My Ethiopia

The African Silk Route

The recent recovery of two coins dated respectively 1080 and 1040 AD from Harla, the great ancient town near Dire Dawa poses an interesting question.

How come coins from inner oriental China ever got there, about a thousand years ago? One thing we deduce for sure: as people do not in general walk around for centuries with coins in their pockets, Harla is about a thousand years old, refuting a previous French dating to the 15th century AD. The coins were found by peasants in superficial soil.

  Original and design by Cherinnet Tilahun, first North Song coin found in Harla.

In 1949 J.J.L. Duyvendak had pointed out to Zheng-He travels, in his "The Chinese Discovery of Africa", Richard Pankhurst cites a number of Axumite coins recovered betweend India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

"There was a road that went through Eritrea and to the port of Azab and Adule conducted trade with the Far East, Greece, Egypt and India.

This trade consisted of commodities such as ivory, gold, rhino horn, hippo hides and teeth, wild animals, frankincense, Nubian emeralds and slaves. The trade was wide and varied and skills employed in the manufacture of these goods were
extensive. There were imports of silk, cotton, swords, wine glasses, silver
and gold which were manufactured into plates as well as the creation of
large gold and bronze statues. Trade links existed with Kush, Egypt, the
Roman Empire, the Mediterranean Basin, Arabia, India, Sri Lanka and
China. Again the skills and knowledge employed to make these links
possible was enormous. This was a world which was connected and which
carved out and developed trade routes some of which still are in existence
today. The Straits of Bab al-Mandeb was one of the three major shipping
routes of the ancient world. Ethiopia was the first country in the world to
mint a coin with a Christian symbol and the second country in the world to
adopt Christianity as its state religion." Richard Pankhurst in R. Hopkins, "Trade".

It is no novelty that by the year one thousand the world power, China, had little or no interest in Europe. Three centuries before the celebrated Marco Polo voyages, China was instead, it would now appear, extensively trading with the African oriental coast. Much as it is today.

A 'treasure' including 105 pieces of gold coins from inner India was found, specularly, in the Debre Damo Monastry mountain fortress grounds.

Sada Mire, archaeologist, head of antiquities in the Somaliland Government, Hargeysa and a lecturer at the London SoAS, has found around seventy towns and trade posts that cover the north Somalia coast and point inland to eastern Ethiopia. Interestingly, she has also found beautiful Ming blue pottery shards and more ancient Chinese pottery in a sea port excavation.

  Sada Mire, Somalia's only archaeologist, a very active one. Ahmoud town ruins

In October 2010 came news of an equally significant discovery. A team of Kenyan and Chinese archaeologists unearthed a small 15th century Chinese brass coin on Kenya’s northern coast.

According to Professor Qin Dashu of Beijing University, that type of coin was minted between 1403 and 1424 and carried only by envoys of Emperor Chung Zu. He surmised that the recent find was brought to the coast as a gift from the emperor – almost 100 years before the arrival in the region of the first European.

The coin, which came to light during a US33 million three-year expedition funded by Beijing University, follows the netting by Kenyan fishermen of 15th century Chinese vases and DNA confirmation of a long-held belief that some local villagers have Chinese ancestry.

Conjecture links such fragmentary evidence of a distant Chinese presence in East Africa with the exploits of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who is said to have taken an enormous fleet of ships across the Indian Ocean in 1418. The voyages are thought to have been attempts to increase recognition and trade for the Ming Dynasty.

Indeed, the DNA testing, carried out in 2006, was part of an event celebrating the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage and the larger aim of the joint archaeology project is to discover the remains of one of the admiral’s ships, said to have sunk off the Kenyan coast.

No one knows how far Zheng He got. The Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama, who arrived in 1499, was traditionally credited with being the first foreign trader to open up East Africa and laying the foundation of more than five centuries of European colonial power. 

‘We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa,’ archaeologist Herman Kiriama from the National Museums of Kenya told the BBC.

‘Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals.’ A good start, after 500 years of Chinese absence on the African Coast.


                                                                              Photo: statue of Admiral Zheng He

As DNA of Kenya Fang Mao Fishermen has been proven to show a Chinese descent, the DNA of an 'Argobba' man we collected from Aliyu Amba, Ethiopia, has distinctively proven him to be of Arab blood. We are at present collecting a set of further samples.(Fulvio Cruciani, Rome Darwin Institute, personal communication).

In 1414, an emissary from the town of Malindi, in modern day Kenya, paid a visit to the Chinese royal court. Ancient Chinese texts also testify that Admiral Zheng He visited thrice the Sultan of Malindi, the most powerful ruler on the Kenyan coast at the time.

