S  E  A  R  C  H  I  N  G     F  O  R     G   O   D  ’  S     C  O  U  N  T  R  Y

by Bruce Strachan




C h a p t e r   o n e 

I n a u s p i c i o u s   B e g i n n i n g s

May 17th, 2010

Rain, not completely unexpected during the month of May, was the first strike against us. Our Toyota Hiace got stuck as a result in a bog of black-cotton-soil somewhere out in the rolling Plane of Hadda. It was my bad – I should’ve chose a vehicle more suited to off-road. Fact was though during all of my journeying around the Ethiopian highlands I’d never actually hired a car. Whenever Jalata and I venture out we take public buses, and when those buses reach the ends of their lines we simply hop on whatever other mode of transport happens to be available – a couple of mules, or a horse drawn cart if we’re in luck. More often than not though we’re out there on foot.

But this day would be different. Jalata wouldn’t be coming. This day I was instead exploring with professors from the University of Addis Ababa – gents from a world entirely foreign to Jalata’s, or mine for that matter. Nothing short of the most comfortable means would do – even if the expense, agreed before hand to be put on my tab, exceeded budget.

It was somehow poetically ironic then that thanks to my having been placed in charge of transport our distinguished little party had to slog an extra two hours through a water-torturingly slow drizzle, ankle deep in muck. None of which would’ve been a hitch for Jalata and me – no indeed, we routinely covered 30 kilometres per day in any kind of terrain or condition, but a slight limp hindered the affable Professor Berhanu, and it wasn’t long before his otherwise steadfast friend and colleague Professor Shiferaw had proceeded well ahead, where I’d have liked to have been. Abandoning Professor Berhanu wouldn’t have been right though. We had after all, organised this little expedition as a team – in fact it was Professor Berhanu who proposed the outing in the first place – our first such joint endeavour and Professor Shiferaw’s momentary abandon notwithstanding, there was then already a sense that some sort of meaningful camaraderie might be developing, based on a shared passion for recapturing fragments of this country’s bedazzling untold past.

Bruce and Jalata at the Washa-Mik’ael Church

Jalata doesn’t share this passion. No, repossessing the past doesn’t interest him in the least. Indeed, he doesn’t even know what year he was born on account that his parents passed away so early on. Consequently his upbringing was one of being shuffled around from kin to kin, toiling long days in the fields to earn his keep. Schooling wasn’t part of the equation.

I felt bad when I first heard this, but contrarily Jalata’s face lights up when he recalls it. “Chigre yellum!” He declares, meaning no problem! And which might just as well be his motto in life. “After mama and baba [papa] they die I go to they sister bet [their aunt’s house]. Maybe I stay a few months – like that. Then maybe I go another sister bet, or brother bet [aunt or uncle’s house]like that. Everybody they nice – chigre yellum.”

Jalata’s was one of the first faces I chanced upon when I arrived in Africa some ten years earlier, and an upright face it was, endowed with that sort of automatic smile that at once indicated his rural origins, from where like untold others he’d migrated to the big city in search of a better life. Unsurprisingly, the best employment he could find when he arrived was as a zabanya (watchman) at a villa owned by an aged gentleman who, some three decades earlier had been one of Haile Selassie’s Major Generals. Here, as fate would have it, our far-flung worlds would coincide when that villa became my home.

At first it seemed that Jalata’s whole purpose in life was about nothing more than opening and closing the compound’s big green metal gates. A task, which although unremarkable, he performed gracefully. In time we grew acquainted, and I found him to be a decent and likeable fellow – the sort back home we’d call a regular guy. Eventually I passed through those gates enough times that we become pals – reality of our lives’ dissimilarities not withstanding. In due course he accompanied me on hikes around the countryside where we became as indomitable as Tom and Huck, and indeed it was while rambling around the Yeka hills that we stumbled upon Washa-Mikael, the medieval rock-hewn church I’d later dedicate so much time and effort to.

Now, it goes without saying that friendship as such shouldn’t be betrayed or taken for granted, but when I decided to take up the task of raising awareness around that Washa-Mikael site I knew my unpretentious sidekick wouldn’t be able to assist. To make serious progress I’d have to cultivate establishment types like the professors, but this left me with a dilemma: What if the eminent professors weren’t enamoured by my friend’s lack of basic credentials? Of course it wasn’t entirely fair of me to suppose that such might’ve been the case, but I’d witnessed divisions along class, social and ethnic lines before and I’d seen how hurtful those rejections could be. As much as I appreciated Jalata, bringing him into such a context could be risky. It might backfire, and I didn’t deem it wise to gamble with the professor’s hard-earned confidence. Getting them to take me seriously had itself been no minor achievement considering my own academic background consisted of little more than a BFA from an accredited art college. Nor had I come with a foundation grant to divvy up either.

After anguishing over this for some time I finally decided to just not invite Jalata. Needless to say, pangs of disloyalty niggled at my conscience throughout that whole day.

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Our objective was ambitious – to scale the 3099 metre high Mount Yerer and locate two significant, though largely undocumented archaeological sites, once vital constituents within a wider ranging network of medieval establishments positioned throughout medieval Abyssinia’s southern Shoa province.

First stop: a sizeable walled complex situated midway up the mountain, which the professors speculated might be remains of a mysteriously ‘lost’ 15th century capitol called Barara. Then, time permitting we hoped to hike a further six kilometres to the site of a medieval church called Ginbi, possibly built by Emperor Na’od bin Admas (1495-1508).

