Tigray

OK, I’m writing this in chunks offline and will post it once back in Addis. I have also had massive problems getting the photos to appear inline, something I’ll try and fix one day when I’m back where the internet connection is more reliable. Here goes, in date order:

Wednesday 4th August

It is really striking looking out of the window during a flight over Ethiopia how few roads there are. Actually, I mean asphalted roads. Leading north from Addis, there are basically two. Lots of tracks, dirt roads, gravel tracks, and so on, but two major roads. One heads northwest to Bahir Dar and Gonder; the other leads directly north, eventually reaching Mekelle after a very long day’s travel that all the guidebooks say you are better breaking in two. I was looking forward to glueing myself to the window and enjoying the scenery, but as it happened the clouds rolled in and the next sight I got of land was Gondar airport. Gondar is famous for its castles, built with Portuguese help in the late 16C onwards, and it is also a major stop on the 3000km tourist route of the northern highlands. All the airport buildings (actually, I mean both the airport buildings) have crenellated battlements on top, including the control tower. Not the most obvious candidate for mock-castle decoration, but the effect is kinda cute. And since I didn’t get out of the plane, that’s about all I have to say about Gondar.

We fly on to Axum over the Simien mountains, which are geologically epic – lush green slopes with enormous chunks gouged out of them by rivers, leaving the eye unable to gauge their size from the window of the plane. As we approach Tigray the mountains are noticeably drier and redder in patches, though the epic scale of features remains. The trip I am going on for the next three days is with Tesfa, who run sustainable community tourism treks. It was started by an Englishman called Mark Chapman a few years ago. The idea is this: Tesfa provides finance and training for local communities to build lodges that can then be used by guided groups as they travel on foot through less accessible parts of Tigray. The training covers practical issues as well as cultural ones, including covering misapprehensions and misunderstandings about faranji, what they like, why they come to Ethiopia, and so on. The trekkers pay for their accommodation and guiding at an agreed inclusive price – therefore no begging, no haggling, and no hassling for extra money. This price is perhaps high by some standards locally, but it is fair and enough so that tipping and haggling for more money is not necessary. After some time, the communities are able to pay back the initial capital, and Tesfa ideally then steps back and allows them to run the lodges themselves. This means that over time an increasing slice of their profits can be used exactly as the community agrees, for whatever improvement work they deem fit. This model has been run successfully for the last several years in Wolo, near Lalibela. The organisation has now just set up in Tigray. We (two geography teachers from the UK called Jane and Tara, and Jane’s husband John – Tara is also a VSO volunteer in Ambo, some way south of Addis) are only the second group to go through the Tigray trek.

Berhe and Mulat, the Tesfa guides, pick me up from the airport and we have a long drive over a Chinese-built road of excellent quality, from Axum to Adigrat. Sandstone mountains with flat tops (Ambas, in Tigrinya) rise from rocky plains with dry stone terracing. Everything in between the mountains is surprisingly green. It looks as though there is no cultivation but this is until you notice people working in the fields. Even in remote-seeming areas such as the one where we stopped for a breather, people appear from nowhere to stare at the faranji. We are reminded of the dangerousness of the road by a stricken lorry that has gone off the road in an area with numerous switchback hairpins.

After lunch in Adigrat and a brief pause to think our way around the non-appearance of our baggage donkeys (we decide to carry the bags), we set off into the mountains. We rise slowly at first, crossing dried water courses that literally cut their way across soft, sandy ground. In places the gullies and gorges are 5m deep. The path is surrounded by fields of maize, barley, and tef (the local grain from which injera is made). There are aloe plants aplenty, sanseverria, and great clumps of cactus, which bear a fruit called beles that looks quite like a spiky, larger kiwi fruit, though they are green and ripen to yellow and orange. As we start to rise higher a farmer appears from nowhere with a bucket of beles and peels some for all of us. It is delicious – lurid red flesh, like a cross between watermelon and guava, juicy, and with masses of unchewable seeds. We are to encounter this kind of generosity numerous times over the coming three days – a form of hospitality, perhaps, or a welcome and a gift for travellers walking a long path? Mulat tells me that this is quite normal.

