4 mins

Ethiopia's cultural evolution

An insight into Ethiopia's festivals and traditions

Timkat umbrellas (gill_penney)

Let Lucy, at Addis Ababa’s National Museum, provide you with the distinctive bearings you’ll need for Ethiopia. Lucy is a pile of bones, neatly arranged. She lies under soft lights, a tiny, partial skeleton and a plaster cast one at that (her actual bones are kept in an adjoining room, under lock and key).

This 3.5 million-year-old hominid was discovered at a dig in Ethiopia’s Danakil region in 1974 and took her name from the Beatles song playing at the time she was unearthed: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. The Lucy display is something of a shrine for students of human evolution, but she can also be viewed by the general visitor as the original Ethiopian, fount of the country’s extraordinarily rich vein of tribal culture, religious lore and festivals, spawning, among other things, a memorable line in umbrellas.

One thing is certain about those whose sub-Saharan East Africa experiences are limited to Big Five encounters on safaris tours – they have clearly not been to Ethiopia. This little-visited country high in the Horn of Africa doesn’t really do wildlife safaris very much; the visitor emphasis is instead pointedly human – excessively so, some might say. And on the basis that there’s much to be said for starting as you should expect to go on – it seemed like excellent sense to call on the oldest local of them all.

With its tribal and linguistic wealth – there are some 83 languages in Ethiopia and as many distinctive tribal groups – and its living Orthodox heritage, Ethiopia is the region’s premier cultural destination by miles. Albeit long, dusty and largely undeveloped miles, milling with the poor and the sick – the distressing legacy of, among other things, famine,dictatorship, war and, most recently, a second conflict with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.

The subdued lighting and awed silence surrounding Lucy may have been soothing, but the Ethiopian norm was something else completely, and entering the tropical glare and clamour of Addis Ababa’s 20km2 Merkato is the best way to experience it. Africa’s largest open-air market is a city in its own right, where goods of every description are not only sold and exchanged but made, repaired, recycled or even invented from objects intended for quite different uses.

Metalsmiths were cutting and welding, turning catering cans into braziers, and young boys were cutting old inner tubes into strips which they nailed across bed frames in a bouncy woven base (after our long flight and the headache-inducing effects of Addis Ababa’s 2,400m altitude, I confess they looked quite comfortable). One alleyway was temporarily blocked by a landslide from a neighbouring mountain of yellow jerrycans.

Wires, coils and pieces of chassis protruded from a scrap metal yard which threatened to overwhelm a small tailor’s shop. There were heaps of spices and frankincense, chickens and sacks of green coffee beans and cavernous clothes halls. A whole street was devoted to chat, the sedative privet which is the chew of choice among the country’s Muslim minority. The pavement was piled high with shiny green leaves, and slack jaws and glazed eyes were glimpsed in dark interiors.

Hawkers, beggars and the lame lined the street leading to the Holy Trinity Cathedral creating a cacophony of pleading and pitching. The hawkers were selling everything from chickpeas and trinkets to the bright umbrellas which are an essential accessory of Ethiopian religious festivals, not least Timkat, which we were to witness during our stay.

The umbrella commemorates a defining belief of Ethiopian Orthodoxy; that the Ark of the Covenant was removed from Jerusalem and brought to Ethiopia, to the northern city of Aksum, under a protective canopy of umbrellas carried by 12,000 falashas, or Ethiopian Jews. The Timkat umbrellas were available in a variety of colours including royal blues, racing greens and pinks. They were made from velvet stitched over golfing umbrellas, and covered in gilt braid, sometimes in the outline of Jesus Christ, and we wanted one. “Wait till after Timkat,” our wily guide Daniel advised us, when, like Easter eggs, the price would plummet.

Inside the Cathedral, communicants kissed the walls, and wizened hands clasped the great texts of Ethiopian Orthodoxy: The Miracles of the Martyrs and The Miracles of Each Day. The aged and the blind lay on the floor, hands outstretched for alms. The air was sickly with frankincense. People kissed the wooden surround containing the sepulchres of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie and his wife.

