After my first visit to Ethiopia many years ago, I returned home full of wonder and a little bit overwhelmed and after several more expedition's of the country over subsequent years - it still keeps drawing me back! I maintain that you simply cannot experience all of Ethiopia and its wonders in one visit. This is not a ‘check-it-off-the-list-in-a-week’ type of holiday destination; there is just too much to experience!
Part of what has driven the diversity of history and culture across Ethiopia is the differentiations in landscapes. There are mountains so high there is a dusting of snow. There are deep depressions in the earth, the Danakil, where sulphuric springs bubble and the hottest temperatures on Earth are recorded. Conversely there are grasslands and lush highland forests which support large carnivores such as lion, wild dog and leopards, not to mention plenty of birds - my bird list increased tenfold on my first visit to Ethiopia!
Humans have adapted to all the extremes that Ethiopia presents and there are over 80 different ethnic tribes whose history and customs are incredibly varied. If you are interested in history and culture, then Ethiopia is a fantastic choice of African vacation destination!
Though there is so much to see in this country, on your first safari to Ethiopia I recommend that you visit the north as a matter of course. If you have time to spend then you can explore more widely and visit other areas and the south too, or possibly reserve them for the inevitable return trip!
A good place to start is to fly to Gondar. This is the previous capital of the Solomonic rule and founded by Emperor Fasilides, who built his castle beside the Angereb river around 1635. Gondar remained the capital until the 19th Century with the five emperors following Fasilides also building their castles here. Fasilides’ Royal Enclosure (Fasil Ghebbi) still stands and the ruins are fascinating to visit, along with the Fasilides' Bath, with its filigree network of fig roots. There are great birding opportunities here too!
I also recommend seeing the church Debre Birhan Selassie. Standing under its ceiling of painted angels I saw my travelling companions stop and stare open mouthed, saying not a word just taking in the wondrous sight. It was a moment that did not need any commentary, just an occasional ‘wow’!
Although not strictly ‘history and culture’, you should definitely visit the Simien Mountains as a part of your holiday to Ethiopia, which are conveniently located between Gondar and your next historical location, Axum.
This is a lovely combination because you will see spectacular scenery in the Simiens, as well as endemic wildlife such as lammergeyer (a large vulture with a 3m wingspan!), Walia ibex, hairy gelada baboons and hopefully the Ethiopian wolves.
The Simiens are beautiful, completely dramatic and spectacular. You can stay in a very comfortable (and warm) lodge such as Simien Mountain Lodge or Limalimo Lodge for a few days or combine it with a few days of mobile camping whilst walking with a local guide.
You do have to be fit and healthy to do these walks, not because of the terrain per se but due to the altitude, so any previous experience with hiking in higher regions is most welcomed! My favourite experiences are seeing the canyons and waterfalls, meeting local shepherds who spend days out in the mountains protecting their sheep, mingling with enormous families of gelada on mountain plateaus and watching them graze while their hair waves in the breeze!
Head next to Axum, located in the north near the Eritrea border in the Tigray worda (region). You could spend two weeks alone just in Tigray and its surrounds, including Lalibela (which lies just outside Tigray but is very much part of the history and religious aspects of the region).
Axum was the imperial capital of Tigray, ruled by the Aksumite Empire from around 80BC to AD825. The Aksumite Empire spread across the whole Tigray region and most of Eritrea and by the 3rd Century it was recorded by the prophet Mani to be one of the four main powers of the region, alongside Rome, China and Persia.
Axum is best known for its fields of ancient stelae dating from pre-Christian times. The largest is the Obelisk of Axum which stands 79 feet tall and weighs over 160 tonnes. It has detailed carvings on it which resemble false doors and windows. They are thought to mark the burial chambers of ancient nobility. The larger the stelae, the more important the individual! Many have fallen over time, or rest at precarious angles.
