The eighth wonder of the world was closed. The attendant told us that this was due to the theft of a sacred artefact from one of the churches. ‘By a tourist,’ he said with feeling. We were standing outside the subterranean red churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia. The churches are carved from the rock to a height of more than ten metres and linked by passages, tunnels, arches, yards and trenches dug from the same rock. They are said to have been built within 23 years but stories that they were created overnight by hosts of angels are scarcely less credible, so extraordinary is their beauty and the fact of their construction; four of them are strictly monolithic, attached to the rock only at their bases. Hermits were crawling out of the crevices, toppling skulls and bones and jostling with beggars, priests and tourists on the tiny walkways that rise over the graves of their predecessors.

The removal of the sacred object put me in mind of the sequence of theft and conquest that makes up any African nation’s history. There was the original theft that led to the conquest of the Queen of Sheba by Solomon: I wondered what would have happened if the Queen, the last of the powerful monarchs of the Axumite Empire, on a visit to Jerusalem, had not woken in the night with a terrible thirst and sipped the water forbidden her by King Solomon, peeved by her refusal to sleep with him, and in his own palace, too. He had to make do with her slave girl, but stipulated that the Queen should take nothing from the palace or she would pay the penalty. She scoffed at the idea that he might have anything she’d wish to take. But on quenching her thirst, she was obliged to forfeit her body for what remained of the night. This is why Solomon and Sheba are always depicted back to back on statues, their chins jutting in mutual defiance, or on two sides of the same coin. The issue of that misappropriation was Menelik, who founded the Solomonic dynasty which ruled Ethiopia until the revolution overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974.

Foreigners have always looted from Africa and attempted to justify it by saying that Africans don’t look after their heritage, that they are too ramshackle and careless to be trusted with their own treasures. In a hotel bar the previous night, a world-straddling Buzz Lightyear figure, who for two years had been flying a Cessna 180 around Africa single-handed, had told a story about an attendant at the National Museum in Addis Ababa who, when challenged that the Lucy – the first A. afarensesis australopithecine hominid to be discovered – was a plaster cast, had ushered him to a dusty back room and proudly opened a huge, unlocked box to reveal the real one.

The explorer James Bruce came to Ethiopia in 1769 to look for the source of the Nile and took away with him the Songs of David, Kibre Negest (‘Glory of the Kings’) and the Book of Enoch, which he no doubt considered as souvenirs or going-home presents to himself. As well as being a sacred artefact, the Kibre Negest relates much of Ethiopia’s early history. It was returned to Ethiopia under Queen Victoria. Battle still rages over the Magdala manuscripts, looted, along with gold and silver crosses, by soldiers of a British expeditionary force in 1868, after Sir Robert Napier’s defeat of King Tewodros, who had spent many years collecting them. They are now in the possession of the British Library and the Queen, among others, and there are no plans to return them.

Lalibela was named after a man born in the 12th century whose cradle was covered with a swarm of bees. ‘Lalibela’ apparently means ‘the bees recognise his sovereignty.’ His brother, however, did not, possibly because he was the King, and attempted to poison him but succeeded only in casting him into a deep sleep, during which God appeared to Lalibela and showed him a city of churches, ordering him to replicate it on earth. Conveniently, the King had a simultaneous vision in which Christ ordered him to abdicate in his brother’s favour. Ethiopian history is intertwined with stories of visions, coincidences and sweet resolving dreams.

The attendant suddenly relented and we entered the churches in single file. In the darkness, the brilliant flash of a silver cross would reveal a priest willing you to take his photograph for a small donation (by the fourth church I had to remind myself as a cost-cutting exercise that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the biggest landowner after the Government). The dim interiors of Bet Maryam slowly revealed the tilted heads and glimmering faces of almond-eyed virgins. In Bet Medhane Alem, hearing awful moans and cries, I glimpsed what appeared to be a hallucination: a martyr writhing in agony on the floor, her teeth bared, as others tried to restrain her, or held out their arms in entreaty. It was like a scene in a Géricault painting. As I got closer it became clear that a real woman was being held back from the edge of a pit scooped from the rock she lay on, while her left arm struggled to grasp a large wooden object in the shape of a spindle. Our young guide explained this was made of olive wood which, if the pilgrim could only grasp it, would assure her of a place in heaven. If she could not, she was consigned to hell. I didn’t want to see the outcome of this epic struggle: the woman’s wrist and the span of her palm looked so unequal to the task.

The theft took place in this church, on 10 March this year. Ethiopia’s most sacred work of art, the Lalibela Cross, was stolen. No one is free from suspicion: it is not known whether the theft was the work of a Western tourist, an organised gang, or one of the priests. Many people are suspicious of the priests: it is thought that they keep the artefacts too much to themselves, and since a number of these priceless treasures are used in the daily service, they are quite accessible to anyone who wants to take them. Lalibela itself feels like it might be crushed under the weight of the tourists who march straight through its centre every day; it is a small, remote, medieval-looking village. A large airport is planned, however, which will no doubt change all this. Part of Ethiopia’s fascination for travellers lies in its historical isolation as well as its strength in the origins department: besides the human race and the Nile (the source of which is at Lake Tana), the first coffee bean was cultivated here, and it is claimed as the cradle of Christianity. Some historians have even claimed that Egypt was founded by Ethiopians, led there by the god Osiris.

Our Ethiopian journey had begun rattling and jolting in a truck on the road from Addis Ababa to Axum in the northern province of Tigray. The five-day journey allowed time only to notice the changes in the startled villagers’ clothing, which became dustier and greyer with the land, and in their hairstyles, early Jackson Five giving way to stiff Tigrayan braids. Few walk without a huge cloth bundle on their heads, a dish piled high or a stack of firewood, although none of this seemed imperilled by the soft sideways head-butting of the traditional greeting which accompanies the endless formulaic enquiries as to the season’s progress and the welfare of herd and family. Some carry Kalashnikovs still, although the Government has confiscated most of them in a recent measure which has dented its popularity among farmers: it has long been an important ritual for a father to give a rifle to his son on his coming of age, so that he can warn ravaging animals off crops.

Foreigners are always surprised by Ethiopia’s green landscapes. Inauspicious rubble is everywhere made fertile, and the descending tiers of crops cover any available surface: we often drove for hours looking for enough space to pitch camp. The road runs through mud-hut villages and towns like barracks, past straw or bamboo hives used to store crops and hang animal hides, and giant cactus like candelabra, sprouting red and yellow bulbs. Most of Ethiopia’s population of 55 million still live in desperate poverty, working the land, on which rents have lately been dramatically increased. We passed through Desai, a huge shanty town, with corrugated iron roofs tumbling off the hills in every direction. When we stopped for water, men clustered round the truck without expectation, idly baring their wounds and sores.

After Abula, in Wolo province, the earth became more arid as we rose higher and the mountains grew younger; in these monotone lands the brightly painted wooden churches stand out like fairground attractions. Scrub desert soon gave way to the monumental flat-top ranges and canyons, reddish brown and majestic. The mountains and highland plains have played a big part in Ethiopia’s isolation, and may have something to do with its distinct calendar (eight years behind our own), and the unique script and alphabet of the Amharic language. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa never to have been colonised, apart from the brief but damaging Italian occupation during the Second World War, when, abandoned by the League of Nations, Ethiopian interests were sacrificed to the cause of frustrating an alliance between Mussolini and Hitler. Haile Selassie swiftly fled into exile, and the nobility of Tigray province fell in with the Italians. The country shows strong traces of the Italian occupation, the best aspects of which are seen in its architecture as well as the improbable roads carved through the Simien mountain range and still in use, although they are more or less impassable in the rainy season. The worst thing the Italians introduced was state intervention in agriculture, and imports of grain, more or less unknown before then.

The Simien mountains are young (about 300,000 years old), which apparently accounts for their uncanny shapes, irregular and pointing straight upwards like impossibly thin menhirs, or wavering like doubtful fingers. They provide much of the water for countries to the south, and 90 per cent of Egypt’s, but Ethiopia has been unable to divert the water for its own use, lacking both the money for the necessary equipment and skilled labour. The roads are rough and slow, the burnt-out carcasses of former vehicles accrue, as do the white crosses on the rocks which both indicate past accidents and help to avoid the next; driving at night is not recommended.

