A baboon surveys the folded landscape of Ethiopia's Simien Mountains National Park.

Ethiopia: Surveying an Ancient Empire

16 March 2017

How has Ethiopia stayed under the radar for so long? Africa’s most underrated country for tourism has an astonishing collection of attractions – island monasteries, mighty mountain ranges and ancient temples.

Few travellers have even heard of the country’s signature sights but that may be about to change. The government has announced big plans to boost investment in tourism, with the hope of making Ethiopia one of Africa’s most popular tourism destinations.

Ancient Sites

Start your explorations at Yeha, where you will find one of Ethiopia’s oldest sites: the prehistoric Temple of the Moon. Dating back close to 3,000 years – which means it is older than Athens’ Parthenon – it is an extraordinary piece of engineering. Working with only the simplest tools, the builders were able to fit the stone blocks together  so perfectly that it is impossible to slide even a piece of paper between them.

The obelisks of Axum tell a story of a once-great city. Image: Getty The obelisks of Axum tell a story of a once-great city. Image: Getty

Not far from Yeha is Axum. Nothing about this sleepy town suggests that it was once the hub of an ancient empire but for almost a thousand years – from circa 100BC to 650AD – this was one of the world’s most important cities.

Mighty palaces and temples lined the streets, built upon profits from a trade network that stretched as far afield as India and China. Only the foundation stones of those majestic buildings still stand but the Axumites did leave some remarkable relics, including the world’s largest obelisk at the time.

Unfortunately, the 33-metre-tall monolith did not survive the test of time; it now lies in pieces on the ground. However, the other obelisks that still stand around it – including one that was returned to the site in 2005 (it was taken in 1937 on the orders of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini) – give you an idea of how striking this city would once have been.

Surprising Churches

But Axum is home to more than just obelisks. Believed to be stored inside the Church of St Mary of Zion, the oldest church in Africa, is the famous Ark of the Covenant, which played a prominent role in Steven Spielberg’s film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Visitors have to take this information on trust, however, as the Ark is considered so holy that no one is allowed inside the chapel.

Ethiopia has plenty of other spectacular churches to explore, too. Among my favourites are the island churches of Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. This tranquil lake is mostly traversed by fishermen sailing small reed boats and a small number of clued-in visitors who come to visit the area’s 40-odd monasteries and churches, picturesquely located on the lake’s islands and peninsulas.

The exteriors of these simple circular structures, made of adobe and thatch, are unimpressive. Step inside, however, and you’ll be met with an explosion of colour.

Murals done in vivid oranges and reds, yellows, green and blues cover every surface. They depict saints working miracles, warriors riding into battle and – hidden away in dark corners – the devil waiting to work some mischief.

A church cut into rock in the Ethiopian town of Lalibela. The monolithic rock-cut churches at Lalibela are truly wondrous. Image: ImageBrief

By far the country’s most spectacular churches are those at Lalibela. This collection of 11 churches dating back to the 12th century is one of the true wonders of the world.

Carved out of monolithic blocks – the builders started at the top and excavated downwards – many of the churches are joined by trenches. The construction must have occupied a vast workforce for decades, if not longer; according to King Lalibela, who commissioned the churches, he was helped out by hordes of angels.

The Practicalities

\The best way to explore Ethiopia is to hire a car and driver, although you may need to fly between some of the most far-flung destinations; Ethiopia is a big country.  You’ll find decent hotels at most of the key sites.

Tukels - the traditional Ethiopian round house - dot a hillside. Tukels are Ethiopia's traditional round houses. Image: Getty

One of the most inviting is Simien Lodge, where guests sleep in modern versions of the tukel, Ethiopia’s traditional round houses. The lodge makes a good base for exploring the mountains known as the ‘roof of Africa’.

Natural Attractions

The Simien Mountains National Park – one of Ethiopia’s nine World Heritage-listed sites – is known for its striking scenery, dominated by plunging valleys and huge peaks such as Ras Dashen, which soars more than 4,500 metres high. Many hikers come here hoping to see the local wildlife.

A gelada baboon strikes a fine pose in the Simien Mountains. Image: Getty A gelada baboon strikes a fine pose in the Simien Mountains. Image: Getty

Along with well-known animals, such as jackals and hyenas, the mountains are home to rare species, too. Many of them, such as the Ethiopian wolf and the walia ibex, are elusive, but the adorable gelada baboons are easy to spot. These gentle, long-haired creatures travel in large groups – as many as 600 individuals – and are delightful to watch; when they are not grazing on grass, they spend much time grooming and playing with each other.

So visit this fascinating and culturally rich country now. You may be the first to do so in your family and friends group and soon everyone will be coming to you for advice.

This article first appeared in Travel ideas WOW List 2017.

*Featured image: The Simien Mountains National Park is one of Ethiopia’s nine World Heritage sites.


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Ute Junker

There’s no such thing as a typical day for Ute Junker: it might begin with a snorkel through Tahiti’s translucent waters, or finish with a samba session in one of Rio’s best clubs. From hiking the Norwegian fjords to dining in Lima’s best restaurants, she travels the world in search of inspiring, informative stories.