This route through the North of Ethiopia takes us to the past where legends and reality come together. In this entry we explore European style castles in Gondar, churches and monasteries carved into the rock in Lalibela and in Axum, the temple where the Ark of the Covenant is kept.
The Kingdom of Sheba empire covers what is today Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, Yemen, part of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to the Persian Gulf, given its strategic location has been a key place in the trade routes between Asia and Africa, and consequently hides treasures and myths that we were exciting to discover.
We spent the entire day on the road enjoying a stunning landscape. On our way visited the grand bridge and the Debra Libanos monastery.
Bahir Dar is situated on the southern shore of Tana Lake, with its 84 kilometers long and 66 kilometers wide is the largest lake in Ethiopia and the principal source of the Blue Nile, and according to legend, the source of eternal youth. The water were not as blue as expected. We reached the village of Tis Isat, 35 kilometers from Bahir Dar to visit its famous Blue Nile Falls.
In the afternoon, we took a boat to visit the Tana Lake and its islands. On one of them seats the monasteries of Ura Kidane Meheret and Kibran Gabriel containing colorful frescoes with expressive faces painted on the vaults and walls of the churches depict scenes from the Old Testament, hell and paradise, aimed at indoctrinating the faithful.
Wait, what? Medieval European castles in Ethiopia? Yes! in Gondar. And it’s surprising how well-preserved they are today. Located north of Lake Tana and at the foot of the Semien Mountains, they offer a fairy tale landscape, living up to their nickname: Ethiopia’s Camelot.
The town was founded by King Fasilidas in 1635, who built the first castle with Arabic, European Baroque and Hindu influences. His successors added more castles near the first one, and it became the imperial residence from 1636 to 1855.
Its walled enclosure from the 17th century has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with other monuments in the city and its surroundings.
The most important castle is that of King Fasilidas himself. It is a stone construction surrounded by wooden towers and balconies.
In addition, King Fasilidas built “The Bathhouse of Fasil” in which thousands of Ethiopians celebrate every January the Timkat Festival, the Coptic Epiphany that commemorates the baptism of Christ.
– Debra Birhan Selassie’s Church (Light of Trinity). It stands out for its colorful frescoes, figures of angels that cover walls and ceilings.
From Gondar to Aksum there are 350 kilometer, along the way stands the rugged Simien Mountains, declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. Considered one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Africa, surprises by its deep valleys and dense vegetation. The Simien Natural Park is the habitat of many endemic animals, among which the Gelada baboon, the Ethiopian wolf and the ibex Walia highlight.
The Aksumite Empire once covered southern Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti and northern Sudan.
Aksum, the cradle of Ethiopian civilization, is the capital of the ancient Aksumite kingdom; Christianity was declared the official religion in Aksum around 340 AD.
Queen’s Sheba Palace
It was discovered in 2008 by a team of German archaeologists is the exact place where the queen lived. According to the legend, a queen visited Israel and presented Solomon with a series of enigmas he solved. The impressed queen converted to monotheism and from this encounter Menelik I, king of Ethiopia, was born.
Church of Santa Maria de Sion
This is the oldest Christian temple in Ethiopia, here is the original Ark of the Covenant, a sacred chest that Moses ordered to built to keep the Tablets of the Law.
Tradition says that the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel, Menelik I brought the original Ark from Israel to Aksum.
The Park of the Steles
Here in Aksum stands out with over 100 Steles and granite obelisks, 20 meters high, dating from 300 to 500 A.D. and believed to have been built for religious purposes.
The largest obelisk is 33 meters high, fallen and broken on the ground, supposedly from when they tried to raise it.
One of the stele, 9 meters long, has two leaves carved in relief within a square topped by a triangle, the oldest artistic image of the Ark of the Covenant.
Walking around the city, we see that the men operate sewing machines, which makes us a little curious.
THE TIGRAY MOUNTAINS
In northern Ethiopia, the Tigray region accumulates the nation’s greatest cultural and spiritual heritage. It’s a collection of 153 Christian churches built between the 10th and 15th centuries carved right out of the stone at an altitude of almost 2000 meters, in locations out of reach high up on the cliffs to safeguard them from looters and vandals through the centuries.
Nowadays you can visit them, but you need to hike and sometimes even climb. That’s why you need a guide to show you the way to the churches and also because they provide with ropes and harnesses to climb them safely.
