The Holy Week in Ethiopia

A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.
— Mahatma Gandhi

I don't know if my photos and writing can do justice to the beautiful culture of Ethiopia, but here is my best attempt. I only spent 10 days in this country, but even one day is enough to see that it has a different feel to other countries in East Africa. Ethiopia is one of the only countries in Africa (arguably, along with Liberia and Lesotho) to avoid long-term colonization by the Europeans, Asians or Arabs. The Italians tried to colonize Ethiopia but failed as a result of the Ethiopian victory at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. They made a second attempt in 1936, but only stayed until 1941 when the guerrilla war led by the beloved Haile Selassie at the forefront drove them out, leaving a sovereign Ethiopian nation once again. The consequence of not being colonized, in my opinion, is one of the primary factors behind the strong culture of the people of Ethiopia. It is a nation who is proud of its history and its customs, because it's one they have written themselves, without the influence of unwelcome guests. Every Ethiopian you meet is extremely well-versed in the country's history, and will likely mention (at least once) that they were never colonized and that they defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa. The song I posted above is about this famous battle, and the emotion of the singer Gigi is sure to pull heavily at your heart strings. I felt like this fierce love for the country was present in all Ethiopians, through all generations. Ethiopia follows its own calendar, which is 8 years later than the rest of the world, meaning I was 8 years younger on this trip! From my understanding, this is because Balthazar, the Ethiopian wise-man who visited Jesus and brought the gift of Frankincense - found all over the Ethiopian highlands - took 8 years to return with the news, resulting in the timeline calendar of A.D. + 8 (an abbreviation for the Latin phrase Anno Domino, meaning "year of our lord"). The Ethiopians also have their own time. I was quite confused at first why the clock in the taxi read 2:00 at 8 in the morning, and after the second or third taxi I was starting to question whether any of the clocks worked in this country. The Ethiopian clock actually makes a lot of sense though when you think about the evolution of humanity. The clock starts at sunrise, and then resets at sunset. So 6AM is actually 0:00, 2PM is 8:00, and 8PM is 2:00. Truly, our day should begin at sunrise and end at sunset; this of course is before the evolution of humanity and technology when we decided to become night-owls instead.

I planned this trip through the Western part of Ethiopia with my friend Ben who is also an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Fellow in Uganda. Our first stop was the capital, Addis Ababa to visit our friend Ele, who is another EWB Fellow based in Ethiopia. Addis is just like any other capital city I've been to, over-crowded, busy and a place where one should keep a close eye on their belongings. We had one of the most pleasant pick-pocketing experiences though, and I'm not being sarcastic! Walking toward the Red Terror Museum, being the tourists that we so blatantly were, Ben's wallet got pick-pocketed. But thanks to the kind gentleman walking behind us who got our attention, we were able to point the thief out, and to our surprise he actually gave the wallet back! Neither of us could explain this. If this were to happen to you in Nairobi the thief would be long gone before you even realized you've been robbed. Maybe he wasn't so good at the sport, or maybe it comes back to the idea of being proud. If you're proud you'll only do something if you can do it right.

I sometimes question whether colonization is somehow linked to poverty, so I was quite shocked at first to see there is still an alarming amount of underprivileged people flooding the streets of Addis. I believe this is in part due to the events that unfolded in the 70's and 80's, and that the Ethiopian government is not innocent when it comes to corrupt deals involving over-abundant foreign aid. The Red Terror Museum is definitely worth a visit as it describes the violent period of bloodshed, torture and mass murders of Ethiopian's from 1977-78. It took place at the hands of the military fascist government known as the Derg who overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. This government's ideologies were based on communist principles with the execution of political killings against anyone (typically young intellectuals from the Tigray region) thought to be associated with the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Over 500,000 people were killed in this modern day holocaust, and the after-math resulted in the steady deterioration of the state. Ethiopia was also hit by a devastating famine from 1983-85 which killed another estimated 400,000-800,000 people. Every country has its own dark history, but regardless of this it doesn't take away from the charm of the present-day culture.

