The heavy scent of incense, the swish of gauzy white gowns, jaw-droppingly beautiful natural features serving to frame manmade structures (such as the monolithic stone churches) that strain credulity. Ethiopia is a land with history rich enough to rival Rome or Damascus, which now seeks to come into its own as the “political capital of Africa.” With all that, narrowing it down to my favorite handful of sites is terribly tricky. Had I the time and money, I’d stay here a month, exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the ancient walled city of Gonder, the hyena conservation center/ill-thought-out petting zoo of Harar … but alas, I’m not, and I can’t. I stuck to Addis and Axum. From those two, I recommend:

1) Axum day tour – When you are told that more than 90% of the potential archaeological treasure holds of Axum remain unexcavated, lacking even the most cursory of once-overs with picks and shovels, you’re left with the same general sense as when you hear that more than 90% of the world’s Girl Scout cookies are not personally consumed by you: a vague melancholy of “What if…?” quickly overridden by pleasure and wonder at the extraordinary offerings there already are. Because, seriously, guys. There is so much stuff. If you have any interest – any WHATSOEVER – in history, commerce, archaeology, geology, stoneworking, hagiography, or just really cool old stuff, you will be instantly enamored.

Any time history is involved, there are no firm answers. Take, for example, the Queen of Sheba, the legend of which is one of Axum’s most beloved jewels of legend: she was born here, or wasn’t and is actually from Yemen. She was a Jewish princess, or worshipped the sun as part of a Pagan religion that was subsumed by the curious yet beautiful Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the fourth century C.E. under King Ezana. She built a palace, had a bathing pool, grew wheat, brushed her hair with obsidian combs, or perhaps was a common regional myth like King Prester John, or was later used to bolster monarchical claims in the 10th century C.E. No one can really say with absolute certainty; if you ever attempt to make a factual proclamation, there will be eleven people standing in the doorway, jumping up and down in a fit of rage, waving their OWN scholarly work above their heads, and shouting at you something along the lines of, “NO NO NO NO NO! YOU’RE WRONG! NOW JUST STAND THERE IN YOUR WRONGNESS AND BE WRONG!!”

My camera was broken on that day, so please enjoy this random image of the stelae fields that I found on Google.

What we DO know, more or less, is this: there are over 220 ancient pillars, or stelae, some of which are over 100 feet tall, erected without any modern machinery. Axum was a center of trade and commerce, with every new grave seeming to be full of amphorae/coinage/etc from Turkey, Greece, and beyond. 226 kings held coronations here, countless foreign dignitaries sheltered or given rest, and the area has been home to Jewish settlers, Christians, and Muslims for more than a millennium and a half. It possesses the only known translation (a Rosetta Stone of sorts) between Greek, Ge’ez, and Sabean, the last of which hasn’t been spoken in over two millennia. The Templars were here, seeking the Grail, and also apparently were graffiti-loving jerks because they carved their insignia into virtually every surface they could reach. There are many who believe the mythical Ark of the Covenant resides in a church here, although it can only be viewed by one sacred monk, elected by his hermetic peers.

Ark of the Covenant: respectful artist’s rendering.

My only quibble is that while the town appears to be gearing up for tourism prime time, with its shiny new airport, plentiful clean hotels, and UNESCO heritage registrations, it clearly is not quite there yet. There is virtually no signage at any of the historical sites; a guide book would help, but without an actual guide (there are plenty to hire, of course) I can only imagine you’d be left with a vague sense of the grandeur absent the incredible historical context – the latter of which was my favorite part. The few places I DID see signs, they were generally in Amharic. This is an excellent language, and worth preserving, of course. But to attract the kind of international appeal this place to richly deserves, I imagine English, French, and/or Chinese wouldn’t go amiss.

My assumption is that everyone just hires registered guides, which is fine. They can be had from $10-75, depending on what you’re interested in (accompany you to every site? Provide transport? Lunch? Hotel pick-up? Private service? Inclusion of the innumerable “site fees”?) Still, never being entirely sure what you’re looking at or walking towards can create some awkward moments, such as when my guide had to near-bodily yank me away from the gateway to the Monastery of the Covenant. Women, being the inherent lusty temptresses we are, are not only banned from the church, sanctum, and monastic out buildings, but from the entire compound itself. (We are reduced to standing on a stool and peeking over a stone wall to see anything.) I didn’t know that last bit, and narrowly avoided an International Awkwardness Incident on par with the time I tried to read a map upside-down and very nearly blundered into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem before the nice men in army fatigues carrying very large guns caught up with me.

Anyway, it’s an easy, beautiful flight of about an hour out of Addis. Do it. DOOOO IIIIIIT. You won’t regret it.

