One of our very well-travelled repeat clients mentioned to me that on their return from their trip to Ethiopia they were pinching themselves and were asking themselves, did we actually see that?”
This sums up perfectly the feeling that I had on my recent visit to Ethiopia and this is to have been let in on a secret, to get a glimpse of something very special, a country that has not yet fully explored all that it has to offer and a country that keeps on surprising its visitors with its generosity …
It is baffling to think that Ethiopia is so little known as a tourist destination.
Ethiopia has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other African countries and only Egypt can rival with Ethiopia’s cultural wealth and heritage.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gondar, Lake Tana island Monasteries and Axum are cultural gems. These sites are all located in the north of the country and create a wonderfully varied circuit.
One of my favourite visits was to take the boat to the Lake Tana island church of Ura Kidane Mehret (pictures below). It is a stunning example of a decorated wooden round church and the serenity of the peninsula with a few children, some monkeys and hornbills made the visit even more special.
Gondar is another cultural highlight and a charming town a few hours drive from Lake Tana. It was made a capital by Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century. Walking through medieval looking castles, palaces and banquet halls, it is easy to see that in its heyday it was a vibrant place.
One of the finest buildings standing is Debre Selassie church with its 100 angel faces and the legend has it that a swarm of bees saved the church from being destroyed.
You can also wander in the cobbled streets of Gondar’s colourful market with stalls selling spices, traditional dresses etc… I must mention that Gondar is also the gateway for Simien Mountains National Park which is only a couple of hours drive away. I didn’t have time to explore the park but know that it is well worth a couple of nights or more especially for those who like trekking.
In Axum, a dusty town close to the border with Eritrea, we were very privileged to be guided by Sam Walker, an American archaeologist currently employed by Axum University, who brought the site to life including the church St Mary of Zion which is believed to hold the Ark of the Covenant, Queen Sheba’s bath, Queen Sheba’s Palace, the stelae field and Axum Museum which was bursting with artefacts. Sam pointed out many areas that were waiting to be excavated and then visitors will appreciate the grandeur of the Aksumite empire.
The ancient Aksumite kingdom, which lasted from the 1st to the 8th centuries AD, was at the crossroads of three continents: Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman World, and was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. In command of the ivory trade with Sudan, its fleets controlled the Red Sea trade through the port of Adulis and the inland routes of north eastern Africa.
My last but not least stop in the cultural circuit is Lalibela. The famous town of Lalibela is an unassuming mountain town in a remote rural spot with exceptional views reminiscent of Scotland.
Its treasure, the rock-hewn churches, are incredible… 11 monolithic churches carved out of the rock around 900 years ago. The churches are sunken in the ground with their roofs at ground level; some linked by underground tunnels. It is believed that King Lalibela created a New Jerusalem for those who could not make it to the Holy Land. Lalibela is the 2nd holiest site in Ethiopia and regular religious rituals are at the centre of the town and at the centre of the daily life in the country in general… Intriguing processions and treasures hidden behind embroidered curtains in churches etc… make Ethiopia a living museum.
Apart from the Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941 Ethiopia was never colonised and the country has therefore had a chance to develop at its own pace with its own alphabet, its own calendar and idiosyncratic religion making it a fascination destination!