Harar is Ethiopia’s great muslim city, in the east of the country. Founded in the 8th century and having sheltered a relative of the Prophet Muhammad, it is considered by some as the fourth holiest city in Islam. With its winding alleys, traditional houses built around a hidden courtyard, and 99 tiny mosques (allegedly the highest density in the world), Harar feels like a cross between Zanzibar and Timbuktu.
The Old City is surrounded by fortified walls behind which nestle 4000 traditional Harari houses and many markets in small squares. Little has changed in Harar since the mid-19th century when the explorer Richard Francis Burton visited, disguised as an Arab, and found a bustling trading city ruled over by the Emir of Harar.
Closer to the Arab world than to Christian Ethiopia, Harar remains a prosperous trading hub at the crossroads of the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. An ancient city whose spirit of tolerance has attracted people of all faiths and beliefs for many centuries, from Sufi mystics to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud who lived in Harar for 11 years in the early 20th century. With 70% of the population chewing chat, a hallucinogenic herb, Harar is a relaxed, not to say torpid place indeed.
It is another two days’ drive to emerge out of the Danakil desert. At first, we see a few green shoots, then houses which look a bit more “permanent”, finally trees and even an actual hotel!
Our first shower in four days (cold, not hot, unfortunately…) is at the Erta Ale motel, in the town of Semera. The administrative capital of the Afar region, it comprises of a few concrete buildings and about ten petrol stations in the middle of the desert. The motel is wedged between a mosque and a petrol station so that we spend a rather restless night.
But after camping in the Danakil country, a night in a (relatively…) clean hotel has become a luxury. Never mind the lack of hot water, the muezzin calls to prayer in the middle of the night and the restaurant menu limited to goat…in all possible variations (goat curry, goat soup, goat cutlet, goat maitre d’hotel…).
Erta Ale, in the heart of the Danakil desert, is the only volcano in the world with a permanent lava lake. After a five hour hike in the dark, we reach the volcano’s caldera around 11pm, and spend the night there in a small ramshackle hut.
Erta Ale is in a state of permanent eruption. The bright orange magma swirls around like liquid gold. Powerful underground currents create deep waves of slow-moving magma which come crashing against molten rocks. Chasms are made and unmade in the sea of lava. And every few minutes a pillar of fire erupts from the lava lake and shoots up in the sky before dissolving into a thousand drops of liquid fire which fall a few metres from us.
Standing on the edge of the caldera, entranced by the volcano’s pyrotechnics, we feel like Orpheus standing at the Gates of Hades, watching its thousands of fires burning the souls of the unworthy.
Dallol, in the heart of the Danakil Depression is one of Nature’s great shows. Full of rocks with fantastical shapes, bubbling pools of green and orange water, smoking ponds and bright yellow sulfurous deposits.
The Afar settlements where we camp are the most uncomfortable, filthiest places we’ve ever been to. They are set up in the middle of stone fields (which also serve as common, open air toilets) with ramshackle, dirty huts. It is too hot to sleep inside a hut or under a tent so we sleep on elevated wooden planks outdoors with the hot dusty desert wind, the “gara”, whipping our faces all night long and covering us with a thick film of sand.
The Danakil country is one of the most remote, inhospitable parts of Africa. At 100m below sea-level, it is also one of the hottest, driest and most geologically active places on the planet. Clearly, only mad dogs or naive people raised on the adventures of Wilfred Thesiger there in the 1930’s would ever want to visit.
It takes us two days, with three vehicles bringing a week’s worth of supplies to reach the Danakil Depression, at 116m below sea-level, Africa’s lowest point. The terrain varies from bumpy solidified lava to sand and salt, with hardly a shrub in sight under the sizzling sun. We have chosen to visit in winter, so we only experience temperatures of 42 degrees. In summer, the mercury rises to 56 degrees.
Every few hours we cross rickety Afar settlements and long camel caravans bringing the salt extracted from the dried up lakes to Djibouti, on the coast. The Afar are amongst the hardiest, fiercest and most xenophobic of Africa’s nomadic tribes. In Thesiger’s day, they would commonly massacre visiting parties of foreigners and cut off their testicles to keep as war trophies.
