Historical Attractions of Ethiopia

Ethiopia's rich historical heritage is unique in sub-Saharan Africa. The country looks back on a history of more than 3,000 years when the city of Axum became the centre of an empire stretching from the Nile River across the Red Sea to the Yemen. Even today, ruins of palaces and monuments, old inscriptions and underground catacombs demonstrate the city’s ancient magnitude. While the medieval capital of Lalibela is home to a cluster of monolithic rock-hewn churches built in the 12th and 13th century, the imperial city of Gondar is best known for its 17th century castles built by Emperor Fasiladas and his successors and the beautifully decorated church of Debre Birhan Selassie. In the east of the country lies the old walled city of Harar with its numerous mosques and shrines, considered a holy city among Muslims. Or would you like to discover the ancient and secluded island monasteries of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile? Or be one of the few visitors to Ethiopia’s remote rock-hewn churches, testimonies to the country’s centuries-old Christian legacy?

Petra Tours Ethiopia - Axum

Axum became the royal capital of Ethiopia more than 3,000 years ago and the wealth of the empire was used to build one of the greatest ancient cities of Africa. Its five-storey palaces, intricate water system, gold and silver coinage, its mysterious and extraordinary stelae and subterranean catacombs were a marvel for merchants, ambassadors, and travellers who came to the city.

Today, visitors can admire the stelae field where a single-piece granite obelisk stands 23 metres high, another, believed to have fallen soon after, or even during construction, is nearly 34 metres long, weighing over 500 tonnes. A third, which was returned to Ethiopia from Rome in 2005, will soon resume its 26 metres’ height.

Ethiopia’s most ancient city has an archaeological museum, the bath and palace of the Queen of Sheba, the tomb of King Caleb and his son Gebre Meskel. Other sites worth looking at are the historical Ezana Park, and within walking distance, the 17th century structure and the newer church of St Mary of Zion, and the sanctuary chapel of the Ark of the Covenant.

From Axum, breathtaking excursions can be arranged through dramatic scenery to the country’s oldest temple at Yeha, the Axumite styled and beautifully decorated monastery at Debra Damo, and the battlefield of Adwa, where Menelik’s army defeated the Italians in 1896 to keep Ethiopia as the only African country to successfully resist 19th century European colonization.

Petra Tours Ethiopia - Lalibella

In the remote, almost inaccessible mountains of Wollo, a near 3,000 metre high town has a unique array of churches that have been cut out of solid rock. Lalibela, after whom the town is named, carved the monolithic churches out of the natural volcanic rock from the outside-in during the 12th century.

The building method used, carving out each of the unique churches below ground, left the 11 main churches separated from the surrounding rock by a trench which is now the courtyard of each of the buildings.

Now a World Heritage Site these monolithic and semi-monolithic churches are complete with carved doors, windows, arches, rooms and interior decoration. The effect is stunningly dramatic. They are the outcome of a major sculpturing exercise.

Ruth Plant, architect, said, “The craftsmen who formed them were as inventive as those who built Europe’s medieval cathedrals. The rock-hewn churches were cut from the roof down – they could not afford mistakes. Not one!”

Indeed, the elaborately shaped, intricately designed buildings are a delight to both tourists and archaeologists and a visit here during one of the special religious festivals can only add to the very unique experience that Lalibela offers.

Petra Tours Ethiopia - Harara

The ancient walled city of Harar was established from 1520, although it was a major commercial centre in the east of Ethiopia for many centuries.

Founded by one of Harar’s most notable rulers, Abu Bekr Mohammed, it became a prestigious trading centre through contact with the interior, Gulf of Aden ports, and many eastern lands. Its 3.4 kilometre wall, constructed in the 1560s by Nur Ibn al-Wazir, contains about 90 mosques and the 48 hectare town is considered to be the fourth holiest city of Islam, having a heritage that is almost entirely Muslim and Oriental. Wars affected the city economically and then Emir Ali idn Daud revived the city in 1647 and initiated a ruling dynasty.

Harar is renowned for its handicrafts, notably its fine weaving, and beautifully bound manuscripts, which are rated as virtually unequalled in the Islamic world. The coffee from this area is also highly esteemed. Wandering around the network of narrow cobbled alleys, the unique housing, colourful dress of the inhabitants, the ancient five gated walls and the harmony of Muslim and Christians together, leave an impression of being in another world. There are also two museums, colourful markets and, at night, thepopular attraction of the daring ‘hyena man’ on the outskirts of the town, which add to a momentous tour.

