I wake up at the right moment only to I realize I'm late. My eyes, opening to the blazing light of the upper atmosphere, are reflexively driven down. Straightening up out of sleep, I wipe my eyes - and keep staring straight down. A groove snakes straight below, an uneven cut in the brownish green tarmac, too deep to see to the bottom. My watch and the direction of the sun convince me that this must be it. Awe dispels doubt as the plane glides over a dreamlike scene. It is too late to grab the camera and try for a shot. Instead this inscription from a mighty hand gets engraved in my mind. It is every bit as impressive that I have imagined. There are few things on earth as distinct from eleven kilometers up as the Blue Nile Gorge.
Although arriving by air to Ethiopia is infinitely easier than climbing by land to the highlands, the psychological effect is still like it used to be. You are entering a world apart from the rest, half way up to the heavens. A place far above the Sudanese desert wastes and the lush dullness of the south. A place surrounded by mountain ranges and strange peaks that resemble the ridges and spikes of a crown. It is a royal place inhabited by people who were already at the dawn of history called the ancient ones. It's a world of thin air and intense sun inhabited by people with an electric, nervous temper and darting quickness to point out that theirs was the Garden of Eden. It takes a while for a place like this to unfold.
Ethiopian history is shrouded in legend and mystery. Part of the reason for this is fairly easy to understand - the highland plateau as seen from Sudan is like the Great Wall of China to the power of ten. Since time immemorial the escarpment and the mountain ranges beyond have formed a insurmountable obstacle to exploration and conquest. Odd parties have penetrated it during the centuries only to bring back a haphazard body of observations. There have been Sudanese, Egyptians, Turks, British, Italians with their armies as well as African warriors from their kingdoms. Most of them have only been able to plunder the fringes until the Ethiopians, the geography and the elements have forced a retreat. As a singular example of the odds it is believed that nobody has ever been able to descend along the Blue Nile from its source at Lake Tana to the Sudanese desert.
On the eastern side of the highlands lies the Danakil depression. Throughout time its heat and Afar nomads - both equally merciless - have effectively cut most of Ethiopia from the Red Seal. When the first westerners, a British, L.M. Nesbitt and two Italians, crossed it in 1928 they told of daytime temperatures exceeding 75 degrees centigrade.
Yet experiencing the hardships and bringing back personal accounts from Ethiopia didn't always result in triumph at home. Descriptions of strange mountain top monasteries and immense monolithic cathedrals invoked disbelief from the outside world. Some Portuguese explorers saw and visited them in Tigre already in the Middle Ages but were unable to comprehend how they could have been constructed in the first place and moreover in such inaccessible locations. The Ethiopians were of course happy to reveal them the genesis, complete with angels and superhuman kings.
When James Bruce compiled the account of his long journey in the highlands between 1768-73 into five volumes, he was ridiculed even by the top officials of the Royal Geographic Society. His descriptions of life in Ras Michael's court, the endemic torture, killing and raw meat bacchanals didn't go down well with the puritanical British. His magnum opus was disbelieved and discredited, much to Bruce's dismay. His observations together with those before him were simply added to the body of "Ethiopian studies" a hodgepodge of lore centering around Prester John, the mighty Christian ruler of the kingdom.
Not that Bruce was without fault. In his work he freely mixed in other peoples contributions - older or contemporary - without bothering about references. Moreover, even though his description was titled "Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile..." it is far from clear what his driving motivation was. A case has been made that as a free mason he was trying to succeed where the medieval Order of Templars had succumbed; to locate the Ark of the Covenant and then bring it back to Europe or to Jerusalem.
Nowhere is Ethiopian history thicker in legend and misinformation as in the context of the Ark. The Ethiopian clergy are quite happy to keep it that way. The holiest of the holy in an Ethiopian coptic church is the place where the hard evidence lies. This material consists of the tabots - copies of the Ten Commandments, the old leather bound manuscripts and the sacred paintings. Just as in ancient Egyptian temples these are off-limits to all but the highest priests. Only some of the lesser pieces are displayed to the pilgrims at annual Genna and Timkat celebrations. According to legend, the Ark - which contains Moses' original law engraved in stone - has through the centuries eluded capture by Jewish and Moslem aggressors. It is claimed that it currently resides at St Mary of Zion church at Axum, high up in Tigre, near the Eritrean border.
There is no firm evidence that whatever is kept at that church is the 10th century BC relic from Israel. Indeed it is more than likely that if something indeed was brought over from there, it has by its mundane composition turned to dust under the rigors of 30 centuries. Yet one does not need to spend much time in Ethiopia to realize that by now the legend is far more important than whatever remains there may be in some chamber. The Ethiopian faith is rooted in the legend of the Ark, and Ethiopia as a country is held together by this faith.
