Three Gems in Ethiopia

Recovering from years of war, drought, famine and relative isolation from the rest of the world, Ethiopia has recently given its economy a boost through tourism by pulling three ancient, valuable cards from its sleeve. These are mind-blowing sites on par with better-known treasures in other parts of the world. The cities””all UNESCO World Heritage sites””are little-known outside of Ethiopia, but soon the names Axum, Gonder, and Lalibela will become insider’s shorthand for travelers driven to explore historical, religious, and cultural sites.

Axum is the heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and one of the most ancient cities in the country. It’s said that the Holy of Holies””the Ark of the Covenant””resides here. The city is also home to ancient monoliths and historical ruins that may be tied to the Queen of Sheba 3,000 years ago.

Gonder contains the most surprising ruins for this part of the world, the remains of centuries-old castles known as Fasil Ghebbi, or the Royal Enclosure, which look more European than African. The city has a laid-back atmosphere and the festive nightlife makes for a fun cultural experience after a day of educational sightseeing.

The monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela may very well be the eighth wonder of the world. Chiseled from pink granite rock, the churches each have unique architectural styles and artwork, and continue to function in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition more than 800 years after they were created.

The one-time capital of the Axumite Empire is rich in relics and legends, and much has yet to be discovered.

How you interpret the holy city of Axum (or Aksum, as it’s also known) will largely depend on whether or not you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. Take the tour guides at their word, and you’ll learn that the Ark of the Covenant, which dates back to the biblical Exodus, is located here, and the Queen of Sheba’s palace and bath are well preserved on the outskirts of town. But even if you’re not willing to make a leap of faith and take them at their word, keep in mind that most of Axum has yet to be examined by archaeologists.

Dating back about four centuries before Christ, this city was the capital of the powerful Axumite Empire, and traces its roots to the Queen of Sheba. It served as a connecting point in the trade route between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia and has been the heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church since King Ezana brought Christianity to the country in the 4th century. White-robed pilgrims stroll throughout the city, and visitors can wake early to observe their predawn ceremonies at the churches.

Many Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant has resided in Axum since Menelik I, legendary son of King Solomon of and the Queen of Sheba, brought it from Jerusalem thousands of years ago. Also called the Holy of Holies, the Ark””the container that holds the Ten Commandments delivered by Moses to the Israelites on Mount Sinai””is preserved in a sanctuary, but””and here’s the catch””no one is allowed to see it. It’s watched over by a guardian, who occasionally appears from the sanctuary to bless visitors. He spends almost his entire life guarding the Ark, first as an apprentice and then as the lead guardian after his predecessor dies. Even photos of this man are not allowed. For certain ceremonies, priests will bring out a covered replica and march it around, while observers carry colorful umbrellas. Though skeptics do not believe the true Ark resides in Axum, few doubt that something extremely old and valuable lives in the sanctuary.

Near the sanctuary is the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, the most sacred shrine in Ethiopia and the place where Ethiopian emperors were once crowned. The original church, which stood between the 4th and 16th centuries, was destroyed by Muslim invaders, and King Fasilidas, who also built the Royal Enclosure of Gonder, constructed the second Church of Saint Mary of Zion in the exact spot as the first one.

Axum’s field of stelae consists of roughly 75 erected obelisks of various shapes and sizes with symbolic engravings. The tallest standing monolith is about 75 feet high. The largest one””which would have stood 108 feet tall””may have never been fully erected because of problems at the base, and currently lies on the ground in massive pieces. The stelae were erected over the course of centuries, some long before the arrival of Christianity, and some after, as proven by the inscriptions. During World War II, the Italian invaders cut the second largest Axumite stele (85 feet) into pieces and transported it to Rome. It was finally returned in 2005, but has yet to be reassembled. There are also tombs in this field, so bring a flashlight and watch your head as you duck through the chambers. It’s said 98 percent of this field hasn’t even been excavated, and there are likely many more tombs buried here.