An obvious next stop was for Ethiopia's famous coffee. Tomoca Coffee is the oldest coffee shop in Addis and it definitely felt like we had gone back in time to a parlour from the 50's, or at least what I imagine the 50's to be like. The coffee was delicious, nice and strong and served in small cups, just like an Italian espresso. Even though the Italians briefed the area only for a hot second in the timeline of our universe, the Ethiopians seemed to have embraced the best parts of the Italian culture and melded it with their own. Piazza is the Italian district in Addis where you can find delicious restaurants serving home-made pasta and pizza. Ethiopians also say "ciao" for goodbye, another Italian take-away. One of my favourite parts about travelling is visiting the local markets, so I dragged us to Mercado, which is the largest open-air market in East Africa. The feeling of being white in Ethiopia is definitely a different experience than I've had in Kenya. You are still asked for money and things, mainly by children who will scream "You, You, You, You, You" until they have your complete attention, at which point they'll proceed to ask for a pen or for chocolate. The adults all looked quite sceptical of us, especially at the market. In Kenya and Uganda, all the children and even the adults are usually thrilled to see a "mzungu", so at first Ben and I kind of got the impression that maybe Ethiopians weren't all that friendly. It was a good moment to check ourselves though, is friendliness based off how you react to the colour of one's skin? Or is it based off the intention of your actions and how you treat those who have earned your trust? 

Sipping on coffee with the locals at Tomoca.

Sipping on coffee with the locals at Tomoca.

The only photo I managed to get at the market as the locals weren't as keen on pictures as they are in Kenya and Uganda.

The only photo I managed to get at the market as the locals weren't as keen on pictures as they are in Kenya and Uganda.

That evening we enjoyed exotic shoulder dancing at a local culture house over jugs of Tej, the local brew of honey-wine. Ethiopian dancing is incredible. You have to check it out for yourself because I can't even comprehend how they move their bodies like that. Check youtube!

The next morning we boarded a flight to Bahir Dar, the destination point for visiting the famous Blue Nile Falls and Lake Tana. Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia and is the source of the Blue Nile River. It is also home to monasteries built on several islands of the Lake, which are still home to Orthodox monks and nuns. We had a pretty interesting guide lead us through the monasteries, who is also an Orthodox Priest and gave us a thorough lesson on Orthodox Christianity, which varies slightly from modern day Christianity. They use both the Old and New Testaments, priests can marry, they don't eat pork, they believe in gospels written by women, and the religion is integrated so heavily that it is part of everyone's culture, even the youth, which I find is not the case for many Catholics in the West. Something that really stuck with me was his reference to the Bible, and how it is a book which cannot be interpreted by the lay-man on its own. It is a book which can only be referenced with understanding of the context of where it was written, by whom and with other complimentary scriptures and doctrines. Many women in rural areas have face tattoos representing their faith.

A foggy boat ride on Lake Tana in the early morning.

A foggy boat ride on Lake Tana in the early morning.

Pelican's gracefully floating on the surface of Lake Tana.

Pelican's gracefully floating on the surface of Lake Tana.

We learned a lot about these frescos which were depicted with a similar style in the majority of the monasteries and churches we visited around Ethiopia. The most interesting is that non-believers are depicted with only one-eye in the paintings, with half of their face hidden. This is because of their inability to see the "truth" with full-face value. Can you see any non-believers in the pictures below?

Frescos depicting the life of Christ at the Lake Tana Monasteries.

Frescos depicting the life of Christ at the Lake Tana Monasteries.

Monks taking a moment of prayer and solitude at the monasteries.

Monks taking a moment of prayer and solitude at the monasteries.

Where foggy skies meet water in the early morning of Lake Tana.

Where foggy skies meet water in the early morning of Lake Tana.

A monk who shared some delicious injera dipped in chilli spice with us on this island monastery.

