Ethiopia is wealth of historic sites. Its identity is defined by its own history and diverse cultures rather than by colonialism – and is what distinguishes it from most other African destinations. Evidence of an extraordinary past is everywhere, from its rock-hewn churches, places of living worship, to its ancient historical traditions and magnificent cultures. Ethiopia is a nation of surprises, full of diversity and contrast, from the ancient to the modern.
Read on to discover Ethiopia: its ancient sites, magnificent natural glory, peoples and languages, best known attractions and cultural activities.
10 of Ethiopia’s Popular Historic Sites and Tourist Attractions
1) Addis Ababa
With a population of more than two million people, Addis Ababa is not only the political capital but also the economic and social centre of Ethiopia. Founded by Emperor Menelik in 1887, this big, sprawling, hospitable city still bears the stamp of his exuberant personality. More than 21,000 hectares in area, Addis Ababa is situated in the foothills of the 3,000-metre Entoto Mountains and rambles pleasantly across many wooded hillsides and gullies cut with fast-flowing streams. Wide, tree-lined streets, fine architecture, glorious weather and the incongruity of donkey trains along the boulevards make Addis Ababa a city of surprises and a delightful place to explore.
There are many opportunities to experience Ethiopian music, song and dance, to visit museums and to see the city sights. The Horticultural Society and Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society both organize visits to local gardens and trips out into the countryside.
Don’t forget to sample some of Ethiopia’s culinary delights. Injera, a large, soft, pancake-like crepe, forms the basis of most Ethiopian meals, served with a communal tray on which a tempting array of spicy sauces is served. Also distinctive is the Ethiopian traditional drink, tej, a honey wine, or mead. Traditional restaurants abound in Addis Ababa, and offer entertainment in the form of the ubiquitous massinko minstrels and traditional dance troupes. There are also many other specialist restaurants in the city, including Chinese, Italian, French, Indian, Armenian, Arabic and Greek.
2) The Ancient City of Axum
Axum, Ethiopia’s most ancient city and the capital of the historic Axumite state, is the site of many remarkable monolithic stone stelae, or obelisks, the three most important being decorated to represent multi-storied buildings, complete with doors and windows.
The largest obelisk, which was 35 meters long and weighed 500 tons, is the biggest piece of stone ever cut by humanity anywhere in the world but today it lies broken on the ground.
Axum, in its day, was a great commercial centre, issuing its own currency and trading with Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India and even Ceylon. The settlement was also the site of Ethiopia’s oldest church, which dated back to the coming of Christianity as the state religion, early in the 4th century. The original building has long since disappeared but a structure erected on its site by Emperor Fasiladas in the early 17th Century is still there. A nearby outhouse is the reputed repository of the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This historic relic cannot be seen but visitors there can see and photograph a number of the remarkable crowns that belonged to several notable Ethiopian monarchs of the past.
Just out of the town, the remains of an early Axumite palace, popularly thought to have belonged to the Queen of Sheba, are well worth a visit. The remains are located at Dangur, near the mountain from which the obelisks were originally excavated. The beautifully worked tombs of several ancient Axumite rulers and the local archaeological museum are also worth a visit.
3) Medieval Churches of Lalibela
A medieval settlement in the Lasta area of Wallo lies at the centre of an extensive complex of rock churches. Some can be reached by one or two hours’ drive, while others are a full day’s journey. Lalibela has 11 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 out, into the solid rock, and are considered to be among the wonders of the world. Each building is architecturally unique but each reflects beautifully executed craftsmanship, and several are decorated with fascinating paintings. These astonishing edifices remain places of living worship to this day.
4) The Preserved Medieval City of Gonder
Gonder was the 17th Century capital of Ethiopia, and is notable for its medieval Castles and churches. The City’s unique imperial compound contains a number of Castles built between 1632 and 1855 by the various Emperors who reigned during this period. These dramatic castles, unlike any other African, display richness in architecture that reveals the Axumite traditions as well as the influence of Arabia.
Other treasures of Gonder include the 18th Century palace of Ras Beit, the bath of Fasilades, the ruined palace of Kusquam, and the church of Debre Berhane Selassie with its unique murals.
5) Monasteries and Fishing Village of Bahar Dar
Bahar Dar is a small town set on the south – eastern shore of Lake Tana, where local fishermen still use papyrus boats, and just 30 km from the spectacular Tissisat Falls. Here the Blue Nile creates “Smoking Water” an awe-inspiring sight as it plunges into the gorge below.
From Bahar Dar one must explore some of the ancient monasteries that have been built around Lake Tana, or on the many Islands. These include Dek Stephanos with its priceless collections of icons, as well as the remains of several medieval emperors, Kebran Gabriel and Ura Kidane Mehret with its famous frescoes. The colourful local market at Bahir Dar is renowned for its weavers and wood workers.
6) Debre Damo, Oldest Church in Ethiopia
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.
7) Temple of Yeha Near Axum
Some 55 km east of Axum is the 5th Century BC Temple of Yeha. Its massive walls house Judaic relics and historic artifacts.
8) Northern Region of Makale
Although Lalibela is unique, it is not the sole site of Ethiopia’s famous rock-hewn churches. In Tigray near Makale, over 200 fine examples of these monuments to man’s devotion to God as well as his building skills, may be seen and visited.
The Capital of the emperor Yohannnes IV (1871 – 1889), Makale is now the main town of Tigray, the most northern Ethiopian region. The emperor’s palace has been turned into a particular interesting museum, with many exhibits of his time and subsequent history. The town is also well known as a transit point for the Camel Caravans bringing salt up from the arid lands of the Danakil Depression. This makes the market palace a particular interesting place to visit. Intrepid visitors can also make excursions into the Danakil to visit some of the Afar nomads that trek across the region.
9) Ancient & Holy City of Harar
The city of Harar is an ancient (1520) and holy city. Always an important trading centre, the city is famous for its ancient buildings, its great city walls and as a centre of learning Muslim scholarship (the town has 99 mosques). The city is well known for its superb handicrafts that include woven textiles, basketware, silverware and handsomely bound books, Harar has been a place of pilgrimage from all over the world for many years.
Harar’s attractions include: 1) the City Walls; 2) the Rimbaud House: a fine building traditional house dating from the period when the French poet Rimbaud lived in Harar; and 3) the Hyena Man: as evening falls, local men attract wild hyenas to the city in a bizarre spectacle as they bravely feed these dangerous scavengers.
10) Muslim Village of Sof Omar
Sof Omar, a tiny Muslim village in Bale, is the site of an amazing complex of natural caves, the Sof Omar Caves, cut by the Wab River as it found its way from the nearby mountains. The settlement, which is a religious site, is named after a local Sheikh.
Armed with torches and official map, visitors to Sof Omar make their way underground, far into the bowels of the earth, beside a subterranean stream, and there can see an extraordinary number of arched portals, high eroded ceilings and deep echoing chambers.
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