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The Thousand And One Ethiopian Nights – Part 2
These incredible rock churches of Lalibela
Some 400 miles from Addis is the town of Lalibela whose airport terminal in 1966 was a tin-roofed hut. Here in the 13th century King Lalibela ordered the construction of twelve monolithic churches. His intention was to build (and hide underground) a “New Jerusalem” after the Muslim conquests interrupted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Unlike pyramids built with quarried blocks of stone, these medieval churches were carved by skilled craftsmen from solid living rock.
Originally hidden deep underground, the churches remain holy places of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian pilgrimage. More accessible to pilgrims today, I had to crawl on all fours to reach subterranean darkness. Once there, I was transported to the Middle Ages. In the dim light, a priest stood holding a torch in front of an altar surrounded by well-preserved religious murals. It looked like it had been there for 500 years! The monks tell you that the Ark of the Covenant is also hidden in a monastery in the ancient kingdom of Axum, where Queen Sheba lived among the obelisks in the 10th century BC. A mighty empire north of Ethiopia, Axum played a vital role in international trade from the 1st century until the end of the 1st millennium I (100-940 CE). Ethiopia is indeed the ancient land of legends that Indy Jones missed.
Baro River crocodile hunters (Ethiopia/Sudan border)
Although we spent a lot of time at work or on the embassy tennis courts, how long can you stay in a place that only has a disco, no streetlights and no hyenas lurking in the shade ? My friend Alan was a freelancer for the Associated Press based in Addis and we often backpacked. When he learned that two Yugoslav brothers, Alek and Jan Rankoviç, made a living hunting crocodiles on the Baro River, he thought it would make for a good story and a fun trip. The ravenous jaws of hyenas and the snapping mandibles of fangs are not my idea of fun. But Alan’s considerable persuasion convinced me to join him and Joe Frankel, an American commercial agent, on a safari across the border between South Sudan and Ethiopia. Two Ethiopian friends from my office joined us. Relatively calm in 1965, today our embassy advises against going there.
Ethiopian Airlines pilots could take off and land on trays the size of postage stamps. Armed with malaria pills and insect repellent, we flew in one of their twin-engine DC-3s stuffed with farmers, chickens and goats, from Addis Ababa at 8,000 feet, to a low plateau where a Land Rover was waiting to take us further down the tropical Baro river. Two Peace Corps volunteers had worked in a nearby village. They knew the river was infested with crocodiles and were repeatedly warned not to swim in it. When they disappeared, we knew how to heed the warning sign. Hot tropics notwithstanding: no swimming!
The first evening after supper around a huge fire, we had some unexpected guests. Shepherds and farmers, Anuak the tribe is one Nilotic Luo ethnic group that has inhabited parts of East Africa and the Upper Nile for centuries. They seeped into our little circle until we were surrounded by 25 or 30 curious blue-black naked bodies covered in ghostly white ash. The Rankoviç brothers had invited them to dance for us. In the flickering firelight, they began drumming and plucking their primitive instruments while very slowly moving their bodies in time to the music. As the pace picked up and the dance became more erotic, they raised a cloud of white ash and dust that settled on all of us. One of the women broke away from her African chorus line, removed a large, thick ivory bracelet from her forearm and slipped it over mine, up to and over my elbow. I don’t like animal ivory, but refusing the gift would have been an insult.
The following night we were invited to accompany the brothers on a crocodile hunt. That morning, they showed us around their warehouse. The sight of hundreds of carcasses hanging to dry freaked me out. But everyone was going there and I didn’t want to be alone in the camp.
It was dark on the river when we embarked on several small boats – just us, the humans and the bugs. I noticed that the hunters had razor sharp teeth which made them look fierce. They carried lanterns and thick heavy clubs. Soon the river is teeming with crocodiles attracted by the lanterns. The lights hypnotized the animals long enough for the men to bludgeon them between the eyes. After stunning the animals, they slaughtered them once so as not to damage the skins. The scene was bloody and foul and I threw up on the side of the boat. Although crocodiles aren’t my favorite wildlife, it was too much for my stomach. I have always regretted having witnessed this mercenary massacre which today in Africa is reaching unimaginable proportions among all animal species.
Last night, asleep in our cots, I woke up to a strange, monotonous buzzing sound. Through the mosquito net I saw two Anuak ornately capped men seated beside a small fire. They were singing and throwing amulets into the flames. Alan had heard them too when he held out his hand to mine. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “These are wizards who send us protection for a safe return.” And it was.
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