Semen trekking a godly experience
13 June 2007

Ethiopians may be occasionally starved of food, but starved of religion they ain’t.


The 4th Century King Ezana’s coins were the first in the world to bear the Christian cross, and Axum in the north is home to both Africa’s first indigenous and literate civilisation and the Ark of the Covenant (it should be noted that while archaeological evidence exists for the former, a 900-year discrepancy and mythical queen exists for the latter…and at any rate, any archaeologists wanting a closer look at the Ark will reportedly spontaneously combust).


The unique state religion which started around King Ezana’s time is Ethiopian Orthodox, practised by about 45 per cent of the population and thought to have roots in Judaism – hence its restrictions on certain foods, and numerous fasting days. Most practitioners also believe in spirits and omens for good measure.


In Lalibela meanwhile, religious fanatics hewed 11 churches into rock some time in the 12th and 13th Century, which sounds more like something the Masons might do; and in more modern times, Emperor Haile Selassie (nee Ras Tafari) accidentally spawned his own religion, that of Rastafarianism – albeit in Jamaica and to his own faint embarrassment.


And let’s not forget Ethiopia’s Muslims numbering 35 per cent, which is exactly what some members of the Bush administration seem to have done when they consider Ethiopia to be a Christian bulwark against those awful Islamists in other areas of the horn of Africa, (read Somalia).


In the 16th Century, Christian Muslim wars succeeded in wiping out vast thousands upon thousands of the population, a feat replicated only by the famine of 1985. The connection isn’t too absurd either: an agricultural engineer from the Department of Agriculture I spoke to attributed the low productivity of Ethiopian farmers to their strict adherence to tradition and fear of priests who, he said, deem 16 days per month as too sacred to work. He is now working with priests to cut this number down to three which should get the worship/life balance back to a more productive equilibrium.


Ironically for a country so rich in religion, Ethiopia is also home to ‘Lucy’, who when discovered in 1974 became the oldest and most complete skeleton of a hominid found. And though she is not in the direct line of human evolution, she at least suggests evidence of it.


In short, Ethiopia is a great country in which to be reading ‘The God Delusion’, by self-professed militant atheist Richard Dawkins.


This is exactly what I had just done when I commenced a hiking trip to the Simien mountains with an Irishman, a Scot, and an Aussie who, (apart from sounding like the start of a bad joke), all found themselves somewhere along the spectrum of religious belief. 


Add to this our guide who was an Ethiopian Orthodox in the throes of converting to paganism, an AK-47 toting Muslim scout who was more watchful for leopards than sinning, and Nick and I as closet atheists, and it wholly promised to be an entertaining trip.  


Ethiopia has 80 percent of Africa’s peaks over 3000 metres, and it is said the monumental volcanic cliffs of the Simien mountains in the northern highlands resemble a giant chess game. It’s a great destination for hiking and camping, or for the adventurous or perverse, why not take up local tour operator Nega on his offer of ‘Semen trekking’. I sincerely hope his business card had a typo on it.


In rainy season, which started the day we did, the nights can be bitterly cold. But we had a small stock of black market kerosene and some bundles of eucalyptus to stoke a small fire, and large stocks of religious diversity and opinion with which we planned to stoke a fiery debate each night.


Or so we hoped…for in reality, while kero and wood is a great way to start a fire, the argument that “God is, and always was”, is a great way to extinguish a debate.

“Who created God then?”

“He is, and always was, for ever and ever. And that’s it.”

Debate laid to rest 8:15pm, myself shortly after.


Indeed, our camping trip became an allegory for the religious debates we stoked that night. We stalled at the first campsite, and after two days turned back, trying to forget we’d ever tried to make it happen.


We had planned a four-day trip, but upon arriving at the first campsite we discovered the mules we were relying upon to bear our luggage were otherwise employed working the newly moistened fields.


So on Day Two we instead walked three hours to a giddying view over a waterfall, then returned through a field of a few hundred rooting, fighting and grazing gelada baboons – who look like a missing link between lions and monkeys – back to camp to shiver our way through the afternoon.


As I mentioned, I had just read the ‘God Delusion’, so though I was full of new ideas, I was also entirely bereft of reading material, and desperate for something to pass the wet cold afternoon. Not without a dose of irony or large grin, Jenny the Scottish medical student said she had a book I could read… her own hardcover edition of the bible.


And that was how I turned to bible for salvation, albeit not so much from sin but boredom. Still, I had been planning on reading it for some time; after all it is THE Book, and has even outsold the Da Vinci Code in several countries.


Jenny suggested I start reading the chapter ‘John’, in which I learnt about the treachery of Judas Iscariot, the tenderness of Mary Magdalene, and how Lazarus, contrary to Australian political legend, didn’t actually have a triple bypass, but did have a remarkable comeback. Sadly it didn’t mention whether he got crucified at the next election.


Back in the town of Gonder after escaping the perilous lofty peaks of 3000 metre mountains and religious arguments, we caught up on sleep and lounged around at the Circle Hotel.


It was here I met Friuw, a tour guide who had boldy gone where few Ethiopians had dared go before – into the realm of atheism. I gave him the God Delusion and told him to spread the word. And in a country with cheap photocopying and little enforcement of copyrights, this is can be as easily said as done.


As an end note, Friuw neglected to return the book to me in time, and I thus had to sheepishly ask if the Scot and the Aussie couldn’t bring it back to Addis for me.