Explorations, culture, nature

The Extended East Route Cultural Potential


Ethiopia, land of diverse geographic deposition, evolved over time varied socio-economic realities.

On our way from the green highland massive to the coastal red sea plains and to Indian Ocean we cross the deep rift, the spectacular Amhar mount chain, deserts, impressive salt depositions and lakes, yellow sulphur crusts dotted with crystals, black cutting basalt edges. Dramatically diverse geology, amazingly rich social variety. Men and women capable of enduring the hottest deserts on earth, passing from one generation to the other the secrets of camel rearing. Those living in tents, still aware of the life saving techniques to find wells, thousands of years before satellite positioning, counted permanent dunes, used raised points as defense and observation spots.

  A camel caravan enters Ethiopia from Somalia

Elsewhere, in the chilly highlands, one finds families ready to prepare goat skin “moon boots” to endure deep snow, still clad in heavy furry skins, builders of rock houses.

Travellers reached us over the millennia for diverse purposes. Trade of frankincense, ivory and myrrh attracted the Egyptians and other Mediterranean cultures. Queen Hatshepsut made an expedition to Eritrean ports seventeen centuries before Christ -five grand ships figure on paintings- to exchange goods with present day Ethiopia. The Axum civilization had boats and ports used to trade far along the silk route, as Axumite coins found scattered in India and Sri Lanka appear to confirm.

A treasure of over a hundred gold pieces minted in the second and third century AD  in inner India again point to far eastern trade,  as definitely do two inner eastern China coins recently dated at 1040 and 1080 AD respectively. The first was uncovered in the 1940s in Debre Damo Monastery, the latter only in 2010 in Harla, a huge upper medieval town in eastern Ethiopia.

               King Vasudeva coins were the most recent amongst those found in Debre Damo,  dating their arrival around AD 222

While the Axum civilization has been the focus of serious investigation in the last three decades, extremely little is known not only of prehistoric trade along the red sea and the Indian ocean, but of the rich medieval history Ethiopia developed, as no archaeological excavations have been carried out on its recently recovered relevant cities and sites.

The EER reaches out to Djibouti and Somaliland in particular, where the local heritage foundation has indication of seventy towns and trade posts of likely medieval origin, sited along the coast south of Zeyla, a famed medieval port, and pointing inland towards Ethiopia, where a complex trade route appears to be completed by towns in east Hararge, Ifat and the highlands, via the Ankober pass.


From Dhows to Donkeys

On the way inland from the Ocean transport varied from Omani and Arab dhows, Abyssinian ships and Chinese massive fleets surrounding the biggest floats of antiquity: Zheng-He’s Treasure Ships, about one hundred meters long, manned by more than 2000 mariners.                                                 

One early fifteenth century year alone 93 admiral ships were built in Nanjing, the hub of the superpower naval might, to prepare the huge expeditions of Zheng He. Ships of this might were only equalled by the British Empire, around 1850. Four hundred and fifty years later.

All this might was to boost trade, keep ties: Emperor Zu Di’s envoys reached three times their ally, the Sultan of Muqadishu, and visited Africa at least four times over one generation alone.

Present day visitors can trace the EER, the most powerful ancient trade route being rediscovered under their eyes, from Zeyla, Berbera and Djibouti ports, or from Addis Ababa. A scattered few of the most daring may perhaps do it via the sea routes, setting sail from China, India, Arabia or Yemen.            Omani Dhow

At the beginning of the past century Enrico Cerulli, the Italian scholar of Ethiopia found in some food wrap in his beloved Harar indications about towns where the loads were swapped from lowland camels to the mountain mules and donkeys. He guessed this had to be towards the Ankober rift.

A recent French exploration has set to light, actually, never forgotten locally, three considerable towns of Muslim faith, Nora, Mesal and Asberi. The Nora mosque, still practically intact, is a feat of builders we have lost trace of, no one has yet excavated the sites.

         Nora Mosque

We now understand they were the changing point, after the ships, the cargo passed the deserts and drier mountain of Somalia and the Ethiopian east on camel back, to be transferred there to the equine mean of transport.