‘Look! Look!’ yelped our driver, catching sight of a sleek black ribbon undulating tantalisingly in the distance. ‘Tarmac! That was not there before.’ It was scarcely there now, for it was just being laid and no better than its pot-holed predecessor. An angry foreman appeared to tell us we would have to wait for four hours before moving on; our driver began revving the engine, swearing furiously that, steamroller or no steamroller, he would carry on.

Technologically it was not ever thus, as is proved by the extraordinary stelae which preside over the centre of Axum – the tallest of those that are still standing is 23 metres high; the carvings on them of multi-storeyed buildings prefigure skyscrapers. Another of the spoils of war, one of these obelisks now stands in Rome. Here, too, are the famed baths of the Queen of Sheba stretching out like a reservoir. Axum was once among the most advanced civilisations in the world and by the first century AD possessed military and trading powers that were second to none. It was one of the four great kingdoms, along with Persia, China and Rome, and developed Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s unique alphabet and script, which contained only consonants until Christianity inserted the vowels; it is still the centre of Ethiopian Christianity.

The extent of Judaic influence on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church makes it unique; many Jewish practices and rituals have been adopted wholesale. This, too, can be seen as deriving from a theft which has passed into legend. Menelik, the son of Solomon and Sheba, left Ethiopia for Jerusalem when he came of age, in order to study the law of Moses with his father. As he prepared to return home, the son of the high priest urged him to take with him the holiest of Judaic artefacts, the Ark of the Covenant, along with 1000 representatives of each of the 12 tribes of Israel. As in many of these legends, he refused at first and then had a dream in which it was revealed to be God’s will that he do so – Solomon’s rage on discovery of the theft was similarly allayed. It is said that the Ark now lies in the Church of St Mary of Zion in Axum, but the only man alive ever to have seen it is the attendant (who unhappily turned out not to be Harrison Ford), and he wasn’t telling. The Falasha Jews were once a strong force in Ethiopian politics as well as culture, but most of the few remaining Falashas were airlifted to Israel during the Soviet military dictatorship.

On our way back to Addis Ababa we stopped in Gonder, a former capital of Ethiopia, arriving along a road lined with tanks and empty barracks from Mengistu’s days. Gonder is a strange mixture of down-at-heel Eastern Europe and Italianate elegance. There are Fifties-style ice-cream parlours in formica and leatherette, and in every bar young men play Italian ball and skittles games on billiard tables. That evening we went to a tej abet packed with older men sitting round trestle tables in a room striped a deep blue under fluorescent lights. Tej is a drink made with honey that resembles mead. Here it glowed fluorescent orange in conical flasks, slopped from barrel to bottle to flask by the women serving. One woman, older and very dignified, sat rather sternly in their midst, wrapped in immaculate white muslin with an orange hat in turban style, her feet resting on sheepskin, not looking about her but presiding like a mute Muriel Belcher, deigning to receive nods and bows from the drinkers as they came in and went out. She was in fact a nun and the owner of the bar. After a certain amount of tej, it seemed utterly natural when two oxen ambled through the centre of the room and out the other side, the long flaps of tufty skin which run between their legs swaying gently.

In Addis Ababa with no money left, we made straight for the Hilton, the only place in Ethiopia to accept credit cards, and luxuriated in the strange cosmopolitan scene around the pool. It was patrolled by track-suited employees in dark glasses and populated by Tintin-like villains with long hair and moustaches whom you expected at any moment to exclaim ‘Caramba!’ Stepping inside a massage parlour in the city, I was approached by a blind man in Ray Charles glasses, who gave me the most extraordinary massage. The next day I went back and asked for the blind masseur. But this time a different man appeared and after a short while it became apparent that he, too, was blind. We began to talk politics: the federal assembly elections were boycotted by other parties two years ago, leaving the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front a sweeping majority. I asked whether the present situation was better than the previous dictatorship. He began to speak in hushed tones, at first in a series of rhetorical questions, the words going deeper with the repetition of his touch. Is it better to have the same terror but have it less organised? Is it better for killings and disappearances to be structured or accidental-seeming? Is it better in prison to have untrained torturers than trained ones? Is it better to have been dropped from international news because the West is satisfied now you’re not ruled by socialists? Is it better to have no official opposition, and all dissent or political talk repressed? To be unable to trust your neighbour? The next day I again asked for the blind masseur I’d had the day before, where-upon the new masseur apologised for the fact that his sight was in no way impaired. It seemed like some kind of parable.

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