Ethiopian Excursion: Faux Felashas

Travel Weekly editor-at-large Arnie Weissmann continues his journeys through Ethiopia. Following is the fifth in an eight-part series telling the tales of his travels and travails:

he day-by-day scheduling of my three-week trip in Ethiopia was, as much as possible, worked out in advance, with flights and local guides prearranged. The planning was difficult, in part because the things I wanted to see were spread out across this large country. But also, as I was setting and resetting the itinerary, one high-priority item that guided many of my decisions was my desire to visit a Felasha village.

The Felasha are the black Jews of Ethiopia. Mystery surrounds how a "lost tribe" of Jews came to be present in Ethiopia -- local legend claims they are descendants of a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, while some anthropologists believe they first surfaced as a subculture just 300 years ago.

I carved out a day to visit a Felasha village that a local tour operator said was near the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar. I had arranged for a driver and guide to take me to the village, and I was picked up right on schedule.

A little ways out of town, we passed a sign welcoming us (in English) to the "Felasha Village." I asked my guide how many Felashas there were in the village -- I had heard many had emigrated to Israel.

"Well, actually," my guide said, "the Felasha Village has no Felashas."

"No Felashas? No Felashas in the Felasha Village?"

A woman and her daughter hurry to uncover souvenirs for a visitor to the Felasha Village.My guide hastened to reassure me. "Don't worry, it will be interesting. The Felashas taught the other villagers how they made their pottery before they left for Israel, so you can still get Felasha pottery."

"I'm not so much interested in the pottery as I am in talking with the Felashas. Are there any Felashas around the area?" I asked.

"Yes, there are many in Chilga, and in Ambober, there's a big synagogue there."

"Then let's go to one of those villages. How far away are they?" I asked.

"Chilga is too far away -- there is no time. Ambober is only three hours, but you need a four-wheel drive vehicle, and we don't have one."

"Can we get one?"

"No, we have none."

Before leaving the village, the Felasha showed their neighbors how to make their distinctive black pottery.The former neighbors of the Felasha in the Felasha village do their best to present a Felasha village for tourists, despite the absence of Felashas. A couple of homes sell black pottery similar to what the Felasha used to create. One woman pointed out a mezuzah (which Jews throughout the world put on their door posts) at the entrance to one of the village's homes. I asked if she knew what it signified, but she shook her head.

My guide asked if I wanted to see a synagogue, and I was brought to a round, empty, dark hut. I shined my flashlight around and saw a Star of David at the top of the center post.

There was nothing else to see. I went back to one of the homes selling the black pottery and I chose something that seemed to capture how I felt about reworking my itinerary a dozen times to get to a Felasha village that housed no Felashas.

My purchase was a small ceramic representation of the torso and head of a man. It was a fairly crude, disproportionate figure with uneven glaze. His overlarge face drew me to him -- he bore an uncanny resemblance to the figure crossing the bridge in Edvard Munch's famous painting, "The Scream."

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The Woven Collection.Arnie did the traveling, but you can win the souvenirs.

This week's prize, pictured here, is the Woven Collection, and includes a silk scarf depicting the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and a basket from Harar.

Just send an e-mail to Arnie at [email protected] for your chance to win this third of four prize groups. (Editors' note: This contest is closed.) 

Be sure to check back Thursday, July 26, where in his next installment, Arnie will trek to Lalibela.

For the complete archive of Arnie's Adventures in Ethiopia, click here.

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