Ethiopia: Meskel Festival
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Ethiopia is an old land of towering mountains and deserts and impossibly blue lakes strewn across the grassy highlands like scattered jewels. Man's first beginnings were in the arid lowlands of the Awash while the highlands to the west nurtured the Copts and their form of Christianity that came there from Egypt in the 4th century. The queen Sheba is reputed to have graced this land and her son Menelik began the Solomonic Empire. Somewhat later, the priest king Prester John built an isolated Christian empire that rivaled many of its Islamic neighbors. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa to have ever developed a written language, Ge'ez, which is still used by Coptic priests and monks who read from parchment bibles in rock-hewn churches. Surprisingly, not much has changed and Ethiopia remains today a world-class destination for the thoughtful traveler.
Among Ethiopia's Coptic Christian traditions is the September Meskel Festival marking the finding of the true cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The festival is ancient; dating back 1,600 years and it is celebrated with yellow Meskel daisies placed on top of huge bonfires that are light in the evening in front of the throngs of celebrators. Ornately robed priests carrying silver Coptic crosses dance with their followers around the fires singing and chanting and carrying flaming torches. The flowering of the cross-shaped Meskel daisies also marks the end of the 3-month long rainy season and the return of the sun.
In contrast to the Copts of the north are the exotic Omotic tribes of the south who still adhere to ancient animistic rituals. Beaded leather skirts and complementing body painting, feathered headdresses and dramatic scarification make the Hamar, Bumi, Karo, and Bena people among the most interesting intact tribal cultures in Africa and visually outstanding. Even more unusual are the isolated and little understood Mursi tribe whose women wear large clay lip plates symbolizing their worth and beauty. Lost Frontiers invites you to join our Meskel Festival with a single departure that will be lead by Barbara Wagner.
Evening arrival in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Overnight: Ghion Hotel.
Today you will have a chance to relax in the morning before setting out for some sightseeing of Addis and to see the preparations for the Maskal Festival. Addis boasts the largest market in eastern Africa and wandering the narrow streets reveals hundreds of small shops selling everything from hand woven carpets to the famous berberi spice that flavors most Ethiopian dishes. Towards evening, you will move to the area of the bonfire to see the procession of priests and witness the singing and dancing that accompanies the festival. Overnight Ghion Hotel.
A very early morning flight takes us to Axum, the oldest city in Ethiopia and reputed to have been the thrown to the Queen of Sheba. The town came into prominence in the 5th century and was well recognized by ancient Greeks and later by the Romans who traded here. As the center of the Axumite Empire, Axum dominated the area as a cross roads to Africa for over 1,000 years. Testament to its importance is the seven fabulous granite steles, or obelisks, that were erected during ancient times, which are said to be among the largest monolithic carvings in the ancient world. The steles that have survived the ravages of time and theft by the Italian colonials, give a sense of wonder and awe. The nearby Church of Saint Mary of Zion that was originally built around 400 AD, but destroyed by Islamic invaders and again rebuilt, is today the religious center of Ethiopia. It is believed that Menelik I, who was the son of the Solomon and Sheba, brought the sacred Arc of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia over 3000 years ago. It was here that King Menelik I then founded the Solomonic Empire of which the late Haile Selassie was the last ruler. Overnight: Yeha Hotel.
We fly to the ancient city of Gondar. The Christian Emperor Fasilidas founded this strangely compelling city that bears the influence of Portuguese architects brought from Europe in the 17th century. It served him and subsequent kings as their capital through to the disastrous reign of Tewodros that was ended by the British punitive expedition of 1868. During its heyday, Gondar was regarded as a great center of power and pageantry and one of the world's most important trading centers for frankincense and myrrh. In the late 19th century, Gondar was sacked and looted by Sudanese dervishes and went into a terminal decline. Nonetheless, Gondar's glory can still be seen today in its medieval castles and Italian colonial buildings as well as in the beautifully painted church of Debre Birhan Sellassie. The area is also noted as the home of the black Jews of Ethiopia, or the Falasha, who lived in the nearby village of Weleka until their mass evacuation to Israel in 1991. Only a handful of Falasha remain today and they still make the black pottery for which they are famous. Overnight Goha Hotel.
