"The most marvelous of all Abyssinian landscapes opened before us, as we looked across a gorge that was clouded amethyst to the peaks of Simyen. A thousand thousand years ago, when the old gods reigned in Ethiopia, they must have played chess with those stupendous crags, for we saw bishops' miters cut in lapis lazuli, castles with the ruby of approaching sunset on their turrets, an emerald knight where the forest crept up on to the rock, and, jar away, a king, crowned with sapphire, and guarded by a row of pawns. When the gods exchanged their games for shield and buckler to fight the new men clamoring at their gates, they turned the pieces of their chessboard into mountains.
In Simyen they stand enchanted, till once again the world is pagan and the titans and the earth gods lean down from the monstrous cloud banks to wager a star or two on their sport."
(Rosita Forbes, 1925. From Red Sea to Blue Nile-A Thousand Miles of Ethiopia.)
The Simyen (sometimes spelled Semyen, Simien, and various other adaptations from the Ethiopian alphabet) is an area of highland country in the northern part of Ethiopia, encompassing much of the eastern part of the province of Administrative Region of Begemdir. The word means ''north'' in Amharic, Ethiopia's official language. The geological description of the area, somewhat more prosaic than the above quotation by Rosita Forbes, says the Simyen massif is a "volcanic pile now bounded by gigantic erosional precipices on almost all sides." In addition to spectacular scenery, the region contains a number of unusual botanical phenomena and some of the rarest animals in the world. The walia ibex has its citadel among the peaks of the Simyen; the last 500 to 700 individuals of this species survive there. The Simien fox, also' very rare, is found nowhere else but in these mountains and in the highlands of southern Ethiopia. The gelada, a primate which looks like across, between a baboon and a lion, is another exclusively Ethiopian species which lives in this habitat. Probably about nine of the twenty-three species of birds which are endemic to Ethiopia are found in the Simyen. Little is known about the reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plant life so it is quite possible that species. new to science and unique to this area may yet be discovered among the chasms and the "giant chess pieces" portrayed by Rosita Forbes. In 1969, the wildest part of this region was gazetted as a national park.
The Simyen highlands constitute one of the major mountain massifs in Africa. The region includes many summits above 4,000 meters and culminates in the highest point in Ethiopia, Ras Dejen, at 4,543 meters (14,904 feet), the fourth highest mountain in Africa. Its. dramatic topography is the result of the erosion of basalt lavas which have been calculated to be nearly 3,000 meters thick.
During the Oligocene period of geological history (approximately 40-25 million years ago), volcanic activity of the "Hawaiian type"-i.e., an outpouring of lava like a pot of syrup boiling over, as contrasted to the explosive sort which throws chunks of hot rocks and ash high into the air-spread over a wide area which originally may have covered 15,000 square kilometers or more. The center of the cone lay in the present-day region of the Abba Yared, Selki, and Beroch Waha peaks
This lava spread and hardened slowly, forming a profile with gently sloping sides characteristic of Hawaiian-type volcanoes. The rocks beneath the lava were horizontal layers of Mesozoic (more than 70 million years ago) sandstone and limestone which in turn rested on a level Pre· Cambrian (over 600 million years ago) plain. The layers of rock were laid one on top of the other like the pages of a book. Here and there a relative weakness or crack in the massive block opened the way or erosion. During the Pleistocene, when the northern regions of the world were covered with glaciers, most of Africa was drenched in rain. The Simyen highlands had both: glaciation on the highest points, with rainfall pelting the rest. The cracks in the hard, resistant basalt, once begun, were widened and deepened by the floods that poured into them. Trenches some 1,500 meters deep (4,000 to 5,000 feet) were cut. The igantic kings and pawns of Rosita Forbes' description are the hard cores of volcanic outlets from which the surrounding material has eroded away.
Visitors to Ethiopia soon discover that climate is not merely an expression of latitude, but also of altitude. The Simyen region, though it is on the continent of Africa and not far from the equator, has temperatures which sometimes drop below freezing at' night. Hail and snow fall on the highest points and the resulting ice may remain for several days.
On the other hand, the sun's rays beat directly down and the rarified atmosphere does not act as an effective filter. The visitor should thus be prepared for warm days and the likelihood of sunburn. A few minutes' radiation at this latitude is equal to several hours of sunbathing at northern latitudes.
Maximum temperatures during the day are about 15° Centigrade (60° Fahrenheit). At night the temperature usually drops to 3°_5°C (35°-40°F). October, November and December are the coldest months, when the temperature is likely to go below freezing.
The season of the big rains begins in June and lasts through September. Travel is difficult during this time. Several rivers may be fooded and diffificult to cross, and trails are slippery. Fog frequently obscures the view throughout the day. Rain does not always fall in the morning, but during this season it almost invariably does in the afternoon.
Around September the rains decrease, the sky clears and most of the plants-green from having received a large amount of moisture-burst into bloom. Sporadic rainfall continues until around March, when the driest part of the season begins and the air becomes somewhat hazy. In exceptional years the region may be dry from the first of the year until the onset of the rains.