Ethiopia, The Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide, by Stuart Munro-Hay
If you are expecting this book to be a real cultural and historical guide of Ethiopia, you will be disappointed. If you want to read all about Ethiopia’s churches, and hear endless repetition of vain myths and the recounting of various heathen and sexist religious practices of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, you will find this book right up your alley. This is a shame, because if this book were trimmed properly to about half its size, it would be a slim volume of a little-under 200 pages about the history and fortifications and ancient cities of Ethiopia. As it is, it feels a little bloated, ends rather weakly, and assumes that the audience has an interest in endless church tours. This is not necessarily a wise assumption for the interested tourist in the Horn of Africa.
The book is organized very oddly. The first sign of trouble is that part one deals with a brief outline of Ethiopia’s long history in 25 pages and then spends 20 pages discussing the ranks and ordained offices of the Ethiopian church and their status and hierarchy. As a person hostile in general to such odes to corrupt religious practices, this was a bad beginning. The fact that three times as much ink is spent talking about the rankings of the various abuns, pappas, and episqopos within the Ethiopian church as is spent talking about foreign travelers within Ethiopia (a vastly more interesting matter for the would-be tourist) suggests correctly that the author has no sense of proportion or a desire to connect with an audience of people either disinterested in or hostile to the practices of Coptic Church, which becomes only more clear as the book progresses.
The second part is the alleged cultural and historical guide. If one means by cultural “focused on the Coptic Church” and one means by historical “mostly speculating on the ages of churches while giving slight attention to other matters,” this book meets its goal. If one has other definitions for cultural and historical, one will likely be disappointed, especially because a great many of the sites listed in this book are completely inaccessible to women at all (alienating about half of the potential reading audience of the book), and a large part of the churches themselves are also off-limits for those who are not Copts (alienating most of the rest of the potential reading audience). The book spend almost 100 pages talking about the ruins of Gondar and its churches, but only 10 pages talking about the Muslim center of Harar (due to the scarcity of Coptic sites there). Likewise, the book spends 40 pages talking about the rock-churches of Lalibela and over 100 pages talking about Aksum and its churches, but only about 10 pages or so talking about the ancient city of Yeha, where Ethiopia’s native civilization began. Additionally, all of the sites discussed in this book are in the northern part of Ethiopia, in those areas colonized or settled either by Muslims (Harar), Ethiopian Christians (Gondar, Lake Tana, Lalibela, Yimrehana Krestos, Debro Damo, Wuqro), or their forerunners (Yeha). The result is a book that nearly entirely ignores recent cultural developments in Addis Abeba, to say nothing of the cultural achievements of the Oromo or Somali peoples, whose areas are entirely neglected in this book.
If you are an Ethiopian Copt or fascinated by the history of that church, or like reading about the goings on of various Ethiopian Christian emperors, you will find a lot to enjoy about this book. If you are more interested in fortresses than heathen churches and monasteries, and have an interest in peoples other than the Tigray and Amhara, this book will leave you wanting both a lot less and a lot more, a frustrating way to feel after reading 360 pages of very technical material. Ethiopia, sadly, remains largely unknown even after reading this book.