Ethiopia’s highlands have been home to civilisations of wealth and power over the past three millennia, and the riches they’ve left behind are still here for you to see. Matt Phillips, who has a long affinity with the country, is here to help you experience the best of it.
There are many areas in the world to visit historical treasures, but there are very few places where you can genuinely experience them as they were centuries, if not millennia ago. Ethiopia is one of those places.
The nation’s formidable highlands not only helped play a role in Ethiopia’s dramatic routing of Italy’s invading army in 1896 – ensuring the nation was the only African nation to avoid colonisation – but they have long insulated and emboldened a rich culture that has thrived for thousands of years. Of course, some outside influences have crept into Ethiopia’s identity, none larger than that of Christianity, which first transformed the mighty Aksumite Empire in the 4th century, and still plays a crucial role in society today.
The highlands are home to no less than four UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites, three of which qualified on cultural merit: Gonder, Aksum and Lalibela. The fourth, the stunning Simien Mountains, was designated for its natural wonders.
Travel along the historical circuit, which takes in all the major sites, is easily accomplished with short hops on domestic flights, or by bus if you have more time than money. Either way, you’ll see a side of Africa you never imagined.
The ‘Camelot of Africa’, Gonder was home to a succession of Ethiopian emperors in the 17th and 18th centuries. While they are long gone, their fairytale-like castles and palaces remain. The most impressive of these belonged to Emperor Fasiladas, who moved his capital here four years into his reign, which lasted from 1632-67. Visitors can wander through the UNESCO World Heritage-listed royal enclosure, which contains most of the more remarkable structures. Outside the enclosure are some other great finds, including Fasiladas’ Bath complex and the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, with its exquisitely painted ceiling. Gonder is also the best place to base yourself for trips into the Simien Mountains.
With a history associated with the Queen of Sheba and a claim to housing the Ark of the Covenant (Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!), Aksum is easily the most enigmatic of Ethiopia’s cities. Aksum’s allure is also bolstered by each and every one of the many the historic riches on show: towering stelae, ancient tombs and the Ethiopian equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. Incredibly, most of the sites from the wealthy pre-Christian Aksumite civilisation have still yet to be excavated. Your mind dreams each time you hear a hollow thud under your foot. Aksum is another of Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites.
Yeha and Debre Damo
Both located to the northeast of Aksum, these two sites are as memorable as they are important. Yeha is believed to be the birthplace of Ethiopia’s first civilisation some 3000 years ago, and the impressive temple that remains here today is thought to date back as far as the 8th century BC. Debre Damo, on the other hand, postdates Christianity and is one of Ethiopia’s most beloved monasteries. Sitting atop a sheer-sided mesa, it was probably founded in the 6th century during the reign of King Gebre Meskel. To visit you’ll need to have a head for heights, as you’ll have to climb a rope up a vertical cliff to get inside – the monks are quite obliging and help to pull you up with a second leather rope tied around your waist. The journey up into Debre Damo is not open to women.
Rock-hewn churches of Tigray
Drive through the roads of Tigray, skirting past countless cliffs and dramatic outcrops, and you’ll think you’ve missed nothing. I guess that was the idea… Housed within some of the most remote and precipitous places are numerous rock-hewn churches – many academics believe they were located in such ways between the 9th and 15th centuries to avoid detection by raiding Muslims. If you have a fear of heights it may just keep you away from some of them too. But treks to these out-of-the-way gems are rewarding and the views offered by some are simply staggering. While one of the simplest in terms of architectural design, the church of Abuna Yemata Guh is by far the most spectacularly located – it does take nerves of steel to reach it though.
Although they rise more than 4500m into the blue African sky, these mountains aren’t ones you’ll remember looking up to – they are, however, ones you’ll never forget looking down from. Whether your trip into the mountains involves a short stroll or a multi-day trek to conquer Ras Dashen (4543m), it’s the views out over the many Abyssinian abysses from the high plateau’s edge that will take your breath away. Huge troops of gelada baboon, which number up to 800 individuals, wander the western edge of the park, and encounters with them are always memorable. The two other large endemic mammal species in the park – walia ibex and the Ethiopian wolf – are less numerous and more difficult to spot. The mountains offer a unique break from the circuit’s historical treasures.
The eleven rock-hewn churches of Lalibela don’t require the majestic locales of those in Tigray, for they are simply masterpieces on their own. Each carved down into the massive red rock outcrops that dominate this rural town, the interiors and exteriors are divine. It is like Jordan’s Petra, but on a much more intimate level. All still actively used by locals for religious ceremonies, the churches are home to cross-wielding, incense-burning priests, some of whom you’ll encounter with the narrow subterranean passages. It is like time was frozen in stone almost a millennia ago.
