Long overlooked by tourists, Ethiopia’s rich history, architecture, wildlife, and rugged landscapes make it a destination not to be missed. Ker & Downey’s Rina Chandarana tells us why you should travel to Ethiopia.
For Quest Magazine
With undeniable mystique, Ethiopia’s history is one of the planet’s most profound and captivating tales, matched only by the country’s deeply diverse natural gifts. Old customs remain unchanged in tiny villages dotted with thatched-roof huts — a stark contrast to the frenetic pace and traffic of the capital city, Addis Ababa. In the Omo Valley alone, there are 18 different tribes, each with unique painted body art, beaded jewelry and garments. Close to 100 different languages are spoken across this land-locked nation. It’s also home to “Lucy,” one of the world’s most renowned early human ancestors whose 3.2 million-year-old skeleton was found in the Awash Valley in 1974.
According to local lore, ancient Ethiopia’s Queen of Sheba bore King Solomon a son, Menelik I. In the 10th century B.C. he established the first Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia, which lasted until the 1974 deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie. Legend also has it that the stolen Ark of the Covenant, said to contain the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, now resides in Aksum’s Chapel of the Tablet. Despite the unknown validity of this claim — and the fact that no one is allowed inside to see the revered relics — the site is still a pilgrim magnet for those that travel to Ethiopia. Though Ethiopia is predominantly Christian, a number of faiths live here side by side.
The shadowy interiors of ancient rock churches are a canvas of frescoes. A pre-dawn prayer in Ge’ez lilts into the sky, along with the billowing smoke from jangling gold incense burners swung by wizened priests. Flickering candles cast a warm glow on worshipers dressed in flowing, white robes, as they bow to touch their foreheads to golden Orthodox crosses.
Strength of faith is as sturdy as the cross-shaped 13th-century Biete Ghiorgis, one of 11 UNESCO-listed hand-carved rock churches in the northern town of Lalibela. It’s nearly a miracle that men (or angels, as the story goes) were able to chisel such magnificent and massive places of worship, each one linked by narrow tunnels.
More than 300 slender, pastel-hued alleys wind through the fortified city of Harar, where a towering wall shields more than 100 mosques, some dating back to the 10th century. Because of its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, this city was once a center of Islamic learning. At dusk, hyenas scavenge for food in the city streets, but by the day the lanes are a hive of activity. Peddlers squat behind sacks overflowing with paprika, lentils, and chickpeas, and colorfully clad women carry equally vibrant woven baskets on their heads. An old man, cane in hand, lounges on a stoop near a mosque topped with four mint-hued minarets, as a bajaj, or motorized rickshaw, darts past. The sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer and the whirring of a tailor’s sewing machine both add to the cacophony.
The rounded turrets of the northern city Gondar’s castles rise towards the heavens. Emperors and princesses called this royal city home for nearly nine centuries, earning it the nickname of Ethiopia’s Camelot.
The Ethiopian Rift Valley cuts through the country from the Red Sea to Kenya, and contains some of the world’s oldest lakes. In the northwest highlands, Lake Tana, a UNESCO site, is the source of the Blue Nile. The region is also home to important 13th-century Ethiopian Orthodox churches and monasteries. Erected in the 18th century, the Narga Selassie church on Dek Island is simple on the outside, but stunningly ornate inside. A uniquely African take on Christianity abounds in its depictions of lions, ibex, acacia trees, and negarit drums, alongside tanned images of angels and saints.
Visitors are in for a surprise at Ethiopia’s wealth of wildlife. Social troops of gelada monkeys screech in the high grasslands. Elusive Ethiopian wolves, antelopes, and African leopards roam the lichen-laden rocks, streams, and blankets of wild flowers carpeting Bale Mountains National Park in the Ethiopian Highlands. Even more mysterious is the black-maned lion prowling the misty Harenna Forest.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the distinct and delicious cuisine when you travel to Ethiopia. Gently tear and roll up a delicate, spongy injera — a staple flatbread — and wrap it around a big mouthful of mesir wat (lentil stew). You are going to need some serious sustenance to get through all of Ethiopia’s offerings.
Add a Visit to Sudan
Geographically, Ethiopia and Sudan are next-door neighbors, but they couldn’t be more different. We suggest that when you travel to Ethiopia, you pair the two countries in one journey, allowing you to also dig into Sudan’s ancient history. Built during the ancient Kushite kingdom, the Nubian pyramids are sparsely visited, leaving you as one of the few — aside from archaeologists — to marvel at the remarkably preserved tombs.
Pro Tip: Go in January to experience the celebration of Ethiopia’s Timkat festival. You will see singing, dancing, and Orthodox priests carrying vibrant umbrellas and replicas of the Ark of the Covenant. – Jamie Bell, Designer