The Afar Triangle is a speckled biochrome of thorn trees and rocky dirt the color of eggshell that funnels inland from the Red Sea. Seen from space, it has the shape of a womb. Afar is a womb: fossils of the first of the human clade were found here, and the remains of some of our earliest Homo sapiens ancestors. Imagine: all of humankind, past and present and future – Shakespeare, my child, men driving camels to pasture, the Prophet Mohammed, our parents, Hitler – comes from this frassy boneyard.
In mid-March, at the southwestern tip of the Triangle, a day’s drive from Addis Ababa, I bounce from one hominin fossil site to another, tracking the ages of human prehistory in chronological order: 4.2 million years old, 3.2 million, one million. My guide, Ahmed Elema – clan leader, fossil hunter, father of eight – rattles off directions to landmarks whose magnitude I cannot entirely fathom, the way one cannot entirely fathom Eden: ‘Australopithecus anamensis, that way!’ ‘Look, humerus, four-point-two million!’ ‘Hard right, hard right, to three-point-two million years ago!’ ‘Come on, this way to human evolution!’
Have you held a 4.2-million-year-old fossil? It is heavy, like eons.
We hike and drive past jade openwork of acacias and myrrh that does not so much cast shadow as traps light, makes the place seem diaphanous. The translucent scrubland fools me into thinking that I can see through it, the way we are sometimes fooled into thinking that we can see the future, and whenever people suddenly appear I think at first they are a mirage. The people who live here today herd camels and cows and goats, carry rifles, decorate their knife scabbards with harlequin beadwork, kiss one another’s hands in greeting, and give directions by flicking their wrists slightly upward, as if they expect that the followers will eventually ascend. Maybe some do ascend. Nothing seems impossible in the locus of our origin story.
Each time we chance upon a group of people we stop so they and Ahmed can exchange the latest. The latest is always the same. Coronavirus.
The Afar Triangle is a vertiginous scramble of spacetime. A recent study shows that battles between viruses and their hosts determined one-third of hominin protein adaptations since prehumans’ divergence with chimpanzees. These adaptations took place here, in Afar. This is where we learned to walk on two feet, to love, to kill, to mourn, to talk, to tell stories. This is the last place all of us, before we became multiple and scattered, knowingly shared the same story – until the pandemic. Not the Black Plague, not the transatlantic slave trade nor the two World Wars, not the 9/11 terrorist attacks have affected everyone, on every continent, as instantly and intimately and acutely as the spread of coronavirus, uniting us as we fear and think and hope about the same thing.
I came to Ethiopia for book research that has to do with Eden. The intended purpose of this trip was to ponder human origins, our relationship with place and change, the notion of the sacred, and human movement, ancient and modern. The itinerary took months to set. But the day I landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia confirmed its first case of Covid-19. My journey became a real-time passage through a world undergoing a dramatic and unprecedented remaking.
At sundown I sit on a small rise to the east of the village of Bouri, where Ahmed was born. The chalky tuff around me holds the petrified remains of the Herto man, Homo sapiens idaltu, 160,000 years old. A few paces away, Ahmed and a pair of cowherds, father and son, talk about what they can do to protect their relatives from the disease. At my feet are a torn rubber sole of a man’s shoe and hundreds of Acheulean hand axes. I pick up an axe. It has the shape of a teardrop. I wonder what it knows. The Herto specimens that paleontologists found here had had their skulls severed from their bodies and scalped. Someone had polished smooth a child’s cranium.
After a supper of bread and wild honey, Ahmed’s relatives jigsaw on mats and jerrycans in his sister’s compound and talk about the spread of the virus. The World Health Organization has just announced more recorded cases outside of mainland China than inside, with more than 167,000 confirmed infections worldwide; more than 6,600 people have died. The disease, like evolution, like war, has reached a scope beyond my comprehension. I retire to a reed bed in Ahmed’s sister’s hut, and there, like everyone else in the world right now, I sink into worry.
