Rock of ages: Ethiopian Orthodox Christian pilgrims attend a prayer session at the monolithic Orthodox church ahead of Ethiopian Christmas in Lalibela. These churches, hewn out of solid rock, are also popular tourist attractions in a country that often battles natural and political challenges. Picture: REUTERS
Rock of ages: Ethiopian Orthodox Christian pilgrims attend a prayer session at the monolithic Orthodox church ahead of Ethiopian Christmas in Lalibela. These churches, hewn out of solid rock, are also popular tourist attractions in a country that often battles natural and political challenges. Picture: REUTERS

The old man’s face was beautiful, although it was etched with deep furrows — no doubt the result of having lived through droughts, famines and 17 years of a brutal and paranoid communist government that has slaughtered half a million of his countrymen.

He was begging at the window of the minibus in which I was travelling. Ethiopia is full of faces that tell amazing stories.

For many visitors, a highlight is the ancient rock churches of Lalibela — 11 churches hewn out of solid stone.

But for me it’s encounters with the living that will linger — like young Ebabi Getnet, who walked with me through Lalibela’s dusty, unpaved roads and told me he had been training to be an engineer until his sister died in childbirth.

When one neighbour and then another also died during pregnancy, he decided to train as a midwife instead.

Snack attack: Abbas Yusuf, 23, feeds hyenas on the outskirts of the walled city of Harar. Picture: REUTERS
Snack attack: Abbas Yusuf, 23, feeds hyenas on the outskirts of the walled city of Harar. Picture: REUTERS

I asked if women would accept a male midwife, and his answer was simple. "They will accept me because I’m good."

Getnet, 25, was leading a team of volunteers at a free foot-washing and feeding stall set up to welcome pilgrims arriving for the Orthodox Christian Christmas on January 7.

Thousands of people wearing flowing robes and headscarves were descending on the town, often walking barefoot for a month and covering hundreds of kilometres to pray in each church and kiss their stones.

The churches are amazing, with the most famous, Biete Ghiorgis, being smaller but taller than I expected, carved from a solid plateau of rock.

Some of the churches are linked by tunnels and our guide, Paulos Kumsa of Green Land Tours, had us place a hand on the shoulder of the person in front, double over because the tunnel is low, and walk in darkness and silence to experience the mysticism.

It was a relief to emerge briefly into bright sunlight before stepping into another dark, carpeted church hewn out of rock.

While we were admiring frescoes on the walls and ceilings, a robed priest stepped behind a curtain and emerged holding an elaborate cross before posing happily for photographs. When someone moved forward to put money in the donation box, the priest subtlety intervened, and the note disappeared inside his robes.

Legends and mythology are as important as hard facts in Ethiopia, and the story goes that these churches were carved in mere days because the angels carried on the work at night after tired mortals put down their axes and chisels.

Also on the pilgrim and tourist circuit is Aksum, another world heritage site where historians agree a great civilisation was trading as early as 400BC. This is where the Queen of Sheba lived in the 10th century BC and is the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses.

 This was the largest block of stone humans had tried to erect, bigger even than Egypt’s obelisks

We could not see the ark because no one is allowed to enter the small chapel that reputedly houses it — not even the man who is selected to devote his life to guarding it. Giant obelisks stand on the site of underground tombs, except for one mighty 33m spire that collapsed as it was erected, crushing a tomb nearby. "You only had one job," some wit murmured as we looked at the fallen obelisk. This was the largest block of stone humans had tried to erect, bigger even than Egypt’s obelisks. So far all the tombs that have been found have been plundered by robbers, but plenty more are believed to lie undiscovered.

Ethiopia’s constructions today are rarely as impressive or as sturdy as the churches, tombs and obelisks. I blew all the sockets in one hotel bedroom when bare wires on a bedside lamp touched and ignited.

I asked to switch rooms only when the curtains fell off their rail — and then I ended up in a suite with no hot water.

Still, even the most basic hotels are more lavish than the homes of rural Ethiopians.

Driving through mesmerising scenery of dramatic mountains and valleys, we passed villages comprised of straw and wooden huts plastered with cow dung and roofed with tin or plaited leaves.

Plastic bags and bottles lay strewn next to the roads and vultures perched on the rubbish dumps. Goats, oxen and impressively horned zebu cattle roamed freely, but the crops seemed scarce and poor.

One thriving crop is khat, or cat, a leaf chewed for its stimulating properties. Perversely, we saw many men lolling around listlessly or asleep on the pavements, oblivious to the life around them.

Khat is an important crop around the walled town of Harar, another world heritage site dating back to about the
7th century.

The maze of 368 narrow alleys encircled by the city walls was delightful to explore, but again it was the encounters with the living I will remember most.

Hyenas that live wild outside the city walls sometimes lope through the ancient stone gates to scavenge for food at night. A local man has made it his job to feed them, and we joined him one evening.

He sat in the dust with a basket of meat and two, then three, large and healthy-looking hyenas ambled out of the shadows. Soon there were seven of the animals, and the man called me forward to join him. I sat at his side as he speared a piece of meat onto a stick and held it up between our heads.

Sharp teeth

A hyena behind me rested its paws on my shoulders and I watched its sharp teeth grab the meat from beside my ear.

It felt surreal, and I couldn’t help grinning with the thrill of being so close to such powerful, bone-crushing creatures.

My final memorable encounter with living, breathing Ethiopians came in the Simien Mountains, yet another Unesco world heritage site.

The guides call it the Roof of Africa, as a massive plateau tumbles into great folds of undulating mountains pierced by jagged volcanic pinnacles and stretches far into the distance beyond all horizons.

We hiked through knee-deep grass hiding rocks that tripped me up, until we saw dark blobs sitting on some shorter grass in the distance. These were gelada monkeys, endemic to Ethiopia and the highest dwelling primates on the planet.

They’re sociable little creatures, roaming in troops of 300 or 400 and feeding off the roots of plants. They patiently dig up the grass with their fingers until they unearth some roots, then plant their faces into the soil to rip them out with their teeth.

It’s a comical sight, and we humans sat among them, meriting only an occasional glance as the adults dug and scratched and the youngsters romped around screeching and squawking like excited kids.

It’s incredible — another natural wonder that, along with the country’s ancient human endeavours, makes Ethiopia quite magical.

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