Mauro's Mappa Mundi

A recent archaeology journal essay titled Barara The Royal City of 15th and Early 16th Century Ethiopia had awakened interest in these landmarks. The composition, co-authored by renowned English scholar Richard Pankurst and a German researcher named Hartwig Breternitz, drew upon clues found within the Mappa Mundi, a 15th century Venetian triumph of cartography within which Barara is illuminated with distinction.

Fra Mauro based Barara’s coordinates on testimonies gathered from Abyssinians who chanced to be travelling through Venice, and extraordinarily considering that Mauro produced this epic work from a desk in Italy, his portrayal nonetheless offered what remain steadfastly distinct landscape features – specifically four fundamental bearings that cordon-off a 300 square-kilometre zone into which Mount Yerer elegantly fit. These four bearings, I should note, are the Debre Libanos Monastery to the north, the Mount Zuquala Monastery to the south, the Awash River to the east, and Managesha Hill to the west.

The essay cited two other medieval documents. One of which was a series of interviews conducted by fellow Venetian Alessandro Zorzi, who like Fra Mauro also interviewed Abyssinian travellers, some of whom in fact hailed from Barara and spoke of it as the chief city and official residence of the emperor – a capitol, where the patriarch kept a mountain castle, as well as a very great church.

The most illuminating references however come to us not from a wandering Ethiopian or a deskbound Venetian, but from a Yemeni writer named Arab-Faqih, who in 1531 witnessed the city’s violent destruction first hand and recorded that occurrence in a narrative titled the Conquest of Abyssinia (Futuh al-Habasa). This extraordinary document chronicles a succession of jihads now referred to collectively as the Adel-Abyssinian War (1529-1543) led by a charismatic young imam named Ahmad bin Ibrahim al-Gazi (1506-1543). Imam Ahmad, as I will refer to him, hailed from what is now Somalia, and is praised within Arab-Faqih’ flowery text as, “the star of Islam, from the stock of the lords of the mujahidin.” And who would, “make the infidels [Abyssinians] drink deep from the cup of death; and sprinkle upon them the dust of calamity.”

The Conquest of Abyssinia reveals that Imam Ahmad was perhaps no more than nineteen at the time of Barara’s 1529 sacking. Surprisingly moreover, he is oblivious to the degree of this city’s imperial and administrative importance, learning of it instead only after his soldiers chanced to stumble upon it while out searching for food and supplies. The text records the discovery thus:

“There was a church there [in Barara] that belonged to the former [Abyssinian] king whose name was Na’od bin Admas (1494-1508), and of which the Muslims had no knowledge. They had gone there looking for cattle and provisions. When the Muslims reached the church they found it stacked with gold. There was gold plate in the church, gold and silver bowls, and silken furnishings.”

“They [the soldiers] took vast booty [from the church], and turned around and returned to the imam who was then upstream from the river Awash. He [Imam Ahmad] questioned them about the district and whether they had encountered any resistance. They replied: ‘the infidels [Abyssinian forces] are on the other bank [impassable due to seasonal flooding]. The whole countryside is brimming over with gold and silver, all its mountains and valleys and its churches are filled with gold, silver and silk.”

Seeking confirmation of this report Imam Ahmad summoned a recently captured Abyssinian from Barara, who’d undergone what the medieval Yemini author referrers to as a ‘sincere conversion’ to Islam. Accordingly the convert testified:

“Your soldiers have spoken the truth … the whole countryside [of Barara] is rich in gold and silver. All the wealth of the Christians is in this district because they had never heard of any Muslim arriving in this area, and for this reason they [Abyssinians] felt confident about leaving their wealth there.”

Secure with the understanding that the Abyssinian army was helplessly stranded on the other side of the impassably flooding Awash River, and that seizing Barara and its spoils could therefore proceed unopposed, Imam Ahmad then instructed his men:

‘Whatsoever each one takes is his.’ And with this the Muslims raided the district, killing the people and the monks. Afterwards the soldiers plundered a vast booty of gold, silver and silk: the Muslims split up around the region plundering. As one came back with booty another set out to plunder. This pattern of behaviour went on for quite some time. [They] plundered an unaccountable quantity of gold, silver and silk over twenty days of Ramadan. Small and great among the Muslims became wealthy.”

Imam Ahmad’s conquest was a turning point that saw the destruction of innumerable churches, monasteries and imperial palaces. His forces were eventually defeated in 1544, but not until after they’d reeked their violence throughout the empire for twelve years. Today, some five-hundred-years later, Christian Ethiopians still refer to this jihadist as Ahmad Gragn, an unceremonious epithet that roughly translates to Lefty Ahmad. So comprehensive and exhaustive was his carnage that vast regions of Abyssinia were left vacant, only to be repopulated by waves of northward migrating Oromo pastoralists. As a consequence the whereabouts of many of Shoa’s medieval sites remain unknown unto this day – of these, perhaps none is more captivating than Barara.

In their conclusion Breternitz and Pankhurst cautiously abstained from positively identifying the site upon Mount Yerer as Barara. Instead they suggested that a more thorough investigation was required. Shiferaw, Berhanu and I hoped that after examining these ruins with our own eyes we might gain understanding that would enhance clarity. We were on to something – something big – something that promised to add to, possibly even redefine, what had been a superior episode in African history.