The ground rises sharply and we reach the edge of an amba. Till now we have skirted them but we are going to climb this one head-on. I start to feel the altitude, first feeling short of breath and then gasping for it, my lungs struggling to get enough oxygen. The effect is strange – I can feel fine climbing in a rhythm, unaware how knife-edge my oxygen balance is, until I make three big steps up unusually large rocks, and then have to stop. When I do, it is impossible to get your breath pack, and I heave and pant obscenely with my hands on my knees. Eventually we reach the top, and meet a group of Tigrayan women who have climbed the other side bent double under large firewood bundles. It is damp, cloudy, and raining, and they are wrapped in gabbis and carrying umbrellas. As I sweat heavily into my gore-tex, I cannot help but feel I have the wrong gear with me, and too much of it. We descend and Berhe encouragingly tells us that the lodge is close. Not before another climb, though, and by the time we reach it I am so puffed that the food we are welcomed with is unpalatable, dry. I chew endlessly and cannot swallow, and crave water.

The lodge at Endabahitsuts, though, is worth the wait. Set at the join where another amba turns from incline to cliff, the building has been done with local stone. Three bedrooms, a ‘restaurant’ and a spartan bucket-shower room surround a walled yard; climb the stairs to the roof and you can admire the view, though not now because it is cloudy and nearly completely dark. I must also mention the toilet – a lidded wooden-commode affair, with a shuttered hole in the wall so that you can contemplate the view while about your business. I eat slowly and reluctantly, drink three bottles of fizzy mineral water, and then sleep.

Thursday 5th August

Tigray is famous for its rock-hewn churches. It was once thought that there were only 12 of these, but now more than 100 are known, and more are being found. They vary in style, location and accessibility – for some, such as the monastery of Debre Damo, you need to climb cliffs using a leather rope dangled down by the monks – but the church of Yesus Guhagot, which we go to before breakfast this morning, is more mundane, though no less spectacular. It merely involves another lung-bursting climb to the bottom of a cliff from the valley floor. It is set across two valleys from our lodge, and we set off at 6.15am to get there before the morning service. The priest does not allow photos, but I took one from a safe distance and also have some of the view across the valley, which is dramatic to say the least.

It is very difficult to know how old these churches are. Local tradition places them all in the initial years of Christianity in Tigray (ie. pre-7th century), but guidebooks and scholars differ, and there is the added complication that paintings have been added later. Some may pre-date Christianity, and have been in some form of use before, and then adapted. Some have fantastic stories of their creation; in one place, a story is told about nine mountains fighting each other for the honour of hosting the church, with the winner plonking itself down, fully formed, after victory. In another, the churches are hollowed out by ascetic monks using only a bull’s horn. What is authentically old is the monk who comes around with us; he says he is 78 and has been at the church for 56 years. The priests, who do not live a withdrawn, hermetic life, instead being married, living in local villages, and who are responsible for the pastoral needs of their communities (as opposed to the monks, who are pure contemplatives) are similarly wizened and weather-beaten, though they still out-climb me and the other faranjis by a factor of ten. When we are inside the church, one priest squints at an ancient-looking Ge’ez bible in the half-light from a window high above in the rock, uninterested in the paintings we are being shown. Not for the first time, I am left feeling I have stepped back in time, to an age when religion was quasi-magical, with incantations in a near-forgotten language, icons, illiteracy, and the impulse to withdraw from worldly concerns. At the base of the slope to the Church, a circle of women chants and bows in motion. Berhe tells us they are praying for rain.

Back at the lodge we breakfast and say our goodbyes. The man in charge is so delighted with our payment that he fans the money out like a hand of playing cards for a photo. All in all it has the Christmas-morning feeling of something shiny and new, and I feel lucky to be coming through so early during Tesfa’s presence here.

The women’s prayers earlier must have worked, because rain comes. When it rains here there is occasionally the sort of half-hearted stuff that can spoil a summer day in England, but mostly you get full-on walls of water, the sort of deluge that induces you to run to the nearest roof and get well underneath it. Its accompaniment makes me appreciate for the first time the description ‘rolling’ thunder; it starts behind us, amplified and reflected by cliffs on either side, taking its time to circle lazily around. Each peal lasts for ten, even fifteen seconds. Twice we shelter in local farmers’ houses – more freely given hospitality. In each case we knock on a door and then walk through a yard with bedraggled cows, donkeys, sheep, and hens, and then join a family in a dark, damp room with a packed mud floor. In each case they fetch goatskins for us to wear and we struggle to find places to hang our raincoats, bags, cameras, and other detritus. The first such room contains maybe eight people from three, possibly four generations. A clay wood burner offers little warmth but it is pushed towards us and filled with fresh sticks; it fills the room, which has no ventilation, with acrid, eye-stinging smoke. We are offered toasted maize, and tella, a local beer made from barley that resembles muddy water with a dollop of chopped hay, served in an old USAid vegetable oil tin. I am suddenly overcome by something resembling guilt, as I sit in my new walking shoes, gore-tex raincoat, and bag filled with cameras and guidebooks, being offered food and warmth by people whose wordly possessions, animals excepted, would probably fit in my backpack. I dig inside my bag and share the biscuits I brought from Addis. In the second house, my supplies gone, I curse myself for not buying more. It seems inappropriate to take photos in someone’s house, but a man from the first house poses for a photo outside and looks delighted with the result.

