My first job teaching in Texas was sixth grade World Geography. The textbook we used had a picture of some amazing rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, and one of my students asked me if I had ever been there. At that moment, I knew I wanted to visit that place one day.
Very soon after I arrived in Sudan, two of my colleagues mentioned that they were going to Ethiopia over Christmas break. “Oh, I want to go too”, I said, basically inviting myself along. I think maybe they thought I was kidding, as I had just met them. But no, I was serious, and on December 19th, four of us left Khartoum- by bus, no less- to head for Ethiopia for twelve days of touring.
The bus was fairly horrendous and the first night’s stay at a border town was awful (it involved a donkey cart and sleeping at a brothel). But it quickly picked up as we visited the town of Gondar, known as the “Camelot of Africa” because of the 17th century ruins of nearly a dozen castles scattered around town. We enjoyed the cool weather and the quiet atmosphere of the ruins as we roamed around with our guidebook and Hussam as our almost-local helper.
After Gondar, we boarded another bus heading south to Bahar Dar, a small town that sits at the southern edge of Lake Tana: the source of the Blue Nile river (which then flows into Sudan and ultimately Egypt). At Bahar Dar we hired a small boat to take us to see several island monasteries scattered throughout the lake. Some of them have ancient manuscripts and other Orthodox Christian treasures still. We also ventured out to Tis Isat, the waterfall that marks the actual source of the Blue Nile.
Finally we arrived in Lalibela, home of the 11 churches, hand-carved out of rock in the 13th century. Amazing sight. And how were they made so quickly, so perfectly? No one knows. The pilgrimages of white-robed Ethiopian Christians to the rock churches is truly a sight to behold.
We really enjoyed our time in Lalibela, with the exception of Christmas Eve, when I got very sick and had to go to the hospital. Which is a whole crazy story in and of itself! All I can say is thank goodness we had eaten Christmas Eve dinner at a fancy hotel and I had made friends with a doctor from Medicins Sans Frontieres. But, several hours later, it all turned out just fine after an ambulance ride and a surprisingly inexpensive shot of something that made me stop vomiting (thank goodness).
Tired of busing around, I hopped on a flight to Axum by myself to take a quick glimpse of the giant stelae, the tall stone obelisks that were raised two thousand years ago. Made by pre-Christian groups living in the area, no one is completely sure what purpose they served. But they are incredible to look at and wonder about. How can a society that lives in small grass huts build 45 meter tall obelisks that are carved to look like 13-story apartment buildings? A mystery. And of course- the ark of the covenant. Is it there? Axumites swear it is, and even have a guard posted at the small church building its purported to be in.
After Axum, I took a direct flight down to Addis Ababa, and spent the final couple of days with my travel companions. Addis was… disappointing. Although it is much cooler weather than Khartoum, and I did get to partake in the hot water mineral baths that gave Addis their name! Someday I hope to go back to Ethiopia and take a tour of the southern half of the country as well. Some amazing sights to see there, as well as the cradle of all civiliation. All in all, a delightful Christmas holiday, and a welcome break from life in Sudan.🇸🇩