Unlike the Hamer, or the Khonso or the Dorze, the Mursi tribe has no organized way of dealing with tourism. This is a shame, considering that they’re arguably the most interesting tribe in Ethiopia; they’re famous for their plate-lipped women, honey-hunting and blood-drinking.

According to some Ethiopians I spoke to, they’re also savages, lacking any religion (animism isn’t considered a “religion” in the eyes of some Christians and Muslims), prone to theft and lacking any respect for outsiders. The fact that clothing never really caught on with them also seems to demean them in the eyes of other, more progressive, tribes. One man, in the nearby town of Jinka, said “my people are civilized; we use clothes.” He told me of a hoary feud in which the Mursi killed a member of his tribe (I think he said he was Suri), and an elderly Mursi woman was killed in return.

Indeed, before visiting the Mursi village, we picked up an interpreter and an armed guard to accompany us.

But before all this, we had stopped at a Karo village. It was very picturesque, overlooking a magnificent river and ravine. These people had it good, but they were not opposed to collecting a few extra Birr from tourists looking for some nice photos:

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The Karo, like the Hamer, practice bull-jumping – but they no longer whip their women. Other than than, I didn’t learn much about them; we spent very little time in their village.

The Mursi are mountain people, and the drive up to their area held some nice views. As we approached our target village, it started to rain. This made it extremely difficult for me to shoot photos from the car, something that I always endeavor to do, if not always very successfully. Shooting from the car means that I get candid images of local people, not posed, staged, shots. I’ll post a couple of these. It’s unfortunate that the quality isn’t good, but it does give them a certain spooky character. These were my first glances of the Mursi:

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As soon as we arrived at the village, many women and girls gathered around us (I was with 2 Japanese tourists) and very aggressively prodded us to take their photos. Each photo would cost us 5 Birr (only a few cents). They grabbed our arms, pinched us, placed themselves directly in front of us, all the while announcing “discount! 5 Birr!” or other words to that effect. It was awkward to say the least, and somewhat dehumanizing as well. On top of that, in an effort to gain the attention of tourists, they’d wear their most outrageous costumes; obviously, they don’t go about this way normally. My understanding was that these costumes are intended for ceremonies. But we did get some interesting shots, and they did make some money, so I guess everybody won.

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I had to venture to the outskirts of the village to find some Mursi men to photograph. These guys didn’t make themselves up for tourists; this is how they normally go about:

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They spend their days exposed to the elements, their skin is rough and they are sturdy. The British man, who was living with the Hamer, told me the Mursi are “scary people.” I began to see what he meant. I approached one of their huts at random and took this photo:

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I asked about the significance of the jaw bone near the entrance, and was told that it’s simply leftover food. I imagined Mursi women, lacking lower incisors (they’re taken out, at an early age, for the plates), gnawing on the jaw and then casually discarding it on the floor.

Here are a couple of shots my Japanese friends took. They just emailed them to me:

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While wandering about (actually, trying to get away from the ladies), I saw a heavyset man sitting by a hut. He appeared, at the time, to be the only sane person in the village. It turned out he was the village chief, his name is Oli and he’s well-traveled. He spoke English, so we chatted a bit:

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Oli has two wives. They would have cost him a total of 120 cows or so – unless there’s a bulk discount.

In the far south of Ethiopia is a region called the Omo Valley. It’s home to several tribes, which have remained isolated until recently. To get to Omo Valley, I flew from Addis Ababa to the main city of the south, Arba Minch. Unfortunately, Arba Minch had only one functioning gas station, and we had to wait several hours for the tanker to deliver the diesel. A handful of trucks were in line ahead of us. From Arba Minch it’s several hours to the town of Konso, where we spent the night. From there, it’s another couple of hours to the Hamer town of Turmi, where they were due to hold the famous bull-jumping ceremony. On the way there, our vehicle had broken the leg of a goat belonging to a member of the Ts’amai tribe (who inhabit much of the area between Konso and Hamer territory. The driver got out to negotiate compensation and, after a while, I realized things weren’t going very well. So I got out too, and offered 500 Birr to smooth things over. For a while, it appeared as if we may have to load the goat on the vehicle and proceed to the police station – which would have taken all day, and cost us additional bribe money as well. In the end, the herdsman (who claimed the goat was pregnant – they always say that, I was told) settled for 1,500 Birr (about $75). He made off like a bandit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had intentionally pushed his goat in front of the wheel. My driver said we were lucky; further down, such matters are often settled with guns.