In its prime, the multi-storied Queen of Sheba’s castle””a structure in the city of Dongar that some date to 700 CE””contained numerous rooms, including a kitchen with an oven and a throne room atop a flag pole-like based. It’s easy to picture ancient royalty spending time in this impressive building, or lounging poolside at Mai Shum, credited as the Queen of Sheba’s bath. Though a layer of algae occasionally coats the surface, it’s still used by the locals as a water source. Women stoop on the stairs to wash clothing or fill containers to bring back home. And while skeptics point out that there is no evidence tying the castle or the bath to the queen, they are impressive sites to behold. The Gudit stelae field is also located nearby, but it isn’t as prominent as the main stelae field in Axum.

Axum also has a museum of antiquities, which contains ancient rock tablets inscribed in several languages, Axumite religious symbols, coins, and old bibles and scrolls””all of which will soon be housed in a new museum, currently under construction. Don’t be surprised if local teens try to capitalize on the historical atmosphere of Axum by selling you old scrolls, books, paintings, and geodes. But be advised: buy something that even looks old without a receipt from an official gift shop, and you may not be able to get your new souvenir through customs.

So, it’s already known that Axum has relics dating back thousands of years, monolithic obelisks, royal tombs and the remains of ancient castles. But what else? For a place that was once the home of an ancient superpower civilization, Axum has been severely under-funded for more archeological excavations. Perhaps, one day, more discoveries will expand””or at least clarify””the already legendary accounts of Axum.

Axum at a Glance

Name: Axum
Date of Inscription: 1980
Why go: Considered the holiest place in Ethiopia, Axum has centuries-old history and artifacts that make it a must-see destination for any historical traveler.

Fasil Ghebbi

Once the home of Ethiopian monarchs, the Royal Enclosure in Gonder is Africa’s version of Camelot.

Of all the historical sites in Ethiopia, there’s one that seems out of place, an area one would expect to see in a remote part of Europe, complete with shuttle buses and lines of tourists. In the city of Gonder, there’s a field of majestic ruins, a half-dozen castles and other buildings in a walled-off area called Fasil Ghebbi, or the Royal Enclosure. Though an untrained eye may think it’s much older, ground was first broken in 1635, and various rulers added to the complex over the years. Why so ancient-looking? An earthquake did severe damage in 1704, and the British bombed the Italian invaders here during World War II. Since then, restoration has taken place over the years, particularly by UNESCO funding.

This fortress-city was the residence of King Fasilides and his successors. Surrounded by a high stone wall that encircles an area of about 19 acres, the enclosure contains palaces, churches, and other buildings. The architectural styles reflect Hindu, Arab, Axumite, and Portuguese influences. The highlight of these structures is the 111-foot-tall Fasilides’ Castle, which has three levels, a dining room, prayer room, and a balcony with a view of the surrounding city. Other places of note include an old bathing pool, a sauna (complete with the tools to make steam), raised walkways linking the castles, a banquet hall, a concert hall, a library, and cages that held Abyssinian lions up until the early 1990s. There are also three churches: Elfin Giyorgis, Asasame Kidus Mikael, and Gemjabet Maryam, where King Fasilides is buried.

The city of Gonder was founded by King Fasilidas in 1635 and served as Ethiopia’s capital for 250 years. It’s located near Simien Mountains National Park, at an altitude of 6,955 feet. While the Italians only occupied Ethiopia between 1936 and 1941, they left their mark by modernizing Gonder.

Though not part of the Royal Enclosure, there are other sites of interest in Gonder within walking distance. Fasilidas’s bathing pool often serves as the gathering point for Epiphany Festival, held January 19, but it is under renovation as of 2006. The most famous church in this town is Debre Birhan Selassie (Light of the Trinity), which has colorful paintings on the walls in the Ethiopian tradition. The nightlife in the town’s many bars””typically with live music played on traditional Ethiopian instruments””makes for a great counter-balance to the overwhelming European-ness of it all.

Fasil Ghebbi at a Glance
Name: Fasil Ghebbi, Gonder Region
Date of Inscription: 1979
Why go: Imagine yourself as an Ethiopian king in the 17th century, and see the fabulous remains of what you would have lived in.

The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela
These chiseled, monolithic masterpieces have been at work for 800 years.

