Ethiopia is a fascinating country, rich in history and culture and blessed with natural splendour. An ancient land from where modern humans are believed to have emerged, home to the remnants of past civilisations and centuries old but still extant tribal customs and religion, a journey to Ethiopia rewards the traveller with its enthralling natural, cultural and historical diversity.
Much of the fascination of Ethiopia lies in the various historical sites in the north of the country. The most famous is Lalibela where the rock-hewn churches that were carved between the 10th and 12th centuries, “with the help of angels”, are still in use today and are important places of pilgrimage for Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians. Each of the 11 churches of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is unique and carved from a single piece of granite with some connected by underground tunnels with caverns and galleries hewn from the rock.
The holy city of Aksum is a place of mystery. The centre of an important trading empire between the 1st and 7th centuries AD it had its own written language called Ge’ez and is noted for its engineering works including huge stone stelae marking the tombs of local rulers. Remhai’s stele is no longer erect but would have stood 33 metres tall while the still standing King Ezana’s stele measures over 24 metres and weighs 160 tons. Some of the tombs under these stelae have been excavated but much is still to be discovered by archaeologists. Ethiopian Christians believe that the Church of St Mary of Zion houses the Ark of the Covenant containing the stones on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed and some contend that the city was the site of the court of the Queen of Sheba.
Founded in the mid-17th century and site of Ethiopia’s capital for over two hundred years, Gondar is a city of castles and medieval architecture. The Royal Enclosure contains five castles including Emperor Fasilidas’ impressive fort complete with bathhouses and banqueting halls. The finest church in Gondar is the Debre Birhan Selassie, its ceiling decorated with winged angel heads and wall paintings depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary. Gondar is also the gateway to the spectacular Simien Mountains whose jagged peaks and deep valleys make for incredible vistas and where endemic wildlife such as Walia ibex and Gelada monkeys can be seen.
The town of Bahir Dar sits on the southern shore of Lake Tana and has palm-lined avenues and lake views. Lake Tana has numerous islands with ancient churches and monasteries where colourful frescoes of religious scenes and illustrated bibles can be seen. Close by are the Blue Nile Falls or the Tisissat Falls (“water that smokes”) where the Blue Nile plunges 45 metres. While less impressive than it used to be due to a hydroelectric plant diverting the river this is nevertheless still a pleasant trip.
Southern Ethiopia not only has great scenic beauty in its forests, mountains and Rift Valley lakes but is also culturally fascinating with numerous tribes living in the Omo Valley. There is a string of lakes found in the Great Rift Valley including Langano, which has a mountain backdrop and is a popular relaxation spot for watersports and bird watching, and Chamo and Abaya in the Nech Sar National Park. Bale Mountain National Park features diverse scenery and ecosystems including grasslands, forests, alpine moorland and the Sanetti plateau, home to the rare Ethiopian wolf. In the woodland and riverine forests of Mago National Park kudu, dik-dik, waterbuck and even elephant can be found and the park is also home to the Mursi, one of the most famous tribes of southern Ethiopia whose women stretch their lower lips with clay plates. Other tribes that can be visited include the pastoralist Hamer known for their beaded leather skirts, the Dasenetch with their dramatic scarification and the Konso renowned for their colourful, hand-woven clothes.
There is a lighter rainy season from February to April but travel is still possible at this time.
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