Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Kingdom Come

Aksum was once the seat of the great Aksumite kingdom, which controlled much of the shipping trade between Africa and Asia via the Red Sea. Evidence of a rising civilization dates back as early as 400 BC, and by the first century AD the kingdom was a vital center of commerce, a distinction held for over 1,000 years.

The remnants of the great society are numerous and fairly well-preserved. Underground tombs, towering stellae, and the country’s most important church number among some of Ethiopia’s most historically significant sites. 

Among the more physically impressive, the stellae (or obelisks) deserve a prime spotlight. Carved from solid granite, and showing surprisingly little deterioration, these stone billboards range in size from 1 meter to 33 meters. Among the three tallest, only one remains standing; though, at 24 meters high, remaining upright for hundreds of years is no small feat.

The tallest obelisk successfully erected in Aksum was pilfered by Mussolini in 1937, cut into four pieces and subsequently re built in Rome. It wasn’t returned until 2005, and now lies in neat pieces outside the front gate to the Stellae Field.  

The largest stella (not only in Aksum, but in the world) ranks in at 33 meters tall and 516 tons; however, this massive creation toppled while being erected. In the process it took out supporting walls of underground tombs, and became the last stella of the Aksumite kingdom. 

According to local legend, the transport of stone from the quarry, construction of the stellae, and their subsequent raising was aided, not by angels, but by the power of the Ark of the Covenant, said to be housed in the nearby St. Mary of Zion church. 

Most Ethiopians adamantly believe that the Ark of Covenant is, and has been for centuries, kept safe within their country. All Coptic Christian churches have a replica of the room said to hold the Ark, a Holy of Holies. And, as there is only one person who guards the Ark, it is not something that can be readily confirmed or denied. And, as evidenced in the documentary Indian Jones, the Ark’s face-melting abilities are nothing to scoff at, a definite preventative measure against laymen trying to sneak a peek. 

The history, political and religious, ancient and modern, has ensured that Aksum maintains a place on Ethiopia’s list of important cities, even if it is no longer the center of a booming kingdom.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Lalibela: Carved from Stone


Situated high in Ethiopia’s arid mountains, a two-day drive from the city of Addis Ababa, lies the tiny town of Lalibela. Home to Ethiopia’s kings during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this rural town of winding stone-paved streets holds some of the country’s most awe-inspiring, pilgrimage-worthy churches.

What makes these eleven churches so noteworthy is that they are carved directly into the mountainside. The rock-cut churches of Lalibela represent a variety of architectural styles and proudly display the nation’s deeply engrained religious history.

Arranged in two clusters, the churches are linked by chiseled channels and tunnels, some of which require walking for relatively long distances in pitch dark (especially if you were silly enough to ignore the guidebook’s suggestion to bring a flashlight).

Though the churches are named after King Lalibela based on his claim to have built them all, many scholars believe that the churches, or at least some of them, may have actually been built earlier. Legend says that King Lalibela was exiled to Jerusalem by his brother, after which he vowed to build a new holy city on his return. According to local myth, the construction was done during the day by residents and aided at night by the help of angels.

Regardless of the doubtful holy help, the churches of Lalibela are incredible, a massive testament to dedication and hard work at human hands.

Friday, April 26, 2013

And Now for Something Completely Different

Among East African countries, Ethiopia is incredibly unique. The culture, the landscape, the clothing, the food, it all stands tribute to a country that isn’t quite like any other. An interesting combination of Middle Eastern and African influences, visible in the facial features, hair texture, and style of dress, stepping off the plane in Ethiopia was the beginning of an experience like no other.

With landscape remarkably similar to the American Southwest, only with a slight, almost imperceptible, color change, Ethiopia is dry, arid, and sparsely populated outside of the capital city of Addis Ababa. And outside of this bustling city, you find a country that relies on agriculture, where farm animals clatter down cobblestone streets or sleep in the shade of gas pumps; where donkeys and camels laden with crops, water, or cargo often outnumber motor vehicles.

