The Historic Circuit
The modern town of Axum does not easily show the evidence of the splendors of its glorious past. Nevertheless, the historic footprints are represented by extensive traces of noble buildings with large stone foundations, side by side with the ruins of even more impressive structures such as: temples, fortresses, and rich palaces. The hand of nature in the form of heavy downpours of rain seems to take the place of systematic excavations, to bring to light some of the long-buried hordes of gold, silver and bronze coins.
Yeha: The tantalizing and towering ruins of Yeha’s Temple of the Moon – built more than 2,500 years ago, in Sabaean times, is considered to be Ethiopia’s earliest high civilization. Whether this was a lone shrine of a temple, or part of a city with other similar edifices is not yet ascertained. Nevertheless, the fact that the wall is built with precise-fitting blocks of smoothly polished yellow limestone carefully placed without the use of mortar leaves no doubt of the superb quality and artisanship involved. Apart from the temple, however – which speaks eloquently of the works of a high civilization – little or nothing is known about the people who built this great edifice.
Although inscriptions and fine objects of bronze and other artifacts have been excavated from Yeha since 1909, nothing is uncovered to shade light on the above mysteries. The Axumite Kingdom Axum, was a great commercial civilization trading with distant lands, such as Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India, Ceylon, etc. Its main exports were gold, ivory, rhinoceros-horn, hippopotamus hide and slaves. It imported mainly textiles, finished metal wares, and metals to be used for the manufacturing of local crafts.
The stelea erected in Axum seem less like pillars of stone and more like lightning rods to heaven. The purpose of these prodigious monolithic stelea may have been to draw down power from the firmament in a ritual, undoubtedly accompanied by occasional sacrifices. Most of the obelisks have altars at their bases, all aligned towards the rising sun. Four deep holes in the center of one were presumably made to collect blood from the sacrifices.
Like many other monolithic Ethiopian works, it is carved to resemble a conventional building – in this case a nine-story tower-house.
Of the three tallest stelea, one is still standing, another is lying broken into pieces, but otherwise intact, and the third is being returned to its rightful place from Rome, where it has been standing ever since the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia during the second World War.
Post Christianity Axum
Axum still holds a significant place among the members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, because of the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion.
This church was built on the site of a much older church, probably resembling that of Debre Damo, dating from the 4th century AD. Only a platform and the wide stone steps remain from the earlier structure. The Cathedral is the repository of the crowns of some of Ethiopia’s former emperors, and is believed to house the original Ark of the Covenant – thus making St. Mary the holiest sanctuary in Ethiopia. The significance of Monasticism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Debre Damo, uniquely enough, offers that broader horizon of the Ethiopian spiritual entity, and the significant place monasticism holds in the Ethiopian Coptic Church.
As is the case with some Ethiopian monasteries, and mainly for religious reasons, women do not have the access to visit this site. The monastery is found on a cliff 24 meters high that makes the entrance an event by itself. Monks lower a safety rope to be tied around the waist and to climb with. This lack of access, may have preserved the art treasures of Debra Damo all through out its 1400 years history. The treasures include an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts, some of them not found anywhere else in Ethiopia, and intricate carvings on the beams and ceiling of the ancient church around which the monastery is built. There are also large number of paintings including several that depict the legend of the foundation of Debra Damo by Abuna Aragawi. The monastic community is virtually self- sufficient, growing selected crops and rearing sheep and goats for their milk and meat. The monastery also has its own reservoirs, spectacular caverns hewn deep beneath the surface of the cliff-top centuries ago, somewhat similar to those at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
The ancient Ethiopian empire in the north, came to an abrupt end, when a ferocious woman warrior named Queen Judith, led her tribes up from the Semien mountains and destroyed Axum, the capital. After a power vacuum of nearly a century, the Zagwe dynasty came to power in the eleventh century. These dedicated Christian kings took it upon themselves to revive and restore the various churches destroyed by Judith.
There are no less than 1000 churches in the Lasta Region of Lalibela alone. Some are hidden in enormous caves, while eleven of this master craftsmanship is found in one locale, Lalibela, previously known as Roha. These eleven churches are brilliant feats of engineering and architecture and are often referred to as the “Eighth wonder of the world”.
The Lalibela churches are truly amazing because of two major features. The first one is the fact that these towering edifices were hewn out of the solid, red volcanic tuff on which they stand. In consequence, they seem to be of superhuman creation – in scale, in workmanship and in architectural concept.
