Northern Historic Route

Addis Ababa, Lalibela, Gondar, Axum, Bahir Dar
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Ethiopia is a country of great antiquity with a history and tradition dating back more than 3,000 years. The traveler on Historic Route of Ethiopia makes a journey through time transported by mysterious and extraordinary monuments, rock churches and edifices built long centuries ago. The Historic Route is truly where a shadow of the past […]

Ethiopia is a country of great antiquity with a history and tradition dating back more than 3,000 years. The traveler on Historic Route of Ethiopia makes a journey through time transported by mysterious and extraordinary monuments, rock churches and edifices built long centuries ago. The Historic Route is truly where a shadow of the past still waves.

Ethiopia is like no other place in Africa. It is like a fabled hidden empire, offering a superior history of intriguing wealth with awe-inspiring and unrivaled religions, traditions and ancient heritages. The pre-Christian temple at Yeha is Sub Saharan Africa’s oldest building, constructed in the 5th BC. We discover the glory and riches of the Axumite Kingdom at the ancient city of Axum, which can be still pictured as we view the colossal rock stelae, the stone work of royal tombs and the legendary bath of the Queen of Sheba. The 16th century Church of St. Mary of Zion stands on the ruins of an earlier 4th century church and is the country’s oldest and holiest Christian shrine. Within its sanctuary is said to rest the original Ark of the Covenant, admittedly one of the most precious relics of Judeo-Christian tradition. Another great day of the trip begins when start viewing Ethiopia’s famous 12th century churches carved out of solid rock, which are attributed to King Lalibela.

Some of the churches are monolithic, cut into volcanic rock, some are quarried enlargements of natural caves, and others are connected by a maze of underground tunnels. Ethiopia’s medieval capital for over 200 years and founded by Emperor Fassilides in 17th century, Gondar is the city of royal castles and fortress-like battlements. Referred as the jewels of Ethiopia, Lake Tana is dotted by numerous island monasteries of high religious significance. In the Middle Ages, churches sought refuge on these islands of Lake Tana and due in part to the difficult access these churches are to this day rich in the best of Ethiopia’s Religious paintings, illuminated manuscripts and other treasures.

YEHA (Ethiopia’s First Pre-Axumite Capital)/Historic Tour/Discovering Northern Ethiopian Highlands
Yeha is the oldest sacred place in Ethiopia, located at the northern tip of the agricultural hamlet of Tigray region. It was a large Pre-Christian temple consisting of a single oblong chamber. This towering ruins of huge temple of the moon at Yeha is believed to date back to the 5th century BC. However, Heinrich Miller, the 19th century German scholar states that the temple is thought to date back to about seven or eight hundred years before the birth of Christ. This imposing rectangular edifice of a pagan temple with its engraved Walia Ibex on its wall is still intact and testifies to the advanced level of the people of those times. What fascinates most visitors is the masonry work of this ruin still with its well-cut stones, fitted without cement or mortar. The area of the remains of the temple measures 18.5m by 15m and its height stands at 12meters. The temple, with a one side wall ruined, is believed to be the oldest standing building in the country.

The church standing next to this temple was founded by Abba Aftse, one of the Nine Saints. The Original church, having been destroyed by Queen Yodit in the 9th century, was rebuilt incorporating the old finished stone. A fragment form an ancient frieze of ibexes carved in an original manner, has been carefully fitted into the façade of the church. (To be visited en route to or from Axum)

AXUM (Where the Cradle of Ethiopia’s Civilization Began) Historic Tour/ Discovering Northern Ethiopian Highlands
Axum, the birth place of Ethiopia’s civilization, is a fascinating ancient highland city in the northwest Tigray region. It was the capital of the Queen of Sheba in the 10th century BC, and by the first century AD was capital of the far-reaching kingdom of the Axumite. It is one of Africa’s most spectacular archaeological sites. The ruins of the site spread over a large area and are composed of tall, obelisk-like stelae of imposing height, an enormous table of stone, vestiges of columns and royal tombs inscribed with Axumite legends and traditions. The giant monolithic stales are magnificently carved; and it is mystical and strikingly mysterious as to how these colossal granite stales were transported, carved and erected. The largest though fallen and broken, is more than 33meters which makes it the tallest stale ever erected in the whole world. The first most comprehensive archaeological studies on Axum’s spectacular ancient monuments took place in 1906 by a German team officially designated as the Deutsche Axum Expedition. Its importance is recognized by UNESCO which has declared it a World Heritage Site in 1980.