Addis is a rather young city, having taken shape only in the late 18th century when Menelik II created it for his new capital. It’s a sprawling place, with plenty of museums, monuments and tourist facilities. And if you like early starts, you’ll see many of Ethiopia’s great runners pounding the city’s streets each morning. With Bole International Airport linking the world to Ethiopia and linking Addis to each major city on the historical circuit, your journey will undoubtedly start and end here. Don’t make the mistake of rushing through.
Not far downstream from the source of the Blue Nile – Lake Tana – is Ethiopia’s greatest waterfall, Tis Isat. With plumes of mist thrown skyward by the river as it crashes into the rocky chasm, it’s understandable that the falls’ name means ‘water that smokes’ in Amharic. It’s also commonly referred to as the Blue Nile Falls in tourism circles. The scene is its most dramatic in the rainy season, but the countryside surroundings are a pleasant spot year round for picnics, bird watching and walking. It is easily reached on a half day trip from Bahir Dar.
Set on the southern shore of Lake Tana, Bahir Dar is a leafy, lush haven with a real seaside feel. It’s a great place to shake off jetlag after a long trip, or to rest after completing the historical circuit. If your energy levels are low, simply grab a drink and lie back on a lounger as there’s plenty to keep you occupied: birdsong, waves lapping at the shore and stunning sunsets. If you keep an eye out, you might also see age-old tankwa canoes, which are made from woven papyrus – they are unsinkable and have even been known to carry cattle! If you’d like to do a little exploring, the main market is a good place to start (it’s best on Saturdays). Slightly further afield is the grandiose war memorial dedicated to those who died fighting the socialist Derg regime during the last quarter of the 20th century. Bahir Dar is also the best place to base yourself to visit the island monasteries of Lake Tana and the Tis Isat (see the relevant entries).
Dotted with islands, patrolled by pelicans and seemingly painted a beautiful shade of blue, the 3500-square-kilometre Lake Tana is a sight to behold in its own right. But what it is best known for are the treasures that lurk on its surface. Hidden behind the stands of trees on many of its islands are active monasteries that date back centuries – it’s even thought some of them were built on pre-Christian shrines. Head out on a day-long boat trip to visit these fascinating structures, to meet the wizened priests who call them home and to admire the vibrant murals that line the monasteries’ walls. It must be noted that women are not allowed to visit a number of the monasteries, something that is prevalent throughout the country.
Whether travelling for 10 days or 5 weeks, Ethiopia’s historical circuit will keep you enthralled.
Short circuit (10 days)
Addis Ababa >> Bahir Dar & Lake Tana >> Gonder >> Aksum >> Lalibela
• Day 1 Head straight for the Ethnological Museum. If you need a little pick-me-up, stop at one of the countless cafes for the best-value macchiato you’ll have ever savoured.
• Days 2-3 One-hour flight to Bahir Dar. Wander town and take in the lakeside. On your second day, take to Lake Tana to visit a number of the island monasteries, or catch a bus to Tis Isat (Blue Nile Falls).
• Days 4-5 Twenty-minute flight to Gonder. Immerse yourself in the Royal Enclosure before heading up to the Goha Hotel for a drink at sunset. On Day 5 take in town and other sites such as Fasilada’s Bath and Debre Berhan Selassie Church, or make a 4WD day-trip to Simien Mountains National Park.
• Days 6-7 Flight to Aksum (100 minutes). Visit the stelae fields and explore the Archaeological Museum. Use Day 7 to visit Yeha and Debre Damo.
• Days 8-9 Forty-minute flight to Lalibela. Soak up the ambience of the rock-hewn churches – you’ll need to see some of them more than once.
• Day 10 Ninety-minute flight to Addis. Transfer to flight home.
Simien sidestep (15 days)
Addis Ababa >> Bahir Dar &Lake Tana >> Gonder >> Simien Mountains >> Aksum >> Lalibela
• Days 1-5 Follow the ‘Short Circuit’ itinerary for the first five days. If needed, use the fifth day to stock up on supplies for your trek in the Simien Mountains.
• Days 6-10 Spend five days trekking through the Simien Mountain National Park. It’s worth getting a 4WD lift to start your walk at Buyit Ras, which is just inside the park. You’ll then be able to enjoy more time on the Northern Escarpment, checking out the views from Geech Abyss, Gidir Got Imet Gogo and Chenek, before having to turn back. A side trip to Mount Bwahit is rewarding. Sightings of gelada baboon are guaranteed. Listen for the sound of walia ibex going head to head (binoculars are a great asset in the Simiens). Head back to Gonder for the night of Day 10.
• Days 11-15 Follow Days 6-10 on the ‘Short Circuit’ itinerary.