  A present day well loaded donkey of the highlands Photo Ann Marie McQueen


Of a mythical past and an hopeful today

Those routes of ancient evolved to roads, a railway between Djibouti and Addis, nowadays air routes creating new trade towns, giving reason for a now flourishing regrowth of the land of Ethiopia, in spite of a tragic man made error that heavily weighs on us.

We have seen two significant lakes, pointed at in the times of Haile Selassie as navigable tourists attractions dry out; we have seen climate change driven famine with our eyes.

  Ever drier Ethiopian marginal lands, Asaita, Photo Eric Lafforgue

We are convinced the wealth of Ethiopian history, Culture and nature are a serious answer to the dire straits man made climate change has reduced our eastern peoples to.

In 1930, journalists from the whole world Ethiopia were getting ready to cover the in coronation of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Lion of Judah, and more attributes this now mythical figure had.

Curiously, Italian writer Petacco reports, while the Times of London envoys had prepared heavy mountain gear to stand blizzards and ice, as reported by those entering from Eritrea towards the Semien huge massif, like Pippo Vigoni in 1888 and brother Matthews just before, the Telegraph personnel had been instructed to wear for a desert expedition, perhaps to the indications of the journeys of Piaggia and Antinori from Zeyla towards the Danakil depression, a hell of fire and heat.

In distant island paradises, the myth of the Ethiopian Churches reached that month a peak that was to influence the creation of a religion now over twenty million strong in the world, Rastafarianism.

As Richard Pankhurst reports, the amazing Adwa victory over the invading Italians saw the birth of local Churches in Kenya and Somalia, adopting the Ethiopian flag, imbibed by a revival of Africanism, of the revenge of the indigenous blacks over the colons.

These “Ethiopian Churches” had already well seeped their way through to Jamaica, when the news of the coronation came. Convinced, peasants in the deep sugar cane countryside, believed an era of hope and of end to oppression was coming: Ras Tafari Makonnen’ crowning was to them alone their coronation of every Christians’ Hope: the second coming of Christ. Rastafarianism was born, and spread to virtually all Countries of the world, furthering an aura of greatness, peculiar mystery around the biblical land of the Abyssinians.


From the central Highlands to the Ocean

Our cultural and naturalistic Route sets off from the horn shores in Somaliland and Djibouti, or for the majority of present day travellers from Addis Ababa.

The track from the Ethiopian capital can take either the large frequented highways driving south east  via Debre Zeyt, Nazaret and the volcanic pass below the Fantalle crater, or climb north east to Debre Birhan, to then descend via Ankober to the same Awash valley, where a great natural park lies.

Along the first variant, Bishoftu or Debre Zeyt is a small town surrounded by eight crater lakes and a couple of swamps teeming with birds, especially at the on start of the migration season. It was Haile Selassie’ favorite rest place and residence.  Flocks of birds in Chamo lake

  Lake Bishoftu, Debre Zeyt 

The deep crater of Green Lake, tainted by natural flowerings of algae

We then reach Adama or Nazaret, born as a railway station, grown over a hundred years from an empty space to a booming town, an active concentration of the eighty peoples of Ethiopia, or more, that blend here in a melting pot governed by transactions, be it of goods, culture or ideas. It now boasts around twenty hotels making it Ethiopia’s favorite conference venue.

The descent to the rift valley is interrupted by lesser volcanic chains, nevertheless beautiful, as the amazing lava beds scenery around the Giulietti pass.


   Recently formed lava beds in the Giulietti pass caldera

A further hike brings us the steady hot land of the camels, where behavior, religion and ways of life appear to change. We are in the nomadic Itu, Oromo land, mixed around the Fantalle volcano with the Afar. We meet the peoples that formed the link from the Ocean traders to the highland civilizations.

The north east variant reaches green highlands, first onto Debre Birhan, the “Mountain of Light” of the great Emperor Zer’a Yaqob, in the fifteen century. It was founded, chronicles say, after the Emperor had seen a bright passage of Halley’s, or another comet. Now a fairly quiet trade town, it bears little reminiscence of its still ununderstood medieval past.

It then climbs further to the Termaber heights, were a six hundred and fifty metres mighty, but decaying rock hewn tunnel bears the print of the invading Italian culture. Digging could have been avoided, via a few winding turns, but, apparently, fascist grandeur required it. Future road building will most likely avoid it, but an Ethiopia respectful even of the obscurest bits of its past has even kept the ‘Mussolini’ dedication on it!


