Africa's undiscovered gem

Unspoilt landscapes, the majestic Blue Nile Falls and age-old traditions – Ethiopia offers visitors a cultural experience counterpoised by the vibrancy of its cosmopolitan capital, Addis Ababa. By Eoghan Corry


Indiana Jones got it wrong. The lost ark is in a small humble church, one of those tiny hermit cells you find in Glendalough or Clonmacnoise, except with the roof still intact.

You don't see the ark, nobody does. Instead, you see something equally astonishing and somewhat reminiscent of 1950's Ireland; a devotional parade that passes three times clockwise around each of the adjoining churches, the adorned silver cross held high by a bearded priest, while followers chant prayers in a manner that would do justice to Seán O'Riada's sean-nós choir in West Cork.

The followers are blessed with holy water from the little church where the ark is held. Foreigners may not participate. The ark is sacred, central to Ethiopian religion and tradition. Every church has a replica ark of its own.

Meleik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought the original ark to Ethiopia when he and his followers returned from Jerusalem. It has been moved, hidden and housed here through five millennia, or so they say. A monk has been chosen to tend to it, wrapping it in silk and staying clear of its awesome powers. This, after all, is a powerful force; it burned Moses' face and turned two of his nephews to dust.

The power of the lost ark is to be severely tested in the coming decade – has this cultural phenomenon the power to revive Ethiopian tourism?

Ethiopia should be one of the great African tourist destinations. Ethiopian Airlines is the best airline in North Africa. Its network makes Addis Ababa a major hub, serving seven European destinations and is currently negotiating with the DAA about direct flights to Dublin. When Ethiopian Airlines commenced flying in 1946, Ethiopia briefly flourished as one of the best tourist destinations in the region, offering Italian-nurtured wines and airy hill breaks for the high end travellers who flew down from Europe, their heads filled with legends of the Queen of Sheba.

Unfortunately after such a bright start in the 1950s and 1960s, tourism was curtailed during the period of Derg rule –  the days when communism prevailed in Addis Ababa. The communist government brought with it some benefits, building hotels such as those now run by the Ghia group. This hotels still dot the countryside as do their  low service standards and infrastructural deficiencies inherited from the darker days. 

Despite such deficiencies, Ethiopia can offer some of the best tourist attractions in Africa thanks to its diverse peoples, their intriguing cultures, the natural beauty of their land, and the historical wonders as the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela,  and the Gonder castles. And while Addis is cosmopolition, visitors can taste local cuisine in the narrow streets of provincial towns and indulge in the elaborate coffee making ceremony, which celebrates one of Ethiopia's great legacies to the world.

Getting around the country is relatively easy thanks to new roads recently built by the Chinese. Road travel unveils Ethopia's terrific landscapes with its high mountains, bird-watching treasure gardens, and a small but endearing safari product, reminiscent of Monument Valley in the USA.

We chose  a cultural trail bringing us through the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the antiquities at Axum, and the Gonder Castles, all high altitude towns on the nascent tourism trail. It was a peek at a society that has survived invasion by sword and ipod, an ancient monastic culture that would have been familiar to Kevin of Glendalough and Ciaran of Clonmacnoise.

Just South of the Gondor Castles, lies Lake Tana. The lake houses 19 islands with monasteries, including Tana Qirqos where the Virgin Mary rested on the journey to Egypt. Here a priest picks up a goatskin parchment book of a similar vintage to the Book of the Kells and leafs through it to show us the ancient prayers.  The thundering Tis Isat – the legendary smoke of fire – and the Blue Nile Falls are about 35 km southeast from Bahir Dar, a town on the edge of Lake Tana. They complete a worthwhile hike over a hill and across an ancient Portuguese-built Alata bridge. Tis Isat, doesn't thunder as much since they diverted some water flow to a power station, so beware of visiting in dry season.

Unfortunately we never made it to the relatively inaccessible south, but heard entrancing stories of the Omo valley, the Mago National Park, and the amazing tribes such as the nomadic ‘Mursi' –  one of fifty tribes in an area spanning 20 kilometres. 

Even with all this splendour, Ethiopia attracts a mere 30,000 incoming tourists a year from the rest of the world, excluding the aid workers, diplomats and ex-patriates – less than a small town in Spain will get from Ireland. For most people Ethopia is equated with famine and not rich and vibrant cultures or breath-taking scenery.

Onto the cosmipolitan capital, Addis Ababa, where the queue into Platinum night club will swiftly disabuse visitors of any lingering images of Michael Burke and Bob Geldof's Africa. The bright and the beautiful congregate here to sip drinks and dance to the vibrant local music – Wegen Tesebseb, Gossaye Tesfaye, and the infiectious and ubiquitous Irikum, with dancers joining the rhythmic chant that echoes every line. The capital springs to life every night, as energetic and vivacious as any Mediterranean metropolis, with venues such as Platinum, the Gaslight in the five star Sheraton hotel, Club Deep, and the Dome in the Concorde Hotel to choose from. The  capital's bustling Merkato is also reputedly the largest outdoor market in the world.

Addis's museum testifies to Ethiopia's place as the cradle of mankind – Lucy, the oldest human skeleton, is normally on display in the national museum. Lucy, was found in north Eastern Ethiopia but DNA scientists now believe that mankind spread outwards from Addis Adaba 100,000 years ago.

Addis is humanity's ancestral home and a  pleasant mixture of curiosity, hospitality and a sense of nobility pervades the culture. The hour spent walking back from the Blue Nile Falls with a group of school children, and their local self-appointed helpers and tour guides, will endure long in the memory.

It is a reminder that tourism, not aid, will define Ethiopia's future. During our Lenten visit, dawn on Sunday mornings brought the moaning chant of priests calling people to prayer in an ancient language close to that spoken by the Queen of Sheba. By afternoon came further calls to prayer – not to the Mosque, but the ancient Coptic church that has survived in these highlands.

Most enduring are the images of daily life: the papyrus boats on Lake Tana, bobbing through the shimmering light as if they had come straight out of the Bible; the wrapped body of a corpse being carried through the street in Semien Wollo; the oxen pulling a simple wooden plough scraping the stony soil in the hills above Axum, as if feudalism had never been swept away; and the women touching their scarved heads down on the prayer mat faced towards the church where devotional ceremonies are under way.

But this is Africa. When the rains come they come with a vengeance. Dark clouds that resembled those apocalyptic Renaissance paintings, swept in from the horizon. The wind whipped leaves and twigs across our heads, while the stinging hail slammed against our faces. When a twig snapped your head behind the ear, it was like being struck with a boulder. When the lightning flashed and the thunder roared, it was frightening. A group of boys sheltering beside a wall said “it was like a miracle”.

The Ark of the Covenant was nowhere to be seen, but you could believe that nothing had changed since Moses' time. By morning the rain had cleared and the Nile was full, conveying the water to Egypt. Little children sold papyrus boats by the roadside. The wonders of the ancient world were alive, and alive for the growing number of tourists willing to abandon the famine image and go see for themselves.