Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Full Day in Axum and Scrambled Egg Bread

The post office is finally open, so I drop my postcards and confirm that the 2 birr stamps are fine for all destinations. Next I wander up the hill past the Bath of Sheba, as the reservoir is known.

People walk from all around with plastic containers to fill up, most carrying the tubs themselves, some using donkeys. First up I come across King Ezana’s Inscription, a 6 ft high stone tablet written in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Ancient Greek, in a similar manner to the Rosetta Stone.

King Ezana’s Inscription


It was discovered by local farmers, who have their work cut out with the stony fields.

I walk with a couple of school girls up to the top of the hill. One is handing out marked work to the other children as she walks. After a brief attempt to sell me some tat, they give up and just skip along beside me. At the top, one finds the tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, well-constructed underground stone structures, not dissimilar to the Valley of the Kings Egyptian efforts, but much darker as the (presumably more-recently installed) electric lights don’t seem to work.

Ah, in the second they do, so I get to take a photo of the coffin for your pleasure, before noticing the bats hanging from the ceiling starting to wake up.

Time to exit!

For me, the pleasure of being up here is not a couple of tombs, but the view over the Adwa Range in the distance, a small set of hills which rise from the plains quite sharply, like a set of teeth pointing to the sky.

I circle round the hill to get a better view, unobstructed by a ridge of trees,

and as I pause for a moment enjoying the view, first one, then multitudes of kids appear, all asking for pens and money repeatedly. End of peace, time to go. I continue round the hill to get back to town, which leads me through pretty rural areas with enormous strange trees and plenty of cacti.

Best of all, with only farmers about and no children, I am left alone.

I notice that here they have moved on to oxen to pull their ploughs – a technology jump from the Gonder area!

Sam’s Rules for Greeting Ethiopians
Elderly people get a “Salam” and a nod, youngsters get a “Hello”
Shouting at me from behind or the side gets ignored
Anyone using any impolite terms gets ignored – eg “You, you!”
Requests for pens or money are bounced back – “no, *you* give me 1 birr”
One must judge on approach how likely they are to beg or hassle, so as to adopt the “leave me alone” frown
Guides and touts get ignored completely after a single polite refusal
Shaloms are ignored (I look quite Israeli with my hair, especially if unshaven)
Anyone doing honest work is given priority over well-dressed smooth-operator types

I lunch at Remhai Hotel, it’s quiet, but apparently Tony Wheeler (Mr Lonely Planet) says he had the best Ethiopian food here. I order a mixed plate with injera, which is fantastic – a large tray with an unfolded injera pancake, topped with about 10 different dishes, meat and vegetable, with all different flavours, some spicy.

Walking back, a wedding goes past – a few cars, the lead one of which beeps it’s horn repeatedly. Strangely I notice that there are two guys in the back with the bride! At the Ethiopian Air office, I try to reserve my Lalibela to Addis flight for three days later, and find both flights are full!

Strangely, he offers to put me on the wait list then confirms me. I ask how he does this, apparently they free up some reserved seats.

My last port of call in Axum is the Queen of Sheba’s palace. It’s several kilometres out of town in a direction I haven’t been before. Usual tedious walk with several thousand people saying hello and asking for pens.

The palace itself sits on the roadside, across the road from several large stones standing in a ploughed field.

The palace is a stone construction, with walls up to a few metres high. There’s some small-scale renovation work going on currently, with half a dozen people digging away or moving rocks about, supervised by a person sitting at a desk under a tree at the edge.

At the back of the complex there is a stand which though rather wobbly, allows one to look over the complex.

In the centre one can see where the thrown sat, and the bases of pillars long gone. The rest of the palace is divided up into small rooms – it’s not that big a site, the whole palace being perhaps 30m by 30m.

Solomon line was unbroken until 225th monarch Emperor Haile Selassie’s death in 1975.

I pick up a macchiato coffee on the way back at a cafe, but I want juice! There don’t appear to be any places in town serving anything but coffee or soft drinks.

There’s not much available in town in general really, and I suspect Lalibela won’t be much different. In general the history here is more interesting than in Gonder, but what there is to see on the ground is far better preserved in Gonder – the castles are really splendid. Interestingly, there seem to be lots of English people about in Axum. I notice an Overland truck parked up on the main street – I wonder what locals make of these monstrosities, found across Africa – these guys are apparently doing Cairo – Cape Town.

In the evening, just as I head down to the restaurant, the lights go out. Downstairs I find full – I guess there’s a tour group staying here. Candles suffice until the generator kicks in. I have shiro with injera and read about Algeria and Libya – LP Africa is my book substitute because of the Henry James disaster. It’s still dark upstairs in the bar when I wander up.

Breakfast is the egg sandwich. When I ask for a coffee, I’m told “no coffee”. No coffee?! This is Ethiopia! People drink more coffee than water, how can this have happened?!! Eventually it transpires that there’s no power hence no boiling water. That makes more sense than a lack of coffee – usually here people even roast their own beans. I take a tuk tuk to the airport, paying several times what locals pay (even the locals who are flying). Second breakfast as I wait for the inevitably delayed flight is so-called “scrambled egg bread” which I ask for by pointing at other people who have it – it looks like a plate of spicy fried rice, red in colour. It is spicy for sure, but I can’t really detect much egg, more just mashed up bread with chilli ketchup!

The flight is on time! Before boarding, we watch a UN helicopter take off. The use here as a base for monitoring troop movements (Eritrea won’t let them do the same on the other side) along the Ethiopian – Eritrean border, which is the frontline in hostilities between the two countries – Ethiopia currently occupy the border town of Badme, awarded to Eritrea by an international border committee in 2002. Incidentally, the UN are about to pull out of Eritrea completely as for some reason they are being denied fuel. In the reports I’ve seen on the situation, there haven’t been any explanations as to why the Eritrean government is doing this, but anyway, no fuel means no operations – they are talking about moving everything to Ethiopia temporarily.

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