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As we continued on our trek, we encountered various other tribesmen tending their herds:

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Eventually, we reached the village of Turmi, and I got to wander about the marketplace. It was a somewhat festive atmosphere, and I was able to photograph freely, though if I wanted to photograph individuals, they’d ask for a small fee.

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Many of the men mat their hair with mud, leaving a hole (or several) for feathers and who knows what else:

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I visited a covered courtyard where a group of villagers were imbibing a local beer. Among them was a British man who had lived with the Hamer for several months. Apparently, he was trying to become an honorary member. He handed me the gourd/bowl they were drinking from, and I tried a little beer. It was warm and lumpy; I didn’t understand the appeal. Of course, without electricity, it would be difficult to have cold beer…

After a while, we were told that the ceremony was to begin. I paid 500 Birr (about $25) for the privilege of taking as many photos and videos as I wanted, and we headed off to another location outside the village. For the next hour or so, we watched the whipping ceremony, where women and girls taunt the men, and demand to be whipped.

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Some of them dance, holler and blow horns – then hand the man a stick, with which he whips her back. She doesn’t flinch, but carries on as before. Meanwhile, other women sit by the side:

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The whippings leave bloody welts, and these are treated with oil by other women.

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One woman was taunting one of the men so severely that he was on the verge of tears. I gathered that he wasn’t whipping the women with enough vigor. My impression was that the Hamer don’t change their customs, or their rituals, on account of tourists; they don’t have these activities so that they can make extra money from us. As far as I could tell, the only concession they make, to the outside world, is that now most of the women cover their breasts during the ceremonies. In the village, many of them go about bare-breasted. Those men who were not actively whipping sat under a tree, preparing themselves mentally for what was to come next.

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Next was the face-painting ceremony. Using pigment gathered by grinding two rocks together with water, a couple of young men had their faces painted. I suppose there’s a significance to the designs.

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The culmination is, of course, the famous bull-jumping ceremony, which you can see here:

The whipping ceremony is brutal, and one tourist was in tears. It’s not something outsiders can understand, and I won’t even try. Oddly enough, other than that one odd custom, I found the Hamer to be well-mannered and hospitable. They handle tourism in a very responsible way, not letting it distort their way of life too much. The same cannot be said of the Mursi, at least the ones I encountered the very next day. Stay tuned for that.

Good new: The wedding was a success; my daughter is now married! A great time was had by all and I got to spend time with some wonderful people (including my other kids).

I hope you’ll forgive me for not sharing wedding photos with y’all. Instead, I’ll tell you about another place I visited in Ethiopia: Gondar, sometimes called the “Camelot of Africa,” and I’m dedicating this post to one of my regular readers: Milana.

Gondar is famous for its castles, of which here are some views:

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These castles, of which there are several, were damaged during wars with Sudanese Darwishes and when the British bombed them, during WWII, in order to dislodge the Italians, who were using them as their military base.

The evening of my arrival, a couple of NGO workers and my guide visited some local nightclubs so that we could see traditional song and dance. Each part of Ethiopia has its own dancing styles, and here they tend to dance with their shoulders. Here’s a video clip from one of the clubs we visited. Sorry about the quality; the lighting was challenging:

The two NGO workers mentioned that they’d never seen anything like this Rwanda, where they work. In most of black Africa, local traditions are typically lost as soon as people move to cities – though I’m sure they’re dusted off and practiced for special occasions such as weddings or funerals.