Chinese ceramics and coins have also been found in the ruins of The Great Zimbabwe civilization, an extensive indication of the commercial relations that once existed between Eastern and Southern Africa and the Chinese empire.

We are convinced further Archaeological exploration along the Extended East Route between Ethiopia and Somaliland, concentrating on recently highlighted towns like Harla, Gendabello, Bia Woraba and more on the Somaliland side, with particular attention to marine archaeology in the ports of Berbera, Zeyla and along the Somali North Coast will yield amazing discoveries.

Bringing us to the proof we still need: the Extended East Route we are promoting for the Abyssinian Highlands to the Somali and Djibouti coasts is the inner treasure of the most extensive trade route ever, the African Silk Route.  


 Transasia trade routes, 1st century AD.

                                                                                                         Marco, 28/01/2011

That Ship on The Map: of Sindbad and Prester John

Absolutely impressive, the huge painted map was in front of me. It had taken special skills and some wriggling to move it from within Venice to Ca’ Foscari, where there was a significant exposition of Ethiopian art. All around it paintings, scrolls and the story of a Venetian painter that was made a church dignitary in Abyssinia as he taught them fine arts, and probably exported the myth of St. George.                                                            There were even a few ‘tabots’, the replica of the wooden tables of the Law that rest in the core of our Ortodox Church Buildings, in the Saint of the Saint, where no one can go except a selected priest.

Fra Mauro’s Planisphere, 1459, canvas on wood, over 2m in diametre. Turned here, the south is originally upwards.

The map yet struck me most. We have, I can say with pride, better works of art on display here in Addis than those at that 2009 Venice show, for example at the Institute of Ethiopian Art Museum my friend Richard Pankhurst initiated. Ethiopia has been hardly colonized at all, what the Italians looted we largely got back, what a British expedition of the mid 19th century took away appears harder to recover, but we will sooner or later get our art back. We are a proud people. For some reason.

I noted two things on the huge wooden planisphere: this unique map first reported dozens of Ethiopian localities and facts, as monks visiting for the Council of Florence in 1440ca. gave Fra Mauro, the painter of the masterpiece, detailed information on their Country. Then, I saw a big ship, indicated as coming from the Indian ocean moving from Africa into the Atlantic, with a description its journey, ca. 1420.                   

Tales of huge ships from Nanjing, China exploring half the world and trading with the Kenyan ports, also buying myrrh, frankincense and possibly coffee from Abyssinia had made me curious. Because after an age of power, when the Axum Christian Kings were the only ones to mint in gold with Rome, China and Persia, Abyssinia had slipped into some oblivion. But right after the most massive of the Chinese marine expeditions, those of Zheng He, or Chong Ho, there was a great Emperor in the Ethiopian highlands, a writer, a unifier, theologian Zera Yaqob “Seed of Jacob”, believed by historians to have been their greatest Emperor after Ezana of Axum, the ruler that had swapped the traditional moon for a cross on his gold pieces, well before my fief of origin, in northern Italy, was christianized.

The Council of Florence declared Zera Yaqob to be Prester John, an hypothetical figure whose quest had been behind a lot of European first explorations, from the time of the crusades.                                                                                                                                       In reality, a famed letter Prester John had supposedly written from a Christian Kingdom surrounded by religious enemies, requiring help, was a fake prepared by German Guelfs to make a point in a local dispute. But it circulated so diffusely since 1150 and inspired so much research, many expeditions to Persia, Goa in India and elsewhere many consider the quest for John one of the basis of the European subsequent world colonization.

Zera Yaqob had simply dispatched one his aides, Pietro Rombulo from Sicily to visit Italy, open a temporary delegation and bring artists back, as he had first sent him to India to look for skilled workers for his palaces. But Rombulo’s visit prompted both the participation of a strong delegation to that Florence meeting of Christianity and the supposed solution to Prester John’s quest: Zara was John and Ethiopia the lost Christian Kingdom.

Ask a Chinese friend to pronounce ‘Zheng He’. You may imagine he has taken you, with the sound of his voice, in the myth of Sindbad, the mariner. Forget the romances of the book, Sindbad, or rather, Zheng He was an eunuch at the Ming Court, apparently about seven feet tall. His feats have to do with the Sindbad myth. He had extraordinary seafaring abilities, and the Chinese technology of the 15th century gave him solid nine mast ships up to 100m long. In fact, the river based stunning Treasure Ships he might not have had the rank to master, those reserved to the Emperors, even surpassed that measure, reaching, historians say, sizes western iron ships only attained after 1850.

 A compass and a full scale model of a 1420 Junk.

