Peering through the murky window reveals spectacular vistas as the bus climbs its way up and down the sides of mountains.
When the tarmac gives way to dirt tracks it comes as some relief that I am doing this particular journey in the dry season and that unlike many of his countrymen the driver of the bus has a healthy fear of his own demise; taking the sharp bends with steady caution.
One of the most striking differences between Tigray (the region where Axum is found) is the buildings. As soon as the bus crossed into the region the houses started to be built from stone rather than mud (or the rarer wood). It gave a different feel to the area along with the starkness of the landscape – the mountains steeper and barer and with dry season starkness absent in the green south. It is undoubtedly impressive, especially in the contrast to the lush mountains and hills around Adola.
I have done the journey now from Gondar to Axum by road – I don’t need to do it again. I am not sure if I will have the chance or inclination to visit Axum again, but if I do the plane seems a far better option.
This is not to say that Axum is not a place worth visiting, but the sites available for public visitation are rather limited, although not without interest and once again the historic sites of Ethiopia trump the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But a handful of Birr, about the price of a coffee, is enough to get in to see most of the historic sites of the town and nearby and even without the local residence card it comes in at only 50birr (less than £2).
St Mary’s -the “most famous” church in Ethiopia, where it is alleged the Ark of the Covenant is held, is 200birr to all of pale complexion. For a visitor this is not much, but to a humble volunteer surrendering two days allowance it is not unreasonable to expect something more than this compound offers. If you ever find yourself passing by Axum way, give this church a miss- it will only disappoint and the remains of the Axumite empire that have been uncovered so far are infinitely superior to the internal view of a modern church with not much going for it and a lame museum.
There is some evidence to suggest that the Axumite empire, in its day, was the equal of its contemporaries, such as the Persian and Greek empires. The difference being that everyone has heard of those and the countries connected have made a huge effort to cash in on the tourist money that flows.
Here in Ethiopia I have been shocked at how little interest history seems to have for people. Perhaps the recent past has too many bad connotations or the sense of living for today is more important. There is nothing wrong with this, but the danger lies in the repetition of past mistakes.
Just from an economic perspective this could be a massive source of income for the country and lead to huge strides in its development especially of financial independence – however, like the 40 year old child still living at their parents’ house there is a lack of desire to give up the easy aid money that flows into Ethiopia and which has seeped so far into the local culture that the assumption is that any foreigner of European heritage is going to just dole out money to anyone who asks, because that’s where you get money from.
Unfortunately this is a particular issue in Axum and something that may well hinder the tourist trade – the constant hassle there is unlike anywhere else I have been in Ethiopia, with the possible exception of Addis. Although to be balanced it is only right to say that is nowhere near the level of some of the other countries I have visited. That after so many years of receiving aid they are still putting out their hand suggests that something hasn’t quiet worked. I will return to this theme.
A few days in Axum gave me a chance to wash my clothes and take a bit of a breather before heading on to see more of Tigray. And my thanks to my hosts who have been fortunate to be given a rather nice place to live… all placements are not equal!
Getting a bus to my next stop presented more of a challenge than I had anticipated. The use of buses does not show the hospitality of Ethiopians at their best; if there were a contest Axum bus station would be at the head of the league table for toughest bus to board – and firm favourites for the world cup. I failed to get and stay aboard the early bus although perhaps my error was in my failure to employ a small boy to rush on and grab a seat for me – a tactic employed by several older ladies. The one seat I managed to get, I surrendered to an American Peace Corps volunteer when I was told the bus wasn’t going to Adigrat – my intended destination.
Finally a little later in the day, reinforced by breakfast and in the daylight I returned to the station and managed to get the bus first to Adwa, a town famous for being near the site of the defeat of a European power by an African nation an unexpected victory for the home team that ended Italy’s hopes of colonisation and left Ethiopia able to lay claim to be the only African nation that wasn’t colonised. I saw only a little of the town and mostly the bus station from where I finally managed to get a bus heading to Mekele and which was probably going via Adigrat. With a sense of adventure I set off wondering where I was going to end up – my destiny in the hands of the driver.