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History Glimpse



Ethiopia is a land of endless mysteries in its geology, in the diversity of its animal and plant life, in its tumultuous national history and the rich culture of its people.  Church scholars reckon Ethiopian history spans 7,492 years going by its own chronology and calendar, from the time of Genesis to the present.  The name Ethiopia, meaning “land of burnt face” in Greek, according to one derivation, was already known in 3000 B.C.  Records going back to 6000 years tell of Egyptians diplomatic missions and trade expeditions to Punt. This was a kingdom on the Horn of Africa that thrived for a thousand years, controlling both sides of the Red Sea from centers in what is present day Ethiopia.

Archaeological findings abound in Ethiopia, covering sites stretching from the Omo River Valley in the east.  These consist of hominid remains dating up to four million years old, some of the earliest man-made tools ever recorded and imprints of human settlement said to be no less than one and half million years old. All this has earned Ethiopia the epithet “cradle of mankind!”


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 Ethiopian’s magnificent history, which encompasses legend and tradition, mystery and fact, from a powerful and religious ancient civilization.

Judging by the story of Queen of Sheba and Kong Solomon recounted in the Old Testament and elaborated at great length in the Ethiopian epic, the Kebre Negest (Glory of the Kings), the rest of the world commonly acknowledges 3000 years of Ethiopian civilization. Comparing the history of most of the countries of the world, a national legacy of even 3000 years is quite remarkable.  This is specially so when that means an uninterrupted and independent march of history of a people, organized as a polity, answering to very much the same set of self-identifying values and symbols, and occupying more or less the same geographical area.

The well-trodden path through Ethiopia’s famous and fascinating historic site takes you through a scenic, magnificent world of fairy-tale names, such as Lalibela, Gondar, Debre Damo and Bahar Dar. Travelling the route 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 out of living rock, the mysterious giant stelae at Axum, the ruins of the Queen Sheba’s palace, and the monastery at Debre Damo, whose access is limited to men and only by way of a rope lowered by the friendly monks above.

Taking the historic route north from Addis Ababa, the first stop is Debre Markos, 305 kilometers north of the capital. Here you will find the 19th century Church of Markos (Saint Mark), with its pale but beautiful paintings depicting scenes of biblical and religious history. 

Bahar Dar


Bahar Dar, the next stop, is 578 kilometers from Addis Ababa, has daily Ethiopian Airlines flights and a number of good hotels, and is located on the southern shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, with its ancient island monasteries and both the Blue and the White Nile’s most spectacular feature, the Tsi isat waterfalls.

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

For the modern traveller, 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 lake-side 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 visitors can see priceless illustrated manuscripts, historic crowns and fine and royal and ecclesiastical robes. Some monastic islands are forbidden to women, but others can be visited by both sexes.

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 a historic old building erected in St. Georges church compound, by the 17th century Spanish Jesuit, pero paes.

Gondar… the Camelot of Africa


The next stop on the historic route is Gondar, the graceful city was Ethiopia’s capital until the reign of the would-be reforming Emperor Tewodros II, also known as Theodore. During its long years as a capital, the settlement emerged as one of the largest and most popular 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 design and 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. Beside the famous palaces, visitors should inspect the so-called ‘bathing place of Emperor Fasildas’, which is used for the annual Timket or Epiphany celebrations, and the abbey of the redoubtable eighteenth century Empress Mentewab at Qwesquam, in the mountains just outside Gondar.  Debre Birhan Selassie Church, is the only church that survived the repeated destructions of Gondar at hands of the Dervish, Tewodros, the Italians and the British, besides the eleven or so castles and related buildings of the 17th century. The church is a rich showcase of the religious art of the Gondar period and its ceiling of painted angels is only one of its kind.



There exist ancient rock edifices in Korea, Jordan and no doubt, in many other places around the world. In Ethiopia itself, there are over 50 different regions where rock churches can be found – stretching as far south as Goba (bale) and as far west as Bonga (Keffa). In Tigray region alone, there are over 100 rock churches.

Hundreds of miles to the south and east of Axum is another ancient settlement, Lalibela, is a city carved from legend - a mediaeval settlement in the Lasta area of Wollo that is the site of eleven 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 outside of the solid rock, and are considered among the wonders of the world. Each building is architecturally unique, and several of them are decorating with fascinating rock paintings. The unadulterated biblical atmosphere and vivid local color of the Timket celebrations provide an ideal opportunity to see Lalibela as a sacred center whose roots go back to man’s very early years.

