"Please don't touch," the sign advised. Behind the flimsy twine barricade was the throne of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, dynast of King Solomon, heir of Queen of Sheba, God incarnate for hundreds of thousands of Rastafarians, and among the most significant actors in African history. Did I say this was his throne? I was being clever. It was his toilet.
Perhaps I should back up. I had arrived in Ethiopia many days before, steadying myself for a culture shock. This is, after all, a country that my generation knew only for its famine. Hollow eyes and hollow stomachs, Ethiopia was shorthand for third-world poverty, or a nonsensical lecture to clean one’s plate. In 1984, well-meaning pop singers gathered in London under the name Band Aid to record the condescending "Do They Know It's Christmas?" a millennium and a half after the Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum became officially Christian in 330 CE, when London was little more than a marshy and forsaken Roman outpost. Far from an essential, immutable trait of the country, the famine of the mid-eighties was a tragic confluence of bad weather, communist mismanagement and indifferent counterinsurgency abuses. Four hundred thousand lost their lives. But defining Ethiopia by this ugly episode is like summing up an entire lifetime by a bout of appendicitis. Quite the opposite of poverty, this is a country extremely rich in culture and traditions: pilgrims gathering in grottos for thousand-year-old rites, the earth cleaving into vast canyons and spilling into fabled rivers, and history itself presiding like a timeless Biblical monarch.
But it’s also a country of gritty tangibles. Coming in from the airport, my driver and I careened over the hilly avenues of the capital city, Addis Ababa ("new flower" in Amharic, the national language), alternately stalling and hurtling through a chaos of first impressions. Donkeys and banana carts ambled the unpaved shoulders. Thick, leafy trees sweated in a hazy midday the color of burlap. New sneakers and threadbare sandals stomped in symphony through clouds of dirt and black truck exhaust. Oblong forms in brilliant red, purple and blue, bedazzled in silver and gold, caught my eye—coffins, I realized, sold from a roadside shop, as we lurched into second gear and sped off. From the car radio the bright organs and brass elastics of the country's pop music kept pace, and the driver's broad smile lit up in disbelief: an American knows Ethiopian music! This would become a familiar pattern. Despite their proud and distinct culture, Ethiopians break out in flabbergasted giggles if you can count to ten (much less fifty) in Amharic, deftly order a local meal or name-drop pop stars Gigi and Aster Aweke.
Finally arriving at the hotel and collapsing on the bed, I had little time to settle in, for an early-morning flight took me north over the rough-and-tumble knuckles of the landscape to Lake Tana, headwaters of the Blue Nile. Tis Abay ("smoking water"), a quartet of roughly 130-foot high waterfalls, keeps the Nile crocodiles downstream, but the lake is habitat to Africa's two deadliest species—the hippo and the mosquito—neither of which I encountered. Nor a hollow stomach: teeming platters of peppery stews and wonderfully spongy injera saw to that. (If you haven't had Ethiopian cuisine, get thee to a restaurant!) But these I did encounter: a crystal-clear pool, a private veranda, a canopy bed, and an idyllic lakeside at the locally owned Kuriftu Resort & Spa in the city of Bahir Dar. Naked, oily and relaxed on the massage table, I thought of penning a charity song for the aging Band Aid stars then withering in London winter. Shrugging off the idea, I stretched out behind mosquito netting and let the distant sounds of the city's nightlife—karaoke, was it? —lull me to sleep and into the periwinkle hue of morning, ready to light out across the water.
