04 April 2007

In the Northern Country

St. George's Church in Lalibela

"I freely admit to having been seduced by the charm of traditional Amhara life. Played out by an extraordinary handsome people, in a setting of great natural beauty and a climate often called idyllic, it offers a gate through time to a state of being that is richly medieval. Such sights and sounds. A minstrel singing his subtle lyrics as he bows a one-stringed fiddle; in the dark interiors of church, barefoot deacons holding beeswax candles and swinging vessels of smoking incense, the pomp of a nobleman moving cross country with his crowded entourage; a young girl washing the feet of her fathers guest; warriors boasting with their martial chants; the stately rhythms of clergy chanting and dancing under the mid-day sun; the open marketplace, offering all manner of livestock, grain, and spices; the counsel of an elder, resolving a dispute; the simple dignity of the bow when two men meet."
Donald Levine's 1965 Wax and Gold

Aksum was the seat of the most advanced African dynasty from the 3rd c. BC until the 9th c. AD
Lalibela was the capital of Ethiopia during the Zagwe Dynasty (the Usurpers who stole the throne) from 1137-1270.
Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia for 200 years starting in the 17th c.

We visited these three places on our 6 day trek. It was a return to medieval times, an adventure into the neolithic era. People were farming with plows that have not been changed in 1500 years. The utter absence of industrialization is worth the trip alone. Gondar and Aksum would be better as day trips, but Lalibela, "the New Jerusalem" is a two day visit to see it all. The rock hewn churches are not simply carved into rock, they are completely free standing constructions freed from rock. Photography was difficult because of Unesco's hideous scaffolding. We took a mule ride up a mountain to see Ashetan Maryam, a monastery from the 14th c. It was a 1400 meter climb.

The stelae field in Aksum is littered by massive and protrusive rocks, and this year in September, the Rome Stele is going to be re-erected for the year 2000. The stele is over 24 meters high and it is laying on its side after being returned from Rome in 2005 (Mussolini stole it in 1937). I can see why the stelae in Aksum are likened to the pyramids in Egypt.

You can imagine the look on people's faces when a group of 30 white people with dangling cameras walked anywhere. 6 days traveling as a tourist entourage has its way of complicating matters. We were a moving target for street solicitors and people selling pieces of "Lalibela's hair" or "Makeda's shoes." The kids underwent a massive bonding experience, and I look forward to teaching the kids in Term 3 with renewed enthusiasm. It was a rich and rewarding trip.

You can see some photos of the trip here.


No comments: