10 days on Ethiopia’s Northern Historical Route

My skills have gotten rusty, I notice during a recent Ethiopian dinner, as I clumsily try to tear off a piece of injera and transfer a scoop of shiro wot from my plate to my mouth using only my right hand. The flavors bring back fond memories from my summer in Ethiopia in 2011, and my husband and I begin to reminisce. After spending two months interviewing polio health workers in rural areas of the country, he flew from Atlanta to Addis to join me for a 10 day tour of the major tourist sites in the northern part of the country, before continuing on to Zanzibar and Tanzania.

I was waiting at the airport when Chris arrived, and was not surprised to see a look of pure terror come over his face as he exited baggage claim – a natural reaction for someone used to the relative calm of American airports. It is hard to prepare for the sensory onslaught that comes with an arrival in Addis. Barely visible, I tried to wave him down amidst the tightly packed chaotic mob of enthusiastic relatives shouting for their loved ones as they walked through the door. Finally managing to press his way through, he sagged into the worn backseat of our waiting taxi, staring wide-eyed out the window as we navigated the crowded streets to our guest house on the edge of the city.

After a short rest, we went on a quick walking tour of the area to get a feel for the city. Seeing Addis up close and personal for the first time can be a shock, especially the area outside of the ritzy tourist hotel zone. Without the proper infrastructure and services taken for granted in most of the West, such as clean water, plumbing, trash, and social services, the scene is a haphazard mix of men peeing on the side of the road, families sleeping in a line down the sidewalk, rebar sticking out of all surfaces and trash everywhere. It can take a while to get over this image, but there are many hidden gems throughout the city, not to mention an incredibly rich culture.

The heat and chaos were exhausting, so we ducked into Beer Garden, a German beer bar full of expats, for a more familiar atmosphere. After a cold beer and a nap, we were relaxed and ready for a farewell dinner hosted by my coworkers at Habesha 2000, a pricey but popular tourist restaurant featuring a buffet of traditional Ethiopian foods, accompanied by live Ethiopian music and dancing. My coworkers instructed us on which foods to try and how to eat them, as well as which could make us sick, and then invited us on stage for an embarrassing attempt to shake our heads and shoulders alongside the dancers. Bellies full and cheeks flushed, it was time to say our goodbyes and rest up for an early morning departure on our Northern Historical Route tour, courtesy of Abeba Tours.

Day 1: Bahir Dar

Early in the morning, we took a taxi back to the airport for a quick flight on the domestic Ethiopian Airlines circuit, the plane picking passengers up in Addis in the morning, then stopping off at numerous northern cities to drop off and pick up passengers much like a bus, before landing back in Addis in the evening. We disembarked in Bahir Dar, the current capital of the Amhara Regional State. Known for its wide palm tree- and flower-lined avenues, it is an attractive city situated on the shores of Lake Tana, the country’s largest lake. Our guide met us at the tiny airport, and after dropping our bags at the Summerland Hotel he took us for our first coffee ceremony of the tour. Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee, purportedly discovered when a goatherd noticed the goats bouncing up and down after consuming the wild beans. The coffee ceremony has since become an Ethiopian ritual, and a stay in the country will inevitably be punctuated with many of these important wonderful events and fabulous cups of coffee. As we sat under the palm fronds, our hostess slowly roasted the green beans in a pan over a small wood fire until they browned, before grinding them with a mortar and a pestle and adding them to a kettle of hot water. Three rounds of progressively weaker coffee was then served in small cups, accompanied by fresh popcorn.

Now properly caffeinated, our guide took us to a dock where we were picked up by a small rickety fishing boat with no apparent life vests for a trip across the lake to explore some of the monasteries hidden on its shores and islands. Thanks to their remote location, the monasteries of Lake Tana have remained hidden for centuries, guarding their treasures against intruders from foreign lands and the passage of time itself, it seemed. A small dirt trail  led us through the forest to Ura kidane Mihret church, a circular building made of sticks with a thatched roof and internal adobe walls. After touring this and a couple other monasteries, we took another dubious boat ride back to Bahir Dar, weaving around a smattering of other rowers masterfully guiding huge piles of firewood across the lake. Back on solid ground, our guide met us at the port and drove us to the top of Mt. Bezawit, where the former Palace of Haile Selassie sits, guarded by a thin old man with an AK47. Though not allowed inside the palace, the real highlight was the view over Lake Tana.

