The brutal dictatorship the world keeps ignoring

On Monday, the United Nations released the results of a year-long investigation into human rights in Eritrea. What it found was horrific. Detailing “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” the U.N. commission of inquiry argued that Eritrea was operating a totalitarian government with no accountability and no rule of law.

“The commission also finds that the violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labor may constitute crimes against humanity,” the report said.

However, it appears the report failed to produce any mainstream outrage. Unlike similar U.N. reports on alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea, or online criticism of human rights abuses in places such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar, the horrific accusations against Eritrea didn’t produce a viral outcry.

Why not? It certainly doesn’t seem to be because of the severity of the accusations. Crimes against humanity are pretty much as serious as you can get, and it’s hard to read the United Nations’ full report and not be shocked.

It’s hard to imagine now, but hopes were initially high for Eritrea in 1993 after it gained independence from Ethiopia after 30 years of civil war. Since then, however, President Isaias Afwerki has clamped down and allowed no room for an opposition. The U.N. report described a Stasi-like police state that leaves Eritreans in constant fear that they are being monitored.

“When I am in Eritrea, I feel that I cannot even think because I am afraid that people can read my thoughts and I am scared,” one witness told the U.N. inquiry.

The system leads to arbitrary arrests and detention, with torture and even enforced disappearances a part of life in Eritrea, the U.N. probe found, and even those who commit no perceived crime often end up in arduous and indefinite national service that may amount to forced labor. Escape is not a realistic option for many: Those who attempt to flee the country are considered “traitors,” and there is a shoot-to-kill policy on the border, the report said.

A drawing provided to the U.N. by an Eritrean torture survivor.

A drawing provided to the U.N. by an Eritrean torture survivor

It’s also worth noting the significant effort and risk put into creating the report: The Eritrean government refused to allow the United Nations access to the country to investigate, so the U.N. team interviewed more than 550 witnesses in third countries and accepted 160 written submissions. Many approached by the United Nations declined to give testimony, even anonymously, citing a justifiable fear of reprisal.

Still, experts don’t seem too surprised at the lack of outrage generated by the report. “Clearly, Eritrea doesn’t capture the imagination, or rouse the conscience of Americans, much in the way North Korea does,” Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, explained. “President Afwerki, while unquestionably a chronic human rights abuser and eccentric despot, isn’t portrayed by the American media in the same way that Kim Jong Un is.”

“North Korea also makes headlines for other reasons — namely its nuclear ambitions and the ongoing threat it poses to regional stability in East Asia,” he added. “Similarly, while Eritrea is certainly a police state similar to North Korea in many ways, it’s largely kept out of the headlines because Africa in general doesn’t feature highly on the agenda of policymakers here in the United States.”

The fact is, while the scope and authority of the U.N. report lent its allegations an added weight, academics and human rights researchers had long written similar things about the Eritrean state without a significant mainstream response in America or Europe.

In 2014, for instance Human Rights Watch called Eritrea “among the most closed countries in the world” and pointed to “indefinite military service, torture, arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and religion.” Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly ranked it as the worst country in the world for press freedom — worse even than North Korea.

“The U.N. report? We knew it already,” said Ismail Einashe, a Somali-British journalist who works with Eritrean migrants. “Too little, too late.”

Despite this, some reports on the country ignore this and focus on another aspect of Eritrea: Its unlikely tourism sector. International isolation, a history as an Italian colony and reported Qatari investment may have made Eritrea a unique if distasteful vacation destination: As one travel blogger put it last year, the capital of “Asmara felt much more like Naples than North Korea.”

Sara Dorman, an expert in African politics at Edinburgh University, doesn’t think much of either comparison.

“I don’t think it’s particularly helpful,” she said of the country’s reputation as the “North Korea of Africa.” At the same time, she stressed that Eritrea really does deserve to be seen as a special case. “As somebody who studies authoritarian regimes elsewhere in Africa, the Eritrean regime’s control over its population is qualitatively different than other African states,” Dorman said, before pointing to features such as the scale of Eritrea’s intelligence service and the practice of punishing entire families for the crimes of one member.