I worry about my dad in Russia and about a dear friend in the United States, both in their late sixties, both with weak lungs. I worry about Italy’s empty streets and overcrowded morgues and people mourning alone. I worry about my child, whose university in Ohio has transitioned to virtual classes and closed the dormitories, and who now needs a place to stay. I worry about borders closing, and that this virus may become a political weapon for the many Americans who want them closed. Are my worries very different from those of the Herto man, who lived on this land where I am now too agitated to sleep? Or from the Homo sapiens who followed twenty-five thousand years later, when a megadrought wiped out ninety percent of humankind? Genetic memory of cataclysms inscribes our living bones. Dad emails: ‘In the human remains that have reached us we must look for traces of human reactions – the reactions of living people to disappearing reality.’
Then I realize that Ahmed’s sister is still in the hut. She is sitting on a jerrycan next to the bedhead, her face close to mine. She says absolutely nothing, does not reach to hold my hand. She is just there, by my side.
Once, in Afghanistan, on a gelid winter night in the middle of war, I spent a night in the living room of a border police detective, and the last thing I saw as I drifted off was my host, his Kalashnikov over one shoulder, gently spreading an extra blanket over me: an impromptu act of kindness, simple and immense. Catastrophes often bring to the fore what defines our humanness: longing, dread, succor, love. I understand that my hostess is bestowing upon me the ultimate gesture of comfort: that she will stay with me through my worry, until I fall asleep.
Then, at last, I sense the benediction of being human.
The farther I drive out of Afar, the more claustrophobic and frightening the world becomes. Italy reports 812 deaths from the virus in one day; Turkey, Brazil, and Malaysia report their first coronavirus deaths; President Trump calls the disease ‘Chinese virus’; the United Nations suspends resettlement travel for refugees. The Ethiopian government confirms six coronavirus cases and closes all schools. In Russia, my sister falls ill. My two traveling companions, Abel and Kabir, turn more subdued as our car climbs the mountains of Amhara. At each stop we learn of new cities curfewed, borders closing, international flights suspended. We pass towns where health workers demonstrate handwashing techniques to passers-by on busy intersections. The US embassy in Addis Ababa posts a security alert: foreigners in the country have been violently attacked because they are believed to spread coronavirus. My departure from Ethiopia becomes imperiled. We hear rumors that within a week or two there will be no more international flights out of Addis. We hear rumors that within a week or two the United States will no longer allow anyone entry. We cannot verify either because the internet on our phones is too slow. In the town we stop for the night, the internet is down altogether, and the bellhop at the hotel explains that it has been turned off to contain coronavirus rumors. What precious time online I do get I spend bargaining with myself, trying to calculate how long I can feasibly remain in Ethiopia, which parts of the research I can sacrifice, how much travel and learning I can cram into the time that remains.
I feel as if I am doing my book research just under the wire – but then again, it often seems to me the whole world is living just under the wire: the mark of the Anthropocene is that we keep careening toward catastrophe in our reckless pursuit of some ambition, some one more thing. W.G. Sebald, whose books are in the stack I have brought on this trip, returns often and with foreboding to this ‘clearly chronic process of . . . impoverishment and degradation,’ and its fallout I see everywhere in the Ethiopian countryside: in mountainsides eroding from deforestation and heedless new construction; in putrid rivers choked with refuse; in fields where marabou storks and cows graze on diapers and shopping bags and plastic bottles; in the systemic drought and out-of-season rains, both consequences of the climatic destruction the Global North leaves in the wake of its avarice. ‘It is a characteristic of our species, in evolutionary terms, that we are a species in despair,’ Sebald says. ‘We have created an environment for us which isn’t what it should be.’