Lalibela has the highest concentration of churches of such architectural elegance and overall engineering sophistication in one spot.  Their lighting systems, channels, water works, network of interconnected subterranean passageways and the sheer magnitude of the whole project are mind boggling – just the excavated material is estimated to be enough to make 10 of the Great Pyramid of Egypt.  The churches are attributed to King Lalibela (ca 1200 AD) who was later canonized by the Ethiopian church and is referred to by Europeans as the legendary Prester John. Their impact is so great that the first Europeans as the legendary Prester John. Their impact is so great that the first European to see them, the Portuguese Priest Father Francisco Alvarez, despaired of being believed by his compatriots and cut short his report.

Anointed king under the throne name Gebre Meskel (servant of the cross), King Lalibela is said to have taken 24 years to construct these churches.  There are three different types of churches:

  1. 1.Built-up cave churches: ordinary structure built inside a natural cave. Makina Medhane Alem and Yemrehanna Kristos near Lalibela are good examples.
  2. 2.Rock-hewn cave churches: carved inwards from a cliff face and sometimes making use of and widening an already existing cave. Aba Libanos, Bete Meskel and Bete Denagil in Lalibela belong to this group.
  3. 3.Rock-hewn monolithic churches: hollowed in the ground, cut out in one piece from the rock and separated from it all round by a trench except at theirBete Medhane Alem, Bete Mariam, Bete Emmanuel and the cruciform Bete Giorgis are Lalibela’s outstanding monolithic masterpieces.

Genete Mariam (the paradise of Mary): interestingly enough most of the Lalibela churches are hidden in their pits and invisible until one comes directly next to them. By contrast the monolithic Genete Mariam stands out in the midst of the green clump of euphorbia as a massive block of pink tuff.  Also unlike most of the Lalibela churches, its rich painting displays a style that is characterized as “arcaic” (10th century perhaps) with an eclectic array of motifs alluding to both Eastern and Western traditions.

Yimrehanna Kristos (Christ show us the way):  This exquisite church, a masterpiece of Axumite wood and stone (so-called sandwich style) construction is renowned for its interior decoration, its beautiful wooden coffer ceiling inlaid with hexagons and medallions with both figurative and geometric motifs.  The founder of the church, King Yimrehanna Kirstos, was the predecessor of King Lalibela.  The church is located six hours away by foot and mule on the mountain ridge with peak Abune Yosef peering in the sky to the northeast of the town Lalibela.

Naakute Laab Church: In 1270 AD King Naakute Laab of the Zagwe dynasty of Lalibela, at the behest of the influential monk (later saint) Tekle Haimanot, abdicated in favor of Emperor Yekuno Amlak belonging to the Solomonic dynasty. The church in a cave where Naakute Laab went to lead a hermit’s life is a charming place in a dramatic setting.  The church has one of the most interesting collections of ancient crosses, illustrated manuscripts and other icons, some of which are attributed to its founder Naakute Laab.

Mekane Medhane Alem: This is another interesting case of an Axumite style church in a cave. It is east of Lalibela (two hours climb above Genee Mariam) on the eastern slopes of Mount Makina, another spur of Abune Yosef.

The above mentioned sanctuaries happen to be the most fascinating and relatively easy to access. But, for those with time, fitness and enough interest in the subject, Lasta, the province where Lalibela is located, has many wonderful shrines in the most dramatic of settings. Some of these are:

-          Asheten Mariam -hidden under the ledge in the mountain overlooking the town of Lalibela in the east.

-          Abratu Enssessa – the four animals or beasts

-          Bilbala Giorgis

-          Bilbala Cherqos

-          Sarana Michael




Northern Ethiopian’s ancient city of Axum is the country’s oldest extant urban settlement. Once the capital and a major religious centre, it remains the site of many remarkable antiquities, including the famous monolithic obelisks, or stelae, important stone inscription, the remains of spectacular places and graves, and a special gold- silver-and-bronze currency.

The city, with its history church of St. Mary of Tseyon (Zion), is a must for the tourist and any serious student of Ethiopia’s history and culture. Axum grew to importance in classical antiquity – the millennium which included the birth of Christ. The Axumite kingdom emerged as the most powerful Red sea state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, a great commercial power trading with Egypt, probably Palestine, Arabia, India and Ceylon (now Sir Lanka). The Axumites also had significant trading land contacts with religions to the west and south, some of which were gradually brought into Axum’s economy and later political orbit. After its conversion to Christianity, early in the fourth century, Axum also emerged as an important religious center, site of the country’s most important and revered Church of St. Mary of Tseyon, which, according to Ethiopian tradition, is the repository of the biblical Art of the Covenant. Axum’s importance survived its political decline, between the seventh and 10th centuries. A number of years later Ethiopian Emperors – all who could do so –went to the city for their coronation. Axum so impressed 19th – century British traveler Theodore bent that he describe it at length in his classic travelogue. The Sacred City of the Ethiopians.