On top of erecting their colossal monuments to commemorate their victories and to pay homage to their deceased kings, the Axumits were able to issue coins to facilitate trade and were even patrons of fine arts. The city of Axum emerged several centuries before the birth of Christ, as the capital of a state that traded with ancient Greece, Egypt and Asia. With its fleets sailing as far afield as Ceylon, Axum later became one of the world’s four superpowers, expanding its influence between the Roman Empire and Persia, and for a while controlled parts of South Arabia. Avoiding the gods of the Sabeans, the Conqueror King Ezana accepted Christianity as the official religion of the Axumite Empire in the 4th century AD. This makes Ethiopia the third oldest Christian country after Armenia and Georgia. The New Testament states that the Abyssinian Queen came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of King Solomon. What is most fascinating is that Menelik I, son of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon went to his father in Jerusalem, but returned back with the most precious relic of all times, the true Ark of the Covenant, which is kept at the sanctuary of the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.

Even after the demise of the Axumite Empire, the city remained the sacred place of the Ethiopian Empire, where magnificent coronation ceremonies took place and where various regal crowns, thrones, jewellery and other valuable treasures are preserved to this day. (From 1 Day to 2 Days Visit)

LALIBELA (The Work of Angels) Historic Tour/ Discovering Northern Ethiopian Highlands
Nestled comfortably in the northern highlands of Lasta are the extraordinary rock- hewn churches of Lalibela, which are mystically carved out of s olid volcanic rocks. Power shifted from the Axumite Empire to the Zagwe Dynasty who ruled Ethiopia from Lasta towards the end of the 12th century AD. Its most important ruler was King Lalibela (1181 – 1221AD), renowned for the rock-hewn churches, which he built at the capital Roha in the 13th Century. The capital Roha was later changed to bear his name, Lalibela.
There are no more than 100 churches in the Lasta region of Lalibela some hidden in enormous caves, but it is exceptional to find eleven churches of such master craftsmanship in one locale. These brilliant feats of engineering and architecture are often referred to us the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Hewn directly out of the solid red volcanic rock on which they stand, the Lalibela churches are connected by a network of tunnels and narrow passageways with offsets, grottos and galleries – a though-provoking peaceful and silent subterranean world, except the faint echoes of distant footfalls of priests and deacons that offer around their timeless prayers.

Four of the Lalibela churches are completely Rock-hewn monolithic just like a built-up structure but are cut in one piece from the rock and separated form it all round by a trench. These are Beta Medhane Alem (The House of the Savior of the World), Beta Mariam (the House of Mary), Beta Amanuel (the House of the Emanuel) and Beta Ghiorghis (the House of St. George). The most popular and magnificent of all the monolithic churches is the church of St. George. To build this church bed-rock was hacked out to form a trench of 40 feet deep; then the huge block of stone at the center was carved into the shaped of a cross; and finally , the structure was hollowed out and decorated. The largest, Bete Medhane Alem, is 100 feet long, 70 feet wide, 35 feet high, and has rock walls that are up to six feet thick. Its basilica has five naves. This particular church is thought to be a copy of th e great cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, built in the ancient city of Axum in the 4th century AD.

