January 15-18, 2009
On January 15 we left Debark heading north. The first bus took us as far as Shire, and from there we hopped on another bus to Aksum.
The first part of the ride was over a twisty road on the edge of a mountain. If you were on the “good” side of the bus, you had a view of a several hundred foot drop straight down. The Italians built this road when they occupied Ethiopia in the late 1930’s. It was supposed to be a temporary road, to be replaced by something better, but it’s still the only road connection north of Debark.
We reached Debark after dark and checked into the Africa Hotel.
Pnina and I took a couple of cheap MP3 players along on the trip: Sandisk’s Sansa m250. We loaded them with a bunch of tracks before leaving Seattle. We brought one audiobook, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that we described on our reading list page. We brought a whole bunch of NPR podcasts, mostly This American Life and Selected Shorts. And we also brought some podcasts from the TED conference. We didn’t know much about TED before starting our trip, but these talks turned out to be really great. The TED conference started back in 1986. The concept was to bring together people from technology, education, and design, and to have each presenter discuss his area of expertise. The motto is “ideas worth spreading”. Since then the conference has grown to include various other topics and the caliber of speakers keeps increasing (e.g. Al Gore, Bill Gates, etc.).
One of the best talks we heard so far was by a guy named Dave Eggers; we heard it on the way north to Aksum. I encourage everyone to listen to the talk, but here’s a synopsis. Dave was a writer from San Francisco bumming around in NYC. He noticed that a lot of his teacher friends were working overtime – they just couldn’t find enough time to give their students the kind of one-on-one attention that has been shown to improve grades. Meanwhile he and his writer friends had flexible schedules and were looking for a way to help their communities. So, when he went back to San Francisco he decided to create a space for his writer friends to mix with students who needed help. He leased a building and organized it such that one half was space for writers and editors working on several publications, and another half was a workshop where students could get free help. The trick is that the zoning laws in the area required him to have some kind of customer-facing business in the building, so as a kind of joke he decided to open a pirate supply store – eye patches, parrots, planks-by-the-foot, that kind of thing. Long story short, his student workshop is now a huge success and the concept is being replicated in other parts of the country. In the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle there’s a Greenwood Space Travel store, which again is mostly a front for a writing workshop. We definitely want to check that out when we get back from the trip.
Monuments from the Aksumite Kingdom
This city, Aksum, was once the capital of an empire that lasted from the 200’s to the 600’s. In its peak it included large parts of today’s Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djubuti, parts of Sudan, and even parts of the Arabian peninsula. Today people come to Aksum to see the monuments left from that period.
The most famous monuments are a set of huge stone columns called stelae. There’s a main stelae “field” that has the biggest and most impressive stelae, one that resemble the Washington Monument in shape (but smaller, more intricate, and made of a single stone). And there are other fields with a bunch of less interesting stelae (all smaller, some unfinished). The main stelae field also has pretty good, small museum that explains the history of the aksum kingdom.
When Italy occupied Ethiopia in the 1930’s it looted one of the bigger stelae and transfered it to one of the town squares in Rome. When Italy was defeated in 1941, part of the surrender agreement was that Italy must return all stolen treasures to their countries. But Italy didn’t get around to returning this stelae to Ethiopia until just last year, when Ethiopia celebrated the year 2000 (according to its calendar).
Aksum also has a few old tablets with inscriptions in three languages, kind of like the Rosetta Stone. These tablets describe military conquests of Aksumite kings, and they are written in Sabean, Greek, and Ge’ez.
There are a few other monuments – a big bath called Queen Sheba’s bath, some tombs, and some old buildings. They are not as impressive but still interesting.
The Ark of the Covenant
The story goes that Queen Sheba, who ruled Ethiopia millenia ago, traveled to Israel where she met King Solomon. Before returning to Ethiopia she became pregnant with King Solomon’s son. When this son grew up, he too traveled to Israel to meet his father. One his way back he was escorted by leaders of the 12 Jewish tribes. Little did he know that these leaders could not bear to part with the ark of the covenant (i.e. the cabinet containing the original 10-commandment tablets), so they brought it along with them. The ark stayed in Ethiopia and today it’s housed in one of the buildings at the St Mary of Zion church complex in Aksum.
Is the story true? Unfortunately it’s difficult to tell. There is only one person, a monk, who has access to the building that contains the ark – he goes in every day. When this monk nears the end of his life he will have a dream where god will tell him the name of the next monk caretaker. We have to wonder what it’s like to be named the new caretaker. Would you look in the box? What if it doesn’t contain anything? Would that shatter your beliefs?
Anyhow, the Saint Mary complex includes a huge new church, an old church, the ark building, and some burrial sites. Women are not allowed to visit a large part of this complex so Pnina decided to skip it. I decided to go ahead, mostly to get as close as possible to the ark building. I ended up getting a little too close, indvertantly, and an armed guard escorted me back to the permitted area. I have to wonder if any visitor ever tried to make a dash for the building to see for himself if the ark is there.
By the way, outside of Aksum there are some other churches that are also interesting to visit. The one we heard about a lot is called Debra Damo. It’s one of the oldest churches in Ethiopia (maybe the oldest), but the real attraction is that to reach it you have to ascend a cliff using a rope (or be pulled up). Unfortunately it’s another one of those places that don’t allow women, so we decided to skip it.
On certain days Aksum plays host to a large market in a large open ground. Most of the vendors just spread a blanket on the ground for their good – few of them have a stand let alone a store. There’s a big mix of stuff: spices, vegetables, fruit, camels, donkeys. We saw long rows of women who traveled to Aksum from their villages just to sell a single chicken!
Pnina and I had to get back to Addis quickly in order to catch our next flight (to Cairo). Since travel by road in Ethiopia is so impossibly slow, we realized that we would either have to give up one of the sights (e.g. Simian Mountains), or else splurge on a flight. We decided on the latter. The flight from Aksum back to Addis cost about $150 each but it was worth it – instead of three or four days on the road we had 45 minutes in the air. We spoke with other travelers who said they did all their getting around in Ethiopia by air.