A monk who shared some delicious injera dipped in chilli spice with us on this island monastery.

The Blue Nile Falls were a beautiful sight to see, although I was a bit disappointed by the reduction in size. Due to a hydro-electric dam which has been built, the size of the Blue Nile Falls has decreased by roughly two-thirds in recent years. It is known as Tis Abay in Amharic, meaning "great smoke". The water splashing up from the pool of water below does indeed make it look like it's smoking.


Driving through the countryside we saw many straw-houses like the one below. The landscape of Ethiopia is quite dry and arid, especially in this season. If you are short on time, you are forced to fly between destinations as the roads are not fully developed and it can take quite a long time to get from point A to point B. But if you have the time, I highly suggest driving through this beautiful landscape. 


The next day we started our journey to Gondar, with a brief stop-over in Awra Amba, a village where people work for the benefit of the community rather than individual gain. This village was founded by Guru Zumra Nuru in 1980. Zumra was a visionary of his time who was actually sent away by his family to be "cured" of his erratic thoughts, which he began forming at the bright age of four years. In this community, all women and men are considered equal. Gender-designated roles do not exist. The citizens observe no religion as it is their belief that "God" is in every one of us; therefore every living being must be treated like a temple. Places and times of worship do not exist, as it is within every person to observe their own practice. Members can join and leave as they wish, and it is even encouraged for youth to leave the community and attend Universities in the city. The community has a kindergarten and primary school. We visited on a Sunday, so everyone was home with their families but we still got a lovely tour of the surroundings. The community suffered severely during the Red Terror and due to that, lost all of its arable agricultural land. The main economy is now based on weaving and sewing. Community members work six days a week, and are also allowed to own weaving machines to make extra private income. 

The Kindergarten with lovely mats donated by the Alliance Française. 

The Kindergarten with lovely mats donated by the Alliance Française. 

The home for elders who are looked after by their community members. 

The home for elders who are looked after by their community members. 

An innovative smokeless stove designed by the guru himself, for cooking injera (a sourdough-risen, spongy flatbread made out of teff flour) .

An innovative smokeless stove designed by the guru himself, for cooking injera (a sourdough-risen, spongy flatbread made out of teff flour) .

When weaving becomes a family affair.

When weaving becomes a family affair.

Gondar is a beautiful city whose main attraction are the stone castles, which are still intact besides the parts that were destroyed during the Second World War. The contrast of the castle and straw grass was lovely against the dark skies. We actually got caught in a pretty intense hail storm while we were there, which served as the perfect opportunity for our guide to teach us some Amharic. 


Gondar is also the starting point for all hikes into the Simien Mountains. I didn't really know what to expect of this mountain range, and to be honest, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to mountains as I've been privileged to spend time in some of the world’s best mountain landscapes within the Canadian Rocky Mountains. However, I can say, without a doubt that this 3-day hike took me to some of the most jaw-dropping scenery I have ever seen in my life and pictures don't really do it justice. Apparently the best time to hike in the Simiens is from October to December as the entire valley is green and blooming with wildflowers. We missed the flowers, but were greeted with misty skylines, adding an alluring mystique to the strongly contrasting yellow ground and black skies. Our friendly group of 6 from the UK, USA, Germany, Israel and Canada were followed by 2 scouts who protected us the whole way with their AK-47s, and were a saving grace to poor Ben and Sarah who unfortunately suffered from altitude sickness for most of the trip. Big ups to both of them for finishing the hike on a strong note though!


The Simiens are home to the lavish Gelada Baboon, sometimes called the bleeding-heart monkey. Geladas are actually not baboons but members of their own genus, but Theropithecus is not a name someone would be able to visualize so I suppose baboon is more fitting. Unfortunately my camera's auto-focus was acting up on this trip so the photos didn't turn out as clear as I would have hoped, but I hope you get a sense for the beauty of these royal creatures from all that golden hair.  

The 50-m waterfall drop. Don't look down!

The 50-m waterfall drop. Don't look down!


