Excursion to the Source of the Blue Nile

Ethiopia, where my wife and daughter and I travelled recently, is a very curious corner of the world indeed. Twice the size of France and with about the same population, it sits just above the equator in east Africa. Directly across the Red Sea lies Yemen and then, to the north, Saudi Arabia. It gets fearfully hot. The country is landlocked, surrounded by Eritrea (locally pronounced e-REE-tray-a), Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. It has fought endless wars with those countries, particularly Somalia and Eritrea, as well as with others, and indeed internally. The mother of all women, Lucy, 3½ feet tall, lived 3-plus million years ago in the northeast of the country. In parts of the South you might as well be in the Borneo jungle, but we were not tempted to go there.

The River Nile is composed of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The White Nile rises in Lake Victoria, which is surrounded by Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The Blue Nile rises in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, which we visited. It actually is somewhat blue, unlike the Blue Danube, and flows north to join the White Nile (not white) at Khartoum, in Sudan, whence the two commingled meander on to Egypt and the sea.

We crossed Lake Tana in a tiny motorboat to visit some of the monasteries, convents, and painted churches on the islands there. The islanders also navigate remarkably robust reed canoes.

Our journey after leaving Addis Ababa (“new flower”) was to the Ethiopian highlands in the north of the country, the largest mountain formation in Africa, and the upper end of the Great Rift Valley, which runs 4,000 miles south to Mozambique. From time to time you perceive vast, purplish mountain ranges. The hilly countryside is spotted with circular or square huts made of stakes, with conical thatched roofs. Rural electrification is widespread, but one sees no mechanical agricultural equipment; there are lots of buses and cars but exceedingly few gas stations. Sturdy little donkeys do much of the hauling.

The north is noted for its Orthodox churches, whose paintings, in the two-dimensional Coptic style, cover every surface, inside and out, with vividly colored cartoon-like figures. The north also has amazing stone-hewn churches that are carved down through the rock several stories below the earth’s surface.

Sitting near the top of one of these, near Lalibela, I saw a wonderful thing: Between me and a village a couple of miles away lay a valley, in which were cavorting a troop of vervet monkeys. On the edge of my plateau a flock of crows was roosting in a scraggly tree. A pair of hawks was patrolling overhead and out over the valley uttering the familiar cries they use to startle small game out of concealment. After a while the crows, who never like hawks, took to imitating this cry as the hawks passed overhead, to mock them. The hawks professed indifference, but I was delighted.

In Aksum, a former imperial capital, there was for some centuries an epidemic of taller and taller obelisks marking tombs. Some display layers of carvings representing doors and windows. In the 4th century a very tall one –108 feet – after its decoration had already been extensively carved, fell down as it was being erected, and shattered. This cured the obelisk epidemic.

To give an idea of how hard it can be to put up an obelisk, the one that stands before St. Peter’s in Rome was presented by Egypt to Pope Sixtus V (late 16th century), who confided its erection to his nephew. Hundreds of oxen, miles of rope, regiments of laborers, and the other necessary paraphernalia were collected. The nephew proclaimed that, so that his orders could be heard, there was to be no noise whatever during the operation, absolutely none whatever. To show that he meant business he put up a convenient gallows, complete with hangman, for anybody who raised his voice. Unfortunately, things went badly. Having risen to the critical angle, the immense monolith became immovable. The ropes, slipping in the pulleys, began to smoke. The herds of oxen couldn’t budge. Then a sailor from the Abruzzi, who happened to be in the crowd and knew about rigging, shouted, “Pour water on the ropes!” He was instantly seized and strung up. Still, his suggestion was followed, and the obelisk struggled to an upright position, where it remains before St. Peter’s to this day. So the vast project was saved. Alas, even the Pope couldn’t resuscitate the sailor, but upon his native village was bestowed the right to provide the Vatican’s palms for Palm Sunday.

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The Ethiopians themselves are exceptionally handsome. They often have small, narrow, elegantly chiseled dark faces. They are amiable and friendly, always returning a smile or a wave. This may be derived in part from the cultural security of never having been taken over for long by a foreign power. (The southern Moroccans working in the countryside delivered a snappy salute to passersby when I travelled there in the 1950s, but that may have been because if they didn’t, French soldiers of the occupying force would leap out of their jeep and beat them up.)

When he leaves first youth, an Ethiopian young man starts carrying quite a substantial stick in his hand or balanced across the shoulders, like a man’s sword in Europe at one time, but more convenient. Some women carry an umbrella in the same spirit. Women also carry huge loads, which sometimes look as bulky as they are themselves. Men are more likely to supervise this labor than to deprive the women of its benefit. On an island in Lake Tana I once saw three men with their sticks supervising four women in a construction project. Work in Africa is like the economy of lions: the ladies rush out and claw down a zebra, whereupon Mr. Big Hairy comes padding up, cuffs everybody aside, and gorges until he can gorge no more.