My guide and a hired boatman met me at the resort's dock, setting our course for the Zege peninsula and its centuries-old monasteries. Modest church structures of concentric circular walls and thatched roofs, they earn their renown from the preternaturally vivid paintings that cover the walls, the rafters, seemingly every inch of their interiors. Biblical stories, lives of saints and local history unfold in the lemon yellow of haloes, the startling red of spilled blood and the soft umber of somber faces. Forbidden from going fully inside, we circled the outer perimeters, under the chandeliers, drapery, horsehair fly whisks and airy silence that hung throughout. In lime-green thickets beyond the clearing, monkeys darted out of sight, and on the trails leading back to the mooring, villagers showcased silver jewelry and other handicrafts. I bought a toy boat of hand-woven papyrus from a small boy, and sat to enjoy a cup of local coffee. Ethiopia is the birthplace of brewed coffee (and we are all eternally indebted), but in Zege it has special significance: not only is coffee the livelihood of the peninsula's several thousand residents, it is also considered sacred, a designation that has kept the old forests intact. Sacred? Perhaps. Delicious? Absolutely. I sipped it down to its grounds, then hiked back down the trail with my toy boat to the water's edge.
From Bahir Dar I flew on to the holy city of Lalibela, utmost evidence of the country’s devotion—not to coffee, but to God. "I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed," wrote a Portuguese priest in the early sixteenth century, and I too can hardly overstate the astonishing feat of Lalibela. Modeled upon the Holy Land after Jerusalem fell in 1187, these eleven grand churches were carved underfoot from volcanic monoliths and for the next several centuries remained tucked away, eight thousand feet above sea level and deep into the ground, seen only by priests and pilgrims (and the occasional Portuguese). But the modern world has caught up: protective UNESCO scaffolding blights a fair amount of the site, the remainder blighted by tour groups. Despite this, Lalibela is still very much a sacred place, alive with the chanting of clergy and the hushed prayers of worshippers. I wandered half-dreaming, it seemed, through dimly lit chapels, improbable passageways and thin mountain air scented with frankincense and musty tourist socks. In dark recesses old women wound up in gauzy cotton pressed their cheeks to the walls. And through the disorienting pitch-blackness of a narrow tunnel I fumbled, hands raised against the dark, one foot on faith in front of the other. My breath caught on a bewildered thought: I am clumsy, bat-blind, and in the bowels of an enormous rock. Am I bigger than a breadbox?
Back in the daylight, opposite the dry bed of a symbolic River of Jordan, the cruciform roof of the site's unrivalled masterpiece, Bet Giyorgis (Church of St. George), hid itself among the brush. I stumbled upon it and nearly tripped on my own dropped jaw. Three airplane rides and a half hour drive up dusty switchbacks into remote hills were all redeemed by this one moment. A three-story church in the shape of a Greek cross, perfectly sculpted from a whole stone, Bet Giyorgis defies description. The rose tuff of its western face and the yellow-green lichens that betray its age lit up in the afternoon sun like a magician's trick: wasn't it invisible just seconds before? I wound my way down to the trench from which it rises, past the cinnamon stick feet of the mummified holy men stacked in its niches. The ground floor of the church has only mock windows, you see, because otherwise it would sink, my guide informed me. For it is a symbol of Noah's Ark, and the mound left unsculpted in the southeast corner is its Ararat. I let my fingertips linger on the rock, standing at the figurative foot of Noah's disembarkment, the reseeding of all life on earth, while a woman swaddled in a cream shawl prayed quietly at the church's edge. Centuries of technology delivered me to this doorstep, yet here I was, floored by a single stone.
In the morning, still unsure I hadn't imagined it all, I loaded up for the drive back to the desolate airport. Hundreds of people and nearly as many donkeys suffered the long, opposite trek up the road toward the village for market day, but I was trekking onward to Gondar. The former imperial capital from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, Gondar is a lively city spread across the sienna hills and patchwork forests of the northern district that shares its name. I rode into town past the repurposed barracks of Fascist Italy's occupying army and the elegant suburban homes controversially subsidized by the government to lure the diaspora back home. But these are not the buildings that distinguish handsome Gondar. Earning it the nickname "The Camelot of Africa," the city's complex of seventeenth-century castles is an unlikely mix of African, Arabic and European architectures, a ponderous exotic species perched on a leafy plateau in the city's downtown. From the patio seating of a hilltop restaurant, I watched the castles' crenellated walls blushing purple far below in the oncoming twilight. A sunset strung between two hills gave up its last gold coins, and Gondar's chaotic nightlife took the cue. Tucked into the back of an auto rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, my guide and I beeped, dodged and jerked through the pedestrian congestion of gussied-up twentysomethings, past Italian office relics and fresh hotel construction, down snaking dark streets and rowdy thoroughfares. Surviving our funhouse ride, we unwound over beers in the stylish hotel lounge, compliments of the manager.
