Mysteries of Ethiopia
“Unique” is the word that you would often hear being used to describe Ethiopia: this is Africa at its most alluring with a fascinating historical tale to tell.
Dominating the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is a mountainous, landlocked country split by the Great Rift Valley. With archaeological finds dating back to more than 3 million years – most notably the oldest known human remains, aka Lucy – Ethiopia is the place of ancient culture and even perhaps the cradle of civilisation.
Ethiopia boasts a rare historical depth and has the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa: impressive rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, medieval castles in Gondar, and the great stelae at Aksum just to name a few. Ethiopia really stands out from the rest of African nations – in addition to its distinct culture, language and history, the country also still uses an original ancient script and calendar. Ethiopia’s ancient Ge’ez script, also known as Ethiopic, is one of the oldest alphabets still in use in the world.
Remarkably, Ethiopia is the only African country to have escaped European colonialism – apart from a brief 5-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy – which means that up to this day it has retained much of its original cultural identity.
Did you know that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee? This rugged country is where the coffee plant, Coffea Arabica, originates. According to legend, the 9th-century goatherder Kaldi discovered the coffee plant in Kaffa region after noticing the energizing effect the plant had on his goats. To this day, Ethiopia remains Africa’s top coffee producer, and the bean is fundamental to the country’s economy: around 60% of foreign income comes from coffee.
Coffee ceremony is an integral part of Ethiopian culture – half of the coffee produced here is consumed by the local population – and one of its most recognisable traditions. Whilst travelling around Ethiopia we partook in the ceremony on a daily basis, and being coffee addicts, often more than once!
The ceremony is typically performed by the woman of the household and is considered an honour. The coffee is brewed by first roasting the green coffee beans over an open flame in a pan. This is followed by the grinding of the beans, traditionally in a wooden mortar and pestle. The coffee grounds are then put into a special vessel and boiled. After grinding, the coffee is put through a sieve several times before being served black in small cups. Fresh popcorn is often prepared to accompany the coffee.
The town Lalibela in the heart of Ethiopia is home to perhaps the most famous historical site in Ethiopia: a complex of several breathtaking rock-hewn medieval churches, where history is frozen in stone and Christianity is witnessed in its rawest form.
Ethiopia has had a distinctive form of Christianity – Ethiopian Orthodox – since the 4th Century, which means that the country is home to one of the oldest religions. The majority of the population still adheres to Christianity, particularly in the highlands, while around a third of the population follows Islam.
The complex of 11 medieval monolithic churches carved out of rock in Lalibela was hailed the New Jerusalem back in the 13th century. Up to this day, Lalibela remains the foremost place for Ethiopian Christianity: a place of pilgrimage and devotion for many. The churches are teeming with white-robed pilgrims and tourists alike.
The building of the churches is attributed to King Lalibela, who set out to construct a new Jerusalem back in late 12th century after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The churches were not constructed in a traditional way – instead of being built from bottom up, they were hewn out of living rock granite starting from the top down. The monolithic blocks were chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work completed with an extensive system if ceremonial passages, drainage ditches and catacombs.
Our visit culminated in Lalibela’s masterpiece Bieta Giyorgis, the Church of Saint George. A massive monolith 12 metres tall, this church has been intricately carved from solid red volcanic rock in the shape of a Greek cross – a perfectly proportioned shape that required no internal pillars.
Whilst in Lalibela, I also embarked on an overnight trek in the mountainous area surrounding the town. Unlike the famous churches teeming with tourists, hardly any of them ever step here. I spent the night sleeping in a tukul – round traditional stone house – perched on a ledge overlooking Lalibela over a thousand metres below. Here, the setting was magical and I witnessed perhaps the most breathtaking sunset following by the most spectacular bright stars. The local villagers made us coffee and simple but delicious supper of vegetable soup and chicken stew.
This little girl and her mother were in charge of looking after me – much help was needed as soon as the sun set, and everything turned pitch black. There was no electricity, of course!
Simien National Park
The spectacular scenery of the Simien Mountains – Africa’s highest mountain range – is said to rival Colorado’s Grand Canyon.
The undulating plateau of the Simien mountains has over millions of years been eroded to form jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and some sharp precipices dropping 1,500 m. Every which way, the subtly changing hues of green and brown, are rolling away, fold after fold, as far as the eye can see. The park is home to some extremely rare animals such as the Walia ibex – Ethiopia’s national symbol and a wild mountain goat found nowhere else on Earth – as well as the Gelada baboon and Simien fox. We stayed at Limalimo lodge, a new eco-friendly family-run boutique hotel perched on the escarpment above the dramatic Simien Mountains, offering sweeping vistas. I must admit it is a rather nice start to the day to wake up and eat breakfast on the terrace with such spectacular views.The rooms have sunset facing bedrooms – watching sunsets has always been a favourite activity of mine.
Just wandering around the Limalimo lodge – can you spot me in the distance?
Simien Mountains National Park is the prime spot for trekking in Ethiopia. At such high attitudes – the highest point we reached was around 4,300 – trekking is somewhat of a challenge for the respiratory system, but the unforgettable, breathtaking views make it enjoyable regardless! Axum
Axum was the first Christian kingdom in the world: an ancient city close to Ethiopia’s northern border founded three centuries before the birth of Christ.
The ruins of the ancient city with giant monolithic stelae – the area’s most recognised icons – as well royal tombs (in the photo above is an entrance to one) and ancient castles mark the location of the heart of ancient Ethiopia, when the Kingdom of Aksum was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. Long after Aksum’s political decline in the 10th century, Ethiopian emperors continued to be crowned here.
According to Ethiopian belief, Axum was once the home of the Queen of Sheba and is the current resting place of the Ark of the Covenant: a gold-covered wooden chest described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.
The largest standing obelisk rises to a height of over 23 meters and is exquisitely carved to represent a nine-storey building of the Axumites. The largest Axum obelisk of some 33 meters long lies where it fell, perhaps during the process of erection: it is possibly the largest monolithic stele that ancient human beings ever attempted to erect. These immense obelisks bear testimony to the technological prowess of the early Aksumites.
The old church of St Mary of Zion is another historically important site in Axum – supposedly the site of the first church in the whole of Africa! Many believe that it contains the Arc of Covenant. Sadly, it is men-only, so I was unable to visit. As a substitute, I went to see the big new church of St Mary of Zion built in the 1960s so women had a place to worship.
I witnessed the touching spectacle of white- and yellow-shawled devotees, congregating around the church, praying and hoping.
Often referred to as the Camelot of Africa, Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilidas in the early 17th century and was the home of Ethiopian emperors for almost two centuries.
We explored many of the castles that Emperor Fasilidas and his descendants established within Fasil Ghebbi, the Royal Enclosure – the most prominent city fortress in Gondar – as well as his ceremonial bath, which forms the focus of modern-day Timkat, Ethiopian Orthodoxy’s most sacred annual celebration.
And now a little bit about Ethiopian food…
Ethiopian food is unlike any food I have had before. No cutlery is needed to eat it; instead one uses injera to scoop up both the main and side dishes. Injera, a flat, moist large sourdough flatbread with a tangy flavour made of teff flour is perhaps the most essential component of Ethiopian cuisine. It is common to eat from the same dish in the center of the table with a group of people.
The local cuisine consists of various meat, mostly lamb and chicken, and vegetable and bean stews. Another important components are berbere, a spicy red pepper paste and niter kibbeh, a spice-infused clarified butter.
And a few more pictures from my spectacular journey: