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.

On the Right Track in Ethiopia

Ben at Blue Nile Falls.

I never thought I would travel to Ethiopia, but then a unique opportunity came through my job and I jumped on it. I was invited to tour the country, then return to the United States and write about it so my readers would consider visiting there themselves. I went on a press trip on the eve of Nov. 9, 2006, from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., with four other journalists. Two more joined us later. We flew business class on Ethiopian Airlines — which sponsored our journey — stopping in Rome along the way so the flight crew could change and for the Italian maintenance crew to vacuum and take out the garbage.

When we arrived at the airport Nov. 10 around 10 p.m., a guide helped us get our bags and brought us to a van. From there, we drove through Addis Abada to the Sheraton Hotel. Along the way through the capital city, I saw lots of old stores and run-down buildings, although there were spots, like a large park and playground, that looked newer and nicer. We also saw construction, always a good sign for a country’s economy. All of a sudden, we had our first encounter with Ethiopian poverty. As the van stopped at a traffic light, a beggar woman virtually pressed herself up against the window, motioning her fingers toward her mouth. She walked around the van, almost intimidating us to give her food or money.

Our hosts greeted us at the Sheraton Hotel, where we were treated to our own luxury suites. We were supposed to meet the American ambassador to Ethiopia, but that was canceled because our flight had been rescheduled and it was too late in the evening by the time we got there.

The stay at the Sheraton was short, because we had to leave six hours later for a flight to Bahir Dar. Despite the early wakeup call, a few of us went to a club next to the Sheraton. It wasn’t so unusual. Loud (Ethiopian) pop music, young, good-looking people, alcohol, dancing… Security wanted me to leave because I wasn’t dressed properly (I was still wearing the clothing I wore on the plane), something that has happened to me more than once in the United States. I went in anyway. These young city people seemed no different than American youth, or European for that matter.

I got a wakeup call at 4:30 a.m. and room service brought me a coffee on a platter (coffee incident #1). The Sheraton spoiled us, but I knew the rest of the trip wouldn’t be so luxurious. I met everyone in the grand lobby and we went to the airport for a flight to Bahir Dar.

The hotel in Bahir Dar overlooked Lake Tana, the biggest lake in Ethiopia. While it was a somewhat nice hotel, it was clear the water situation in Ethiopia has problems. Every hotel we stayed at after the Sheraton had some sort of plumbing issue, and only had hot water during certain hours. While much of the population doesn’t even have indoor plumbing, no tourist would want to put up with this at their hotels.

Market at Tis Abay.

From Bahir Dar, we took a ride through a village to a park, which led to Blue Nile Falls — a waterfall that produces electricity for nearby towns. That’s when we saw the most interesting people. It was Saturday, the day they have their town market gathering. As we rode in the van, we saw villagers walking down the unpaved road with their donkeys, goats and sheep, hauling goods to the market. At the market, people stood around, trying to sell cows. Children begged me for pens (I’m told many tourists bring them to hand out). Some of the kids held cow dung in their hands. I was too busy staring instead of taking photos of some of these things, although I filmed a short video. Many people held umbrellas in the midday sun. Lots of folks wore clothing that came from secondhand stores. I saw one guy wearing a Chicago Blackhawks shirt, but he had no idea who they were. “A hockey team,” I said. “The sport with the stick?” He replied. I said yes.

We hiked to Blue Nile Falls, where I discovered another type of beggar — the one who tries to become your friend along the way before saying that he’s a student and needs help paying for his education. We ended up tipping these ‘guides,’ especially because they were helpful in taking pictures of us at the falls with our cameras, and shooing away the kids when the pen-giveaways got out of hand.

Later in the day, we took a boat ride on Lake Tana to a peninsula, and then hiked to a 17th-century church with paintings on the walls. We had an official guide with us the entire trip — Brook Ayalew — but we usually got a local guide at each attraction. Like before, more teens followed each of us, trying to be out personal guides. This time, however, they tried selling us paintings of what we saw in the churches — mostly colorful New Testament drawings. When I didn’t buy any, I got the same ‘I’m a student’ routine.