The next morning, leaving the city's mayhem behind—not in a tuk-tuk but a proper sedan—we hit the newly paved highway out of town, a joint transportation project with China and a welcome change from the rough and dusty roads I'd grown uneasily accustomed to. These are the early foothills of the astounding Simien Mountains, an ecological fantasyland of lush canyons, dizzying waterfalls, defiant pinnacles, and yes, even a bit of snow. On just a day trip I could only flirt at the all-too-distant edges of this great national park and World Heritage Site, but the vistas were breathtaking nonetheless. The dry season had driven most of the gelada baboons elsewhere; their distinctive tomato-red chests and frizzy bedhead had fled to other hills. But a couple of geladas had stayed behind, a kind concession to my camera. Driving back we stopped at a Jewish crafts cooperative for a chance to overestimate my luggage. Baskets, textiles, censers, knickknacks—I purchased item after item, infatuated by their designs, ignorant of how I'd get them home. The kindly craftswomen kicked in a cup of coffee for free.
Back in the Gondar evening I sat on my hotel balcony, looking out at the electric hum of the city and the darkening horizon around it. Beyond these hills in all directions were many other fascinating places I sadly wouldn't have time to see: the rock churches of Tigray, predating those of Lalibela; the medieval Islamic city of Harar, where men hand-feed hyenas by dusk; the ancient stelae of holy Aksum, alleged home of the Ark of the Covenant; and the wild parks and painted faces of the country's verdant south.
But my sojourn to Ethiopia would be incomplete without a return to the city I had rudely rushed through: Addis Ababa. Founded in only 1886, Addis (as the locals know it) has quickly grown to over four million people, and as host of the African Union, it is the diplomatic hub of the whole continent. Despite its young age, it is home to the country's—if not mankind's—oldest relic: the bones of the famous Lucy, the hominid Australopithecus afarensis unearthed in the country's north and now on display in the National Museum. (She was short, I confirmed.) Record of the country's homo sapiens since Lucy's day is on display a half mile away, in an ethnographic museum smartly organized around the stages of life: birth, youth, passage into adulthood, and death. Taking up the ground floor of the former emperor's residence, situated in what is today the stately Addis Ababa University, this multimedia compendium of Ethiopia's life story—both figurative and literal—made for a fitting final day in the country.
And it was on this final day and in this museum that I gazed upon it: the emperor’s toilet. The achievements, intrigues and extravagances of Emperor Haile Selassie I are beyond the scope of these paragraphs, just as they are well beyond his mundane household items and personal effects I stood among: an emblazoned jacket behind glass, a cornflower silk bedspread under plastic, a 1950s retro blue bidet behind twine. The bullet scar of a failed coup d'etat mars the dressing table mirror, history's only token in an otherwise ghostless room. Simmering discontent remained after the coup attempt, until the emperor's final ouster and imprisonment in 1974 by the communist Derg ("Committee"). Thereafter the man officially dubbed His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Elect of God died in his bed (assassinated, rumors had it), resurfacing in 1992 as a discovered trove of bones (from under a latrine, rumors had it) and departing again eight years later, interred at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. (That one is fact.)
But defining the emperor by this ugly episode is like summing up an entire lifetime by an appendicitis. Wait, where have you read that before? Oh right, paragraph two. I’m recycling my similes. Chalk it up to the folly of condensing this breadth of experiences of such a country into a single story. A twilit lakeside aperitif, and a legacy of bones; rock-hewn churches outliving centuries, and a car radio on a staticky afternoon: these are not whole numbers; they resist summing up. The only statement I can make, it seems, that is both faithful and complete, factual and fair, is this: I was in Ethiopia.