  A display in Dubai showing comparative sizes of a sea faring Chinese ship and a contemporary Columbus Caravelle,

In China, just around 1400, the quest for trade routes and in particular for a lost member of the Ming dynasty the incumbent ruler felt as a probable rival, meant two Mandarins used Zheng He’s skills to fare the seas of the Indian ocean thoroughly, from Malacca to Africa, possibly beyond. The junk’s flat hulls and dimensions probably led to the fact Sindbad, our Chinese admiral did not willingly sail his huge fleets to completely open seas, coasting often, for thousands of miles. Seven massive expeditions, with up to one thousand mariners in the main ships, and up to 300 ships in a formation and nearly 30,000 men in all traveled for years, brought back to Nanjing all sorts of specialties, in a feat modern day Chinese pride as their way to foreign contact, against European colonialism, in a new, peaceful, scramble for Africa.                                                                                                                       Zheng He had Abyssinian Mirrh, spices, and even a Giraffe traded back from his 4th,5th 6th and 7th expeditions. His last visit to the shores of present day Kenya and Somalia dates 1422, his last expedition to 1433, he visited Mogadishu then too. One year later Zara Yaqob ascended to the throne. His first capital was historic Axum, he then moved towards the centre of his Empire, in Debre Berhan or around present day Addis Abeba. His huge lands’ products were traded mainly via the muslim Adal state to the Somali and Kenya coasts. A whole trade town ‘where the goods were exchanged from donkeys to camels and viceversa’ was found a few years ago by a French scholar, F.X. Fauvelle Aymar, working on data by Italian historian Cerulli. Nora or Gendabello its name, another two were found: Mesal and Asberi. Proving active exchanges of size were common.

Asberi houses and Nora mosque, still to be dated, most probably medieval

Excavations in a Harla village near Dire Dawa, in 1987, came across a Chinese coin presumably dated from the 6th century AD. This too is evidently on the trade route from the highlands of Ethiopia to Somaliland.

Of a new find just above Addis Ababa. Some seven years ago Richard Pankhurst, showing me the view from his beautiful house in Addis pointed to Wechacha, the highest mountain in the area, and told me someone, some day, will tread on Zera Yaqob’s palace there.                                                                                                                                                               You may find this absurd, but since I first heard of Google earth I spent hours sighting satellite photoes of the area, to no avail. Until, just back from a fruitful Easter trip around the Kundudo, my main area of research here, on April 15th, from the oldest computer screen in my school, abandoned in a corner of a teacher’s room, to avoid occupying a machine a colleague may have used, I saw this.

Immediately, I tilted the screen to have a view in perspective:

  Site on the flat peak left here above. Wechaca is a complex volcano immediately   overlooking Addis Abeba    

The fortress, the walls, are clearly mad made, they are up to six metres thick where they appear double zooming in, and way beyond the capacities of any local herder. Sizes, about 700m by 450m, and the presence of a triple wall on the only attackable side indicate a fortified compound of great scale.                                                             When Richard saw my commented satellite photoes, he sent me reference to a publication of his pointing to the presence of a whole town, around 1450 AD and under Zera Yaqob, on one of four mountains dotting the Addis horizons. This may be the core Amba, a fortified hill, under which the town developed. A few visits are required, now a difficult feat in these heavy rains, then proper excavations. Width and aspect may let presume this might have been the capital hearth of the highland Empire, in the 15th century. When goods were traded to the hundreds of ships strong fleets of Zheng He.

We managed to visit the flat top in the satellite views on Aug 22th, 2010. Some photoes are here: A first photo gallery.



Back to the Ship on the map. Su Ming-Yang, a Chinese historian adfirms the ship, though indicated as from Asia, is European, from the shape and the presence of a coffer on the main mast.                                                                                                 I note, to the contrary: 1) Fra Mauro states ‘a ship from the Indian sea’, as the Italian reads.  In any case, 'Indias' meant the whole Ocean shores, in Italy and then. 2) The ship's voyage as described in the caption is only compatible with Zheng He's fleets. Curiously, an unbelievable myth is spelled in the ship caption:"A bird called Chorcho, 60 steps wide and capable of very easily charging an Elephant and any other huge animal". The myth recalls the feats of the Chinese ships themselves. 3) I presume the mapper’s informers could only be those very Ethiopian Monks who brought, apparently, all information on the Horn of Africa available to the map.  They obviously did not know anything of marine craft, as they likely first saw a ship on their way to Florence ca 1440, for the Council. Mauro designed a ship as he would know it. This would prove further a long standing relationship between the two Empires of China and Ethiopia. Craig A Lockard, USA Historian quotes the presence of Ethiopian traders in the port town of Malacca, then under Chinese influence, as early as the 13th century. 4) Fra Mauro states the ship went on for 40 days and further 2000 miles until it had to return, as there were no ports to take provisions from. This lets suppose an exploration of West African coasts, not a conjectured cross of the Atlantic to America! At least one of the expeditions had broken up into smaler fleets, with some groups returning to Nanjing many months after Zheng He.                                                                                 