The history lessons you learn walking in Aksum and visiting the stelae fields and are extraordinary, especially with some of the top Ethiopian guides I have been led by. I was fascinated by our visit to the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion. Despite being able to only see the outside of the church, I learned from my guide that this is the site of an ancient church built originally in the 4th Century AD, after the adoption of Christianity in the region (which is thought to have been around 320-360AD).
The Church has since been rebuilt several times, most recently by the wife of Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1950s and is a remarkable place because it supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant, though nobody except the guardian monk can see it. The monk is appointed by his predecessor and is then confined to the chapel for the rest of his life as its guardian.
On my last holiday in Ethiopia I headed from Axum to the Tigray region, travelling to Adigrat in the heart of Tigray, with its vast flat lands of terraced fields. Tigrans grow teff, the major ingredient in injera which is the staple food.
This is a dry land but as we drove further south to the Gheralta Mountains the landscape changed dramatically. Just a few days ago we were in the high Simiens wrapped up in several layers and now we were discarding all that, shedding like a chameleon! The weather was hotter, drier and the landscape completely changed.
Where we had lush mountainous pastures in the Simiens, now before us were great pinnacles rising up off the partial desert floor. The colours especially at sunset but even when scaling the hills and mountains are every shade of red and yellows, pinks and white lines. This is, for me, one of the most interesting places in Ethiopia.
Whilst Lalibela is quite rightly a definite ‘must see’ place, the hilltop churches in Gheralta are worth a visit. The churches are different; unlike Lalibela (where they are hewn from rock down into the ground), these churches, monasteries and cairns sit high in the cliffs, surrounded by the Hauwzen Plains.
We visited several churches including Abreha wa Atsbeha, with its murals painted on canvas and then attached with gypsum and Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion which sits at the very top of a mountain. I have to admit that one needs a good sense of balance and be fit to get to the top as you wind up narrow pathways between the rocks, but it is very achievable and worth it!
The views at the top are fabulous, the land spreading out before you, peppered with Tigray cactus and Euphorbia Abyssinica, but it is inside the 6th century, fresco-lined church that is the most exciting. The monks showed me a fan made of goat skin with paintings of disciples on it, which is ancient but still used today.
That’s the thing about Ethiopia and the services and masses and churches themselves - nothing has changed over many hundreds of years! There is no modernity to the churches, nothing at all, nothing has changed. The most modern features that I saw was in a couple of churches in Lalibela a single light bulb hung from a wire brought in from outside where it was attached to a battery. No mains network here!
I would recommend that visiting this part of Ethiopia is more for those interested in history, art and cultures as well as the adventurous. It is best experienced by adults; there are no ‘kids clubs’ and a lack of swimming pools, so not for the average family with young children. Much time is spent out walking and there are often lengthy drives between locations. This is most certainly a niche destination but thoroughly worthwhile of a visit, particularly for those who want to get ‘off the beaten track’!
The itinerary I have described above can be achieved with drives between destinations but if you wish to travel further to more distant regions of Ethiopia, or your time is short, I wholly recommend taking a private helicopter safari to help you cover the distances quickly and give you the most extraordinary views from above.
Despite having travelled all over Africa, Ethiopia is a country that I can’t help but return to. Over several safaris and holidays I have explored far and wide. I have been immersed in the incredibly remote Omo Valley, near the southern border with Kenya, where the tribes are ancient and their myriad customs include ornate decorations and body modifications including scarification and lip discs.
I’ve walked in the Bale Mountains amongst the giant lobelia and seen endangered Ethiopian wolves. Alternatively, I have taken a helicopter trip into the Danakil Depression and seen the Afar salt miners walking their valuable salt blocks across the desert in camel trains to sell at market. Whatever your interests, whether it is ancient history or modern culture, wildlife or being outdoors in nature, Ethiopia can deliver!
Images by kind courtesy of Tropic Air Kenya, Richard Roberts, Michael Waidmann, Limalimo Lodge.