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I’d been introduced to Professors Shiferaw and Berhanu two weeks earlier on the steps of Emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace within the stately manor which today houses the University of Addis Ababa’s Institute for Ethiopian Studies. Within these gracious halls Berhanu functions as the institute’s director and Shiferaw is considered among the nation’s foremost  history professors. In polite two-handed fashion they welcomed me beneath a portico frieze in which an imperial crown hovered over a Star of David flanked by the archangels Michael and George, who stood sentinel alongside lions of Judah.

The professors were curious about my reasons for being in Ethiopia, which were “so strange and improbable,” I told them, that they were, “beyond even my own comprehension.”

The Star of David hovers over the Ark of the Covenant

“Coming to Ethiopia,” I told them, “wasn’t something that I’d planned … it just happened … what’s more, this isn’t the first time I’ve been here.”

“Is that so?” They asked with increased interest.

“I first came almost ten years ago,” I explained, “with my then partner.”

“Your wife?”

“No, not exactly. Technically she was what’s called a ‘UN spouse,’ a sort of non-legally binding status for unmarried couples living together but which essentially has no relevance outside the U.N. system.”

We’d met at an upper-east-side Manhattan art opening. I was a successful illustrator known for my witty three-dimensional New York Times Book Review covers, and she was a captivating United Nations Development Programme Officer from Congo-Brazzaville. Interest was instant and mutual. One thing quickly led to another, and after a hasty romance she conceived an adorable little girl.

I assisted in the birth. Indeed I was the first to see this little miracle enter this world. We named her Muila – a name I quite liked, meaning breath of life in her mother’s Congolese dialect.

To be sure, the sudden change was terrifying at first, but being a father gave me a previously unknown sense of joy, love and purpose. I didn’t doubt the sanctity of nature’s plan and was determined to submit to whatever was called upon of me to fulfil this, my new role as father and spouse.

Life’s changes didn’t end there. A few months after Muila’s birth the phone rang. It was the UN. They wanted my partner to relocate to Ethiopia.

This of course created an obvious dilemma for me. Should I go to Ethiopia and forgo my career?

At the time my first children’s book was selling quite well, and it was pretty much assured that the publisher would approach me to produce another. It wasn’t surprising therefore that  just a half hour later my editor called to propose a next project. What was unforeseen and bizarre however was that she asked if I’d be interested in writing and illustrating a book about Ancient Egypt. The book’s subtitle, she suggested, could be, The People of the Nile.

I quickly visualised a map of Africa. How interesting I thought, the Blue Nile courses through Ethiopia – in fact it originates there! I still remember the astonishment in my editor’s voice when I asked if I could write the People of the Nile from the Nile (albeit of course the Blue one).

She agreed, and the next thing I knew our young family was living in Ethiopia.

Muila wasn’t even one year old when we moved into the General’s villa near St. Urael Church. There I set myself up under a blooming waera tree sculpting various moments from Egypt’s glorious past, and here in the company of sphinxes, pyramids and pharaohs she took her first steps. Life was as sweet as the fruit plucked from our trees, and soon there arrived a second cherub – a boy whom we named Alexander – my mother’s maiden name.

Living in Ethiopia, I told the professors, had been a fascinating and enriching experience. Ethiopia’s traditional dress, its agricultural tools and method, observance of traditional rites, musical instruments et cetera all bore clear familial resemblance not only to other African sources, but also those of ancient trading partners, such as Egypt via the Nile, Arabia via the Red Sea and the Asian sub-continent via the Indian Ocean.

These cross-cultural connections, and the mysteries enveloping them, engrossed me. But things in my personal life were crumbling. After four years the UN once again transferred my partner – this time to Kenya – and there she left me.

Berhanu is one of those gentle giant types. He’s got the girth of an NFL lineman, but the tenderness of a bunny rabbit. In hearing my story his face expressed genuine dismay and empathy. He seemed quite willing to lend a sympathetic ear, and I appreciated this. But I didn’t want to unload personal matters on people I didn’t yet really know. Mentioning it alone had felt prickly. But not having done so would’ve left a glaringly large and mysterious gap in the story of how I came to wind up in Ethiopia.

Resolving to stay in Kenya, and to remain close to my children turned out to be largely in vain when my now ex-partner was reassigned once again shortly thereafter – first to Rwanda, and then to Benin. The impulse to follow my children around the globe would be impossible to fulfil without each of those countries granting me residency. And as I no longer had financial resources, it would be imperative that I immediately obtained work visas and found gainful employment in each successive country in order to survive.

On the other hand, if I left Africa and went back to New York I feared I’d never see my children again. How moreover would I support myself back in New York? In my seven year absence I’d lost my home and career. I’d have to start all over again from scratch – this not only during a recession but also during a period of the worst unemployment figures in recent history. Exacerbating those already poor odds, was that I was also about to turn fifty – ancient by New York job-candidate definition.

Unable even to bear the thought of leaving the continent where my beloved children were, I found myself alone, broke, homeless and at mid-life in the unfamiliar city of Nairobi.

Mourning the loss of my children I had no appetite for months, and for a year I drenched my pillow with tears. During this gloomy phase however I endeavoured to start up  a modest art newsletter, which I authored, edited, designed, photocopied and distributed on a shoestring budget to museums and art galleries. Miraculously a Belgian art collector named Marc became my most avid of readers. Out of the blue he called me one day and asked if we could meet to discuss some Kenyan artists I’d written about. After hearing of my homeless circumstances he and his artist wife Chelenge very generously agreed to take me in, until I could get myself back on my feet. This intervention almost certainly saved my life. Not through shelter and food alone but through their humanity and kindness.

