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Hyenas, Religion and a Castle

Gonder, Ethiopia

There is, as far as I am aware, no other place in the world other than Ethiopia where you can feed a hyena from your mouth, sail to twelfth century monasteries and then take a trip back to medieval times. This country really is amazing, and the best, so I am told, is yet to come.

The hyena, the animal everyone loves to hate, the scruffy scavenger that has an air of evil to it that would se it welcome at the gates of hell day or night. Why then would anybody want to have one within six inches of your face eating the raw meat that hangs on a stick in your mouth? I would like to be able to answer that question for you, but I can't.

All I can say is I think we all have a desire to get as close to nature as possible, and the added thrill of being so close to an animal that has the most powerful bite of the cat family in Africa is too much to turn down. And that is, in a nutshell, how one night in Harar I found myself face-to-face with a foul-breathed wild hyena. I think it's safe to say that, without getting attacked, I will never come closer to a wild animal for as long as I live.

Something I am coming to learn is that Ethiopia is a country of contrasts, and my next two destinations, Lake Tana and Gonder, were further evidence of this. At first glance Lake Tana is just another beautiful Rift Valley lake, but take a closer look and you will find a different world, a world of ancient monasteries dating as far back as the 14th-century.

Each monastery has its own unique history, with one said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant for over 800 years - but I will let you make your own conclusions on that front. More than anything it is the paintings that make the monasteries what they are, each telling different passages of the bible through pictures - this was done so that even the illiterate could devote themselves to religion.

Whilst most were pretty self-explanatory a few of the paintings were open to interpretation, for example a man fellating a donkey could be taken in entirely the wrong way if the priest didn't explain it was symbolic of taking the milk of an ass. In all of the paintings though the believers would always be depicted with a full face and both eyes showing, yet non-believers only had one eye and half of their face showing.

Feeling as if one more monastery would send me over the edge, five was more than enough, it was off to Gonder and a day of pure fantasy. It may be the little boy in me, or just the strange desire to have been a medieval king, but exploring the castles in Gonder was fascinating. The entire time I was picturing what it would have been like to have lived in such a grand place, lord of the land in a time where you were everything or nothing.

When it was Emperor Fasiladas' home (1632-67) it was a castle of contrasts, of unimaginable brutality, and yet at the same time equally unimaginable wealth. And now in present day standing in the banquet hall, a room that I was told would have seated over two hundred people for a grand feast, I closed my eyes and envisioned a party of medieval gentry swilling ale from big tankards as they ripped chunks of meat from various bones.

Sadly there was no such feast for me, so it was off for a coffee ceremony whilst I planned the next stage of my trip - the Danakil Depression, a place I had been told was unlike anywhere else on our planet.

permalink written by  MarcusInAfrica on December 2, 2009 from Gonder, Ethiopia
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