Our friend Roei was showing off his fabulous yoga poses, my favourite part was the group of children who gradually began to form up the hill to look down at him wondering what on earth he was doing. 


We watched the most stunning sunset I have ever seen, but again pictures can't capture this moment accurately. I felt such a strong sense of connection to mother earth at this moment. The mountains were vibrating with energy, whispering hymns of generations passed. As one of my good friend's likes to say, "nothing matters ever", but in this moment, I realized that this (our earth) is really all that matters. We shed blood on this land, fight over money and power, walk over people to chase our individualistic dreams, all the while neglecting our environment and our planet, barely breathing from all the pollution we continue to layer on. Our planet needs us more than ever. Travel, explore, and take care, because one day, it may not exist like this, and all we'll be left with are distant memories, photos and stories to remember its greatness.

Enjoying this beautiful moment with new friends.

Enjoying this beautiful moment with new friends.

Lobelia trees.

Lobelia trees.

Panoramic Landscapes captured on the third and final day of our trek.

Panoramic Landscapes captured on the third and final day of our trek.


The next day we rented a car and driver to take us from Gondar to Axum. The drive was a long 8 hour journey as the roads aren't in the best condition, but I'm happy we did this drive. We made our way through the Tigray Mountain region and drove past communities of people all adorned in white. This was the Holy Easter Week in the Orthodox religion. The majority of people had been fasting from all meat products for over 55 days. It was pretty incredible seeing everyone walking from their village to church dressed in fabulous white scarves. We drove past an Eritrean refugee camp along the way, although photos were strictly prohibited. 

A bit blurry as we were zooming past, but I wanted to capture a sight we frequently saw on our drive.

A bit blurry as we were zooming past, but I wanted to capture a sight we frequently saw on our drive.


I'm not going to lie; my initial impression of Axum (or Aksum) was not all that great. I expected more from the city where Orthodox Christianity originated in Ethiopia, the city holding the sacred Ark of the Covenant and a plethora of holy sites. But after only 2 days, I fell in love with this place, largely because of the kind Tigirinyan people I was blessed to meet. Aksum was ruled by the Aksumites from 100AD-940AD. In pre-Christian times it was a Pagan society which worshipped the Sun (Female Goddess) and Moon (Male God) and the snake (which is also worshipped in Indigenous Amazonian communities). The Aksumites spoke Ge'ez, originating from the Sabaean civilization that migrated from Yemen, which is still used by clergy during religious ceremonies on special occasions like Easter. Another really beautiful thing about Ethiopia is its acceptance of other cultures and religions. Even though it was fully indoctrinated by Christianity, it welcomed Islam into the nation as well, and both religions live in peace to this day. We visited many historic sites on our one-day tour through Aksum. Several stelae survive in the town, dating between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The largest today stands over 23 meters high and the original largest at 33 meters fell, likely at the time of erection, and still remains on-site today. They differ from obelisks found in ancient Rome as they are monolithic i.e. formed by a single rock stone. The tops of these stelae represent the half moon and stand on the tombs of the royal families. We also visited the Queen of Sheba Palace, which is actually underground now as excavation projects are still in the works, and the "Ethiopian Rosetta Stone", engraved in Greek, Sabaean and Ge'ez inscribed by King Ezana in the 4th Century AD.

Tombs beneath the stelae.

Tombs beneath the stelae.

Our beautiful bajaj (i.e. tuk-tuk)

Our beautiful bajaj (i.e. tuk-tuk)

Enjoying a traditional coffee ceremony.

Enjoying a traditional coffee ceremony.