Eventually we approach another amba, and I simply cannot see a way to the top. It rises to 3,200 metres, and scrambling up the near-vertical ascent I feel like I will fade away. I stop for breath every twenty, then every ten metres, but the reward is an awe-inspiring view from the top, and a brief pause in the rain as the cloud clears and the sun comes out over our picnic of fig rolls, tuna and crackers, and ginger nuts, which the others produce from their bags. I struggle to contain my ravenous thirst. The surprise is the enormous size of this plateau – what seemed a peak is in fact a vast tabletop, literally above the clouds, with more fields, more farms, more houses, and more children who appear from nowhere to watch the rare and riveting sight of faranji eating their lunch.

We cross this amba, slithering from foot to foot on gloopy, muddy paths. Dogs bark their warnings as we approach their houses; Berhe and Mulat pick up stones, which is usually enough to reduce them to surly growling from a safe distance. I am struck by the overwhelming feeling of having travelled backwards through time; save for the occasional plastic container, or the ringing of Berhe’s mobile phone, the houses, the oxen, the wooden ploughs all have an ancient, universal quality. A woman chases us and offers us heavy, stodgy dry injera that is thicker and sturdier than the usual. It is impossibly filling and I put some in my pocket for later.

Eventually we descend through the mist on a steep path, and as the cloud clears we reach a hand-carved tunnel that was apparently cut in the third century; it is 50m long and bisects a thin ridge, saving half a day’s walking. We then climb again, and as the cloud parts the sun comes out, warming and welcome. At the top awaits an unbelievable view; we are at the top of a cliff perhaps 250m high on one side, with endless terraces and dry stone houses fading down below until the eye cannot focus on the sea of green land, cultivated yet bearing none of the accustomed marks of human presence – roads, telegraph poles, incongruous houses made from non-local materials.

We climb again – a similar view on the other side – and reach the rock-hewn church of Mariam Bizhan. As we are removing our shoes in front of the blue iron doors, a monk appears from nowhere, wrapped in a blue shawl and carrying something that appears to be a combination of crucifix and walking-stick. It is made from two pieces of steel rebar, and has a similarly home-made decoration at the top. He walks barefoot in front of us and pauses to press his forehead and his lips to the rock wall of the church. Inside, there is an antechamber with a ledge at sitting height, and then a shallow nave and two side aisles, divided by pillars in the shape of crosses. The ceiling is carved with geometric patterns and a design that appears to be a serpent, and dry grass is strewn on the floor. It feels deliciously soft under my socks, after the constant rocks and mud of the day. The shapes of windows are carved along the sides of the aisles – many churches have these false windows. The priests light tapers and attach them to the ends of long poles. They reveal the bright colours of more paintings of biblical scenes, which hang from the pillars either side of the curtain that veils the holy of holies. Strewn around the floor are the items you see in all these churches. There are metal prayer instruments, shaped like a potato peeler with five metal discs – one for each of the wounds of Christ – that are shaken. There are drums, used to accentuate the mass as it is chanted in Ge’ez. There are wooden leaning sticks, used to support the congregation as they endure a long service. Somewhere in each church one usually sees an impossibly ancient-looking bible lying on the floor beneath a lectern, hand-written and illuminated on goatskin, looking like something that in Britain would be slapped in a museum or library in the interests of conservation. This church is thought to have been hewn in the first century, and later adapted to Christian use. In the antechamber there are the remains of graves. The priests ask us the usual questions – “your first time Ethiopia?” “Where from?” They sense my dumbfoundedness, and say that I should come back on 21 September, which is the saint’s day there. I explain that my grandfather has been ill. They bless him. The monk sits on a metal chair in front of them, watching us impassively. We go to talk to him, and ask him, through Mulat, how long he has been here. “Twelve years”. Why did he come here? “He says he hates the world. He wants to be quiet. He wants to be close to God”. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate place. I start to understand that the right questions here have nothing to do with “how?”, though given the technology of their construction this is shattering enough. For the first time, I start to understand the “why”.