ethiopia coffee roasting
Coffee beans roasting
Ethiopia coffee ceremony
Traditional coffee ceremony
Rowing firewood on Lake Tana
Ura kidane Mihret church

Day 2: Bahir Dar

After breakfast, we took a drive through the local villages around the city, followed by an easy hike to the Blue Nile Falls. The Blue Nile originates at Lake Tana and, along with the White Nile, is one of the two major tributaries to the Nile, supplying about 80% of the water in the Nile during the rainy season. Typically, the river pours 400 meters wide over the side of a sheer 42 meter high chasm before raging on to Khartoum, where it finally meets the White Nile. However, despite visiting during the summer months when the falls should be a beautiful, impressive display, we were unlucky and arrived while one of the nearby hydro plants that operates on standby happened to be turned on, effectively turning the waterfall off and leaving us with nothing more than a trickle of brown water. As compensation, our guide showed us a picture of the falls at the peak of their glory, permanently captured on the back of a 5 birr bill.

Then it was on to Gondar via another series of rural villages. As we drove, the sights out the window provided as much of a glimpse into Amhara culture as the destinations. A constant chorus of “ferenji, ferenji, ferenji (foreigner)” rang out as children in every village chased our car in hopes of our throwing gifts or highly coveted water bottles out the window. A parade of women and children on their way to the local market lined the sides of the roads, perfectly balancing everything from huge water jugs to baskets of food to household goods on their heads; live goats and sheep sped by strapped to the rooftops of cars, stuffed into busses and taxis, or draped around mens’ necks as they rode their bicycles; and farmers worked their land, pushing their ploughs through the heavy soil by hand, painstakingly harvesting fields of sorghum and barley. 

We reached Gondar in the early evening, and checked into the Goha Hotel, an impressive structure set on a hill overlooking the town of Gondar and hills beyond, and at that moment filled with a group of burly South African game park owners on a road trip across the continent. 

ethiopia blue nile
The Blue Nile Falls
Locals we met on the trail to the Blue Nile
Locals we met on the trail
Goats on a van roof
ethiopia restaurant unique
Tourist restaurant

A2D3B9C3-9194-432F-BEC3-19A92B2DD3EE_1_201_aDay 3: Gondar

Officially founded in 1634 as the capital of the Ethiopian Empire, Gondar is now classified as a World Heritage Site and home to a wonderful array of royal palaces, historic libraries, monasteries and churches dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Ethiopia is about two thirds Christian and one third Islamic. Gondar lies in the Muslim part of the country, and each morning we were awoken at 5am by the haunting adhan, calling the town to prayer at the mosque.

We headed out early for a full day of exploring, starting with a traditional breakfast of spiced fava beans covered in parsley, garlic and onions (foul madamas) at a tiny local establishment. From there, we made our way to the Royal Enclosure, a massive plot of land containing six castles and several other notable renovated historic sites. The most impressive of the collection was the 32 meter tall Fasiladas’ Palace, located just inside the entrance gate, and looking just like a life-sized sand castle.

In the afternoon we ducked into the fascinating Debre Birhan Selassie church with the most famous ceiling in Ethiopia, where the faces of angels cover every inch, staring down at visitors from above with their beautiful round Ethiopian eyes. Then we made our way to Kuskuam, or Empress Mentewab’s complex, a melancholy former palace in a partial state of ruin 4km from the city of Gondar. On the way we stopped at Fasiladas’ Bath, a charming building overlooking a large rectangular pool where snakelike tree roots digest sections of the stone walls. Although the complex was used for swimming (royalty used to don inflated goat-skin life jackets), it was likely constructed for religious celebrations. Even today, once a year, it is filled with water for the Timkat celebration, coming alive with shouts and laughter as hundreds of locals jump in.

Royal Enclosure
Royal Enclosure
Royal Enclosure
Royal Enclosure
Debre Birhan Selassie church
Debre Birhan Selassie church ceiling
Bleachers made of sticks at Fasiladas’ Bath
Tree roots at Fasiladas’ Bath
Fasiladas’ Bath

Day 4: Kosoye and Wolleka

After breakfast, we departed from Gondar to Kosoye, stopping on the way in Wolleka, 3km north of Gondar, to visit the Falasha Village. The Falasha Village should actually be called the former Falasha village. Once home to a thriving population of Falashas (Ethiopian Jews), most were flown to Israel in the 1980s and today none remain. The visit was still interesting though, with a few remaining original houses, a small synagogue, and several craft stalls with ‘Stars of David’ selling basic sculptures.