During this phase I also grew close to a wonderful Kenyan woman named Jacinta who, unknown to me then, was Chairperson of Kenya’s Gender Commission. My heart would never cease to mourn over the loss of my children, but Jacinta’s goodness, strength and encouragement answered my despair with hope. In time life once again regained beauty.

Jacinta came from a large family, not unlike my own – decent people who accepted me in spite of my lumps and bruises. We married and settled into a modest home in a Nairobi neighbourhood called Westlands. By this time I’d found a job as managing editor for a magazine and book publisher called Camerapix, founded by the legendary Mohamed Amin.

‘Mo,’ as he was known, was the cameraman who’d brought the world’s attention to Ethiopia’s devastating famine of 1984. It was heart-rending images of human suffering that mobilised an unprecedented global awakening of compassion, which in turn led to the largest grassroots humanitarian-aid effort in history. This was arguably mankind’s finest hour. And without the irrepressible determination of Mohamed Amin it never would have happened.

Tragically Mo died in a terrible plane crash before my arrival. But his son Salim, a media entrepreneur and documentary filmmaker in his own right carries forth his father’s legacy.

Amongst the various duties I inherited at Camerapix was to write and edit for Selamtathe in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines. This was a strange bit of destiny for it furnished me with a pretext to keeping my thoughts in the land that had so grown on me. There I was moreover sitting in Mo’s old chair at Mo’s old desk in Kenya, authoring feature length articles about Ethiopian history, and drawing enormous satisfaction from the unlikely outcome of fate that I was in effect following in the footsteps of distinguished earlier Selamta contributors such as Graham Hancock – who wrote the best selling The Sign and the Seal about Ethiopia’s claim to the Ark of the Covenant, and Richard Pankhurst, academic mentioned earlier for his landmark journal essay about Barara and who, although in his eighties, continued to submit regular articles. It was dumbfounding then, to find my humble self preparing Pankhurst’s virtuoso compositions for publication.

Kenya, although Ethiopia’s neighbour could hardly have been more dissimilar with its highly commercial tourism, western-style malls, fast-food chains and mega supermarkets. I longed for Ethiopia’s more Spartan lifestyle rooted in tradition. At home I listened to Ethiopian music, plastered my walls with Ethiopian posters, and cooked Ethiopian food. Then one day, several years into our marriage, the phone rang. It was the U.N.. They were inviting Jacinta to a gender development meeting in Addis Ababa. It’d been almost five years since I’d been there and it goes without saying that she didn’t need to twist my arm very much to get me on the plane.

As I walked down the streets and alleys of my old neighbourhoods of Urael and Kazanchis familiar faces greeted me warmly – almost as though I were a long lost family member. Never in a million years did they expect to ever see me again, and they couldn’t believe their eyes – nor could I, especially when I eventually found myself standing before the big green metal gates that had once been my home.

I couldn’t wait to see the look of surprise on Jalata’s face when he opened those gates and found me standing there. But after knocking an unfamiliar zabanya opened instead. I introduced myself, and inquired about Jalata. There’d been cutbacks, he explained. Jalata had been one of them. “Now Jalata he live [in] Gurdi Sholah.”

It took me the better part of the afternoon to track him down, but when I did the reunion was joyous. “You are home Mister!”  He said clapping, laughing as he welcomed me into his adobe one-room home, “You are home!”

As we brewed traditional coffee on a small charcoal stove we exchanged updates on the developments in each other’s lives. I pulled photos of Muila and Alexander from my wallet to show how big they’d become. He’d been like an uncle to them, and was saddened by the news of separation. “Chigre yellum Mister. Chigre yellum. Everything it will be okay.”

He too had gone through a breakup, but he too had met someone new – a lady named Sara. They were talking marriage. He confided however that he’d been struggling. Work was scarce. Whenever they could scrape together enough money to purchase flower Sara made Ethiopia’s unleavened bread called injera, which Jalata in turn went out onto the streets to sell. When there wasn’t enough money to buy flower he did part-time construction work – hazardous, backbreaking labour for less than a dollar a day. There was no grievance though – none at all. “Chigre yellum Mister.” He said. “God, he [will] provide.”

“Jalata,” I said. “You no longer work for me, so why do you still call me ‘Mister?’ I always loathed that darned word anyway, especially from an age-mate. “We’re friends,” I said. “Ibako yenne Gwadenya (please my friend), just call me Bruce.”

He laughed awkwardly saying, “Ishi (okay) Mister,” then disappeared through the stove’s billowing smoke – only to reappear moments later with some injera and two bottles of Coca-Cola. “America people I think maybe they like,” he said, popping the cap with a broad smile.

Fact of the matter was that I’d more or less outgrown my fondness for that particular fizzy drink back when I was about seventeen. I was touched though that Jalata was pulling out all the stops and attending to such detail to make me feel at home. The Coke tasted good with the injera.

We talked and talked and talked – and laughed and laughed and laughed, until some time later, when daylight began to dwindle into dusk, I realised that I’d better be getting back to the hotel, where by now Jacinta would have been waiting for me. We were due to fly back to Kenya the following morning, and she might start to worry since I didn’t have an Ethiopian phone card, and nor did she so there was no easy way of contacting her.

And as we strolled back down Gurdi Shola’s dim paths towards the bus stop, it began to cross my mind that I’d quite likely never see Jalata again. Even this one perchance reunion had been an unimaginable gift.

Just then a little girl and boy suddenly approached me. They were beaming ear to ear, as is so often the case with Ethiopian children, and presenting their tiny hands for shaking.