From Mariam Bizhan we continue to our second and final lodge, at Shimbreity. The path takes us along a narrow ledge above a near-sheer drop of several hundred metres. Baboons walk around below. Rainwater from earlier drips from an overhang above our head. We are eventually greeted by people from the lodge; Ethiopians shake hands and then bow to knock right shoulders, once to be formal, twice to be friendly. We climb one final set of enormous boulders and appear at the top of another amba. I am no longer surprised that another one towers over us across another gaping gorge to the left. The lodge is at the top of a cliff that might be 600m tall. The view is, yet again, dizzying, but the clouds close in and we settle to tea, coffee, injera and pasta. As we wait for dinner we share songs. It is hard to think of something that makes sense in another language, so after a folk-song from me, we settle for the absurd incongruity of the hokey-cokey, which our hosts participate in and find hilarious. They sing us a song with jerry-cans for drums. Mulat tells us that they are singing of the happy coincidence that both sets of guests so far have brought rain with them. Despite the intense greenness of the land at this time of year, I am reminded of the knife-edge quality of life here; Tigray is where the famine of the 1980s was at its worst, when the rains failed for three successive years. Later, we ask Mulat and Berhe what the main challenges were in the two years that it took to get the community involved and build these lodges. We are expecting to hear about the difficulties of carrying stone to the top of a cliff. No: the chief obstacle was persuading people that the faranji would not try and detach them from their Orthodox faith.

Friday 6th August

Another morning, another breakfast, another spectacular view. This morning it is scrambled eggs, which in Ethiopia is made without milk, but with tomato, onion, green chilli, and a bread roll. We take more photos and walk around the L-shape of the cliff, to get a sense of what it is we have been sleeping on top of. Look carefully at the top-right of this photo and you will see the lodge, for a dizzying sense of scale. On the other side, we see our luggage on donkeys, so far below that the camera can barely focus. On the other side of the valley a man is ploughing a field; the only flat land above the valley floor, it projects from a cliff like a fungus from a tree-trunk, with a hundred metres of vertical above and below. I am baffled by how there come to be two oxen there, and quietly entertain the possibility of secret passageways and teleporters. After an encounter with the most aggressive dog so far – it has only one front leg – we make another near-vertical descent. I fancy that I am starting to get quite good at this, and hop gracefully from rock to rock, until we reach the bottom and my vanity is exposed by two men from the lodge, who are following us at something approaching twice the speed, as if they are bringing some possession we forgot. They are not; they are heading to the market. I console myself by thinking that it must be the walking sticks. Berhe and Tara and I tell each other riddles. Off the mountain and on a flat, hot, sandy track, the sun suddenly feels vicious, and I find my hat. We go on through more beles cactuses, and pass a touching sight: a father teaching his son to plough, clearly bursting with pride. The boy is perhaps eight, and his tone with the oxen is now pleading, now angry, now soft, now harsh. He swishes the air behind them with a switch of wood.

The market itself feels a little overwhelming. We buy fruit – mainly beles, but also a large, pear-shaped one that has flesh like an unripe apple and tastes faintly of lemon. I believe that I have seen one before, at sukkot during my time at Immanuel. I think it is called an etrog. The name in Tigrinya is oddly similar, though of course I have now forgotten it. I wonder whether Ethiopia’s oft-touted connections with the Old Testament go as far as taste in fruit. The market is a little oppressive, though – we are not a common sight and hundreds of people crowd around to look at us in a way that at first can be dealt with using smiles, but which eventually starts to feel intrusive, though not actually threatening. We walk on to our rendez-vous with the car; this is along another hot, sandy track, which heads across dried river-beds for several kilometres. To left and right people crouch in the fields, hand-weeding. Other people are walking with us with what they have bought at the market; a boy with two live chickens hanging from his walking-stick; mothers with sacks of grain; girls with hay; another teenaged boy who appears to have walked upwards of 10km for a single cabbage. I share more food around, peeling my remaining oranges with my knife and noticing that after I have wolfed my quarter down, the chicken and cabbage boys seem to make theirs last for minutes and minutes, as I have in the past with a piece of chocolate, refusing to chew and allowing it to melt away. I am suffused with a feeling of utter contentment.

We meet the car at a village where we drink more tella, though this time I have not been offered it as a hospitality, and am suddenly alerted to the fact that I find it intensely unpleasant. I offer it to someone nearby. The car takes us another 18km, through a town called Hawzien, where we stop for lunch. In 1988, the Derg regime, led by Mengistu Hailemariam, committed one of their most gratuitous and notorious crimes here. The area was a stronghold of the rebel TPLF, the group that eventually overthrew the Derg, and morphed into what is now Ethiopia’s governing party. Dismayed its catastrophic and simultaneous military defeats here in Tigray and in Eritrea against the EPLF, the Derg withdrew from this area, and then, on market day, bombed Hawzien from the air. Soviet-made fragmentation bombs and napalm killed an estimated 2,500 civilians. Hawzien is a dusty town, and oppressively hot, though apart from a monument in the main junction, there is no sign of these events.