The slow road (5 weeks)
Addis Ababa >> Bahir Dar &Lake Tana >> Gonder & Simien Mountains >> Aksum >> Tigray >> Lalibela
• Weeks 1-2 Get to know the sprawling capital, eating pizza in the Piazza district, meeting 3.2 million-year-old Lucy in the National Museum and shaking it like an Ethiopian in a nightclub. Bus to Bahir Dar to enjoy its lakeside ambience, before touring the island monasteries and visiting the Blue Nile Falls. Hop on a bus to Gonder and explore its many historic sites.
• Week 3 Embark on a week-long trek through Simien Mountains National Park.
• Week 4 Continue northwards by bus to Aksum where you can explore the relics of civilisations past. You can ask to see the Ark of the Covenant, but I promise you that you’ll get nowhere near it. After stops at Yeha and Debre Damo, travel south towards Lalibela via the remote churches of Tigray.
• Week 5 After the long bus journey to Lalibela, recuperate by soaking up the energy from the remarkable rock-hewn churches. By now you’ll be familiar with the bus journeys, so the two-day trip back to Addis Ababa should be a walk in the park.
Right time, right place
Festivals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are incredible spectacles and timing your visit to observe one is highly recommended. However, you’ll need to plan ahead as most of them draw hundreds if not thousands of Ethiopians on pilgrimages, which means accommodation availability can be a limiting factor.
• Timkat, a three-day festival which celebrates Christ’s baptism, takes place around 19 January. Gonder and Addis Ababa are the best places to enjoy it.
• Meskel, a two-day festival commemorating the finding of the True Cross, erupts on 27 September, with religious dress, dancing, singing and massive bonfires. The events at Gonder, Addis Ababa and Aksum are particularly noteworthy.
• Festival of Maryam Zion falls on 30 November. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the compound of St Mary of Zion in Aksum, with celebrations flowing out to the northern stelae field.
Language Amharigna (or Amharic) is the most important language in the highlands of Ethiopia. English is understood to a variable extent by most Ethiopians involved in tourism.
Time zone GMT +3
Visas Nationals of most counties (including the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and EU) can buy a visa valid for up to three months upon arrival at any international airport or border.
Health Malaria is rare in the highlands, but still seek advice regarding prophylactics before travel. Bottled water is widely available and cheap.
Safety The little-visited Eritrea border areas are prone to periodic security concern, but tourist areas are unaffected. Addis Ababa is something of a pickpocket hotspot, but violent crime is quite rare. The rest of the country is as safe as Africa gets.
Money The official currency is the Ethiopian Birr (ETB). In 2012, recent exchange rates were: UK£1=28.20, US$1=17.88 and €1=22.28. There are a handful of ATMs in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar and Gonder, but few exist elsewhere. Facilities to exchange cash and traveller’s cheques (US dollar preferably) are available at banks in most tourist centres.
Cost Despite ‘faranji (foreigner) prices’, Ethiopia is still among the cheapest travel destinations on the continent, Independent travellers who use local buses and shoestring hotels and restaurants might get by on US$15-30 per person per day, but a daily budget of US$75-100 would allow a much higher level of comfort. Organised tours tend to be relatively expensive as they usually involve multiple domestic flights and/or use of a 4WD vehicle, but the relatively low expense of accommodation and entrance fees makes Ethiopia a cheaper prospect than a safari in most parts of eastern or southern Africa.
Getting there Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) is the oldest carrier in Africa, and one of the most reliable, with a vast network of flights connecting Addis Ababa to the USA, Europe and about two-dozen African countries. They recently were the second airline in the world to take delivery of the new Boeing Dreamliner aircraft. Other carriers that fly to Addis Ababa include British Airways (www.britishairways.com), KLM (www.klm.com), Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) and South African Airways
Getting around The most expedient option for the northern historical circuit is the excellent network of domestic flights operated by Ethiopian Airlines. With time, it’s easily possible to explore the region on public transport.
Books If you’re visiting on a tour, then Bradt’s Ethiopia Highlights (1st ed, 2012) is a great accompaniment. If you’re travelling independently, then great travel guides include Bradt’s Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (5th edition, 2009) and Lonely Planet’s Ethiopia & Eritrea by Jean-Bernard Carillet et al (4th ed, 2009). More general reading includes The Sign & The Seal by Graham Hancock (Heinemann, 1992) and Paul Henze’s Layers of Time (Hurst 2000), while more visual coffee table books include the superlative African Ark by Beckwith and Angela Fisher (Harry N Abrams, 1990) and the more affordable Touching Ethiopia by Golzábez and Cebrián (Shama Books, 2004).
First published in Travel Africa magazine, Issue 60