“They (look) like Muila and Alexander!” Jalata said. And it was true, the resemblances were indeed quite astonishing. And even though they weren’t mine, I found myself once again feeling the joy, albeit simulated, of being a papa. All but forgotten muscles in my face suddenly flexed back into action. I had wanted to lift them and hug them, and kiss their little cheeks as fathers are want to do. After shaking my hand they disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared – leaving me with a positive feeling.

At the Addis bus stop Jalata and I stood side-by-side. It’d been a brilliant day and there was nothing left but small talk to clear away the silence in the enveloping dusk. Our connection unto each other was no less than that shared by family members.

When the bus arrived it was already completely packed. It was a mini-bus and my head bobbed against its low roof like a bouncing ball until I managed to force-squeeze my 6′, 2″ frame between six others on the bus’ rear bench.

As he waved good-bye through the bus window Jalata shouted, “Good bye Bruce!”

Finally he shed use of that loathsome term ‘Mister.’ At last he called me by my name, and I was touched. 

Coming back to Ethiopia, and revisiting this episode of my past, had been a precious privilege. Friendship and goodwill had endured between me and people there, and I’d even been given a sort of vision of my children! But even with this gift now safely within my heart, life’s tosses and turns didn’t cease.

The following morning my wife Jacinta received a devastating phone call. The lady heading Ethiopia’s UN gender development office, a friend of hers moreover, had passed during the night.

Her name was Atsede, and although my encounters with her had been few and formal only, she exposed herself to be a very worthy person.

The first time I met her was at the airport. It was a few years back and she’d driven out to pick up Jacinta. On our way into town we came to a stop at the Urael Church intersection where a beggar approached the window on my side.

Atsede knew nothing about me at that time, other than that I was Jacinta’s American husband who happened to be accompanying her on this trip. She didn’t know, for instance, that I’d lived, not only in Ethiopia, but in this very neighbourhood – and that her fellow citizens, in this location anyway, were therefore, in a certain way, also mine.

Through her rear mirror Atsede observed, as I explained in polite Amharic, that while yes, it’s true that I used to give, today I’ve just arrived from Kenya, and therefore have no Birr (local currency). With this explanation the unfortunate man smiled, nodded, and then receded.

Several days later, as we were leaving, Atsede said to Jacinta, “We know you’ll be returning.” When Jacinta asked her how she knew this she replied, “Because your husband clearly has a special connection here.”

I was moved that Atsede would say such a thing. We’d known about the illness she’d been battling, but had understood that she was on the road to recovery. Atsede was an exceptionally decent person – everyone adored her. The loss was a blow, and Jacinta, in particular, was heartbroken.

Before we were able to catch our flight out The U.N. Headquarters contacted Jacinta and asked her if she could please fill Atsede’s position until they could find a permanent recruit. It was all so sudden. Jacinta accepted, not knowing how long the process would take – a month, possibly two, maybe even three. Never could she have imagined that it would take a whole year. But it did, and once again, completely by stroke of inexplicable chance, and by design not of my own making, I found myself living in Ethiopia.

The professors were taken aback to hear all of these things. Being brought to Ethiopia once as a U.N. spouse was already unlikely, but twice? Bizarre indeed! Professor Berhanu, who made little effort to conceal his religious conviction, may have interoperated this as the fulfilment of some sort of destiny. Others certainly did, and to be sure even the word, coincidence began only to explain this strange fate.

During this indeterminate time I pursued several employment leads, but ran into the same problem again and again. As an unsponsored foreigner getting a work visa is next to impossible in Ethiopia. Moreover when prospects did arise, the potential employer would understandably seek to know how long I’d be staying, to which I was of course unable to provide a sufficient answer. With these impediments looming I decided to volunteer some of my time and energies to the cause of promoting conservation of the Washa-Mik’ael rock-hewn church that Jalata and I had stumbled on five years earlier while wandering around the Yeka hills east of the city.

So neglected were these ruins, I told the professors, that they’d become a flood prone, root infested, shrub overgrown hyena den, which hadn’t even yet been listed as state inventory.

“What makes this site so significant,” I added, “is that it landmarks the southward progression of rock-hewn architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

This grand statement caused Professor Shiferaw to do a bit of chin rubbing. “But surely you are aware of the Adadi Mariam rock-hewn church?”

“Yes,” I answered, “And very true – Adadi-Mariam is somewhat further south, as are several other medieval churches and monasteries. I’m also aware,” I added, “That unlike Washa-Mikael, Adadi-Mariam has already been listed as state inventory and nominated for U.N. World Heritage Site status. But Washa-Mikael is not only greater in scale than Adadi-Mariam, it also exhibits a higher degree of construction skill and more pronounced traces of post-Axumite style – factors, which accord it greater significance. At any rate,” I added, “All of these sites are certainly worthy for World Heritage protection either as individual entities or as a group.”

“And how do you plan to set about accomplishing this?” Berhanu asked.

“Well, as you know, Washa-Mikael is under joint church and state jurisdiction, and that I therefore have no authority to implement any type of process without cooperation from both.”

The professor’s faces tried to look responsive, but scepticism could also be read, as though they’d heard it all before. Such cooperation was famously uneasy to orchestrate. Furthermore, when it came to conserving cultural heritage both the church and state were cash strapped. Ethiopia after all, is still a developing nation.

Complicating my initiative further was that I was not only a foreigner but also a non-believer, automatically classifying me as an interloper with both institutions. Nonetheless, I trusted that this wouldn’t be a factor once the greater common goal of conservation was established.