My favourite part of my time in Axum was visiting St. Mary's Church. I have never been to a church service quite like this. It runs all day, throughout the Holy Week, with worshippers coming in and out as they please, and even pausing to have a rest in the church as many have been fasting all day without food or drink. Women and men sit on opposite sides of the church, and children of all ages take part in prayers, which is a work-out in and of itself as you repetitively rise up and down from the ground while incorporating hand motions in the sign of the cross. Next door to this newly built church is the original church, St. Mary of Zion, where the Ark of the Covenant is believed to be held. No one can see the Holy Ark, or even be in close proximity to it, except for one appointed monk who spends his life in the tiny chapel, guarding the box that holds the covenant, but even he can't see the ark himself. There have been various attempts to steal back the ark, which was believed to be taken from Israel by Menelik, Queen Sheba's son, in 950 B.C. when he visited his father, King Solomon. The Ark of the Covenant is the sacred chest made by the Israelites according to the command and design of God to protect the Holy Ten Commandments given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Ethiopian legend believes that this ark protected Ethiopia from invasion; soldiers always carried a replica to battle.


Some happy passer-by's on their way home from church.


And as always, some mandatory cat photos.


As I mentioned, church is an all-day affair, so I decided to head back to take more of these intriguing ceremonies in. On my way, I met Elsa and her lovely family who invited me to take part in prayers with them. At this time of day, the church was fully packed, and the only room left was on the street outside the church. We laid out our prayer mats and broke fast by beating the ground with rocks and eating spicy injera together.  Elsa's brother (from another mother) Ata, took me around to a few more sites and then they invited me back to their home for the most delicious vegetarian injera meal I have ever had. This was my first experience being fed by another woman my age, which is an act of endearment in the Ethiopian tradition. We lit incense and had 3 rounds of strong coffee as is tradition. I am so grateful for their hospitality which warmed my heart, and really made this trip extra special. 


The next day was Easter Saturday. We headed to the animal market where locals trade sheep, chicken and goats in preparation for the big feast on Easter Sunday. The basket market was another delight with brightly coloured straw baskets on display.  


The finale and highlight of this journey was Lalibela. Known for its red-hue rock churches which were constructed in the 12th-13th centuries by King Lalibela, and have rightfully been named a UNESCO world heritage site. There are officially 11 churches, only 7 or which are currently open to the public. Some had amazing frescos carved into the stone on the inside, and each church was different but beautiful in its own unique way. Some were carved into the rocks with only one entrance, some had been completely excavated. What I found so fascinating was how the locals still use it extensively as a holy pilgrimage site, regardless of the fact that it is heavily populated by tourists. It also showcased to me, some of the negative aspects of tourism and photography. The churches have been "protected" by these awful metal structures that apparently weren't consolidated with consideration for the community member’s opinions before constructing them, and they really do take away from the aura of the environment. There were times when I questioned the photography tourists (myself included) were doing as it seemed personally invasive. It was definitely a good learning experience that gave me a glimpse into the ethical dilemmas of photojournalism.


Ele and her boyfriend Alex met Ben and I in Lalibela, so we got to enjoy this lovely day with them. We finished it off with a relaxing sunset at the most unique restaurant I've eaten at. Ben Abeba is a Scottish-Ethiopian fusion restaurant opened up by a Scottish lady and designed by local Ethiopian architects, which I highly suggest visiting if you are ever there. This was the final day of Easter fasting as well. We watched some of the ceremonies that take place from 10:30PM until 3:00AM at each of the churches. Candles are lit and hymns and prayers are sung all night before the families go home to break fast with the 'Doro Wat' chicken delicacy. Our bajaj drivers that day were two incredibly kind teenagers from Lalibela. Not only did they let Ben drive the bajaj, but our new friend Kidane also invited us over to his home the next day to try his mother’s delicious doro wat chicken and some locally brewed Tella (barley beer). The children of Lalibela that we had the pleasure of getting to know briefly the morning of our departure were delightful too. Tomas and his friends led us down their neighbourhood streets straight to their family’s home for coffee before we had to board our flight back to Kenya and Uganda.


This was a truly incredible trip. I feel extremely grateful for my travel buddies Ben and Ele, and for all the people I met on this trip. To my new Ethiopian friends, you are all like family to me and this trip will be near and dear to my heart for a long time.