Those heights bring incomparable sights, and host Chilada babbons, the endemic furry big mammal, and further up north the stunning Guassa Plateau, rising well above 3400 m, home to the Semien fox, Lammergeiers, unique birds, afroalpine vegetation, leopards and various rodent, gazelle and monkey species.

  A Chilada Family, Guassa, courtesy Jeff Kirby

Just under, we find Ankober. Central Shoa was the siege of a powerful kingdom, the most powerful of all when Ethiopia had no central Monarch. The kings of Shoa imposed tolls to other groups, engaged in trade extensively, and controlled the east routes, from palaces in Ankober and in the area. Founded by Amha Yihasus it was noted as Minilik’s siege from 1855 (death oh Haile Malakot) to 1878 (moved to the first 'Antoto', on Mt Wechacha).


   Ankober, Minilik's Palace wall

Below, an Italian explorer and naturalist, marquis Antinori was granted land between creeks and falls, to build a naturalistic station and a hospital. Above, the growths on mount Emmemeret and, further, the Wef Washa primary forest stand still largely unstudied. Thus his compatriots have recently opened a biodiversity institute, convinced naturalistic wealth knowledge must blend with the understanding of the varied and ancient culture to promote development.

  The Ankober Antinori Institute

A road is being constructed from Ankober to the Awash Park, via Aliyu Amba and the Argobba villages, down the escarpment.

This will permit a now rather difficult transit on what was the main silk route we are rediscovering.

Reaching the other route variant at Awash town, a station with a tinged colonial taste.

  Awash Station                                                                                        The Buffet de la Gare


The vast Awash park is inhabited by over 8,000 Itus, a kind of Oromo nomad people and Afars.

It is still the fief of over 700 Beysa orix, endemic to Ethiopia, lions, kudos and a variety of furs and feathers, some only found there. It was the first chartered park in the horn, in 1965, and corresponds to Haile Selassie’s formal personal hunt reserve. He converted it to a National Park now far from its original splendor, when special carriages traversed it slowly to show wildlife to foreign and local visitors, but it is still amazingly rich, and it can be saved, we discuss in another section of this site.

After the park, the road immediately crosses the Awash gorge flanking the iron rail bridge, to pass via a huge closed area with a notable military college, overs the rift where vegetation is still thriving and more ostriches, secretary birds and warthogs are found, to start climbing, after Mieso, towards the beautiful Amhar chain.

Asebe Teferi, whose name I have heard either interpreted as ‘tought up by Teferi’ or ‘Teferi thought of us’ has a huge fort and leads to a further brisk ascent to Arba Rakiti. This means unequivocally ‘the elephants suffered’, in Oromo. To what ancient Abyssinian military expedition this is referred is quite unclear. I now recall how the birth of Prophet Mohamed, the Egira, has been historically fixed, as it occurred in the thirtieth year since the last punitive mission of the Axumite troops to Arabia, well equipped with African elephants, the Empire’s tanks.

At Arba Rakitti, the road takes a turn and starts passing on a narrow ridge, where often both sides confound your view with distant panoramas of lowlands and further mountains, deep valleys below. At that turn, one can continue on a variant that will lead eventually, on dirt good tracks to the bale ranges, the Sof Omar caves and the Cheick Hussein Shrine, a white chalked complex tomb that could remind us of east African Malian or Niger shrines.

          Sheck Husen Shrine                              Mountain Nyala male

Just seven kilometers on that direction we hit Kuni, the heart of the Kuni-Muktar Mountain Nyala Animal sanctuary. It is composed of just a few dozens of hectares of left primary forest, vast clearances, where the endemic, endangered huge antelope lives. Members of the Eastern heritage association are very proud of having challenged successfully, a couple of years ago, a prominent professional hunter in the area. He was surprisingly killing the rare and… priced Nyalas, for around fifty thousand d dollars each with that rare kind of international big hunters. His license has been taken away!

Along the mountain road to Harar, instead, as the occasional monastery dominates the wide views, one crosses Kulubi, where two huge yearly pilgrimages, capable of attracting well above 100,000 people each testimony to the nationwide affection to the shrine.