We have lunch and move on to Gheralta Lodge, my accommodation for the next few days. I swap contact details with Berhe and Mulat and say goodbye, promising to visit them in Adigrat soon. Gheralta Lodge was once an Italian base during their occupation, and it commands fine views over the spaghetti-western landscape of red mesas and scrubby, dusty brushland. Outside the lodge walls, a few miserably-broken Italian gravestones lean drunkenly. The inscriptions are incomplete and the space between them seems to suggest that others have been taken for building materials. There are fewer crops in the fields around here. I sit on a rock and watch men leading donkeys away to who-knows-where in the evening sun. The donkeys hee-haw furiously.

We head off to two more churches, one containing the cave where St Tekle Haimanot, spent twenty-seven years continuously praying. After twenty years his leg fell off (he had been standing all the time on the other) and God gave him six pairs of wings. He also ate nothing, save for the single magical bee sent by God each year on the anniversary of his vigil starting. Without our guides we feel ill-informed and unable to translate; we also seem to be considered fair game for impromptu, self-appointed guides, and at the second church we visit the priest argues and goes sullen after receiving the price he agreed at the start for showing us the church. This is not the place to go at length into the vagaries of accessing Tigray’s rock-hewn churches, but suffice it to say that they are not formalised tourist attractions, and they do not follow clear, set patterns or rules. Priests expect tips (which is not unreasonable, given their tiny or non-existent salaries), and set the price themselves (often then arbitrarily raising it). If they are not present to open the church, then that is tough – just because you have travelled a long way, you can’t simply expect someone to be there. If the priest and his key need to be found then you can count on every child in the village wanting to go and fetch them for a birr or two, and doing so simultaneously. Even to attend a church service you are expected to pay, which narked me slightly because it seems to go against ecumenism at the very least. It all needs some formalising, and in its current form it creates difficulties because it is hard to avoid a situation where everyone sees you as a walking bank. It can be part of the charm, but takes on a nasty edge on occasion, such as when children throw stones at Tara, who will not give them a few birr just because they ask for it. A return to Gheralta Lodge is welcome by the end of the afternoon.

On the way back, we see hundreds upon hundreds of sacks of sorghum and wheat, and untold tins of vegetable oil, all labelled “USAid: not for distribution or resale”. They are being distributed and, as I notice at the market the next day, resold. Katy (my Addis friend) told me that it is a condition of accepting US development funding that you also assist in distributing US food aid. Here, I am told, aid grain undercuts local grain at market, condemning farmers to continued subsistence, because they cannot get their food to market for a worthwhile price. This so that the developed world can continue to subsidise its farmers and politicians can avoid tough questions. Tourism or agriculture? Which form of development would you choose?

Saturday 7th August

Today would have been my wedding day, and as Tara, John and Jane leave, I suddenly realise that my plan to spend the day alone was not a wise one. Fortunately I have met Jack and Zina, an Irish student spending six months in Mekelle, and his Ethiopian girlfriend. They are off to see Abuna Yemata Guh, another rock-hewn church, and I tag along with them. In this photo the church is about half way up the back of the right-hand of the two rock spires.

If someone had told me before I went what this involved, I would have chosen a day of regretful isolation. However, I am glad that no one did. Yet more climbing, this time not in cloudy, wet, cool air, but in baking desert heat. It is only when I see the priest, who looks at least 60, going Spiderman-like up a 15m vertical cliff, with no ropes and no safety equipment, that I start to realise that I might have bitten off more than I want to chew. My guidebook says of this church, among other things, that it is possibly the most stunningly situated in all Ethiopia (though I have not seen them all, I can certainly believe this), and that “visitors not entirely comfortable with heights, or sure of their footing, are strongly advised not to attempt the climb; the consequences of a slip are dire”. Already near the top, I can see why; the church door is half-way up a massive rock spire, and the final approach to it is along a narrow ledge, with a sheer drop of at least 200m beneath. Inside, the cave walls are covered with murals of the saints. They are strongly Middle-Eastern in flavour, and were painted, depending on whom you believe, by Abuna Yemata (one of the Nine Saints) himself, or by sixteenth-century artists. The priest tells us the church was made in the third century, the guidebook says perhaps the tenth. Either way, the effect is utterly overwhelming, and sustains me through the sheer terror of getting back down the cliffs I have climbed to see it, and I am staggered to think that a hundred or more people clamber up here every morning for mass, and less frequently to christen babies in the separate baptismal cave.