There are plenty of historical arguments for why the world should pay more attention to what’s happening in Eritrea. Former colonial rulers Italy and Britain have an obvious legacy there, and so does the United States, which allowed Ethiopia to incorporate Eritrea with the aim of keeping the U.S. Kagnew Station military base in the country. In addition, Eritrea has a difficult recent history with its East African neighbors: It’s currently under U.N. sanctions for supporting al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist group, and others in the region.

But one important reason to pay attention has become an unavoidable reality for Europe. Eritreans make up a large share of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats to seek asylum in Europe: More than 22 percent of those who made the journey in 2014 were from the country, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, second only to Syrians. They flee not because of a civil war like that in Syria, but because of the immense restrictions the Eritrean state puts on their lives. As one escaped Eritrean put it, life there is a “psychological prison.”

Despite this, a number of European nations have recently tightened the restrictions on Eritrean migrants, many citing a Danish immigration reportfrom last November that prompted criticism from human rights groups. The European Union is also considering increasing the amount of aid it sends to Eritrea via the European Development Fund. Experts like Dorman hope that the U.N. report may lead some in Europe to reconsider.

“If organizations don’t take note of this report, we really have to wonder about how they make these decisions,” she said.

Still, even if they don’t, the report does have one very vocal audience: The Eritrean government and pro-government media. In a statement published on Tuesday, Eritrea called the U.N. report a”cynical political travesty” that was an attack “not so much on the government, but on a civilized people and society who cherish human values and dignity.”

Source: WP

Toronto’s Little Ethiopia: Africa’s Take on Tapas


It’s no secret that Toronto is diversifying, and with an influx of new cultures comes a demand for foreign food. For someone who loves food – like yours truly – this fresh array of exotic foods is reason enough to try something new. Recently, I decided to try a cuisine from Africa, and so I headed to a stretch of the Danforth, far beyond the souvlaki and gyros of Greektown. There I discovered a hidden gem where bold, rich flavours are emerging from the woodworks, an area that many African-Canadians know well: Little Ethiopia.

I strolled into the vibrant yet cozy Rendez-Vouz. It was bustling; a fellow guest told me that I had found a real deal. The owners ensure that everything from decor to ingredients are sourced straight from Ethiopia. I sat down and tucked into a meal to remember.

Injera to share-a
The country’s beloved injera, a flatbread made from teff, a nutty, poppy seed-sized grain, is high in calcium, iron and, as well as being rather tasty, is also gluten-free. This spongy bread has quickly grown in popularity and is now shipped to Toronto from Ethiopia twice a week. In Addis Ababa, everyone at the dinner table eats from the same plate, a custom that symbolizes loyalty and trust. Ethiopians believe that if people share a plate they won’t betray one another, and they take this tradition veryseriously. Everyone around the table takes a piece of injera in their hand and uses it to scoop up meats, vegetables and grains from the communal plate. I have to say, I was a little unsure about the “no utensils rule,” but using injera as a spoon made for a unique experience; all the flavours hit your palate at once, mingling together to create a burst of harmonious flavour.

Tradtional Injera. Image:

Mahberawi, Doro Wot and Beyaynetu
If it’s your first time eating Ethiopian, my recommendation is mahberawi, which means “combination” in Amharic. On most menus, the dish is served as a combination of meats that offers a prime sampling of different flavours. For a real highlight, the choice is doro wot, a complex chicken dish that tests a chef’s true skill. For vegetarians, you have to try beyaynetu, a medley of vegetables in savoury sauces. No matter your choice, the beauty of Toronto’s Ethiopian cuisine is it’s price; at Nazareth on Bloor Street West, $12 gets you and your date an abundance of food, beers not included. That’s a great Friday night that won’t break the bank.

Beyaynetu, Image:

Ethiopian coffee ceremony
After dinner, make sure you sign up for the coffee ceremony. Regardless of who ordered the ceremony, the hostess will come to each table, hot pan in hand, to let everyone in the restaurant smell the freshly roasted coffee beans. After 20 or 30 minutes, a fresh pot of intense espresso-like brew is delivered to your table and poured in an elaborate manner, creating a waterfall of smooth aromas in the delicate porcelain cups. Ethiopian coffee beans are one the richest and most flavourful in the world, so for coffee lovers this is truly a treat. Each cup is served with popcorn as a unique palate-cleansing snack.

