Welcome to Ethiopia

As you begin to explore Ethiopia you will find many questions emerging: is the oldest human being Ethiopian? Why is there a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (sacred Jewish chest containing the 10 Commandments given to Moses) in every Ethiopian Orthodox church? Was the Queen of Sheba from Ethiopia? Why are the Lalibela rock churches so important? Did the Portugese really build castles in Ethiopia? To answer these questions, most visitors to Ethiopia, head for the northern circuit, traversing many mountain passes and river valleys north of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital).

Nestled in these mountains is Lake Tana, the source of the Nile, with secluded island churches, and the impressive Blue Nile Falls. In the mountains north of Lake Tana, in the center of the city of Gonder, there are 16th Century castles with both Portuguese and Indian influences. The grand Simien Mountains Park, only a few hours north of Gonder, has 4,000 meter mountains ready to be explored. Further north and not far from the Eritrean border is the modern and ancient religious center of Axum, home to the Ark of the Covenant and the Queen of Sheba’s palace. East of Axum is the region of Tigrai with its pinnacled mountain scenery and hidden rock churches. South of Tigari, is the most famous site in Ethiopia: Lalibela, where you can enter the 12 rock-hewn churches of the New Jerusalem together with many Ethiopian pilgrims. If you have a little extra time, we would recommend Harar, what Muslim Ethiopians regard as their most important town, and possibly the Fourth Holiest city in the Muslim world. The old city is surrounded by a wall dating back to the 16th Century and a colorful warren of alleyways.

There is plenty to enjoy naturally in this diverse country; mountains, farms, villages, the occasional herd of camels, delicious food and most importantly the warm-hearted people of Ethiopia. If you are short on time, you can fly between towns but it is well worth taking the time to be driven, so you will have more opportunity to experience all the life which runs alongside the roads.

The map highlights the most popular destinations in Ethiopia. Why not take some time before connecting with us, and scroll down and read about each location and find some helpful information…

Understand and Experience:

* a boat ride on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, and visit a few island churches with their priests.

* the climb to several rock churches in the Tigrai mountains; sit in the church and listen to the resident priest tell his story.

* a night out in Gonder, eat Injira at a local restaurant then try out a traditional dance.

* a coffee tour, as Ethiopia is the place where it all started.

* waking up early in Lalibela and entering the rock churches with local believers wrapped in their white prayer cloth, chanting prayerfully.

* in September, stand amongst 250,000 people in Addis Ababa and celebrate Meskel.

*  with a local guide explore within the old walls of Harar, through narrow alleys, into the spice market, and after sunset feed a hyena meat on a stick!

Addis Ababa – growing and colourful capital

Ethiopia’s capital city is set within mountains. It is a fast-growing city and as you wander some of the streets, it feels African yet with the unique color and texture of Ethiopia’s rich cultural mix and influences from further north in Africa.

The Ethiopian National Museum is an excellent introduction to Ethiopian history and heritage and prepares you well for the highlights of the country. On the first floor there is a large drawing of a representation of the first human being, but in contrast, nearby hangs an oil painting of Emperor Halle Selassie, ornately endowed in his royal robes.

As you visit Ethiopian Orthodox churches both in the capital and especially out in the countryside, you realize that their Christian beliefs are still very evident and uniquely Ethiopian, visually depicted in the colourful art inside the churches.

Understand and Experience:

* the deeply rooted Christian faith of most Ethiopians. There is so much to learn and understand; for example, Jewish religious objects in every church. A replica of the Ark of the Covenant is found in every Orthodox church. When a new church is built, the Ark, a chest, is made from the wood of the olive tree of the church from which the new church was started. It is stored in the most holy place in the church and brought out only once a year.

* Meskel religious celebrations, “Finding of the Cross” during September in the main square with 250,000 other people.

* some of Ethiopia’s unique and delicious food and coffee; make sure you are with an Ethiopian who can explain what you are eating. Each meal is an adventure in itself.

Bahir Dar – source of the Blue Nile

Bahir Dar is ideally located on the southern edge of Lake Tana, which is the natural basin where the sources of the Blue Nile River find their resting place before plunging over the Tis Abay falls, and onward down through spectacular gorges into Sudan.