Our next stop was Kosoye, a small mountain village serving as a base for a hike into the mountains on the outskirts of the larger Simien mountain range in search of the endemic Gelada baboon. Our guide led us along a small trail through the forest, first to a lookout point where we could admire the beautiful misty mountains in the distance, and then straight into a large pack of baboons.  Baboons are known for their aggression, so we kept our distance, but watched in delight as they played and groomed each other, interacting like fuzzy little humans.

House in Wolleka
Souvenir shop in Wolleka
View of the mountains from Kosoye
View of the mountains from Kosoye
View of the mountains from Kosoye
Gelada (Bleeding heart) baboons

Day 5: Axum

We took a morning flight to Axum, the former home of the mighty Axumite empire. From the early 4th century BC until the 10th century AD, the Kingdom of Axum was one of the greatest powers on earth, centered as a trade city between Persia and Rome. A pagan Kingdom early on, giant obelisks were erected to mark the tombs of important leaders, which made for an appropriate first stop on our city tour. They were quite impressive, with the largest towering over us at 80 feet high. Then we moved on to the nearby King Bazen’s tomb which, while not as visually impressive, has great historical significance as local beliefs hold that King Bazen did not just reign at Christ’s birth, but that he is also Balthazar, and it was he who carried news of Christ’s birth to Ethiopia.

A short distance away, we toured Queen of Sheba’s Bath which was actually just a large reservoir and most likely not where Sheba came to bathe. Nobody is totally sure of its age, but it’s certainly been used as a water source for millennia and still supplies water to Axum year-round. Then it was on to Queen of Sheba’s Palace, the remains of which are, for many Ethiopians, believed to have once been the home of the glamorous, mysterious Queen of Sheba. In Ethiopia her legend lives on, and she is considered the mother of the nation and founder of the Solomonic dynasty that lasted three millennia until its last ruling descendant, Haile Selassie, died in 1975. It was from this palace, they believe (and archaeologists dispute), that their Queen of Sheba set out for Jerusalem around 1000 B.C. Ethiopian history holds that Solomon seduced her, and their son, Menelik, would travel to Jerusalem to see his father and return to Ethiopia carrying the Ark of the Covenant, a casket God had asked Moses to make, according to the Book of Exodus, to hold the Ten Commandments. Local lore has it that the ark and its commandments still reside in Axum, in the simple St. Mary of Zion church, guarded by a couple of Ethiopian Orthodox monks who are rumored to be trained to kill with their bare hands. This was our next stop, but unfortunately, no one is allowed to enter the chapel so we settled for peering through the gate, left to decide for ourselves whether the ark is really there.

Toppled obelisk
Ruins of Queen of Sheba’s palace in Axum

Day 6: Axum

After breakfast, we drove to the nearby ruins of Yeha, considered to be the birthplace of Ethiopian civilization nearly three millennia ago. The ruins are impressive for their sheer age as well as their remarkable construction. The 7th-century-BC Great Temple’s limestone building blocks, measuring up to 10 feet in length, fit perfectly together without a trace of mortar.

Next we visited the Church of Abuna Aftse; tourists are not allowed inside but we were allowed to enter the local museum which contained a plethora of ancient relics, such as a 400 year old bible, before continuing on to one of the most memorable experiences of our trip, the impressive Debre Damo monastery. One of Ethiopia’s most important monasteries and “living churches”, it sits precariously atop a rocky cliff at the Eritrean border. Only men are allowed to enter the monastery, which I was not disappointed about, as it can only be accessed by scaling the 50 foot cliff with a leather rope. Chris was talked into a visit, and I held my breath while he tied the rope around his waist and scrambled up the sheer rock wall while two men hauled the rope up from the top. Once at the top, they announced that he would need to pay to get down again. The trip was worth it though, for the chance to see the remarkable Abuna Aregawi church inside the monastery, likely the oldest standing church in the country (10th or 11th century AD) and possibly all of Africa. But we were both relieved when he made it back down in one piece, and returned to Axum for a relaxing night at the Yeha Hotel.

