Monthly Archives: March 2017

Addis Ababa

It was as short walk from the Taitu Hotel to the church. The area around the church was swamped with beggars and they looked, conform their profession, deplorable. It much resembled a nineteenth century leper colony. Some of them bundles of rags and filth, hardly recognisable as humans, apart from their oblong shape. So far I had been distributing one birr coins liberally among the beggars, but now I found myself in a situation where I found it difficult, because it felt unfair to pick a single destitute being and in the end I simply kept my money in my pocket.


Amharic in its colourful script

The cathedral was built in 1896 and dedicated to St George, whose relic was carried to the Battle of Adwa, which was fought against invading Italians. The Ethiopians unexpectedly won the battle.

The church was closed and I had to come back another time.


St. George killing the dragon

Ethiopian coffee is a legacy of the Italians. In 1941 when  they fled the country they left an old battered espresso machine and the Ethiopians found it in their headquarters. They took it apart to see how it worked and once they had figured it out, they started to make good coffee themselves. Mille grazie Italia! And you haven’t been in Ethiopia if you haven’t eaten an injera and so I had some spicy ‘tibes firfir’ for lunch with some cold beer.


Ethiopian priest (pencil and watercolour)

After Egypt, the traffic is perfectly congenial and a taxi even stopped to let me cross the road, something which was unheard of in Egypt.

Another positive note is that the weather so far is very nice. When I booked my ticket I checked the weather forecast and it looked bad enough with ‘thunderstorms’ basically every day, but for the time being it’s been wonderful. Not too hot, not too cold. This time I had flown with Ethiopian Airlines and 24 hours before departure they had confirmed the necessary information and it had also included a weather forecast. It hovered around 39 degrees for the next couple of days and I do not know why. The average mean temperature I estimated to be some 15 degrees cooler than that… Or could it be that in temperature scales Ethiopia deviated from the standard as they seem fond of….(clocks, for example, all seem to be broken until you realise that their clock is six hours out of phase, that means it’s always 6 hours off from our time notation; that is, after  correction for the time zone. The Ethiopian clock is simply repaired by adding 6 hours; for  example 8 o’clock is 14 or 2 o’clock, alternatively, you can also subtract 6).

My first days in Ethiopia I rested a lot. The overnight flight had been unusual exhausting and I was possibly battling a cold.
I met Jim who invited me for coffee.
Addis Ababa is more expensive than the rest of Ethiopia, he said. It’s possible to get a room here for 10 dollars, he said, but you wouldn’t want to have it for your donkey, I mean, the rooms are awful.
Um, I said as a resident of the donkey class.

I had many coffees at the terrace of the Taitu Hotel. The prices weren’t cheap, but the location was really nice and it is almost a historical site in itself. It was the first stone structure in the city and built by princess Taitu. It was also the location where foreign journalists were housed during Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930. One of these journalists was Evelyn Waugh and Taitu is the location for his novel Scoop.

Ethiopians at the time were not familiar yet with the concept of a hotel and had to be told that they had to pay for their consumptions.

Unfortunately, I had to buy internet in megabytes, not expensive, but it made me wary of lengthy YouTube videos about quantum mechanics that I don’t understand anyway. But reading the internet was cheap enough..

In the evening after having dinner, I walked back to the hotel. A woman with a child sat on a piece of cardboard and I crossed over to give her some change. But when I got near I wasn’t so sure; her clothes weren’t quite the rags I’d seen with other beggars…
Um, excuse me, I said, you, um, want some money?
Possibly the dumbest question the woman had ever heard.  She stretched her hand out and I gave her a few coins.
It’s not always easy to be the experienced world traveller.

Africans are Dionysian in nature I believe. They are life affirming creatures. Sometimes a bit too much as last night when a drunk prostitute with a blond wig blundered on her high heels through the corridor yelling where the toilet could be. Ear plugs come recommended when travelling in Africa.

Even within the capital I’ve seen two interesting birds. I am not a birder, but I sympathise with the guild.
The wattled ibis makes an awful noise and is, according to an old Lonely Planet guide I found, semi-endemic. What is semi-endemic? Are there some birds escaped to New York’s Central Park and thriving there, and is the species therefore no longer fully endemic??
Not endemic in the least was the red-billed firefinch, a pretty bird fluttering around in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Inside the church of St George were carpets laid on the ground like in a mosque. This possibly comes with the no-shoe policy. The floor plan of the church was octagonal. At the outset, churches were circular as were Jewish synagogues. Prayers seem to be performed in a similar fashion as muslims are wont to. On the walls I noticed a mixed iconography, in the museum were some Russian icons, in the church a rather black St George, but for the rest  predominantly white depictions of Jesus and Mary. One wall had pictures of Haile Selassie and among them one in which the emperor stands with some other dignitaries devote at an enormous machinegun.  In the church men (segregated from women) in white shrouds are chanting in a repetitive and rhythmic, – polyphonic – manner . It had an African sound. Devotees seem to circumambulate in a clockwise fashion and kiss and touch the black stained wall underneath the pictures.