This is the place to base yourself as you explore the many islands within the lake and visit the colourful churches on many of the islands. They are full of art depicting biblical and cultural stories and are still important places of worship today. Menichel, a son of a local priest and a local guide, and will help you begin to navigate Ethiopian Church history and culture.

If you drive between Addis and Lake Tana, a must-see is the famous pilgrimage monastery of Debre Libanos, which is located near a deep picturesque gorge.

Understand and Experience:

* why there are churches on some of the islands in lake Tana. Ask your guide, together with a local priest, about some of the stories depicted in the churches.

* the importance and use of water in Ethiopia. Find out what is being done with water resources to try and avoid famine.

Gonder – castle capital of the north

In the center of this high altitude town is a 17th century castle complex, where you can imagine Ethiopia’s earlier Emperors walking the grounds. Many of the castles have strong Portuguese influence in their design.

Nearby at Emperor Fasilida’s pool, is a large enclosure which is filled with water once a year for a religious festival (between 18 and 20 January). One can see thousands of pilgrims enter the water hoping to be washed of their sins, and blessed and sprinkled with its holy water. Another highlight is Debre Birhan Selassie, an old church in the town, famous for the ceiling, on which some 80 faces of angels are painted.

About 5km from Gonder is Wolleka, once a Falasha village. Ask your guide about Jewish influence in Ethiopian church history and practice. You will find out that many Ethiopian Falasha Jews currently reside in Israel, ask how that happened.

Understand and Experience:

* more Ethiopian cuisine. Either for lunch or dinner let your guide take you to a local restaurant and try to find out what kitfo and shiro taste like. Remember to wash your hands before you eat.

* traditional praise singing. Visit one of Gonder’s specialised traditional bars and there you will find a man playing a masinko and a woman singing. You can even suggest lines for her to sing. You’ve got to loosen your shoulders to dance like an Ethiopian, and we are sure you will have a lot of fun.

Simien Mountains – rugged beauty at its best

Several hours north of Gonder are the very impressive mountains of Simien National Park. You can visit the area in 1 day from Gonder or take multi-day treks through high villages and along its spectacular escarpment. Some of the peaks are over 4,000m high and you are very likely to see the famous Gelada baboon with its red heart, and if you are very lucky you may see the rare mountain ibex.

The mountain park is well run and has adequate camping facilities (bring your own tent). A good option is to hire a donkey or two to carry your tent and food. You can use a day pack to carry water, a warm jacket and some energy food. A guide is compulsory.

Understand and Experience:

* the enjoyment of walking through high mountain villages then onto the high plain. At times during the walk, the drop over the edge of this escarpment is immense, with the valley more than 1,000m vertically below where you are standing.

* Spring time; especially during October, you may see many flowers, such as the red hot poker, a flower native to Africa.

Axum – religious heart of Ethiopia, full of mystery

Driving from Simien to Axum, or from Gonder to Axum, takes the good part of a day but is an experience of the rare beauty of the Ethiopian highlands, up and down steep mountain passes, over rivers and through simple towns and villages.

Axum is the religious capital of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and full of great mystery. The grounds of the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam signify the place where Ethiopia’s first church was built. Behind the modern church amongst some buildings resembling the castles of Gonder (because Emperor Fasiidas built many of them), is an outbuilding containing the Tabor, or Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is believed to have been taken from King Solomon in Israel several hundred years before Christ and kept safely in Ethiopia. There is no way you can get to see it. Near the church that houses the covenant are some 75 burial stelae for past Kings, some more than 20m high.

There are monasteries behind the town and walking between them can help you walk in the footsteps of many Ethiopians, who regard visiting and caring for the monasteries and their monks a welcome religious duty. Another mystery is the Queen of Shebaʼs palace which is located just outside the town. She is often historically linked to Sheba, a kingdom in South West Arabia, today called Yemen. Yet there seems to be historical evidence that Sheba’s kingdom may have had strong links with a kingdom in Axum. Is there a possibility that the Queen of Sheba lived in Axum?

Although you shouldn’t take all you hear for granted, one thing is certain: as you visit Axum’s unique sites, you may begin to acknowledge that the history of Ethiopia is not quite what you expected and you might question how it all developed to what it is today.

