In the land of the 'blameless' and Ras Tafari

Ethiopia, the Unknown Land

December 6, 2002

Ethiopia, a land of great antiquity, is also one of considerable tourist potential. The country in which the skeleton of Lucy, a 3.6 million-year-old hominid, was found in the 1970s is also locally believed to have been the home of the queen of Sheba, who travelled to Jerusalem to learn of King Solomon's wisdom.

The Ethiopian region was subsequently known to the ancient Egyptians as the Land of Punt, to the Greeks of antiquity as that of the "blameless Ethiopians", and to medieval Europe as the Land of Prester John. It was later revered by African nationalists - and Rastafarians - as the only political entity on the continent to survive the European scramble for Africa.

Ethiopia's antiquities, scattered over an area almost as large as France and Spain combined, cover a millennial-old canvas. Many prehistoric artefacts, together with a plaster cast of Lucy, are preserved in the country's National Museum. Remains of ancient Aksum, which date back to the early Christian era, require a visit to the far north of the country, where one of the city's obelisks, looted by Mussolini in 1937, is supposed to be returned later this year. The 13th-century monolithic rock churches of Lalibala, also to the north, are said to constitute one of the "wonders of the world".

No less interesting, in the northwest, are the castles of Gondar, the greatest palace complex south of the Sahara, which dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Also in the area are the Blue Nile Falls, and Lake Tana, with beautifully decorated island churches and monasteries.

The finest icons are, however, to be seen in the renowned museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, housed in Emperor Haile Selassie's former palace in Addis Ababa. And then, in the southeast, there is the early Muslim walled city of Harar, the abode in the 19th century of both the explorer Richard Burton and the poet-turned-gunrunner Arthur Rimbaud. The country also has spectacular mountain scenery and interesting animal and, above all, bird life.

Ethiopia has in recent years been preparing for expanded tourism. Moderately good modern hotels and enlarged airports have been built at the main tourist destinations. The past few years have also witnessed the publication of several valuable guidebooks, including an excellent Lonely Planet survey of Ethiopia (and nearby Eritrea and Djibouti) by Frances Linzee Gordon, and a witty travelogue by John Graham, aptly titled Ethiopia off the Beaten Trail .

Stuart Munro-Hay, a scholar of distinction who has worked as an archaeologist at Aksum, has now entered the tourist fray. His monograph Ethiopia, the Unknown Land sometimes fails to include recent information on hotels and such like but should prove valuable to both the discerning tourist and the armchair reader requiring an introduction to the country's cultural history.

A brief historical introduction, a perceptive account of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and a useful summary of the doings of foreign travellers, are followed by an extensive survey of the country's better known historical sites.

This part of the book, which runs to 300 pages and is accompanied by good sketch maps, may take readers by surprise in that it moves chronologically backwards: from Gondar to Harar, and from Lalibala to Aksum and Yeha. The last, the site of a prehistoric temple erected only a few centuries after the time of Solomon and Sheba, is reached by passing the battlefield of Adwa, where Emperor Menilek won a resounding victory over the Italians in 1896.

Each place described is presented in its historical context, and the work is supported by a detailed chronological table and a select bibliography. The book thus provides the tourist with virtually everything he or she could wish to know.

Richard Pankhurst is professor of Ethiopian studies, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, the Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide

Author - Stuart Munro-Hay
ISBN - 1 86064 744 8
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £24.50
Pages - 390

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