In 1991 a USA journalist noted Chinese tracts in some Pate Island residents, off Kenya. DNA tests confirmed the "Fan Mao" are islanders of Chinese descent.                     Recently, archaeologists are working on a shipwreck likely to be from Zheng He’s huge expeditions, near Malindi. Chinese pottery has been recovered. I, personally, would not be surprised if in the end the ship was proven to be, instead, Arab or Abyssinian, given the long term trade relationships along the Indian Ocean coasts.

The Ship on the Map, just passed the Cape of Good Hope, South is up.

Finally, have we found Zera Yaqob’s palace? I cannot tell at all, yet. What we found is definitely a fortress of the 15-16 century or older. After the destruction of Barara and its surrounds by Ahmed Ibrahimi 'the left handed' from Harar in 1530, perfectly documented by his Yemeni follower and historian Arabi Faqiy in the "Conquest of Abyssinia" no Emperor rebuilt in the area until Hayle Malakot and Minilik in the eighteen hundreds. The area was occupied permanently by nomadic Oromos.                                                  I presume the palace-fortress had been indicated as "Amba Neghest", the flat top mount of the Kings by the noted visiting monks, and it stands clearly visible on Fra Mauro's map right above Barara, the Ethiopian capital from ca. 1440 to its destruction ninety years later. Barara remains to be found, and may well coincide for me with the present day westernmost area of Addis Ababa, right under our 'Amba Neghest', the newly found fortress.                                                                                                                          If Barara were as I suppose, tied to a string of trading towns linked to the Indian Ocean Somali shores, the discovery may make the history my kids study richer, and link Sinbad and John the Prester of the Highlands, China and Ethiopia. Two fascinating myths finding concrete correlation to historic facts.                                                                       Zheng He’s tomb is noted, in Nanjing, Zara Yaqob’s may be found, not far from where he founded Africa’s first Park, the Menaghesha Crown Forest, around 1435. Just a walk from the supposed palace-fortress I identified.

  Zheng He’s burial                                                One of his African presents

In the Menaghesha Forest

Prester John on the Queen Mary Atlas, 1558 and “Prester John’s or the Abyssinian Empire Description” on a map.


Photoes and representations from, Wikimedia, Panoramio,  Google Earth.

                                                                                                                                                                                              Marco Vigano’, Debre Zeyt, 17-08-2010

Cave findings multiply in Ethiopia

Largely thanks to a spectacular find under the Kundudo speleology is moving out of an extremely restricted circle of one academic and one passionate, literally Dr. Asfawosen Asrat and.. me.

These days a spelologist, Nasir, is roaming Oromia and has discovered a number of new entries, done some groundbreaking explorations, working for the State administration. I am proud to have promoted him, a son of the valleys that link Harer to the Kundudo.

Friends from the University of Florence, on my indications and accompanied by Nasir have just uncovered a number of new rock paintings sites. Around ten of those were unpublished, this is their site:

Different groups are visiting. A Delegation led by His Excellency the German Ambassador to Ethiopia has visited the Sof Omar cave and presented the new Extended East Route we conceived to a set of foreign journalists.

I publish here a note on methods to find caves in Ethiopia, in the hope our work will some time produce the discovery of one or more showcaves to flank Sof Omar.

Caving in Ethiopia: How to find some of the best caves in Africa,

Where others had never heard of them, and finding a way to put this to some use.

I spell out here six points on how to fall upon amazing caves, such beautiful things your enemies will want, admiringly, to travel with you, your best friends will quarrel each other for months, giving you the blame in the end, probably for having found the object of their desire in such a stunning Country, yet quite a difficult one for newcomers.

Please bear with my rather didactic ways, it happens to me sometimes as I am a professional teacher, too. I mean, apart from bothering all around me, to do things practically no fool had thought of conceiving before in Ethiopia. You find me also teaching uninterested Italian pupils.

So here is my first ‘white board’:



You may use geological maps to have a general idea of the area you will visit. They will not help. You may like to perfect them as you go, but this is not a way to find caves…

My experience is that I came across a stunner of a cave where the map said lavas were, yet it is a carstic marvel. It took me a lot of convincing, as my first speleo group had had a look at the maps. So they would not come with me.

