The Falashas of Ethiopia

by Tim Dawe

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We’re in Gondar – no, not that Gondor of Middle Earth myth – rather the former capital of Ethiopia. Our 50km drive north from Bahir Dar takes in fertile farms around Lake Tana (source of the Blue Nile), through striking rock formations, today broodingly shrouded in mist. Climbing the foothills of the Simien Mountains we twist and turn, glimpsing in the far distance Ras Dasken (4,500m), Africa’s fourth highest mountain.

Gondar is surrounded by mountains with wide boulevards weaving around them. Buildings, piazzas and monuments give the impression of an orderly and prosperous town. Its Art Deco design is the legacy of the 1930s Italian occupation of Abyssinia. (Despite this occupation, Ethiopia has never been colonised.) There’s a youthful vibrancy in this university town containing Ethiopia’s medical faculty and teaching hospital. Our arrival here is slowed by a boisterous student protest marching behind large banners. We stay at Hotel Goha, not only the best but the highest. It’s at the tip of an elevated spur on top of a forested mountain that affords 360-degree views of the town. From the pool patio, overlooking a sheer drop, we can make out a hazy green square among the urban sprawl. It’s the Royal Enclosure, Gondar’s crown jewel, its Camelot.

“Africa’s Camelot” references not only a host of fairytale palaces but the prosperous dynasty established by Emperor Fasiladas in 1667. Previously peripatetic emperors, having consumed the local’s resources, folded their tents and moved their seat of power somewhere else. Fasiladas chose Gondar as his permanent capital for its fertile, well-watered farmland and its strategic intersection on three important caravan routes. It flourished for 200 years. Gondar’s prestige and wealth grew as did its reputation for splendour and courtly pageantry.

Inside the Royal Enclosure’s 900m wall I survey these derelict buildings with a jolt; they don’t look Ethiopian…they’re distinctly European. And this is definitely not a tented camping ground. Fasiladas Palace is the oldest and grandest building. It’s been restored recently and is open for inspection. It presents as a compact, two-story stone building with a crenelated parapet and four domed towers on each corner. Entry is via a medieval-looking ramp to a large unfurnished room, with several antechambers and a wooden balcony – possibly a ceremonial or banqueting hall. Ethiopian angels adorn the ceiling. It’s odd; like a 17th century African interpretation of European medieval castles. Fasiladas is said to have toured European capitals.

Yohannes, Fasiladas’ son, was more monk than imperial ruler and his modest dwelling reflects that. However his son, Iyasu, the greatest ruler of the Gondar age, built a great gilded palace next door, sadly now a shell, having lost its roof and interior to an earthquake and WWII bombs. Fasiladas’ library sits on a manicured lawn looking like an elegant toy castle. It too is now a two-storey shell. Viewing steps allow us to imagine its grandeur filled with manuscripts and maps. I wonder, with so many vacant properties, why each emperor needs to build his own palace. After several generations Bakaffa took vacant possession of a palace, instead building stables for his many horses and a cavernous stand-alone banqueting hall. The last Gondarian castle was built by Mentewab, his widow. It looks slightly suburbanthat today looks modern and even livable.

On leaving the enclosure we visit the impressive church, Debre Berhan Selassie, revered in Ethiopia. Its walls are covered with vivid biblical paintings and from the wooden ceiling 80 angels look down. Unusually, it is rectangular. Ethiopia’s churches emulate early Christian round structures. A short distance away is Fasiladas Bath, a huge swimming pool beneath a charming two-storey tower. This is the site of the ceremony of Timkat, or Epiphany. Thousands of white-robed devotees stand around the pool awaiting a blessing and the instruction to jump into the baptismal water. It’s a joyous watery riot. Surrounding the pool is a large park with ancient trees reclaiming buildings and, with hints of Nero, the mausoleum of Iyasu’s horse.

Gondar is not just a destination; it’s ideally situated to explore the extraordinary landscapes of the Simien Mountains within the World Heritage National Park. We undertake a too-short day trip immersed in panoramas of jagged peaks, deep gorges and the serenity of sitting and absorbing. Gelada baboons nonchalantly cross our track, but the extremely rare ibex and Ethiopian wolf elude us. On our return we ask to visit Wolleka, a Falasha village at the outskirts of Gondar. It’s an unsatisfying, and quick, visit. Villagers seem unwelcoming, demanding money for shoddy trinkets. The Falasha (“outsiders”) are Ethiopian Jews. Jews…in Ethiopia? This little-known story needs telling.

Jews have lived in Ethiopia since biblical times, possibly since Rome’s sacking of Jerusalem in 100AD. A kingdom of Ethiopian Jews is recorded in the 9th century. Indeed, every Ethiopian fervently believes in the nation-affirming legend of Menelik I, founder and first Emperor of Ethiopia. He was the love-child of King Solomon and Queen (of) Sheba, a biblical figure from an ancient kingdom of Yemen/Ethiopia who, unbelievably as legends go, lived 300 years after Solomon. Ethiopia was the second state to adopt Christianity developing an uneasy relationship with the minority Jews. By the 14th century its Christian emperors, “descendants” of Solomon, re-established the Solomonic Dynasty that waged war on Jews for 300 years. A curious mixture of pride in Judaism and antipathy to Jews runs deep in the culture and soul of Ethiopia. This tiny remnant of those Falashas, seen at Wolleka village, represents a more recent story – their exodus to modern Israel.

The 1974 fall of Haile Selassie, and the empire, focused the West on Ethiopian Jews’ persecution under the Marxist Mengistu’s repressive Derg. Western countries mobilised mass evacuations but Israel rejected these “black Jews” until 1975. In 1976 there were 250 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. Covert airlifts of thousands were organised as operations Moses (1981), Joshua (1985) and Solomon (1991). By 2008 120,000 Ethiopian Jews lived in Israel, many Israeli-born. Their story is not a happy one; many died en route, and tens of thousands were stranded, the victims of repression, war and rejection.

While Israel’s government and religious leaders were welcoming, and accommodating, in general the people were not. They had difficulty in accepting these illiterate, rural Ethiopians, culturally and linguistically very different from European Jews. With few useful skills they became an underprivileged group unable to integrate in modern society. There are reported incidents of personal and institutional racism: denying housing, refusing schooling and even secretly, disposing their donated blood. While many immigrants face rejection, it’s a cruel irony that the Falasha, part of the original diaspora, faced persecution as “outsiders” in the Jewish homeland.

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