Abyssinian Adventurer (James Bruce in Ethiopia)
House & Garden, February 2003
As I wondered through the great royal halls of the old Abyssinian capital of Gondar, I thought of love. A newly-wed couple, dressed in robes fit for an Emperor and an Empress, were being photographed against the backdrop of the ruined palaces.
Six months before, Lord Elgin had allowed me to try on James Bruce’s scarlet pyjama trousers. They had been tailored 200 years earlier in a Red Sea port. James Bruce was a big, lusty snob who filled notebook after notebook with accounts of his travels in North Africa and Abyssinia. The trousers fitted me perfectly. I admired the way that a pair of leather slippers had been sewn on the ends so that not even an earwig could wriggle in. A draw-string allowed the pyjamas to comfortably embrace a great girth, and also to drop at a moments notice. If rumours about James Bruce’s great love for Princess Esther of Abyssinia were true, these pyjamas might have been dropped in earnest on a Gondar palace floor. In terms of the romance of travel it was like holding Juliet’s potion or Romeo’s dagger.
No greater stage for a love affair can be imagined than Gondar. Imagine if each of our 17th and 18th-century monarchs had built a palace and a chapel next door to one another in a favourite corner of Hyde Park (and let the roof fall in on Kensington Palace), and you have some idea of the charm of the old Abyssinian capital. To do it full justice you must also add mountains and gorges, a Mughal-like bathing tank and then scatter monasteries on the surrounding hilltops. Even in the midday sun, the Selassie (Trinity) Monastery, perched on the Mountain of Light, casts its magic spell. Despite being sacked by the Sudanese warriors of the Mahdi and bombed by the British in 1941, the great juniper and wild olive trees of the inner courtyard still throw down an enchanting shade. It is said that wild bees swarmed out of each of the twelve towers of the apostles that guard the inner sanctum to repel the Sudanese. They had been summoned to battle by the Archangel Michael. In the chapel that the bees defended you stand in the spiritual shadow of hundreds of angels, archangels, seraphim, dignities and powers that stare down from the rafters.
Qusquam, the palace built by the redoubtable Queen-Mother Mentaub, stands just below the hilltop monastery of Debre Tashay, the aptly named “Mountain of the Sun”. From its terraces you catch a distant view of the old towers of Gondar. At sunset the pink, almost porphry-like, building stone used at Qusquam glows like Camelot. It was here that the guardian-monk identified for me the bedroom that had been used by James Bruce. Travellers tales and hazy memories of last night’s late-night bar - filled with four dozen beautiful statuesque Ethiopian girls poured into their tight white jeans - briefly fused into a certainty. Here surely was a place be-fitting that long-lost love affair. It is a love that is deeply emblematic of a lost age of innocence, when the West and East could treat each other as equals - a love that would in due course inspire Byron on his travels. That night, on the modern streets of Gondar, I saw the very hair style that James Bruce so admired, the Sheruba, formed from plaited strands.
Later my romantic miasma was challenged by reality. Richard Pankhurst, the great doyen of Ethiopian studies and long-term resident in Addis Ababa, believes that while it may have existed in the mind, it would have been impossible in the flesh. Although Bruce certainly knew both Princess Esther and her mother the Dowager-Queen, it was skills with a medicine chest that were most in demand at the palace of Qusquam. In any case no-one would have dared to go anywhere near Princess Esther. Her husband, the regent Ras Michael, was the most feared man in the entire Empire. He had disposed of at least two Emperors who had got in his way, and thousands upon thousands of lesser lives. Even for a trip to the baths, Princess Esther was preceded by an escort of 300. It was crushingly dissapointing news.
However new passions had been awakened by my travels in Ethiopia. For it is a land just as deeply embued by spirituality as sexuality. Herodotus gets this balance just right when he describes the Ethiopians as a “mighty race who surpass in comeliness and stature all peoples and who are firm believers in God”. At Lalibela I walked through the New Jerusalem, a whole medieval complex of rock-cut churches, linked by tunnels and sunken passages modelled on the holy pilgrimage city and still inhabited by hermits and monks. At dawn the interiors echoed to the chants of the faithful, while deacons dance to the liturgy with their crozier-staffs. It is a land where the faithful are summoned by drums, where the whole population fasts two days a week and where no-one smokes because the Church disapproves of the habit.
Everyone I met in Britain had warned me off Ethiopian food. It was to no avail. I formed a passionate relationship with tibs the spicey diced meats, the lentil dishes and even with injira the notorious piles of flat, grey, flannels of millet that accompany every meal. Tella, a cloudy home-made beer made from fifteen days fermentation of malted millet took some getting used to. However on major religious feast days everyone is half-cooked on the stuff and you soon warm to its effects, if not its taste. Not so tej the honey-wine of Lalibella that used to be reserved for the nobles and the newly wed. There are also a dozen or so local beers, such as Bati, Bedele or St George, and a few productive vineyards along the Awash valley.
Perhaps there were other reasons why James Bruce took to wearing scarlet trousers with an adjustable waist.
Barnaby Rogerson travelled as a guest of Tim Best Travel, 68, Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LQ, tel 020-7591-0300, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
He flew on British Airways (0845 7733377, www.ba.com ) which with Ethiopian Airlines (020-8987 7000) runs a schedule of departures that connects London Heathrow to Addis Ababa three and four times a week respectively.
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by Barnaby Rogerson