Petra Tours Ethiopia - Gondar

During the 17th century, Emperor Fasiledas and his dynasty constructed some of the most remarkable structures in Africa, and Gondar became an imperial walled capital with a number of towers and castles. Today, they continue to crown Gondar in a 70,000 sqm enclosure, like priceless diadems, reminders of its past power and grandeur.

The numerous castles, built between 1640 and 1769 by various emperors, are unlike any in Africa and display the rich architectural Axumite tradition and the influence of Arabia. Their historic value has been recognized in that the Royal Enclosure is included on the World Heritage list.

A wealth of other castles, churches and historical buildings are scattered around Gondar. Probably the most charming of these is the bathing pool of Emperor Fasiledas which is used for the colourful annual Timket (Ethiopian Epiphany) celebrations in January. Nearby, is a small domed mausoleum said to have been built for the Emperor’s favourite horse, and ruins of the palace for the redoubtable and beautiful 18th century Empress Mentewab at Kuskuam, which offers visitors an extraordinarily impressive sight and a wonderful view of the town.

Within easy reach is the rectangular and stunningly decorated Debre Birhan Selassie Church – one of the most amazing displays of religious art in Ethiopia. Eighty wide-eyed angels look down upon mesmerized visitors and other frescoes depict Christian scenes. Then, just three kilometres from Gondar is, Woleka, the former Felasha (Ethiopian Jewish) village with its highly decorated pottery, which, with all the other sights, offers the visitor an inspiring experience.

As an excursion from Gondar, or even en route to Axum, one can combine fascinating historic beauty with natural rugged scenes by visiting either Kosoye, with its panoramic views of the Simien Mountains or actually heading into the mountains themselves and gaining the comparison to the Gondarine architecture.

Petra Tours Ethiopia - Bahir Dar

The tropical-like town of Bahir Dar with its palm-lined avenues and colourful markets stands on the southern edge of Ethiopia’s largest lake, Lake Tana. Local fisherman still use (tankwa) papyrus canoes and the lake’s peninsulas and islands are home to more than 20 monastic churches.

The spectacular 45 metre high Blue Nile Falls is only 32 kilometres away. The fall’s local name, Tis Isat, reflects the awe-inspiring image of the ‘smoking water’ as the river crashes into the gorge below.

Lake Tana has attracted mystics and religious people for centuries and most of the islands’ monasteries, house invaluable historical documents, relics, beautifully painted walls, and the tombs of mediaeval Ethiopian kings. Daga Istafanos, with its priceless collection of icons, Kibran Gebriel, with many ancient books, and the impressive and beautiful Ura Kidane Mirhet and its intriguing frescoes, are among the many that may be visited.

A day of visits to these wonderful sights can be concluded with a spectacular sunset view, from Bezawit Hill, across Lake Tana and the town, while overlooking hippopotami in the river below.

Petra Tours Ethiopia - Debre Damo

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.

Petra Tours Ethiopia - Rock Hewn Churches of Tigray

Many of the Tigray rock hewn churches lie along the main road between Adigrat and Mekele, or can be visited from it. Four main clusters are covered in this chapter, of which the churches that lie along the main road between Sinkata and Wukro are the most accessible to those without private transport or limited time. The pick of these churches is undoubtedly Adi Kasho Medhane Alem, part of the highly accessible Teka Tesfai cluster 10km south sinkata. A second rather loose cluster consists of Wukros Chirkos – the most accessible of all the Tigrayan churches, as it lies 500m from the main road in the town of Wukro – and the magnificent Abreha we Atsbeha church along the Hawzen road. The most extensive cluster is found in the Gheralta region, which lies to the south of Hawzen and includes some the most stunningly situated churches anywhere in Ethiopia. Gheralta can easily be explored out of Hawzen with a vehicle, or over a few days of hiking, bearing in mind that the region’s finest churches are reached by long, steep walks that require a fair level of fitness. A fourth and more dispersed cluster lies in the Atsbi area, to the east of Wukro. With one exception, the Atsbi churches can be explored only with a vehicle.