Into an antique land

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

Of Ethiopia's monuments and ruins, ancient and not-so-ancient.

TO say that Ethiopia is an ancient land may appear to be a truism, applicable in its essence to all lands and all peoples. However, the truism is uniquely apposite in the case of Ethiopia. The memories of its people, rooted in history, myth and legend, go far back in time. For instance, many historians, ancient and modern, Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian, state as a matter of indisputable fact that the country was founded in 6280 B.C. by Cush, the son of Ham and the father of Nimrod, mentioned in Genesis, who ascended his throne immediately after the Deluge.

Naturally, writing in 1930 on the occasion of the coronation of Haile Selassie, Evelyn Waugh found rich material for his mocking humour in such myths and legends and the contrast they presented to the harsh but also droll realities of everyday life in a land which for him would always remain Abyssinia. The novels, Scoop and Black Mischief, and the travel books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia, continue to enrapture one with their comedy and sardonic vision, their seductive and magical prose, even as one is utterly repelled by the viciousness of their racism and the underlying political ideology of rank reaction.

The myths and legends have, however, been overtaken by the recently established facts of archaeology and palaeontology. Following the discovery of the skeleton of 'Lucy' in the dry bed of Lake Hadar in November 1974, dated to have lived more than three million years ago, Ethiopia now claims a history and heritage going even farther back in time than the crudely calculated mythical genealogy of the Genesis.

Not all of this heritage is preserved only in myths and legends, or in the carefully reconstructed skeletal remains. Axum, Lalibela, Gondar with the ruins of its castles, Bahir Dar with its island monasteries of Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile (some of the monasteries are even now out of bounds to females of every description, including female livestock), the ancient bridge on the gorge of the Blue Nile - these small towns and villages in the north present striking examples of this ancient heritage in stone and brick.

Of these, the most awesome are undoubtedly the obelisks (stelae) of Axum, the capital of the ancient Axumite kingdom of pre-Christian times and the seat of a highly advanced material culture and civilisation. The powerful Axumite kingdom, also referred to as the Axumite Empire, which had its own coinage, held sway over vast areas far beyond the borders of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea. According to ancient historians, it was one of the "four great kingdoms of the earth", the other three being the kingdoms of Babylon and Persia, Rome and China. The chapter entitled "The Axumite Empire" in a modern history of Ethiopia (Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia by Paul B. Henze, London, 2000) has the subtitle, "Ethiopia as a World Power". The same account notes that Axumite coins that had been in circulation have recently been discovered in India. The links and similarities with the Egyptian civilisation are obvious.

Its glories and ruins lay in obscurity for centuries but persisted in other myths about a lost and mysterious Christian empire of Prester John, the priest-king. They were rediscovered by Portuguese travellers in the 15th century. One is truly humbled by these massive structures of mysterious purpose, standing in monumental splendour in the middle of the village, its people and livestock at home under their shadows.

The tallest of these, the Great Stele, which archaeologists believe collapsed as it was being erected, is estimated to have been 33 metres high and weighed 520 tonnes. The five pieces of the monument, lying on the ground, brought to one's mind Shelley's ''Ozymandias'': ''Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!''

Next to the fallen monument is the standing monument, all 24 metres of it, with its curious door- and window-like carvings on the front and the sides, the back plain and smooth, "a most admirable and perfect monument of its kind". It is an eerie feeling to touch and feel the surface of the obelisk, its material reality, even while being totally mystified and awestruck by its purpose and function.

Another stele, taller than the standing one in Axum, was stolen by Mussolini who carted it off to Rome to erect it on the Piazza di Porta Capena, across the present headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Under the 1947 peace treaty with Ethiopia Italy has pledged to return it and negotiations have been going on for decades, but every announcement of an impending settlement is followed by fresh uncertainties. A pit has been prepared for its erection next to the standing stele.

Central to the ancient heritage of Ethiopia is Christianity and the uniquely Ethiopian character it acquired in its practice. This uniqueness is evident in the architecture of the churches, the shape and ornamentation of their design, the liturgy and music, even the shape and crafting of the Cross. This is so even in Axum where the stelae clearly represent a pre-Christian civilisation and now co-exist in the shadow of several later constructions. One of these constructions is reputed to hold the mythical Ark of the Covenant. Another claim, even more fanciful and plainly anachronistic, is that one of the ruins near Axum, dated by archaeologists to around A.D. 5th century, was the site of the palace of Queen of Sheba - a rationale for and a reflection of the claims of Ethiopian monarchy of a direct and unbroken line of descent going back to King Solomon and Queen Sheba.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, built in the 12th and 13th centuries during the reign of King Lalibela, are one of the best spots to explore the mysteries and delights of Ethiopian Christianity. According to Ethiopian legend, the construction of these churches was apparently done with great speed, with angels joining the labourers by day and doing by themselves double the work during the nights when the humans were resting.

Forget the ancient labours involved in their construction, even a tour of their premises makes hard demands on a modern traveller's physical stamina. Ethiopian guidebooks describe Lalibela as "the eighth wonder of the world". However, Lalibela is unique in other ways, meriting this rather shop-soiled description; it is perhaps the only place in the world with a sparkling new airport but no bank or petrol station.

The largest of the Lalibela churches is Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), described by the guides as the largest rock-hewn church in the world. Its stone walls are sculpted with crosses of every shape and size serving as windows. One of the shapes here is a swastika. Lest a Hindu connection is sought to be seen in this rather unusual feature, here is an account given in Under Ethiopian Skies (Nairobi, 1997): "The Lalibela churches, though essentially Ethiopian, also embody many oriental decorative features, among them the swastika. This has led historians of art to believe that part of the decoration must have been carried out, not by angels, but by Indians. It should be remembered, however, that the swastika motif, still seen in national dress, art and architecture, has a tradition in Ethiopia of 6,000 years."

However, the highlight for every visitor to Lalibela is the Bet Giyorgis (House of Saint George), structured as a cross, incredibly perfect in its symmetry. Another highlight is the rather terrifying "hell", a 33-metre-long tunnel that links Bet Gabriel Rafael to Bet Markorious. Inside the tunnel it is pitch dark, the roof not too high, and at the end one has to climb four or five steps, actually huge slabs of rock each about three feet high. At the end of it one is supposed to emerge out of this "hell" into, for want of a truer description, the light of "heaven"!

When one remembers that a small imagined town can provide material for a lifetime of creative exploration, as was the case with R.K. Narayan, one is humbled by the endless promises and challenges posed by Ethiopia. This account is written after travelling in Ethiopia for seven days; one could have spent seven years and still find unexplored treasures.

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