The other seven rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are not very monolithic though they demonstrate various degrees of separation from the surrounding volcanic tuff. It took Lalibela 23 years to construct all the churches and all the churches have surprisingly remained inuse to this day. The legendary intervention of angels is also widely believed in the creation of Lalibla’s wonders. As described by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher authors of African Ark, ‘The techniques that made possible the excavation and chiseling of stone on so dramatic a scale, and with such perfection, have long been lost. Nevertheless, this was undoubtedly a human achievement and also a peculiarly Ethiopian achievement: our world contains nothing else quite like the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. (From 1 Day to 2 Days Visit)

GONDAR (The City of Royal Castles) Historic Tour/ Discovering Northern Ethiopian Highlands
The medieval city of Gondar was founded by Emperor Fasilides in 1636. This fortress-city of the Royal Enclosure (Fasil Ghebbi) was Ethiopia’s capital for over 200 years until the reign of the would-be reforming Emperor Tewodros II. During Gondar’s long years as a capital, the settlement emerged as one of the largest and most populous cities in the realm. It was a great commercial center trading much further in all directions. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the fortress-city of Fasil Ghebbi was the residence of the Ethiopian Emperor Fasilides and his successors. Surrounded by a 900-m-long wall, the city contains palaces, churches, monasteries and unique public and private buildings marked by Hindu and Arab influences, subsequently transformed by the Baroque style brought to Gondar by the Jesuit missionaries. By the late 1640, Emperor Fasilides had built a great castle here, which stands today in a grassy compound surrounded by other fortresses of later construction. With its huge towers and looming battlemented walls, it seems like a piece of medieval Europe transposed to Ethiopia. In addition to this castle, Fasiladas is said to have been responsible for the building of a number of other structures. Perhaps the oldest of these is the Enqulal Gemb, or Egg Castle, so named on account of its egg-shaped domed roof. Other buildings include the royal archive and the stable. Beyond the confines of the city to the north-west by the Qara River, there is another fine building sometimes associated by Fasiladas – a bathing palace. The building is a two-storeyed battlemented structure situated within and on one side of a rectangular pool of water which was supplied by a canal from the nearby river. It is still used for the great annual Timket (Ethiopian Epiphany) festival celebration. The bathing pavilion itself stands on pier arches, and contains several rooms which are reached by a stone bridge, part of which could be raised for defense. Besides such secular buildings, Fasiladas is reputed to have erected no fewer than seven churches, as well as seven bridges. Fasiladas’ son, Yohannes I and his grandson, Iyasu I, built their own castles in the Royal Enclosure. Another very impressive vestige of Gondar’s great past are the monastery and the ruined palace of Kusquam. The famous James Bruce once lived in this palace in the 18th century up in the hills northwest of the city. Among the churches in Gondar city, Debre Berhan Selassie is famous for its rectangular architectural designs; its ceilings which are uniquely decorated with beautifully winged angels and its walls with impressive scenes depicting Biblical events. These paintings are the results of the great Gondarian style of painting which flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Gondar, which is often described as ‘the city of castles’ or ‘the Camelot of Africa’ was once the capital of Ethiopia for more than 200 years. The establishment of Gondar by Emperor Fasiladas marked a new chapter in the country’s urban history. The Emperor led the way in the construction of a number of impressive castles and churches in and around the town. At first sight the architecture of the castles seems to reflect Moorish- European influences. Closer scrutiny; however, reveals interesting architectural features following in the Axumite tradition as well as the influence of Arabia. (From 1 Day to 2 Days Visit)

BAHIR DAR (A Bustling Lakeshore Town) Historic Tour/ Discovering Northern Ethiopian Highlands The beautiful town of Bahir Dar rose to prominence in the 16th century and is now the center for commerce and government for the Amhara Region. Situated at the Southern shores of Lake Tana, the town is truly fascinating with its wide palm-lined avenues and tropical vegetations.

