James Bruce: In Search of the Source

Half undressed as I was by the loss of my sash, and throwing my shoes off, I ran down the hill towards the little island of green sods, which was about two hundred yards distant…

…It is easier to guess than to describe the situation of my mind at that moment – standing in the spot which had baffled the genius, industry and enquiry of both ancients and moderns, for the course of near three thousand years.

James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790)

One of the first European explorers in this part of Africa was a Scot named James Bruce. After serving as consul general in Algiers, he set off in 1768 in search of the Nile’s source, a puzzle that had preoccupied people since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs. After landing in Massawa, Eritrea, he made his way to the powerful and splendid court of Gonder, where he became close friends with Empress Mentewab.

In 1770 he reached the source of the Abay, the main river that empties Lake Tana. There he declared the mystery of the Nile’s source solved. He dedicated his discovery to King George III and returned home to national acclaim.

In fact, Bruce had traced only the source of the Blue Nile River, the main tributary of the Nile. Not only that, but he’d been beaten to his ‘discovery’ (as he very well knew) more than 150 years earlier by a Spanish Jesuit, Pedro Páez.

Of greater interest was the account of his journey, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, published in 1790. It remains a useful source of information on Ethiopia’s history and customs. His contemporaries considered much of it a gross exaggeration, or even pure fiction. Given his earlier claims, it’s no wonder.

Mary & Zara

The Virgin Mary is held in high esteem in Ethiopia. No other saint has as many saint days and no other brings forth such genuine devotion.

It wasn’t always like this though. It was the 15th-century King Zara Yaqob, a fanatical Christian, who elevated her to such heights. Zara Yaqob was a man of determination who rekindled the glory of Aksum, reunited the fractured kingdom and commissioned numerous controversial works of religious literature. He was also a vicious tyrant who executed monks who didn’t accept his reforms, beat his own wife to death and had his son tortured and thrown in the slammer. But it was religion, and the worship of the Virgin in particular, that really got him excited. Paranoid that the world was full of fallen angels determined to bring evil to his court, he had a team of priests pace the corridors of his palace day and night reciting prayers and splashing holy water about. He also ordered all his subjects to affix a crucifix to their processions and have ‘I renounce the accursed, I am the slave of Mary, mother of the Creator of the universe’ tattooed on their left arm, ‘I deny the devil’ on their right, and a crucifix on their foreheads (the last is still common practice today).

Despite his more eccentric traits Zara Yaqob is regarded as one of the most important Ethiopian emperors, both for holding the nation together and for his elevation of Mary.

Prester John

I, Prester John, who reign supreme, exceed in riches, virtue and power all creatures who dwell under Heaven…In our territories are found elephants, dromedaries and camels and almost every kind of beast. Honey flows in our land, and milk abounds…No poison can do harm here and no noisy frogs croak, no scorpions are there, and no serpents creep through the grass. No venomous reptiles can exist or use their deadly power.

Prester John

The letter the mysterious Christian ruler Prester John wrote to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus I in 1165 went on to inform of how his kingdom contained ‘Centaurs, Amazons and shrinking giants’. There was a river that flowed from Paradise ‘and in it are found emeralds, sapphires and many other precious stones’. His palace, so he said, was a ‘palace of crystal with a roof of ebony and everyday 30,000 sit down to eat at tables of gold supported by columns of amethyst’. The great ruler himself wore robes spun from gold by salamanders that lived on a mountain of fire.

It was impressive stuff, but what really grabbed the attention of medieval Europe was Prester John’s promise that he would ride forth from his kingdom with 10,000 cavalry and 100,000 foot soldiers and, alongside the armies of Western Europe, they would retake the Holy Land from the Muslims.

The Christian Crusaders had lost much of the Holy Land and were on the verge of losing Jerusalem itself. News of Prester John’s letter spread like wildfire throughout Christian Europe. It was partially in order to find Prester John’s kingdom that the Portuguese launched the age of European exploration that changed the world forever.

Having first looked unsuccessfully in Asia, the focus turned to Ethiopia. When the Portuguese finally reached Gonder, they found a Christian kingdom that was a far cry from the glorious legend, and certainly in no position to aid the reconquest of Jerusalem.

And of Prester John? It turned out that one of the most intriguing figures of medieval Europe was nothing more than collective imagination, and the letter that started it all was a fake created by a German monk.

The Nine Saints

Though it was Abba Salama who first brought the Christian faith to Ethiopia in AD 330, he didn’t make great inroads into converting the masses. Instead this task was left to a group of wandering holy men who were eventually to become known as the Nine Saints. In the 5th century they arrived in Ethiopia from the Middle East and each chose a mountaintop on which to construct a monastery and preach the new religion. All nine are frequent subjects of church paintings.

The Pursuit of a Perfect World: Awra Amba

Education is our source of income and helping each other is our culture.

Awra Amba tour guide.

Awra Amba village is like no other in Ethiopia. The residents have a utopian world vision of total equality (regardless of gender, age, race, social standing etc), shared responsibility based on ability, and hard work and education as the best path to a good life. They also reject formal religion, though they do believe in a creator. The village’s founder, Zumra Nuru, began imagining this sort of society as a child. Most people in his village thought he was crazy, but over time he met some like-minded people and, in 1986, 18 of them joined him in founding this village. It’s since grown to nearly 500 residents (in over 140 households) and has attracted respect from around the country. For more information, check out www.visitawraamba.com.

Ninety-minute guided village tours (Birr10) start with the preschool, where ethics and human rights are taught alongside the ABCs, and also visit the village’s libraries, retirement home and weaving workshop. There’s not enough land to go around so weaving is one of the ways the village stays self-sufficient. Note that there’s no weaving every other Saturday. You may also have the chance to speak to the humble founder. Begging is very shameful here so please avoid giving handouts. Some visitors choose to help out by buying the villagers’ products or giving some books to the library.

The simple guesthouse (earthen walls, sheet-metal doors and a bathroom out back) has about the cleanest shoestring lodging you’ll ever see. The small restaurant has pasta and national dishes.

Awra Amba is 73km from Bahir Dar on the Woldia road, 10km after Worota. Several minibuses from Bahir Dar (Birr42, one hour) pass the signposted junction, from where it’s a 2km walk.

The Lions of Alatash

Ethiopia has long been considered by big-cat conservationists as an important lion stronghold, but in 2016 it became even more so. A team led by Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit discovered a hitherto undocumented population of between 100 and 200 lions in an area of northwestern Ethiopia, along the Ethiopia–Sudan border. The population is shared between Ethiopia's Alatash National Park, with possibly more than 50 lions, and Sudan's Dinder National Park. Alatash, which lies northwest of Bahir Dar and southwest of Gonder, is a relatively new national park – so new, it's yet to be marked on most maps of the country. It's not yet open to tourists without special permission from the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority in Addis.