The Simien Mountains, and the first hijra in Islam

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The terrain of Sudan is generally flat, and the climate is dry and extremely hot, whereas Ethiopia is mountainous, hence sometimes referred to as the Roof of Africa, making it considerably cooler than other regions around the globe at a similar latitude. Around the border at Gallabat/Metema, that contrast is particularly stark, and experiencing it as we crossed the border was amazing. Within a short distance, the sparse desert landscape turned into a dense collection of abundantly green hills, valleys, and mountains, and the scorching heat gave way to a mild breeze.

We spent our first night in Ethiopia in Shehedi, a small town not far from the border, and then continued to Gondar the next morning, on the 9th of June. Gondar is a city of more than two lakh people, and located southwest of the Simien Mountains, which offer breathtaking views of one of the most spectacular landscapes of the world.

Modern-day Gondar contains the remains of the fortress-city of Fasil Ghebbi, which was the residence of the Ethiopian emperor Fasilides in the 17th century. The fortress-city is surrounded by a wall and contains, among other kinds of buildings, palaces, churches, and monasteries. It is marked by Hindu, Arab, and European influences.

Fasil Ghebbi
Fasil Ghebbi

One of the major sources of pride for Ethiopians is their tradition of religious harmony. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other religious groups having been living together in Ethiopia for a very long time, and relations between them have mostly been guided by tolerance, a value sadly lacking in many other places. The first Muslims came to escape persecution in Mecca, following the advice of their prophet, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd Allah. It was the first hijra in Islam. The group of refugees included Uthman ibn Affan, who later became the third of the Rashidun.

From Gondar, we rode to Bahir Dar, and then on to Addis Ababa, the capital. On the way, we crossed the Blue Nile, which originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and is one of the two major tributaries of the Nile. 1,300 kilometers earlier, in Khartoum, we had seen the Blue Nile merge with the White Nile. Because of heavy rain, which easily compares to the monsoon rains in Bangladesh, we had to attempt the 550-kilometer ride from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa twice. We finally reached on the 12th of June, and settled at the Ras Hotel, a landmark of downtown Addis. Shortly after, one of my friends and I fell sick. Maybe it was the fact that we got wet in the rain, or maybe it was the food. Whatever the cause of our illness, it took us several days to recover. To make up for some of the time lost, we then quickly proceeded to the Ethiopian-Kenyan border, via Hawassa and Yebelo.

Blue Nile valley
Blue Nile valley

The border town, Moyale, is split into two parts, with the larger part being on the Ethiopian side. The main purpose of the border checkpoints seemed to be to control the flow of vehicle-transported goods, as pedestrians constantly crossed the border in both directions, without catching the interest of border police. On the Kenyan side of the border, quite an adventure was awaiting us. More about that next time.

Part 1: From Germany to South Africa: The journey begins
Part 2: A millennium of Islamic scholarship, and a revolution yet to be completed
Part 3: Stories of a time long gone, and Egyptian khichuri
Part 4: An oasis of hospitality in the searing heat of the Nubian Desert
Part 5: The Simien Mountains, and the first hijra in Islam
Part 6: Stranded in the Kenyan desert, and a visit to the land of the Maasai
Part 7: “Welcome to Africa!”
Part 8: Victoria Falls, and free-roaming lions in Botswana
Part 9: South Africa: The Rainbow Nation
Summary: My Germany to South Africa Motorcycle Expedition 2011