2) Ethiopian National Museum – Ok, so, the Smithsonian it ain’t. Often dusty and curiously organized, with cursory or non-existent exhibit explanations, you end up oo-ing and aaah-ing at throne rooms and paintings without quite understanding fully why the thing you’re staring at is meaningful. (Read up on Ethiopian history first, if you want to get the most out of it.) But the exhibit on human evolution in Africa, culminating with an up-close-and-personal encounter with world-famous human ancestor and anthropological treasure Lucy is worth the price of admission on its own. I totally geeked out, as you can see below. Also fantastic, and a little better planned/explained in several languages, is the Ethnographic Museum on the campus of Addis Ababa University.

The poster at the beginning of the exhibit reads, “Hi, I’m Lucy!” I thought it would be rude not to introduce myself in return. NB: I feel the need to point out that my hair isn’t oily, it’s wet – this was a very rainy day. I’m an RPCV now. I bathe like a normal person again. Usually.

Introduction to the small but worthwhile Lucy Room.

Probably the biggest celebrity I’ve met since that one time I shook hands with US President Barack Obama, then found myself unable to speak to him in a coherent sentence.

There is also a rather nifty prehistoric Ethiopian wildlife exhibit, complete with preserved skeletons and re-creations in the form of enormous oil paintings. I don’t remember what this is precisely – either some sort of antelope, or a monstrous hellspawn only recently banished to the remotest caves of the Simien Mountains – but its be-horned skull and impenetrable gaze will haunt my nightmares forever.

For the less scientifically inclined, the museum held plenty of other attractions, such as staring thoughtfully at paintings in an appropriately solemn and intellectual manner.

If you’re not yet museum-ed out and/or your interests trend towards the slightly macabre, the Red Terror Martyr’s Memorial and Museum also offers an incredibly moving account of the “Red Terror” period of political violence in Ethiopia in the late 1970s, during which up to 500,000 Ethiopians – including over 1,000 children under the age of 13 – were slaughtered under Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam.

On a more serious note, the Red Terror Memorial Museum is a sleek and sombre place – perhaps the best museum in Addis, aesthetically speaking, but it DOES take being in a certain mood to attend.

Hall of Martyrs: the names and photographs of only a few of the youth murdered under the Derg. In addition to the usual tyrannical violence of forced public confessions, torture, nighttime disapperances, and extra-judicial killings, Derg killings were often characterized by a rather unique requirement: the family was generally unable to claim the body of their executed loved one until they’d paid the government back for the bullets.

This is the only photograph from this section I’ll post, but the exhibit bears mentioning. I have been in many massacre memorials, from Yad Vashem in Israel to the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda, but this is the only one I’ve seen with an *indoor mass grave,* complete with remains, transplanted into the heart of the city to give families a place to lay wreathes and sign mourning books. I say again: this is a place you need a little mental preparation to attend, but it’s worthwhile.

Anyway, moving on, let’s step together back into the sunlight; I’ll now bring you my third Ethiopia recommendation …

3) DRINK. ALL. THE COFFEE. – Legend has it that the first coffee plants were discovered and domesticated here in Ethiopia. (For a charming pictoral history, I direct you to The Oatmeal.) There is some scholarly debate on this topic; then again, isn’t there always? Regardless of whether or not Ethiopia invented coffee, it certainly perfected it. They’ve also adopted a rather charming “café culture”: you can’t swing a bag of gravel without shattering the window of some tiny but delicious coffee place. My traveling companions and I stopped as often as we dared before our eyeballs started independently vibrating, and we still covered probably 0.0001% of all the places in Addis alone.

My choice recommendation is a place called Tomoca, which is near the Piazza district. This is not a Starbucks, where you put your feet up, plug in your laptop, and spend 11 hours downloading pirated copies of Japanese game shows while sipping your Venti triple-shot half-caff soy no whip extra sprinkles chicken fat ripple spice chai dirty latte. The clientele is composed of almost exclusively locals, who lean against the elevated countertops (there are no chairs or tables) while they chug their daily brew and possibly skim the headlines of a shared newspaper. Your options are simple: Hard pastry? Y/N. Coffee? Black/with milk (“machiatto”). It’s all served in clear plastic vessels not much larger than a shot glass. Add sugar if you like, but know that the quality of the coffee is so exquisite, it doesn’t NEED to be drowned in Amaretto Vanilla Swirl syrup to be heavenly.

Best coffee in Addis

They roast their own beans here daily.

Measuring my life out in coffee spoons …

I couldn’t mention anything remotely gastronomical without saying that Ethiopian food, in general, is also to die for. Pictured above is
kitfo, or minced beef – traditionally served raw, drenched in super spicy ghee [clarified butter], and on sour flatbread called injira. A side of cottage-cheese-like curd stuff helps balance the heat. It is amazingly delicious.

Feeling enchanted? Or not quite yet? Suggested reading: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, by Nega Mezlekia, for an autobiographical account of living during the upheaval of the end of Haile Selassie and the reign of the Derg. The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, by Gus Caseley-Hayford, who enthusiastically seeks out the more mystical aspects of Ethiopia’s history. Those are certainly not the be-all-end-all of Ethiopia-related literature, but it ought to be enough to pique your interest.

Tomorrow, onward to Kigali, and a reunion with a dear friend.