I didn’t have any problem giving out pens to children along the way, particularly when they let me photograph them, but I’m told by our Ethiopian tour guides that begging will only get worse as more tourists come. It could even become a ‘career’ like in Mexico. Also, the peddlers get pushy selling their goods as they do not take ‘no’ for an answer (however, everything was fairly cheap, all the jewelry, hand-paintings, and knick-knacks). The good news was that I felt safe the entire time. I’m told there is very little crime in Ethiopia, particularly because the citizens are religious, whether Christian or Muslim (although I’m told there are people who will try to scam you). Being too charitable is also dangerous because giving away pens at times was like feeding the gators.

At the hotel, we ran into a tour group of birdwatchers from Europe (mostly Britain). They were spending up to three weeks in the country, traveling around to see up to 26 endemic birds and more than 450 other species of 800 in the country. They came to Bahir Dar and Blue Nile Falls to see the white-throated seedeater and others. The tour cost them about 2500 British pounds, and there were about 14 in the group. Just to see birds? I wondered. Yes, just to see birds.

Before going to the Bahir Dar airport on Sunday, Nov. 12, we stopped to watch people go to an Ethiopian Orthodox church. Those who felt ‘unworthy’ for the week stood outside the gates, while others went inside. I found it awkward that we were taking pictures of people praying on a Sunday morning, but technically we were working so we didn’t have much of a choice.

Joel and his crew

Though we went to the airport for a quick flight to Gonder, we suddenly opted to drive through the Simien Mountains because the roads are paved along the way. Despite three-plus hours in the van, it was completely worth it. We saw harvesters working and beautiful scenery. We stopped in a local town for a coffee ceremony. The process was really long but the coffee (and popcorn) turned out great. A woman roasted the beans, ground them up and made the coffee (coffee incident #2). While waiting, one guy in our group, Joel, bought beer for a bunch of local guys and hung out. I’m told he ended up buying them a basketball.

In Gonder, we visited the Debre Birhan Selassie church, which has beautiful religious paintings on the inside walls. Then we went down the road to Fasil Ghebbi, also known as the Royal Enclosure. The castles look like ancient ruins but date back only to 1632 and later. Much of the destruction of the castles is attributed to an earthquake in the 1700s and British bombardment during World War II when the Italians took over. One of the rulers built lion cages. We also saw King Fasilidas’s bath, which is under renovation for the Jan 19, 2008 Epiphany festival. Ethiopian calendars are about seven years behind the modern calendar, and their clocks operate in 12-hour intervals.

The one attraction that I would have really liked to have seen along the way was the Falasha village, where Ethiopian Jews once lived before being airlifted to Israel between 1985 and 1992. The current residents, all Christians, continue to make pottery in the Falasha tradition for the sake of making money off of tourists. One man in our group — Arnie Weissmann of Travel Weekly — had been to Ethiopia before and found out about a Jewish woman who lives nearby who is content on staying in Ethiopia. Arnie also found out that there are about 400 more Jewish Ethiopians living in seclusion, waiting to go to Israel.

The Royal Enclosure.

That night, we went to a small bar with local music and dancing. There was a woman singing — with money stuck to the sweat on her forehead — and a man playing a masinko. They danced using mainly their shoulders. We kicked back with some kids outside, who were making fun of Japanese tourists and telling us which nationalities were ‘greedy.’ By the end of the night, they were asking us for money for their education. I told them I didn’t have any to spare, wished them luck and shook their hands. These are good people, they just don’t have much, and they won’t miss an opportunity to ask for something. Can I really blame them for trying? At least they’re nice about it.

Nov. 13, we flew to the one-time capital of Lalibela, known as Roha until recent times. On the way to town, our van broke down while climbing a mountain. We hung out with schoolchildren while waiting for another van, and I played them some Neil Diamond on my IPod portable speakers. Most just stood and looked at me but one child seemed quite enthused. They wore teal school uniforms. I learned that in each town, they wear different uniforms, although bigger cities like Addis Abada have different ones.