Gondar is also home to the famous Debre Birhan Salasie church. Though badly in need of restoration in many places, the artwork is still impressive. Here are some views of the interior:

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In Ethiopian art, holy people are always depicted full face or three-quarter view, while evil people are shown in profile. I noticed that evil people are also always depicted with pug noses, while the righteous are shown with straight noses.

Here are two employees from the hotel I stayed at in Gondar. I could tell they were nice people, because they posed in full face and three-quarter face:

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This concludes my very brief account of Gondar, the Camelot of Africa.

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Here are some animals, all in the wild, I photographed in Ethiopia. How many of them can you identify?

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My daughter’s getting married tomorrow. Feel free to wish me Mazal tov!

My local guide in Aksum (also spelled “Axum”) told me there are no mosques in the city. When Muslims ask why this is so, the local Christians reply, “When  Muslims allow churches in Mecca, we’ll allow mosques in Aksum.”

Aksum is the holiest of cities for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. It was the seat of the earliest Ethiopian monarchies – as long as we don’t count the ancient kingdom of Cush as “Ethiopia,” but that’s another story. According to Wikipedia:

The original capital of the Kingdom of Aksum, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. Axum was a naval and trading power that ruled the region from about 400 BC into the 10th century. In 1980 UNESCO added Aksum’s archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites due to their historic value…

The Kingdom of Axum had its own written language, Ge’ez, and developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by giant obelisks, the oldest of which (though much smaller) date from 5000–2000 BC. The kingdom was at its height under King Ezana, baptized as Abreha, in the 4th century (which was also when it officially embraced Christianity).

Today’s Ethiopians consider themselves the descendants of the Aksumites, even those who belong to the more southern tribes. I think this is akin to Americans referring to our “founding fathers” even if their actual ancestors only arrived in America a hundred years ago. Or modern Jews referring to the biblical patriarchs as “our patriarchs,” even when it’s obvious that many of today’s Jews are descended from converts. They’re our cultural/spiritual forefathers.

The language of the ancient Aksumites was Ge’ez, and modern Amharic Ethiopians consider Ge’ez to be the ancestral language of Amharic, even though the truth is much more complicated. Tigrinya is widely spoken in some parts of the north, and it is more clearly derived from Ge’ez. But there will be other posts on the languages of Ethiopia, so I won’t delve into this subject much here.

Of course, when I visited Aksum, I saw its famous obelisks:

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Right next to this archeological site is a museum. The old man in charge of the museum gave me a tour, and I found some of the exhibits very interesting. Some of the Aksumite coins were so small they were hardly the size of grains of rice, and yet they were engraved; one needs a magnifying glass to make out the design. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the museum.

The museum’s walls are decorated with large murals depicting Aksumite kings and their soldiers and subjects. I couldn’t help but notice that these ancient Aksumites are shown as having olive complexions and Middle Eastern features, so I asked the guide about this. He took my arm, pointed to it and proclaimed, “The ancient Aksumites were your color. This is in our history and our tradition.” As for modern Aksumites, and Ethiopians in general, he echoed what I’d heard previously: “We are a mixed people.” I didn’t notice any difference, in appearance, between today’s Aksumites and other Ethiopians.

Also near the ruins is a gift shop. Among the various souvenirs being sold was an old Bible manuscript on parchment. Having a weak spot for old books, I haggled the vendor down to about half of what he was asking, and bought the manuscript. Soon enough, it became clear that such manuscripts are sold everywhere there are tourists, on the streets, in shops and in hotels. People continued to use manuscript books, in this part of the world, until fairly recently. So they are definitely not rare. I’d say this one is about 200 years old. Here’s a page from it:

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Later, I saw a sign (inside the tourist office of the Simien Mountain park) warning tourists not to buy such manuscripts. It stated that they are sometimes stolen, and that they’re illegal to take out of the country. I was told that if I got it from a reputable dealer, and got a receipt for it, that it probably wasn’t stolen – but I couldn’t get a straight answer about removing it from the country. Apparently, it’s up to the whim of whatever customs officer is in charge at the airport at the time.