Northward to ancient Ethiopian kingdoms. Fog slinks up mountainsides, ragged tinsel of clouds trims slopes. The Rift Valley bathes the car in scent: eucalyptus, angel trumpet, frankincense. I check my phone. Burkina Faso has recorded the first coronavirus death in sub-Saharan Africa; Bosnia’s prime minister suggests confining migrants behind barbed wire as a pandemic-halting measure; my child has found shelter with a classmate in the American Midwest. We stop for a Lenten meal of injera and beans at a cafe where waiters hardly acknowledge us. They stand in a semicircle in front of an enormous television screen, watching Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian-born Director-General of the World Health Organization, declare coronavirus an ‘enemy against humanity.’ After lunch, Kabir, who is Kenyan, offers a Swahili proverb: Kuzaliwa ni bahati, ku kufa ni lazima: to be born is a blessing, to die is promised. For the next two hours, we drive in impotent silence.
Odd to be on a journey through 4.2 million years of our history at the time when humanity agonizes about our future. The story of paradise lost seems inessential now. What I urgently must remember and hold on to is that, over millennia, cast out of Eden, our ancestors made sense of the frightening and the unknown. That in the most daunting times, we remembered to reach for the decency and the goodness against which to steady the soul. That from the fossil fields of Afar, after the primeval rupture, we made it all the way here.
Suddenly, Abel slams on the brakes. ‘Guys,’ he says, ‘get out of the car. Look!’
The slope tumbles from the pavement into a kohl-black ravine – here at a slant, here in terraced swags seamed with rows of boulders to mark the boundaries of harvested teff fields, past an occasional outcrop of houses with zinc roofs that shine turquoise like upside-down sky – drops momentarily into a col, and then, at a distance, soars again, gathering into the nearest of the sawtooth rows of the Lasta Massif that range from the color of coffee we have been drinking on the trip, to lavender, to pearl, until toward horizon they lose depth and definition entirely, and become a sheet of scissored silver. On the other side of the road, a wooded scarp shoots up vertically from the shoulder like Jacob’s ladder to the infinite lid of low cloud. The evening sun has dropped behind the mountain, and the light in the valley is liminal, a submarine blue. Only in the far distance, a single beam punches through the cloud and palms a faraway slope golden.
‘Holy!’ I say, and Kabir says, ‘The last touch of Eden,’ and Abel grins and says, ‘In the art gallery of God there is more to see.’
An hour later, at last light, three serpentine miles away from the town of Lalibela, Abel brakes again. Just past a switchback, a roadside nativity: a man with two children and a teenage boy stand over a nanny goat. She has just foaled. She is licking the placenta off the kid.
At the end of the twelfth century, after Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, the Zagwe dynasty king Gebre Meskel Lalibela, who had pilgrimed to the Holy Land, had a divine vision. He ordered a constellation of churches hewed wholesale out of the Lasta Massif, and pronounced them New Jerusalem, a place of pilgrimage spiritually equal to the City of God. They say that for twenty-three-and-a-half years, from dawn to dusk, thousands of people dug down into the basalt, excavating twelve temples out of volcanic rock with iron scrapers the size of a small skillet. They say that by night, while humans slept, angels took over to hasten their labor.
On my first morning in Lalibela I step out of the hotel and discover that angels have alighted on the town again. Their white muslin wings are mostly folded, though some billow in light wind. A faint rustle accompanies their descent. I squint to focus. They are not angels. They are mourners. The day before, a bus carrying pilgrims to a church outside town missed a turn on the narrow mountain road. Twelve people, mostly young men, were killed in the crash. The funerals will take place in the afternoon.
The processions are multiple and inundate every street. The mourners come down from the mountains and stream toward the cemetery at the bottom of the town. They walk five or six abreast, shoulder to shoulder. They fill the width of each road they take. They wear white netala shawls and gabi blankets. Some carry crosses and others parasols and others framed portraits of the deceased. They are of every age, many are teenagers, and all of them are as ancient as death. Approximately twenty thousand people live in Lalibela and most of them knew and loved someone on that bus, and for hours the only sounds in town are the quiet murmur of the cortège and the soft slap of cheap plastic sandals and tennis shoes and ballet slippers and espadrilles and bare feet on the macadam. Many join them as they pass. All the shops shutter, and when the processions finally pool at the cemetery Lalibela becomes a ghost town.
