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Anyone familiar with romantic literature will be familiar with the name Rasselas from Dr Johnson's fantastic tale that awed Europe two hundred years ago. A story of Abyssinian princesses condemned waiting in a mountain fortress until they were called for to ensure royal succession or until death took them. Just a tale? Maybe, but in the nineteen fifties a 21 year old oxford graduate called Thomas Pakenham decided to head off to the setting of these amazing tales and try to see for himself just how much of Johnson's story was myth and how much was based in truth. That journey proved to be more revealing than he could imagine. Pakenham went on to become a leading author in the field of African studies with a string of critically acclaimed books to his name. That would have been the end of the story if he had not, forty years after the original quest, decided to retrace his steps this time armed with a mature head and a lifetime of study. This sumptuous book is the result of his second journey.
The cover of this large format book is inviting in its own right, the front showing Pakenham and a local guide sat atop a mountain with and almost Martian landscape trailing off behind them. The back cover shows an expedition scene that could have graced Rider Haggard's, King Solomon's Mines and contains a rather teasing text blurb.
"Behind us would be the Ethiopia of the motor road: the progressive, unromantic, secure Ethiopia of Haile Selassie; ahead the unchanging, exotic, perhaps even perilous Ethiopia of Prestor John "
Standing on the dividing line of the modern and the medieval world he was about to plunge himself into a journey that would take him forward in distance and backwards in time. The journey is a fascinating one that weaves between the war torn and politically intriguing Ethiopia of the modern world where red tape and military posturing are the name of the game and a more spiritual and innocent past. But not only is this book able to compare the modern world with the medieval antics of Johnson's famous story, it is a fascinating comparison between this journey and the authors first expedition as a young man some forty years previously. The safer world Pakenham encountered under the almost feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie was swept away in the mid-seventies in a bloody revolution that put Colonel Menghistu and the country unwillingly joined the complex and brutal modern age.
But the book is not about the modern politics it is about retracing the steps of his own younger self into the heart of old Africa, the land of the Queen of Sheba, of Solomon, of Menelik and possibly even to the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. It is a journey that is breath taking, mountain vistas at one turn, vast open plains at another and the books reliance on wonderful photographs on almost every page bring this to light. It is a book that is as much about the imagery as it is about the text, with only about half of the 120 pages or so given over to a written account. It is a book that opens up a world that we thought no longer existed, a world were Christianity, Judaism and tribal paganism co-exist happily, where Coptic architecture sits cheek by jowl with mud huts and where the past and the present intermingle effortlessly. It is a book that will appeal to those interested in exploration, Africa in general, Ethiopia in particular and those interested in religious history, but above all it is worth it for the photographs alone, pictures that present a lost world of stark contrasts and sumptuous beauty, a world where we can all loose ourselves for a short time. A portrait of lavish yet simple images and a captivating yet effortless text.
A brilliant and definitive account of great military genius at work.