The second amazing feature is the location where they are built. The destruction of the churches by Queen Judith may have warned the builders to hide these churches from future prying eyes and plundering hands of hostile interlopers. Thus, when one approaches these churches from the road below, they remain little more than invisible against a horizon dominated by the 4,200-metre peak of Mount Abuna Yosef. Even close-up, they seem wholly unremarkable, and it is this camouflaged, chameleon quality that may have kept them safe to this day.
‘Lalibela churches silence the most cynical pedants. Close examination is required to appreciate the full extent of the achievement because, like medieval mysteries, much effort has been made to cloak their nature.’ When an inquisitive mind compares the shabbiness of the present day lalibela town with the magnificence of the rock-hewn churches, one is forced to wonder why the extraordinary craftsmanship displayed in the building of the churches, did not ‘rub off’ even a little to the other local residences of the nobles.
The church of Yemrehanna Krestos, ‘Christ Show Us the Way’, is found north-east of Lalibela. This church was built by Yemrehanna Krestos, the predecessor of King Lalibela. This remarkable church is a built up cave church in Axumite wood and stone construction, and has become famous for the decoration of its interior.
King Nakuto Le’Abe, king Lalibela’s nephew and successor, abdicated his throne in 1270 AD and started living a hermit’s life in a cave, which has ever since become a monastery. This cave church, 7 km from Lalibela, is a simple but attractive little church, built on the site of a much older shrine. This monastery houses one of the most interesting collections of ancient crosses, illuminated manuscripts and other icons some of which are attributed to its founder Nakuto Le’Abe.
These pious four Zagwe kings ruled until the thirteenth century, when a famous priest, Tekla Haymanot, persuaded them to abdicate in favor of a descendant of the old Axumite Solomonic dynasty. What motivated this persuasion is not clear. It may be the fact that the Zaqwe kings were more inclined to be hermits and monks rather than statesmen. As a result, a power vacuum may have been created that external aggressors may take advantage of, and their handling of the affairs of the state may have suffered. Whatever the reason is however, a single priest brought about the smooth transition from one dynasty to the other.
The graceful city of Gondar, embraced with incredibility, was founded by Emperor Fasilidas around 1635. It is famous for its many medieval castles, (constructed in the European middle age architectural style), and the design and decoration of its churches. An extensive compound, near Gondar’s center contains the massive ruins of a group of imposing castles like some African Camelot. The battlements and towers evoke images of gracious knights on horseback and of ceremonies laden with spectacle and honor.
The oldest and most impressive of Gondar’s many imperial structures is the palace of Emperor Fasilidas, said to have been built by an Indian architect. There are also numerous other fascinating historical buildings and relics to be seen in the area. Debre Berhan Selassie, in particular, represents a masterpiece of the Gondarian School of art. This finest Gondarian church was built during the reign of Emperor Iyasu (1682-1706), and was never destroyed. It is said that when the Dervishes tried to burn it in 1881, they were attacked and dispersed by bees. The church is rectangular, similar to those of ancient Axumite architecture. The inside walls of the front room are covered with paintings on cloth, glued to the surface. The ceiling is built with thick beams and it decorated with winged angel heads looking down. The wall paintings depict scenes from the life of Christ, Mary, the Saints, the Trinity, and others. The unique murals are awesome and have stood the test of time for centuries.
Flanked by twin mountain streams at an altitude of more than 2,300 meters, Gondar commands spectacular views over farmlands to the gleaming waters of Lake Tana. The city retains an atmosphere of antique charm mingled with an impression of mystery and violence.
Gondar was once a vigorous and vital center of religious learning and art. For more than two hundred years skilled instruction in painting, music, dance, poetry and many other disciplines thrived. Fasilidas and his successors saw their elegant capital as a phoenix and so patronized the arts.
The treasures of Gondar include the stone bathhouse of Emperor Fasiladas and the ruined Palace of Kusquam. The castles display richness in architecture that reveals the influence of Arabia as well as Axumite traditions, and are said to be the largest concentration of such structures in Africa.
Founded during the first decades of the 20th century at the southern tip of Lake Tana and along the banks of the Blue Nile, Bahir Dar has gone on to become the foremost tourist destination of north western Ethiopia. The city has an altitude of 1,830m above sea level and a tropical climate with an average temperature of 190c. At Bahir Dar you can spend days strolling along palm-lined avenues, lake side vistas exploring the Nile, and the Woito clan’s village, viewing spectacular sunset and riding a bicycle. St. George Church and the 16th century one-storied Portuguese building in the same compound are also worth visiting. Festivals like the New Year on Sept. 10 or 11, the Meskel or Finding of the True Cross on Sept. 26, Christmas on Jan. 7, Timkat or Epiphany on Jan. 19, are also colorfully celebrated at Bahir Dar.
