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Ethiopia Trip review by Ihab Zaki

 Ethiopia has always held a special place in my heart. I have always been intrigued by the spiritual nature and religious adherence to the sacred teachings by its people.  When the opportunity arose to join our group for a few days in January 2007 I didn’t have to think twice. I was pleased to join 9 of our loyal travelers whom I have known for many years to experience the colorful festivities of Timket, the Ethiopian Epiphany feast on the 19th of January. We traveled together on the Historic Route of the North to Axum and Lalibela. The past comes alive in these exotic towns and I enjoyed seeing the beautiful monuments and monolithic churches. I am convinced that Ethiopia is truly a land of discovery - brilliant and beautiful, secretive, mysterious and extraordinary!

I arrived midway through the trip, and had a day in Addis to recuperate after the long flight. Before joining the group in Axum I took in the sights of Addis, its commemorative squares and monuments, its palaces and the famous Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa. I was still too tired to do any shopping that day but was consoled by the fact that I would have time for some last minute “souvenir” shopping before leaving the country.

Next morning I flew to Axum, the northernmost point on the Historic Route, and joined my group. This is the supposed site of the Ark of the Covenant, purported to be in the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion. We had a delightful afternoon touring the field of granite stelae and the small museum before we joined the unique and colorful festivities for Timket. Our day in town was so calm and quiet, that I asked our guide Asrat if there would really be a festivity in this deserted place. Lo and behold, just a few hours later, the locals began flocking to town by the hundreds and in no time the squares and courtyard of the church were packed with several thousand worshipers. Everyone gathered waiting for the much-anticipated moment when the replica of the Ark would be transported from the church to a tent near the pool for the blessing of the waters. It was truly a memorable moment when all the priests dressed in the most brilliant robes, and magnificent crowns and hats began the procession, carrying beautiful metal and wooden crosses, and the replica of the Ark. The multitudes of chanting believers of all ages followed the procession to a tent where the whole congregation gathered around spilling on to the surrounding rocky hills. We were treated to a sermon and more chanting, which we did not understand but that did not prevent us from getting lost in the moment! We returned to our hotel to have our dinner accompanied by prayers and chants that continued throughout the night.  A spiritual backdrop that was the perfect ending to a remarkable day!

As morning dawned we were excited and ready to attend the ceremony at the pool followed by the blessing of the water. It was another beautiful day with temperatures in the upper seventies and lots of sunshine. Asrat was the usual wizard who knows people everywhere. This helped us to get seats in the front row, near the priests and monks.  Behind me, I glimpsed a sea of people, mostly locals of course but also many travelers who did not have an “Asrat” to give them the royal treatment we got!  The sermon was quite moving and the photo ops where endless. The priests marched to the pool and blessed the water, and suddenly a mob of young boys jumped into the pool from rather high elevations, naked and carrying plastic bottles and containers to be filled with the water. The locals use this water all year round to help heal the sick, mend the wounds and solve their problems. Despite the apparent unsanitary conditions of this water (covered with algae and other dubious looking layers of unmentionables) it was amazing to see the intensity of belief that the Ethiopians feel.

The following morning before heading to the airport to fly to Lalibela, the last city on our Historic Route of the North, we took a side trip across the majestic mountains around Axum to visit one of the oldest monuments in Ethiopia, the Temple of the Moon in Yeha.  Built in the 5th century BC, it is a very impressive edifice. Adjacent to it is a small museum cluttered with ancient manuscripts, jewels and crowns. I started kidding with my group about whether the museum keeper would be willing to sell me a few of these artifacts. It is amazing and disheartening to think of the amount of ancient relics in this country that are not well preserved or protected!

Upon arriving in Lalibela that afternoon, we had our first glimpse of one of the 11 rock-hewn churches built by King Lalibela more than 800 years ago. It was awe inspiring by all accounts. It gave me the same sense I got when my eyes first set sight on the Treasury building in Petra!  Lalibela actually competes with Petra for the title of the “Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World”. Like Petra, which is carved from solid red rock, the churches of Lalibela are also hewn from rock. The legend says that King Lalibela could have never finished all 11 of them in 24 years without the help of the angels that worked with him day and night. Indeed the carvings seem superhuman in scale, workmanship and concept. The next day we visited all of the churches, climbing to some and going into a complex and bewildering labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways to see others. Each church has its wealth of ancient handwritten bibles, ceremonial crosses and festival drums and in each one the priests were happy to pose for our photos while holding the original crosses given to their churches 800 years ago by King Lalibela. A few of the churches had beautiful interior frescos and carvings that were quite impressive and intricate as well.  I will always treasure the memory of this special day.

That evening I finally had my chance to stop at one of the local Internet cafes where I was able to get caught up with my email correspondence. I also found a place to download the photos from my digital card to a CD thus freeing up space for more pictures in the next few days that I had remaining in Ethiopia.  I must admit that the magic of the Timket Festival and the splendor of the rock churches of Lalibela kept my camera quite busy!

Next day we had to fly back to Addis in the morning but to our chagrin Ethiopian Airways had overbooked the flight (they are notorious for such mismanagement) and we had to spend a few extra hours at the airport waiting for the next one. Upon returning in Addis and settling in to our hotel, which was a great treat after the humble and simple hotels in the north, we gathered and went out for dinner at a local restaurant.  It was a last opportunity to partake of the local cuisine and to enjoy the excellent dance and musical groups that provided entertainment during our meal. All in all it was the perfect ending to our tour, and our group returned to the hotel, tired but filled with happy memories of our time in Ethiopia. The next morning we had a full day for shopping so we headed to the colorful Merkato where a few of us purchased some spices and straw plates.  Next we drove to a nearby section of town known for textiles and cloths. Here we indulged in buying beautiful tablecloths, bedspreads and linens. Finally, we visited an art gallery where I fell in love with several high quality crosses and carpets and I have to admit that I indulged my weakness!

That evening those of us who were returning to the US went to the airport to catch the flight that would begin our journey back to our hometowns. We left Ethiopia full of memories and exciting tales of an exotic land. A few of our group were extending their journey for 1 week to the southern part of he country to tour the Omo Valley. They left Addis in their 4x4 and headed down to Arba Minsh and Jinka where they would visit many of the local villages and see many of the indigenous tribes of the area.

My short trip was just a taste of what Ethiopia has to offer.  Besides Axum and Lalibela, the Historic Route of the North includes Gondar known as the “Camelot of Africa” because of the many fairy-tale castles that dot its landscape.  It stops in Bahar Dar, the source of the Blue Nile that joins with Uganda’s White Nile in the Sudan and flows through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. It is also home to the many remarkable monasteries scattered on the islands of Lake Tana.  For a contrast in climate and sights you may want to add the extension to the Omo Valley.

If you have always dreamed of visiting this enchanting and mysterious land but have yet to Experience Ethiopia, make plans to join us on one of our two departures listed. You won’t be disappointed.

Call me with any questions you may have - Ihab Zaki