For his fifth travel book, Philip Marsden has returned to his roots; not to his native Cornwall, but to the country that gave birth to his travel writing. Marsden first visited Ethiopia in the early 1980s when he was 21, when Emperor Haile Selassie was long in his grave and when the country was ruled by the Derg, a military junta led by the future dictator Mengistu. Civil war and repressive government had cast a pall of misery over the country and Marsden’s journey suffered for it — he was refused permission to travel to Tigray, the historical heartland in the north of the country and a province that had long been at odds with the administration in Addis Ababa.
If Ethiopia was, in the words of his guide, ‘a living hell’, it was also the inspiration for Marsden’s first book, A Far Country, and for an early epiphany. Looking back on that visit, Marsden recognises that Ethiopia showed him ‘that if there is any purpose to our time on this earth, it is to understand it, to seek out its diversity, to celebrate its heroes and its wonders — in short, to witness it’. In The Chains of Heaven, he returns to Ethiopia to visit, to understand, and to bear witness to Tigray.
The intervening years seem to have changed the author more than the destination. Marsden has developed into a writer of prodigious gifts with a fascination for remote, spiritual, difficult places. Ethiopia, meanwhile, remains cloaked in mystery, a place of many wonders and just as many horrors. He has a great appetite for the former and a great resilience to the latter. Here, he is a tough traveller on a gruelling trek across the soaring hills and deep chasms of Tigray to the ancient city of Aksum. He is also a born storyteller in a place where everyone seems to have a head-shaking story to share. One of my favourites relates the experience of some monks on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, who head north, suffering many hardships along the Nile and in the desert. But they had not anticipated the Mediterranean, and when they reach its shores they decide it is God’s will that they should turn around and return home. Another writer might have allowed himself a smirk, but Marsden accepts each marvel in the manner in which it is given.
The Chains of Heaven contains two returns. One is the physical journey to Ethiopia. The other is a return to a simpler, purer, in some ways old-fashioned form of travel writing. Marsden is not a writer who would consider travelling around Ethiopia with a fridge. He might, however, have been tempted to follow Bruce Chatwin by looking in his grandmother’s cabinet for a pretext for travel. But he has not. Instead, he has embarked on a journey that has obviously been chafing his mind for the past 20 years. It has its drawbacks — constant movement tends to allow only the briefest of contact with people met along the way. But the journey clearly suits the subject: Ethiopia’s unique character, its independence, its Christianity in a part of Africa that is predominantly Muslim, have all been shaped by its landscape, which Marsden walks across with a sharp eye, a quick wit and a childlike appetite for all that is wonderful in the world. In so doing, he brings us close to one of the most remote and most exotic countries in the world, and creates one of the best travel books of the year.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 3, 2005