Ethiopian holy sites and rituals exude devotion quite unlike anything in the west. Visiting their monasteries means ascending - spiritually as well as physically - to a still higher level. The innocence of a cherub next to a gruesomely detailed decapitation completes the landscape consisting of deep plunges and heavenly ascents. The bold colors and simplicity of line only add to the atmosphere. The Ethiopian frame of mind yearns for wild swings of mood; the utter abandon of a monotone chant followed by feverish drumming the next moment is no oddity.
Many have tried entering Ethiopia. Other brands of Christianity have been spread for some periods, but success hasn't been great. Even the most ruthless of missionaries, the Jesuits, were soundly beaten and expelled after some bloody turmoil. There was a twentieth century experiment with socialism, a Soviet-Cuban import, which in the end bore all the hallmarks of imperialism. It was erased after a bitter struggle and although there is a quasi modern if oligarchic government now, the church is again the supreme authority for most highlanders.
By far the most significant dent is that made by Islam. Throughout the centuries it has tried to make inroads with varying degrees of success. Its base has been along the Somalian coast and in Yemen from where it has spread over the eastern and southeastern deserts. Indeed there is a certain irony to the common perception that Ethiopia is a Christian country. The government statistics are not too clear - perhaps on purpose. There seems to be at least as many Moslems as Christians in Ethiopia. The mechanism is the same as in many other places, such as some Indonesian islands, Indian states or Kosovo; the Moslems have the highest birthrate. Over the decades this changes the demographics and the historical fact is no longer valid.
At the beginning of the third millennium the Nuba mountains are a place without roads, vehicles, houses, running water, electricity or even candles. In an area of some thirty thousand square kilometers there are a couple of primitive hospitals and one operational airstrip for small planes to land during the dry season. There are not too many places on earth as remote and isolated as these rugged hills. Indeed the people living here - a quarter million Nuba - are not only cut off from the rest of the world by the vast expanses of the burning hot Kordofan scrub but also by the Sudanese army closing in from all around. The beginning of the millennium is truly looking like the end for these people.
For most westerners the Nuba exist through the photographic works of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl. Visiting them in the late forties and sixties respectively they became fascinated by the artistry and athletic ability of these people. In spite of their ferocious wrestling matches and stick fights, these are a peaceful and tolerant people; some fifty sub-tribes have coexisted for centuries. Even the intrusion of Christianity and Islam didn't split them - jihad seems a rather alien concept here. Indeed the Nuba are now defending themselves under Animist, Christian as well as Muslim command.
The mountains form a formidable citadel. Splendidly jutting monoliths erect an obstacle that renders any motorized troops obsolete. Climbing the slopes under the blazing sun even without guns to carry challenges you to the limit. Moving in the bush at night is virtually impossible unless you have learnt the trails by heart. It is hard to imagine how any desert infantry could overwhelm the agile Nuba on these rocks. Perhaps with helicopter gun ships the Sudanese army could do it and then wipe out the highland villages. But this expensive weapons system is still to enter the game - at least until petrodollars pay for it. Indeed the presence of our greed is no longer that far away. Canadian, Chinese, Swedish and other companies are trying to secure their oil fields with nasty mop up operations that push the Nuba higher and higher in the hills.
It is easy to be nostalgic in the presence of the Nuba. They are handsome and easygoing people who love play and games. Quiet market afternoons as well as short march breaks inevitably end in a domino or card game. At night there is drumming and a local troubadour picks up his rababa to accompany it. It's a simple five string guitar often made from the shell of a land mine. A cup of durra beer or liquor goes around and people dance and laugh. But it is all in the dark. Better not to light a fire or even an oil lamp to guide a bomber hovering above.
Among the Nuba you learn things long forgotten in the abundance of supermarkets. How sesame seeds are converted to cooking oil with a simple camel-driven mill. Or how the water in a mountain cascade is used according to how clean water is needed. Or how bomb fragments are all collected for the local smiths to hammer into axes and hoes. As the villagers say: ironically its the government of Sudan that is keeping the Nuba away from the stone age - by bombing. The Nuba beat their adversaries in other games as well; many of the Kalashnikovs have been bought from Arab traders in the plains. All this is private enterprise so it is not surprising that so is the aid: just a few courageous NGOs operate here. The UN has abandoned the Nuba mountains as a consequence of a Faustian bargain with the Khartoum rulers.
The Nuba are a splendid example of man at one with his environment. The children being light enough climb the wild fruit trees - they all seem to contribute something edible to the Nuba suppers. The graceful rows of terracings enveloping the hills remind me of the multiple strings of beads the women decorate their necks with. When the rains fall the mountains are a land of plenty supplying even cattle to the Arab markets in the desert. Yet mountains can dry up and become traps. Fetching water from the desert river beds during the dry season is the riskiest task. As everywhere in Africa it is a woman's duty. Doing that they are targeted by the enemy. Any tactic will do in a total war.
Living a few weeks with the Nuba and marching with them hundreds of miles you reach something lost in yourself. How satisfying it is to live by your body's strength alone! To be guided by your own senses only, to be carried by your own legs only. You also have plenty of time to run an inventory in your head.