Official, or available knowledge of Ethiopia can be deceiving. As an example from a totally different, yet vaguely related field, the height of Ras Dashen is still 4620 on most maps, we found it at 4550. When we measured it we had found it a good 20m higher, instead, than the best official measures, that had been around for decades, at 4430. Googling it you do find our measure, mainly on wikis in many languages, but also heights up from 4440, and a very accredited Russian map has it at 4663! The Central Statistical Authority has 25 peaks over 4000m.

Quite a few of those are definitely below 4000, there are may be others above, not listed.

  The whole Kundudo should have been basalts.

A good geological map will have faults indicated, this can help. It will give you an outlook of the types of rock you will expect to see. Nothing more. On top of it, some geologists used their binoculars to draw them, not saying this is wrong, but.. apparently they never managed to check on the ground.

Do not forget your GPS, instead. Do not fear cosmic rays that may disrupt its service, you will have the time to wait until it works again, or just need to ask the locals where they saw you pass last time, and the kid along the road will take you exactly where you spent time on your last visit.

Indigenous Speleological Knowledge

His name was.. Peter Oakley, yes, I am quite sure. He was one of my teachers of rural development issues at an UK University. He riddled our minds with this thing, indigenous technical knowledge, while the Bangladeshi student next to me was totally deceived at the idea those freaky teachers were not calling ‘subject matter specialists’ to enlighten us, instead of talking some socialist gibberish on what peasants should know better.

For sure I know this much: mountaineers, pastors in Ethiopia know where the caves are. Logic, even though, like our folks in the countryside, they never entered them much, some exceptions noted (the Gursum Pearl had been explored up to one kilometre, before us).

Locals have weird ideas, to the scientific mind, on what is there. So did our grandfathers. It is a simple matter of having the right ‘speleo visitor knowledge’ to interpret and make use of it!

Residents will, and in fact have already taken the archaeo speleologists to dozens of anfracts filled with ancient paintings, engravings, remnants, pottery… the speleo passionate to good formations.

Or, lots of funnily dressed ferenjis (white men) up and down endless slopes to see empty, tiny anfracts. For days on end.

Drops of water on a stalactite, or under it, are called ‘mercury’. The stalactite itself is filled with ‘mercury’. Know and use, your teacher’s innate sense will conduct you to try and correct the mistake, better do it after a good speleological find.

In any case, if mercury is the word, it means carbonatic solution, or cave speleothem formation.

It still goes around some remote Africa, in the Islamic society in particular. It obliges poor peasants, small traders to suspect each other, or accuse those who know of keeping the vital secret for themselves. Some fool, or cheat in Nigeria invented it, more than thirty years ago. Red mercury will make you rich. It can become dollars, or it will make you loved, respected. From what I make and have heard of it, red mercury was used at the turn of the two last centuries, around 1910, as it was more visible than the other one, in some instruments like barometers and thermometers. It is slightly radioactive, apparently, and became obsolete. So it is, indeed, vary hard to find. In Ethiopia, this might have recently spurned some cave search by locals.

Others came up with the local, western Hararge myth that some peasants have found uranium, and have it well hidden so they sell it for fortunes to some ferenjis.

These two myths can be a nuisance: those foreigners in amazing dresses are either exploiting riches we know not of, or are enriching some ‘tenkoy’, sons of the Devil, who will then come at us.

Whatever, expect resentment, fear, misunderstanding. I have witnessed our lot, about six Italian and a French speleologist with Nasir, the first Ethiopian practical speleo guy, asking for water and food in the Fugnan Hujuba village under the Kundudo and next to the Pearl. As everybody was afraid, that evening, with some jumping off the road at their fully barded passage, Nasir, the Oromo speaker tried a door. Those in, seeing the escape way blocked by an amazing tenkoy in human resemblances, but with a flame on the front, immediately jumped off the windows.

How to make the best of the situation

Expect the unexpected. Prepare a good dose of patience. Never loose it.

Just, do not go without one of the very few who know this art, in Ethiopia. Practice these three Oromo words: Goda, Holqaa, Enkuftu. The first means anfract, the second cave proper, the third, literally, ‘the glutton’, a deep hole. Italians call ‘inghiottitoi’, or fast eaters, well like formations. At least, you will know what to expect. Oromia is where you will find the caves, in any case.

You had better, though, direct the search yourself, asking for what you want, showing photoes of what you would like to find. Have to know Amharic, really, or, even better, Oromo. Years ago, when Matteo Dominioni, Turin University, visited Zeret, the battle cave, Richard Pankhurst advised him to go by the Church’s letters. It did not really work then, it would never now. You need letters from the administration. It may not be necessary to go all way up to the Federal State, but.. what if you are in a remote area and the Zone, then Woreda (province) guys are nowhere to be found, do not cooperate or just send you up, in doubt, facing a curious looking ferenji?

