Mindful that other people’s travel stories are sometimes less interesting than their narrator imagines, nevertheless I should like to share some impressions of my visit to Ethiopia.
My first and overwhelming memory is that of a beautiful country with gentle and hospitable people. Mountains, plateaux, deep valleys, rock pillars rising from the plain, all create a variegated landscape. It was fairly arid where we travelled, but not desert. Rain is scarce, but there were some streams and river-beds with a flow of water, even though many were dry, awaiting the rainy season. It was my first experience of the tropics, with sunrise at 6.30 am and (often spectacular) sunset at 6.30 pm. There was a rich variety of animal and bird life, many of the latter brilliantly-coloured and with captivating song.
Ethiopia is one of the few African countries to have escaped European colonisation, although it experienced Italian occupation immediately prior to World War 2. It has a proud and fascinating history, with extraordinary buildings and artefacts from different epochs: the palaces and stelae at Axum; round monastic churches with colourful iconography on the walls; the royal palaces within the citadel at Gonder; the pools for the celebration of Timkat (Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ); cave churches and the remarkable monolithic churches of Lalibela, carved underground out of the rock.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the most ancient Christian churches, founded in the fourth century by Bishop Frumentius, sent from Alexandria. Its theology, liturgy and practice have retained more resonances with Judaism than have ours in the West, in part from the definitive legend of the relationship between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The Ark of the Covenant, with the Tablets of the Law, is held in special honour, and each church has a replica of it in the Holy of Holies. Over 50% of Ethiopia’s 100 million people are Orthodox Christians, and churches are well attended. On the Feast of Timkat, large and joyful processions closed the main streets of several towns through which we wished to pass! Historically and still today relationships between Christian and Muslim are good, communities living harmoniously together: long may this continue, and be an example to the wider world of “a more excellent way.”
Outside urban areas, subsistence farming is the way of life. We were privileged to be welcomed into the home of a Tigraian farmer and his family. Through better management, hard work, and with some foreign aid, the devastating famines of some decades ago have been avoided, but it is a basic standard of living. The staple diet is injera, a soft flatbread made from an indigenous grain, teff.
More could – and may! – be said. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit this fascinating country: it has been an enriching experience. Refreshed and renewed, I now look forward to my new role here at St James’.