Reader, I know what you may be thinking; I thought this too. But Lalibela’s sorrow on this day is not a symbol nor harbinger of anything. Her singular loss does not stand for any other loss. It stands for itself. Let us honor it.
To get out of the mourners’ way I walk up to a thirteenth-century monastery on Mount Abuna Yoseph and sit down next to a priest who is supping on injera and chickpeas at the edge of a cliff 4,000 meters above sea level, legs swinging over the abyss. The sun’s last rays skim the distant Simiens and comb through his sparse beard.
Before I traveled to Afar, I visited with Dr Berhane Asfaw, the paleoanthropologist whose team discovered Herto man, to ask about Eden and the very first hominin dispersals across the Rift Valley cradle and beyond. I wanted to know what drove us: curiosity, ambition, desire? We met in the garden of the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa, where Dr Asfaw has an office. Because of coronavirus we did not shake hands, and we spoke outside, not far from the bust of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s most canonized poet, whose portrait is stenciled Andy Warhol-style on a wall of the St Petersburg apartment building where I grew up. Historians believe that Pushkin’s grandfather was an enslaved man born in what today is Cameroon, but Ethiopia likes to claim him as one of her own.
‘It wasn’t departure, it was expansion,’ Dr Asfaw told me. Though anatomically modern, these ancestors probably did not have the abstract consciousness of the modern human. They likely knew no yearning, no attachment, possibly had no recognition even of moving away. They just inched outward, following food resources. Verily, paradise was a place of freedom from the kind of knowledge that carries with it homesickness, yen, torment; when we knew suffering we became mortal. I recall a line from a Galway Kinnell poem: ‘we will walk out together among / the ten thousand things, / each scratched in time with such knowledge, the wages / of dying is love’. Perhaps all of our existence, post-Eden, is an effort to reckon with the price we pay for poetry.
I cannot see the mourners in the valley below, but I know they are there, just as I know the rest of the world is there, all of us living and dying and worrying and loving at the same time. I check my phone. The death toll from coronavirus has risen to 187 people in the United States, 372 people in France, 3,405 people in Italy, each person precious and singular.
In the first pages of Genesis, after Adam and Eve are deported from Eden, Adam, grief-stricken, rues his transgression and bemoans his banishment in verse: He creates the world’s first poem. In addition to its multifaceted meaning to the old canon, Adam’s lament carries a kind of guidance: at the moment of his deepest anguish he turned to art.
I wonder about the vision of King Lalibela. What kind of faith, what kind of poetry indeed existed within his mind? What kind of darkness was he staving off? It is said that that before his ascent to the throne, Lalibela’s brothers tried to kill him with poison, and that it was during a coma that lasted three days and three nights that the future king was transported to heaven, where God and the angels told him to cut churches out of stone.
I pass the next two days in the churches.
‘How is the corona situation in your country?’ a monk named Abba Ayaliu asks me outside Biete Maryam, the House of St Mary – according to the legend, the first of the churches built at King Lalibela’s order. Abba Ayaliu is sitting on a sheep’s hide in the shade, reading a psalm book so old-looking it seems to be held together by a miracle; his vestments are so washed out they remind me of a medieval guidance book for English anchorites called Walter’s Rule: ‘With regard to his clothes he should consider nothing except how they might protect him from injury by the cold – I don’t know what else he should be looking for, whose place it is to sit in sackcloth and ashes!’ I tell him the pandemic is spreading everywhere, and that I am very worried. He nods. ‘Yes, we also worry about coronavirus, and we pray for all the world.’ Another monk, Abba Barana Selassie, promises me that anyone who visits the churches of Lalibela is safe from the pandemic, but after I walk away, I sanitize my hands.
