The Horn's Cornucopia of Living Cultures

AFRICAN ARK. Photographs by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Text by Graham Hancock, Harry N. Abrams, 320 pp., $65

THE Great Rift Valley tears right through the center of East Africa - from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania up through the highlands of central and northern Ethiopia.

And just as Olduvai Gorge has provided fossil evidence of mankind's origins, the Horn of Africa embraces a living mosaic of cultures that provide a surprising counterpoint to the evolution of the Western tradition.

``African Ark'' records this cultural mix. But it isn't simply a picture book. Although the images are captivating, this book reveals the Horn of Africa as an extraordinary reservoir of intense religious commitment. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and native beliefs can be traced back in unbroken threads of faith a thousand years long.

Priests and deacons of Ethiopia's Christian church still make a procession from the hewn rock churches of Lalibela to the banks of the Jordan River, testifying, as Graham Hancock puts it, ``to the power and spirit of the archaic Christian faith ... that, at the end of the second millennium, retains its hold on hearts and minds in the Ethiopian north with an undiminished vigour.''

Fewer than 15,000 falashas, Jews of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, remain after more than a thousand years of conflict with Christians and Muslims. They adhere strictly to the teachings of the Torah, which is written in Ge'ez, the church's liturgical language, rather than in Hebrew. Despite their standing at the bottom of Ethiopia's economic ladder (Ethiopia ranks as the second-poorest nation in the world on a per capita basis), the faith of the Jews is steadfast.

Islam came to the region during Muhammad's lifetime. Arab traders plied waters on the coast of East Africa - from Ethiopia and Djibouti in the north to Kenya and Mozambique in the south. They traded for myrrh, ivory, incense, and gold from the African interior to carry to destinations in the Middle East and the Orient.

Hancock says that Islam ``sits lightly'' on the warlike Somalis. Not that they aren't good Muslims. But Somalis are a nomadic race whose policy of ``might makes right'' tends to bring violence into many aspects of life.

Clan obligations, scarce resources, and a thousand years of Islam bind together a unified culture. But the combined influences also brutally divide the nation along political and economic lines.

Today, war rages between Somali tribes and the country's government. In Ethiopia, rebel Eritreans, Tigr'eans, and others continue a 30-year civil war. Fifteen million people are threatened by famine in Ethiopia, Somalia, and southern Sudan.

Through both pictures and words, the reader discovers what Hancock describes as the ``unquenchable life force'' of the people of this region.

Well-known photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher undertook five years of travel and research to build this collection of sensitive and nonintrusive photos. The photography is well organized, rich, and revealing, drawing the reader quickly through desolate canyons and exquisite wilderness.

Hancock's engaging text suggests that determination and inspiration define the character of the people in the Horn of Africa. The photos provide evidence for that claim.

The result is a convincing visual archive that demands respect.

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