Asheten Maryam

by Tim Dawe

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View from Mount Abune Yosef over Ethiopia’s vast highlands

With every twist and turn wandering around Lalibela it catches my eye. At the end of a distant mountain range is a rectangular slab of light-coloured bare rock. It stands out (and up) like a shaft inserted from beneath; a crown for the highest peak.

Ambling down a dusty street with a lost donkey and a young girl bent double carrying sticks, or scrambling down a bush track to yet another steep-sided ravine, I see this shape out of the corner of my eye. At sunrise and at sunset it radiates light like a beacon over dusky-blue waves of other mountain ridges. It’s Mt Abune Yosef (3,200m) and its extraordinary presence dominates this town and the landscape.

Lalibela, set on the massive highland plateau north of capital Addis Ababa, is the cultural and religious heart of Ethiopia; it’s the highlight of any visit. This holy city is world-famous (UNESCO-listed) for its rock-hewn churches and ancient Christianity. Following his visit to the Holy Land in the late 12th century, King (later, Saint) Lalibela built his capital as the “New Jerusalem”.

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We opt to drive to Asheten Maryam monastery

On arrival my wife and I meet our tour guide Bewnetu who explains a change to the itinerary. Explanation is somewhat strained through accent and phasing but I hear: “going by mule or walking”. It becomes clearer two days later when Bewnetu wants a decision on walking or sitting astride a mule for the three-hour ascent to Asheten Maryam monastery … then he points to that beacon of rock far away on Mt Abune Yosef. We’re going there? Incredible! We opt to drive.

It’s a good decision to drive up the forested mountainside, quickly climbing 700m on a steep, zig-zaggy road. At a little village clinging to a precipice we leave the jeep and driver and continue of foot. Our shaded path is mainly a rock face ledge, at times about a metre from a sheer drop to god-knows-where. But the views to sunny terraced farms are breathtaking. And climbing stone steps at this lung-busting altitude leaves me breathless. Finally, underneath the mountain’s butte-like crown a sign welcomes us to the monastery. But where? There’s no building. Then we notice a padlocked, hobbit-size wooden door set into the cliff. A monk’s cell, we are told. The monastery is cut inside the mountain. Well, of course!

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The monastery is cut inside the mountain

Laid stones pave a steep passage to the entrance – through a dark, 15m-long, chiseled-out tunnel. Stooped, we enter into a brightly sunlit cut-out void open to the sky and on one side to the horizon. A large chunk of rock remains in the middle. It is a traditional rock-hewn church, its roof unfinished. The chanting room, usually within the church, is carved into the rock opposite, next to the tunnel.

Suddenly a priest rushes past putting on his regalia – which excludes footwear – and unlocks the church door welcoming us in. He stands proudly erect, and wordless, showing us “the treasures”: bible stories with gaudy-coloured explanatory pictures and metal ceremonial crowns. It’s the same routine for every Ethiopian church carved out of rock. But we’re here for this special place “close to God”, and this extraordinary vista.

We mosey around. There seems to be no visible means of support. Bewnetu disappears. A smiley boy carrying water containers stands near a hut that grips the mountain edge like a limpet, reminding me that his village supports this religious community. Next I see a monk spread-out in the dirt on the edge of the carved out void, level with the church roof. He signals for alms…begging. I have only a one-birr coin in my pocket, worth 6₵. He’s overjoyed. I know that Ethiopian Orthodox monks are high-status, learned clergymen, while priests are often less sophisticated and educated. Things are different in this harsh, remote eyrie. My monk has gnarled feet, torn tunic, wild eyes and looks a little disturbing.

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A monk’s cell
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Some monastery treasures
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Elderly Ethiopians skip down the terrifying mountain path

An hour or more passes, mainly spent mesmerised by the view, more often seen by soaring eagles; terraced farms cascade downwards to the middle distance with row upon row of jagged mountains, and shades of shapes in the haze beyond. Bewnetu reappears. It’s time to walk down about 1000m. Despite the steep descent and some hazardous rocky passages, it’s not too difficult – for a fit person. Many older Ethiopians skipping down this track are 70 plus. It’s almost straight down, cutting off this morning’s sharp road bends. But walking through terraced farmlands we see plots of vegetable crops and surprisingly, small fields of wheat fenced off with gum trees…a tiny slice of Australia. See box.

Bewnetu knows the most scenic spots for a welcome breather. Our descent takes an hour, a third of the time to walk up.  The track ends abruptly behind a shop on the main street of Lalibela. A little weary, we walk home full of wonderment.

 Home among the gum trees

Quick quiz: What do Ethiopia and Australia have in common? Answer: Eucalyptus trees.

Yes, gum trees abound in the Ethiopian highlands that constitute most of its landmass. But the question is, why and how

Ethiopia is an agricultural/pastoral land where most people endure a harsh, subsistence life in a remote village. They construct their homes and farm buildings in the ancient way of “wattle and daub” – a wooden scaffold covered in a mixture of soil, manure and straw, topped with a thatched, now increasingly iron, roof. The timber frame is constructed with strong, straight poles harvested from young gum trees. Personal plantations on small plots dot the landscape and the “ones that got away” thrive in the towns and steep gullies in these high mountains. Squint and it’s like Australia.

Unlike Australia’s timber production, Ethiopia has a singular purpose: strong, straight poles for building. Trees are not thinned to encourage trunk growth; they are decapitated at ankle height to harvest more upright stems then stripped by adze and dried into poles of varying lengths.

For the enterprising Ethiopian, gum trees make a good cash crop.  Every Saturday hundreds of women, bowed down with 5m poles across their backs, walk for hours down mountain roads to the town market. When confronted by a vehicle they gladly give way to take a well-earned sit-down, still fully loaded.

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A small, personal eucalypt plantation on Mt Abune Yosef, Lalibela

How and why Ethiopia came to be abundant in eucalypts is explained to us in a little story by one of our guides. Menelik II (1844-1913), one of the last emperors, visited Australia in 1898 and was shown Australia’s fast-growing gum trees. He reasoned they would be beneficial to replace the denuded forests around his newly founded capital, Addis Ababa.

So he stole some seeds and hid them in his turban.

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Squint: a tiny slice of Australia in Ethiopia

Never mind that eucalypts were first planted on Mt Ontoto (3,200m), “the lungs of Addis”, in 1894 on the advice of Frenchman Casimir Modan-Vilailhet…and Emperor Menelik never visited Australia.

Ethiopians love telling stories – fantastic ones.

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