review: the chains of heaven

Title: The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance

Author: Philip Marsden

Genre: creative nonfiction, travel 

Form: paperback

Recommended: Yes

Thoughts:  At age 21 Marsden tried to travel Ethiopia, but was quickly shut out as the nation was collapsing in conflict. Two decades later he was able to fulfill his dream and walks through northern Ethiopia visiting churches and remote monasteries along the way. Marsden winds his story of walking with the history of the region in such a way that past becomes present as history lives through the people he meets. At times there is more history filled with hard to pronounce (much less remember) names than there is story, but as a whole, The Chains of Heaven leaves you with a vivid image of Ethiopia that entices you to put on your walking shoes. 


There were a few great quotes in this book, and I can’t resist including to excerpts here. I hope you enjoy: 

“Ethiopia taught me many things. As a naive twenty-one-year-old, with years of flunked schooling behind me, I was ready for the simplest of lessons. Instead I was presented with paradoxes. I learnt of the cruelty that could be perpetrated in the name of a good idea. I saw how a people hurtling towards catastrophe, hungry, with population growth out of control, could go on living day to day with such astonishing grace. I saw how those apparently ignored by divine goodness could still apply their greatest energy to worship. I learnt that the human spirit is more robust than life itself.

Ethiopia opened my eyes to the earth’s limitless range. I pictured the country’s startling scenes and stories multiplied across the globe, then factored up by the past. It made the notion of ‘a small world’, ‘a shrinking world’, look absurd, and it made me restless. 

Ethiopia instilled in me the habit of a lifetime, the habit of travel. It revealed the rewards that can be had simply from being footloose among strangers, from taking remote and narrow paths with bare-legged farmers. It bred in me the conviction 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.” pg 21


“Outside the church gates, two hundred men had gathered for their monthly council. They sat in the dust, on bare banks and knuckle-like boulders. They were clustered beneath the cooling foliage of eucalyptus. I stood in the shad with Hiluf and we watched. 

One among them rose to his feet. 

‘I bought fertilizer. The kebelle [administrative district] gave me the money and said, You can pay us after harvest. But the size of the harvest was too small. Now they want much more money.’

A debtara [non-ordained church official, responsible for the music and danching, often expert in herbal lore] answered. ‘You must be careful to pay back as early as you can. Even if your maize is not growing, the amount to pay still grows.’

Another stood. ‘They told us we must dig a hole for a pond. They said they will give us a sheet. Well I have dug my hole and they say there is no sheet.’

‘I have dug a hole too. My cattle fell in and couldn’t get out.’

‘Put brush around it. At kermet [the season of ‘big’ rains, typically late June to early September] God will provide water.’

‘Last kermet the water did not fill the pond even half — now it is all gone…’

For some time the complexities of rural life were aired, a life in which development schemes arrived like the weather, God-given: sometimes they brought salvation and sometimes they brought disaster.” pg 248-250

2 Replies to “review: the chains of heaven”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *