This week’s dream
Forbidding landscapes and ancient mysteries in Ethiopia
“Ethiopia strains credulity,” said Stanley Stewart in National Geographic Traveler. Split by the Great Rift Valley, the East African nation is a land of “cloud-high” plateaus, plunging gorges, vast salt deserts, layers upon layers of ancient myth, plus 17th-century castles that evoke a tropical Camelot. In the nation’s small northernmost province, you can find more than 120 churches carved directly into mountain rock, many of them completed in the 4th century. No wonder medieval Europeans considered Ethiopia the realm of dragons and unicorns. Even today, “it could belong to an atlas of the imagination.”
I journeyed to Ethiopia recently in pursuit of a legend: the Queen of Sheba. Historians aren’t sure whether the monarch immortalized in the Bible and the Quran even existed, but Ethiopians consider Sheba the mother of their nation. The story goes that King Solomon seduced her, and that their son Menelik brought the Ark of the Covenant from Solomon’s Temple back to Ethiopia when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. At Aksum, an ancient capital, locals assert that the ark and the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments still reside inside a chapel near the Church of St. Mary of Zion. You can’t enter, but I’m able to peer through railings at two monks—guardians, it is said, who are trained to kill with their bare hands. Not far away, a burial site was discovered just three years ago that added credence to the theory that the queen of legend once ruled from Aksum.
An Ethiopian friend is traveling with me, and when we and our two guides reach the Erar Valley, “we are silenced by its beauty.” Orchards and wheat fields spread out before us, and children tending sheep wave shyly from shady groves. Near day’s end, as we hike toward our lodge on a mesa top, a group of shaggy gelada monkeys amble across our path. A woman inside the lodge is preparing coffee for our arrival, roasting the beans over a wood fire. After a meal featuring a cardamom-spiced chicken stew and spongy flatbread, I step outside and look out over the dark valley. “Beneath cold stars, the silence is total.”
Tesfa Tours (tesfatours.com) offers cultural tours starting at $515 a person.