Not far from Gondar are the Simien Mountains offering some of Ethiopia's most striking scenery in a vast stretch of beautiful and unspoiled mountain wilderness. We have time for a short visit through astonishingly steep valleys and isolated jutting volcanic plugs that were formed by ancient seismic activity. The mountain wildlife is equally astonishing with 50 different birds species, troops of Gelada baboons, Simien Wolf, Mountain Nyala and the rare Walia Ibex. We will also have time during our visit to explore the unique and often bizarre flora of this Afro-alpine ecosystem. We will drive back arriving late in Gondar and overnight so that we can catch the early morning flight Lalibela. Overnight: Goha Hotel
We take a short flight to highland town Lalibela to visit the astonishing rock-hewn churches that are arguably one of the man-made wonders of the world. The town was founded in the 12th century and it is said that King Lalibela was inspired by heavenly angels to build a series of 23 churches carved from living stone. Legend has it that the largest and most beautiful church was built with the direct intervention and supervision of Saint George, the patron saint of Ethiopia. Today, these remarkable churches are the home of white robed monks who perform the religious rituals of Coptic Christianity in the ancient language of Ge'ez much as they have for centuries. Among the Coptic treasures are illuminated bibles on leather parchment, colorful ritual garb and numerous ornate Coptic crosses. Time permitting; we will try to arrange for an afternoon mule ride through the sunny highlands up to the church of Na'akuto La'ab that is carved into the face of a cave. Overnight: Roha Hotel.
Our next flight takes us to Bahir Dar located on Lake Tana, the source of the fabled Blue Nile. The lake is Ethiopia's largest covering 1,860 square miles and its highest lying at 6,000 feet. Pharaohs referred to it in their funerary texts as Lake Karou and its many islands were a refuge for Ethiopian Christians in the Middle Ages when they came under persecution from Islamic invaders. We will take an afternoon boat excursion to the monastery Ura Kidana Mehret where we will see some of the treasures and remarkable paintings of scenes depicting Ethiopian Coptic history. Overnight: Tana Hotel
The day begins with a short flight back to our hotel and lunch. During the afternoon, we will visit Meskel Square, now renamed Revolutionary Square, where we will see the preparations for the Meskes Festival. Later in the evening, we will join the chanting throngs and watch a procession of ornately robed priests and monks as they sing and dance around a huge bonfire celebrating their ancient faith and the end of the rains. Overnight Ghion Hotel.
We begin the southern part of our journey traveling in 4x4s towards the Great Rift Valley on our way to the town of Goba; the stepping off spot for the beautiful Bale Mountains National Park in central Ethiopia. We have time for a 2 hour hike to the Gaysay Ridge for splendid views of the Gaysay Valley and surrounding mountain landscape and then stop at the Dinsho Park Headquarters where its possible to see herds of Mountain Nyala or individual Menelik's Bushbuck, both indigenous to Ethiopia. We drive back to Goba for dinner. Overnight: Wabi Shebelle Hotel.
Full day excursion to the Sanetti Plateau in the northern part of the park which boasts of having the highest all weather road in Africa culminating at the summit of Tullu Deemtu (13,120 feet). The road passes through some of the loveliest mountain scenery in Africa and can easily viewed from our vehicles. The plateau is also noted for its wild and high moorlands, home of the Ethiopian Wolf, (the rarest canid in the world) and many other Ethiopian endemic species of plants, birds and animals. If time allows after our hike, we will drive to the Harenna Escarpment where there are views of the strange pinnacles of Chorchora Peak and the Tegoma River Gorge. Overnight: Wabi Shebelle Hotel.
Taking the road east from Goba, we arrive at the Sof Omar Caves that were formed over millions of years by the waters of the Web River. The cave system is one of the worldÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s most spectacular and extensive with the Web River plunging into the cavern through arched limestone portals and thundering into the caveÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s depths. The caves are named after the saintly Sheikh Sof Omar who took refuge here centuries ago. The place is also an important animist site where spirit worship and ghost cults still exist and one can see sacrifices where prayers have been offered. Overnight: Wabe Shebelle Hotel
Leaving Goba we travel south stopping at the Dorze village of Chencha in the alpine highlands of Bamboo and Juniper forests. In earlier times, the Dorze were warriors who have now changed over to agriculture and weaving which better suits the current economy. Their high conical houses are shaped like giant chocolate kisses and are intricately constructed from bamboo in closely woven fluted patterns that form the exterior wall. The house's interiors are open and roomy with enough space for the owners along with a cow, many chickens and numerous children.
We arrive late in the afternoon in the town of Arba Minch. In the Amharic language, Arba Minch means Forty Springs and there are many more surrounding this incredibly beautiful lake region. The two large lakes that lie below the town covering 719 square miles are the largest in the Rift. The lakes support countless indigenous and migratory birds including the Great White Pelican, colorful jewel-like kingfishers, storks, fish eagles and ibis. The scenery is typically African highland with rolling hills of great scenic beauty. The spectacular scenery makes up a bit for our rather basic accommodation for the night. Overnight: Bekele Molla Hotel.