“My aim,” I told them was to, “raise public awareness through the media. Surely if we generate enough interest the authorities will act.”

“But you’re an artist aren’t you?” Berhanu asked.

“Well yes. I was. Uh, and I still am – sort of.”

Berhanu’s head keeled slightly off axis at my vague response.

“Back home,” I explained. “I used to illustrate covers of the New York Times Book Review – historical portraits mostly. I’ve also written and illustrated history books for children. But now that I’m based over here I’ve had to adapt to this market – to sort of reinvent myself. I’m doing more writing now – arts and cultural reporting for newspapers and magazines mostly.”

These credentials didn’t seem to impress the professors too terribly. White writers, ad-hoc artists, and self-styled explorer-adventurer types have been features of the African narrative since time immemorial. Indeed an excerpt from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness suddenly flashed through my mind – this when Marlowe, challenged to describe Kurtz, offers the tongue-tied response that Kurtz was, “either a painter who wrote for the papers, or a journalist who could paint.”

I, of course, in no other way fit the Kurtz bill. Nonetheless, this peculiar irresolution did hit home. In truth I had been struggling to find my way and my place in Africa. And frankly the professors had every reason to question my credentials and motives. After all, under what authority does an artist from New York have to come over here and stand upon Emperor Haile Selassie’s front steps, putting forward unto eminent Ethiopians the message that he’s interested in protecting their national heritage?

Just then I remembered something quite remarkable. “Oh,” I added, “I’m also co-authoring a piece about Washa-Mikael with Professor Pankhurst.”

“Richard?” They asked.


Born in London in 1927, this twice earlier mentioned academic was a co-founder of the Institute for Ethiopian Studies as well as the author of a multitude of texts on Ethiopian history. Indeed it was he who first brought our attention to the ‘lost’ city of Barara through the before cited journal essay, and it was his masterful compositions that required so little if any red editing ink at my Camerapix desk in Nairobi. Moreover Professor Pankhurst was a leading advocate for conservation and repatriation of cultural heritage. In fact it was largely to his credit that the great Stele Number 2, seized from Axum by fascists during their four-year occupation, was returned. And it was his petitioning that persuaded British authorities to return artefacts seized during Napier’s 1868 expeditionary incursion to Makdala.

I’d first met Richard and his wife Rita, ten years prior at their home near Addis Ababa’s Old Airport. As stated, I was writing and illustrating a book about Ancient Egypt at the time. Consequently my imagination was quite taken by the mystery of a different ‘lost’ African kingdom called Punt, which was particularly renowned for having millennia ago engaged in high-volume of trade with Egypt.

Scholars suspected that Punt was located somewhere in the region of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Richard had been kind enough to entertain my inquiries over several cups of coffee in his garden gazebo. Here, a decade later, we were once again sipping coffee in the same shade of his gazebo, this time discussing how to conserve the forlorn rock-hewn church of Washa-Mikael.

Wife Rita, colleague and scholar in her own right, again joined us, and after presenting my assessment both she and Richard were surprised that a site of such significance, which lay within the nation’s capitol, could remain so dejected for so long.

I explained that I’d already launched a modest blog upon which I regularly posted info and updates, that I’d made television and radio appearances and that I’d written a number of newspaper and magazine articles. My proposal to Richard then was that he write an essay for academic publication, to which he at once agreed, suggesting moreover that we co-author the piece – a suggestion that came as a complete surprise. When I asked him by what stroke of madness he was disposed to put his well-established name alongside that of mine, he answered simply that it would only be right given that I’d been the initiator.

Receiving Richard’s support was critical – moreover it made an impression on the professors. It may also have impressed them that among the many well-known perks offered to U.N. office heads, which my wife had just unexpectedly become, one was a brand new four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser with driver.

“Your project sounds interesting indeed.” Professor Berhanu said. “And might I also point out that there are several other sites of relevance that might enhance your understanding of Washa-Mikael?”

“I would very much appreciate that.” I said as I withdrew a large map from my pocket and unfolded it onto the portico’s ledge. This map, which was worn, torn, taped, rabbit-eared and stained from repeated use out in the field, indicated the placement of hypogean architecture throughout Ethiopia’s Shoa region.

“In fact,” I said pointing to the map. “I’ve already begun to investigate a number of other relative sites.” 

“Where on earth did you get this?” Professor Berhanu asked. “It looks handmade!”

“It is. I made it.”

Adding to the map’s distressed and very old appearance was the calligraphic hand that I wrote in, and it’s not hard therefore to imagine the professors finding me spectacularly eccentric for having such a thing.

“You made it yourself?”

“Yes. Well” I explained, “I had no choice actually. You see I happened upon the original version of this map several months ago. It was inserted in a book at the institute’s library.”

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply photocopy it?”

“Well yes. And that was my intention, but just as I was about to have it copied the power failed.”

“Of course.” Said Berhanu. “The power always goes just when you need it the most!”

“The librarian was very helpful though. She brought me three candles, which cast ample light, and I was able to duplicate it by hand on to a large sheet of paper.”

“And, do you always carry large sheets of paper with you like this?”

“Well, I’m an artist don’t forget. So yes, I do tend to carry a sketch pad around with me.”

“You created this whole thing by candlelight?”

“There was no other option!”

“Unfortunately some of the ink ran slightly when I was crossing the Awash River to get to the Kistana Cave Chapel.”

“Indeed? You’ve been there?”

