The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 27th April 2004

The Mountains of Rasselas

Given by - Thomas Packenham

Reviewed by - Tony Diggle


Following the Society's Annual General Meeting on 27 April, pride of place was given to the explorer, Thomas Pakenham, who enthralled the audience with a talk on his first visit to Ethiopia nearly fifty years before, “going where no European had ever gone before”.

The origin of the trip was a story in itself. In 1955, he had got to Petra at the age of twenty-one “a la Lawrence of Arabia”, and the question was what to do next.

Then he remembered that twenty-five years before, Evelyn Waugh had been staying in his uncle's house writing “When the going was good”, and had used the globe in his uncle's house to make a similar decision. Waugh had spun the globe, stopped it with his finger at random, and discovered that it was pointing at Abyssinia. The result had been his going out to cover Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, and material for Scoop and other works.

Mr Pakenham thus hatched a scheme that autumn to go to Ethiopia. He told a Sunday paper that “with kit-bag and water-bottle I would set out for the lost city of Gondar.” The result was indignant letters to the newspaper pointing out that Gondar was not lost.

However, Mr Pakenham had already identified a real project to discover something that, if it was not exactly lost, had never been discovered by a European. A Dominican priest and historian, Gervase Mathew, had told him of a mountain near Gondar called Wehni (Amharic for prison) where the Royal Princes of Abyssinia, the successors to the Abyssinian throne, were imprisoned until they died or the king died and the next in line was called to the throne.

Research showed that such mountains or 'ambas' were lava plugs, flat-topped sheer-sided mountains. They were natural fortresses, and hence an excellent choice as prisons. Three of them had been important in this regard in Ethiopian history, Debre Damo, Amba Geshen and Wehni. Dr Johnson had heard of these things in England from the Jesuits, and written a story based on them about Rasselas, the Prince of Abyssinia, who was confined in a Happy Valley overhung with high mountains precluding his escape. Amba Geshen was the source for Rasselas, but it was James Bruce who later brought back the information about Wehni. As it was still in use in Bruce's time, not even he had reached it.

Here then was the challenge. Could Mr Pakenham be the first European to visit the mountain? The News Chronicle suggested that he write some reports and travel pieces for them, and in 1956, twenty-five years after Evelyn Waugh, he duly arrived in Ethiopia.

In liaison with the Governor-General of Gondar, Ras Asserate Kassa, an expedition was arranged, and they set off for the plateau of Belesa where the fortress was located, a plateau so high that only one or two rivers reached up to it. On arriving at the plateau, Mr Pakenham's heart sank for the fortress did indeed stand on a 'thumb' with a 1,000 foot sheer drop. A stairway had once been cut on the north side, and a fort built three-quarters of the way up, but a land slide had destroyed part of the path, and it was not penetrable. Mr Pakenham had to content himself with photographs of the prison from the hill opposite, and of St George's church below the mountain which he believed the Royal family would have been let down to on occasions.

Back in Gondar, another discovery was made. Medieval church architecture of the period followed the Basilican plan and was square. Later on a new style evolved in the round with two concentric circles in the centre. Most manuscripts were post-medieval, and Mr Pakenham was surprised to come across one about a church in Bethlehem, south-east of Gondar, which appeared to be square. This area was again uncharted territory for Europeans, and surviving medieval churches were rare. Intrigued he consulted a priest who gave the still more intriguing answer that the church was both round and square.

There was only one thing to do: go and find out. By now, Mr Pakenham had somewhat overstayed his welcome with the governor who was not so keen on a second expedition, so he organised his own in conjunction with an eccentric Frenchman, given the pseudonym of 'Professor Stomf'.

When they could see the church on the horizon, once again Mr Pakenham's heart sank, for there was a huge round thatched church. This time, however, disappointment was short-lived: the square medieval church was hidden inside, an unrecorded church of the finest style with timber doorways and pink stone walls, one of only a handful of stone and wood medieval churches to have survived in Ethiopia.

Now the problem became getting inside the church, for the abbot did not feel it was appropriate to let them in. The usual negotiations began and went on for two days, but by the third day they were still outside. It was up to 'Professor Stomf' to come to the rescue. The abbot's wife suffered from very bad arthritis, and could not sleep properly at nights. The professor had a large supply of aspirin. The abbot's wife was presented with three aspirin, slept well, and the expedition was miraculously let into the church!

Just before his final departure from Gondar, Mr Pakenham persuaded the pilot of their aircraft (in those days air transport consisted of Dakotas flown by Americans) to detour once more over the mountain of Rasselas. Of a great house that must once have housed the princes, nothing was visible. And that might have been that.

But in the decades that followed the publication of Mr Pakenham's book recounting this saga, others were inspired to follow in his footsteps and people regularly communicated with him about it, some of whom had also gone there. Another author, Barbara Toy, had managed to land in the perilous place by helicopter, and spend the night there.

So, in 1998 Mr Pakenham went back, and took a helicopter himself. Unfortunately, the helicopter only just had enough fuel to make the round trip, and when they arrived conditions for landing were bad. While they were hovering and quickly thinking what to do, it was noticed that a flock of vultures was also circling round! The pilot decided it was impossible, and went back.

Later on, Mr Pakenham was in touch with another group who were going to attempt to climb the mountain before going off to the Andes. Subsequently, he was surprised by a phone call from South America. They had succeeded in their climb and assured him that using a pulley system from the top it was possible to haul people up the size of “overweight tea ladies”.

Mr Pakenham concluded his talk by considering that he might yet get to the top of Wehni in the guise of such a substantial party.

Mr Pakenham illustrated his talk with photographs from the book of these travels, including a photograph of all the people who took part in the first expedition to the mountain, valuable for its illustrating the ranking of all the heavily armed Ethiopian participants by their footwear. The photographs of the people, landscapes, mountains, churches and castles encountered on the way speak far better than any article by the present writer. The book, The Mountains of Rasselas was re-published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1998.

First Published in News File Summer 2004

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