So, you had better have a letter from Oromia, Culture and Tourism office, Chaffe Oromiiyatti, well I mean the Oromia main offices on the bole road in Addis. They will send you to the Region and the Provinces. Do not jump an administrative level, you can still make without, at times, but you are looking for trouble and may jeopardize the job of those coming after you. In fact, after some recent events, it is necessary to have a fourth, even higher letter, from Jarra or the Ethiopian Federal antiquity and arts Authority.

Again, rule one, do not leave home those few who know, is the first and foremost rule, really.

Then, do spend time with the last, local administrators in the villages. They know who can spot the places. Without the ‘lika membaru’, or sheriff’s consent, they would not take you there at ease.

Trouble is more likely in Eastern than in Western Hararge.

Ferenji cave knowledge

But, we do know tricks to find caves! So use them. Adapt, never just adopt. There has been no glaciations, and you cannot evidently today look for holes… in the snow to find high vents.

Logic, so even cave species have had a different evolutions, or there are not so many, we may expect. This clearly has to be investigated, we have only found One species in caves in Ethiopia yet. It has no particular sign of troglobitic life, either. It is a coloured freshwater crab, not a whitened copepod insect or a tiny sponge.

We will come one day to a stage where we may think of infrared photos from a near hill, perhaps a plane to see temperature variations… as there is no snow.

For the time being, our knowledge is second, third choice. People will take us to the caves, if well directed.


   The new crab                                                              

Exploration, finding other entries, looking well around is our business.  

To be frank, there is so much to find, for the time being villagers around know the main holes, later, it will be another question. But when, I cannot tell.

 An eccentric dotted with tiny growths 

I guess as so far there is only Dr. Asfawosen, Nasir and me around, a good few years will be needed just to inspect the caves people in the different areas know of. You enter visible, open holes.

Those who have spent days excavating trenches as wide as a room, following an air draft, without finding anything know the difference.

We have to select the areas. Nasir has found so much in just a few months, simply asking around, we have now a clear idea of where to go and explore. As an example, he has heard of 54 anfracts and caves in Garua alone.

Ferenjis, through their work, can transform Godas in Holqaas, like it happened with the Gursum Pearl cave. The first name was simply Goda Oromo, the anfract in the Oromo area of Biyyu Negheya village. Now it is Holqaa Oromo, or The Pearl, a 2,2 kms ‘long cave’. So far, its exploration will continue soon.

 Shown stalactite photoes, people may show you stacks of them mouthing out from interstrata, eroded. They are, actually, travertine springs, like these:

Even tufa dams are not unusual in Ethiopia. Travertine builds up so high it traps a basin.

This is sure not where the caves will be, but, in my experience it indicates the right rocks are not far.

Now start looking for faults, and water streams, present or past. Look up from where you are, there may be a gravel descent that is or was a stream, follow it to where a fault meets the valley.

Ask, again, ask those around the area, take time in beating the slopes, in small groups, maximum two to three ‘ferenjis’, or foreigners per group, not to disturb some suspicious locals.

From the Satellite

This is not a joke. Google Earth is slowly covering at high definition vaster areas of Ethiopia too.

After discovering, exploring, somewhat promoting the Pearl in the Oromo ‘suburb’, I realised its fault was clearly seen from… my very old computer at home.


   The cave entry is where the red line starts, left. Along the fault new cave finds are possible

Once a good cave is found, its other entries, other caves can be found along the fault by directing otherwise long and fatiguing research from satellite photoes too.


  This photo shows where another possible entry is, side to the noted Adem Goba massive cave   entry. We still have to check.

Good reasons for all this, what I think will happen

Why we go caving depends on many things. Some like thin, difficult, bone squeezing caves, others huge abysses. A passion, a lifetime issue for some, a short period sometime in youth for others, around my area, a passed idea, as new speleologists per year decline with the number of new enflaming finds.

I started caving as I felt there had to be good caves under ‘my’ Kundudo. I had even heard two fellows were given as dead, as they stayed some ten hours in a cave. No sign of them, no idea of where the cave was. When we found it, after a couple of days exploring it, I could not sleep for a week. I kept disturbing people around. Yes, no one had ever seen anything anywhere near it in Ethiopia.

It was not the easiest of caves, well, if you do not fear some coldish water, it is very simple.

I immediately had the wish to find a show cave. To promote tourism in an area of the world, Hararge, where I have seen the famine I had experienced in Uganda, twenty five years ago, and thought it would just never ever happen again.

This time it was worse. I live here, have married here.

I tried a mathematical model to understand why famines, once a story the grandfather would tell, as they were some 50-60 years apart, happened every seven years or so.

