Ethiopia's magical history tour

By Judith Baker, a Travel Professional

Read more on Ethiopia.

Overall rating:5.0 out of 5 (based on 3 votes)
Enjoyable
4.666665
4.7
Useful
5
5.0
Inspirational
5
5.0
Recommended for:
Activity, Cultural, Adventure, Expensive, Mid-range

Largely ignored by tourists, Ethiopia has some of Africa's most dramatic scenery and a wealth of fascinating cultural sights that reveal the mysteries of ancient civilisations

Ethiopia’s magical obelisks and ancient monasteries have brought travellers to this part of Africa for centuries, yet this feels like an unexplored destination. The country is still associated in many people’s minds with famine and civil unrest, when the world forgot about the treasures of Gondar and Lalibela, and the richness of Axum, the centre of the Axumite civilisation, which existed 1,000 years before Christ. Now, it is ripe for exploration, and budding explorers and hikers alike will find much to fascinate them.

Like most travellers to Ethiopia, we landed in Addis Ababa, starting point for any tour of the country. The world’s third highest capital is a bustling, dusty city of five million people. It boasts the Mercato, the largest open-air market in Africa, and Kidist Selassie (Holy Trinity Cathedral), which is the final resting place of the late Emperor Haile Selassie. The national museum is one of the best in Africa, with exhibits that include the remains of “Lucy” – a 3½-million-year-old hominid – as well as artefacts from the Axumite and Gondarine periods.

The historical route

From Addis Ababa, we headed to Bahir Dar to set sail across the lovely blue waters of Lake Tana and see its mystical monasteries dating back to the late 16th century. The waters are traversed by papyrus reed boats, called tankwas, which differ little from those depicted on the tombs of the pharaohs. We were lucky enough to spot hippos and white pelicans as we sailed majestically past 20 monasteries, surviving remnants of an old, contemplative tradition. Because of their isolation, they were used to store art treasures and religious relics from all parts of the country. Willing helpers helped me negotiate the rocky road to the 13th-century Monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret, with beautiful painted maqdas and a collection of crosses and crowns.

I needed more nimble-footed helpers when we climbed to the thundering Tis Issat Falls, on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile. Luckily, many were on hand, accompanied by their sturdy sticks and followed by amused, wide-eyed children, who asked for nothing more than a smile or a Biro.

In Lalibela, we visited one of the world’s most fascinating historical sites – the rock-hewn churches believed to have been built by King Lalibela in the late 12th or early 13th century. In these remarkable monolithic structures, we walked though dark, cavernous tunnels, holding candles to help us find the way. The sunlight flooded in through the small arched windows of a hidden church, illuminating colourful wall paintings telling stories from the Bible. A priest appeared, dressed in sumptuous robes and holding aloft a silver cross.

Next stop on the historical circuit is Gondar, known as Ethiopia’s Camelot because of its fairytale castles. Here, in the church of Debre Zeit, hundreds of wide-eyed angels observed us shuffling on the cobbles on our bare feet. Gondar is also home to King Fasiladas’s palace. In January, when Timkat, Ethiopia's most widely celebrated festival, marks the baptism of Christ, this is considered the best place to be, as crowds gather to jump into the waters of King Fasiladas's baths.

Our final stop was Axum, home to three magnificent monolithic stelae, carved from single pieces of granite. The Church of St Mary of Zion is here, and, reputedly, the mystical Ark of the Covenant. En route, we visited the archaeological remains of the Queen of Sheba’s Palace. Indiana Jones was probably hiding there, too.

We were in Ethiopia just weeks before the rain, and the bright sunlight highlighted the country‘s spectacular views, including the vast Rift Valley and the Simien Mountains National Park, a World Heritage Site that contains some of the most dramatic scenery in Africa, with many peaks over 4,000 metres. Endemic mammals and birds, and a variety of contrasting habitats, added a fascinating natural dimension to our historical tour.

These days, Ethiopia is one of very few countries in Africa that are relatively safe to explore. Sadly, much of the continent is out of bounds to tourists, but despite an image tainted by famine and war, Ethiopia is conflict-free and has a low crime rate. The people we met on our tour were friendly and welcoming: one family invited us into their home – a tukel – where we shared the local speciality, inerja (large pancake-style bread, which is served with spices), and probably the best coffee I’ve ever tasted

Useful to know

Ethiopia boasts ‘13 months of sunshine’ - the Julian calendar it uses creates an extra month. Food and drinks are inexpensive; the local bars and cafes offer reasonable fare and are safe and welcoming. Worth trying is the delicious honey beer.

The shops and markets are a paradise for bargain-hunters and it was impossible for me to leave without two pieces of exquisite silver jewellery, a couple of hand-crafted rugs and at least a dozen pictures of those wide-eyed angels.

Country information is available from Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) or from the Embassy website (www.ethioembassy.org.uk).

Where to stay

Although hotels across Ethiopia are comfortable, they often lack the sophistication modern travellers expect. However, the Kuriftu Resort and Spa on Lake Tana and its sister resort in Debre Zeit (50kms south of Addis Ababa) look set to start a new trend. They are beautifully designed resorts with accommodation in grass-topped bungalows. The owners plan to build eight other similar five-star resorts along the historical route.

Other hotels on the historical circuit include the Roha Hotel in Lalibela, the Goha Hotel in Gondar and the Yeha Hotel in Axum. Addis Ababa has a wealth of top hotels, including the Sheraton.

Getting around

Although travel between the sites is possible by road, the easiest way to make this trip is by internal Ethiopian Airlines flights, which go to Gondar, Axum, Lalibela and Bahar Dar as well as other Ethiopian destinations.

Car hire is available but not recommended. A number of companies, including Adonay Ethiopia Travel (www.adonaytour.com), offer drivers and knowledgeable guides.

 

Save money on booking

flightshotelscar hire

by following our money-saving guides. They are written by our Simonseeks team of travel gurus.

More information on Ethiopia's magical history tour :

Author:
Judith Baker
Traveller type:
Travel Professional
Guide rating:
5
Average: 5 (3 votes)
Total views:
1088
First uploaded:
6 August 2009
Last updated:
4 years 34 weeks 2 days 11 hours 52 min 14 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Activity, Adventure, Cultural
Budget level:
Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
hiking, nature, history, religion, archaelogy

Judith recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Sheraton Addis
N/A
2. Kuriftu Resort And Spa
N/A
3. Roha Hotel
N/A
4. Goha Hotel
N/A
5. Yeha Hotel
N/A

What do you think of this guide?

Did it tell you what you needed to know?
Do you agree with the writer's recommendations?

Share your views by leaving a comment on this page.

Community comments (3)

Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

This insight into Ethiopia, a place which I knew so little about, has not only enlightened me more than any other I have read, but has given me real motivation to visit Ethiopia. The description really brings the place alive and I cannot recommend it more highly.

Was this comment useful?
Rating:
5
2 of 2 people found the following comment helpful.

Ethiopia is one of those magical locations which one dreams about but never actually goes to. This review is my first step in getting myself to Ethiopia. I was glad that the author had actually travelled around rather than just arriving in the capital and taking the next plane out.

Was this comment useful?
Rating:
5
3 of 3 people found the following comment helpful.

Hi

I've always been fearful of Ethiopa, but Judith put my/our mind at rest. Sally (my wife) has decided its he next "must do"

All thanks to Ms Judith,

Well done

Robert Smith

Was this comment useful?