People visit Lalibela for the rock-hewn churches, which were inspired by what King Lalibela saw in Jerusalem. They date from 1180 to 1220 C.E. The craftsmanship was remarkable considering these were dug from the ground. There were 12, and each had unique architecture and purpose. Each one has a priest, who came out with his cross and posed for photos while wearing sunglasses (because of all the camera flashes). We had to take off our shoes in every church (including the ones in other towns), so we had a “shoe guard” follow us. He was particularly nice to one woman in our group, who generously tipped him for us all. One church did not allow women in one of the rooms. The churches had replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, but even the replicas were off-limits for viewing.

The hotel sat atop on mountain (Lalibela itself is at an altitude of 2630 meters). The night sky was beautiful. I went out to look at the stars. A local man was doing the same and pointed out constellations, including what we in the west call Orion.

The restaurant at the hotel was cabana-style, and not one of my favorites. In the morning, I couldn’t convince the waitress that she was supposed to bring out coffee and milk at the same time — not 15 minutes apart (coffee incident #3). That was a service problem, not something I found at other places. I have to admit, it was the one time I got frustrated on the trip. I couldn’t complain too much, however, as Ethiopian Airlines picked up to tab for just about everything but the visa, the souvenirs, and tips. That morning, the hotel was without water due to a problem in town. While this did not bother me, it’s clearly a problem as Ethiopia tries to attract more tourists.

Church in Lalibela.

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, before traveling to Axum, we stopped to see one more church — Bet Giorgis — that we hadn’t seen the previous day due to time constraints. This church was the only one still standing free of a scaffolding, and the carvings were incredible (see photo on right).

My buddy Joel managed to fly in the cockpit on the way to Axum, helped by the fact that he himself is a pilot and that we had a representative from Ethiopian Airlines with us — a nice man named Fasika Berhanu. We stayed in a hotel overlooking Axum, which had several churches and giant ancient monoliths dating back to the first century B.C. One of the churches is said to hold the Ark of the Covenant. The guardian is there for life — donated at the age of two as an apprentice — until death. One of the men — I’m not sure if it was the guardian or apprentice — came out to bless us. The local kids tried selling us ‘ancient’ scrolls, books and paintings, and also rocks with crystals in them. We were told not to buy anything that resembled an archaeological relic because we would have a hard time getting it through customs without a receipt.

The most impressive site in Axum was the excavated Queen Sheba’s palace, which dates back 3,000 years (however, there in controversy about this, but this is what our guides told us). As we walked around, we could hear workers singing in the background as children played (and begged for pens) nearby. The children here wore purple school uniforms. We also saw Queen Sheba’s pool (again, controversy), where local women gathered water for their families.

This is the part of the trip when I started feeling ill, probably because of something I ate or drank. I was running a slight fever, too, as I spent the evening sweating one minute and shivering the next. No one else in the group got sick. We went to dinner at a hotel in Axum. I went on a long walk with Fasika, discussing what the country needs to do to attract more tourists. He said that if Tanzania could do it, so could Ethiopia.

Though I tried to tough it out, my fellow journalists and guides, all older than me, insisted that I rest. Therefore, I missed a 5 a.m. church gathering in Axum, which I’m told was incredible.

Children climbing on Queen Sheba's palace.

We flew back to Addis Abada on Nov. 15. While the rest of the group went to lunch, I was driven back to the Sheraton, where I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and watching the Bulls-Mavericks game with French broadcasters. The others went on a flight simulator and went to a museum to see Lucy, the 3.5 million year-old skeleton found in Ethiopia in 1974. I’m told it wasn’t overly exciting, but I was still disappointed to miss it. I’m told Brook tried to contact me at the Sheraton during the day but I’m sure one of the receptionists didn’t look up my name properly (perhaps looked up ‘Benjamin’ instead of ‘Ben’ or ‘Summer’ instead of ‘Sumner’). Therefore I missed my opportunity to get up and join the group. Regardless, I was not feeling any better.

We went out for a farewell dinner at a hotel with our hosts from Ethiopian Airlines. They gave departure gifts, including handcrafted plaques with sculptured faces on them. Mine was of a man from the ‘Hamer’ tribe. Brook told me that it was the best of the bunch. The music during dinner was wonderful. An Ethiopian pilot explained to me that there are more than 80 languages and cultures in Ethiopia. I’m not sure from how many different cultures these songs and dances came from, but each performance was unique. I really enjoyed myself, though I had yet to fully recover from my illness.