Ethiopian coffee, Image:

If you’re looking for a unique meal with a cozy atmosphere, don’t hesitate to venture to Little Ethiopia and indulge your senses.

Source: View The Vibe

Difference between Tyranny and Dictatorship

Difference between dictatorship and tyranny

Conceptual Background

Delving deep in to the history of state governance would tell us that no negative connotations were attached to the two words; tyranny & dictatorship. In ancient Greece, rulers of city states traditionally held the title ‘tyrant’, and the subjects never had any reservation for the same, as no negativity was stigmatized to it. In Athens, before democracy set foot there, the last tyrant ruler was particularly unfair in using power, and the term got a bad name. Subsequently Plato and his followers, by their political discourse, gave permanence to the attachment.

On the other hand, in Republican Rome, a dictator was a senate appointed constitutional incumbent who held absolute power in matters of governance as well as military duties. Titus Flavus was the first dictator of Republican Rome. Augustus Caesar was the last dictator of Rome, who killed his dictator-grandfather, and this act of him gave a bad rap to the term ‘dictator’.

Difference in Meaning

Dictator: A dictator is the head of a government which is run according to the will of the dictator, who acquires power without the consent of the people and is aided by a bunch of loyalists. Under dictatorship all political power is monopolised by the dictator, and the pillars of governance namely judiciary, administration, and legislature are controlled by him and run by the coterie. Dictatorship is an authoritarian form of government where both public and private lives of citizens are subject to scrutiny and regulation by the government. All voices of resent are brutally suppressed by the dictator, through private militia or state force. Adolf Hitler of Germany, Idi Amin of Uganda, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Aga Khan of Pakistan are few of the world in-famous dictators.

Tyranny: Tyranny is a form of government where the head of the government possesses very oppressive and ruthless character, and often looks after his own interest instead that of the subjects. The administration, judiciary, and legislature are controlled by people hand-picked by him. History is witness to the fact of many monarchs turning tyrant due to greed and oppressive character. The tyrant rules his subjects through the weapons of fear, and torture. Tyranny is supposedly worst form of governance, where the ruler is corrupted to thefullest. All the tyrants are filthy rich, where the wealth is amassed through all possible illegal ways imaginable. Pol Pot of Cambodia, Pinochet of Chile, Henry VIII of England, Genghis Khan of Mongolia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Caligula of Rome are some of the worst tyrants the world has seen.

Qualitative Difference

A dictator may rise to power either in a democratic set-up, or through an armed coup, often by ambitious military officers. Such leaders definitely possess leadership quality to launch an armed offensive against the ruler. Initially, after coming to power, such leaders have been seen to implement strict discipline into the society, and take measures to bring in financial accountability in governance. But dictatorial power, politics of appeasement, lure to become rich and live 5-star life-style ultimately make the dictator a tyrant, when he starts to consider his whims as law and destiny of the citizens. The tyrant takes all possible measures to silence any voice or resent and large-scale elimination takes place.

A military dictator initially rules by law, stifling personal freedom of people, but may not nurse any personal financial-ambition. But after staying in power for a long time, all the administrative and military posts are filled by people chosen by the dictator so that governance becomes smooth and conducive to serve self interest, and also seeds of revolt are destroyed at birth. This is when the dictator becomes tyrant. This is what happened to some dictators like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Zia Ul Haque and Musharraf of Pakistan, and many others. Thus length of tenure and degree of mis-use of power differentiates between a dictator and a tyrant.

Welfare of the People

A dictator, in the initial years of his rule, may make significant contribution towards economic welfare of the people, with better infrastructure, highly subsidized compulsory education, and health care facilities financed through increased rates and collection of taxes, increased industrial production, and all round discipline in the government. Cuba under Fidel Castro, India under Indira Gandhi, and Pakistan under Zia experienced such things. But tyrants are bereft of any positive contribution towards societal welfare. Idi Amin of Uganda, Henry VIII of England, Stalin of Russia, Pol Pot of Cambodia and many other tyrants will be remembered by the world for the unbearable misery they brought for their subjects.


A tyrant essentially is a dictator. The difference between a dictator and a tyrant is determined by length of tenure and degree of misuse of power. A dictator assumes power without consent of the people, either through an armed ouster of the ruler or through heredity. He might be a good leader and may bring some prosperity for the people. But as the dictator stays in power for long period, he may become tyrant treating the citizens according to his whims.

