08 May 2013

The far north was not the only area with lots of dramatic vistas.
The Tigray province in the east was also filled with great scenes.

Ethiopia is an astonishing place to visit:
  • Spectacular scenery
  • Fascinating history
  • Delicious cuisine
  • Distinctive culture
I should have explored here long ago! And I'll delay the only bad travel news until the end of this post.

Ethiopia is big, three times the size of Germany. And, in Africa, only Nigeria has more than Ethiopia's 90 million people.

Ethiopia is famous as the oldest independent country in Africa, briefly occupied by Italy but never colonized by a European power like the rest of the continent. Indeed, its flag's green, yellow, red colors were copied by many newly independent African countries.

Dramatic Panoramas

On the road to the Simien National Park in the northern Ethiopian highlands.

Hiking in the Simien National Park

A troop of Galada Baboons, endemic to the Simien Mountains
and exceptionally indifferent to people standing ten feet away.

Young Galada baboons relaxing on a beautiful afternoon at nearly 11,000 feet about sea level.

I rearranged my photos below in historical order,
rather than in travel sequence shown on the map above.

3,200,000 BC:  LUCY

Ethiopia's human history is about as early as it gets since the first humans may have emerged in Ethiopia. "Lucy," the oldest, most complete hominid was found here. She's been on a six-year US tour and returned to Addis Ababa... the day after I left!

1,000-2,000 BC:  YEHA

Yeha was then capital of the D'mt empire and its remains are the "Grand Temple of Yeha" (large but under reconstruction and random blocks were not photo worthy) and nearby tombs. Also, the archeology is limited and murky.

Nearby is a famous early Christian church. My favorite photo from this place is the priest reading the Bible in the shade of a tree next to the Yeha Temple.

900 BC:  ARK & SHEBA

Home of stone tablet of Ten Commandments?

Orthodox Ethiopians believe their Queen of Sheba had a son by the Hebrew King Solomon and that son (Menelik) later took the Ark of the Covenant ― with the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments if you didn't pay attention in Sunday School or during Raiders of the Lost Ark ― from Israel to Ethiopia. (Cf. First Kings 10:1-13.)

So... you'll see some places said to be where the Queen of Sheba bathed and lived ― and you'll see the special monastery in Axum where one monk lives his entire life in seclusion guarding what Ethiopian Christians say is the real Ark of the Covenant. The most provocative book on the subject is Hancock's The Sign and the Seal.

Dungur:  Perhaps the palace of the Queen of Sheba?

Not what you expected for the Queen of Sheba's bath?
Presumably it was more luxurious three thousand years ago.

Many Stars of Davids at souvenir
shops at this once Jewish village.

Speaking of Moses, over the centuries, Jews (aka "Beta Israel") migrated to Ethiopia ― maybe, some say, starting with a group who came along with the Ark of the Covenant ― and settled in small villages.

Since 1977 when Israel accepted their legitimacy, almost all immigrated and left behind abandoned villages where, if near a tourist route, Christians set up shop to sell Ethiopian Jewish trinkets!
Incidentally, among the 100,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel is an immigrant who is the new Miss Israel. (Photo:

100-700 AD:  AXUM

The major kingdom of Axum (aka Aksum) rose mysteriously around 100 AD, starting converting to Christianity after 300 AD, and ruled territory as far away as Yemen. After a good run of a several centuries, the Christian Axumite Empire declined, sapped perhaps by struggles with Muslim, Jewish, and other rivals.
Stelae in Axum marked royal underground tombs.
Stelae are similar to obelisks but lack a top pyramid.
King Ezana's elegant Stele (right) was the last one.
(In the distance, the dome of important Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.)

400-1000 AD:  TIGRAY

As Christianity spread around Ethiopia, one practice was to build rock churches and monasteries atop mountains. So far over 120 have been discovered in the arid Tigray province of northeastern Ethiopia, especially around Gheralta.

Friendly, religious Ethiopians make the hour-long pilgrimage up the mountain for Good Friday services at Debretsion (Abune Abraham) rock church carved into mountain top. It is not any easy trek given the high altitude and the blazing sun.

Taking turns reading Good Friday scriptures at the Debretsion (Abune Abraham) rock church.

View of the plain below from in front of the Debretsion (Abune Abraham) rock church.

1100-1300:  LALIBELA

King Lalibela sought to build a New Jerusalem in stone. That dream became an incredible series of churches carved in the ground out of solid rock.

Today the eleven major rock churches of Lalibela are probably the country's most famous tourist attraction.

I somehow failed to get a photo of the most famous one: the cross-shaped Bete Giyorgis.

Arrived in Lalibela in time to attend the intense Easter eve devotions (Orthodox calendar) of chanting, drumming, candles for hours.

Ethiopian Orthodox priests chanting on Easter eve at the old Bete Maryam rock church.

Ethiopia, along with Armenia and Georgia, can claim to be one of the oldest surviving Christian areas and remarkably resisted the onslaught of the caliphates despite proximity to the heart of Islam. We were told mosques are not allowed in Axum and Lalibela because churches are not allowed in Mecca and Medina.

For almost a millennium, the Ethiopian Church was more or less isolated from the rest of Christendom but it did not diverge very much (e.g., no pork, lots of fasting). It has icons and rituals that appear to an untutored Protestant to look a lot like Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox practices.

1635-1855:  GONDER

After a few centuries of "emperors" living like nomads in tents, Fasilides decided a proper emperor ought to have a serious castle and built one in Gonder about 1635. Later emperors built their own nearby, creating an impressive series of buildings, most of which have survived intact.

The best part of Gonder was the exuberant wedding celebration held outside at our hotel on the top of a high hill overlooking the city. Nuru (friend of the groom) told me it was the most lavish Muslim wedding he had ever attended.

I got to spend lots of time visiting with Nuru and his buddies, and dancing a little. (Probably everybody I spoke to at this Muslim wedding brought up the bombing at the Boston Marathon and volunteered their outrage.)

2013:  Miscellaneous

This swirling design by young Ethiopian architects is the
mountaintop home of the outstanding Ben Abeda restaurant

Flashy "flame trees" in downtown Axum.

A community gathering under the spread branches of
a flat-top Ethiopian acacia tree (acacia abyssinica).

A vista during the long backroad trip through Tigray to Lalibela.

Final step in the ritual of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

The big street market in Addis Ababa is far more chaotic than its rural counterparts.

Church of the Holy Trinity in Addis Ababa, resting place of former Emperor Haile Selassie.
Middle:  Priests chanting and drumming provided a musical backdrop to our tour of the church.

Roughly 400,000 have fled into Ethiopia from oppressive, neighboring Eritrea ("the North Korea of Africa"). We passed this Eritrean refugee camp located not far from the border.

The post has to include a mention of Ethiopia's own brutal 17-year rule (1975-91) by Mengistu and his communist Derg who terrorized the country after they strangled and toppled the famous Emperor Haile Selassie.

The least pleasant thing about the Ethiopian trip was the persistent begging and aggressive selling. To any veteran traveler that's not novel, but it seemed to hit an especially high persistence and intensity level. But then it is sometimes rewarded.

Despite pleas "not to make our children beggars," I saw tourists become Lady Bountiful and reinforce begging by grandly given them trivial amounts of money.

The photo above at Park Simien was a unique occasion where sellers waited patiently and came forward only if we pointed to one of their products.