Covering more than 3,600, Lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake, known to the ancient Greeks as Pseboa. The fabled source of the Nile, this majestic and mysterious Lake Tana is dotted with more than 30 islands-many of them home to ancient monasteries and churches. Plunging more than 2,00o meters in its 800 km course from Ethiopia to the plains of the Sudan, the Blue Nile begins its journey with a thundering 50-meter cascade over Tisssisat Falls, 30 km downstream from the point where it leaves Lake Tana. At the end of his Expedition to the source of the Nile, the 18th century Scottish traveler James Bruce also concludes that the source of the Nile is Lake Tana as he witnesses the Blue Nile River flowing from the lake. A boat excursion on Lake Tana also allows you to witness as the river leaves the lake at the southeastern shore.

The 30 islands that are scattered about the surface of Lake Tana can also make Bahir Dar an exciting destination for tourists. The islands shelter some very fascinating and mystical churches and monasteries. However, some of the monasteries can only be visited by men. Due in part to their difficult access, the Lake’s churches are well preserved and rich with the best of Ethiopian religious paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and other treasures. Some of the Island Monasteries we visit are Kebran Gabriel, Ura-Kidane Meheret, Daga Istafanos and Tana Kirkos.

Kebran Gabriel is the 14th century monastery on the nearest island that looks like a submerged mountain planted over with rich green trees. No women are allowed to set foot here. The monastery itself is situated at the very top of the island in a stone walled compound dominated by a large circular church in traditional Ethiopic design, housing lots of historic and religious relics. Ura-Kidane Mehret is another significant monastery of the medieval age, situated on the Zegie Peninsula. It is can be reached there within an hour’s cruise. Women visitors are allowed and the monks are very friendly and responsive. The church of the monastery is famous for its decorated interiors with a huge conical thatched roof and painted inside and out with colorful frescoes depicting scenes from Biblical lore and from the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The monastery of Daga Istafanos is closed to women just like Kebran Gabriel. It can be reached within less than two hours’ cruise. Its natural beauty is breathtaking, located in densely forested with gnarled, ancient trees, through which a winding path leads upwards to the medieval monastery that stands on the summit. In the church of Saint Istafanos, with the help of candles or flashlights, we will see numerous piles of brightly colored ceremonial robes and several rows of shelves bearing coffins of several mummified remains of the former Emperors of Ethiopia. Quite differently the ancient Monastery of Tana Kirkos is completely covered in dense green shrubbery, flowering trees and tall cactus plants, with abundant bird life. After being greeted by dozens of smiling monkey, we will head to the church of Saint Cherkos where we will view ancient manuscripts, many beautifully illuminated scrolls and of leather-bound books with leather pages hand-lettered in Ge’ez language. The Ark of the Covenant was once brought to this island and stayed for 800 hundred yeas until it was later moved to the church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum in the 4th century AD, the time Ethiopia accepted Christianity as the official religion. The sacrificial altar still standing in the island witnesses the pre-Christian Judicial practices in the island. (From 1 Day to 2 Days Visit along with the Monastery Islands on Lake Tana)

MEKELLE (A City of History and Culture Combined) Historic Tour/ Discovering Northern Ethiopian Highlands
Mekelle, at 2200 meters above sea level and encircled by a chain of mountains, was a one time capital of Ethiopia. It has a bowl feature with pristine outskirts strewn with nature and man-made wonders. The Romanat and Chele-anqua waterfalls coupled with many cultural heritages like Felegda-ero spotted with historic remains, Selassie Chelekot and Eyesus Hintsa churches are its precious treasures. The city also possesses a museum within the great castle of Emperor Yohannes (1841-1889), the founder of the city. The museum, dominated by the graciously elaborated Throne of Emperor Yohannes, is rich in historical, cultural and religious relics. The city is also well known as a transit point for the camel caravan bringing salt up from the arid lands of the Danakil Depression. This makes the Monday open air market a particularly interesting place to visit. From Mekelle, visitors can make excursions into the Danakil Depression to visit some of the Afar nomads that trek across the region. It is also an ideal place from which to glimpse the countryside and the numerous and mystical medieval rock-hewn churches, cut and hidden in the rocks.

