Places & Travel

Legend has it that Emperor Menilik І, the son of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon, brought the ark of the covenant from Jerusalem to Axum, where hesettled and established one of the world’s longest known, uninterrupted monarchical Dynasties.

This is only one example of Ethiopia’s magnificent history, which encompasses legend and tradition, mystery and fact, from a powerful and religious ancient civilization. The well-trodden path through Ethiopia’s Famous and fascinating historic sites takes you through a scenic, magnificent world of fairy-tale names, such as Axum, Lalibela, Gondar, Debre Damo and Bahir Dar.

Traveling the rout by plane, car or both will offer you a glimpse into a truly remarkable past. As well as many priceless historical relics, you will also see the castles at Gondar, the churches of Lalibela hewn hewn out of living rock, the mysterious giant stelae at Axum, the ruins of the queen of Sheba’s place, and the monastery at Debre Damo, whose access is limited to men and then only by way of a rope lowered by the friendly monks above.

Bahar Dar

Bahar Dar, the next stop, is 578 kilometers from Addis Ababa, has two daily Ethiopian

Air Lines flights and a number of good hotels, and is located on the southern shores of Lake Tana, the source of Blue Nile with its ancient island monasteries and both the Blue and White Nile’s most spectacular feature, the Tis Isat falls.

On the island of Dega Estefanos you will find the church of Saint Estifanos, which has priceless collection of icons andmanuscripts and houses the mummified remains of a number of Ethiopian emperors.

For the modern traveler, the starting point of any visit to the Blue Nile Falls, or to the islands of Lake Tana, is the bustling market town of Bahar Dar on the lake’s South Eastern shore. The colorful markets and a variety of handicrafts and weaving centers also make it a comfortable base for excursion by land or water.Bahar Dar port provides access by boat to a number of historic lakeside churches and monasteries near and far. Most date from the 17th century and have beautifully painted walls. Many such places of worship now have fascinating museums, at which the visitor can see priceless illustrated manuscripts, historic crowns and fine crowns and fine royal and ecclesiastical robes. Some monastic islands are forbidden to women, but others can be visited by all.

Visitors to Bahar Dar can also see tankwas, locally made canoes, made out of the papyrus reeds growing by the lake shore, as well as an historic old building erected, in St. Georges church compound, by the 17th century Spanish Jesut, Pero Paes.


The next step on the historic route is the graceful city of Gondar, founded by emperor Fasilides in 1636. During its long years as a capital, the settlement emerged as one of the largest and most populous cities in the realm. It was a great commercial center, trading with the rich lands south of the Blue Nile, as well as with Sudan to the west and the Red Sea port of Massawa to the north – east.

Gondar is famous for its many medieval castles and the designand decoration of its churches. The earliest of the castles was created by Fasilidas himself and is still in such an excellent state of repair that it is possible to climb its stairs all the way to the roof, which commands a breathtaking view over much of the city. Besides, the famous palaces, visitors should inspect the bathing palace of Emperor Fasilidas, which is used for the annual Timket or Epiphany celebrations, and the abbey of the redoubtable 18th century Empress Mentewab Qwesquam, in the mountains just outside Gondar.


The journey through Ethiopia’s historic route takes you on rough tracks, through dramatic highland scenery and eventually ends in a beautiful and serene agricultural hamlet. It is here that you may see the towering ruins of Yeha’s temple of the moon, an imposing rectangular edifice built more than 2,500 years ago. The temple speaks eloquently of the works of an early high civilization, although little is actually known about the people who built this great edifice.

Debre Damo

Some four hours drive from Axum plus a further two hours, stiff uphill walk from the point where the road ends-lies the monastery of Debre Damo, situated on a clifftop in one of the wildest parts of Tigray. Debre Damo is unique and unforgettable. The bluff on which Damo stands is a real –life Shangri-La. Remote and beautiful, far from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, the cool celestial island of rock offers panoramic views over the surrounding countryside and complete seclusion and peace for the hundred or so monks and deacons who live there. The monastry’s treasures include an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts and the intricate carvings on the beams and ceiling of the ancient church around which the monastery is built.