We went back to the airport. Our plane was delayed 45 minutes, which gave me time to spend the rest of my birr. I had exchanged 100 dollars in Bahir Dar (8.73 to the dollar), spending most of it on tips and small gifts along the way, but I still had about 35 dollars of birr remaining. I bought some candlestick holders, two small purses for my mother and grandmother, a package of Ethiopian coasters, a ‘sandal’ key chain for my mother, and some Ethiopian coffee (for my coworkers) at the Duty Free, where I could only use U.S. dollars.

I was brought the Ethiopia to see the country, and then to return home to spread the word about the country as a tourist destination. The people, cultures and attractions are, indeed, fabulous, but even Ethiopia understands the challenges it has in attracting more tourists. It needs more accommodations. It needs more paved roads from city-to-city so travelers do not need to fly everywhere. It needs better plumbing. It needs ATMs, needs to take credit cards, needs to take travelers’ checks, and needs to exchange 20 dollar bills printed after 1996. Yet, it’s made such progress since the early 1990s when the country was far less peaceful. Reinventing Ethiopia as a tourist destination in the coming decades is highly likely. It’s on the right track.

My trip to Ethiopia was over. It was a wonderful experience, particularly for my first trip to Africa. I am not sure if I will ever return, because there are many other places in the world I haven’t seen, though I will not rule out another trip there. But even if that’s the last I see of Ethiopia, I will never forget this trip, and I will continue to root for this country and urge others to visit. Birdwatchers, in particular!

Touring Israel: What You Need to Know

Touring Israel: What You Need to Know
If the numbers are anything to go by, the tourism drought in Israel appears to be receding. With decade lows between 2001 and 2003 due to an escalation in violence, Israel has seen clear signs that visitors are coming back. Even before the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, the number of tourists more than doubled in the first half of 2004 and the number of first-time visitors in the first six months of 2005 increased 73 percent, according to the semi-annual Israeli Inbound Tourism Survey. In all, 2005 witnessed a 26 percent increase of visitors from the preceding year.

On the ground, of course, it can be a wholly different story, and travelers should naturally be aware of ongoing security concerns. And certainly, in-country security precautions may seem daunting by Western standings, but to most Israelis it’s life as usual. Adopt their point of view, and the roadblocks, soldiers, and the need for vigilance can become part of the local atmosphere rather than a reason to stay away. After all, life in Israel goes on, and there’s still plenty to discover and enjoy.

About the size of New Jersey, Israel is ripe with places to go that encapsulate thousands of years of world-shaping history, and it’s nearly impossible for travelers to hit everything. However, for first-time visitors, especially those staying a week or two, there are several obvious choices that should be featured on any itinerary.
Dont-Miss Destinations


Jerusalem, particularly the Old City, is a must, but anyone going to Israel already knows that””in fact, it’s typically the first destination after flying into Tel Aviv and taking an hour-long bus ride. Walk the narrow cobblestone streets. Tour the tunnels by the Western Wall. Enjoy the view of the city along the ramparts. Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a monumental, ancient shrine that straddles Calvary, the hill on which Christ was crucified. But wherever you do decide to go, don’t pet the stray cats. Also, beware souvenir prices in the Old City. The merchants offer items at nearly twice the price that they’re ultimately willing to settle for, so be prepared to haggle. Whether you’re purchasing a wooden camel, a decorative candle, or an Israeli Army T-shirt, the merchants may get pushy, and sometimes rude. If you’re due change, they may claim they don’t have small bills and then try to up-sell you.

Another must-see location in Israel is Ein Gedi, a lush oasis in the midst of the barren desert and gateway to the salty Dead Sea on the country’s eastern edge. People come from all around the world, sometimes exclusively, to bathe in the therapeutic baths by the Dead Sea, rub mud over their bodies (making for a great photo op), and float in the salt water at the lowest spot on earth. First-time visitors typically stay overnight, wake before dawn, and hike up Mount Masada to view the brilliant sunrise before taking a tour of the history-rich plateau. The fortress here has served as a mountaintop refuge from pillaging Syrians and Greeks, Herod’s pleasure palace, and the vanguard of a dramatic revolt against the Romans in the first-century AD, so you’d be forgiven for taking your time to absorb its millennia of history.