Close by was a small museum with liturgical material, some dresses and two small thrones which were used at the coronation of Haile Selassie. I have had better furniture in budget hotels.



When I walked from the railway station to the harbour, somebody shouted to me from a taxi. Hey man! As usual I ignored this, but the person kept shouting and then somebody waved and I recognised Eddy, an American I had last seen in Dushanbe, Tajikistan…
O God, I’m not sure,  you are… are you Eddy?
– No, I’m Martin.
– Oh yes, now I remember.
– You do recognise me, do you?
– Yes of course, Dushanbe.
– Yeah, that’s right and you are, let me see, Mark?
– Peter. Never mind. Great to see you.
Interesting is how much you know about a person, parts of their personal history, their face and their voice. But not their name.

In Alexandria I walked around the harbour. In Fort Qaitbay I saw a few of the granite blocks from the Pharos [photo right], the lighthouse and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that were reused in the walls of the fort.

At first I stayed in the Acropole (for sentimental reasons), but the day after I crossed to the other side of the road to relocate to the Triomphe. The management was very nice and helpful and the atmosphere was so bright and the furniture so classy. The lift was a piece of art, an antique cabinet with wooden doors. It was beautiful if maybe not reliable.
One of my plans was to go scuba diving in the harbour, but unfortunately it didn’t work out: the first day was excellent weather, but the day after was Friday and it was too late to get authorization from the police to dive. After that the weather changed and on Saturday it was gray and a hard wind blew. No go. It was cold and I felt gloomy. Many people killed themselves that day. Or at least, so I thought. I spent some time in the Brazilean Coffee Store where I drank delicious cappuccinos..
Many of the sights I had visited during previous visits and I saw not much good in paying more good money to see things that I had forgotten about and would forget again. I had a few memories and I kept them that way: the spooky catacombs and the museum with the only comtemporary image of the famous lighthouse. This time I did visit a mosque in Nabi Daniel street where some scientists think the remains of Alexander may be buried in the catacombs hidden below the mosque. The famous Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy, wanted to dig there, but he didn’t get permission. Nobody knows and mystery abounds. Inside the mosque was the tomb of a holy man from the Magrheb who had had the good grace to die here.

Trams carving their way through the streets. In the early morning when everything was still and quiet, they sent a light tremor through the building, reminiscent of an earthquake.

Another advantage of the Triomphe was the small but interesting book collection and I was glad to exchange some books for a copy of David Copperfield, a solid 700 pages of good reading.

Do you have beer?
You need beer?
Do I need beer?
Yes please.

Coming to the end of my visa extension for Egypt, I had decided to fly to Ethiopia. In Aswan I had played with the idea of overlanding through Sudan, but then I thought how I had such good, if rather painful, memories of this adventure and it didn’t make much sense to go through the rigors again. When I checked the weather circumstances in Khartoum, online resources gave consistent 41 degrees forecasts….


Travelling Sudan in 2005

From Alexandria I took a bus straight to the international airport at Cairo which was a very convenient option. I took a micro-bus to the bus station in Alexandria, payed for two seats (because of the luggage). A man helped me to find my bus. We walked from bus to bus. He was so friendly, we shook hands, and I promised to take care of his children if he would die. What? he said. Never mind, I said. Bye.
The flight was with Ethiopian Airlines and the food was better than I had had for many weeks in Egypt.

I made a point of drinking a glass of red wine in Sudan’s airspace..


Scrolling the news on the BBC website I noticed an article called: The week’s best reads, and thought, shit I haven’t even started it yet. So here goes..!

During one of my days in Aswan, I took a ferry to the other side of the Nile.

There I rode a camel, or to be more precise, a camel endured me sitting on its back after I had paid a lot  of money to its owner. Yes, that seems more accurate. The camel’s name was somethiing tourists might think funny, but frankly, I think you could have called him farting dust bag or whatever, because I don’t think it would have made the slightest difference. Riding a camel is mainly not falling off it when it gets up or sits down, the two most precarious moments of the whole endeavour. Other than that it seems to consist of kicking the animal in the ribs and there you go… I asked Moustapha how old it was and he told me it was 10 years. that is out of roughly 15 year, which is comparable to that of a horse. He told me how much it was worth, but I forgot. The camel brought  me to the Monastery of St. Simeon.


