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Wordsmith

Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes

Excerpts from a new book by Yves-Marie Stranger

Anthologizing close to 80 authors — from Herodotus to Edgar Allan Poe, by way of Emperor Theodoros — Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes covers 2,500 years of Ethiopia’s distant past and near present. With cultural and historical introductions, the book gives precious insights into Ethiopia’s making, and a foreshadowing of the country’s future.

RADEK BOROVKA / SHUTTERSTOCK

From the introduction by author Yves-Marie Stranger

“Today, we may be sure Ethiopia is a country in northeast Africa, but the country’s borders have not always been so well defined. In the past, Ethiopia, depending on the whims and knowledge of writers and geographers, was at times made up of all of sub-Saharan Africa — with a coastline that wandered from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean — or was solely the area circumscribed between the northern reach of Egypt’s desert and the confluence of the Blue Nile and Atbara Rivers. In a later earthly incarnation, the country becomes a saintly empire administrated by an anointed priest-king, known as Prester John: an empire so munificent and kaleidoscopic that it was found in the Congo, in Mongolia, in Syria and, finally, in the Christian kingdom of the hinterlands of the Red Sea. The Greek Bible had the spawn of Shem, Kush and Ham go and multiply in Egypt and Aethiopia — a tale later reprised in a legend that has Axum’s capital founded by none other than Ityopis, son of Kush. Later, the Ethiopian Queen Kandace’s eunuch is converted by the Apostle Philip on the road to Damascus — and returns to convert queen and kingdom to Christianity. . . .

It is this intertextual play carried out on a mind’s eye map, which is so fascinating to the amateur Ethiopianist, and to the visitor to Ethiopia. No country can be better grasped from the depths of an armchair, and a library is as good a place as any to make out the ancient contours of the land of Prester John, Mandeville and Rasselas, as well as the new outlines of a country that today is attempting with great vigor to shake off the modern myth it was saddled with — of Korem and the 1970s famine, of the Derg’s Red Terror, and of poverty and refugee camps.

 

From Strabo’s Geographica, written circa 7 BC and published in its first ‘modern’ edition in 1469

“Some of the inhabitants of that part of the coast which is without water go inland every five days, accompanied by all their families, with songs and rejoicings, to the watering places, where, throwing themselves on their faces, they drink as beasts until their stomachs are distended like a drum. They then return again to the sea-coast. They dwell in caves or cabins, with roofs consisting of beams and rafters made of the bones and spines of whales, and covered with branches of the olive tree. The Chelonophagi [Turtle-eaters] live under the cover of shells (of turtles), which are large enough to be used as boats. Some make of the sea-weed, which is thrown up in large quantities, lofty and hill-like heaps, which are hollowed out, and underneath which they live. They cast out the dead, which are carried away by the tide, as food for fish.”


From the writings of Hasan Ben Ahmed El Haimi, a Yemeni Embassy to Gondar in the year 1648

“We went to the King’s stronghold and climbed a high building, a stately edifice which ranks among the most wonderful of wonderful buildings and among the most beautiful of exceptional wonders, constructed of stone and lime. And there is in that town, indeed in the whole of Abyssinia, no other but it (as it is of very pleasing appearance and handsome design), because all other dwellings in these localities are only nests of grass. . . .

And this stronghold, which partakes of the characteristics of the King’s houses, is situated beside the town and at the highest point there; and it comprises many courtyards and long halls. Around these quarters are some other buildings made of earth, stretching in length, breadth and height to an extent which no eye beheld any other building. And these apartments are furnished as the King is wont to stay there, and there is in each apartment manifold Byzantine beds and Italian mattresses, which are embellished with gold, and magnificent sofas which are studded with precious stones and gems. And these palaces are unsurpassed as a wonder for the visitor and as a pride for this unbeliever king.”

COURTESY OF YVES-MARIE STRANGER


From Aida Edemariam’s writing in The Guardian, Sept. 1, 2007

“Last year, I returned to Ethiopia for only the second time in 13 years. I did it in careful stages, spending a day getting re-acquainted with Gondar, its unpaved back roads and crumbling castles, and a couple in Lalibela, where, hiring a guide, I began to encounter a country both foreign to me, and, in a visceral way, completely familiar. 

The day I left Lalibela dawned clear and sunny, and by 10 a.m. I was being driven in a 4x4 into the towering mountain escarpments that ring the town by Mekedim. We were coming to the end of the small rains, but the stony terraced fields were dry. . . . At a seemingly random point Mekedim said, ‘Stop: let’s walk from here.’ Minutes later, we saw why: the ground dropped away into a sudden vista of depth and wonder, jagged cliffs soaring down to valleys hundreds of metres below, to mountains upon mountains piling into the distance. The vast sky was punctuated by the grey shrouds of rain showers. They blew past like visitations, soaked everything and were gone. The setting sun shone through the rain; a rainbow began far below our feet and curved up towards us, then was doubled. Everything moved at such speed that just blinking revealed another configuration.”


Buy Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes in Ethiopia at Mega and Bookworld shops, through Eland Books in the U.K., or via Eland Books’ website or Amazon.com worldwide.

A French-English translator and writer, Yves-Marie Stranger grew up on his family’s farm in the French Pyrenees. After spending 15 years in Ethiopia, leading horse treks in the Showan highlands, he now lives in France. (For more information about the author, visit YvesMarieStranger.com.)