I return to this exchange after I leave Ethiopia, when, having spent three days in jam-packed planes and deserted airports, I finally board the train from Newark to Philadelphia, where I will sequester myself in the third-floor walkup I rent alone. There are three other passengers in the railroad car and I take a seat on the port side, closest to the exit. Across the aisle, by the window, sits an elderly man in a kepi who must have gotten on at Penn Station; he, too, is traveling by himself. His eyes and mouth are open in the unselfconscious manner of people lost in deep thought, and he is so motionless I think at first he might be dead. Twenty minutes into the ride, still looking straight ahead, the man suddenly barks, ‘You’ll be fine!’ in that irritable inflection older people often assume. Then he falls silent. Another half hour passes, and again, with even more indignation: ‘You’ll be fine!’ Whom is he addressing? Someone he was talking to before he boarded, a conversation that, as happens for us all, continues in his mind long after the encounter is over? Himself? God?
A writer friend raised with the daily devotion of prayer once described it to me as an ‘instance of alongsidedness,’ a communion. A shared story of conviction. Conceived as a replica Holy Land, Lalibela is shared conviction embodied, carved in stone: there is Biete Golgotha, the House of Golgotha, where women are forbidden entrance, and Yordanos Wenz, the River Jordan, which collects rainwater made holy by sluicing past the churches. There is Biete Lehem, Bethlehem, where bread for the holy sacrament was once baked. The cruciform Biete Giyorgis, the House of St George, the last of the rock churches built in Lalibela, is Noah’s Ark: both the token and the promise of our survival on this planet.
In Biete Giyorgis I kneel in a crepuscular corner of the transept. Pilgrims take turns prostrating before the sanctuary, kissing the tattered argyle carpet, the walls. I can see the grooves where the basalt was chiseled hollow to convert igneous geology into a house of God. I can see where the stone changes color from pale matte to lustrous dark salmon from the hands and foreheads and lips of holystruck worshippers who have pressed against it over eight hundred years of agon and wonder. Like me, they came here trying to make sense of what it means to be human. Like me, they were able to come here because our ancestors have persevered over millennia of strife. I place my palm on a wall that human touch has polished to a sheen: I am touching eight centuries of despair and bewilderment and hope.
I watch the supplicants first in trepidation, then in wonder, then in prayer; at last, I fall asleep, as, I imagine, others have in this church over the ages of its existence.
Day by day, town by town, Ethiopia transforms. Coffeeshop owners turn jerrycans into improvised hand washing stations; hotel and store staff don single-use gloves; the government-run telecom company replaces the dial tone with a recorded coronavirus warning; the government petitions the faithful to stop going to church, a plea the faithful by and large ignore. An hour after we arrive at Lake Tana, Kabir receives a text message: all international flights out of Addis Ababa will discontinue in two days’ time. He will fly to Nairobi the following night. I call the US embassy in Addis, but they are unable to verify or deny anything. I book a seat on what may be the last flight west, in two days. My friends and I will head from Bahir Dar to the capital early tomorrow. My sister texts from St Petersburg: she has recovered. As shadows fall, we sit on a concrete bench by the lakeside and order a round of beers. Over the cataractic headwaters of the Blue Nile, hibiscus blossoms trumpet scarlet alarm.
That night I dream that the churches of Lalibela are being wrapped in white veils like giant netala shawls, or maybe mosquito nets, or funeral shrouds. The veils billow over the rock roofs first, then settle in place, accentuate each frieze and cornice. Mosquitoes and anxiety wake me. At three-thirty in the morning, the priests of Bahir Dar begin their chants in Ge’ez, the ancient language last spoken outside of liturgy around the time of King Lalibela.
Before my flight, Abel and I take a long walk in Addis Ababa. Walking through sequential colonies of protohuman fossils in Afar was like watching a timelapse of the birth of a diamond; walking anyplace else this dread spring heralds the birth of an epoch-making language born of inadequacy and tenderness and grief.