Source: The difference between

Ethiopia’s Hot, Nigeria’s Not, for Investors Targeting Africa


June 5, 2015 — 5:38 AM EDT

Pedestrians at the Merkato open air market in Addis Ababa. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Africa has a hot new investment destination and it’s not Nigeria.

The buzz at the World Economic Forum on Africa, an annual summit of the continent’s rich and powerful, is all about Ethiopia, where the economy is flourishing and the government is embracing select foreign capital. Executives from General Electric Co., Dow Chemical Co., Standard Bank Group Ltd. and MasterCard Inc. attending the June 3-5 gathering in Cape Town all singled out the East African nation as a market with strong potential.

Ethiopia was Africa’s eighth-largest recipient of foreign direct investment last year, up from 14th position in 2013, a report released by accounting firm EY on June 2 showed. The number of projects in Ethiopia surged 88 percent, the most of all countries ranked, while those in Nigeria slumped 17 percent.

“It’s got a government that is managing economic development in a very deliberate, cautious manner,” Ross McLean, Dow’s president for sub-Saharan Africa, said in an interview on Thursday. “It’s the second-most populous country in Africa. It hasn’t urbanized like other African countries, but it’s going to. It’s a very exciting place.”

Ethiopia’s economy is expected to expand 8.6 percent this year and 8.5 percent in 2016, compared with 10.3 percent growth last year, the International Monetary Fund said in its World Economic Outlook released on April 14. Nigeria, which has Africa’s largest economy and is grappling with energy shortages and the fallout of an oil price slump, is forecast to grow 4.8 percent this year and 5 percent next year.

Construction Boom

Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, shows all the signs of a construction boom. Private developers are erecting scores of office blocks and luxury housing estates, while the government is clearing slums to build low-cost apartments. Radisson Hotels International Inc. and Marriott International Inc. are among global chains that have opened hotels to cater for an influx of business travelers.

A Chinese-built railway line that snakes alongside the capital’s main roads is part of a nationwide infrastructure development program that’s helping entice investors. In April, Chinese company Huajian Group began work on a $400 million shoe-manufacturing park on Addis Ababa’s southwestern outskirts, while companies including Taiwan’s George Shoe Corp. have opened plants in an industrial zone in the Bole Lemi district.

On Thursday, Dangote Group, the Nigerian company controlled by Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, said it will spend $500 million expanding its cement plant in Ethiopia, adding to $600 million already invested.

Credit Rating

“We’ve done quite a lot of Ethiopian business,” said David Munro, head of corporate and investment banking in Standard Bank, which has applied for a license for a representative office. “We see it as a prospective place to grow our business. There’s the possibility of significant resources and it’s within an economically significant zone, the east African trade area.”

The country was assigned its first credit ratings in May. Moody’s Investors Service rates it a non-investment grade B1 with a stable outlook, while Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings awarded the country a B, one grade lower.

Yields on the nation’s debut $1 billion Eurobond have climbed to 6.77 percent from 6.625 percent when they were sold on December 4.

Obstacles to doing business in Ethiopia remain. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front has ruled the country for the past two decades and the state continues to dominate the financial services, telecommunications and transport industries. Foreign exchange is in short supply, because the government uses inflows to finance its infrastructure program and exports remain meager.

Poverty Data

Razia Khan, Standard Chartered Plc’s head of Africa macroeconomic research, said Ethiopia’s economy has a “hollow” structure because it doesn’t have a big enough middle class to enhance economic growth.

Only 18 percent of Ethiopia’s 94.1 million people are urbanized and the economy is worth just $48.9 billion, according to the Abidjan, Ivory Coast-based African Development Bank. About 30 percent of the population live in poverty, according to 2010 data from the World Bank, down from 46 percent in 1995.

Pan-African lender Ecobank Transnational Inc. has a representative office in Ethiopia. Equity Group Holdings Ltd., owner of Kenya’s second-biggest bank, will prioritize its Ethiopian business as part of an expansion into nine other African nations, Chief Executive Officer James Mwangi said in an interview in Cape Town.

Dow doubled its sales in Ethiopia last year and sees more growth to come.