The food itself speaks of strong tradition. The brewing of coffee is ritualized, complete with a ceremony. The staple bread, a pancake called injera, is made from a grain only available in Ethiopia (which, lucky for me, happens to be gluten free). Topped with any variety of sauces or stews (currently without meat, as we are here during their Lenten fasting period), injera is eaten using only the right hand.

Even time works a bit differently here. Okay, more than a bit. Following the Ethiopian (Coptic Christian) calendar, it is currently August of 2005. And when it comes to telling time of day, a bit of clarification is necessary. Our midnight and noon (12 a.m. and 12 p.m.), are instead placed at sunrise and sunset. So, for the Ethiopians, what we consider 7 a.m. is 1 a.m., as you have had one hour of daylight. It can all get a bit confusing.

Men and women walk cloaked in long pieces of white fabric, many women keeping their heads covered; though this seems more about keeping the strong sun at bay than about strict modesty. Religious tattoos can be seen on hands and forearms, necks and jaw lines, cheeks and foreheads.

And, though it is such a unique and different culture, we have (for the most part) been welcomed with smiles and warm greetings. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Source

Everything has a beginning. Alright, the Nile River actually has several. But, being the world’s longest river, we can cut it a bit of slack.

Winding north through Sudan and Egypt, and into the Mediterranean, the Nile (specifically the Victoria or Blue Nile) begins its journey as a bubbling underwater spring on the edge of Uganda’s Lake Victoria, from where it travels 6,700 km in roughly four months.

The spot, marked with an uninspiring plaque, makes for an equally uninspiring sight, as it looks like nothing more than a lake to your left and a river to your right. However, there is some value in the knowledge that you are standing at the spot where a mighty force begins.

A bust of Mahatma Gandhi also adorns the area, as this marks one of the places (in fact one of the only spots outside of holy areas in India) where his ashes were scattered.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hakuna Matata

You can’t go to Africa, particularly East Africa, and not go on a safari. Okay, you can, but really, why would you want to? The practical, grown-up answer is, of course, money; as a general rule, experience-based commodities, especially when the experience is something rare or precious, tend to be either expensive affairs or jam-packed with people.

Luckily for us, Uganda currently falls right in between those two extremes: not the most popular, over-touristed destination in the region (like Kilimanjaro or Serengeti National Park) , but with a newly-blossoming budget safari industry. And by ‘newly-blossoming’, I mean ‘has two reasonable options.

Now, the difference between a budget safari and your other safari options comes down to one thing: number of passengers, i.e. are you willing to risk sharing your experience with a bunch of strangers, potentially putting the fate of your trip in their hands? Some people would rather pay more and keep the whole thing as a private endeavor, since, as we have learned in the past, the group is one of the vital ingredients, with the power to completely sabotage an experience. We got lucky. Not only did we save money, but we ended up with a fantastic group of people, something that certainly augmented the whole experience.

Of the two most impressive national parks in Uganda, we opted for Murchison Falls National Park as it is the cheaper of the two and home to the country’s only giraffes, both equally important in my book. It is also home to one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls, where the entirety of the Victoria Nile squeezes through a tiny 6-meter-wide space, making for some mighty impressive views.

But let’s get to the important part, the reason we’re all here. Wildlife.

Seeing exotic creatures at the zoo is lovely, a glimpse into another world. Seeing those same creatures in their own habitat, roaming free, is absolutely beautiful. Breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Surreal. An experience unique unto itself.

Over the roughly six hours spent on game drives, bouncing down dirt roads perched atop an open-roof van, we spotted a wealth of wildlife strewn about the park’s vast, lush landscape.

The elegant Ugandan Kob, the befuddled-looking Jackson’s Hartebeest, the stockier Waterbuck, all dot the horizon, grazing wherever you look.

Warthogs trot past, tails skyward, trailing their tiny wart-piglets.