“Yes,” I reported, “Just a few weeks ago.”

“Was it interesting?”

“Very. You could never imagine finding such an elegantly carved chamber. Inside of what appears to be nothing more, from the outside, than just a natural cave.”

“Ah hah. So you’re a sort of scout.” Professor Shiferaw remarked.

“I’ve never thought of myself as such, but I suppose you could say so.”

Pointing to a different dot I remarked, “These grottos along the Tefo River are also quite remarkable. Apparently there was a sizable monastic community there up until the 16th century.”


“And the Abba Nebero cave complex over here is particularly noteworthy because it contains a variation on the distinctive design element found above the west door of Washa-Mikael.”

“This is most fascinating.”

“And to my knowledge this particular design occurs no where else.”

“Are you familiar with the ruins on top of Mt. Yer’er?” Berhanu asked.

“I’ve not yet been up there.” I said, folding the map up and stuffing it back into my pocket, “But I once dined with priests from nearby Dukem, whose tongues loosened after a few of cups of tala (traditional home-brewed beer). They described the mountain as ‘sacred,’ and in no uncertain terms told me of how an Aksumite king named Atsbaha had stationed himself there during the fourth century.”

According to this tradition King Atsbaha co-ruled from 307 to 333CE with his brother Abreha. These brothers, amongst the most celebrated in Ethiopia’s history, were the first to officially adopted Christianity. My mention of them however produced a sudden differential expression in Professor Shiferaw’s face.

“I’m afraid,” He said. “That there isn’t really any evidence to support such this claim. This is what we historians would call foundation myth. It’s more likely that Mt Yer’er’s structures were built sometime after the 13th century – well after Abreha and Atsbeha.”

“Isn’t it conceivable though” I asked, “That an earlier structure lies beneath?”

“Of course anything is possible,” Shiferaw replied, “But historians are a cautious breed. Our reputations are attached to everything we say, and while we respect the priests’ claims, if these can’t be upheld scientifically then they can’t be admitted as fact.”

Professor Berhanu then suggested, “Why don’t we investigate Mt. Yer’er’s ruins together?”

“That would be fantastic!” I answered, barely able to contain my excitement.

“There’s just one thing.” He said motioning towards a rather frayed Toyota Mark II parked at the foot of the palace steps. “As you can see my vehicle isn’t quite fit for off-road duty.”

Nothing about the car’s appearance suggested that Professor Berhanu was exaggerating. But like Ethiopia and its professors, I too was also on a budget, and there was no way that my wife was going to allow us to use the U.N. Land Cruiser for unofficial business. Still, I couldn’t turn down the rare opportunity to team up with experts such as these. I’d just have to shell out the cash and rustle up a rental.

“No problem Professor Berhanu.” I said. “I’ll arrange transport.”

“Oh,” Professor Shiferaw added, “And just one more thing.”


“I think we can drop these titles now. Please just call me Shiferaw.”

Berhanu nodded. We chuckled and shook on it.

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It took Berhanu and me over an hour to trudge across what Jalata and I could’ve crossed in half. When we finally did catch up to Shiferaw he was standing along the bank of a tributary called the Belbela River with rolled up pant legs. Around him a dozen or so mountain folk had congregated with their donkeys and goats.

“We’re going to wait a few minutes,” he shouted as Professor Berhanu and I approached. “Rain further up the mountain is causing the river to flood, but we anticipate that the waters to soon recede.”

In Ethiopia’s highlands, dry riverbeds can gush into raging torrents with flash flood rapidity the instant rain falls. Truthfully though, this ‘river’ was no more of an obstacle than those Jalata and I routinely conquered. I scouted up and down, searching for an alignment of stepping-stones, but quickly realised that one couldn’t exist, because if the mountain folk who negotiated this crossing daily had resigned to waiting at this particular point then it had to be the most doable.

The three of us stood there then, enduring slow drizzle for about half an hour before it dawned on us that the rains weren’t about to let up. The doom of our expedition was consequently apparent, but no one wanted to be first in acknowledge it. Instead we politely bided our time exchanging small talk with the locals who were, as so often is the case, people for whom the coined expression ‘salt of the earth,’ had to have been struck – hardy souls with roughened hands and leathery faces etched with life, whose company it is always a privilege to partake in.

Twenty or so more minutes passed in this abiding manner before Shiferaw finally delivered the overdue diktat: “If we do manage to cross, hours of climbing still lay ahead. But we must keep in mind that once on the other side the rains might pick up again, in which case we could be stuck over night.”

Once more, this wouldn’t have been such a predicament for Jalata and me – there’s always a farmer or monk willing to let you sleep on his floor, but such accommodations aren’t for everyone, and so it was that Team Shiferaw, Berhanu and Bruce failed on their very first joint field expedition – incapable even of crossing a minor tributary. There was nothing left to be said, and with drizzle tapping tiresomely on our defeated shoulders we retreated along our earlier footprints.

Black cotton soil is nutrient rich, making it ideal for agriculture, but when mixed with rain it acquires an elasticity similar to bread dough. As one attempts to walk each step get’s gulped – every stride swallowed. What’s more it clings to the outer edges of one’s shoes, so as to cause an effect like walking in snowshoes. As we trudged in this Inuit way I broke our vanquished silence by commenting that I was beginning to feel that the mountain had rejected me. “I know this makes no sense,” I said, “But that’s how I feel.”

“Oh Bruce.” Berhanu replied, “I’m sorry. Perhaps Yerer has decided that you aren’t quite ready.”


