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Into Ethiopian Air

Valor in the Mountains

The English called him "mad dog Theodore," but Ethiopians love Emperor Tewodros II. It all began when he sent Queen Victoria a highly wrought letter that she never answered. With his fierce pride wounded, Tewodros took the British consul hostage, and that act brought the full English fury to the Ethiopian plain. In 1868 at the Battle of Maqdala, when all was surely lost, Emperor Tewodros placed in his mouth the tip of a pistol Victoria had sent him years before, and before the onrushing enemy troops, he looked skyward and shot himself. Near the medieval castles of Gonder, smiling schoolchildren poke their fingers in their mouths and imitate the imperial panache, and then remind you that Ethiopia is the only African country that was never colonized.

Yes, the Duce's army occupied it between 1936 and 1941, but Ethiopians insist that unlike the rest of Africa, their country never became a European appendage. Yet despite memories of mustard gas, today few Ethiopians resent the Italians, and the best restaurant in the Horn of Africa, the Ristorante Castelli in Addis -- Brad Pitt ate there a few days before Carlo Castelli served me extraordinary raviolini ai funghi porcini e spinaci -- has kept its doors open for more than 50 years.

Street scene in Addis Ababa
Street scene in Addis Ababa
A street scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Alexei Dmitriev)

But perhaps the Ethiopians simply consider themselves victors still, for in 1896, as Europe parceled out the last bits of the continent, Ethiopia stood its ground and drove the white invaders out. Although Emperor Menelik's troops sustained losses at the Battle of Adwa, at the end of the day close to 10,000 well-equipped Italian soldiers were dead. Forty years later, that humiliation stuck in Mussolini's throat. It may lodge in some Italian throats even today.

Ancient Gods

During the 19th century, rabbinical authority judged the ancient Ethiopian falashas to be "true" Jews with an enviable claim to Hebraic antiquity. It was recognized that their split from Jerusalem must have come at some remote time, for the falashas retained animal sacrifice from the days of King David and laws that predated the Talmud.

On my last Friday in Addis, an expatriate Long Island doctor invited me to Shabbat dinner at his home, where his guests were from Italy, Spain, Cochin China, Washington, Alabama, Kashmir and Seattle. Although the only falasha present had never traveled far, when he told us his home, he named Israel. In 1991 he had stayed behind when, as rebel action in Addis suddenly threatened the very survival of the falashas, the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir acted fast to start an airlift. Within hours, El Al had ripped the seats out of 35 jumbo jets, and within two days Operation Solomon had flown more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews back "home" to Israel, for the first time in two -- or perhaps three or more -- thousand years.

In the shadow of great pagan steles that outweigh the largest Egyptian obelisks by 20 tons, Ethiopia's Jewish and Christian pasts come together in Aksum. It was in Aksum, in the early 4th century, that King Ezna declared Christianity the official state religion, and it was to there that the 13th-century Kebra Negast traced the countries' unrivaled royal bloodline -- beginning with Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Aksumite Queen of Sheba, and ending with the death of Haile Selassie in 1975.

The Kebra Negast also records how the grown Menelik journeyed to Jerusalem, stole the Ark of the Covenant from the temple and brought it home to his mother's land, where it is said to remain still, in Aksum's church of St. Mary of Zion. Guarded by one priest for his entire adult lifetime, it is hidden from all other eyes, for -- just as in the Harrison Ford movie -- a glimpse of it, you are told, would instantly consume the tourist, scholar, raider or journalist in flames.

The Mission

Near the entrance of Mother Teresa's Addis Home for the Destitute and Dying, a patient had just arrived wearing a suit. The suit was miserable, stained and ripped, with its lining falling out and its seams pulled apart, but the man knew he was about to meet the nuns who would care for him, and he wished to honor them, so he came in a suit.

An American doctor from the Baro Hotel had invited me to visit the mission. As I spoke with a man stretched out in a bed, I flinched when I saw a toe graze his ear. The doctor pulled back the blanket to uncover another man in the same narrow bed, the two of them positioned head to foot -- something common in Addis, where hospital beds are scarce. There was a rumble of noise in the big room and a steady flow of nurses, doctors and stray people, and as the doctor joked with a 16-year-old boy with leukemia, I watched as the grievously ill man in the next bed smiled.

Earlier this week at a Washington hospital, as I waited in a paper gown behind a curtain, I related to a nurse what I had seen in Addis. She shuddered, but I must have said it wrong. I am no fool and I know it would be far better if these people had all that medicine can offer, but that is impossible today in Ethiopia. Yet as these isolated people really start to fail, perhaps they understand that they are in it together, as in noisy rooms and with stray people constantly moving around them, they vaguely hold on to the stranger in their beds.

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