One of the most remarkable, yet little-known, centuries-old architectural feats in the world exists in Lalibela, Ethiopia, in the form of a dozen churches chiseled from pink granite rock. Though it’s not uncommon to hear whispers that these churches are the eighth wonder of the world, few outside of Ethiopia have even heard of the town of Lalibela, which for years was known as Roha and was the capital of Zagwe dynasty during the 10th to the mid-13th centuries. Yet this unique place of worship functions today in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition as it has since workers first tediously crafted the churches between 1180 and 1220 A.D. Now supported by protective scaffolding, and after years of relative inaccessibility to the town, the churches are primed for tourists.

The churches sprung from the vision of King Lalibela. Legends say he traveled to Jerusalem during the 12th century and returned to create a “New Jerusalem” in Roha. While the churches do not resemble the architectural structures in Jerusalem, many were built in honor of biblical figures, while others were dedicated to Ethiopian saints and prominent figures. However, various landmarks around the area are named after sites in and around Israel. Another legend says that Lalibela was the brother of an incumbent king, and he was prophesied to become king himself after a swarm of bees covered him as a child. In a fit of jealously, his brother attempted to poison Lalibela, but instead cast him into deep, three-day sleep. That’s when an angel led him to heaven, where he saw a city of rock-hewn churches. At the same time, his brother had a dream that Jesus Christ instructed him to give up the crown to Lalibela, which he did. As for excavating the churches, legends say it took divine intervention. Either that, or an estimated 40,000 freemasons.

Each church has unique architectural styles and most are decorated with colorful religious artwork. They contain replicas of the Holy of Holies””the Ark of the Covenant””though no one can view these. About half of the churches are underground, surrounded by connecting trenches and courtyards, while others are carved from the sides of vertical rocks or built in existing caves. White-robed pilgrims stroll through the dimly-lit passageways and sit in niches carved into the walls. A priest, typically sporting sunglasses, will greet visitors and pose for photographs while holding the church’s cross and a staff. Visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering each church, but a “shoe-guard” will watch over them. Visitors can wake up before dawn to observe ceremonies with candle-wielding pilgrims.

The churches north of the Jordan River (which was named after the river that runs through Israel) are monoliths, excavated from beneath the ground. Bet Medhane Alem is the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, standing almost 38 feet high. This church has empty graves said to represent the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Bet Maryam is in an adjoining courtyard, and thought to be the first of Lalibela’s churches. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and contains carvings of the Lalibela Cross and the Star of David. One veiled pillar is said to have carvings of the story of the beginning and the end of the world, but is off-limits for viewing. Bet Meskel (House of the Cross) and Bet Danaghel are also in this cluster. Bet Danaghel was supposedly built in honor of 50 Christian maiden nuns murdered by the Romans in the 4th century. There is a pool in the courtyard believed to cure infertile women on the Ethiopian Christmas. Bet Golgotha, which is the only church in Lalibela that does not allow women, shares an entrance with Bet Debre Sina. Inside, carvings of saints cover the walls, and it is believed that King Lalibela is buried there. The Selassie Chapel, considered to be the holiest place in Lalibela, is within Bet Golgotha and few visitors are allowed. This whole cluster is surrounded by an outer trench.

The churches south of the Jordan River were mostly carved from vertical rock and existing caves. Bet Gebriel-Rafael, which looks like a fortress with a dry moat, may have been home to Lalibela and is believed to have originally been built 500 years before the others. Legend says Bet Abba Libanos was constructed overnight by King Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebre, and a group of angels. From there, a 54-yard tunnel leads to Bet Lehem (chapel of Bethlehem), a small cave that may have been used for private prayers by the king. Bet Emmanuel is the only monolith in this cluster and stands 39 feet high. Thought to be the private church of the royal family, it’s considered the best-constructed church here. Bet Mercrious, which was converted from an existing cave, may be 1400 years old, and contains a graphic painting of Saint Mercrious killing King Oleonus.

Bet Giyorgis, the one church outside of the two clusters, is an isolated monolith excavated from the ground with a roof in the shape of a Greek cross. Visitors must walk down into the chasm to enter, where skeletons of monks live in the wall cavities. It is the only church that is not yet reinforced by scaffolding, and was likely the last one built.

The surrounding poor, rural town of Lalibela is located 8,628 feet above sea level in the Lasta Mountains in the lower northern territory of Ethiopia. Within the last ten years, road construction has made it possible to visit year-round. As the site’s popularity increases, the town will certainly change. But one thing will be constant: These wondrous churches will continue to be the hub of the Ethiopian Orthodox, as they have for eight centuries.