The rain starts to fall again as we leave, and the day is soured a little by disagreements over payment. It is hard when you are arguing over sums that constitute small beer in the UK, but once a price is agreed, it is tiring, irritating, and a little dehumanising to be treated like a walking bank. I spend the late afternoon and evening nursing painfully sunburnt skin, despite my precautions, and enjoying beers with Jack, Zina, and a French couple at the lodge.

Sunday 8th August

Jack, Zina and their car left for Mekelle this morning, and I haven’t the money to hire a vehicle on my own to see more churches, so I have a quiet day, reading a Jenny Diski book on Antarctica and a John Grisham thriller from the lodge’s bookshelves. I also wander into Hawzien again, chat for a while with Tewolde, a school pupil eager to practise his English, and play a few games of table football. The kids at the table are keen on an all-action style and grow rapidly impatient with the passing, controlling, and trick shots I perfected at university. Every time I look as if I am shaping up for them, my opponent in defence simply picks up the ball and puts it in front of his players, disdaining fancy stuff as if they Peter Kay in a John Smith’s advert. Who am I to argue, and how, since I know precious little Tigrinya?

Monday 9th August

Today I head off to Mekelle to see the capital of Tigray and visit Jack and Zina. This involves bus travel, a new experience but one that is highly entertaining. The bus from Hawzien is a massive, lumpen, rusty orange Isuzu, whose cab has been done out in a tasselled carpet in five shades of brown, one of orange, and an off-white. The pattern is like something from the living-room of my grandparents’ even more elderly friend, Mrs Edwards, who used to give me biscuits that I would then share with her bichon frise dog. In the bus station two teenage boys are engaged in what I can only describe as a running karate match, people mill about, and the conductor shouts “Mekelle, Mekelle, Mekelle, Mekelle, Mekelle” until hoarse. I am given to understand that the bus leaves when full – I am used to this from Ghana – and when we eventually set off with two seats free I am mildly surprised. Until, that is, we stop fifteen metres outside the bus station, park right in the middle of the road (to the disgust of the donkey that we nearly run over in the process) and resume the shouting and the fighting and the waiting. “Mekelle, Mekelle, Mekelle, Mekelle, Mekelle!” Fifteen metres nearer the edge of town, now within earshot, people think carefully about whether they had forgotten they were going to take a three-hour, 150km ride, reflect that they hadn’t, and then go about their business as usual. The conductor carefully hand-writes me a 26 birr (£1.30) ticket, including details of my occupation and my father’s name, and refuses to give me any change from 30 birr. A man in a cap saying “Texas [heart] Jesus” tells him off, but he does not relent. The driver, who is clearly cold, wraps a scarf around his head and eyes. He and the conductor decide we can fill the seats as we go (we do, quickly, stopping 5km down the road for two men whose method of hailing the bus is to wait till it is nearly suicide-distance away, and then jump directly into its path with both arms raised, as if surrendering to fate). We drive 50m down the road tooting the horn, the driver then removes the scarf from his eyes, and we are on our way.

My main worry so far has been my seat, which appears to be attached to the floor using two pieces of cooked spaghetti, and which rocks manically back and forth (though not laterally) like a demented playground rocker when I shift my weight, which is often, because there is only sufficient legroom for a small child. Actually, my concerns were groundless, because the main hazard is the unsurfaced road, which means the seat gives my backside the sort of treatment I once saw dished out to a running shoe in a documentary we watched at school (don’t ask me why) on destructive product testing. Fortunately I am near enough to the front to see the big rocks, and the bumps where running water has rutted the road surface, and I avoid serious damage, though have a seriously tenderised rump by the time we reach Sinkata. There, the road turns onto the main one south to Mekelle, which is impressively surfaced and has recently been restored by the Chinese, who are fulfilling in Africa the old maxim that you can’t have an empire without first-class logistics. It is now that the mad rocking of my seat becomes an issue, with acceleration particularly hazardous, as it pitches me backwards and potentially into the stairwell behind if I do not grab hold of something solid. We pass an endless supply of heavy-duty Chinese construction lorries and eventually a large cement plant that is supplying them, and eventually reach Mekelle.

