Ethiopia has primitive tribes, Islam's fourth holiest city, Africa's largest market, and perhaps the world's finest early Christian architecture. But road travel is notoriously slow, and some places are impossible to reach in the rainy season. So we took advantatage of a great deal offered by Ethiopian Airlines to visit the so-called Historic Circuit:
Bahar Dar: On Lake Tana, home to numerous 14th century monasteries. Christians have been there since the 5th century. Nearby is the once-magnificent Blue Nile waterfall, no longer magnificent thanks to a dam that diverted most of the water.
Gondar: Africa's Camelot, home of 17th century castles and churches.
Axum: Ruins from the 5th century Aksumite empire. Many Ethiopians believe that the Arc of the Covenant is located here, a gift to the Queen of Sheba from King Solomon. Aksumite coins are the world's first to bear the Christian cross.
Lalibela: We saved the best for last. The 12th century rock-hewn churches are fantastic (!) - particularly the one dedicated to St. George. We also visited a 12th century church-in-a-cave, Yemrehanna Kristos.
Addis Ababa: My favorite African city so far. Simultaneously modern and rural, it is cosmopolitan, safe, friendly, interesting, and has great Italian food :-)
Ethiopia is the only African country (other than Liberia) to successfully resist European colonization during the Scramble for Africa, so it has maintained a strong cultural identity not found elsewhere. If you want to understand modern Africa, start by studying this history.
In Ethiopia, the year is 1997, the calendar has 13 months, and the hour is 00:00 at sunrise. The language is Amharic, not French or Arabic (although English is on the rise). The Italians briefly occupied Ethiopia during World War Two, but the only lasting influence seems to be the restaurants and espresso machines in Addis Ababa. Good ones, too!
The last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I, died in 1975. He is believed to be a direct descendant of the Biblical King Solomon; his original name was Ras Tafari. We didn't meet a single Ethiopian Rastafarian, but we didn't travel to the region where they mostly reside. I have been to Jamaica (I even met Bob Marley's mother, Cedella Marley Booker), so I can testify that true Rastafarians are deeply religious vegetarians, and they look to Ethiopia (Zion) as their motherland.
Ethiopia reminds me more of India than other African nations: the language is made up of unintelligible squiggly lines, the population is deeply religious with traditions going back for millennium, and most people are dirt poor. Travelling in the countryside is teleportation to the Middle Ages, except for the plastic and Coca Cola.
Unlike India, which is mostly vegetarian, restaurants here offer meat, meat, or meat (mostly goat meat). A big problem is that goats eat crops. Another is a lack of money (and trees) to build fences to keep the goats away from crops. Another is that crops compete with water for drinking. Another is too many people. Yet another is the tragedy of the commons resulting in deforestation (Axum is a desert but was once an empire). Ergo, people eat goat meat, and there are shocking problems related to malnutrition. The so-called "fasting food" is meatless, and we always ate that when available.
Unfortunately, children are taught that foreigners (faranji) are rich, and the first words in English many learn are, "Give me money!" Read this to learn how to End Poverty. Act fast! The Earth is fighting back and there is no guarantee whatsoever that humans will win.