Cousin Lucy stands just 1.1 metres tall. I knew this before, but standing face to, well, skull with her for the first time, I can’t help being struck by just how tiny she was. She’s got her own special room in the National Museum at Addis, which has a display of other Ethiopian people, whose ages range from 4.4 million years ago to 1.1 million years ago. Each skull or collection of teeth/bone fragments is accompanied by the paper in which the discovery was announced – it’s roughly 50:50 Nature to Science. Strange to think that there was a time when so many different species of people were running around Africa and further, many at the same time, and yet, just one of us made it: Homo sapiens sapiens. And at least two of our cousins had a larger brain capacity than us, so it’s not necessarily our cleverness that saw us through.
Genetic diversity is broadest here, in the cradle of humanity, and I set off to learn more about Ethiopia’s many tribes at the wonderful Ethnological Museum. It’s a shining and rare example of how museums could be in the developing world. (Western and local tourists are so often ignorant of the rich culture and history of poorer countries and it can be a challenge finding anything out.) The museum is situated in Haile Selassie’s former palace, surrounded by university gardens that provide welcome relief from the pollution of Addis. Excellent displays and information panels introduce some of the many tribes and customs of the country, from the pastoralists of the highlands to the lip-plate wearers of the lower Omo Valley – It’ll be great background for when I meet them.
First north, crossing the incredible geological trauma of the Rift Valley, where the Earth plunges into an awsome canyon as it is ripped apart, and where 3.2 million years ago Lucy breathed her last. We leave the heavy rains of Addis and arrive in Axum, where it hasn’t rained since early August. Fields of tef (the nationally grown grain, from which Ethiopians make their staple, injera (a kind large spongy pancake), stand short-stalked and half grown.
“We need some rain desperately,” Tomosamo, a local man, tells me. People in the villages do not have enough to eat and the price of tef has gone up too much because there is none.” Ethiopia, with a population of 80 million, half of whom are children, cannot afford successive poor harvests. More than 80% of the people are farmers of some kind and that includes the children, without whose toil the country would starve. As a result, few are attending school, so building a diversified economy with which to trade for food in times of famine, will not happen soon.
Axum, home of the 10th-century BC Queen of Sheba (who was, according to Selassie, his great, great … great grandmother), was once the capital of an empire that stretched from Arabia to Sudan. Sheba, so the legend goes, journeyed to Israel and conceived a son, Menelik, with King Solomon, who became the first Ethiopian king, and brought with him a troop of Isreal’s sons – Ethiopia’s Falashas Jews (who were almost entirely airlifted to the Holy Land during one of the last century’s more bizarre migrations). Travelling in the luggage of this ancient Israeli caravan to Ethiopia was the Ark of the Covenant, which now resides in a small but very holy church in Axum, where it is guarded over by a priest who never leaves his gloomy post day or night (he has a special toilet there, apparently, and food brought), and is the site of pilgrimage for millions. Nobody is allowed in this special church, so we have to take their word for it that the Ark is there – Nick thinks it is, I am boringly sceptical.
What is true, is that the people spoke a Semitic language called Sabaean, and by the time of the golden age of the Axumite empire 400 BC- 600AD, they were speaking Ge’ez, the ancestor of today’s Amharic. People still understand Ge’ez because, like Latin for Roman Catholics, it is the language of the Orthodox church here. We turn the pages of a 1000-year-old beautifully illustrated bible, written on vellum pages in Ge’ez, and the priest reads easily from it. And, in perhaps my favourite finds of the time, there are five ‘Rosetta’ stones that survive, in which the same pillar is inscribed in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek. Wonderful.
We came to Axum not to see the rather disappointing holy of holy churches, or even the Queen of Sheba’s bath – now a valuable watering hole for herders bring goats and cows down from the dusty dry lands – but to see the impressive totems of this ancient civilisation that was once a trading equal with the likes of Rome and Egypt. The remains they left are surprisingly few, but then, so little has been excavated, just 2%. What cannot be missed by the blindest archaeologist are the giant stelae – fields of granite obelisks rising up to 33 metres high and decorated like modern-day skyscrapers with a carved door at front and back and windows at multistorey levels going up to the top. These are the pyramids of the Axumites. Underneath are the burial and treasure chambers, arranged off ventilated corridors in superbly cut granite, where the high-status Axumites would be interred and then begin their afterlife. Last year, one of the best preserved stelae was returned to the field (in a ceremony marking the Ethiopian year 2000) from Italy, where it had been taken by Mussolini’s troops Italy’s five-year occupation of the country. It was the first such ‘return’ of a nation’s heritage, I am told.
Christianity arrived in 4 AD, changing the Axumite stelae practice and replacing the sun and moon emblems of Axum with a cross. And by the 7th century, the great civilisation was on its last legs. Some say it was due to Islamic raiding parties and the loss of its trading empire to the Arab world, others believe it may have been an environmental crisis brought on by deforestation for firewood and building, and by the mini global warming event that finished its agriculture. Whatever, the country sank into a dark ages from which little evidence remains.
Looking at the city now, it is scarcely larger than a village and full of precarious looking, half constructed concrete buildings (there is a national concrete shortage), on the edge of famine, with severe water shortages and uncomfortably close to border conflict with its troubled neighbour Eritrea. It seems horribly close to history repeating itself.