (to today’s world at least) Ethiopia would boast such a wealth of 2,000+ year old historic sights? Today we saw most of them. We picked up a young guide who had a passion for the place, an enduring interest in archaeology but no formal education in the subject, and an Eritrean father living in the refugee camp we rumbled past yesterday. Both dad and son dream of America. For today, though, he showed us the sights for the princely sum of $15.

Among the highlights included a delicately carved stele newly returned from Rome and the Great Stele, an absolutely mammoth edifice that perhaps never stood upright and lies in several pieces on the ground now, but was stupefying simply due to the audacity to those who dreamt it up. We descended into one tomb, excavated some years ago, but unbelievably 95% of the area remains unresearched and unexcavated and little or no academic work is currently underway.

After pausing for lunch, we tuk-tukked to a ruined but grand Dunger Palace, surrounded by cornfields aching for rain. Small finds of ancient treasure are still being made there with regularity, often by local farmers. In just a few minutes our guide located two small ancient stone beads lying about and the sight’s teenage caretaker tried to sell us a 1,500 year old Axumite coin for $20, price negotiable of course. It was tiny, beautiful and tempting, but unethical and illegal.

The afternoon’s rambles brought us past a series of tombs, obelisks and palaces. But no visit to Axum would be complete without paying respects to St. Mary of Zion Church, whose compound allegedly contains the fabled Ark of the Covenant. We couldn’t see it of course, upon penalty of immolation. But we loitered about hoping for a revelation. We got a rainstorm instead.

July 10th – Mekele

I ate some bad tibs and spent my first afternoon in Mekele with a raging headache. The tibs encounter came at a random restaurant next to a bus station some distance beyond Axum which we had left groggily at 6 am. The ups, downs and switchbacks started early and never really stopped for the duration of the 7+ hour bus ride. By the time we reached our destination the bus floor was covered with regurgitated injera. (I was reacquainted with my tibs later on in the privacy of our hotel room.) To make matters worse we were subjected to an irritating inquisition from the young man next to us: “Is it true that Michael Jackson will be buried on Mars?” and “I’ve heard that white people can’t see at night. True?”

But true to form, this part of Ethiopia was as beautiful as the rest: the vistas impressive, the landscape desolate. Rains are late in coming this year and we’ve been told that Abyssinian Orthodox congregations lately have been praying together each morning for rain.

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