With a culture dating back centuries, a fascinating history, natural beauty and coffee – it is where coffee came from after all – Ethiopia has it all for travellers.
1. The history
Ethiopia has one of the richest histories on the African continent and is full of remote and wild places. With cultures descended from some of the world’s oldest civilisations, it is, without doubt, an exotic and unusual destination.
Under the slogan “United Ethiopia”, a hundred million people with 80 different languages and a variety of religions, are all equal under the constitution. And that’s how it feels when you’re there. Peaceful and united.
A wonderful way to learn about this mix of cultures is to drive the Great Ethiopian Route: The Cultural Mosaic of the South. This route takes you through areas that are home to many denominations and is where you will find South Omo Valley. Here, you’ll come across a host of contrasting ethnic groups rich in African traditions from intricate hairstyles, body painting, performing arts and colourful ornaments.
2. The capital
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital in the highlands bordering the Great Rift Valley, is the country’s commercial and cultural hub. Its National Museum exhibits Ethiopian art, the burial place of the 20th century Haile Selassie (the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974), traditional crafts and prehistoric fossils, including replicas of the famous early hominid, “Lucy.” Construction is everywhere and the tourism plan is to be in the top five African countries to visit by 2025.
3. Transport is easy and cheap
Getting around in many of the towns is easy, cheap and fun if you use a Bajaj, a common form of transport which looks exactly like the tuk-tuk found in Thailand – blue and white with skimpy side flaps. So for a few bira, the local currency, you can be driven from shop to shop along the main retail outlets in Aksum for less than a dollar.
4. The markets!
There are many market places, and at one particularly good one behind the ruins of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba walls, there are beautiful girls selling ultra-colourful straw placemats, bowls and scarves. In fact, there are well-made souvenirs made in all the major towns.
The people, including the children, are incredibly friendly as was demonstrated in a village on the way to Gondar, where hand-woven carpets hung on mud-brick walls outside houses. The locals, who mostly speak English are full of smiles and happily helped tourists choose what would suit the customer, all done in a very relaxed non-pushy way as was the case throughout the entire country.
5. The Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains, in northern Ethiopia, northeast of Gondar in the Amhara region, are part of the Ethiopian Highlands. They are a World Heritage Site and include the Simien Mountains National Park. The mountains consist of plateaus separated by valleys and rising to pinnacles offering extraordinary views. The National Park is home to the Gelada Baboon, often referred to as the bleeding-heart monkey. They’re very proprietorial and so snooty that they barely bother to even look up when you walk amongst them while they graze frantically on both the blades and the seeds of grass which provides 90 per cent of their diet. A brazen attitude, particularly with the young ones, stretches to stealing food from the nearby restaurant.
Do stop off in Gondar, an ancient city once home to emperors and princesses. Its multi-faceted royal compound, dubbed the ‘Ethiopian Camelot’, is an impressive complex of castles on seven hectares just aching to be explored.
6. Lake Tana
On a peninsular opposite the Bahir Dar Hotel is one of many monasteries reached by a boat ride across Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the country’s largest lake. The main monastery by the water’s edge is brimming with art from all ages.
7. Coffee was born here
Ethiopia is the birthplace of the essential liquid gold that begins the day for people like me every morning. Coffee originated in the southwest in a place called ‘Kaffa’ and so hospitable are the locals they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer so coffee is offered in every corner of the country, including their traditional coffee ceremony. Everywhere you go, visitors are invited to sit and watch the brewing procedure and soak up the ambience of the ceremony.
8. The festivals
There are three major festivals in Ethiopia and one of them is Timkat. On 19 January each year, the entire country celebrates The Epiphany of Ethiopia with a three-day festival. The cities Addis Ababa, Lalibela and Gondar are overflowing with Christians (55%) dressed in colourful and white robes. The rest are Hindi and Muslim who also join in the celebrations.
9. The churches of Lalibela
In the small town of Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia there are 12 medieval monolithic churches carved both inside and out from one stone over 900 years ago. It is an area that must not be missed and even if you only view them from the outside, the architecture of each church is different and quite exquisite. There’s some rigorous climbing involved up steep stairs and through a black, short tunnel called ‘hell’ but locals are on hand to assist. They also make sure your shoes, which must be removed in each church, aren’t lost. Leave the best till last they say. The most spectacular is Bet Giyorgis (St George) and is one of the world’s most astounding sacred sites, carved entirely out of a single block of granite with its roof at ground level.
The ruins of 3,000-year-old Aksum with monolithic obelisks, royal tombs and castles dating back to the reign of the Queen of Sheba, are found close to the northern border. These mark the heart of ancient Ethiopia where the Kingdom of Aksum was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. But that isn’t all. The 4th-century church of Tsion Maryam is where the Temple of the Tablet reputedly houses the original Biblical Ark of the Covenant, the holiest of Old Testament artefacts. No one’s ever seen it which of course doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. What you can see though is all manner of priceless artefacts in the very modest-looking museum; emperors’ thrones, Timkat umbrellas, bejewelled royal crowns, silver and gold crosses – worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
11. The people
One of the best attractions is the people and how they go about their life in this highly populated country. Many have mobile phones which is how they operate their market places. There are donkeys, cows and women carrying great stacks of wood on their backs. The villages are often made from eucalypts or a mixture of mud and straw which often show the poverty that still exists. The good thing is though, that the government is helping out to improve this which is obvious in the way that the food crops are increasing and so is construction.
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