Tinea's Reviews > The Chains of Heaven: A Walk in the Ethiopian Highlands

The Chains of Heaven by Philip Marsden
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Aug 09, 10

bookshelves: place
Recommended to Tinea by: Brit landlord in Ethiopia's bookshelf
Recommended for: those planning a trip to Ethiopia, esp. northern
Read in August, 2010

If you're not planning to go to Ethiopia or you haven't been, I don't think I'd recommend this slow meander through Tigray. But if you are or have, it is one of the few books I've come across (albeit, with limited access to books) that tells any of the more recent stories-- the Derg, the Tigray rebels, the latest famines. But it is first a travel book, Marsden's log of his hike from Lalibela to Axum, some hundreds of miles over canyon, gorges, peaks and cliffs.

He visits the famous, old rock-hewn churches. I didn't quite "get" what a rock-hewn church was until reading the descriptions in this book: literally, a monolith or cavern, like something you'd find in the American Monument National Park, that has been chipped away to form a cathedral or a simple church. Building in reverse, with all the designing done in negative, relief space. To get to some of the churches, you have to walk narrow ledges with drops of thousands of feets; others you need to climb a ladder, or a rope, or a metal chain. When the author finally pulls himself up a harrowing climb up a metal chain, his sweaty hands slipping and an endless plunge hovering behind, the monk sitting calmly at the top laughs and tells him, "I am never afraid: I put my faith in God."

Marsden speaks Amharic, so his travels through this isolated and at times xenophobic region are fairly smooth. The adventure is the planned one-- listening to stories of war from old peasants, navigating steep terrain with a few donkeys and a few local mule-handlers, finding water and homesteads in which to raise his tent, being woken by oxen sniffing his face, instead of hyenas or any of the other wild creatures outside homestead walls. I'm getting homesick for a country I haven't left yet, for a region I have yet to visit (though I did travel to nearby Lake Tana and the Amhara highlands around).

A nice story.
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