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.”

“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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