Much more is known about the historic highland city of Axum, once a great commercial center, trading via the red sea port of Adulis and founded perhaps 500 years after the decline of Yeha. With daily Ethiopian Airlines flights from Addis Ababa, Axum stands in the highlands of north western Tigray, commanding spectacular views over the nearby Adwa hills. This ancient settlement is frequently referred to as “the sacred city of the Ethiopians”- a description that adequately sums up its significance in a national culture as a center of orthodox Christianity. Many remarkable monuments here attest to the greater antiquity of religious expression in this country, and as a former capital that has never lost its special appeal to the hearts and minds.

Axum is renowned for its Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion where, legend has it, the original Ark ofthe Covenant is housed. Axum is also famous for its seven mysterious monolithic stelae, hewn from single pieces of solid granite. The most notable are carved to resemble multi story houses; several weigh more than 500 tones and stand 20 meters high. They seem less like prayers of stone and more like prayers of stone and more like lightening –rods to heaven of all Ethiopians.

Axum’s greatest significance, however, is as the epicenter of the Queen of Sheba’s dynasty, upon which rests the notion of the sacred kinship of the Semitic peoples of Ethiopia- a notion that links the recent past to ancient times. The former Emperor Haile Selassie claimed to be the 225th monarch of the Solomonic line. His death in 1975 marked the end of an era-and the beginning of the end of an entire way of life.


No journey along Ethiopia’s fabled historic route would be complete without a visit to themedieval walled city of Harar, which stands amid green mountains on the east wall of the Great Rift Valley. Harar’s heritage is almost entirely Muslim and Oriental.

Harar has probably always had a great deal more in common with the Horn’s coastal culture than with the life of the highlands-and it retains to this day a certain redolence of the orient. The most dominant features apart from its strong encircling walls, is its rich and exciting market place- probably the most colorful in Ethiopia. With its 90 mosques and shrines, Harar is considered to be the fourth most sacred centre of the Islamic world. Its Islamic character is best expressed in the Grand Mosque (Al Jami), which dominates the town.

Rightly renowned for its intricately worked filigree jewellery of silver, gold, and amber, Harar’s Megalo Gudo market is also a centre for beautiful baskets of woven grass, decorative wall-mats and bright shawls, as well as all the fruits, vegetables, spices and grains of the province. Harar’s five gates-the only means to enter or leave the city centre-have been strongly guarded over the years. The fully restored Rimbaud house is well worth a visit.

Omo Valley

Reckoned by enthusiasts to be one of Africa’s premier locations for white – water rafting, the Omo River’s early fury takes it through gorges hundreds of meters deep over fish and the huge shapes of crocodiles and hippos.

On the final leg of its journey south to Turkana, the Omo Forms the border between Kefa and Gamo Gofa provinces. It is here that Ethiopia’s largest nature sanctuary, the Omo National Park- one of the richest in spectacle and game and yet one of the least – visited areas in East and Central Africa- is located. And another sanctuary, the Mago National Park, has been established on the eastern bank of the river; a land of endless, distant horizons.

Both parks can offer amazing spectacles of big game and have the merit, also, of being far off the beaten track. Virtually unexplored, they are places in which game can be seen in a truly natural state. Most easily reached from the town of Jinka, Mago National Park is mainly Savannah, with some forested areas around the river. It was set up to to conserve the large number of plains animals in the area, particularly buffalo, giraffe, and elephant. The birds are typical of the dry grassland habitat-bustards, hornbills, weavers and starlings. Kingfishers and herons feed in and around the Neri River, which provides an alternative habitat. Adjoining Mago the large and beautiful Omo National Park has hardly been visited in the past two decades, as getting there has been so difficult.

The parks are extensive wilderness areas, where wildlife can be prolific: large herds of eland, buffalo, elephant, giraffe, cheetah, lion, leopard and Burchell’s zebra. Greater and lesser kudu, lelwel hartebeest, topi, gerenuk and oryx are all resident species, as well debrazza’s, colobus monkeys and Anubis baboon. The 306 bird species recorded include many that will be familiar to East African visitors.


The prehistoric site of Tiya in southern Ethiopia houses another collection of some 30 intricately carved stelae and is probably an ancient burial ground. The stelae are not soaring monoliths as in Axum, but they contain depictions of swords and various enigmatic symbols not found in other regions. According to UNESCO, these are the remains of an ancient Ethiopian culture whose age has not yet been precisely determined. The erection of megalithic monuments such as these is very ancient tradition in Ethiopia.


