Dawn at high noon in Aksum

Still confused about the last posting about traveling back in time using the Ethiopian calendar? Well, then let me stir a bit more the possum: Ethiopia uses a 12-hour clock system. The first cycle is from dawn to dusk, the second one dusk to dawn.

This means, that the start of the day is dawn (not midnight). Consequently, 7:00am on a tourists’ watch corresponds to 1:00 in daylight hours in local Ethiopian time. Noon becomes 6:00 in daylight hours, and 7:00pm becomes 1:00 in evening/night hours.

Stelae at AksumObviously, this creates sometimes discussions when negotiating with Ethiopians. It seemed to us that they run purposely tourists through the calculation exercise, since most official timetables are used to the Western Standard time calculation (starting at midnight). Nevertheless, locals among themselves definitely use the Ethiopian time descriptions.

Another confusing point is the language. Besides of Amharic – the prevalent modern language used in Ethiopia – Ge’ez is the de-facto language used in the catholic orthodox churches. The letters of both languages are the same – they are like beautiful paintings, unreadable to an unskilled traveler like me.

Ge’ez has its roots in the Askumite Empire (400 BC to around 900 AD) and was

widely spoken in the area of the African Horn, which are today Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Northern Sudan. The town of Aksum was the trading center of this Empire – and it shows everywhere.

Being full of historic sites, this was one of our major point of interest during our trip through Ethiopia. Tatiana, Evgeny and I did settle in a small hotel after our arrival from a very scenic road trip next to the Simien mountains.

Although Aksum was very beautiful, having a lot of small markets and narrow streets, we quickly did figure out that one half day was more than enough to visit most of the places.

However, the itinerary we worked out with the car rental organization before setting off, was stating one full day (two nights) in Aksum. Although travelling independently, adapting the schedule to our need was a bit of a problem, since car rentals in Ethiopia usually do come with a driver.

And they obviously try to sell longer trips. We soon discovered that renting a car, wanting to go where we wanted and when we wanted, would be a tough business.

Next morning, during breakfast, we did confront our driver with the new plan. He first went into big blurbs that the distances on our proposed schedule were too big, once we clarified this one, the road conditions would not allow to drive that far. Clearly, since we wanted to leave around noon to our next destination, he did figure out that we were aiming to finish our trip faster – which means also a shorter hire period.

Mountain panorama on the road from Aksum to Wukro

Once running out of arguments, our driver called his boss in Addis Ababa and we exchanged arguments over the mobile phone. Oddly, car rental company owner seemed to worry solely about us wearing down his rental car and the driver by “using it too much”. Hiring a car to move every day from site to site was an alien concept for these guys. But renting a car to stay several days in one place was an alien concept to us as well. Eventually common sense (we) succeeded in getting the itinerary changed according to our wish.


Stelae in Aksum

Although we lost a bit of time in arguing, we were ready and on the the major site, the Northern Stelae Park, by around nine in the morning. The impressive structures at this park are in perfect condition – in fact they look as if they were new. But they are hundreds of years old. The tallest standing stelae are around 25 meters high. There would be another one, taller at 33 meters length, but it is lying broken on the ground.

Back in 1937, Italian soldiers shipped a 1700 year old obelisk to Rome. In 1947, a United Nations agreement specified this stelae to be shipped back to Ethiopia, but it took another couple of dozen years before this happened. In April 2005, this obelisk finally was shipped back to Aksum, where it was re-erected in 2008. (Picture of the Stelae in Rome)

The Northern Stelae Park is only a small sample of the Aksumite Empire’s skills and technology. In fact, everywhere throughout town, we did spot smaller stelaes, which are markers of underground burial chambers.

Ezana Stone in AksumNumerous were the other sites that we visited that morning. The Ezana Inscription, which is a relatively small site, contains a memorial inscription which belongs to an Aksumite king of the 4th century AD, known as Ezana. This stone reminded me a lot of the Rosetta Stone, sice it is inscribed in Greek, Sabean and Ge’ez translations. In this inscription, King Ezana announces the victories over his enemies.

The Queen of Sheba’s Bath (actually a reservoir) was a bit of a pointless visit – imagine a plain, square pool filled with water – but the Dungur ruins outside of town were quite interesting from a historical point of view. Measuring 52 meters by 55 meters, the Dungur complex’ central building is 18m square, dating back to the 6th century AD. It was probably the residence of Aksumite nobles. Next to these ruins is located yet another stelae field.

Transport for road workers in EthiopiaThe tombs of Kings Kaleb & Gebre Meskel were reminding us of visits to Egypt, although the Askumite tombs are dating to the 6th century AD. Set on a hill outside of town, this site also did offer beautiful landscape views. The architecture is quite intruiging, since the irregular shapes of the stones do lock without requiring iron clamps.

Happy, but groggy from an overdose of history, names, dates and places, we were setting off for our next destination around noon time (I think this is 6:00 daytime in Ethiopian standard). And we were eagerly looking forward to see another site (Wukro and the rock-hewn churches of Tigray) next day – not having to stagnate around Aksum, which paid us a beautiful farewell landscape as panorama on our road out.