We were quite excited to sign up for a two-week tour of Ethiopia. The land of the Queen of Sheba, Emperor Haile Selassie, and the Black Falasha Jews appealed to Fran and me on several levels. After two long flights, we arrived at the capital city, Addis Ababa, on February 2, 2007, and went directly to the Sheraton Hotel. The long u-shaped drive in front of the hotel was to give two surprises, one on arrival and one on the last day.
The incoming shock was an electronic message flashing across a large pole sign at the entrance: “225 Days to the Milennium”. We were both approaching age 65, but we didn’t think senioritis had caused us to miss the seven years since January 1st, 2000. Nor did we believe that just because it was Groundhog Day in Pennsylvania had we stuck our head in the earth for that long. So what the heck was going on? It turns out that most of the people are adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and under its ecclesiastical lunar calendar New Year’s Day and the date of the millennium was actually September 11, 2007. Go figure.
Another confusing variation was that their days are not on a 24-hour clock, but rather on two 12-hour cycles, and they start at 7 AM rather than midnight. When setting a watch, an appointment, or especially a flight schedule, you’d better know if the time was on the Ethiopian clock or on the rest-of-the-world time. Otherwise what you thought was a 7 PM flight might leave at noon or maybe at midnight (I could never really figure it out). And so began a very strange journey.
Our small group did manage to make the next plane, and flew east towards Somalia over a very arid area, landing in Harar. This old city was primarily inhabited by Arab Muslims. We visited a large outdoor market where you could buy camels, housewares, and any kind of clothing. Most of the garments were in huge piles, apparently sent by charitable organizations in the USA and Europe. Instead of the apparel being distributed to needy families, it was for sale, albeit at very low prices. We never did find out how the vendors acquired these donated items. But one could buy two or three shirts, pants, shoes or whatever one desired for less than the equivalent of US$1.00. Having brought our clothes with us, we passed on these bargains, and went to visit the next attraction.
There sat a local villager, dressed in native attire and head covering. He was of medium age, medium height, and had a medium coffee complexion. The only remarkable thing about him was that he was surrounded by several full-grown hyenas. Now hyenas may well be the most disliked of larger mammals: They are unattractive, with splotchy coats and an unsightly face; they hunt in packs to take down larger animals like antelope and baby elephants that most of us consider more endearing (pun intended); and they are primarily scavengers, ripping apart the carcasses and bones of dead animals with their powerful jaws, or running in packs at night to snatch freshly killed prey from leopards or cheetahs that have worked long and hard to bring down their dinner. Hyenas will even eat the droppings of other animals to get the nutrients. Sorry for that factoid, but I think it establishes why these critters are usually on the bottom of the animal popularity lists.
On the other hand, hyenas are very social animals, living in large family groups, nurturing and teaching their pups their lifestyle. They are famous for their loud yelp or call, hence the term “laughing hyena”; but it is actually a way of warning their pack of danger. Finally, like my family, the hyena females dominate the males, but in their case the feminine members of the species are actually larger than the males.
So how was this local character sitting safely amidst these wild, nasty creatures? He was feeding them, of course. Every sunset they would come to the same spot on the edge of the city, and their benefactor would give them meat. How did he afford to buy this food? Simple. He offered tourists like us the opportunity to feed them for a dollar. Now I have fed a variety of animals in my life, including fish, birds, and even had a giraffe eat out of my hand during a backstage tour of our local zoo, but I never had envisioned feeding a hyena. So I handed over the buck, he handed me a long wooden stick with some meat speared on it, I stuck it out toward the hyena and she quickly snatched the meat, fortunately leaving my fingers intact. I have the pictures to prove it.
After a long bumpy ride we arrived at Gondar, the historical center of Ethiopian Jewry. That many Hebrews had left Palestine and settled in Ethiopia is indisputable, but when they came is debatable. Folklore states that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon around 1000 B.C., left impregnated, and gave birth to the future King Menelik in Ethiopia. He, in turn, went back as a young man to visit Solomon, who was overjoyed to see his son. Menelik then returned to his own country followed by many of Solomon’s councilors. According to the local legend, they also brought the fabled Ark of the Covenant, and it has resided in various places in Ethiopia ever since. Other stories have the Jews coming at much later times, and continuing to practice their religion in the ancient traditions ever since. In any case, 40 or so years ago the Ethiopian Jews were recognized as entitled to come to Israel under that nation’s Law of Return. Thousands of Falashas, as the people were called, did emigrate to the Promised Land, also escaping the famine and impoverishment they had grown up with. There are only a few Falashas still left in Ethiopia, although many others call themselves Jews and try to relocate to Israel. Now in Gondar, the homeland of black Jews for two to three millennia, one finds many new carvings depicting Solomon, Sheba, and other Biblical characters, but little else.