Negash, a village in the Tigray Region is known as the earliest Muslim settlement in Africa; a seventh century cemetery has been excavated in side the village boundaries. Negash is also known for the . The first Hijira occurred in 615 when a band of Muslims were counseled by Prophet Mohammed to escape Makkah and travel to the Kingdom of Axum, which was ruled by a Christian king and they settled in Negash.

Dallol and Mount Erta Ale

Dallol is at the northern most extension of the [Great] Rift Valley. It acts like a cauldron, trapping all the heat. Dallol is a field of phreatic craters in the salt plain northeast of the Erta Ale Range in one of the lowest and hottest areas of the desolate Danakil depression and home to the Afar People. Colourful hot brine springs and fumarolic deposits are found in the Dallol area. This is special because it is one of the lowest points on earth not covered by the water. There are hot yellow sulphur fields among the sparkling white salt beds. Mount Erta Ale is the world’s only active land volcano which is below sea level with coloured landscapes, incredible mineral deposits, sulphur lakes and bubbling sulphur springs. These are sights not to be missed by the adventurous travellers.

The Blue Nile Falls (Tisisat Falls)

The River Nile [Blue Nile] known locally as Abbay, the longest river in Africa, emerges from Lake Tana of Ethiopia and flows to meet the White Nile in Khartoum to form the great river that gives life to Egypt and the Sudan. It has been said that the Blue Nile contributes up to 80% of the Nile’s flow. Here millions of gallons of water cascade over the cliff face and into a gorge, creating spectacular rainbows, in one of the most inspiring displays in Africa, earning its name ‘Smoking Water’. The Blue Nile falls can easily be reached from Bahar Dar and the Scenic beauty of the Blue Nile Gorge, 225KM from Addis Ababa, can be enjoyed as part of an excursion from the capital.


Registered as World Heritage in 1978, the rock hewn churches of Lalibela are exceptionally fine examples of a long-established Ethiopian building tradition. Monolithic churches are to be found all over the north and the centre of the country. Some of the oldest of such churches are to be found in Tigray, where some are believed to date from around the 6th or 7th centuries. King Lalibela is believed to have commissioned these structures with the purpose of creating a holy and symbolic place which considerably influenced Ethiopian religious beliefs.

The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th century ‘New Jerusalem’ are situated in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings. Lalibella is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilgrimage and devotion. Lalibela is a small town at an altitude of almost 2,800m in the Ethiopian highlands. It is surrounded by a rocky, dry area. Here in the 13th century devout Christians began hewing out the red volcanic rock to create 13 churches. Four of them were finished as completely free-standing structures, attached to their mother rock only at their bases. The remaining nine ranging from semi-detached to ones whose facades are the only features that have been ’liberated’ from the rock.

The Jerusalem theme is important. The rock churches, although connected to one another by maze-like tunnels, are physically separated by a small river which the Ethiopians named the Jordan. Churches on one side of the Jordan represent the heavenly Jerusalem, the city jewels and golden sidewalks alluded to in the Bible.

It was King Lalibela who commissioned the structures, but scholars disagree as to his motivation. Construction work began and is said to have been carried out with remarkable speed, which is scarcely surprising, for, according to legend, angels joined the labourers by day and at night did double the amount of work which the men had done during the hours of daylight. Like more episodes in the long history of this country, there are many legends about this king. One is that Lalibela was poisoned by his brother and fell into a three-day coma in which he was taken to heaven and given a vision of rock-hewn cities. Another legend says that he went into exile to Jerusalem and vowed that when he returned he would create a New Jerusalem. Others attribute the building of the churches to templars from Europe.

The names of the churches in Geez evoke hints of Hebrew, a language related to the Homo-Semitic dialect still used in Ethiopian church liturgies: Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World), Bete Qedus Mikael(House of St Michael) and Bete Amanuel( House of Emannuel) are all reminiscent of the Hebrew beth(house). In one of the churches there is a pillar covered with cotton. A monk had a dream in which he saw Christ Kissing it: according to the monks, the past, the present and the future are carved into it. The churches are connected to each other by small passages and tunnels.

Source: Salamta (EAL home magazine)