Understand and Experience:

* take a walk from Kaleb’s palace to Debre Liqanos Monastery and enjoy the views on the way. Extend your walk a further 5 kilometers and visit one of Ethiopias oldest churches at Pantaleon Monastery, perched atop a pinnacle. Abba Pantaleon was one of the ‘Nine Saints’ who fled to Ethiopia from Syria in the 6th Century A.D.

* spend time around the Tsion Maryam Cathedral during prayers in the evening. As you sit under a tree in the garden, watch and listen to the faithful respond to chants and hear the daily teaching; this may help you understand how this faith is kept alive.

Tigrai – rock churches nestled amongst the pinnacles

More mountain scenery spoils you as you travel between Axum and the Tigrai region, but you should not miss the many and varied monasteries on the way. One at Debre Darro (men only for religious reasons, sorry ladies) requires pulling oneself up a 15m rope, which represents a snake that helped one of the ‘Nine Saints’, Abba Aregawi, reach the summit and later build a monastery.

In Tigrai itself are several jagged mountain peaks housing isolated rock-churches tucked into high cliffs, some of which require some brave climbing to reach their entrances. Try and find Abuna Yemata Guh or Debre Maryam Korkor, but do walk these with a local guide and meet the local priest at the church. NB: You will need a good level of fitness to enjoy walking in these mountains.

If you are less athletic, there are some churches nearer to the road and easily accessible. Possibly one of the best in Tigrai is Abreha we Atsheha, which has a large interior and beautiful murals telling many biblical and local stories.

Understand and Experience:

* the reason for rock hewn churches, especially those high up in the mountains. You may want to give yourself a few days based near Hawzien to fully appreciate this remote and beautiful place.

* travelling the country with an Ethiopian guide. Watch some of their attitudes as they approach places of worship and engage with their monks and priests. Ask them their interpretation of some of the murals in the churches.

Lalibela – pilgrim town for all

Before and during the 12th century, traveling to Jerusalem in Israel had become unsafe. So the king at the time, King Lalibela, decided this capital town would become the alternative place for pilgrimage. He decided that 12 churches should be hewn out of rock. Some of these churches are carved more than 20 meters into the bedrock and are within an important World Heritage site. Celebrated by many as one of the Wonders of the World, these churches are often identified with Ethiopia as the Sphinx and Giza Pyramids are with Egypt. What is most enjoyable is that to this day, the town still plays a key role in the Ethiopian Orthodox church.

The hilltop location of Lalibela is delightful and like many locations in northern Ethiopia, you need to enjoy walking a little. Take heart from the fact that these sites are frequently visited by local people, some coming, even walking, from as far as Addis Ababa. Pilgrimage is still important for many Ethiopian Christians, and effort is an important part of the experience. Try and visit all 12 churches and find out how they were built, and walk through the connecting passages (watch your head) and feel like a pilgrim.

A must-see is the Monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos, several hours from Lalibela up a long valley. Built into a large cavern, its internal wood finishes and design are quite beautiful.

Understand and Experience:

* morning prayers. Get up early (about 6am) and enter the churches with Ethiopians as they go to pray. Try and not talk to each other but enter into the experience of prayer

* sunset over the churches. End your tour later in the day at Bet Giyorgis, possibly Lalibela’s finest rock church. Head across the Jordan river valley, which separates the 2 clusters of Lalibela churches, and climb up the nearby hill for great views of most of the rock churches and the valley below.

Harar – old walled Islamic city

Harare is surrounded by a wall that dates back to the 16th century. This is regarded as Islam’s 4th most important town behind: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem and is well worth spending several days exploring the many narrow roads and alleyways.

Understand and Experience:

* sleep a few nights in one of the beautifully preserved local homes within the walls and during the days walk the alleys and markets with a guide. After sunset go just outside the city walls and feed a hyena, which are called daily to feed off meat on sticks held in your hand or even in your mouth!

HOST :   Zerihun

Zerihun has been a good friend since our first visit to Ethiopia in 2010. He is a very friendly and knowledgable man and has his own tour company that we partner with. He also has vehicles and drivers that we use for our tours. Ethiopia cannot be fully appreciated without meeting people like Zerihun and his drivers.