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Odds of Qatar Hosting the World Cup Slashed After Blatter’s Resignation

Qatar’s plan to host the 2022 World Cup might be in jeopardy after the head of soccer’s international governing body, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, said he would resign.

The odds on Qatar, a country about the size of Connecticut, losing rights to the world’s most-watched sporting event were slashed to 5-4 from 5-1 on Tuesday at U.K. bookmaker William Hill. That means a successful $4 bet would return $5 plus the original stake. William Hill set odds of 4-7 that it still takes place in the desert state.

Qatar is spending about $200 billion on infrastructure for the event. The selection stirred controversy because of the country’s limited soccer tradition and the extreme temperatures in the June and July period when the tournament is usually held. Blatter’s FIFA changed the dates, which will force major leagues in Europe to change their schedules. Qatar has also been criticized by rights groups over the conditions for migrant workers building the new stadiums.

Swiss prosecutors have opened a probe into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively, after a U.S.-led investigation that focused on alleged corruption in earlier decisions over venues.

“The big issue now is if the event doesn’t happen in Qatar,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Sonia Baldeira said in an interview before Blatter’s announcement. “Many infrastructure projects that have already been awarded can be at the risk of being canceled or delayed.”

Separate Issue

Qatar’s benchmark QE Index for equities dropped 4.1 percent in the two days after the FIFA probe was announced last week, with declines driven by real estate and bank stocks. Shares recouped most of the losses this week, and rose 0.1 percent on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Qatari committee in charge of World Cup preparations declined to comment on Blatter’s resignation and said it was a separate issue from hosting the tournament. The committee said in a statement on Friday that it “fully complied” with investigations of the World Cup bidding process and plans to host a “successful” tournament in 2022.

Not ‘Catastrophic’

Blatter was re-elected to a fifth four-year term as president of FIFA last week but said Tuesday he will call a special congress sometime between December and March to elect his successor.

The organization has been under scrutiny after U.S. authorities unveiled a criminal investigation into bribes and tax issues of several FIFA executives with a raid on a Swiss luxury hotel last week.

Qatar’s plan includes at least eight new stadiums and a $35 billion metro and rail system. New highways are being laid and a city for 200,000 people is rising north of Doha, the capital.

Slowing the pace of construction and scrapping plans for expensive stadiums that won’t be needed after the championship may create “efficiencies” that benefit Qatar, according to John Sfakianakis, the Riyadh-based director of the Middle East at Ashmore Group Plc.

“Losing the World Cup wouldn’t have a catastrophic impact on the economy,” Sfakianakis said before Blatter’s decision. “Qatar will still need to spend on infrastructure, but instead of doing it by 2022 it can do it by 2030.”

Source: Bloomberg

Ethiopia Energy Exports Worth 2.9b Br, Below GTP I Targets

The 10 month report for 2014/2015 showed billions in export and domestic earnings but shortfalls in GTP I targets

Ethiopia exported 606.5GWh of energy to neighbouring countries, amounting to 2.9 billion Br in the first 10 months of 2014/15, though planned exports were estimated at 685GWh.

Production levels during this period rose to 7,923GWh, from the planned 7,462GWh, and generated 3.5 billion Birr from exports to Djibouti and border towns of Kenya and Sudan.

Ethiopia had planned to generate 10,000 megawatts (MW) of electric power by the end of the five years of the GTP I, but so far it has only attained 2,301MW.

The installation of the electric carriage lines in the country was also planned to reach 17,000Km from 11,440Km in 2010/11, currently reaching 12,825Km. Electricity access was also planned to rise to 75pc from 41pc, but now stands at 55pc.

“We have identified 290 Weredas with critical problems and we are working to improve electricity access in these places,” said Alemayehu Tegenu, minister for the Ministry of Water, Irrigation & Energy. “These places have problems related to poles, which we are changing to concrete poles to solve the problem.”

According to Bezuneh Tolcha, Communications Director at the MoWIE, the lag in the accessibility of the rural part of the country is attributed to the time taken to organise associations that can produce poles and make installations in every region,.

The Ministry had organised 139 associations for the production of concrete poles and 129 associations for the installation of electric lines.

The wooden poles are not suitable in marshy areas while the concrete ones are suitable for every kind of topography, according to Bezuneh, who added that the poles were now ready for distribution.

