Monday, November 11, 2013

A Whirlwind Tour of Northern Ethiopia

Fishing from a papyrus boat on Lake Tana

One of many paintings in a Lake Tana monastery

Local painting materials

Our first visitors came to Ethiopia! It was a long-awaited event, and after spending a few days at our site in Ambo, we all headed north to see the more ‘touristy’ sights of Ethiopia.

Blue Nile Falls
Our first stop was Bahir Dar, where we took a boat on the brown, murky waters of Lake Tana, the largest body of water in Ethiopia and part of the source of the Blue Nile, the longest river in Africa. This long lake houses 20 monasteries or churches on its islands, and since females are not allowed to enter some of the churches, we visited one from the 14th century that allows females to enter. The round, thatch-roofed monastery had amazing, colorful paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. The Ethiopian Bible has 16 extra chapters, so there were some scenes that were unfamiliar to us, like a cannibalism story. They used local paints made of flowers, plants, and even animal blood!

Beautiful drive to Gonder in a mini-bus
Famous ceiling of angels in Gonder

The next morning, we drove on a long gravel road through the countryside, then hiked over a 17th-century Portuguese-built stone bridge and a new Swiss-built suspension bridge to see the spectacular Blue Nile Falls. Locally known as Tis Abay (Smoking Nile), it pours out huge volumes of water – when it isn’t diverted to the nearby hydroelectric plant. Lucky for us, the rainy season had just ended and the waterfall was in full flow, granting us a cooling mist after a hot hike.

After the hike, we drove a very scenic 3-hour drive towards the city of Gonder, which was founded as Ethiopia’s capital in 1636 by Emperor   During this time, each new ruler built a palace, resulting in some amazing castles on a 70,000 square meter compound. When the Italians occupied Ethiopia during the 1930s, they made themselves a comfortable base in these castles. At the onset of WWII, when the Italians declared Britain to be an enemy, these castles were bombed by British air force.

One of many castles in Gonder

The next stop was Lalibela, arguably the most remarkable place in Ethiopia. This isolated city sits at 2,600 meters in the middle of an impressive mountain range. 11 rock-hewn churches were carved down into the reddish stone…by hand! They were made during the 12th century by King Lalibela, and legend has it that they were built over a span of 24 years….human laborers worked on it during the daytime and angels worked on it during the nighttime. Carbon dating, however, shows that it was built over a span of about 200 years. Either way, these churches are amazing! We started our visit early in the morning, when church-goers wrapped in white robes start walking toward the churches, answering the call of the priests chanting in the ancient language of Ge’ez. We walked from one amazing church to the next, many connected by tunnels. At one particular church, we walked into the church service, stood right next to the priests, and observed the traditional Orthodox Christian service. At another church, we precariously walked over a stone walkway, crammed with people, and into a communion service filled wall-to-wall with white-robed Ethiopians. Regardless of your religion, it’s hard not to feel the spirituality in this place.
600-year old Bible on goatskin

Just outside of Lalibela, up on the mountain overlooking the town is yet another Orthodox Christian church that can only be accessed by hiking. The scenery was breathtaking, with steep mountains all around and small farms with rock huts dotting the landscape. Inside the church were ancient artifacts, like silver crosses and a 600-year-old Bible painted on goatskin.
One of 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela

Huge churches carved by hand!
Priest at a Lalibela Orthodox Christian church

Our last stop was the ancient city of Axum, where many sites are 
dated before the birth of Christ. In the 10th Century BC, the legendary Queen of Sheba ruled over Axum. Although her palace is now crumbling, her bath is still used today by naked boys. As the famous legend goes, the Queen of Sheba once traveled to visit the wise King Solomon in Jerusalem. During her visit, the king was overwhelmed by her beauty, although she wasn’t interested in the least. He promised her that he would take nothing from her, as long as she didn’t take anything from him. That night, he served her a spicy dinner, and she inadvertently reached for a glass of water that belonged to him. 9 months later, she gave birth to future king Menelik. Menelik grew up and later visited his father in Jerusalem, then returned to Ethiopia, secretly taking the Ark of the Covenant back with him. The St. Mary of Zion Churches, built in 1665, now purportedly house the Ark of the Covenant, although no one is allowed to see the artifact or enter the church, which is watched over by one carefully selected guardian.
Overlooking Lalibela, a perfect place for a church

This ancient city is in the arid, rocky region of Ethiopia called Tigray, which was most affected by the famine in the 1980s. Our guide, born in 1981, remembers this time, and remarked that he was lucky to be born into a family of only two children, so there was enough food to survive. He also remembers the war with bordering Eritrea in the late 1990s, a 5-hour walk from Axum, as he could hear the fighting from the town.

The Queen of Sheba's bath, complete with naked boys
Although we had previously read about the long history of Ethiopia, we were not prepared for the richness of the culture, the modernism of the archaeology, and the conviction of the ancient legends. Come visit Ethiopia to see for yourself!

Where the Ark of the Covenant is kept??


  1. The Gonder castles look gorgeous; glad you two had a lovely trip!

  2. Wonderful trip...glad I was part of it.

  3. Wow-I knew there was a long-standing Christian heritage-but never knew any details-what a trip that was-glad to hear you are getting some touring done. Sometimes it takes visitors to get you to do that. Thanks for giving those of us at home a little tour also! Love your posts!

  4. Thanks for this post - I'm hoping to visit many of these sites in May. Your photos are beautiful and help build the excitement. I imagine the Blue Nile falls won't be so full then?

  5. From what I understand, the Blue Nile Falls are best just after rainy season, so October is a great time to go. During the dry season, most of the water is diverted into the hydroelectric plant, so the falls are hit and miss. The tour guides can call ahead to see if the falls are running that day.
    Have a great time in Ethiopia!