Historic Attractions

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Ethiopia's most ancient city, and capital of one of the most glorious empires of the past, is one of the most illustrious links in the Historic Route. The 16th century Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion was built in the compound of an earlier 4th century church, and is the holiest church in Ethiopia. In its sanctuary is said to rest the original Ark of the Covenant. The churches and monasteries of Axum are richly endowed with icons, and some of the historical crowns of ancient Emperors



King Lalibela is credited with the foundation of the 11 rock-hewn churches in the 12th century. One of the world's most incredible man-made creations, they are a lasting monument to man's faith in God. Most travel writers describe these churches as the "eighth wonder of the world". These remarkable edifices were carved out of a solid rock, in a region where the ragged landscape still protects the churches.



Gondar 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 various Emperors who reigned during this period. These dramatic Castles, unlike any other in Africa, display richness in architecture that reveals the Axumite traditions as well as the influence of Arabia. Other treasures of Gondar include the 18th century palace of Ras Bet, the bath of Fasiledes, the ruined palace of Kusquam, and the church of Debre Berhan Selassie with its unique murals.


Bahir Dar is a town set on the south-eastern shore of Lake Tana, where local fishermen still use papyrus boats. Here the Blue Nile creates "Smoking Water" an awe inspiring sight as it plunges into the gorge below. From Bahir Dar one must explore some of the ancient monasteries that have been built on the islands of Lake Tana, or on the many Islands. These include Dega Estephanos 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. Kebran Gabriel is the principal monastery visited by male tourists from Bahir Dar, with its impressive Cathedral-like building first built at the end of the 17th century. Dega Estephanos, which is also closed to women, is on the island in the Lake, and the monastery is reached by a very steep and winding path. Although the church is relatively new (only hundred years old), it houses a Madonna painted in the 15th century. However, the treasury of the monastery is a prime attraction, with the remains of several Emperors, as well as their robes and jewels.



The city of Harar is an ancient (1520) and holy city. Harar was an important trading center. The city is famous for its ancient buildings, its great city walls and as a center of Islamic learning (the city has 99 mosques). It is believed to be the fourth holiest city for Islam after Mecca, Medina & Jerusalem.

It is the fourth-holiest city of Islam, according to UNESCO, with 82 mosques tucked away in a maze of alleyways and gates so narrow you can get round only on foot. The city is like a jewel box, its whitewashed buildings splashed with turquoise, purple and aqua. Piles of spices glow in the sun and old women in bright silks serve cups of strong-scented coffee. Kites swoop from the parapets to seize hunks of goat and camel from the hands of butchers. Rows of tailors madly peddle their ancient machines in a street named after the sound they make, Girgir.

Harar’s two most famous residents were French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who spent much of the last 10 years of his life here as a coffee merchant, and Haile Selassie – or, to give him his formal title, His Imperial Majesty the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Elect of God. Selassie is a contentious figure, except among Rastafarians who still regard him as a god.

The biggest celebrities in Harar now, though, are the “hyena men” who gather outside the city’s crumbling walls at dusk. They bring buckets of meat and call to the creatures hulking in the shadows by name, feeding the hyenas with sticks, hands, even straight out of their own mouths.


Tigray rock churches

Getting to the frescoed, 1,000-year-old cave churches of Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains requires climbing sheer rock walls and skirting cliff edges – all without so much as a rope.

With their sheer cliffs, surreal rock formations and vertical spires, northern Ethiopia’s Gheralta Mountains recall stretches of the southwestern United States’ red desert landscape. The primary difference: perched high and tucked away into these mountain cliffs are some of the country’s least visited rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox cave churches, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. The Gheralta cluster, located in Tigray Province, includes more than 30 structures

Abune Yemata is one of Gheralta’s rock-hewn churches. It can be reached from the historic town of Hawzien, turning off at the village of Megab, keeping the escarpment to one’s left. A 4 kms drive from Megab and a fijrther 30 minutes’ walk will bring you to the foot of the perpendicular rock mountains of Guh (name of the area) which appear as though they are pillars to the sky. The scenery is breathtaking

The church is carved on the cliff face of one of the mountains of Guh and there are no ropes, like at Debre Damo, for use in the ascent. You can find only footholds and handgrips in the rock face. Just before the entrance to the church there is a narrow ledge carved in the cliff from which one can view a sheer drop of approximately 800 to l000ft. 


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