Lalibela at a Glance

Name: Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
Date of Inscription: 1978
Why go: Ever wonder what Man is capable of chiseling? These churches are like no other, and they’re no sitting relic. Come to pray ““ they’re still in use.

Other Sites in Ethiopia
Travelers often arrive in the capital city of Addis Ababa, which means “new flower” in Amharic. Addis is a pleasant city with museums, open-air markets, and avenues of jacaranda trees. “Lucy” resides here, the 3.5 million-year-old skeleton excavated in 1974. The more modern part of the country, Addis is only the gateway to mind-blowing areas little-known outside of Ethiopia.

Another popular destination is the town of Bahir Dar, which sits on the shores of Lake Tana. Visitors can take boat rides to the islands and peninsulas to view old monasteries and churches filled treasures and biblical paintings. On the outskirts of Bahir Dar is Blue Nile Falls, which can reach as high as 147 feet depending on the season and water flow from Lake Tana. Travelers will encounter child vendors, working locals, wandering livestock, and young street musicians providing entertainment along the way. On Saturdays””market day””thousands of locals haul their goods with their cows, sheep, and goats many miles down the road. Bus service connects Bahir Dar with Addis, which is 348 miles away and may take more than a day of traveling, depending on the service. Hour-long flights are also available.

Adventure-driven travelers will head for the Simien Mountains, designated a national park in 1969 and a World Heritage site ten years later. One of Africa’s largest ranges, it’s filled with an extensive network of trails that make it ideal for trekking anywhere between a day and a week. Some even travel with mules.

Budget travelers will feel at home in Ethiopia; everything is relatively cheap considering Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. But that doesn’t make it easy. Though English is widely spoken and making your own plans is certainly doable, tour operators, such as Greenland Tours (, are the only practical way of getting the highest dose of what this country has to offer in the shortest time.

Even with the best guides, touring Ethiopia is not without challenges. Lack of paved roads makes it difficult to travel by car or bus to different sections of the country. Most of the hotels are considered sub par for what travelers would hope for, and there aren’t enough in some towns to support the growing number of tourists. At the hotels, hot water is often available only during certain hours. Most places in the country do not accept credit cards, and ATMs are virtually impossible to find. In fact, in the smaller towns it may be difficult to exchange dollars printed after 1996. While crime is low, beggars, swindlers, and pushy vendors will crowd around travelers, hoping for a score (this behavior will likely worsen as more tourists arrive). As for the Internet, carve at least a half-hour out of your day just to get access to your e-mail. It’s that slow.

As Ethiopia continues to make strides at alleviating these inconveniences, it’s bound to only get better for tourists in the coming years (bird-watching groups, in fact, have been flocking in for years). A symbol of this is the construction of a luxury hotel on the shores of Lake Tana, and it’s already got a five-star Sheraton in Addis.

Getting There and Around
While many airlines (see list: fly to the capital city of Addis Ababa, the country’s national carrier is Ethiopian Airlines (, which offers packages for domestic flights when booked in conjunction with flights into the country. The domestic packages are typically for flights between Lalibela, Gonder, Bahir Dar, and Addis, and may average out to $50 a ticket for three or more.

Best Times to Visit
There are two distinct seasons in Ethiopia. The dry season lasts from October through May, while the wet season runs from June through September. For tourists, it should be noted that rain often falls in sudden bursts, not lengthy drizzles, and there’s little about the wet season that should discourage anyone from visiting.

Vaccinations and Health Requirements
Prior to entry, visitors should be in possession of a health certificate for yellow fever. Vaccination against cholera is also required for people who have visited a cholera-infected area within six days prior to their arrival. However, it’s unlikely anyone will check.

Ethiopia’s voltage is 220 volts, like Europe, so break out the converters if you’re coming from North America.

A valid passport is required to enter Ethiopia, and travelers from North America (and most other countries outside of Africa) must purchase a visa at the airport for about $30.

Anyone who watches the news may conclude that Ethiopia is entrenched in conflict, and therefore, it isn’t safe to travel there. While there is tension on the border with Eritrea and Somalia””areas certainly not recommended for travelers””the cities and travel areas recommended here are hundreds of miles away from conflict zones.