I soon realised the real reason was no demography, bad land use or erosion. The formula forecast actual distances in present tragic droughts, hence hungers, with modifications of one variable alone: CO2 levels in the global atmosphere. I published it, as unexperimented, an unfinished study as it was, and I got qualified answers, that pointed the fact FAO was in the process of calculating how many exactly will die out of this thing we provoked and called climate change.

I have a sensation, a forecast, actually, it has become a mission: the nature, culture Ethiopia has will foster a rapid tourism development. Those who need grain and have no resources, witness ever failing rains, will reap some, just some benefit from this and may quite well survive.

The whole economy will profit so much, a major contribution to development will have to come from tourism, the biggest voluntary personal transfer of money and ideas from the North to the South of this planet.

I believe we will find a comfortable and easily accessed show cave within four to five years.

By then, there will be plenty of projects and funds to develop it.

Within a year of our discovery under the Kundudo, a professional speleologist we have contributed in selecting and forming is roaming the land, and is even paid for his job, under Oromia.

One of my personal tasks will be funding a speleo club to promote the art out of our… circle of three. We will need some material and a proper formation course, including cave progression techniques. We will choose a cliff north of Entoto or in Gursum itself, as a training ground.

Finding interested young men and women for a first course will not be particularly difficult, it seems some European speleologists may help.

The newly born Ethiopian Speleological Society will slowly have a few clubs, probably not more than two or three, enough to make more finds and explorations of International value.

Publications of new caves, other findings and world media will give us some highlight.

The message is new and captivating, what we do is a passion, not with the usual media fame hopeful intentions.

No speleologist has ever been made rich by his discoveries, except for that Petzl guy who started mass production of our peculiar tools. Very few indeed have made it to general fame, if any really.

We have a better, much truer objective than that. And the specialisations to find a number of new species, more archaeological finds, and more stunners of caves.

An objective I think is also a message others will pick up.


A satisfied speleo guy, Biyyu Negheya            Not just caves, Kundudo feral Horses


Some Holqaa Oromo, or Gursum Pearl speleothems. This marvel is unadapted to become a showcave.

                          Prepared for a German Delegation visit to the Sof Omar cave.

Marco, Finale Ligure, 20/02/2010

Professor Forti to join the next exploration of the Gursum Cave System

 A strong international team is preparing to visit the Gursum Pearl cave, my best find so far with the feral horse pack above it, by December this year. The bowels of the cave, as well as those of more spring caves I have identified are by now filled or nearly filled by rain waters, in spite of nearly failed 'Belg' or small rain falls. Until well after the end of the great rains, no exploration of the best caves is now possible.

In the meanwhile, I was honoured to be elected a member of the Gruppo Speleologico Prealpino, during a special ceremony last week, and we have opened contacts to assure the next mission will be endowed with the best available specialists. So far a contact has been made with Dr. Asfawosen Asrat, who will presumably be our host, as the only scientific speleologist in Ethiopia at present. I am asking him to help us form a National Speleological School in Gursum with the help of different international speleo clubs.

After a series of contacts, Eng. Rivolta has visited prof. Forti in Bologna a few days ago. He is the past President of the International Speleological Union, and a top world scientist accredited with some of the most significant studies in the field, author of arguably the most qualified book on caves ever produced. He is presently in charge of a series of studies in the Naica cave, the amazing recent discovery in Mexico holding 12 metre long gypsum crystals.

He will be in the next mission team with some of his close international collaborators. The original team, including five of Italy's best speleologist and a clever Frenchman, have confirmed their commitment, whilst more members of Italian groups the first team members came from have asked to participate.  

  Paolo Forti                             The Crystal Room at Naica

The first active limestone cave, on the Kundudo east slopes

The Kundudo reminds me of the Mountain I was born under, Campo dei Fiori, Varese, nearing the Swiss border in Northern Italy. Kundudo is a lot higher and prominent, though Campo dei Fiori (the Flower Field) is also seen from most of the north central Po valley, as the first mountain before the alps chain.

I couple them because Campo dei Fiori is the mountain where we helped form our ecological practical instinct, and we put our basic action research to good practice, founding a Regional Park.

Similarly, the Kundudo is worth becoming a reserve or a Feral Horse animal Sanctuary for a number of reasons: unique wildlife, astounding panoramas, a now all but lost primary forest we think we could partially restore, at least one significant newly found archaeological area and... unexpected caves.

To be frank, I think I discovered nothing new. Campo dei Fiori is the best known mountain in the central and western Italian pre-alps for its hundreds of smaller and extremely long active caves: I mean limestone caves being slowly, daily shaped by water in a chemical process that produces beautiful rock formations. The Kundudo is constituted by layers of limestones topped by a good two hundred meters of an astounding basalt "icing", forming its magic flat top, the Feral Horses' haven. So I asked around, and heard rumours of unexplored caves.