From Gondar we drove for hours on rutted, bone-jarring roads to one or two other towns in the highlands of Ethiopia. The inns were basic at best, the food unpalatable, but the sights quite interesting. So it was with great anticipation that we arrived at the town of Lalibela tired and dusty, but looking forward to bedding down at what we were told was a brand new 3-star hotel. It was well after dark when we reached our destination, and we were surprised to find no lights on in the office. We were directed to walk up an unpaved, uneven, unlit hill. Eventually, stumbling upon our room, we discovered with dismay that the reputedly modern abode was only half-finished. There was one light bulb hanging by a loose cord, no dresser, no tables, no window coverings, and walls of unfinished cinder blocks. There was an attached bathroom, but to flush the toilet we had to fill the plastic trash basket with water from the sink and dump it in the tank. Hot water was non-existent. We were not expecting much in the way of accommodations, but our hopes had been raised, and now dashed. Oh well, we had never stayed in an uncompleted hotel before, so this would make a nice story.
A charming tale of Lalibela is how it was named for a 13th century prince. As a small boy he was viewed as a potential replacement for his uncle, the king, who dispatched soldiers to kill his young rival. The lad successfully hid among a swarm of bees, then left the palace grounds, re-emerging years later to become the monarch. He, and the new royal city he founded, were both given the name Lalibela, or lover of bees, to commemorate his boyhood escapade.
Lalibela is home to one of the most amazing medieval constructions in the world: nine large stone churches carved out of natural rock. The astounding thing is that the churches were cut and sculpted from the top down. From ground level, we lowered our eyes to look upon the roofs of these holy edifices. There were also rough steps cut into the side of the rock so we could carefully walk down to the entrance to each church. Another legend has it that all nine structures were carved in 24 hours, and the angels came down from the starry heavens to help the king accomplish this.
As in many holy places, we were asked to remove our shoes before entering. The floors were covered with old rugs that were teeming with fleas. This is why you have a tour guide. He had instructed us to put an old pair of socks in a plastic zip bag. At each doorway, we took off our shoes and put on the socks. Upon exiting, we would take off the socks and put them back in the plastic bags. It worked! We traversed all these remarkable buildings, literally top to bottom, and took home no fleas to infest our new hotel or our suitcases.
We were in Lalibela for the biggest religious celebration of the year: the Timkat Festival, which is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church version of the Epiphany. Thousands of pilgrims descend on the town for three days of celebration. The next morning we joined the throngs walking down to the large observance site. Even though they may have lived in simple huts with dirt floors, the people were dressed in clean white clothing.
Fran and I, being Jewish, had noticed that there are several similarities between Judaism and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church: services are held on Saturday; there are Stars of David painted on the ceilings of many of the Ethiopian churches; pork is not eaten by the observant; and in the late Middle Ages there was even a Jewess named Judit who ruled all or part of what was then called Abyssinia. Perhaps these likenesses stem from Judaism pre-dating Christianity in Ethiopia, with the neighboring practices of the old Falasha Jews influencing the rituals of the new Orthodox faithful.
The presiding priests were garbed in long colorful robes. One cradled a replica, or Tabot, of the fabled Ark of the Covenant, and deposited it carefully inside a tent of honor at the front. Of course, no one, including the priests themselves, was allowed to unwrap or see the holy relic.
After a couple of hours of marching and chanting, the crowd gathered around a large, shallow rectangular pool of water. There were two sets of temporary stands for people to stand on. The low one was primarily for the locals, the higher structure mostly occupied by foreigners. The reason the natives were not on the taller construction was because you had to buy a more expensive ticket to stand there. Unfortunately, so many onlookers clambered onto the bigger stand that it collapsed with a loud crack quickly followed by a louder cacophony of screams from those falling. Luckily, it crumpled slowly, so no one was seriously injured. Of course, no government officials appeared to investigate, nor attorneys to initiate a lawsuit.
We were standing in the big mass of people about 20 feet back from the pool. It was crowded, but there was no shoving or jostling. Next to me was a middle-aged, short Ethiopian who had brought his three-year-old son. Surprisingly, he hadn’t brought any food for the lad. And the poor child was spending most of the time on the ground sitting amidst everybody’s feet. He was not complaining, but was obviously both hungry and unhappy. Fran had a couple of packages of beef sticks and a banana. She gave them to the father who was pleased to pass them to his son. Being a grandfather, I knew I also had to do something. I lifted the boy onto my shoulders so he could have a good view of the proceedings. When I got tired, I would put him down, and then raise him a few minutes later. I became a hero to the boy, his father, and the surrounding folks.