Outside the Ras Hotel, where Nelson Mandela stayed in 1962 before returning to South Africa and enduring twenty-seven years of solitary confinement, two men teach me a footshake that is part football scissor kick, part crane mating dance. At the Hilton, where I stop to use the restroom, the security guard checks my temperature instead of my bag. Abel teaches me my first phrase in Amharic: mahibarawī rekat: social distancing. His friend gives me a bottle of hand sanitizer as a souvenir. Fewer than three months after it was first diagnosed, Covid-19 has infected more than 400,000 people worldwide; within a week, that number will triple. Outside the national stadium, where a detergent manufacturer promotes its sanitizing products to the blare of Ethiopian pop, I read the latest news: In Madrid, officials have converted an ice rink into a morgue.
Ever since I left Lalibela an image haunts me. It is a painting, on vellum, of St George, Ethiopia’s patron saint. Several of the rock churches have at least one St George painting – Biete Giyorgis, Biete Debre Sina. The painting before my eyes is from Biete Denagel, the House of the Virgins, dedicated to the fourth-century maiden nuns massacred on the orders of Julian the Apostate. This painting, I am told, is four hundred years old. Most of it is faded, and dust patinates the creases where the hide is unevenly stretched. The paint at the bottom is so badly chipped that parts of the dragon are gone entirely. But the rider’s eyes are sharp, his pupils bottomless black. His expression is not benevolent: it is all-seeing, sinister in its omniscience. He may be mourning the imminent death of the dragon, or our mortal fate.
The most dazzling object in the painting is the spearhead. The dragon slayer has drawn back the lance, preparing to strike; he resembles Orion with his raised sword in Lalibela’s bright night sky. The spearhead is whiteblue, like an icicle, and in the twilit church it is so bright it is almost blinding, like sea light suspended in time. Perhaps it is sea light: St George’s earlier incarnations are as an Ugaritic mariner god who dwells in the sea, and as Uta-napishti the Distant, an immortal ancestor of Gilgamesh, who resides by the mouths of rivers. In the Quran, he is the immortal mystic Prophet al-Khader, whom Moses summons at the juncture of two seas by placing a fish on a rock. Even as a Christian saint he retains his connection with water, as a protector of coasts and healing wells, but also – in addition to the military, skin diseases, syphilis, and several countries – as the patron saint of Castelo de São Jorge da Mina, Elmina Fortress, from which, beginning in 1482, hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children were trafficked into bondage, by ship, across the seas to Europe and the Americas. One way or another, the multitasking saint always tells the story of a feat; it is the moral code of the narrator that determines the ethics of the feat, and of the story.
Folklorists say oral tradition requires variation and interpretation, that we must alter the story to match the need of our times. A tale must remain fluid to stay alive, relevant. The elements must change to reflect new reactions to new realities. Millions of years after we began to become, a new virus is reshaping our common story into a faltering foundational song, a new narrative that will become stored in our bones, and which we will translate into stories of virtue or infamy over and over and carry with us across the world.
On the way from Lalibela to Lake Tana, our car overtakes an itinerant musician with a single-string masenqo lute over his left shoulder. He is an azmari – part griot, part badkhen, an historian-poet who documents and preserves ancestral sagas and hagiographies, who extols or berates his audience over flasks of golden honey wine. He is slogging down a mountain in cheap sandals and his clothes look more dust than cloth, as if, like with the process of petrification, when minerals take over organic matter until it becomes fossil, all the dust from all the roads he has traveled had taken over the fabric. And some of the dust may have been particles of straw and manure from weekly markets, or minuscule flakes of skin that rock steps of churches and mosques have loofaed off the soles of pilgrims, or ash from coffeeshop braziers, or granules of fossilized remains of our ancestors the wind has winnowed out from the fields of Afar. The entire human history to keep him warm, and our whole future, suddenly so unscripted and fearful, his to retell and interpret from bar to bar.
Image © Kabir Dhanji