The government has seven ongoing power projects, with which it was to attain its target of 10,000MW. But only the Gibe III hydropower plant, which generates 1,870MW, and the Adama II wind farm, which generates 51MW are near completion, at 90.3pc and 93pc, respectively.

The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is planned to generate 6,000MW of electricity, has reached 42.5pc completion. Genale Dawa III, hydro electric power plant which has the capacity of generating 254MW of electricity, has reached 73.8pc completion and the Repi landfill site, where the plan is to generate 50MW, has reached 59.6pc.

The two thermal power projects – Melka Sidina Bamza and Aluto Geothermal Project, are 17.7pc and 72.8pc complete.

“We are giving priority to basic issues of power demand, such as areas with water pumps and health centres,” said Minister Alemayehu. “The others like mills and hotels will be addressed after these are done.”

In the fiscal year 2014/15, the country had planned to give electricity access to 1,570 towns and communities while the actual performance was 562 towns and communities, attaining a mere 36pc of the plan. The Ministry had also planned to install 21,980Km of medium and small capacity electric lines but accomplished only 33pc of its performance goal.


Divine Ethiopia

Its landscapes are biblical and its rituals haven’t changed for centuries. But amid the cave churches and primitive tribes are new lodges – and helicopters (or donkeys) to reach them

Sunday Service in the church of Abuna Yemata Guh  requires nerves of steel. Yet they assured me the congregations were good. “Don’t worry,” the priest fussed. “Pregnant women are attending, old people are attending, tiny children are attending.”

I wasn’t sure I would be attending. I was standing on a narrow ledge. Below me was a 1,000ft drop to the valley floor. Somewhere above me, beyond a sheer polished cliff, was the church. My legs felt like water. I was sweating in places I had never sweated before. At that moment, the eye of a needle seemed easier to negotiate. “You must try,” the priest whispered. “God is watching.”

There are moments when Ethiopia seems to belong to an atlas of the imagination – part legend, part fairy-tale, part Old Testament book, part pulling your leg. In this land of wonders there are medieval castles of a black Camelot, monasteries among Middle Earth peaks accessible only by rope and chains, the ruined palace of the Queen of Sheba and the original Ten Commandments in a sealed box guarded by mute monks with killer instincts.

In the northern highlands priests with white robes and shepherds’ crooks appear to have stepped out of a Biblical painting. In the southern river valleys bare-breasted tribeswomen, who scar their torsos for erotic effect and insert plates the size of table mats in their lower lips, seemed to have emerged from a National Geographic magazine circa 1930. Ethiopia “resembles no other country in Africa”, wrote the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, “or anywhere else.”

Its isolation is legendary. Not only was Ethiopia never colonised, but it also inflicted the greatest defeat on a European army in the history of the continent – at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. It was only the Italians, of course, but it still counts. Ethiopians were “forgetful of the world”, Edward Gibbon wrote, “by whom they were forgotten”. For long medieval centuries Europeans believed that Ethiopia was home to Prester John, legendary Christian ruler, descendant of one of the three Magi, keeper of the Fountain of Youth, protector of the Holy Grail, and all-round good guy who would one day rescue the Holy Land from the Muslims.

Crossing the threshold of the church of Medhane Alem in Lalibela , I seemed to step back a thousand years. Cut by shafts of dusty light from high windows, the interior gloom was scented with frankincense. I came round a pillar to find a dozen priests leaning on their croziers, chanting in Ge’ez , a language no one has spoken since the Middle Ages. The sound was a curious cross between Gregorian plainsong and a nasal Arabic call to prayer. These were among the earliest Christian rites, unchanged for well over 1,500 years. Worshippers sat on the ground against the bare stone walls, wearing clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Book of Genesis. They gazed mournfully at a pair of threadbare theatrical curtains. Beyond the curtains lay the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies , which held the Ark of the Covenant .

For a country with so much to offer, it is surprising to find tourism in Ethiopia still in its infancy. The war and famine of the 1970s and 80s, though now almost ancient history, may be partly responsible. But a deeper issue may be a feature of the national character – a lack of entrepreneurial urgency. Ethiopia may not be big on stylish boutiques hotels, littered with objets d’art and architectural magazines, but it is a delightfully old-fashioned place, with ravishing landscapes, sleepy villages and friendly, unhurried people.

