ECOTOURISM POSSIBILITIES – I
The northeastern corner of Tigray is one of the most spectacular regions of Ethiopia. It has been called “a little Tibet” because of its ruggedness and inaccessibility. Its landscape is dominated by precipitous mountains intersected by deep gorges which lead down through the escarpment to the Afar lowlands. Its inhabitants, the Irob, are a distinct ethnic group akin to the Saho who inhabit the lowlands to the east. The Irob area extends northward into Eritrea. Irob occupy the high plateaus beyond Dowhan up to Alitena and Aiga. The Irob are subsistence farmers who maintain herds of cattle, sheep and goats. Almost all the Irob in and around Alitena (Boknaito) were converted to Catholicism in the 19th century but have been permitted to retain features of Ethiopian Orthodox ritual and practice. Until the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s, Alitena was the center of higher learning (philosophy and theology) for all Catholic clergy in Ethiopia and present-day Eritrea. After the Liberation the Catholic center was moved to Adigrat. It occupies an impressive complex dominated by a large colorful cathedral. A high-towered Italianate belfry beside it rises high above the lower section of the city. The compound includes a seminary and a school which constitutes one of the most important educational institutions in the area.
Trails into Irobland have recently been upgraded to all-weather roads. One leads from Zalambessa directly eastward; another leads through foothills and fertile valleys from Adigrat toward the northeast. A road leads eastward from north of Edaga Hamus to the edge of the escarpment at Geblen. From here a foot trail leads down through rugged landscape to the famous Monastery of Gunda Gunde.
Like much of northern Ethiopia, Irobland has suffered greatly from environmental degradation and erosion: cutting of trees and bushes, overgrazing by goats and cattle. It has experienced recurrent droughts and, from time to time, torrential rainfall and floods. It suffered from the Eritrean invasion in 1998-99, when much of its infrastructure was damaged. Several projects are now underway to contain erosion, improve living conditions, restore degraded landscape and retain water for irrigation. Church authorities have been instrumental in helping the people help themselves by building schools, health stations and small-scale irrigation installations. Many Irob have migrated to Adigrat and Makelle and even to Addis Ababa, but they regain a strong affection for their homeland. They are known as industrious and dependable workers. Some have established businesses and community centers, usually around their churches, where young people are able to take advantage of training opportunities and others can take part in self-help projects.
Given its extraordinary landscape, its hospitable and enterprising people, and its history, Irobland is well suited to development of ecotourism: mountain-climbing, trekking, participation in projects for preservation of fauna and flora, especially birdlife, and restoration of landscape. The historical capital of Irobland, Alitena, has a dramatic location on a high plateau surrounded by rugged mountains. It can now be reached over a skillfully engineered dusty road that climbs along the steep sides of a deep gorge. Local citizens are cultivating a large area of gardens and orchards along a river south of the town with ingenious irrigation arrangements.
At the southern edge of the region the Tigray Roads Authority has recently built a new highway that goes downward south of Edaga Hamus over spectacular curves and twists to the Afar region. At the small village of Sawne is a historic Orthodox church–Sawne Mariam–whose traditions–as well as some of its architectural features–link it to very early Christian times. Sawne is the birthplace of the famous early 19th century Tigrayan leader Sebagadis who was of Irob descent. He is credited with presenting to its church one of the most beautiful Gospel manuscripts in Ethiopia.
Many small parish churches are scattered throughout the Irob region. The most famous ecclesiastical establishment is the great Monastery of Gunda Gunde, founded by Stephanites in the 14th century. It has maintained ecumenical traditions and maintains good relations with Muslims who inhabit the nearby lowlands as well as with the Catholic center in Adigrat. Its immense church is one of the largest ancient buildings in northern Ethiopia. Gunda Gunde has a large library of rare manuscripts, including famous Gospels with distinctive illuminations in what is known to art historians as “Gunda Gunde style”. In earlier years it is believed to have had a scriptorium which supplied manuscripts to other churches and monasteries. Among historic objects in their church, priests show a large bed that belonged to Sebagadis.
At present there are no hotels, not even any commercial eating places inside Irobland. Hopefully eating places will soon be opened at Dowhan, the new Irob Woreda administrative center. Visitors to Alitena are welcomed at the headquarters of the Sisters of Charity. A few can be accommodated overnight and will be invited to join the Sisters in their refectory for dinner and breakfast. Visitors are also welcomed at Gunda Gunde. Women are excluded from the monastery compound but a church for them has been constructed outside the monastery walls and the monks are known to have brought out manuscripts to show women visitors. When I visited Gunda Gunde before Lent in 1998, I was warmly received and lavishly fed. The monastery could not cope with a large influx of visitors. I noted an attractive location nearby where a guesthouse could be built. Sawne offers the same possibility.
From my first visit Irobland struck me as a region well suited to comprehensive development to accommodate visitors. An ecotourism project in the region would entail several kinds of initiatives (not necessarily in the order listed below):
Establishment of a number of small inns throughout the region with modest accommodations for up to 20-25 people with provision of simple food to be based–ultimately–primarily on local production.
Charting and marking of trekking and mountain-climbing trails and creating a small cadre of local guides and porters to serve trekkers and climbers.
Preparation of maps, guidebooks and materials on the history if the area and on the culture and customs of the Irob.
Establishment of a visitor center at a convenient location along one of the main roads into the area which would provide information to tourists/trekkers/climbers.
Assistance to the monks at Gunda Gunde to enable them to welcome a larger number of visitors, show them the life of the monastery and its treasures, and enable those inclined to spend time exploring the neighboring area to stay for longer periods.
Enlisting church authorities in all these efforts and encouraging them to engage in entrepreneurial activity themselves.
Erection of multilingual signs on roads throughout the region pointing the way to major points of interest.
Consideration of establishing an Irobland Tourism Development Association which could energize all aspects of development of the region.
The lower valleys of Irobland have long been famous for production of high-quality oranges, lemons and bananas. At certain seasons of the year great quantities of fruit are carried up on their backs by men to collecting points where they are transported to Adigrat and beyond. Marketing arrangements are very elementary and need to be improved. There is a potential for expanded efforts at production of fruit and vegetables which could be marketed outside the region as well as serving as a source of supply for facilities within Irobland to accommodate visitors.
Irobland cannot not be transformed overnight from a degraded, isolated region into a flourishing one, but ecotourism development would open the way to further initiatives which could make the region an appealing destination for climbers, trekkers and ordinary visitors interested in experiencing a historic region and a mildly exotic traditional way of life. The greatest advantage would be for the Irob people themselves who would gain a source of pride along with opportunities for employment and a means of improving living conditions of future generations.
Paul B. Henze