There is not a lot to see here, though it has a nice feel and has grown considerably of late; as the capital of the state in which the the ruling party has its core support, Mekelle has received its share of investment. I wander around for a while and have lunch – a snip at 28 birr or £1.40 – and eventually end up finding a cheap hotel and some internet access. The one historical attraction here is the Emperor Yohannes IV museum. Yohannes won some early minor victories against the Italians and then defended Ethiopia’s territory against Egypt and the Mahdi’s Sudan, eventually dying in battle against the latter in 1889. He was a Tigrayan, a brilliant military leader, very religious, and is a bit of a hero in these parts, with the standard portrait – handsome, brave, dressed in white, and on horseback – hanging in many places around the town. I got inside the museum, which is in his palace, just as the heavens opened. Unfortunately this also meant a power cut, and the rain was so intense that when the guide opened doors to shed light on exhibits, water flooded in. It was light enough, however, for me to enjoy a puerile inward snigger at a sign announcing that the emperor’s war clothes were made of “loin hair, because of fearsome reputation of loin”. Eventually I returned to the hotel and met Jack, Zina and another Irish friend of his – also from Cork. I spent the evening brewing up a nice hangover for my next bus trip.

Tuesday 10th August

Mekelle bus station presents extra challenges because it is in a large town. So there are maybe 50 large buses and well over 150 more local minivans. I arrive and say I am going to Adigrat. I am immediately surrounded by six or more conductors, each desperate for me to get on his bus. The argument rapidly becomes vocal, and then moves up a gear to shoves and a punch or two, and I duck out for the largest bus I can find, just as a man in a brown uniform carrying a large stick appears to crack a few blows and separate the conductors. A passenger on the bus explains, when I ask why the stick man has a uniform on, that he is one of the bus station’s “official peacekeepers”. The conductors seem to take it all in good humour, and are all smiles and chummy arms around each other’s shoulders, until the next potential passenger arrives to elicit another fight. They remind me of nothing so much as naughty schoolboys, because every time the peacekeeper looked their way they resumed joshing about, looking like butter wouldn’t melt, their conspicuous innocence the obvious pointer to their guilt. The downside of all this is that there are at least seven Adigrat buses among which to divide the Adigrat passengers, meaning a long wait before any of them leave.

My neighbour on this trip is Yosif, a student at Mekelle University who was returning home to Adigrat. I am jolted out of my satisfaction at the cheap fares when he says that he can’t afford 30 birr (£1.50) to go home very often, and hasn’t been for a year. In any case, Mekelle is a kind of home: his school and all the others in Adigrat evacuated there during the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war. Adigrat is close to the border and served as a target for Eritrean guns and planes. Yosif is, like many Ethiopians, a keen Premiership football fan, and updates me on the latest transfers. Also like many Ethiopians, he is an ardent admirer of Arsene Wenger – Arsenal’s is by far the shirt you see the most of here – because of his rigid adherence to an attractive, morally pure form of football, where possession and aesthetics are greater than winning alone. I am surprised by Yosif’s eloquence and passion on the subject, and wonder whether Ethiopians see something of their own cultural pride and self-sufficiency in Wenger’s philosophy.

In Adigrat I stop into the Tesfa office to give them copies of my photos. I am pleased to see Mulat again, and eventually join him and Berhe for several rounds of mes, the fermented honey drink that I first tried at Rahwa’s family home. It is drunk from small glass flasks and Berhe explained that different areas of Tigray hold different opinions on how the flask should be held. The atmosphere, sitting among the washing lines of the middle-aged female mes-bet owner, was lovely – young and old alike, albeit all men, sitting after work and enjoying a quick drink on the way home, over a chat. Not for the first time, I am humbled by Tigrayan hospitality: Berhe and Mulat insist on paying for everything, because I am their guest in their town. We end with dinner – a spicy offal tibs (finely chopped fried liver, kidney and tripe, served on inevitable injera), and then a specialty of the region – thollo, which is small balls of barley paste speared on an olive-wood fork, with the points then dug into a spicy meat stew and a garlic, yoghurt and butter sauce. An odd custom in Ethiopia is to feed your friends. It takes some getting used to, because eating is done with the hands, and it’s surprising how awkward this makes me feel. Mulat treats it like a big joke and takes as much injera and sauce as he can hold and then attempts to plug your mouth so completely that you cannot chew. I can laugh along with this. More odd is that his girlfriend’s sister was along as well, and she fed me thollo from the end of the olive-wood fork. When you hardly know someone, this is oddly intimate and unsettling, for reasons I can’t quite fathom.

