The Thousand And One Ethiopian Nights – Part 1

As we move through life we carry so much of our friends with us. Those fine old times when we were young and life was fresh and all things seemed so simple.

The African country bordering Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Eritrea is not on every traveler’s must-see list. Landlocked on the Horn of Africa, it is not a travel agent’s dream vacation. Politically and geologically rocky and diverse, Ethiopia can sometimes be hazardous to your health. But if you want an unconventional experience in a 3 million year old civilization, you might find old Abyssinia much like its Yirgacheffe coffee-spicy, dicey, romantic and bold.

Today there is a flourishing art scene in the capital Addis Ababa, with the Zoma Contemporary Art Center (ZCAC), the NETSA Art Village and Makush Art Gallery to name a few. Renowned in the 1960s for his murals, mosaics and stained glass, Afewerk Tekle (1932-2012) remains among the country’s most celebrated artists and one I especially remember when I remember Ethiopia.

A History Older Than History

Ethiopians are a beautiful creative people with an ancient history that differs from any other African nation. Except for the brief Italian invasion by Benito Mussolini’s forces early in World War II, when the British kicked them out, Ethiopia is the only African country never colonized.

An old Abyssinian culture originally from what is modern-day Yemen, recent reconstruction of human prehistory from DNA studies trace Ethiopia’s beginnings to 1,000 BC. Composed of many ethnic tribes, the Oromo and Amhara are the most populous and the official language is Amharic. Since the cold blooded murder in 1975 of former Emperor Haile Selassi, strangled in the basement of his palace, Ethiopia has wavered between absolute rule by the God-King Selassi-to the totalitarian Marxist Militia that brutally executed him-to the present Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) with a prime minister and constitution.

The Last Emperor

When I was assigned to our embassy in Addis Ababa in the mid-1960s, the country was relatively peaceful, the city very dark, and Emperor Haile Selassi was my next door neighbor. I had a front row seat to the 1965 royal visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip when they paraded through crowds at the palace gates. Since my apartment house stood directly behind the royal palace, sleep was challenging. At night the emperor’s pet lions roamed freely throughout the palace gardens, warding off potential prowlers and agitating the royal peacocks. So I went to bed every night to the “high C” screech of jittery peacocks, and the grunts and roars of those noisy cats.

Small in stature with an epithet ten times his size, “Emperor Haile Selassi I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia” proclaimed himself the direct descendant of Menilek I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. As absolute ruler, he reigned for 45 years and helped bring his country into the 20th century. And herein lies the tale of the once and little king.

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The Short Story According To Ethiopian/Arabian Biblical Lore

Once upon the mists of time, the beautiful, rich and well educated Queen of Sheba lived in southern Arabia. When she heard about the wise and wealthy King Solomon of the Hebrews in Jerusalem, she decided to make a pilgrimage to meet him. Her caravan lavishly loaded with spices, gold and precious stones for the king, Sheba made the 1,400 mile journey to Jerusalem and stayed longer than she had intended. Solomon became enamored of the exotic queen but made her promise not to take anything from his palace without permission or he would exact a penalty. One night, following a deliberately excessive spicy feast, the queen developed a terrible thirst and went seeking a drink of water. When a servant observed her taking the water without permission, it was reported to Solomon whose penalty was a night of lovemaking in the royal bed. From this union, Menelik I was born, and Haile Selassie claimed he was his direct descendent.

Before Coffee – Injera and Wat

You experience the geological diversity of this country when you fly over the Entoto mountains into the 8,000-foot high capital of Addis Ababa, where the land appears to rise up to meet you. Outside the city, eucalyptus forests, high canyons, steep gorges, scrub desert and ice-cold lakes are idyllic places for hikers and campers. The traditional meal is spicy Injera and Wat, which you eat with your fingers. Injera is baked from a sourdough batter and placed on your table or brass tray like a gigantic pancake. Wat is the fiery stew that’s served in the center of the Injera. You tear off a piece of Injera and use it to scoop up the stew (chicken, beef or vegetables). Cold beer helps.

The Legendary Hyena Man

In the 1960s television had not yet come to this part of the world, and our embassy tennis courts were not lit at night. With the exception of one crowded disco, and one second rate hotel, there wasn’t much to do in the evenings. Getting around involved careful driving and cautious walking. With few street lamps, the city at night was a dark, deserted place where feral hyenas brazenly entered the city to prowl for anything they could get their noxious jaws around-living or dead. Hyenas are not particular about what they eat including humans when the victim happens to be sleeping in the street. But not to fear. A mysterious entity lived in our city-a bedraggled recluse who had an uncanny alliance with the nasty predators. Solitary and harmless, the man wandered the shadowy backstreets whistling, humming, virtually luring the animals out of town with bits of meat. They followed him like the Pied Piper. We called him “the hyena man,” and that is all we knew about him. Present day local “entrepreneurs” have made that bizarre experience into a thriving act performed for tourists.

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The Blue Nile Falls, A Bridge To The Sun

A former U.S. Air Force pilot, Walter was among our little band of expatriates who hung out together. At the request of the Ethiopian government, Walt had been hired by USAID to spray malaria infected areas. On returning to Addis from a trip to the old capital of Gondar, I hitched a ride with Walt to photograph the Blue Nile Falls. We took off in his single engine Cessna T-210, heading for Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and source of the Blue Nile. The river gets its name from Lake Tana’s waters, blue-black at flood tide. From there it flows to Khartoum and on into Egypt and the White Nile, whose sediment gives it a light grey cast.

When we reached the falls, Walt didn’t fly over them-he flew into them. A breathtaking rainbow colored bridge to the sun filtered through the mist. I opened my window, took some shots and got a face full of water. Hair soaking wet, I wanted more photos so I asked Walt to make another pass. Peering up at me through dense foliage-the white-fringed face of a silky black and white long-tailed monkey. The elegant Colobus Monkey is the only kind of its species without a thumb, and a marvel of East Africa’s natural world.

As we banked to head home, a barrage of bullets tore through the fuselage, zapping Walt in his bottom. We couldn’t see the gunmen but he knew they wanted the Cessna. Despite the pain, Walt wasn’t going to let anyone have his aircraft-or us as hostages. With Walt screaming obscenities and me praying, he managed to hold the aircraft steady while his blood leaked into the floorboards. We made it back to Bahir Dar with Walt’s pride as wounded as his anatomy. After medical attention and a few belts of his private whiskey, the bush pilot was back on cloud nine.


by Susan Scharfman