Ethiopia has its own Ethiopian mythology

Space exploration: Ethiopia's reach for the stars

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When Eyoas Ergetu pushes open the heavy steel door, there is nothing behind it but darkness. One might think that the conditions are perfect for observing the starry sky with a telescope. It's just eleven o'clock in the morning, outside the sun is beating down from the Ethiopian sky. And the lights should be on inside the telescope center. But the electricity is gone.

"That happens now and then," says system manager Ergetu and disappears. He descends a slope where there is a generator. When the lamps flicker a few minutes later, posters showing the planetary systems and the history of astronomy become visible on the walls. And in the entrance area, a large, flat box with the German label: "Risk of breakage! Do not throw" catches the eye. Eyoas Ergetu explains with obvious respect: "This is the packaging for the mirrors. The most important individual parts of the system."

He's breathing heavily. Repairs in the thin mountain air are exhausting. Up here, on the summit of the 3200 meter high Entoto, Addis Abeba's local mountain, is Ethiopia's first space observatory. It's a sensation that has been talked about down in the valley, which can only be seen blurredly from here, since it opened in 2014. The Entoto Observatory is "Ethiopia's entry into space," it writes Africa Business Magazine. The magazine Addis Fortune already sees its own country as a "new regional center of research". The Ethiopian Space Research Association, which was founded only 15 years ago but already has more than 10,000 members, has been in a hurry since then. Promises and promises should quickly become realities.

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The highly sensitive reflectors from Germany have long been built into the two telescopes. But these developments from Astelco, a company in the Bavarian town of Planegg, are too precious to throw away anything from the delivery. And be it the packaging. "A telescope like this costs $ 1.6 million. And without the mirrors in it, we can't do anything." But with them, 29-year-old Eyoas Ergetu can literally reach for the stars.

An advertising leaflet lists the research areas that are to be worked on here. The Ethiopian researchers want to measure the earth (geodesy) and explore the movement of the stars (astrophysics). You want to use satellite data for remote sensing. They want to research the influence of the sun on the earth's climate.

Internationally, the ambitious program aroused not only admiration, but also massive alienation. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty. According to the last survey from 2007, the literacy rate is just under 40 percent. Should this country, one of the largest recipients of international development aid, afford expensive space exploration equipment? Shouldn't it have got its earthly problems halfway under control first? After all, around five million US dollars have flowed into the project so far, in which the Ethiopian state is participating in addition to patrons.

Science historians have a completely different perspective on Ethiopia: If astronomical research has its ancestral place anywhere, it is here. Hardly any other country has such a rich tradition of astronomy that has left its mark in stories and history. In Greek mythology, Cepheus and Kassiopeia, rulers of an area called Aithiopia, which also included today's Ethiopia, are banished by the gods to the northern sky, where they have since been seen as constellations. In the 2nd century the poet Lukian of Samosata wrote in his book Astrology: "The Ethiopians were the first to invent the teaching of the stars. (...) From them this art was passed on to the Egyptians."

The Ethiopian Book of Enoch is part of the canon of the Orthodox Church, which is influential in the country. A section eleven chapters is entitled "Astronomical Book". It describes the earth as a column-supported disk, inhabited by two monsters - Behemoth, who lives in the desert, and Leviathan, who rages in the sea. In Ethiopia, people started thinking about the relationship between the earth and the universe very early on. Numerous astronomical farmer wisdoms provide information about how harvests will turn out and diseases can be cured.