It is difficult to pick a single destination from Ethiopia’s treasure chest, but first-time visitors shouldn’t miss Lalibela and its remarkable churches, all below ground level, and all carved from the rock as entire buildings with surrounding courtyards, exterior walls and roofs. Historians are uncertain about much of their history but Ethiopians have a handle on it. A celestial team of angels came in at night to help out after the terrestrial workforce had clocked off.

There are always two histories in Ethiopia: the history of historians, sometimes a trifle vague, often tentative; and the history of Ethiopians, a people’s history, confident, detailed, splendid, often fantastical. The two rarely coincide. Historians are still wringing their hands about the mysteries of Aksum  in Tigray  in the north, with its colossal stelae, its underground tombs, its ruined palaces and its possible connections to the Queen of Sheba. For a thousand years, until about AD 700, it was a dominant power in the region, “the last of the great civilisations of antiquity”, according to Neville Chittick , the archaeologist, “to be revealed to modern knowledge”.

Fortunately, the Ethiopians are on hand to fill in most of the historical blanks. The city was founded, they say, by the great-grandson of Noah. For 400 years it was ruled by a serpent who enjoyed a diet of milk and virgins. Historians may be divided about the Queen of Sheba but Ethiopians know she set off from here to Jerusalem with 797 camels and lot of rather racy lingerie to seduce King Solomon. Historians carelessly lost track of the Ten Commandments not long after Moses came down from Mount Sinai. Ethiopians have the originals under lock and key in a chapel in Aksum, guarded by those mute monks, assigned to kill all intruders.

The landscapes of Tigray are appropriately Biblical. It is a world where everything comes and goes by foot or hoof, a world of timeless villages perched beneath vast mesas and plunging ravines, a world where it is possible to imagine startling young men turning water into wine. With my bag loaded onto a Palm Sunday donkey, I set off on a three-day walk down the Erar Valley . I strolled through the latticed shade of eucalyptus trees, past scented banks of sage and mint, past stands of prickly pear and neatly ploughed fields framed by irrigation channels. I rested under the shade of vast fig trees beneath colonies of hornbills, bee-eaters and firefinches. A man in a white robe was winnowing wheat, tossing yellow forkfuls into the air, allowing the wind to take the chaff. Children ghosted out of orchards with home-made toys: a ball of goatskin and twine, a doll of twigs and wool. In the late morning I passed people coming back from the weekly market, two hours’ walk away. They were carrying some of life’s essentials: bags of rice, new sickles, bolts of bright cloth, blocks of salt that had come up from the Danakil Desert  by camel caravan. Everyone stopped to greet me with handshakes and smiles.

The trek was part of a new community project. The guides and the transport – my faithful donkey – were provided by local villagers who, with the help of NGOs, have also built hedamos,  or guesthouses. There is something special about these Tigrayan guesthouses – their location. Tigray is a mountainous region, characterised by ambas: dramatic, sheer-sided, flat-topped mountains. Most of the treks are easygoing, following the valley floors through pastoral landscapes. But towards the end of each day I started to climb with the guide, following steep paths along narrow rising ledges, to the summits of these anvil-headed ambas.

On the top, we emerged into a whole new world of luminous light and distant views. Here we found our home for the night, the community hedamo, perched in splendid isolation on the lip of a colossal escarpment, perhaps 3,000ft above the landscapes below. The views were breathtaking. We looked straight down, past circling eagles, to the world we had just left – ploughed fields, stone tukuls, eddying sheep, tiny white-robed figures trailing along dust lanes. Farther away, rivers carved swathes of ancient earth, canyons yawned open and valleys tumbled into one another. Farther still, mountains patrolled the horizons. With a slight turn of the head, I took in hundreds of miles.

At Erar and Shimbrety , the stone-built guesthouses, with their little courtyards and roof terraces, were comfortable but basic. Village women prepared delicious Ethiopian dinners that made little concession to Western tastes. The loos, Western-style, were in spartan huts. Washing facilities were wooden buckets of warm water. There was no electricity, just lanterns and candles. Yet these felt like the most luxurious places I had ever stayed. It was the luxury of unique experience, of meeting local villagers on their own ground, of engaging with an ancient way of life, of being far from tourism’s well-trodden trails. And it was the luxury of spectacular location. I have never been anywhere with more stunning views.

