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A Passage To Ethiopia : After Years Of Civil War, Africa's Poorest Country Is Rediscovering Its Heritage--an Ancient Culture That Claims Descent From Solomon And The Queen Of Sheba

July 19, 1992|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Michael A. Hiltzik, The Times' Nairobi bureau chief, last wrote for this magazine on British explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

THE STILL WATERS OF LAKE TANA, 8,000 FEET HIGH ON AN ETHIOPIAN plateau carpeted with juniper and spruce, are parted by the prow of a gray steamer paced by cormorants skimming the surface.

On deck, Adey Befecadu considers the treasures she is leaving behind on an island capped by the round thatch of an ancient monastery. With her sisters and some European friends, she had climbed a dirt path to the island summit in the translucent light of virgin forest.

The monks obligingly had hauled out their treasure: filigreed crowns and cups, illuminated Bibles and sagas of St. George bound in leather and gold, donated for safekeeping on the remote island by a succession of emperors going back 600 years. The centerpiece was the crown of Emperor Adam-Seghed, a huge domed headpiece worked in silver tiers like a balustrade. One of the tiers was hung with dozens of tiny pendants that quivered with the slightest jar, resounding with a pure tintinnabulation. Adey's sister Rosemary, reaching out to it, drew a sharp rebuke from the head priest; it was not to be touched by a woman.

Adey and her sisters trace their family as far back as 1868, when their grandfather was picked up as an orphan by invading British troops and given a medical education in India. He returned to his native country as its first Western-trained physician. Dr. Hakim Workneh's children in their turn became doctors, diplomats and philanthropists; Adey earned a political science degree at Addis Ababa University, an institution of enduring distinction even in the Marxist era that came after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

The arrival of the Marxist "Dergue" and the emergence three years later of Mengistu Haile Mariam as the country's supreme ruler brought civil war and repression. Travel to the country's historical shrines became unsafe when not forbidden outright. In that time, the shrines' lessons about Ethiopians' common history were lost in ethnic discord.

But the war ended with Mengistu's ouster in May, 1991. Now Adey has come north, searching for an answer to the riddle she says has burdened her generation: "You wonder why it is that a country with such a long and great history should be so backward today."

Ethiopia's pride in its heritage is well placed, but so is a sense of shame at its miserable present. With the exception of Egypt, this land boasts the oldest written history in Africa, a testament to its stature as a crossroads of trade and a place where Islam, Christianity and Judaism converged. Its north and east harbor the remnants of ancient cities whose wonders rival the pyramids: Lalibela, whose 11 churches hewn directly out of rock are so exquisite that they are said to have been created by angels; Harar, with its 14th-Century Moorish gates and walls; Aksum, the spiritual capital of Ethiopia, home to a cult of the Queen of Sheba, the country's legendary matriarch, and also purportedly to the Ark of the Covenant, the casket said to hold the original tablets of Moses.

As the epitome of remote civilization, Ethiopia has long cast a spell over the West. Homer wrote in "The Odyssey" of "the distant Ethiopians, the farthest outposts of mankind." The author of the Psalms, searching for a trope to suggest the immeasurable breadth of divine allure, sang, "Let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God." In the Middle Ages, the search for a legendary Christian emperor named Prester John, said to live beyond the Red Sea amid unimaginable wealth, inspired Europe's great era of exploration and brought Portuguese caravels to the shores of the land then known as Abyssinia.

But no African country has sunk so far from glory as this one. Nearly two decades of civil war--killing hundreds of thousands--drought and socialist mismanagement have made it one of the poorest nations on Earth. Once an exporter of grain and livestock, Ethiopia today depends on the outside world to feed its people with donations of 1 million tons of food a year. By 1987, per capita income for the more than 50 million Ethiopians had fallen to $130 and is undoubtedly much lower now.

Much of this disaster can be blamed on Mengistu, who built the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa to battle the insurgent groups in the north. The military machine consumed almost three-quarters of the country's output but lost the war. Worse, when Mengistu fled the country he left behind a shambles. The economy is at a dead stop. The army has evaporated. The new government, drawn from the rebel group that seized the capital of Addis Ababa a year ago and from the two dozen ethnic parties invited into a transitional government, is powerless to keep armed bandits from roving the countryside, making former imperial capitals such as Harar unsafe for visitors and cutting off overland access to shrines such as Lalibela. In just the last month, ethnic animosities within the fledgling government have threatened to erupt anew into civil war.

But people like Adey Befecadu are going anyway.

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