Ethiopia – a regal history replete with obelisks, castles and rock-hewn churches

It was the bathroom that stayed with me. The ceiling, bath, sinks (his and hers) and lavatory were all duck-egg blue; the walls and floor made of marble. The lavatory had a thin layer of perspex laid over the seat, presumably to prevent selfie-taking tourists or those caught short from using the facilities.

This was real-life Through The Key Hole – a British game show where you are given access to the inside of a celebrity’s home and then have to guess who lives there from the interior. But this wasn’t the home of Y-lister soap-actor. Oh no, this was Through The Key Hole; the King-of-Kings edition. You see no less than Emperor Haile Selassie himself used to bathe among the bubbles in that bath, cut himself shaving in the mirror and floss between his teeth over those very sinks.

The former palace of Haile Selassie is now the Ethnological Museum of Addis Ababa which has a few interesting pieces on show but everything takes a back seat to nosing about of the Emperor’s rooms. The other vintage star of Addis is ‘Lucy’ or rather a replica of Lucy; a collection of remarkably intact fossilised bones which once formed the skeleton of a female hominid who walked about Ethiopia’s landscape some 3.2 million years ago. Aside from trying to get my head around exactly how long ago that was, I was also astounded at just how small she would have been – and this is coming from a veritable elf.

Of course with Ethiopia being Ethiopia, positively everything is mature. We left the traffic-spangled streets of the modern capital for ancient Axsum, once capital of the Kingdom of Aksum and furnished with some fascinating and ornately-carved obelisks. These were markers of underground burial chambers, some of which still stand whilst others which have fallen to the ground and splintered on impact.

It should be noted that Aksum was and is the home to some big historical hitters; the Queen of Sheba was rumoured to have lived there whilst the star of Dan Brown novels, the Ark of the Covenant, is still meant to be housed in the Chapel of the Covenant. Alas, this isn’t open to the likes of you and me…actually it’s not even open to not the likes of you and me (the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church or the Emperor of Ethiopia during the monarchy are also prevented from entering).

And so to the magnificently named Gondar or, even more magnificently, the ‘Camelot of Africa’. The remains of several royal castles are scattered about the city and when I say ‘castles’ I mean castles in the most traditional sense with curtain walls, turrets, towers and gatehouses. The lush landscapes around each fortress meant you could easily convince yourself you were back in Blighty about to face some marauding invaders over from the continent.

It was time to move on. Lalibela was calling, home of 12th and 13th churches hewn from rock, connected by a labyrinth of tunnels and passages and a hugely important pilgrimage sites for Coptic Christians.

Inside, the churches were as dark and as cosy as the earth’s belly they had been carved from. Sputtering candles did little to alleviate the gloom although, once my eyes grew accustomed to the murk, I could make out worshippers twisted into every conceivable position studying books or at prayer. Priests swaddled in white robes stood by the doors offering a quick smile to the faithful. It was extraordinary way to end a visit to an extraordinary country; a country you can’t help but think of with a deep and unending respect as you would an elder who has accumulated years of wisdom and who, if you’re lucky, might just impart some of it to you.

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