Ethiopia's Historical Attractions
Ethiopia, the oldest independent nation in Africa, has a heritage dating back to first century AD. Traders from Greece, Rome, Persia and Egypt knew of the riches of what is now Ethiopia, and by the first century AD, Axum was the capital of a great Empire.
This realm became one of the first Christian lands of Africa. Late in the 10th Century, Axum declined and a new Zagwe dynasty, centred around what is now Lalibela, ruled the land.
Axum, Lalibela and Gonde now provide Ethiopia's greatest historical legacy. It was in the 16th Century that the son of the great explorer Vasco Da Gama came to Ethiopia, but then found a land of many kingdoms and provinces.
Legend has it that Emperor Menelik I, the son of the Queen of Sheba and king Solomon, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Axum, where he settled 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 places takes you through a scenically magnificent world of fairy -tale names, such as Lalibela, Gondar, Deber Damo and Bahar Dar.
Several of Ethiopia's more remote areas are excellent for walking safaris, which are offered by several good tour operators in the country. Walking tours, best planned for the dry season, offer the traveller the opportunity for awe-inspiring vantage points from which to view many of Ethiopia's natural wonders, cultural riches and architectural heritage. In Gondar, there are fairytale castles dating back to the 17th century. In Harar, the visitor can enjoy the incense-flavored mysteries of narrow alleyways and towering minarets.
In the 19th Century the the great Emperor Menelik began the country's passage to modernization The followings are some of Ethiopia's historical attractions.
Ethiopia's most ancient city and the capital of the historic Axumite state, is the site of many remarkable monolithic stone stelae, or obelisks, the three most important being decorated to represent multi-storied buildings, complete with doors and windows.
The largest obelisk, which was 35 meters long and weighed 500 tons, is the biggest piece of stone ever cut by humanity anywhere in the world but today it lies broken on the ground. Near it stands a smaller but nevertheless most impressive 24-metre-high obelisk - the pride of Ethiopia.
A somewhat larger obelisk was taken to Rome, on the orders of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, in 1937, but its return to Axum is expected. Plans are also under consideration for the re-erection of the fallen obelisk.
Axum, in its day, was a great commercial centre, issuing its own currency and trading with Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India and even Ceylon. The settlement was also the site of Ethiopia's oldest church, which dated back to the coming of Christianity as the state religion, early in the 4th Century. The original building has long since disappeared but a structure erected on its site by Emperor Fasiladas in the early 17th Century is still there.
His Holiness Abune Paulos, Patriarch of Ethiopia and Archbishop of Axum, considered the 'pope' of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, delivers his homily during Trinity Day celebrations at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia. Photo: UBS/Larry Jerden (ETH02DJ-34)
A nearby outhouse is the reputed repository of the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This historic relic cannot be seen but visitors there can see and photograph a number of the remarkable crowns that belonged to several notable Ethiopian monarchs of the past.
Just out of the town, the remains of an early Axumite palace, popularly thought to have belonged to the Queen of Sheba, are well worth a visit. The remains are located at Dangur, near the mountain from which the obelisks were originally excavated. The beautifully worked tombs of several ancient Axumite rulers and the local archaeological museum are also worth a visit. About 45 per cent of the Ethiopian population is Muslim.
Most of the Christians belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose 4th Century beginnings came long before Europe accepted Christianity. A further small percentage of the population adheres to traditional and other beliefs, including Judaism.
A medieval settlement in the Lasta area of Wallo, lies at the centre of an extensive complex of rock churches. Some can be reached by one or two hours' drive, others are a full day's journey. Lalibela has 11 remarkable rock-hewn monolithic churches, believed to have been built by King Lalibela in the late 12th or early 13th Century.
These notable structures are carved, inside and out, into the solid rock, and are considered to be among the wonders of the world. Each building is architecturally unique but each reflects beautifully executed craftsmanship, and several are decorated with fascinating paintings. These astonishing edifices remain places of living worship to this day.
With a population of more than two million people, Addis Ababa is not only the political capital but also the economic and social nerve-centre of Ethiopia. Founded by Emperor Menelik in 1887, this big, sprawling, hospitable city still bears the stamp of his exuberant personality.
More than 21,000 hectares in area, the city is situated in the foothills of the 3,000-metre Entoto Mountains and rambles pleasantly across many wooded hillsides and gullies cut with fast-flowing streams.