Since several tourists were killed in the Danakil in 2012, camping on our own is no longer permitted. We have to take an armed escort and camp in designated Afar settlements ( I suppose the deal is that if the Afar receive some benefit from the few tourists who visit, they may no longer be so tempted to kill them for “trophies”).
With our four soldiers, two policemen and Afar militiaman, dazed by the relentless sun we progress slowly, almost hypnotically through the Danakil for four days.
Founded 500 years BCE, Abyssinia’s capital until the 10th century, Axum, ruled over one of the ancient world’s great empires encompassing parts of the Arabian peninsula, of the Sudan and Somalia. The Axumite empire traded with the Romans, the Indians, the Persians and the Arabs. Pagans who worshipped the Moon and the Sun, the Axumites were converted to Christianity by Byzantine and Syrian monks in the 4th century CE.
The stelae erected by the Axumite kings from the first to the 4th century CE are impressive reminders of their sophisticated civilization – strange towers with mock doors and windows built to commemorate their reign.
Today, the church of Maryam Tsion in Axum holds the original Ark of the Covenant (according to the universal belief of Ethiopians), making Axum the holiest city in the country. The Ark is kept there in complete isolation with only one priest appointed to look after it and locked up with it at all times. Upon his death a new priest is appointed to replace him. So only one person in Ethiopia really ever knows whether the Ark is actually there or not!
Lalibela, Abyssinia’s capital between the 11th and 13th centuries, is home to the country’s strange and beautiful rock-hewn churches. Carved out of solid rock, the 11 churches built by King Lalibela in the 12th century are wonders of engineering which Ethiopians can’t explain without a divine intervention. Indeed, the king is said to have been transported to the City of God while lying comatose after being poisoned by his brother. There, he was shown models of 11 rock-hewn churches by angels and instructed to built replicas of them on Earth. Angels then assisted him in the construction of the churches, forming a night shift to the day shift of his mortal workers. Even with that divine assistance, it took the king 25 years to complete all 11 churches.
Interestingly, the Lalibela period was a dark age for Abyssinian culture. The arts, literature, science all regressed during that period, despite the building of those spectacular churches which perhaps more than any other monument represent Ethiopia’s rich history.
Our theory to explain that strange paradox is that the Zagwe dynasty which reigned during the Lalibela period and had usurped the throne from the Solomonic dynasty (claiming direct descent from King Solomon of Jerusalem) was eager to legitimize its rule by getting the support of the Church. The Zagwes embarked on that massive program of church construction and simultaneously stifled any form of innovation or creativity in other areas of human endeavor to defer to the Church’s conservative orthodoxy – and gain its respect and support.
A similar situation occurred during the Dark Ages of Europe where only religious architecture thrived while innovation in the arts and sciences was suppressed by the Church.
One of Africa’s largest mountain ranges with at least a dozen peaks topping 4000m, the Simiens look like a playground of the gods, full of broken toys. Tall cliffs, like gigantic fortress walls overlook plateaux made up of jagged fantastical shapes: broken pyramids, collapsed bridges, fragments of once grand palaces. The Ozymandian aftermath of a great battle between the gods which left nothing but ruin in its wake.
The Simien mountains are host to several rare endemic species: the Gelada baboon, the Walia Ibex, Menelik’s bushbuck and a few Ethiopian wolves. We wander for days in that lost world, on the roof of the world, which we share with those rare and elusive creatures.
Gondar, Abyssinia’s capital for 250 years was founded by Emperor Fasilides in 1635 after a century of continuous warfare against Muslim invaders. It ushered in a golden era for the Abyssinian empire during which the arts, architecture and even animal rights thrived.
Gondar’s Royal Enclosure is a city within the city, home to six castles built by Gonderian emperors in the 17th century as well as a Great Hall, a concert hall, Royal Stables, Royal Archives. Drawing on Portuguese, Byzantine and Mughal influences, the Royal Enclosure is a wondrous and eclectic compound which, in its heyday, was a place of splendour and learning.
In 1888, the Mahdi of Sudan razed Gondar to the ground while Emperor Yohannis I was fighting the Italians on the Somaliland border. By the time Yohannis returned to Gondar and defeated the Mahdists, there was little of the city left and a new capital was built: Addis Ababa.
Today the remnants of Gondar’s past glory stand like huge silent ghosts in the Royal Enclosure.