Gian Paolo Rivolta, me and young Marco Furlan had the privilege to be the first to enter with proper gear a cave found in 2004 by locals trying to understand where their water source came from, as in times of rains a great flow came from a newly discovered mouth up above the spring. Two brave locals, we could not gather their names yet, have gone inside for possibly 600 metres, while we think we found its exit much further. We explored just over 200 metres. We found, inside the cave, the source of the local spring, most likely the one mentioned by Richard Burton in his extremely famous travel book of 1854. 

  Gian Paolo Rivolta beginning the first cave eploration, 'Hubat', Biyyu Negga, Kundudo

The right to name the cave, usually indicated with the locality and a name, should be onto us. I have proposed to name it 'Hubat', from the not yet fully identified fief of warlord and local hero Ahmed Gragn.  A friend has objected this may displease Somalis, who classify Ahmed definitely as a Somali. I say, convinced, this should not be a problem to anyone, as borders were not like today's and one thing can be agreed by all: the area was in the middle ages under the Sultanate of Adal, sited in Zeila, Somalia's northernmost port, two hundred miles from Harar. Hubat was between Zeila and Harar, that is all we could retrace, though Gefra Guda, under Fugnan Hujuba on the eastern slopes of the Kundudo appears as a likely location for it. We hope, in fact, this may stimulate further research on the issue.

The cave is to the best of our knowledge the first of its kind to be explored in Ethiopia. Exploration and measurement requires technique and experience, as it is narrow and water filled.

So, this Sunday five of Italy's most renown speleologists, including Engineer Rivolta, a former National Speleologists' President, and Raschellá, his present successor and two Italian National speleology Instructors arrive in Addis for the feat. They will also map a noted lava cave in the Awash National Park, we presume, and open the first canyoning route in the Country, on the Immis stream falls on the awe-inspiring Kundudo North face. 

Marco, 5/02/2009

A peculiar cave

A startling find shocked a researcher from Turin University in 2004. Browsing through the millions of pages in the freshly opened Italian Military archives -fascist era- Dr. Matteo Dominioni came across a clear cut phrase: "800 passati per le armi": eight hundred executed by rifling.

It happened in April 1939 after the gassing of a special cave at Zeret, in Menz, just next to some of the most awe inspiring views in Ethiopia, in the magic of the Mahal Meda, next to amazing mountains populated by unique animals. 

The man who ordered the cold blooded killing of civilians after a siege was named General Ugo Cavallero. He was the chief of staff of the over 100,000 Italian soldiers in Ethiopia, by then part of a new Colonial Empire.

He was never and never will be tried for this, nor for the other crimes that brought to the gunning of women and kids in Zeret. Chief partisan Abebe Aregay, later a Prime Minister under Haile Selassie was the target of the repression, he was never caught.

The villagers who had taken refuge from the burning and pillaging of their homes were more than 1,500, probably 2,000. Few survived, as General Cavallero ordered the killing of all prisoners made.

We will open, explore and thoroughly map the cave for the first time since the battle and the atrocious indiscriminate killings. We know we will find bodies.

 The cave, many rooms, apparently a long inner unexplored extension. Water, air from within

One of Italy's top speleologist, Dr. Giampaolo Rivolta, former President of CAI Caves Group (Italian Alpine Club, over 400,000 members in hundreds of local sections) will be the scientific director, in charge of mapping the whole cave system and finding and exploring more caves in the area. We will also try to penetrate a cave on Mt Kundudo recently brought to light by Prof. Viganó.

I honestly hope this will bring some local and international acknowledgment of these sad facts, and bring some young Italians to learn from our awful mistakes. To grasp the meaning of the direct outlawing of any form of racism our Constitutional laws decree in article three.

We fight against rampant misunderstanding and racism outright, for the ending the criminal understatement and repeated violations by legislators themselves of article three of our fundamental law.

The Mancino laws, the present public order legislation deal with racism very mildly, after pressures by the racist Northern League. The provisions were designed to avoid prosecution of the likes of MP Mario Borghezio "the Italian Julius Streicher', under a law section dealing with free expression. Some right wing parties are systematically, in clear violation of article three, using racist attitudes and provoking fear of New Italians as an easy-go vote eliciting tool during all sort of election campaigns.

We hope our work will help future generations remember, be able to overcome hatred, dismiss electoral tricks that elicit racist crimes, as akin to Fascist race laws.


MUSIC: Ti saluto me ne vado in Abissinia an extremely popular farewell song of the Italian military leaving for Ethiopia. A real top of the charts selling a few hundred thousand 'Librettoes' from 1936 to the early forties.