Chris and donkey preparing to scale the cliff to Debra Damo monastery
Chris and donkey preparing to scale the cliff to Debra Damo monastery
Chris halfway up the cliff to Debra Damo monastery

Day 7: Lalibela

For the last leg of our trip, we boarded another short flight to Lalibela, perhaps the most famous of all the Ethiopian historical sites, sitting at an elevation of roughly 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) above sea level. Lalibela is world renound for its twelve carved stone churches, reminiscent of those of Petra, representing an astonishing human feat. The churches were built between the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Coptic Christians who fled Egypt were transferred to this area of ​​Ethiopia due to persecution by Muslims. It is said that King Gebra Maskal Lalibela wanted to build a new Jerusalem where the faithful could pilgrimage, avoiding the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem.

The churches are divided into two groups, separated by a canyon where the Jordan stream flows. The North-Western group includes six churches: Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel, Bet Danaghel, Bet Mika’el, Bet Golgotha, Bet Medhane Alem; while the South-Eastern group includes five others: Bet Amanuel, Bet Merkorios, Bet Abba Libanous, Bet Gabriel-Rafael and Bet Lehem. A twelfth church, Bet Giyorgis, is located to the East, isolated from all the others.

We checked in to the Lalibela Mountain View Hotel, a modern facility with great mountain views as the name suggests, and after lunch, headed out to start our explorations in the North-Western Cluster, an incredible honeycomb of churches and passageways carved down into the rock beneath our feet. It would be easy to spend days excavating the incredible network of paths and caverns, but after a few hours we were exhausted and paused our excursion for the evening. 

ethiopia lalibela priests
Passageway between churches
lalibela 18
Window carved into the rock
lalibela 16
Lalibela church
lalibela 13
Lalibela church
ethiopia rose and chris food platter
Traditional meal at a restaurant in Lalibela

Day 8: Lalibela

In the morning, we visited the church of Yimrehanne Kristos, predating the famous nearby rock-hewn churches of Lalibela by almost a century. One of Ethiopia’s best-preserved late Axumite churches, it was built with layers of wood and granite and is set in the entrance to a large natural cavern on a hill in a spectacular landscape of juniper trees.  Over the centuries many pilgrims came here to die, and their remains are buried behind the structure. 

On our way to and from town, we passed myriad fascinating landscapes dotted with traditional round earth and stone huts of Lalibela, nearly as mesmerized by daily life as by the churches. After lunch we returned to Lalibela to visit the South-Eastern cluster of churches, a group of smaller but more finely sculpted churches compared to those of the North-Western group. We were led down a path referred to as “The way to Paradise”, consisting of a series of stone bridges above the base of the churches that allowed us to cross the channels that are essential to drain rainwater and eventually reach a dark passage in the rock before crossing a wooden footbridge to the imposing, fortress-like church of Saint Gabriel or Bet Gabriel.

We had definitely saved the best for last, the most famous of all the churches, St George’s Church is Lalibela’s masterpiece. The most visually perfect church of all, a 15m-high three-tiered stone carving in the shape of a Greek cross, so perfectly proportioned that it requires no internal pillars. Inside, the light filtering in from the windows illuminates the ceiling’s large crosses. It is truly a sight to behold, and hard to fathom how humans could have built it, especially without modern machinery.

Yimrehanne Kristos church
Traditional earth huts of Lalibela
Traditional round stone huts of Lalibela
Lalibela landscape
lalibela 4
St George’s Church from above
lalibela 5
St George’s Church
lalibela 3
St George’s Church


Day 9: Addis

Though it would have been wonderful to continue discovering the rest of the country, it was time for our return flight to Addis. Back in the city, we spent the evening at the guesthouse and in the morning met a friend who presented me with my very own traditional costume, a beautiful white dress with light blue sparkly highlights woven throughout.

In the afternoon we drove up Mount Entoto, the highest peak on the Entoto Mountains, overlooking  the city at a height of 3,200 meters. Mount Entoto is famous as a historical place where Emperor Menelik II resided and built his palace when he founded Addis Ababa. It is sometimes referred to as the “lung of Addis Ababa” for its dense eucalyptus coverage, and is ironically also an important source of firewood for the city, which became obvious as we passed a long line of women walking down the mountain with massive piles of branches on their heads that easily weighed more than they did.

Finally, it was time to go. Though Ethiopia may not be a traditional tourist destination, it is a place that everyone should visit once in their life. My time in the country has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, and there is no doubt that I boarded the plane with a profoundly different, deeper understanding of humanity than when I arrived.

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