September 19, 2018

Guest Editor: Paul Wood- Ethiopia, a very strange place in a world with few strange places left

My bedroom in the four star Hotel Jupiter in Addis Abbabais on the first floor and overlooks the front of my four star hotel.  Slightly to the left is scrubland in which stand tiny houses made of corrugated iron beside a large heap of broken tiles. Two boys in front of one of the shacks are cleaning a pair of jeans with a bar of soap.

Addis is full of strange trees and the green is a wonderful colour. It feels like England in late October, before a storm, in some eccentric place like Cambridge, full of walled gardens.

Nice chilly drizzly weather like a British summer of my childhood before I moved to the Balkans. It is the rainy season but the rains are light. Actually a good time to come.

Ethiopia is a very strange place in a world with few strange places left. I like it.

We very much liked Ethiopian food. Wonderful curries eaten with injera which is made from a local cereal and is grey and looks like grey foam rubber. The Romanian equivalent of injera is mamaliga.

Wine odd but drinkable – tastes like dryish sherry.

Ethiopia still keeps the Julian calendar. It is 2004 here.

At 7.00 a.m. is 1 o’clock here and at 19.00 it is again 1 o’clock which is wholly logical.


Plane to Lalibela. The thin mountain air, the cool light, the hills, the deep green.

Lalibela has churches which were hewn from rock in the eleventh century by King Lalibela who had been told in a dream to create a new Jerusalem.

Yes Lalibela is touristy – Sighisoara some years ago – say in 2002. Our hotel is for foreigners and for backpackers you would think but it is mostly people in their 30s 40s and 50s. But the tourists are very few compared to any tourist place in Europe in August. Lalibela has a population of only 20,000 yet it absorbs its tourists fairly well.

Then we were driven in an uncomfortable four wheel drive van  to the Yemrehana Kristos Church, Lasta – a 90 minute drive from Lalibela and the part along an unmade road was pretty painful for me in the back of the van.  I regretted coming until I arrived. The church is of wood but built in a vast cave and stands on a raft which floats on a marsh.  A pile of skeletons stands behind the church and has done for centuries but it is not clear why they are there.

Dervla found the priests insisting on five dollars before they opened up – the priest we met was wholly delightful. It seems they get up to fifty tourists a day depending on the time of the year (August is low season) but we were alone.

Gibbon: “Encompassed by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.”

Apparently, according to Dervla Murphy the Ethiopian Coptic Church for centuries only knew the Septuagint. According to Evelyn Waugh they regard Pontius Pilate as one of the great saints. You take off your shoes to enter a church and religion revolves around savage fasting. Beautiful church music. An odd mix of kitsch and piety. Dervla is unimpressed by their religion which she sees as ritual without depth. I wish I could judge. I shall return to learn more.

The Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia says that adultery is very widespread ‘among men as well as women’ and warns women travellers that a wedding ring is no deterrent against male advance, but has the opposite effect. How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen. Muslims are chaste though, I feel sure.

‘About the history of Abyssinia before the Flood we possess no certain knowledge.’ The beginning of an 18th century history of Abyssinia quoted by Evelyn Waugh.

This has hung in my mind since my teens.

Ethiopia should convince anyone, if they doubted it, that the short period in which Europe colonised Africa did a great deal of good, as well as some harm. On the other hand, Ethiopia is so compelling because it has not been Europeanised and it represents the only African country with history and an ancient culture. Dr Johnson said ‘Outside the Christian and Mahometan worlds all is barbarism.’ I am not sure if would have considered Christian Ethiopia barbaric or not. Evelyn Waugh was in no doubt and thought only Harar and Muslim Ethiopia civilised.

Ethiopia in August is the darkest green imaginable, drizzly, cool, full of strange trees and Mass goers in white translucent robes carrying staves and wearing curious headgear. I am writing this while waiting for a delayed flight in Addis. Lalibela airport does not have internet even in the airport offices.

I fly to Dire Dawa which by contrast to Lalibela is hot, tropical and feels Caribbean. Then a crowded minibus through wonderful scenery and gathering dusk to Harar. I chose Harar on instinct without any research but it is the perfect choice, though no longer a mostly Muslim city. Full of people drinking beer and whores, unlike in Evelyn Waugh’s time, but the old city promises to be different. The hotel where I alight seems a series of noisy bars and a bordello but I later hear it is the best hotel. I move on to an Italian built hotel the Ras Hotel which had been recommended to me by the Mexican Jew which feels like a gaol and costs $10. It does have a good restaurant and an internet cafe and there i befriend a nice guide called Hailu. I ate a very good Yemeni dish called Monday or something similar

August 6

Harar is the real thing. The Ethiopian highlands and its churches and castles I vaguely knew about but waking here in this Stalinist prison (Mussolini era actually) for which they charge you $10 (with excellent breakfast) I feel transfigured.

The strangest, but delicious, breakfast today with a completely unpronouncable name containing spicy meat. The only element I recognised was injera.

Dervla Murphy is my companion after Steve left and I am unable to avoid internet cafes to contact my other companions my 1056 Facebook friends. I read this by Dervla and feel I did not score highly. Only obeyed rules 1, 3 and 4 – am ashamed I neglected 2.

I am enjoying Dervla’s account of her journey across Ethiopia by mule – she deplores the very outset of tourism and I am with her but it has not got very far – certainly not here in Harar. But travel with Facebook and email is wrong. I wonder if Hararis have heard of Paris Hilton.

I asked. They had not.

Paul’s personal blog is

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