Field Notes: Ethiopia 2.0

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Rough-backed mountains with strange straight-sided peaks and pinnacles of rock recede into the misty distance, and the umbilical thread of what will be the world’s longest river spills out of a round-bellied lake. Nestled invisibly within the landscape are castles, monasteries with secret treasures, and Christian churches cut from ancient stone, though the most prominent Highland scenes usually involve sheep and cows ranging over the rocky slopes. These are the Ethiopian Highlands, not the Scottish, however, and in November blue skies and balmy temperatures reign.

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My second trip to Ethiopia this fall took me to the northern Ethiopian Highlands, an area I missed seeing last year. The volcanic plateau rises 4,000 meters above sea level in its highest places, with average elevations ranging from 2,000 – 2,500 m. These trips to service seismic stations involve a lot of car time, and car time for me means reading time; I’m the sort of person who will read about places while I’m in them, hopefully with enough awareness to be looking out the window for the important parts.

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There’s a thrill to seeing scenery that has lived in your head. Our first day on the road involved a long drive north from Addis Ababa to our field area, and just about noon the road began, with ever sharper switchbacks, to descend into a wide, tiered canyon. The muddy river slinking at the bottom was the Blue Nile. It twists through Ethiopia from its source at Lake Tana, down through dams and power plants, into Sudan and its conjunction with the White Nile at Khartoum and on north past pyramids and temples to its final delta. I think many who dabble however so slightly in archaeology have an Egyptology phase; mine was pretty robust as a teen, and the fact of crossing (part of) the Nile was a striking one.

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After reaching the northern city of Bahir Dar, we looped north around Lake Tana to the city of Gondar – the Camelot of Africa, as it’s called. The city was founded in 1635 by one of the Solomonic Emperors of Ethiopia, Fasilides, as his capital city – the highlight of the city is the medieval fortress compound that Fasilides and his successors built, though unfortunately I only saw the outside. It’s tempting to tweak the spelling a letter and say I’ve been to Gondor, especially after the visit to our seismic station on the campus of the University of Gondar, which sits atop a steep hill overlooking the main city. Entering through a tall turreted gateway, we drove up through the hillside levels of the campus until we reached the very peak of the hill, where the station sat under a less-easily romanticized cell tower, offering a 360 degree view of the surrounding city and fields.

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Courtesy of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention

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The rest of the trip brought us just to the edge of the Simien Mountains – home of some very unique geology – and down to the lowlands west of Lake Tana, slightly closer to the Sudan border. Once we dropped below 1500 m the temperatures spiked into the nineties, which combined with several misbehaving stations led to long days. There is at least some sun protection when sitting at the bottom of a 4 foot hole for hours with a broken seismometer. After the end of the loop around the lake, we headed back south past Addis and into the Rift Valley, where shallow lakes were mobbed with tourists and low-flying storks. This is the part of the country that I saw last year; we drove over the Bale Mountains (second in altitude to the Simien Mountains) and saw traces of snow, ice on the ponds, and another Ethiopia wolf trotting across the alpine terrain. Descending down from the plateau, we ended up in the town of Negele. Farther to the east from Negele is the Ethiopian Somali Province, and the road continues to Somalia itself; we passed UN HCR vehicles and camel trains heading east.

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No troubles with the southern stations meant a quick return to Addis, and a flight back to the US a full week early. On the drive back, our driver stopped at a string of small towns along the rift – one known for its honey, one for its coffee, another renowned for its fruit – to stock up on gifts for his family. A couple free days in the city rounded out the trip with a few museum trips, in particular two art exhibits which showed beautifully executed stories of the different Ethiopia that the artists experienced. At one small gallery was “The Doctor’s Gaze,” with pen and ink sketches and a few paintings by a Korean-American doctor. His work was mainly scenes from medical clinics and hospitals, with a few street scenes and landmarks, done in a very sparing style that managed to intimately capture faces and postures: the patience and frustration of a waiting line at a clinic, or the bustle of a hospital ward. The other exhibit that caught me was by an Addis artist named Tamerat Siltan, whose paintings and woodcuts featured incredibly detailed trees and forests. Some were done all in black acrylic paint using dense lines and more black space than white, others a combination of newspaper collage and paint that grew truncated branches out of the canvas; all evoked a sense of growth both rampant and sometimes frustrated. Not a bad approximation of Ethiopia itself, well-rooted in history though it is.

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