Exploring Ethiopia: Spending 7 Nostalgic Days In An Ancient Empire
Ethiopia has one of the richest histories in Africa, and people who are descended from some of the world’s oldest civilizations. What sets it apart from its neighbors is that, apart for a five-year occupation by Mussolini, it has never been colonized, and it had a monarchy that ended relatively recently, in 1974.
Addis Ababa, situated in the foothills of the 3,200-meter-high Mount Entoto, is the third highest capital city in the world. Ethiopia’s Olympian athletes test their endurance running up this historical mountain, the site of an imperial palace and a number of celebrated churches.
If you’re a nature lover or outdoorsy type, Ethiopia offers 21 national parks and mountainous landscapes where you can hike, go rafting, or bird and wildlife watching. In the lower Omo Valley, in the south of the country, there are ancient tribes that have lived there for centuries, still practicing the same traditions as their ancestors.
Church at Lake Tana
If you’re a history and culture buff like I am, you’ll understand from day one why a visit to Ethiopia is considered a trip of a lifetime. It has a unique cultural heritage: it’s the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian churches, and it has the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa.
Once I landed in Addis Ababa, I met up with the rest of my group and our local guide Zed to catch a domestic flight to Bahir Dar, our first stop on this route. The highlight of this leg was visiting the Lake Tana monasteries. The river Nile, the longest river in Africa, originates in Lake Tana as the Blue Nile.
The lake, Ethiopia’s largest, is dotted with islands and peninsulas where monastic churches, dating from the 14th century, are located. We took a boat to one of these islands and walked through dense forests to reach the churches in the interior. Typically round-shaped and grass-roofed, these churches contain stunning wall murals of religious scenes, and are still in use. While cruising back to our lakeshore resort, we were lucky to catch the sun set on the lake. Awake at the crack of dawn, we caught the sunrise from our hotel before heading out on our road trip to Gondar.
The three-hour trip, traveling on good roads and passing picturesque scenery, was a good way to experience the countryside, away from the busy towns and historical sites. Ethiopia’s economy relies largely on agriculture. Aside from coffee, other main crops include beans, potatoes, and sugarcane. We stopped by a field cultivating khat, a mildly stimulating leaf that “induces sleeplessness.” I think I had to chew more than a few leaves, more like a whole bunch all afternoon, to even begin to feel anything.
Ethiopia is the only African nation with fairy tale castles. Gondar, known as the “Camelot of Africa,” has structures that are reminiscent of medieval Europe. King Fasilidas, who made it Ethiopia’s capital in 1635, and his successors in the 17th and mid-18th centuries, left their structural signatures, 20 in number, on 70,000 square meters, creating a royal compound known as Fasil Ghebbi. Most of the buildings are in ruins, or partially in ruin, but the site is still awe-inspiring and you definitely get a sense of what it must have been like at its height as the imperial seat.
We visited the site of Timkat, the annual Epiphany festival, a sunken bathing pool with a two-story building in the center, known as Fasilidas’ Pool. It’s usually dry most of the year except during the festival, which is “a sight not to be missed. Led by colorfully attired priests, thousands of white-robed worshippers converge around the pool where they are blessed with its holy water.” In its dry state, you’ll marvel at the overgrown banyan tree roots that have gripped large portions of the walls that surround the pool.
The next day, after a 30-minute plane ride, we arrived in Lalibela. This must be my favorite Ethiopian destination, definitely at the top of my list. When you experience it, you will not believe what you are seeing. I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary to describe it.
Lalibela is famous for its rock-hewn churches, carved below ground level and dating from the 10th to the 13th centuries. These are huge churches, with several more than 10 meters high. The most majestic monolith is the Church of St. George, which is carved in the shape of a cross.
Graves and hermit cells are cut into the trenches that surround the churches, which are connected to each other by a tangled maze of tunnels. Not just architecturally awesome tourist attractions, and neither are they “crumbling monuments of a dead civilization.” They are and have been for centuries, active Christian shrines and “the spiritual center of a town’s religious life.”
It was certainly worthwhile taking a mule ride to Asheton Maryam, a mountaintop monastery at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters. Monastery visit aside, the fact that our mules could negotiate the steep paths strewn with loose stones, and the wonderful views of Lalibela on the way up the mountain, made this a remarkable half-day trip.
We capped off our visit to Lalibela with a traditional coffee ceremony on the lawn of Zed’s friend’s home. A local woman dressed in traditional Ethiopian attire conducted the ceremony; she roasted and ground the beans, then boiled and poured the coffee from a clay pot into several rows of china cups, all in the span of an hour. This is considered an integral part of the social life in Ethiopia. “An invitation to attend a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship or respect and is an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality.”
Our last stop in the north was Axum, Ethiopia’s most ancient city. It’s the site of south-facing stone stelae, each carved from solid granite that predate the arrival of Christianity. These stelae were probably funeral monuments, marking the underground burial chambers of Axumite kings, who ruled from around 100 to 940 AD.
Axum is also home to the Ark of the Covenant, under lock and key inside the compound of the Church of St. Mary Zion, the oldest church in the country.
Yes it’s that Ark, the wooden chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, and the subject of the first Indiana Jones film. But it isn’t a movie myth for the pilgrims who flock here. The story of the Ark makes for interesting discussion and debate. Based on oral tradition, Ethiopians have always believed that their emperors were descended from King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba. Their son Menelik, who visited his father in Jerusalem when he was 22, spirited the Ark away during this time, and it has remained in Ethiopia ever since. Skeptics be damned.
Just outside the town lie the ruins of the ancient Dongar palace, “popularly associated with the Queen of Sheba,” but most likely dating to the seventh century AD. Although there isn’t much left except for the floor plan and entrance stairs, it’s enough to ascertain that it was probably the most impressive structure built at the time. After Dongar, we hiked to Ad Hankara, the hillside quarry where all the stelae stone came from, and see the mysterious Gobedra Lioness, a three-meter outline of a lioness etched into the surface of a large rock. She was probably carved in pre-Christian times while the cross beside her was added later.
Sadly on the seventh day, our epic trip came to an end. After a tour of Addis Ababa and the requisite souvenir shopping, we had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, while enjoying a show of traditional music and dance. I’m really happy we ended on this festive high note, and thankful that through this article, I got to recall, with fondness and awe, this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime journey.
A longer version of this article was published in Metro Society’s May 2016 issue.
Cover image from Rod Waddington on Flickr