The Ethiopian currency is called the birr, meaning silver, like plata in Spanish. As usual in Africa, if you stop anywhere, swarms of chattering children materialize. What they crave more than almost anything, even birr, seems to be a ballpoint pen. Hard to replace off in nowhere!

The national language is Amharic, a guttural Semitic tongue. However, there are seven other major languages spoken in the country including Oromo, Tigrayan, Somali, Afar (the harsh people whose dreadful environment Wilfred Thesiger describes), Sidame, Harari, and Falashan (Jews, mostly evacuated to Israel). Also 84 secondary languages! Fortunately, you can usually find someone to communicate with in English.

Our president Obama is vastly popular in Ethiopia. In addition to the obvious T-shirt portrayals, his image is on plastic bottles and such things everywhere. A frequent greeting to a visitor from unknown folks in the street is “Obama!” A cheery wave seems to be a correct response.

Roasted coffee originated in Ethiopia, but took ages to spread to nearby countries, and even longer to reach Europe. A pleasant sight in restaurants and airports is a woman sitting on the floor fanning the flame in a small vessel under a frying pan containing some coffee beans. You are supposed to wave the smoke toward you, inhale deeply, and offer appreciative sound effects. When she judges the beans done she grinds them in a mortar and pestle and turns the result into delicious fresh coffee, a few tiny cups at a time, with lots of sugar.

The national dish is injera, a spongy pancake into which you fold your vegetable and/or meat, a bit like Chinese moo shu. Savvy visitors profess to like the stuff but I found it quite nasty.

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The Ethiopian Empire evolved from communities dating from before 5000 B.C. By the first century A.D. the Semitic complex of Aksum had attained power, thanks to good agricultural land and control of trade routes.

The reception of Christianity occurred from Syria in the fourth century. Islam came much later. Then, as the Crusaders were being forced out of the Holy Land by the Saracens, they dreamed of “Prester John,” a legendary Christian king to the south, who would join in crushing the Arab armies between the two of them as in a nutcracker. Alas, a splendid encouraging letter to Emperor Manuel Comnenus from a “Prester John” proposing just this, although widely acclaimed, turned out to have been forged by a German monk.

The Portuguese, who in their age of exploration deposited trading and missionary stations around the shores of Africa and India, incidentally picking up Brazil, were enthusiastic about the Prester John conception, and sent an expedition to the interior, which, of course, found no such potentate.

In the thirteenth century the Solomonic Empire became vast and famous, based in Shewa. It was so called because it claimed descent from the union between Egypt’s Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem. Their son, Menelik, returned to Ethiopia, allegedly bringing the Ark of the Covenant – the box carrying the stone tablets bearing the ten commandants – which the Jews carried with them on their wanderings. The supposed ark now resides in a church in Gonder, Ethiopia with a guard who serves for life.

In Gonder we overlapped one of the great celebrations of the Ethiopian Orthodox year, Timkat, or Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus. Thousands of the faithful, robed in white, are led by solemn gorgeously caparisoned priests, shaded by gold-fringed velvet canopies. Many of the worshippers plunge into a vast pool; others are splashed by the priests.

The Italians during the “scramble for Africa” held Somalia as a colony and considered Ethiopia a logical add-on. An Italian expeditionary force was utterly destroyed by King Menelik at the battle of Adwa. Mussolini tried again with the utmost cruelty, including poison gas, but the British threw him out in World War II.

Evelyn Waugh was sent several times to Ethiopia as a correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph. During the barbaric Mussolini war a cable arrived from Beaverbrook, the proprietor, demanding news of an English nurse supposedly killed when the Italians bombed a hospital:


Waugh, presumably composing his reply in the correspondents’ bar, replied:


The paper, always urgently in need of exciting copy, replied:


This not being the best way to motivate that brilliant but sensitive writer, Waugh replied tartly:


With which he renounced the whole mission and sat down to write Black Mischief, one of his finest novels.

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After the empire began to decline, hastened by Mahdist and Cushitic attacks, the center of imperial power moved to Gonder.

The emperor has traditionally held a godlike role in Ethiopia. For centuries the highest title was Negus, prince or king, but in 1930 Haile Selassie was proclaimed Ras, or emperor, a title that survived until 1977, when Haile Selassie was removed by the monstrous Derg party, a ruthless Soviet-Cuban sponsored dictatorship that itself became intolerable and was overthrown in 1991. Alas, the Derg carried off Haile Selassie to an unknown fate. Its boss, General Mengistu, was noticed wearing Haile Selassie’s ring before he fled to Zimbabwe.

Let me end this brief sketch with a quote from that handy work, John Train’s Most Remarkable Occurrences:

Hot Seat

When the electric chair first became popular, shortly before the turn of the 20th century, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, hearing of this marvel, ordered it from America. Alas, it didn’t work.

No one had told the emperor that for best results one needed electricity. Ethiopia had none.

The Abyssinian underworld relaxed. Menelik ordered the chair fitted up as a throne, which he put into regular service. ■