From Mekele toward Adigrat is where most of the churches are located, on the tops of the mountains of Gheralta.
Among the best-known Maryam Korkor, Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion and Abuna Yemata Guh.
Since we’re not really into climbing, we would rather visit the ones in Wukro.
On our tour we visited the rock-hewn churches of Wukro Cherkos and Abreha Asbeha Temple near the road and easily accessible.
Angel Olaran mission
In addition, in Wukro there is another very interesting visit to make. The Basque priest, Angel Olaran, in his mission helps the most deprived people. He is known in the area as Abba Malaku (my angel). The mission works in several aid projects including St Mary’s School, which to mitigate poverty, provides education and technical training to the unemployed and farmers in Wukro and its surroundings, so that students set up their own jobs or find one.
We were fortunate to meet and talk with Father Angel, an extraordinary man who, guided by his generosity, wisdom and sense of humor, at 80 years old, has accomplished a commendable task.
Abreha we Asbeha church
15 kilometers to the northwest stands another church, Abreha we Asbeha, just like in Wukro, both carved right out of the stone, so they go unnoticed. This church dates back to the 4th century. You only had to look at them to be taken back to the origins of Christianity.
The Byzantine style frescoes with frontal figures and great expressiveness, depicting ancient Christian scenes of the Bible with didactic purpose for the illiterate people. Apostles, the Virgin, The Saints and among them stands out San Jorge’s picture on horseback killing the dragon.
We continue our route by car, through the Lasta Mountain range, enjoying a stunning landscape and entered the carved stone church, Genete Mariam, at the top of the hill. It reminded us of Greek temples. From up here, the views of the valley are truly amazing.
Finally, we arrived at Lalibela, where the wonderful churches were waiting for us.
Lalibela, “The New Jerusalem” was built by King Lalibela, since the old one had been conquered by the Muslims, at 2600 meters above sea level. Its architectural ensemble of 12 rockhewn churches has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Nowadays, many Ethiopians show their faith through psalms, rites and prayers as they did Lalibela’s style.
It’s believed most of the churches were built during Debra Maska Lalibela’s reign, between the 11th and 13th centuries.
Legend says that they built the churches in only 24 years, because at night the angels continued the work of men.
The churches of Lalibela, carved out of basalt rock in blocks below ground level, split into two major groups, separated by the Yordan Channel, which depicts the Jordan River, communicating with each other through tunnels and passages.
According to their construction 4 are monolithic, made of a single block (Biet Ghiorgis, Biet Medhani Alem, Biet Maryam and Biet Amanuel), and the rest are semi monolithic, partially separated from the rock.
Lalibela’s Carved churches
As for their location, they are divided into groups:
Northwest cluster: They symbolize the earthly Jerusalem, and these churches are:
– Biet Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World); Mariam (Mary’s House); Maskal (House of the Cross); Denagel (House of the Virgin Martyrs); Golgotha Mikael
(Golgotha Mikael’s House); Mikael (St Michael’s House).
Southeast cluster: They symbolize the heavenly Jerusalem, the churches:
– Amanuel (Emmanuel’s House); Qeddus Mercoreos (House of St. Mercury); Abba Libanos (Abbot Libanos House); Gabriel Rafael (Gabriel and Rafael’s House); Lehem (House of the Holy Bread).
Biet Ghiorgis (St. George’s House): Symbolizes Noah’s Ark and built in honor of St. George. Located to the west and separated from the others, it’s carved in the shape of a Greek cross and the best preserved of all.
Asheton Maryam Monastery. This rock-hewn monastery, at an altitude of over 3000 meters on Mount Abuna Yosef, stands near the city of Lalibela. To get there you have to trek along a path where you will find many people doing their daily tasks, children playing or on their way to school, shepherds shearing sheep, women carrying wood on their backs… The last part is the steepest one. Once in the monastery, the priest welcomes you and shows you the sacred books and relics. Up there the views are stunning.
It is possible to rent mules to make the climb easier.
Northern Ethiopia Guide Final Thoughts
With this hike we put an end to the northern route of Ethiopia, moved by the spirituality of its people. The next day we flew to Addis Ababa to start the journey to the OMO Valley, where the Ethiopian culture never ceases to amaze us.
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