When most travelers arrive in Israel, they land at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, and then head to Jerusalem. It’s not uncommon, however, for them to spend their last couple of days in Tel Aviv before their return trip home. Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is a very modern city that’s only been around since 1909. It is the country’s modern cultural capital and commercial center, and beautiful beaches line the Mediterranean coast. The city is known for its openness as well as superlative nightlife. It has quite a few museums, too, like the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Eretz Israel Museum, and the Diaspora Museum, which features a multimedia exhibit that illustrates the history of Jewish communities throughout the world.

Visitors who have time should travel a couple of hours south to visit Eilat, a resort city that closely borders Jordan and Egypt on Israel’s southernmost tip. The border to Taba, Egypt, is accessible by foot, and tourists who want another stamp on their passport often spend part of the day exploring the small town. Tourists frequently take a worthwhile day-long tour to Petra, Jordan, by way of Aqaba. It’s expensive, but an unforgettable experience amidst the World Heritage-listed “City in the Rock”””the same amazing locale that Indiana Jones and his father explored in The Last Crusade. In Eilat, be sure to take a glass-bottom boat ride, and when the weather is warm, enjoy the beaches and the soothing waters of the Red Sea. Eilat is also a birder’s dream destination, sitting under the migratory flight path of birds beating a path each spring from North Africa to breeding grounds in Europe. Hotels and resorts here abound, among them the five-star Neptune Hotel and Herods Vitalis Spa.
Access & Resources


Good to Know:
Security is tight in Israel. Expect to go through metal detectors frequently and answer many questions about what you’re doing there, whether you’re at the airport or cruising the shopping mall. Though Hebrew is the main language, English is widely spoken. Often, travelers can spend time in Israel without needing to understand a word of Hebrew, but it’s still wise to pick up a few common phrases. Remember that many attractions are closed on Fridays after sunset until Saturdays after sunset in accordance with the Jewish Sabbath, and there is no bus service in most places during those times.

Getting There:
El Al Israel Airlines, Delta, Tower, World Airways, CSA/Czech Airlines, Air Canada, and British Airways, among others, all serve Israel from a variety of international hubs. About 90 percent of visitors arrive at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Check the airport website for a complete listing of airlines and contact details. Travelers from the U.S., Canada, and most European countries don’t need a visa to visit Israel, just a valid passport (visit the Israeli consular website for full details).

Getting Around:
The most practical way to get from place to place is on the bus. All cities have extensive bus service, but most do not operate between Friday night and Saturday night. However, buses do operate in Haifa and in eastern Jerusalem on the Jewish Sabbath. Taxis are available in every city, but don’t be fooled by drivers who offer you a special price, which is often higher than the meter. Car-renters need only a passport, credit card, and U.S. or Canadian driver’s license. Most traffic signs are in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. And don’t worry””they drive on the right-hand side of the street.

To call Israel from North America, dial 011-972, then the number (omitting the initial zero). To call home, AT&T, MCI, and Sprint all have toll-free access numbers in Israel. Ask your hotel operator how to dial from your room. You can also rent a cell phone at the airport. As for the Internet, there are cafes and public Internet outlets all over the place.

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

No vaccinations or shots are required for U.S. or Canadian visitors to Israel, but if you’ve visited a country prior to coming to Israel where cholera, typhoid, or yellow fever is endemic, you will need a vaccination certificate.

Young travelers:
For college-aged travelers looking for adventure, there are volunteer programs that will offer memorable experiences. If you find the right Kibbutz (a communal farm), you can work for your room and board and meet people from all over the world. Whether you’re gardening, washing dishes, or working the fields, the Kibbutz experience is a way of life you won’t soon forget.

Jewish adults aged 18 to 26 who have never been to Israel before can take advantage of the Birthright Israel program (, which is a ten-day expenses-paid educational trip.