Not far from the vaultlike modern church that now houses the ark in Aksum, a mural shows the Ethiopian patron saint of music as he invents the country's haunting sound. As Saint Yared plays the ancient percussive sistrum, his king is so lost in the music that he leans on his spear and unknowingly drives it deep into the saint's right foot. The saint himself is so lost in rapture that he doesn't notice as blood streams out onto the palace floor. There are winning religious images throughout Ethiopia (apparently Saint Tekla Haiminot prayed so long standing on one leg that the other one fell off, sprouted wings and flew to heaven on its own), and even in the taxi on the way to the Aksum airport, I saw pictures of the Virgin and Child glued to the dashboard.
Although both pictures showed the same icon, the picture on the left was bigger than the one on the right, and my guess was that one day the driver had come upon the second and had pasted it up next to the first, just because he could. "You're Ethiopian Orthodox?" I asked as I settled in beside him. The American rap music on the radio was loud, and the driver's English was minimal, so I had to ask him again. When he finally understood my question, he nodded and said yes.
A street scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
I sat back in my seat and took in the beating, thudding rap song -- its lyrics informed with a sexual precision worthy of a third-year medical student. In sight of an ancient city and not so far from an infinite past, I liked the pounding music quite a lot and was taken with the Zenlike elusiveness of "Decapitate his ass, smack him, slap him in the back of the truck."
The peaceful driver, however, did not seem aware of any of it. I pointed to the images on the dashboard and said, "Christ and Mary." He shot me a lovely smile and reached out his hand to brush mother and child with the tips of his fingers. "My God," he said with much tenderness.
John Auchard last wrote for Travel about Calcutta.
GETTING THERE: At least six airlines, including KLM, Northwest and Ethiopian airlines, fly from Washington Dulles to Addis Ababa, mostly with two stops. Round-trip fares start at about $1,700.
GETTING AROUND: Many travelers book tours -- not a bad idea. Bus rides are often grueling (the trip over dirt roads to Lalibela from Addis can take two days), but the excellent Ethiopian Airlines (said to be one of the best airlines in Africa) has frequent flights throughout the entire historical circuit -- and in-country fares are very economical, especially if booked ahead in the United States. (I did not book ahead, but my circuit of flights from Addis to Lalibela to Aksum to Gonder to the lake resort of Bahar Dar and then back to Addis cost only $318.)
WHEN TO GO: There is a rainy season from mid-June to mid-September, but Ethiopian weather is otherwise stunning -- in the low 70s during the day with brilliant sun. The great religious holidays, Christmas and Epiphany or Timkat, come during the January high season.
WHERE TO STAY: The Sheraton Addis (Taitu Street, 011-251-1-171717, www.Sheraton.com) is reputed to be the best hotel in Africa, with rooms starting at $181 a night for a double. Economical alternatives are the centrally located Ghion Hotel (011-251-1-513222 or -510240, www.ghionhotel.com.et, $60), with a nice pool -- or, in the Piazza district, the Taitu (011-251-1-553244 or -560787, $10-$25), thick with atmosphere. I loved the Baro (001-251-1-559846), also in the Piazza, with a leafy courtyard; a basic room with bath cost me $6 a night. In Lalibela, Harer, Gonder and Aksum, the hotels are often humble but clean and friendly, averaging $10 a night.
WHERE TO EAT: In Addis, real splurges at $20 a person are Dashen (behind the main post office), a great Ethiopian restaurant with a nice garden, chic decor and fantastic food, and Castelli (in the Piazza area), an Italian place as good as almost any restaurant in Rome. Blue Tops (opposite the National Museum), where I had lunch with Tigist Bekele (who has sung at Dukem Restaurant on U Street NW in Washington), serves fine Ethiopian and Italian food in a relaxed atmosphere. Good Ethiopian food is plentiful in the cities and towns for $5 to $8; in Addis you also find Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and the not-quite-recommended Burger Queen.
INFORMATION: The Web site of the Ethiopian Embassy is helpful: www.ethiopianembassy.org. The Ethiopian Tourism Commision offers good information on both historical and natural sights: www.tourismethiopia.org.
-- John Auchard