Selassie was reburied here in 2000, 25 years after being murdered and hastily interred in an unsavoury setting alongside a public toilet.

We drove north into the Entoto Mountains, purportedly for the views over the city. But an endless procession of women bent beneath loads of incongruous eucalyptus wood served sobering notice of the country’s continuing poverty and also reminded me how these fast-growing trees had been introduced en masse in the 19th century as a solution to the firewood shortage – the highland north is littered with former capitals – Gonder, Lalibela, Aksum – abandoned for reasons of depleted local wood stocks, as much as imperial preference.

Aksum, a flight away in the country’s far north, was the capital of a pre-Christian empire stretching through East Africa and parts of Arabia. Young men played al fresco ping-pong or table football, disturbing tableaux which were medieval in every other respect; women washing clothes at the riverbank, the roads heavy with animal traffic and invalids on shoulder-borne wooden biers.

Aksum clusters around a remarkable thicket of some 75 vertical memorial stones, or stelae, huge 2,000-year-old monuments to imperial power. The largest stele, weighing 500 tons and measuring over 33m, has long since fallen, as if the diminished town, top heavy with history, could no longer support the world’s greatest man-made monolith.

The road was fringed with lilac-flowering jacarandas; occasional vehicles pushed their way between streams of working camels and donkeys. We crossed to a compound where three churches in different stages of preservation clustered around a nondescript building, a forbidden sanctuary behind high railings where the Ark of the Covenant was supposedly kept. A procession of gorgeously bedecked priests passed beneath a canopy of umbrellas, and the Ark’s guardian, the only living man to have seen it, briefly appeared in the sanctuary entrance draped in a yellow cloak, only to disappear into the shadows with his secret.

A long day’s drive along a broken but exhilarating road through the jagged peaks of the Simien Mountains brought us to Gonder. An imperial capital between the 17th and 19th centuries, Gonder was renowned for its 44 churches, and though many of these have since disappeared, the town is still top-rated for Timkat, the three-day religious festival which is the peak of the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar. At the church of Debre Birhan Selassie, built in the 1690s and famous for its exquisite frescoes – notably the ceiling composed of hundreds of angelic faces – Father Taklahaimanot, who has been with the parish for ten years, talked us through Timkat.

“Timkat commemorates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, by John the Baptist,” he explained. “It’s also a street celebration,” he smiled, “as well as a chance to find future wives and husbands.” He pointed out the church’s curtained-off inner sanctuary where the tabots, sacred replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, were traditionally kept. “On Timkat Eve, the tabots are taken from their sanctuaries in all the churches and carried in sacred procession to a place of all-night prayers. At Timkat dawn, believers gather to be baptised again.”

We thus found ourselves in an animated afternoon crush – composed of old men carrying horsehair fly switches, ululating women, young bucks and smiling girls – which pressed close to the retinue of priests and cloth-covered tabots. Brass horns and drums sounded, and above us bobbed a sea of umbrellas, some carrying gold braid crosses on purple velvet panels, others emblazoned with Ethiopian Airlines and the names of local soap brands. The procession made its way to the ceremonial pool of Emperor Fasiladas, fringed by giant fig trees, where the holy tabots and the attendant priests began a prayer vigil that would last until dawn.

We returned in the early hours when ghostly, white-swathed crowds congregated on the steep-sided pool and gathered along its sides. And as the light slowly thickened, church choirs formed, swayed and began to chant and clap, beating their hide drums and shaking their sistras (steel rattles). A hammerkop bird swooped through the trees and perched on a roof above the crowd, which packed ever tighter round the pool’s edge, anticipating the moment.