Soon after, in the distance, a vast mountain mass appears. It is Gara Muleta, now sadly being deprived of its primary forest, as I write; possibly it will be totally gone by the time you read this.     Little afroalpine erica vegetation still left on Gara Muleta

A waste of beauty, of a great opportunity to find new species of use, a grave loss of singular cold tropical mountain biodiversity, at the hands of a very few loggers from Addis Ababa, endowed with means and illogically gained permissions, certainly the fruit of some bribes.

Next to it, a surprising visit in Garawa is the special high security prison but over eighty years ago on orders of Haile Selassie for his powerful predecessor, Lij Yiyasu.

Many warm caves lie, mostly unexplored, over the whole region, cavers are advised to where simple masks, as we just discovered a lung affection, hystoplasmosis, is strife in the area.

  Holqaa Dima, Bedenno past Gara Muleta

Finally, Harar is reached.

Richard Burton, the nineteen century British traveller, became the noted figure he still is just for his eleven days in Harar. He and a few generation of his own offspring became rich on his recounts, just of those eleven days. He described carefully a town supposed unknown and forbidden to foreigners, in reality often visited by traders of all regions, and was able to tint mystery and fear in his path from the Kundudo Bedada pass and back on his way to Somaliland, as others did, only, he wrote some thriller and travel book that had such success it motivated much exploration in to Ethiopia, since.


  A current Somaliland coin representing Burton

Harar does not leave visitors indifferent, this World Heritage site is,in my experience either hated or loved, no ways in between: light of passion or dark refusal hits the traveler, no shades of grey possible. Some find the walled fortress-inhabited by around forty thousand- chaotic, dirty noisy and difficult to bear, many others just love it. Traditional Harari houses offer accommodation, and a close glimpse into a unique culture, those in refusal had most likely not been prepared to by less competent tour operators and guides.

    Rowda guest house, traditional Harari

Dubbed the fourth holy town of Islam after Makkah, Medina and Jerusalem, it has a life and a society of its own.

Night traditional hyena feeding ceremonies in three spots around the town walls testimony an ancient vicinity with nature embedding town.

Two noted museum houses enrich the visit, one of traditional Harari art and books, one the former Ras Makonnen's house, one in the Indian trader residence supposed to have briefly housed French Poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Islam is not so strict, as Harar produces up to 380,000 beer bottles a day, plus tens of thousands of canisters of draft.

A noted local Stout is called Hakim, in one interpretation, the Doctor’s beer, doubling the contrast, it is produced in the fourth Holy town of Islam!

                                               Professional photographer Emily Taylor showing one peculiar Harar passion

Around Harar Mount Hakim -the other possible origin of the fine Stout’s name- a karstic field, offers views over town and the near proposed Kundudo, Jarso park and the distant Gara Muleta.               More... traditional Harar dwellers, on the day of their marriage


Cultures of the Extended East Route

Amhara is the language of Ethiopians, the common one, adopted by most. The spell of people of the Lake, of the mountains of the centre north. These are the recent holders of the Throne, the often pale complexioned noble ethnicity of the late Emperors. The builders of the African Camelot, the Gonder Castle citadel, the pride of highland Christianity.

  Narga Selassie on Dek Island, Tana Lake

Oromia is the Hearth of our Country, most of the Abyssinians claim to be Oromos. With nearly sixty percent of the land and well over a third of the population of Ethiopia, this is the main culture we meet along the EER.

  Zway lake port, Oromia. Courtesy Matteo Sciarretta

Afars hold a nomadic highly resilient culture




  Koremi Argobba, welcoming a visitor

Below Ankober and above the rift, as well as around Harar, we cross a singular society, that of the Argobbas. The Amharic name they bear sound like ”The Arabs have entered our Country”, their looks and indeed for the time being a single DNA test carried out at the University of Rome by our EER resource mapping team point to a decided Arab descent. They build solid stone rectangular houses, with wood and mud roofs many point at as the first Harar settlements and houses. They may in fact have migrated into Abyssinia around, or possibly later than the foundation of Harar, Hubat, Samti Guey and the other medieval towns in the area.

Somalis are met from Harar onwards, under the Kundudo magic flat top towards Jijiga, onto Wejjale and into their vast lands.