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The Horn's Cornucopia of Living Cultures

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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.

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