When I was growing up, I remember Ethiopia having a long run on the nightly news. Unfortunately newscasts all pointed to the grim. Newsreel images featured fly-ridden babies with distended bellies, drought-ruined landscapes and a ravaging famine made only worse by civil war.
Prior to our visit, we figured some distance between the Ethiopia of the 1980s and the Ethiopia of today — yet not quite to the extent we’d found. If our visit to Ethiopia proved nothing else, it proved this: though countries remain themselves at heart, they can emerge from perilous circumstances. When they do, stereotypes can slowly be cast aside and the historical, cultural and natural contours – which had always existed yet never been highlighted – can more clearly be revealed.
As we shared photos of unexpected castles, remarkable mountain landscapes, ancient churches and colorful plates of local food during our trip, readers would ask: “Is that really Ethiopia?”
Yes it is.
Our unpacking of our travels in Ethiopia begins with a few first yet lasting impressions of the country.
1. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Living History
Before our trip to Ethiopia, we were aware in a book sense that it was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity (in 330 A.D.). We did not imagine how pervasive and well-documented this historical vein would be, nor could we appreciate how much the country’s present would be connected with its past through ritual.
Whether they are rock-hewn or tucked far into the hills, Ethiopia’s churches often feature original paintings and frescoes from as much as 1000 years ago or more. Ancient texts and relics remain in use by today’s priests who bless all those willing by rubbing large ancient metal crosses over afflicted areas of the body.
In the Gheralta Mountains of Tigray province, churches were carved out of natural mountaintop caves as long ago as the fourth century. Why build so? The idea: hide your churches from invading armies while bringing yourself that much closer to heaven.
Climbs were steep then, just as they are now — even for young mothers who carry 40-day old babies on their backs in hopes of peak baptism.
As we followed a 78-year old monk around a cliff’s edge to the 6th century cave church of Daniel Korkor, we could imagine a staggered line of devout Ethiopians making that same journey, wrapped in the same white cotton cloth, over the course of hundreds of years.
Ethiopia feels very much like a case study in living history. An experience that is as much about feeling an energy as it is about seeing the relics and remnants of an ancient history.
2. Land of Legends
“The story goes…
Ethiopian history blends fact and myth almost seamlessly. (Some may even say shamelessly.)
So much of Ethiopia’s identity is connected to its history, a history passed on orally which traces its roots back four thousand years to the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant. For over a thousand years, Ethiopian kings claimed to be direct descendants of the line of Solomon, living connections between their country, its history, and the Holy Land.
Amidst all that, stories and legends circulate in a fog akin to a long-running historical version of the telephone game. Historians may argue as to the validity of any and all prevailing accounts, but as our guide suggested, “If you believe, then it is true to you. And we believe this is our heritage.”
Belief, it seems, trumps all.
3. Mountains and Desertscape Interactive
Until this visit, we never really considered Ethiopia for trekking and adventure, but our experiences in the Simien Mountains and Gheralta Mountains of Tigray set that straight.
Some of our most enjoyable moments and context: the Gheralta Mountains near the town of Hawzia in Ethiopia’s Tigray province. Not only does the area surprise and stun with its Utah-reminiscent red rock backdrop and outcroppings, but treks to 1500-year old cave churches like Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor leave no adrenaline untapped as they force challenging climbs up sheer sandstone walls and precarious walks along narrow cliffs.
Not for the faint of heart or for those unwilling to press deeply into their fear of heights.
4. Ancient Language, Ancient Civilization
In and around the ancient sites that make up the modern day northern town of Aksum, stone tablets dating back thousands of years will often be inscribed in three languages: Greek, Arabic, and Ge’ez, an ancient Semitic language that predates Ethiopia’s present-day regional languages. Giant stone obelisks stand, lean and have fallen. While most recognize the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Rome and Greece among the greats, few know of the similarly advanced Aksumite civilization which made its name in trade across the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia from 400 B.C. to 800 A.D.
It’s thanks to Ge’ez, a long-standing written language, that we now know so much about Ethiopia’s past.
All monks and priests are required to learn Ge’ez and services are still held in this ancient language. In the early hours of the morning, Ge’ez chants and melodies echo through the hills. Eerie, beautiful and sleep-challenging, especially during the high holidays.
With over 200 symbols, Ge’ez– a mesmerizing spaghetti of symbols to the uninitiated — now serves as the phonetic alphabet for Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
5. Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
There’s nothing more disappointing than a coffee-producing country that does not actively consume and appreciate what it grows. No worry of this in Ethiopia: they not only grow the beans, but they also carry a proficiency in roasting, so much so that coffee roasting seems a rite of passage for young women across the country. Unsurprising considering that Ethiopia’s Kaffa region is where coffee is said to have originated.
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is deliberate, a process that has been handed down through generations of Ethiopian women for centuries. It has an almost magical way of seeming to slow time, if not stop it altogether.
Coffee is central to Ethiopian life and pace. You’ll find coffee ceremonies taking place throughout the country in cafes, on street corners, in markets and most importantly in homes. Fronds and greens scattered on the ground, frankincense alight and in a pot, young green coffee beans roasting in a small pan over a charcoal stove, a delicate passing of water through the grounds until the ideal strength is achieved.
Coffee drinkers rejoice. All others, just behold.
6. Ethiopian Food
In our experience, Africa rarely garners an “Ooh, awesome food!” distinction. Ethiopian cuisine is an exception, one of the great cuisines of the world, I’d venture. In any event, it stands out against its neighbors with an array of rich and spicy stews.
Ask an Ethiopian the most important part of any meal and she’ll answer injera, the spongy, stretchy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia). Injera forms the foundation of every Ethiopian meal. You’ll often find a round of injera spread out like a natural platter atop which a variety of spicy stews made from lentils, meats and vegetables blended with spices blends like berbere (ground chilies mixed with upwards of 15-20 ingredients) are piled.
Although the presentation and flavor hints of an Indian thali, the Ethiopian table is very much unto itself.
We’ll reserve further comment on Ethiopian cuisine for now, as we have written a comprehensive guide on it, from how to eat it to why you should consider a deep dive during the vegetarian fasting season or avail yourself of its raw beef specialties during the remainder of the year.
7. Traditional Music and Eskista Shoulder Dancing
Think “dancing in Africa” and you might appropriately imagine hips and butts moving and shaking in ways that blow the mind of those not of the continent. But in northern Ethiopia, the shoulders and upper body are the stars of the dancing show in something called eskista.
Traditional night clubs usually feature a group of professional dancers, but even better than those are the impromptu “dance offs” between two club-goers who try to out-shoulder one another. The beat, the energy, the atmosphere — all superbly infectious.
Even we got into the act.
Next up to make the leap from local music to the world stage: Ethiopian.
8. Kids, Kids
Our bus pulls off for a potty break in bushes or trees (a “bush stop” in local travel parlance) in what most might consider the middle of nowhere Ethiopia. Even here, the children appear out of the woodwork, from the hills up, the valleys down.
Where do all the children come from?! I won’t bore you with a lesson as to how those children are conceived, but population estimates in Ethiopia hover around 95 million, with projections topping 120 million in the next 15 years or so. Staggering.
Note: Kids and pens? We have published another piece on the unfortunate practice of tourists indiscriminately giving pens and money to kids in developing countries — a practice that has slowly but surely “trained” them to beg.
9. Ethiopian Roads Overflow with Life
Much the world over, vehicles take first priority on the roads. Not so in Ethiopia.
From village lanes to full-fledged highways, the Ethiopian road is ruled by a fog of people, animals (sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, camels), lean-tos, funerals, weddings and more. Cars and buses get out of the way of what was happening on the street, not the other way around.If you remember the video game Frogger, this is the live version. One unfortunate result: road carnage. Heaps of tarp-draped remains of horrifying wrecks stand testament to a country coming to grips with the old ways of doing things converging with the unappreciated power of new vehicles on paved roads.
10. Market Days are Social Days
“Markets are not just for buying and selling. They perform an important social function. Most Ethiopians work in the fields, so market day is when people have a chance to meet, share news, and even find the person they will marry,” Fekadu, our guide, explained.
You can always tell market days in rural areas. For kilometers on end, roads are clogged even more so than usual with people from all neighboring villages carrying their goods to market – sheep, goats, wares, foodstuffs. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have to sell: any and all are clearly welcome.
And they’re coming.
Ethiopian traditional markets are sprawling affairs with goods arranged accordingly: all the peppers here, all the green coffee beans there, homeopathic treatment for the cows somewhere in an open field in the distance.
Beyond the sale, these markets bind this primarily agrarian society. They provide an essential social focal point — not just for the trade of goods, but for the trade in life.
And in Ethiopia, there’s certainly no shortage of that.