Wide, tree-lined streets, fine architecture, glorious weather and the incongruity of donkey trains along the boulevards make Addis Ababa a city of surprises and a delightful place to explore.
The clear mountain air gives the city the bracing atmosphere of a summer highland resort. It enjoys a mild climate, with an average temperature of 61 degrees Fahrenheit.
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa
The city stands at the very heart of Ethiopia and there is much to do and to see. The city has a flourishing cultural life, with regular exhibitions and lectures. There are many opportunities to experience Ethiopian music, song and dance, to visit museums and to see the city sights.
The Horticultural Society and Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society both organize visits to local gardens and trips out into the countryside.
And after all that, what better than to sample some of Ethiopia's culinary delights? Injera, a large, soft, pancake-like crepe, forms the basis of most Ethiopian meals, served with a communal tray on which are a tempting array of spicy sauces.
Also distinctive is the Ethiopian traditional drink, tej, a honey wine, or mead. Traditional restaurants abound in Addis Ababa, and offer entertainment in the form of the ubiquitous massinko minstrels and traditional dance troupes. There are also many other specialist restaurants in the city, including Chinese, Italian, French, Indian, Armenian, Arabic and Greek.
Some 76 Kilometers from Axum is the monastery of Debre Damo ( closed to Women), which is said to have the oldest existing intact church in Ethiopia. Local tradition says that Abune Aregawi, one of the nine Saints, built the church in the 16th Century. The Monastery of Debre Damo can only be reached by rope pulley.
Some 55 km east of Axum is the 5th Century BC temple of Yeha. Its massive walls house Judaic relics and historic artefact.
Yeha in northern Ethiopia was the site of its earliest known capital and is considered the birthplace of Ethiopian civilization. The sandstone temple ruins there date from between 800 and 500 BC.
Bahar Dar is a small town set on the south - eastern shore of lake Tana, where local fishermen still use papyrus boats, and just 30 km from the spectacular Tissisat Falls. Here the Blue Nile creates " Smoking Water" an awe-inspiring sight as it plunges into the gorge below.
From Bahar Dar one must explore some of the ancient monasteries that have been built around Lake Tana, or on the many Islands. These include Dek Stephanos with its priceless collections of icons, as well as the remains of several medieval emperors, Kebran Gabriel and Ura Kidane Mehret with its famous frescoes. The colorful local market at Bahir Dar is renowned for its weavers and wood workers.
Gonder was the 17th Century capital of Ethiopia, and is notable for its medieval Castles and churches. The City's unique imperial compound contains a number of Castles built between 1632 and 1855 by the various Emperors who reigned during this period.
These dramatic castles, unlike any other African, display a richness in architecture that reveals the Axumite traditions as well as the influence of Arabia.
Other treasure of Gonder include the 18th Century palace of Ras Beit, the bath of Fasilades, the reuined palace of Kusquam, and the church of Debre Berhane Selassie with its unique murals.
Although Lalibela is unique, it is not the sole site of Ethiopia's famous rock-hewn churches. In Tigray near Mekelle, over 200 fine example of these monuments to man's devotion to God as well as his building skills, may be seen and visited.
The Capital of the emperor Yohannnes IV (1871 - 1889), Mekelle is now the main town of Tigray, the most northern Ethiopian region. The emperor's palace has been turned into a particular interesting museum, with many exhibits of his time and subsequent history.
The town is also well known as a transit point for the Camel Caravans bringing salt up from the arid lands of the Danakil Depression. This makes the market palace a particular interesting place to visit. Intrepid visitors can also make excursions into the Danakil to visit some of the Afar nomads that trek across the region.
The city of Harar is an ancient (1520) and holy city. Always an important trading centre, the city is famous for its ancient buildings, its great city walls and as a centre of learning muslim scholarship ( the town has 99 mosques). The city is well known for its superb handicrafts that include woven textiles, basketware, silverware and handsomely bound books, Harar has been a place of pilgrimage from all over the world for many years.
Harar's attractions are:
- The City Walls with its narrow streets lined with traditional Harari gegar houses.
- Rimbaud House: A Fine building traditional house dating from the period when the French poet Rimbaud lived in Harar.
With thanks to Ethiopian Airways.
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