The Italians have many fortes – playing defensive football, cooking great food, making fantastic sports cars – but colonisation isn’t one of them. Actually, I tell a lie: the Romans were pretty adept at moving into countries and staying there for extended periods of time, but more recent attempts by Mussolini to establish an empire just didn’t really work. Take Ethiopia, for example: Mussolini’s men were booted out a few years after they invaded. Happily, in the few years they were in Ethiopia they were good enough to introduce Italian coffee culture to the country (one of the better legacies of fascism, I suppose), which was why I was able to order a macchiato at an otherwise nondescript roadside café – more of a shack, actually.
Myself and two other cohorts had recently left Addis Ababa to embark on a road trip around northern Ethiopia, which is often referred to by locals and travellers alike as ‘the attic of Africa’. The attic is sagging under the weight of its untold treasures – from ancient rock-hewn churches and a men-only clifftop monastery to the (purported) resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. If ever anyone wanted to realise their Indiana Jones-esque fantasies, here is the place to do it.
Our only problem was that we’d given ourselves just a few days to complete the 1,400km loop around the top of the country, meaning that our schedule was tight and there was a lot of driving ahead. Coffee was going to be as important as petrol on this journey.
Our first stop was Lalibela, home to 13 ancient churches that have been hewn out of the red rock on which the small town stands. We explored the complex with the help of a local tour guide (I’m quite sure that Dr Jones didn’t have to stoop to such means) following him through pitch-black underground tunnels and passageways. We blinkingly re-emerged after a morning of ancient wonder into the town’s marketplace, our senses immediately assaulted by the earthy stench of livestock, colour-saturated spices, shouts of the sellers, and bleats of the sold. We had travelled thousands of years in less than a kilometre.
Time travel resumed the next morning, as we headed north to Aksum via the clifftop monastery Debre Damo. Monasteries are rather strange places at the best of times, not least when they’re perched on the top of a cliff and are accessible only by rope. Debre Damo is still a ‘working’ monastery, meaning the fairer sex are not permitted to visit – even livestock has to be of the male variety to discourage frisky monks. We arrived to find two female American tourists sat dejectedly at the foot of the cliff, though whether they still wanted to visit the monastery after watching me scream, splutter and sob my way up 15 metres of sheer cliff face, I don’t know.
The terrifying climb did at least afford a great view of the surrounding mountains, though once we were up we were subjected to a number of previously undisclosed charges for entering the various buildings and paying a goblin-like man to open up what we were told was one of the oldest Bibles in existence. The people squeezing us for all the birr we were good for were the very same people responsible for lowering us safely back down to the ground, so we had no other choice but to pay. While we managed not to part with as much capital as was asked of us, we paid enough to ensure that our descent from the monastery resulted in nothing more serious than a few rope burns, and we sped off – shaking fists and all – to Aksum.
The city is said to house the Ark of the Covenant, although it seems only Aksum natives truly believe this. And while we harboured hopes of battling Nazis and meeting a thousand-year old crusader to catch a glimpse of the Ark, we were instead shouted at by a man in a tracksuit for taking photos of the chapel where it was supposedly being kept. We asked if it was for religious reasons. He said it was because we hadn’t been paid him any money.
Considering that the Ark of the Covenant is one of the most important religious artefacts in history, you’d imagine it would be kept under closer guard than an angry man in a tracksuit. My suspicions were further raised by the fact that even if visitors do pay, they’re still not allowed to see the Ark. This privilege is reserved for specially anointed priests.
After a night’s stay in Aksum, we left the city’s arks and obelisks behind and headed to Gonder, the last city on our whistle-stop tour of northern Ethiopia. True to its Tolkien-esque name, Gonder boasts a splendid 17th-century palace, which offers a unique insight into the regal history of the region. Remarkably, Gonder is one of the few places in sub-Saharan Africa with architecture that precedes the shabby remnants of colonialism.
The city is also home to some great art deco architecture, which, like coffee, is one of the better legacies of the Italian occupation. After exploring the regal ruins, we took a seat in a side-street café and ordered macchiato after macchiato. We’d finished our tour of the Attic of Africa and it was now time to descend to a very different adventure into Sudan. A long drive lay ahead, but a few more coffees were in order before we left the treasures of Aksum behind.
Need to know
Emirates recently started flying direct to Addis Ababa from Dhs2,625 return (www.emirates.com). To reach Lalibela, head north on Highway 1 from Addis to Kembolcha, remain on the highway and turn west towards Weldiya, and then north at Gashena. To reach Aksum, continue north to Adwa and take Highway 3 towards Aksum, then keep heading south on Highway 3 to Gondar.
Where to stay
Those not wanting to brave the journey by themselves can try Dragoman (www.dragoman.com), which provides bus tours across Africa, including this region of Ethiopia. Accommodation is included in the price, which varies depending on how long you choose to travel on the overland bus. Otherwise, check out the Asheton in Lalibela (Birr150 for a double room, +251 333 360 030), the Remhai Hotel in Aksum (Birr504 for a double, +251 347 751 501) and the Goha Hotel in Gonder (+251 581 110 634).
What to eat
No visit to Ethiopia is complete without sampling the national dish, called ‘injera’ – a spongy pancake made from teff flour. Conveniently doubling as disposable (edible) cutlery, the bread is used
by diners to scoop up whatever sauce or meat it is served with. The tang and texture of injera is certainly unique.
• The Aksumite Empire is considered to be the ancestor of medieval and modern Ethiopia. It came to prominence in 1BC.
• Emperor Haile Selassie I, who came to power in the early 20th century, is attributed with modernising the country. He is considered by Rastafarians as Jah incarnate.
• A series of famines hit Ethiopia in the early ’80s, leaving a million people dead.
• In 1995, Ethiopia held its first multi-party election – a year after the country drew up its constitution.