The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Touching Ethiopia

Javier Gozálbez and Dulce Cebrian

Reviewer - Richard Snailham


Ethiopia, the home of coffee, has spawned another coffee table book. It is a gorgeous work and a very heavy one too - possibly because it is printed on superbly thick, shiny paper and strongly bound by its Spanish makers. The quality of the very many photographs is extremely high. Written by two Spanish pharmacists, both besotted by Ethiopia, it is a paean of praise to the country and its peoples. Nothing is remotely amiss, anywhere. And it is this rose-tinted, uncritical adulation which is my main complaint about what is at the same time a thoroughly well-researched compendium of what there is about Ethiopia.

Most aspects of the country are dealt with: its geography, the people of the southern, northern and eastern lands, its religions and (briefly) its history. While it is not sufficiently detailed to satisfy specialists it would be ideal for generalists or first-timers. There are, however, scores of small slips: typos, spelling mistakes and inconsistencies. (I have made a list of many of them, if the publishers are interested in a second edition.) Some sections seem to have been well proofread, others not at all. This is a pity because the extensive notes and wide-ranging bibliography testify to the authors' thorough preparations. Sadly, it has also to be said that it is not an easy read. I daresay it has been quite accurately translated but the translation has been restricted and literal and there is a distinct hispanophone ring about it. Some sentences are so opaque as to be meaningless: you have to read them over once or twice to get the drift. Take this example: "In defence of the evangelical zeal and interests of the European armies, however, these missionaries partly hindered the fate of Tewodros, since the scientific, missionary and commercial interest of Europe formed an inseparable whole". The bit on Tewodros is especially mystifying and the description of Napier's expedition to Makdala, while broadly accurate, seems to have been imperfectly understood. In contrast, the passages on Yohannes IV read well.

The authors are strong on myth and legend and they give a commendable amount of space to the animist south and the Islamic east. But here, as everywhere, there is much listing of unmemorable data, lengthy analysis of Islamic beliefs, much tedious repetition and a pervasive overlay of starry-eyed guff about "hope" and "destiny" and "peace" and the like. But who reads the text of coffee table books? The book may be worth buying (though it is still only available in Ethiopia as far as I know) for its sumptuous illustrations and maps. I particularly loved its use of Ethiopian postage stamps and could have done with more.

Hardback: 404pages, maps, plans, and many colour illustrations.
Shama Books, Addis Ababa, 2007. Email: shama@ethionet.et

First Published in News File Spring 2008

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