Very near south of Mekelle, a block of mountain named as Girakahisu offers a spectacular unique view down to the plain rich in bird life and surrounding stunning escarpments. The mountain has a flattened top that supports a stretch of pasture, a lake fringed with an archaeological site and an ancient church devoted to St. Mary. The gentle slope that edges the lake in the north has its back covered with an indigenous forest named Hugumbirda. Then to get back to Mekelle, the road climbs mount Ambalage, which served as a fortress before the Adwa Victory in 1896. En route, the ancient churches of Mariam Nazera and Mikael Ara are worth visiting. (From 1 Day to 2 Days Visit)

Harar (The Fortified Historic City)/Historic Tour/Discovering Eastern Ethiopia
The fortified historic city of Harar, 525 kilometers due east of Addis Ababa, is one of the most fascinating Ethiopia’s historic destinations. As the strong hold of Islam, Harar has been ruled by 72 Imams since its formation although this ancient city enjoyed its medieval power and glory.

The entire strong encircling walls of Jugol are Hara’s most dominant features, tightly embracing the old cit. The walls were built to protect the city from its enemies during the 16th century. The 3.5 kilometers long walls are about 4 meters high by 1 meter tick supported by oval towers of beautiful construction. The walled city had five gates and the gates were closed at night for the Harari citizen to sleep securely. Harar is also regarded as the fourth holiest city of Islam. It has 82 mosques, of which three dates back to the 10th century. There are also 102 Muslim shrines, but the most spectacular feature of Harar Jugol are its townhouses. The fusion of African and Islamic influences in the architecture of Harar results in a unique style. The town was a major trading post during ancient times, being on the crossroad of trading routes from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Today Harar is a well preserved Ethiopian city with a distinct cityscape. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2006 for its inland urban settlement with a distinct architectural character and social organization, which cannot be compared to any other town in East Africa.

Its nearly two thousand traditional Harari houses (typical private houses of particular cultural and artistic values) and historical buildings scattered all over the old city are the evidence of its great past. The traditional costume and uniquely woven basketry artifacts of the Harari People as well as the museums and the market places in the city are also extremely fascinating.
The other unique attraction of Harar is a special tradition of a selected Harari Family who feed wild hyena in daring close to mouth manner. Visitors can observe and even take part in feeding the hyenas that appear from the dark surrounding hills of Harar.

Due to its fame, Harar attracted the interest of the Egyptians, who occupied it from 1875 to 1885. Following this, in 1887, Harar was conquered by Menelik, the king of Asmaadin and later Emperor of Ethiopia. At this time, the Great Mosque at Faras Magala was destroyed and replaced by an octagonal Orthodox church. Menelik also opened the sixth gate and cut through a new street in the east-west direction. At the end of the 19th century, there was immigration of Indian merchants, who introduced the Indian house type and the combined version.

Markets in Harar are exceptionally colorful. As we stroll in the streets and alleys of the city, we view the fruits market, the Chat (Khat) Market, and the road side cafes and chefs who prepare samosa that offers very tempting smell. The Magalo Gudo market is also a centre for beautiful baskets of woven grass, decorative wall-mats and bright shawls. The Harari people are renowned for their intricately worked filigree jewelers of silver, gold and amber. Chewing Khat (Chat), a stimulant with mild narcotic effect, among the Harari people is a common daily practice as a favorite past time. It shouldn’t offend visitors as Chat has its own social significance in the host culture.

The famous French Poet Arthur Rimbaud was a restless soul travelling and living in three continents; eventually becoming a merchant in Harar, where his commercial dealings notably included coffee and weapons. He lived in Harar between 1880 – 1891, during which time he became a very close friend of the Governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen, father of King Haile Selassie. With magnificent display of pictures and books all on the life of Arthur Rimbaud, visiting his house at the center of Jugol obliges you to admire his beautiful traditionally built mansion decorated with stained glass windows. (From 1 Day to 2 Days Visit)

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