Wednesday 11th August

The bus journey to Axum is slow, because the driver and passengers are mad for beles fruit, which is now in full season and is available in great delicious bags from roadside sellers. As we cross the mountains between Adigrat and Adwa, he insists on stopping the minivan for each and every seller, at which he and most of the passengers climb out and embark on long and heated arguments over price, before eating their purchase. Given that I have something of a tummy upset and am keen to get to the next decent loo in Axum, this is not necessarily welcome. I change at Adwa and then on to Axum, ancient capital of Ethiopia and still its holiest place. It is here that Ethiopian tradition says that Emperor Menelik I brought the Ark of the Covenant after stealing it from his father King Solomon in Jerusalem; in that version, Ethiopia became God’s chosen people.

It has to be said that Axum is a big disappointment. It is true that some of the ancient monuments here are amazing: giant carved granite monoliths (the stelae) raised by Axum’s kings to mark the location of elaborate underground graves. The largest was over 33m tall and weighed 500 tons or more. Like Stonehenge, no one knows exactly how the stelae were raised. One now lies shattered on the ground, having fallen at some unknown time in the past. Also at Axum is the Mariam Tsion complex, site of an ugly 1960s cathedral and the chapel that supposedly contains the Ark of the Covenant.

But there is no visible sign of how the UNESCO money that comes with being a World Heritage Site has been spent, and my guide, who is accredited by the tourist board, starts with the question, “do you want the legendary version of Axum’s history or the scholarly version”. I reply the latter and agree a price, and he then spins me a story and a half. I can’t remember all the details, but as you will see, it does not matter one bit. It goes something like this:

Before the birth of Christ the entire world was ruled by one king, Etiopis, the king of pre-Christian Axum. It was the mightiest empire of all time, and in fact Ethiopia was the true location of Babylon. [The apparent remains of Babylon in Iraq were put there for reasons of false national pride by Saddam Hussein, 22 years ago]. Sometimes Etiopis delegated his power, such as when he allowed a snake to rule over Nubia for 400 years. The snake eventually turned into a king – Caspar – who was one of the wise men that visited Jesus as his birth. Another was Bazien or Balthazar; the third was Melchior. They saw that Jesus was now king and Etiopis went to heaven with him, and the three kings split the earth among themselves. Baltasar become Augustus Caesar, ruler of the North and West. Melchior became ruler of the East [Persia, which, along with Alexander the Great, was similarly fabricated by the Ayatollah and the Greek Colonels respectively], and Caspar became King Ezana, ruler of the South and new Axum emperor.

I could go on, but I won’t. It is fair to say that the guide was a complete tosser, on top of the fact that he was talking utter bollocks about Axum. He also could not easily be got rid of, because of his official status, and he displayed his real interest later, which was that he wanted me to write to the archaeology department at Cambridge University and arrange for him to get an archaeology degree in exchange for his careful excavatory assistance to Dr David Philipson between 1996 and 1999. Eventually I gave him the shake, though not before he had practically driven me to tears of frustration in the Mariam Tsion church complex, as I realised that I was going to find nothing of interest or accuracy at all, and it was his claim that a modern valve trumpet with a Yamaha makers’ mark had been excavated from a 3,500-year-old tomb that was the final straw. Or so I thought, until he appeared at my hotel four hours later, wearing an outlandish straw hat, and telling me that he had an international lottery business and was looking for a London representative. Together with the fact that the site is in bad need of interpretive material, a big tidy-up, has a depressing number of hawkers selling Axumite coins unearthed from farmers’ fields, and the ugly bulk of the 1960s cathedral compromising much of the church site, and you have the recipe for a depressing day. Throw in plentiful mosquitoes as well, and you have a good idea why I was keen to leave, though I did have a good time in the evening with some backpackers from Britain, one of whom has cycled here from Cape Town on his way to Istanbul!

Thursday 12th August

I arrived back in Addis to the sad news that my granddad died yesterday. I won’t be able to make the funeral either, though I will be writing a message with my memories to be read there.

I had an interview for a school job here in the afternoon. The school is interesting, though I am not sure if it is for me. It is a primary school, adding a new year with each passing year, so that it will eventually run from kindergarten to 18. They want a native English-speaker to help teach English, but it is paid in birr and the headteacher was worryingly vague on the issue of salary. He seems keen, and I have till Monday to decide whether I want to go to the next stage of interviews. Otherwise now, it is back to job hunting, which is much less interesting than the excellent experiences I have had over the last week, though there is a promising chance of work for Save the Children in Nairobi.

Love to all and write me a comment if you have enjoyed this post.

2 thoughts on “Tigray

  1. I am – I just wish I could be on holiday all the time rather than having to spend most of it sitting on the Internet looking at job sites….

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