The photo above is from the monastery of St. Simeon and I was the only visitor. In the main hall, all was silent, and I sat meditating for a while in the half dark, when a leaf fell from the ceiling. A leaf? In this desert? I got up and walked over and discovered that the leaf in fact was a small bat. It slowly crawled to a dark corner where it tried to hide for cover.

It was one of the few encounters I had with Egyptian wildlife. Other animals I had seen were during a felucca trip when I saw ibis, kingfishers and herons.

After the monastery, which was huge  but disappointing, I decided to explore the surrounding desert for a bit. In the distance I could see a nice sand dune and so I walked over and started to climb it. It was not too hot and the sand was firm and much easier to walk on than I had expected.


The description should read here that I was walking in the direction of Libya, broadly speaking, that touches the right tone, I feel.

On the way back to the ferry I got lost which is quite a miracle in itself given the fact that I was somewhere in between a sizable Nubian village, the remnants of huge monastery and the longest river in the world.

It was from Aswan that Burckhardt set out to Nubia in 1813.

I quote from his letters to Joseph Banks of the African Association, his employer:

After estimating the expenses which I was likely to incur in Nubia, I put eight Spanish dollars into my purse, in conformity with the principle I have constantly acted upon during my travels, namely, that the less the traveller spends while on his march, and the less money he carries with him, the less likely are his travelling projects to miscarry. After a journey of 450 miles up the Nile, from Assouan, and the same distance down again, I returned with three dollars, having spent about five dollars, including every expense, except the present to Hassan Kashef. This must not be attributed to parsimony; I mention it here as a part of my plan of travelling, and by way of advice to all travellers who visit unknown and dangerous countries in the East.

That’s what I like about Burckhardt, in a way , he was the first budget traveller, I mean, discovering Abu Simbel for 5 dollars…



The Spanish dollars that Burckhardt used in Nubia were the first de facto world currency. Even the American dollar was originally based on it and was indeed legal tender in the United States. Another was the Ottoman piaster and this was the currency that Burckhardt used in Egypt which was then still part of the Ottoman empire. By the early 1800’s, however, the Ottoman piaster was debased and worth much less than the Spanish dollar. Not much later it was replaced by the Egyptian pound and the piaster was given a new lease as a subdivision of  the pound being worth a 100th of it. Burckhardt was long dead by then.

By the way, the Vietnamese dong, the Cambodian riel and the Laotian kip, are all successors of the French Indochinese piaster, which was in its turn a descendant of the Spanish pieces of eight, or again, the Spanish dollar.

If the Spanish pieces of eight sounds familiar, it’s because they play a prominent role in the Pirates of the Carribean or, alternatively, Treasure Island.

From Aswan I took a night train back to Cairo and travelled onwards to Alexandria directly from there.

Travellers’ tales II

The train from Luxor to Aswan arrived late and as I walked along the platform I noticed that first class carriages were in front of the train and I thought that it was only natural that people who pay a premium should be the first to arrive at their destination. Paradoxically, when getting out of the train those first class travellers will find that the others have arrived as well… Nonetheless, I enjoyed travelling first class and I will do it again.

Next day I went to see the unfinished obelisk at the quarry south of Aswan.
Obelisk here, a man helped me to find the only way out of the building after I had bought my ticket. Shortly before that, I had completely missed the huge entrance to the quarries and had wandered into some grimy slum.
Obelisk here, he repeated.
Unfinished obelisk, I reminded him.
When I had forked out forty pounds to visit the quarry, I had restrained myself from making the lame joke that it was a bit much for an obelisk that wasn’t even finished.
It was very hot, even in late February. The obelisk was gigantic and as promised, unfinished. Workers had apparently aborted the operation after a flaw was detected in the stone. Holes were already drilled for the insertion of wooden wedges that would have helped the stone crack after wetting it carefully.


The unfinished obelisk and I

After seeing the obelisk in its aborted state, a guard tried to catch my attention. He had a gun slung around his shoulder and took me to a giant block of granite which was another unfinished Egyptian antiquity. It was intriguing to squat under the massive granite lump, where workers once must have slaved away in an awkward position.
Unfinished lump, I thought, that’s not really selling it….
I gave the guard 5 pounds for not killing me accidentally with his gun and turned to the exit, which was, as usual, a souvenir market. Here were finished obelisks in a more manageable format for sale.
On the way back I crossed the Fatimid graveyard again. It looked like some cross between a rubbish heap and the closing scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Tons of atmosphere though.


