Into the East


I anguished a little in deciding on an itinerary for my family. You should understand that Ethiopia is about the size of France and Spain combined, a country where over 80 languages are spoken daily as the mother tongue; there are volcanoes, lakes, mountains and deserts; it’s the home of coffee, the source of the River Nile and the ancient civilization of Axum and the Queen of Sheba; the last Emperor Haile Selassie, there are even a few Jamaican Rastafarians knocking around still. What’s a girl to do?

Well, having included the centre of Christendom in Ethiopia to the tour it was important to me to even things up a bit as both Islam and Orthodox Ethiopian Christianity equally inform my impression of this country. And so we headed off to explore the unofficial Muslim capital of Ethiopia, Harar.

I was a little nervous about it all as I had the impression that this part of the country wasn’t as well trodden on the tourist trail and might be a bit rougher around the edges.

Well as it happened, it was!

In Harar, we stayed in a hotel which seemed condemned to have more cockroaches on the walls than guests in the beds and of which my father protested, “That toilet is worse than the one in your house”. Praise indeed. One day, we visited a market in the surrounds where Dad was offered twenty camels for the price of one of us. (He declined, betraying his naivety as this chance may never come again). And at the same market, by way of hello, Shelley was hit by a small child with a stone which landed squarely in the middle of her forehead, drawing a little blood. Woldia, all is forgiven, I’m on my way back home!

By that stage however, day 12 in Africa, the Healys were like (war?) veterans and were gracious enough to take it all on the chin, my father admittedly sleeping with his pyjamas tucked into his socks to stem the flow of cockroaches to the leg.

Islam in Ethiopia

In the annals of Ethiopian history particularly in medieval times, much was made of the supposed existence of a Christian country in Africa, land of the famed “Prestor John”; Ethiopia. While Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is still the pervasive influence in Ethiopian society today, Muslims number a huge minority of the 90 million population. So who are they and how did they get here?

As the story goes, the Prophet Mohammed and his followers were having a hard time in and around Mecca. They were fearful for their lives and may even have been victims of persecution there. They were afforded asylum in Ethiopia by the King there and the Prophet Mohammed advised his followers,

“If you were to go to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), it would be better for you until such time as Allah shall relieve you from your distress, for the King there will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country.”

Apparently, the first group of seventeen Muslim refugees, including the Prophet’s sister, arrived in Ethiopia from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula in 616 AD and not unlike Irish people in Australia, they multiplied rapidly and now number approximately 40% of the population.  So the first Ethiopian Muslims were descendants of the Prophet- not a bad lineage I’d say.

Ethiopia is a country of great diversity.  In some regions such as Somali, Islam is the overwhelming majority religion while in others it is the absolute minority and in Wollo where I live there is an even enough balance between the two.  Traditionally, in this region at least, the two religions co-exist peacefully and in tolerance and mutual respect of each other. Inter-marriage is commonplace here and having a name like Hussein or Ammanuel is not always an indicator of your faith, perhaps simply that of one of your parents. Some things change and more things stay the same; hopefully this will be a case of the latter.

Harar is one such overwhelmingly Muslim place with a very different flavour and feel to Woldia which is more a mix of the two traditions.  It has had many influences including Indian and has allured many travellers from all over the world over the years including the prolific and tragically short lived Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud, a poet turned gun runner. Interesting character! I won’t say too much more about it, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.  It was a sensory feast 😀

In yet another transportation snafoo, I left Harar at 5 o clock in the morning on a mini-bus with 24 others bound for Addis Ababa while the lads flew on ahead, stopping at a chat market on the way (for a pick-me-up?).

Twelve hours, 16 police checks, two handguns, a handfed lunch, a contraband dvd player, many bribes and much frisking later, we were reunited in Addis ahead of the emotional farewell…


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