“Yes, of course. Understand Bruce, Mount Yerar is sacred.”

“Sacred?” I said, in a voice incapable of fully concealing scepticism. I suddenly recalled the priests in Dukam saying the same thing. Berhanu then explained how according to teachings of the elders one had to be spiritually prepared. “Not only are we attempting to visit an archaeological site Bruce, this also has to be seen in the context of pilgrimage.”

I remained silent, not wanting to fully let on that I didn’t subscribe to such things. Fantastic natural landscapes do at times appear to have what could be called spirit, or even to possess energy, which could likewise be described as having something of a force. What’s more it’s not unusual for believers like Berhanu to construe miraculous significance out of such extraordinary natural phenomenon – phenomenon that we less dutiful people might find breathtaking, but nevertheless systematic to nature.

We trudged on – the mood remaining quiet and pensive. Then Berhanu again spoke, “I will pray for you Bruce.”

What a shame I thought. Atop this mountain lay remains of an integral part of Berhanu’s and Shiferaw’s heritage, but they’d probably never get to see it. Someone would have to bring the mountain to them, I thought.

By the time we made it back to the car a handful of farm lads, dressed no better than scarecrows, had gathered, assessing our stranded vehicle’s sticky predicament, not in the national Amharic language, but in Jalata’s Oromo mother tongue. I therefore greeted them likewise with, “Fayahdah?” (Have you peace?), to which they were at first astonished, but then, with smiles that flourished across their faces, dropped their farm implements and stepped forward to help free our car. They likely hadn’t seen many white men before, let alone one who greeted them in their own language. But I’d trekked hundreds of kilometres across this Shoan terrain with Jalata, and it was he who instructed me to cast out occasional words in Orominya, which although the largest language in Ethiopia, remains unknown to most native Amheric speakers. After freeing the car I shook their hands and thanked them again and again in their tongue, “Singaletta fayah!”

I then took one last lingering look at the rain-veiled outline of Mount Yerer, which loomed more voluminously across the plane than a million Giza pyramids. A murky crown of clouds circled riotously around its summit. Indeed, the place did appear to, in some peculiar way, possess a kind of spirit. Something wondrous is up there I sensed. And whatever that something was, it had on this day managed to guard its secrets from me.

But all was not lost. I’d gotten to know the professors a little better, and I liked them. They were good people who encouraged me to continue perusing my interest in their country’s history. Professor Shiferaw loaned me his copy of Pankhurst’s Barara essay, and Berhanu invited me to lecture at the Institute about Washa-Mikael, which although hopelessly shy in public I accepted to do because it’d be helpful to the conservation cause.

Moreover on this day I learned an important lesson about honouring friendship. Clearly I’d been wrong to assume that the professors might not have been receptive towards Jalata. On the contrary, Berhanu and Shiferaw were people’s people. This was plainly demonstrated by how kindly they interacted with the mountain folks stranded by the river. And anyway, I should have known better than to allow such misgivings to influence my own decisions. One should never grant judgement over ones own friends to others. Maybe Berhanu was right. Perhaps I wasn’t yet worthy to reach the top.

Right then and there I began plotting a return. I’d be back after the rains. But this time it’d be with Jalata, and with Berhanu’s prayers we’d find this lost city of Barara.

end of chapter 1

[1] RICCI, Lanfranco: Resti di antico edificio in Ghinbi (Scioa), Annales d’Ethiopie, 1976, Volume 10, pp. 177

[2] BRETERNITZ H and PANKHURST R, Barara The Royal City of 15th and Early 16thCentury Ethiopia, Annales d’Ethiopie, 2009, Volume 25. Pp. 209-249, citing STENHOUSE, P.L., Futuh al-Habash: The conquest of Ethiopia, (by Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin Abd al-Qader bin Salem bin Utman), with annotations by Richard Pankhurst. Hollywood: Tsehai, 2003.

[3] BRETERNITZ H and PANKHURST R, Barara The Royal City of 15th and Early 16thCentury Ethiopia, Annales d’Ethiopie, 2009, Volume 25. Pp. 209-249.

[4] STENHOUSE, P.L., Futuh al-Habasa: The Conquest of Ethiopia, (by Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin Abd al-Qader binSalem bin Utman), wirh annotatioa by Richard Pankhurst. Hollywood: Tsehai, 2003. p.p. 165-6

[5] Ibid. p.p. 166

[6] Ibid. p.p. 166

[7] Ibid. p.p. 166

[8] Ibid. p.p. 166

[9] CONRAD, J., Heart of Darkness, Penguin, 1995

[10] ANFREY, Francis, Des Eglises et des Grottes Rupestres, Annales d’Ethiopie, 1985, Volume 13, pp. 7-34

Photo crédits C. Bruce Strachan 2010.

Mappa Mundi: FALCHETTA, P., Fra Mauro’s Map of the World, Brepols 2006. Also see: Mappa Mundi (Il mappamondo di Fra Mauro), Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, fotocolor F/2733, Venice.

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Searching for Barara - Mt Yerer, Ethiopia

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Mappa Mundi (Il mappamondo di Fra Mauro), Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, fotocolor F/2733, Venice.

Mappa Mundi (Il mappamondo di Fra Mauro), Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, fotocolor F/2733, Venice.

Line version of the same
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Jalata Kagela asking a farmer for directions to Barara in the sloping midway elevations of Mt Yerar. (c) Bruce Strachan 2010

Jalata Kagela asking a farmer for directions to “the ruins of Sire” (c) Bruce Strachan 2010


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