Colour enhanced photograph of a Fatimid tomb, the blue paint shows it is still used for worship

On the way back I decided to have lunch in the Fryal Garden. A large display at the entrance described it as the ‘Garden of Asthma’. The rest of the text was in a garbled English and completely gobbledygook. It had a nice view of Elephantine Island though.

The following day I had booked an excursion to Abu Simbel. The minibus that picked me up at my hotel left at the ungodly hour of four in the morning and since it was roughly a 300 kilometre drive, it would be a long day to get there and back. On the way we crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

Eratosthenes, a Greek scientist living in Alexandria, had heard that in the city of Syene, that is present day Aswan, there existed some deep wells where, during the summer solstice, there was no shadow visible on its walls during the middle of the day. He concluded therefore that the sun was at that moment shining directly overhead or at a right angle.Before him Pythagoras had already stated that the earth was round [by the pre-mathematical proof of gut feeling. Basically, he thought that circles were the best thing ever, and since the earth was the best planet ever, it would make sense if it was round].
After measuring the angle of the sun in Alexandria on the day of the summer solstice, Eratosthenes now only needed to know the exact distance between the two cities in order to be able to calculate the circumference of the earth. Fortunately for him, Alexander the Great had not long before introduced so called bematists, professional step counters, who had marched with his army to keep track of the distances during his campaign. With their assistance the distance between Aswan and Alexandria was measured and he was now able to calculate the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. Later estimates of the distance between the cities were actually less precise and it was thus that Ptolemeus arrived at a smaller circumference of the earth. Interestingly, it was this distance that had convinced Columbus that he could sail from Spain to India if he kept a western course…
Doing my best here to wriggle Columbus back into the story again.
Calculating the circumference of the earth must have gone a long way in popularising the idea of a spherical earth. These days the idea of a flat earth is making a surprising comeback as a conspiracy theory.

This time I had put Abu Simbel merely on the list for the sake of completeness. I had never seen it before because for reasons of authenticity. Most readers will be familiar with its relocation of the temple after the building of the Aswan high dam, or make that before the building of the Aswan high dam, to protect it from the rising waters of the newly created lake. It was cut in pieces and carefully reconstructed in a fake mountain at the new shore of Lake Nasser. Seeing it now for the first time was a marvellous sight. But it was not the real thing of course.


Photo of Abu Simbel, greatly enhanced by using GIMP’s equalize function that adjusts the brightness of colours…. Is that Frodo coming out??

It was again Burckhardt who was the first European to see Abu Simbel in modern times in 1813 and who alerted Belzoni who later undertook the first excavations. Burckhardt’s discovery is interesting mainly because he found it covered in sand. In his account he mentions how he can only see one head and the headgear of the other statues. This also meant that he wasn’t sure weather the colossi were standing upright or sitting in an upright position… Burckhardt relates how he nearly missed the temple entirely. He had first explored the nearby temple of Hathor and then: Having, as I supposed, seen all the antiquities of Ebsambal [i.e. Abu Simbel], I was about to ascend the sandy side of the mountain by the same way I had descended; when having luckily turned more to the southward, I fell in with what is yet visible of four immense colossal statues cut out of the rock, at a distance of about two hundred yards from the temple.
After closer inspection he observes:
On the wall of the rock in the centre of the four statues, is the figure of a hawk-headed Osiris, surmounted by a globe; beneath which, I suspect, could it be cleared away, a vast temple would be discovered
A few years later Belzoni came to clear out the sand and be the first to penetrate into the interior of the temple. He had great difficulties in doing so because the sand had hardened over time and,.peculiarly, it seemed that the local inhabitants had no idea of the value of money and were therefore hard to convince to perform this hard labour.


Nubian prisoner at the entrance of Abu Simber. Increased White Balance…

Next to the main temple, in the same artificial mound, is the likewise reconstructed Hathor temple in honour of Ramses’ first wife Neferteti. Even so, four of the six giant statues at this temple are of her megalomaniac husband…. Inside I was pleased to notice graffiti left behind by Drovetti in 1816. He was the French consul general of Egypt for some time and I had read a great deal about him when researching Burckhardt and Belzoni. As an avid collector of antiquities he played a very dubious role in the intrigues of that early age of Egyptian exploration.
He died completely gaga in a lunatic asylum in Turin.