All shops in Ethiopia are required to provide receipts to their customers, and they certainly do; the government sends secret shoppers to make sure that such receipts are issued, so that taxes can be withheld. If the Ethiopian government really cared about manuscript bibles being sold to tourists, they wouldn’t allow them to be openly sold the way they are; they’d enforce the law the same way they do when it comes to sales tax. Instead, they allow them to be sold to tourists – and then, after the fact, warn us we may not be allowed to take them home.

As it turned out, there was no problem taking my manuscripts (I later bought another, smaller, one) out of the country. Nobody even asked. What I bought was old books, not national treasures – and they are certainly not rare.

Near the obelisks are also some underground chambers and temples, some Christian and some pre-Christian. Some of the stonework reminded me of the better Inca stonework one sees in Machu Picchu or Cusco, though this is much older:

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I’ll conclude with a modern Aksumite girl selling guavas, which were very tasty:

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Some of the other tourists I spoke to in Ethiopia described Lalibela as the highlight of their trip. I’m not sure this currently applies to me, but I may have second thoughts.

I think what impressed the other tourists most about Lalibela is the architecture; the fact that its 11 famous churches were all carved out of solid rock. Whenever I travel, I find myself drawn to architecture. I end up taking numerous photos of both primitive traditional huts, and of grandiose cathedrals. Both of these, and everything in between, fascinate me.

And yet it wasn’t the churches themselves that most drew my attention; it was the worshipers who populated them. Their presence, and their devotion, overshadowed the structures themselves. I had the good fortune of visiting during one of the Ethiopian Orthodox holidays, so there were throngs of people.

They reminded me of Orthodox Jews in Israel, of whom I was one. (post edited/shortened on 03/31/15). In any event, I thought it was a beautiful thing, so I took many photos.

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If you’re the type of person who sometimes pities yourself for your difficult job, perhaps you should visit the Afar salt miners of the Danakil. They spend their days cutting salt out of the earth in the hottest place on Earth. After the salt is cut out and shaped, it’s loaded onto camels or mules and taken to Mekele, some 70 miles away.

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The Afar are accustomed to tourists; dozens visit them each day to photograph their activities. The Afar react with anything from indifference to mild irritation or amusement. I didn’t feel right squatting on the salt, with other tourists, and shooting their photos as if they’re animals in a zoo. So I approached several of them and let them take some photos of their own with my camera. It was obvious they’d never held an actual camera before; they had no idea what to do with it. I had to guide their rough, work-worn, hands over the controls to get any results. Without exception, they were tickled by the experience. When I showed them the photos they’d shot, on the LCD, wide smiles broke out. Soon enough, other tourists were doing the same.

The name “Afar” means “dusty people” in their language. Having been through a dust storm on the way to Erta Ale, it was easy to see why. By the end of my 3-day stint there, all my cloths and possessions were permeated with dust. We were told there would be a shower in the next town we stayed in (before Erta Ale). Indeed there was: An “African shower” – which consists of a bucket of water and a vessel to scoop it up and pour it over one’s body.

Some of the Afar sold us handicrafts. As we rested, before our hike to the volcano, one Afar approached us to sell us a 2-piece fire-making device. For a few minutes he tried to make fire with it. Then a young man from Ireland helpfully handed him a lighter. It was very funny at the time, even for the tribesman. The Irishman did buy the gadget in the end, for about $2. I bought a traditional Afar scarf; it came in handy a few times later on. But my favorite souvenir is a small block of salt I had the Afar carve out just for me.

Cordial as things were between the various groups, we still had an armed escort – and who, in his right mind, would challenge a guy like this?:

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