Water Buffalo stand stock-still, only their jaws working away at grass, staring as we pass, birds comfortably hitching a ride on their back.

It’s a wonder to top a verdant hill, coming several feet from a herd of elephants, ears flapping, wrinkles mud-caked.

Hippos bob in the Nile, ears and eyes visible, cool in the midday heat. The males viscously assert their dominance in splashing, open-maw bouts. At night they roam our camp, grazing in the cover of night.

The vibrant flutterings of color that make up Murchison’s birdlife runs the full spectrum of the rainbow. Greens, blues, reds, oranges, and yellows, each shade is represented with a flapping of wings, a making of nests.

But for me, it’s all about the giraffes. Their unique markings, like no other creature on earth, pale in youth and darkening with age. As they run, it is as though they are moving through a viscous liquid, like the tape is played in slow motion. Graceful, majestic, and magnetic in their beauty; to witness numerous giraffes, reaching with ease into the tallest of trees to pluck a snack, towering over even the elephants, sauntering about without a care, is an experience unlike any other.

And, yes, these are animals we’ve seen a thousand times, in zoos, on nature specials and in the pages of National Geographic. But there is nothing that can take your breath right out of your chest like the beauty of seeing them carousing in their natural habitat, miles to roam, nothing but ground underfoot (or hoof or paw) and sky overhead.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Rwanda is a beautiful country in many ways. Its landscape is awe-inspiring. It is probably one of the cleanest places we have ever been. It is making advances in health that far outpace most African countries. However, worldwide it is most well-known for the horrible atrocities that took place during the 100-day genocide of 1994.

Next week marks the 19th anniversary of the start of the genocide. April 7th is the National Day of Mourning, and the following week is Remembrance Week. For Rwandans, this idea of remembering, the necessity of not forgetting, is incredibly important. On genocide memorials throughout the country, of which there are many, the slogan ‘Never Again’ appears repeatedly. And with good reason.

As Westerners, we have become incredibly familiar with the 1994 genocide. We have seen documentaries and Hollywood biopics about it; it is the first thing that comes to mind whenever Rwanda is mentioned. However, it was not, in fact, the first genocide in Rwandan history. Or even the first one to take place in the 20th century. 

The Hutu-Tutsi conflict has had incredibly high death tolls. Between 1959 and 1961, 100,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutus. In 1972 in neighboring Burundi, somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 Hutus were slaughtered by Tutsis in 1972. And in 1994, the dead numbered between 800,000 and a million Tutsis, killed at the hands of Hutus. The violence has been systemic, retaliatory, and brutal, with surprisingly short intervals between genocidal outbreaks. Today, the tribal clash continues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

With so few years between these genocides, in a culture where tribal heritage is important, and where the clash continues in neighboring countries, it is no wonder that the need to keep ‘Remembrance’ alive and well is so vital in the Rwandan psyche. It is seen in the presence of numerous genocide memorials across the country, in the respect and solemnity of Remembrance Week.

Though, of the practicalities of some genocide memorials in general (I am including my experience of Cambodia, as well), I have mixed feelings, particularly in relation to the use of the skulls of victims in these memorials. I understand that they bring home the reality of the atrocity, but do these victims, even if their identity is unknown, not deserve a proper burial? Do we need to see mass graves full of bones and clothing in order to understand, or should these people be put to rest? Why is it that a map made of skulls is considered disrespectful and dismantled, as happened in Cambodia, but shelves, temples, churches and mass graves full of skulls and bones is acceptable? Are pictures of the victims, something with a face and a name, a remnant of life, not a more vital reminder than nameless, faceless skulls?

But, I digress. Whichever side of that debate you fall on, there is no denying the importance of honoring the victims, as well as the importance of remembering in order to not allow these things to happen again. Thanks to the Rwandans’ efforts in this realm, the country today is a remarkably safe place; its future is bright, its people one unified group.