The robed patriarch arrived at the pool to address his people. When he was done, he emerged from a cloud of incense and shakily descended some steps to the water’s edge. He lit a cross-shaped frame of candles which he pushed out across the water. For a moment, the cross was perfectly reflected before the still pool was shattered by the first wave of celebrants hitting the water. Those who could not reach the pool stretched out, feeling the spray of baptism on their faces.

After all that divine tumult, rural Ethiopia spread out around us as we drove south towards Lake Tana; we passed men winnowing teff, the local grain, or trampling cattle hides to a gradual softness by the roadside. Carmine bee-eaters and iridescent flocks of superb starlings perched on the wires, while abandoned armoured tanks at the roadside served as reminders of the war that ended in 1991 with Eritrea’s independence.

We came to Tis Isat (also known as Tis Abay), near Lake Tana, the waterfall on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile which James Bruce, 18th-century explorer and traveller, described as “a magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not efface or eradicate from my memory”. He had a point: the very trees seemed to shake, disturbing black-headed siskins which flew off in search of more stable perches, as the thundering river fell some 45m over a wide shelf. It threw up a great cloud of spray as it squeezed into a gorge so tight that the water seemed to compress and turn livid grey, embarking on a great arc through Ethiopia before turning west and then north for Egypt.

From the air, Lalibela looked lost in a sea of brown eroded ramparts. These remote mountains are home to one of the world’s unacknowledged wonders, a collection of closely packed churches which are less buildings than unique religious carvings on a grand scale, architectural scrimshaw apparently inspired by a king’s religious vision 850 years ago. Cut from the terracotta rock, inside and out, the monolithic churches stand in deep trenches below ground, precisely mimicking conventionally constructed churches.

We reached Bet Giorgis or St George’s Church, the most impressive of all 13 churches, by means of a long ramp which brought us to the portals. As we stepped inside, a priest emerged from the inner sanctuary. He wore a purple and yellow cassock, a stiff velvet hat and dark glasses, and held a gold cross. Around him lay standing sticks (crutches to support communicants through services which are said to last up to six hours), ceremonial drums and ancient holy books made from goatskin and written in Ge’ez, the old language of the church.

This was no museum, rather a place of continuous worship for the best part of a millennium, and some of us put away our cameras. But as we left the churches, a collective moan gathered strength to greet us. A narrow passageway opened into an al fresco courtyard where beggars awaited – blind and crippled, young and old, and we returned to the real world via an aisle of outstretched hands.

On our last day, we stopped in the centre of Addis Ababa and Daniel led us to a booth at the entrance to a church. Its interior was an explosion of violent colours resembling a sultana’s boudoir and it was a moment before we realised what it was; a shop crammed full of Timkat umbrellas.

When to go: The best time to go is between September (just after the wet season, when it’s very lush) and June (when the rains begin again), which coincides with the major religious festivals – Ethiopian Christmas in December, and Timkat in January. Expect dry, sunny days with chilly nights in Addis Ababa and the northern Highlands, but much hotter conditions in the south.

Health and safety: Violent crime is rare in Ethiopia, but pickpocketing is quite common around city markets and bus stations. Expect plenty of hassle however – children yelling and crowds of beggars congregating wherever tourists are present. The Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad recommends the following innoculations: polio; tetanus; typhoid; hepatitis A; hepatitis B and meningococcal meningitis. Yellow fever is also advised as you may be refused admission to the country without a certificate. Most visitors to the north may occasionally drop down into a malarial zone, at Bahar Dar for instance, but few of them take anti-malarials, especially if they are visiting between December and March. Stomach upsets are common. Avoid salads, ice and tap water.

Cultural considerations: Visitors should dress modestly (shoulders and knees covered). Women are not permitted entry to most of Lake Tana’s monasteries (unless there is a separate prayer room for them).

Wildlife considerations: Ethiopia is not primarily a wildlife destination but there are interesting endemic animals, particularly in the Simien and Bale Mountains National Parks. These include the endangered Simien wolf and the gelada baboon. Ethiopia also has a remarkable range of bird life.

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