Leaving Arba Minch, we descend into the Omo River Valley to the frontier market town of Jinka where we stop for the night. Jinka is the last outpost and many tribes congregate here to sell produce or purchase the few necessities that they need. Overnight: Mago Park Camp.
Day 15, 16, 17
What is so fascinating about Omo Valley is that the tribes here have lived so long in geographic isolation from the rest of Ethiopia and are little influenced by the cultures to the north or by the religious movements that have defined those areas. A vast majority of the valley's people still maintains their traditional animistic beliefs worshipping the sun, moon and the spirits that live in the trees and rocks. As we travel among the tribes, we see the practice of these beliefs in almost every aspect of their lives.
We leave early in the morning and drive through dense bush to visit the warlike Mursi tribe who live in remote pockets throughout the valley and who are among the most fascinating people anywhere in Africa. Their women are unique in their scarring and body painting that is both whimsical and symbolic. Head adornments can be made from just about anything they find including cartridge casings, horns of animals or feathers. However, what is most dramatic about the Mursi women is the wearing decorated clay lip plates that can be as large as 6 inches in diameter. The lower lips is initially cut and then gradually stretched to accommodate plates that increase in size. The plates are considered a sign of significant beauty and their size defines the bride price given in the form of cattle at the time of marriage. Not much is known about the Mursi and it is speculated that the plates are part of their animistic beliefs that help prevent evil spirits from entering the body. We arrive in the evening and set up a comfortable fly camp that we will move from time to time to stay in the proximity of the tribes that we will be visiting.
The next day is full of colorful and fascinating tribes, the first tribe being the Karo. Although the Karo are very poor in material goods, they are rich in their culture that they manifest with a variety of wonderful adornments on their bodies. Women scar their torsos in beautiful symmetry to accent the curves of their bodies, while the men bear scars indicating that they have killed a foe in battle or scars on the shoulder that announce that they have killed an enemy man or woman. Paint is also an important medium for decoration and is used flamboyantly to make striking designs in red, black, yellow and white. Many of these designs relate to markings on wild animals such as leopards or birds. While women cut their hair short and roll it with ochre and fat to give it a cap like appearance, men wear small clay buns decorated with feathers and beads.
Contrary to the Karo women, the Hamar wear their hair chin length, Cleopatra style, framing the face with tiny ochre hair curls. Their bodies are painted the same ochre color that they complement with layers of bead and shell necklaces topped with a torque of iron signifying marital rank. The Hamar men shave most of their head except on the top where they attach a clay bun worn to show that they have killed a large cat, man or woman. With luck, we may attend a Hamar bull jumping ceremony where young men jump over a line of standing bulls to show strength and courage.
There will also be a stop in the village market of Turmi where we will mingle with the Hamar tribe as they trade for the few necessities that are provided by the outside world. The market is fascinating and the people are friendly providing a great photo opportunity for those who wish to interact. Overnights: Lost Frontiers' Camp.
We begin our drive back north reaching Arba Minch arriving in the late afternoon in time for a walk around town and a relaxing evening overlooking the lakes. Overnight: Bekele Molla Hotel.
About half a day's drive north into the Great Rift Valley is the town of Awasa named after the pretty lake on which it is situated. Not far from the lake is the Sidamo village of Leku where typical bamboo bee hive shaped houses predominate and where we will visit one of the places where coffee was first harvested by far seeing entrepreneurs before traveling back to Awasa for an evening stroll along the lake shore. Overnight: Awasa Pinna Hotel.
On our way back to Addis Ababa, there is time to stop the jewel-like lakes of Abijata and Shala. Lake Shala is Ethiopia's deepest lake (853 feet) and is by far the more spectacular with surrounding cliffs and acacia forests. Wildlife is always present, but the lake is primarily known as the only breeding place of the Great White Pelican. Greater and Lesser Flamingoes also abound, as do many other aquatic and forest species of birds. Afterwards, we travel the short distance back to Addis Ababa where we will enjoy a traditional Ethiopian feast that evening. Overnight: Ghion Hotel
Our last day in Ethiopia will be spent visiting the National Museum where the remains of the 3.6 million year old Australopithecus afarensis named Lucy are on exhibit. We will also have time to visit markets to shop for souvenirs and later to relax in preparation for the homeward journey. Late afternoon transfer to Bole Airport for our flight back home.
Level of Difficulty ~ Moderate
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