The open-air Market
One of the largest markets in Northern Ethiopia is found in Bahir Dar. If you want to buy handicrafts like jewelries, woven and embroidered garments, ox-horn cups, grass baskets/ Agelgil/ at a very reasonable price, Bahir Dar open-air market has them all. The market also offers a unique opportunity to look at the hair, clothing and market exchange styles and other indigenous culture of the local community.
The Blue Nile Falls
Known locally as Tis Isat – ‘Smoke of Fire’, the Blue Nile Falls is the most dramatic spectacle on either the White or the Blue Nile rivers. Four hundred meters (1,312 feet) wide when in flood, and dropping over a sheer chasm more than forty-five meters (150 feet) deep, the falls throw up a continuous spray of water, which lightly showers onlookers up to a kilometer away.
This misty deluge produces rainbows shimmering across the gorge, and a small perennial rainforest of lush green vegetation to the delight of the many monkeys and multicolored birds that inhabit the area.
Lake Tana Monasteries
There are 37 islands that are scattered about the surface of Lake Tana, out of which some 20 shelter churches and monasteries of immense historical and cultural interest. These churches are decorated with beautiful paintings and house innumerable treasures. Because of their isolation they were used to store art treasures and religious relics from all parts of the country.
Access for some of the churches is closed to women, although they are allowed to land on the banks of the island but not permitted to proceed further.
However women are permitted to visit churches on Zeghne Peninsula and nearby church of Ura Kidane Mehret, as well as Narga Sellassie.
Kebran Gabriel: is renowned for a magnificent manuscript to the Four Gospels which is believed to date back to at least the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.
Ura Kidane Mehret: is more decorative with a huge, conical thatched roof is painted with scenes from Biblical lore.
Daga Istifanos: is considered one of the most sacred on Lake Tana, and said to have served as a temporary hiding place for the Ark of the Covenant. On this stands the church of Saint Stifanos which houses the Holly Madonna painted around 1434. The real historic interest lies in its treasury where there are glass-sided coffins containing the mummified remains of several of the former emperors of Ethiopia.
Tana Cherkos: this ancient monastery is found on the eastern shore of Lake Tana. Tradition tells us that St. Mary rested here under a wall during her flight to Egypt, and stayed for three months and ten days. The monks claim that they owned a necklace which she left when she departed. It is also said that the monastery was a sacred place of the Jews. Menelik I and the Jewish nobles, after fleeing from King Solomon, brought the Ark of the covenant to this monastery and built a temple over it, which was decorated with precious stones. Six hundred years later, the Ark was brought to Axum.
The eastern part of Ethiopia, close to Djibouti and Somalia, is a region inhabited mainly by Muslims. The ancient walled city of Harar has more than 90 mosques and shrines mixed in with households behind its sixteenth century walls. This city was founded over 1000 years ago, and is considered to be one of the holiest centers of Muslim learning in the Islamic world.
Harar, which is not too large to be visited on foot, is a place of unique and unforgettable charm and has much to offer to the discerning tourist. Walking down its narrow, cobble stoned and twisting lanes, one can easily feel transported back in time to the days of Richard Burton – or even earlier when Amir Nur constructed the city’s stout old walls.
Addis Ababa was founded in 1886 by Emperor Menelik II who moved his capital city from Ankober (a town 175 km. to the northeast) to the top of the Entoto Mountains. Addis Ababa – the “new flower”, was later set at the foot of the Entoto Mountains. It is centrally located within Ethiopia as a capital city.
The altitude of Addis varies from 3200m at the top of Entoto to 2200m at the foot of the city. The temperature ranges from 14 deg. to 18 deg. Celcious (57 deg. to 65 deg. Fahrenheit). 80% of the yearly rainfall occurs between mid-June and October during the big rains season. Despite its proximity to the Equator, the lofty altitude of the world’s third-highest capital enjoys a mild Afro-alpine climate.
As a city surrounded by a chain of mountains and covered by eucalyptus trees it is a natural amphitheater with its unique fascination. Addis Ababa is a cosmopolitan city serving as a seat of many international organizations like the AU, ECA etc. It is Africa’s diplomatic capital where politicians, businesspersons and visitors mingle.
There is a very wide choice of merchandise to suit the taste of any visitor. The city has also international standard first class hotels with thermal bath and cozy restaurants that serve spicy and delicious Ethiopian dishes, and drinks, and wines of international repute. Addis Ababa, besides being the startling and ending point for all the various trips, has a number of historical, cultural and archeological attractions of its own. There is a half day, a full day and a one-day excursion trips from Addis. These trips are usually conducted at the beginning or end of a major trip. These trips are also ideal for Conference Tourists that just have couple of days before, between or after meetings.