At Erar, night came with equatorial suddenness. A troop of gelada baboons , 30 or so strong, made their way home across the summit of the amba after a day’s feeding. They climbed down over the edge of the escarpment to precipitous ledges where they would be safe from leopards. The sun set over distant, mythical-looking mountains. When I turned round, a fat full moon was rising directly behind me. The world seemed to be in perfect balance.

Tigray, too, has its remarkable buildings. Scattered across these mountains are more than 120 ancient churches, most excavated in remote rock-faces like caves. Until the 1960s they were virtually unknown to the outside world. Older than the churches at Lalibela, they are little understood by historians. Which means we are left with the fabulous oral history of the Ethiopians.

Abuna Yemata Guh  is one of the more challenging churches to reach. A rock butte soared above us; I was getting a crick in my neck and a serious case of vertigo just looking at it. I imagined, as with the sheer-sided ambas, that there would be some circuitous path, some scrambling route to the top. It was only when we had trekked up from the valley floor and gained the narrow ledge that I began to realise I was going to have to climb a cliff-face, in fact several cliff-faces, to get to church.

A priest was waiting on the ledge, with the kind of morbid face usually reserved for the last rites. He advised me to remove my shoes and socks; bare feet would give me a better grip. It turned out that two men, who I had assumed to be casual passers-by, were in fact there to try to prevent me from plummeting to my death.

We started to climb. My two assistants, one above and one below, guided me to precarious foot- and hand-holds. This was rock climbing without the ropes, the safety harness or the Chris Bonington confidence. Spread-eagled on the cliff-face, clinging to the minor indentations that passed for handholds, I felt a trifle out of my comfort zone. Had I know what was in for, I would probably not have chosen Abuna Yemata Guh for a casual visit.

But once I reached it, I was thrilled I had. The climb might be hair-raising but the church is unmissable.

At the top of the cliff, not daring to look down, I gazed ahead, just in time to see a side-chamber full of bones – the priest insisted they were deceased clerics, not fallen visitors. Then I shuffled along a narrow ledge and came to a cave-like opening. The priest wrestled with a key the size of a cricket bat. A door opened and I stepped into the gloom of the tiny church, hardly larger than a modest drawing room. As my eyes adjusted, I became aware of faces round the walls. Then the priest lit a torch and held it aloft. Suddenly the dark walls were alive with figures: apostles and saints, prophets and the archangels, Mary and the infant Christ. The famous Nine Saints from the Levant , who had brought Christianity to Ethiopia in the fifth century, were here, as was Saint Yared,  who wrote so many of the early Ethiopian chants. The builder of this cliff church was here, Abu Yemata, mounted on a horse and accompanied by his nephew Benjamin, who had painted the murals.

The priest, a humble villager, told me the stories that swarmed across these walls. He told the stories as they had been told to him, as they had been handed down from one priest to the next from the earliest days of the Christian era. He referred to the apostles as if they were old friends. He talked of the saints as if they were men who had known his grandparents. He told me about the groom who had neglected Yemata’s horse. Yemata had turned him into a weasel. There, he said, bringing his torch near to the wall, illuminating a small weasel-headed man beneath the horse.

I asked why the church was here, so difficult to access, so high in these cliffs. The priest said it was for reasons of safety – it may well have been built when Christianity was still vulnerable. Then he added: “We are closer to God here, away from our world, and closer to His.” He lifted an ancient text enclosed in an ox-hide satchel from a nail on the wall. He asked if he should say prayers. I said I thought a few words might be a good idea. After all, I still had to get down that cliff-face.

Journeys by Design (01273 623790; can organise a two-week private journey to Ethiopia, including Lalibela, a three-night trek through northern Tigray staying in Gheralta Lodge, and three nights at Bale Mountain Lodge, from £6,200 per person, excluding international flights. A seven-night helicopter safari to include all of the above, plus a flight to 300ft below sea level in the Danakil Depression, costs from £19,810 per person, based on four sharing a Eurocopter B4.

This feature appears in the summer issue of Ultratravel, the Telegraph’s luxury-travel magazine, available on Saturday May 30

Source: Telegraph