Ethiopia is a land steeped in ancient history, rooted in religion and guardian to some of the continent’s most impressive mountainous moonscapes. I offered a snapshot of my time in this incredible African country to Sure Travel Journey magazine.
Ethiopia. Knocking on Heaven’s Door.
Legend has it that in the 12th century an angel asked King Lalibela to construct the remarkable rock-hewn churches that now draw crowds of tourists to Ethiopia each year. In response he recruited the most skilled artisans from around the land to sculpt the arches, domes, windows and passageways, paying for their work with land, salt blocks and other currencies. It was a task that seems otherworldly and is said to have taken 23 years and six months for men working by day and angels by night to complete these impressive, monolithic temples.
Today a Unesco World Heritage site, the churches and the trenches and tunnels that link them are justifiably ranked as the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Exploring them with a guide, I came to understand the mystery that surrounds them: reachable only on foot or by mule until a couple of decades ago, they pre-date their European equivalents by centuries.
Travelling in Ethiopia for a week, with a focus on the country’s popular historic circuit in the North, my route has me arriving in the capital, Addis Ababa, before flying to Lalibela, Axum and Gondar. Each city holds a significant place in the history of this prominent land.
The Land of Origin
Ethiopia has a remarkable diversity, which is reflected across its 12 provinces and nine Unesco World Heritage Sites. Within its borders, you will find the world’s fourth-holiest Islamic city, the oldest continuously occupied town south of the Sahara, the mediaeval rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and Gheralta, ruined palaces and temples dating back 3 000 years and the oldest human fossils unearthed anywhere on the planet.
For the nature lover, the beautiful Simien and Bale Mountains and the painted volcanic landscapes of the Danakil Depression are home to mammals and birds not found anywhere else in the world, including the elusive Ethiopian wolf. Adding to the authenticity is the fact that Ethiopia has never been colonised, despite desperate attempts by Italy in the late 19th Century.
With 82 tribes’ distinct languages and traditions making up a population of over 90 million people, each corner of the land offers a different understanding of its people.
Out and About in Addis
Bordering the Great Rift Valley, Addis Ababa is the country’s commercial and cultural hub. Its National Museum exhibits distinctly Ethiopian art, traditional crafts and prehistoric fossils, including replicas of the famous early hominid, “Lucy”. The impressive Ethnological Museum at the University’s main campus has been set up to preserve the country’s heritage and is home to more than 13 000 items, such as religious manuscripts, ceremonial tools, paintings, books and exquisitely embroidered robes.
There’s always a buzz in the air and the streets are a vibrant mix of old and new, with traditional vendors trading next to trendy designer boutiques. Don’t miss Addis Mercato, an open-air sprawl of vendors with incredible goods that goes on for kilometres. For something more artisanal visit Garden of Coffee, who source the country’s finest beans.
Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem
Ethiopia was one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity and has historical roots dating back to the time of the Apostles.
The churches of Lalibela form part of the country’s unique living heritage and are still in use today. Priests pray and counsel in their hallowed chambers, accessed through well-worn tunnels, stone walkways and small wooden doors, the surrounding walls potholed with temporary shelters for the pilgrims who have journeyed here over the centuries to catch sight of the New Jerusalem.
An iconic symbol of this is Saint George’s Church, or Bete Glyorgis, shaped like a cross and carved out of the volcanic rock. As much as your time will be spent marvelling at the churches, at the close of day visit the architecturally impressive Ben Abeba restaurant, which is perched for the perfect sundowner spot and serves delicious injera, a traditional large sourdough flatbread made out of fermented teff flour.
Today a UNESCO world heritage site, the churches and the trenches and tunnels that link them are justifiably ranked as the eighth wonder of the ancient world.
Keeper of the Covenant
Axum is one of the most photogenic places I’ve visited, the buildings that line the streets are faded shades of blue and green, with wood-laden donkeys and camels weaving their way between dated cars and children hustling to sell silver crosses and hand-carved souvenirs.
At the end of the main road, the last of the tall obelisks for which the town is known dominates the skyline, while others lie fallen alongside them. The main Obelisk of Axum is 1 700 years old, 24 metres tall, made of granite and weighs 160 tons.
Researchers have uncovered a number of tombs in Axum since the 1970s, but sadly tomb raiders have pillaged many and only one such grave, the Tomb of the False Door, is now open to visitors.
Nearby the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion draws worshippers to prayer. In a small adjacent chapel, a specially appointed monk keeps watch over the Ark of the Covenant, said to have been brought here by Menelik, son of Queen Sheba and King Solomon. Here I catch sight of the guardian monk through the gate and try to engage him in conversation, but he is interested in neither that nor having his photo taken.
Instead, I admire the beautifully adorned walls and murals of the cathedrals, as well as the hand-painted bible that the resident priest reads from daily. Studying a page a day, it takes a year for him to work his way from start to finish.
Land of Castles and Churches
Until the 17th century, Ethiopia had no capital – the ruling class moved about their territory in mobile royal camps. The history of Gondar begins in 1636 when Emperor Fasilides ended the caravan tradition and settled here to build the Royal Enclosure, Fasil Ghebbi.
Walking through the ruins of the six castles that make up the compound with our specialist guide, we are talked through the unique architecture and shown the decorative tiles, woodwork and masonry that still stand centuries later. I could almost hear the lavish parties that took place on either side of the grand walls centuries ago.
The Debre Birhan Selassie, or Trinity and Mountain of Light Church, was built in the 17th century by Emperor Eyasu II, the grandson of the great Emperor Fasilides, with restoration done in the 1880s following damage by marauding Sudanese Dervishes. Built by an emperor and preserved by an archangel, this is one of Ethiopia’s top tourist attractions.
From the outside the little church is unassuming, but inside you immediately understand why it is famed for its beautiful art. Every inch of wall and ceiling is covered with elaborate murals, including a ceiling with 123 winged cherubs that represent the omnipresence of God. Set in the highlands north of Lake Tana, Gondar makes a good base from which to explore the nearby Simien Mountains.
Your Travel Planner
GETTING THERE: Ethiopian Airlines flies from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban into Addis Ababa. As the fastest-growing airline in Africa, Ethiopian Airlines travels to 55 African cities and more than 100 international destinations. Daily flights offer a minimal layover in Addis Ababa, with particularly good connections to the East and Europe.
STOPOVER: Ethiopian Airlines offers a range of affordable stopover packages via Ethiopian Holidays, which enable you to explore Addis Ababa en route to one of the 100 international destinations. Your Sure Travel agent will have all the details.
PAPERWORK: South African citizens can get tourist visas on arrival at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport; the current cost is US$50 for one month and US$75 for three months.
CURRENCY: Ethiopian Birr. It would help if you drew cash from an ATM on arrival, as credit cards are not widely used.
EATING OUT: According to the widely followed Ethiopian Orthodox Church, every Wednesday and Friday are fasting days, which means no eating of meat or animal products – this makes for an abundance of delicious veggie meals to choose from!
LANGUAGE: The official language is Amharic, although English is quite widely spoken.
SHOPPING: Ethiopia is an incredible place for shopping, with traders of art, jewellery, fabrics and artefacts found in each centre.
TOP TIP: It is important to dress modestly at religious sites, including a head cover, a long skirt and a scarf to cover your arms. Comfortable walking shoes make it easier to navigate the tunnels and passageways at ancient sites.
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** I was invited as a guest of Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian Tourism, travelling with them and hosted throughout in collaboration with Lesley Simpson Communications, travelling to Addis Ababa, Gondor, Axum and Lalibela, exploring the ancient land.