Much has been written about Axum’s famous monolithic obelisks, or stelae, cut out of the hardest granite, some no more than rudely fashioned stone a little larger than a human being , but others massive and beautifully carved monuments which once towered into the sky. The finest represent multi-storeyed houses, with a ground-floor door, complete with a door handle, and windows on each ‘floor’.

In its heyday Axum had three main obelisks. The largest, now fallen and broken into several pieces, is the biggest block of stone ever worked on by humanity anywhere in the world. It was a remarkably impressive piece of workmanship, representing a palace of no less than 12 storeys. Many Ethiopians long for the day when it will be erected again on its original site.

The second obelisk is some 10 meters shorter, and stands a little away from the great fallen monolith. It was described early in the 19th century by the British traveler Henry Salt as the most admirable and perfect monument of its kind.

Exactly between these two obelisks stood a third monolith, slightly larger than the second, and better carved. This Obelisk collapsed and broke into three large pieces. This was taken to Rome, orders given by the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and erected in 1937 in front of FAO. Nineteenth April 2005, saw the return of this famous Obelisk back to Axum.

Yeha…. Ethiopia’s Old Town


The journey through Ethiopia’s historic route takes you on rough tracks, through dramatic highland scenery and eventually ends in a beautiful and scenery agriculture 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 amount the people who built this great edifice.

Yeha, in the administrative region of Tigray, was possibly Ethiopia’s oldest major settlement. An hour-and-a-half’s drive from the ancient city of Axum, with at least one obligatory photo stop on the journey, it is little more than five kilometers from the modern commercial center of Adwa. Yeha, which is set amid imposing mountain scenery, is well worth visiting. It is the site of the country’s most ancient temple, a remarkable huge stone structure, and a fine and richly endowed Ethiopian church of more modern times. The ancient city of Yeha was first described in the early 16th century by the intrepid Portuguese traveler Francisco Alvares, who was struck, like so many foreign visitors after him, by the age-old temple. He described it as ‘a very large and handsome tower, both for its height and the good workmanship of its walls’.

It had, he adds, ‘the look of a regal building, all of well-hewn stone, and was surrounded by good houses, which match well with it, and good walls and terraces above, like the residences of Great Lords’ .

The good houses, ‘like the residence of Great Lords’, have long since disappeared, but the ‘very large and handsome tower’ , in fact all that remains of an immense temple dating back to pre- Christianity times, is still standing, more or less perhaps as Alvares saw almost half a millennium ago.

This fine old building, according to the 19th- century German scholar Heinrich Muler, probably dated back to about 700 or 800 years before the birth of Christ. The temple stands on small hill, at the foot of a nearby mountain, with a reasonable sized village of traditional Tigray- style houses nearby. The temple, which is reminiscent of those in Yemen and other parts of south Arabia, consists of large smoothly polished stone blocks, some as much as 300 centimeters long, neatly placed one above or beside another, without any apparent use of mortar. The roof and the west wall are both missing, but several square holes in the remaining walls toward the east of the structure indicate where partitions, probably of wood, and stood.                  

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 cliff top in one of the widest parts of Tigray, Debre Damo, unique and unforgettable. The bluff on which Debre 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 monastery’s treasures include and extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts and the intricate carvings on the beams and ceiling of the ancient church around which the monastery is built.    

The Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray

The 1868 English expedition against Emperor Tewodros and to take Meqdela, the biggest such campaign of the British Empire, was shown an “astonishing church carved into a rocky outcrop”. For a while, this was assumed by the outside world to be the only one of its kind in Tigray. As recently as 1963, when supposedly a full list of Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches was published, only nine churches were recorded for Tigray. Since then, no less than 123 have been discovered, three-quarters of which are apparently still in use as normal parish churches or monastic communities.  Most of these are found along the Adigrat-Mekele road or else they can be reached from there.  At least a week is required to visit the most interesting of them. Wukro Cherkos rock-hewn church is definitely the most accessible in Tigray and one of the most impressive even though it falls a little short of being monolith.


This village is the site of the first Muslim settlement granted to Islamic refugees by the King of Axum at the time of Mohammed in 7th century AD.  The present day mosque is said to stand on the site of the original, also dating back to the 7th century.  The shrine has great significance to Ethiopian Muslims and is the focus of an annual pilgrimage and festival.



No journey along Ethiopia’s fabled historic route would be complete without a visit to the medieval 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. Its Islamic character is best expressed in the Grand Mosques (Al Jami), which dominates the town.

Rightly renowned for its intricately worked filigree jewelry of silver, gold amber, Harar’s Megalo Guso market is also a center 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 center - have been strongly guarded over the years.

Dire Dawa


Today much bigger, more industrial and generally more commercial and enterprising than Harar, Dire Dawa is a fairly new city by Ethiopian standards. It came into being as a phenomenon of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railway line that reached Dire Dawa in 1902. The two cities are 54 km apart.

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