I’ve recently returned from a week of work travel in north-western Ethiopia. Amhara Region has many claims, and among them, the claim to be the true ‘heartland’ of Ethiopia. Couched in the ancient highlands that were the natural fortress of old Abyssinia, it is a diverse and devastatingly beautiful landscape, full of history gone, and history still unfolding.
The region gives its name to both the dominant people group of Ethiopia, and the nation’s lingua franca- and hence the political as well as historical claim to be Ethiopia’s heartland. Both perspectives are easily challenged. Ethiopia is highly ethnically diverse, with over 80 ethnic groups, and its government carefully balances power among that recognized ethnic diversity: New Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (who is a Wolayta, from the SNNPR) has appointed three deputy Prime Ministers, one each from Tigray, Oromia and Amhara (and have similarly ensured balanced religious representation, with one deputy being Muslim and two Orthodox, to compliment Hailemariam’s Protestant faith). Likewise, while Amharic is the state’s official language, and English has some currency as a foreign language understood by those who have completed secondary education, there are some 90 languages across Ethiopia, and native Amharic speakers make up just over a quarter of Ethiopia’s population. Geek fact: Amharic is the second most widely-spoken Semitic language in the world, after Arabic.
Amhara Region has somewhere in the vicinity of 18 million people, over 90% of them from the Amharic ethnic group (also a contested nomenclature) and most of them also Orthodox Christian. Its administrative capital is the town of Bahir Dar, which non-travellers to Ethiopia are unlikely to have heard of, but it is a pleasant and fast-growing town of nearly 200,000, with palm-lined avenues and magenta bougainvillea spilling over compound walls. It sits near the region’s centre on an inlet of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest body of water and the source of the mighty Abbai- the Blue Nile (although the Piccolo Abbai- the Little Blue Nile) rises elsewhere in the south of the region to feed the lake, so in truth the lake is less the source, more a conduit).
Bahir Dar sits at an elevation of over 1,800m, which gives it a warm and gentle climate, just about perfect for walking around at night in a t-shirt at this equatorial latitude. Amusingly, when I asked colleagues about its elevation, I was told it was ‘very low’. I guess from Addis, at 2,500m, plenty of things seem low. In fact, Ethiopia has three main climatic zones, differentiated by altitude. The Kola, or lowlands, run up to 1,500m. The Woyinda Dega, or middle highlands, from 1,500-2,500m. And the Dega, or highlands, from 2,500m upwards. Most of Amhara Region is Woyinda Dega, but it also contains Ethiopia’s highest point, Ras Dashen, which perches at a lofty 4,550m.
Amhara Region’s better known locales, as well as Lake Tana and Ras Dashen, include the historic mountain city of Gondar, once seat to Abyssinian Emperors, the dramatic Simien Mountains, and Lalibela, famed for its rock churches. I’ve been told by people who’ve been there that the Simiens and Lalibela are two of the must-see places in the country, and I hope to get the chance to visit them someday. I did get a chance, on a late afternoon visit before my departing flight, to stop by the dramatic Blue Nile Falls. Due to a festival in Bahir Dar, an hour away, the hydro-electric power station that usually takes the river’s flow was switched off, and water diverted over the falls instead, and so the waterfall was in full thunderous flow, spray hanging in a great cloud in the evening sunlight.
The city of Gondar sits spread over several hilltops and the intervening valleys, at an altitude of a little over 2,100m. Like Bahir Dar- and many other corners of Ethiopia- it is a growing city and, deceptively, one of Ethiopia’s biggest, at a quarter of a million inhabitants. Its winding roads, forging pathways between buildings jostling for space on the hillsides, struck me at times as reminiscent of an Alpine town. The landscape has a Mediterranean dryness to it and sits beneath a haze that turns golden as the late-season sun sets behind the hills. At its heart grows the UNESCO-heritage King Fasilides’ castle, chief among a network of palaces first started in the 1600s whose remnants can be visited today- some, like Fasilides’ Castle itself, in excellent condition, others little more than ruins.
Gondar’s setting is beautiful, the surrounds of its approach moreso. Driving north from Bahir Dar, the road picks its way among rolling farmland and rocky hillocks, before climbing into the mountains proper. Before the mountain pass that leads into Gondar country, a great rock spire thrusts with phallic determination into the blue sky. Among the hills, the horizon is riven by outcrops and domes, while terraced fields and straw-roofed huts dot the valley floors. The terrain is dry, but not arid. Wildflowers bloom and grass is ripe for haying.
South of Bahir Dar, the landscape changes again. Instead of the dry hills of Gondar, the highlands are green and damp. Around the grubby crossroads of Injibara, hilltops are crowned with trees, as much as 10% of the land area in this heavily-populated and -farmed district still forested. The skyline is no less dramatic, however, with great protrusions of rock jutting into brooding clouds, while in the foreground, a patchwork of smallholdings is testament to the bustling agricultural sector. Fields are full of horses, and we pass riders in ceremonial garb, their mounts bedecked in white cloaks with red cloth baubles dangling at every trot. When one afternoon it rains, a rainbow paints itself over a spreading valley of fields. Driving back to town, the green of crops not-yet-ripened is somehow far more intense beneath the stormy clouds.
Following the road west, we pass through Chagni, a dusty outpost town with nothing to recommend itself, even to my colleagues, who commented distastefully that the place hadn’t changed in twenty years. Perhaps not quite true- construction on a large mosque in the centre of town was nearing completion, the two minarets like rockets standing against a blue sky, the dome covered in makeshift scaffolding that looked fragile enough to come down with a sturdy kick.
Past Chagni, the road winds among more hills, crosses the barrier that marks the division between Amhara Region and Benishangul-Gumuz, and plunges. Not a hundred yards past the checkpoint, it skirts the face of a great escarpment that drops into the rolling lowlands spreading out for a couple of hundred kilometres to the Sudanese border. The landscape undulates, instantly dry. Orange dust like the slappings of a chalkboard eraser coats trees at the side of the road, lending them an ochre pall.
Villages bounce by, no longer the rectangular tin-roofed homes of the Amhara, but round-walled tukuls like those found in Kenya and South Sudan. In fact even the people are reminiscent of South Sudan. The Gumuz are not as tall as the Nuer or the Dinka, but their skin is dark like coal compared to the relatively fair Amhara. The women walk barefooted in groups, sticks balanced across their shoulders from which they hang plastic jerry cans of water, or other supplies, up to 50kg of weight. Broad-horned cattle roam the countryside. Mixed brush, trees and thorn bushes, grows thick here, and in the golden haze-hung light of a setting sun, this is textbook National Geographic Africa.
There’s more to Bahir Dar- and Ethiopia generally- than its landscape. Some of this I’ll explore in later posts, for sure. But I was struck on this trip by the utter beauty of the scenery. The hills and mountains, the light and the variety of the place made it one of the more eye-catching and memorable journeys I’ve taken through the byways of this continent- and I’ve taken a few by now. Ethiopia- and Amhara specifically- does have a reputation as a tourist destination among some circles- especially the Simiens (for trekking) and Gondar and Lalibela, for the anthropoligically-minded. However it was the remote and rugged terrain in the south and west of the region that really drew me in, and I hope to go back for a longer trip soon, one in which I’m actually there to take time over the photography, and not just rush from one field visit to the next.