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The Thousand And One Ethiopian Nights – Part 2
Those amazing rock churches of his Lalibela
About 400 miles from Addis is the town of Lalibela, whose airport terminal in 1966 was a tin-roofed shack. Here in the 13th century the king Lalibela ordered the construction of twelve monolithic churches. His intention was to construct (and hide underground) a “New Jerusalem” after the Muslim conquests stopped Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Unlike the pyramids that were built with quarried stones, these medieval churches were carved by skilled craftsmen from solid living rock.
Originally hidden deep underground, the churches remain holy sites of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian pilgrimage. More accessible to pilgrims today, I had to crawl on my hands and knees to reach a subterranean darkness. Once there, I was transported to the Middle Ages. In the dim shadows a priest stood holding a torch before an altar surrounded by well-preserved religious frescoes. It looked like it had been standing there for 500 years! The monks tell you that the Ark of the Covenant is similarly hidden in a monastery in the ancient kingdom of Axum, where Queen Sheba lived among the obelisks in the 10th century BC. A powerful empire in northern Ethiopia, Axum played a vital role in international trade from the 1st century to the latter part of the 1st millennium I (AD 100-940). Ethiopia is indeed the old land of legends that Indy Jones missed.
Baro River Crocodile Hunters (Ethiopia/Sudan Border)
Although we spent enough time at work or at the embassy tennis courts, how long can you stay in a place that has a disco, no street lights and hyenas lurking in the shadows? My friend Alan was a stringer for the Associated Press based in Addis and we often went backpacking. When he learned that two Yugoslav brothers, Alec and Jan Rankovic, made a living hunting crocodiles in the Baro River, he thought it would make a good story and a fun trip. The ravenous jaws of hyenas and the jaws of crocodiles are not my idea of fun. But Alan’s considerable encouragement convinced me to join him and Joe Frankel, a US trade agent, on a safari to the South Sudan-Ethiopia border. Two Ethiopian friends from my office joined us. Relatively quiet in 1965, today our embassy would advise against going there.
Ethiopian Airlines pilots could take off and land on postage stamp-sized plateaus. Armed with malaria pills and insect repellent, we flew in one of the twin-engine DC-3s full of 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 had been repeatedly warned not to swim there. When they disappeared, we knew to look for the warning sign. Despite the steamy tropics: No swimming!
On our first night after dinner around a huge fire, we had unexpected visitors. shepherds and farmers, the Anuak race is a Luo Nilotic ethnic group that has inhabited parts of East Africa and the upper Nile for centuries. They entered our little circle until we were surrounded by 25 or 30 odd blue-black naked bodies covered in eerie white ash. The Rankovich brothers had invited them to dance for us. In the flickering firelight they began to drum and pluck their primitive instruments while moving their bodies very slowly to the beat of the music. As the tempo grew faster and the dance more amorous, they raised a cloud of white ash and dust that fell over us all. One of the women broke out of her African chorus line, took a large thick ivory bracelet from her forearm and slipped it over mine, up to and above my elbow. I am not of the ivory of animals, but to refuse the gift would be an insult.
The next evening we were invited to accompany the brothers on a crocodile hunt. That morning they had given us a tour of their warehouse. The sight of hundreds of carcasses hanging to dry horrified me. But everyone was going and I didn’t want to be alone in the camp.
It was dark on the river when we got into several small boats – just us humans and insects. I noticed that the hunters had razor sharp teeth that made them look ferocious. They carried lanterns and thick heavy clubs. Soon the river was teeming with crocodiles attracted to the lanterns. The lights hypnotized the animals so much that the men stuck them between the eyes. After stunning the animals, they were shot once so as not to damage the hides. The scene was bloody and nauseating and I flew over the side of the boat. Although crocodiles are not my favorite wildlife, they were too much for my stomach. I have always regretted witnessing this mercenary slaughter, which today in Africa has reached unimaginable proportions among all animal species.
On the last night, asleep in our camp beds, I woke up to a strange monotonous drone. Through the mosquito net I saw two Anuak men in elaborate headdresses sit by a small fire. They chanted and threw amulets into the flames. Alan had heard them too when he reached for mine. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “They are doctors sending us protection for a safe journey home.” And it was.
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