The high priest, dressed in a sateen white robe and an ornate hat, was droning on and on in the ancient sacred language. We had been there three hours and it was getting hot. Between the temperature, the crowd, the foreign tongue, and the weight of the boy, I was getting weary of the whole event. Maybe even the clergy was too, as a couple of the assistant ministers whispered something to the orator. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the sermon ended. The junior clerics quickly picked up some plastic buckets and plunged them in the pool. The next thing we knew we were being soaked as they hurled the holy water on us. Everyone was thrilled, but not because of the cooling effect. I discovered that we had just been baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
With the festivities successfully concluded, we were eager to fly north to Axum, the ancient city where the Ark of the Covenant is allegedly secured in an old building. Access is only granted to the priest-guardian of the site. But Axum is also home to a very tall stone stele that rivals Cleopatra’s Needle, plus another structure that was supposedly a palace of the Queen of Sheba.
Our American tour escort flew to Axum that afternoon so there would be enough seats on the next flight for the eight guests and our local guide. The next morning we arrived early at the small airfield, got our boarding passes, and checked our luggage. The Ethiopian Airlines plane arrived from Gondar several hours late, but this was not unusual (whether one was on Ethiopian or worldwide time). Some of the passengers disembarked, and we walked out on the tarmac to board. Then the announcement came. All passengers were asked to return to the waiting area inside. After a while the station agent informed us that three of our group – Fran, an older lady, and one of the other husbands – had invalid tickets and would not be allowed on the aircraft. Our local guide would not get involved. He had been in a student demonstration three years ago, was arrested, and spent the next 30 days in solitary confinement. Not fun anywhere, especially not in an Ethiopian prison.
Fran had learned long ago in Haiti not to calmly accept any statements from a bureaucrat. She stepped forward and boldly proclaimed the unjustness of his action, that she was not going to be separated from her husband, that our tour leader was already in Axum, that we had valid boarding passes, that we didn’t have time to go to Axum tomorrow, and that Ethiopia needed to treat tourists fairly if it wanted to attract more. The station agent, unused to having his authority questioned, especially by a woman, was momentarily nonplused. Then he spotted an Ethiopian soldier lounging across the room and frantically waved him over. The military man approached, carrying his AK-47 across his chest. I knew that much of the Ethiopian Army had been trained to fight the Al-Queda terrorists in Somalia. I hoped Fran knew it too, but if she did, it didn’t inhibit her. She just continued her tirade against the soldier. He listened for about 30 seconds, but luckily he didn’t understand English (or at least pretended not to). I don’t think he was intimidated, but he just walked away, leaving the unhappy station agent to handle Fran.
But he wouldn’t change his mind. Apparently several passengers on the plane had chosen to stay on rather than disembark. The pilot wouldn’t make them leave and the agent wouldn’t overrule him. Eventually, our group chose to stay as a unit and fly directly back to Addis Ababa. The station agent said he would take our luggage off the plane. The next day our tour escort met us in Addis. He was waiting for us in the Axum terminal when he saw our bags coming off the plane without us. He figured out what had happened, confirmed it by phone, and brought our bags with him. The tour escort and I visited the home office of Ethiopian Airlines to complain. They listened and offered an apology.
The following day was the last one of our journey. Fran and I did some last-minute shopping and were walking up the long driveway to the Sheraton. I was a few steps in front of her on the narrow sidewalk. Suddenly I heard her cry out. A young man had run out of the surroundings, tried to grab her gold necklace, and violently pushed her down. He quickly ran off empty-handed. Fran was shaken up physically and emotionally. This was the only time in all our travels that force had ever been used against her.
A lady passing by pointed to Fran’s necklace as if to say it was the wrong thing to wear. In fact, Fran would not have worn it, but the hotel staff had said the front drive was safe. The security people told us later this was an isolated incident and they had found the perpetrator. I’m sure the punishment he received made him regret his attack on Fran. And so we ended our trip to Ethiopia with a second shock on the Sheraton driveway.
Three months later we received a check from Ethiopian Airlines for the value of our cancelled flight to Axum. Thoughts of our two surprises, the hyena man, and the churches and festival at Lalibela are vividly etched in our memories. We distinctly recall the remarkable similarities between Judaism and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Our rabbi is a worldly and ecumenical man, but I have not told him about our baptism.