In my way from Bahir Dar to Gorgora, on the shores of the Lake Tana, the place where the Spanish Jesuit (born near Madrid) Pedro Paez died in 1628 (he was the discoverer of the sources of the Blue Nile), I resolved to spend, first, a couple of days in Gondar, to admire its castles erected in a clear Portuguese style in a time when Portugal sent Portuguese and Spanish missionaries to Ethiopia (Padro Páez travelled to Ethiopia under the service of Portugal).
The castles were at a walking distance scattered in Gondar. I visited the medieval castles, especially the Emperor Fasilades one.
But the best that I visited in Gondar were not those castles, but a small church called Debre Berhan Selassie which was a real wonder for the paintings of angels in the cell.
Besides Gondar I could visit a settlement of the Beta Israel people, or the famous Falashas, supposed to be descendents from the King Solomon and the Queen of Saba.
The third day I left Gondar and travelled by bus to Gorgora.
HUNGRY? Really hungry? The largest and most filling breakfast food in Ethiopia is Injera Fir Fir. ‘Fir Fir’ means literally ‘torn-up’. Its hundreds of tiny pieces of injera soaked in kai wat (somewhat hot red sauce) and some meat and served folded in injera. Some places use more meat than others and ask for it 'with meat' to ensure it’s in there. This will fill you up until your evening meal. That is a DAO guarantee!
This is my good friend and one time guide: Solomon Kasaye. Solomon was the first person I ever met in Ethiopia and we still keep in touch. He is a close friend and a very excellent guide. Would you like to see the real Ethiopia? Solomon is the man. He can show you how shared taxis work, take you to a chat house, any museum and also guide you throughout the beautiful rural south and historical north of Ethiopia. He really opened my eyes to what many tourists who never leave the hotel will not see. He also provides escort service to the Merkato and knows where and how the pickpockets operate. Please drop him an email if you would like to use his invaluable help. You can also email me if you need any help.
I highly recommend Solomon if you really want to see and understand Ethiopia and make the most of your time here.
You can email him on:
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All the best,
Update: I recently received this feedback from a non-VT Member about the fantastic job Solomon does:
We also greatly appreciate your assistance and guidance which made our trip very good and enjoyable."
The Debre Birhan Selassie (Trinity and Mountain of Light) church was built by the Emperor Eyasu II in the 17th century, not long after Gondar had become the capital of Ethiopia. In 1888 it was the only church in Gondar not destroyed by the Mahdist Dervishes in the last Christian-Muslim war.
The outside of the church is unremarkable. The interior is one of the glories of Christendom. One hundred and four angels, each of whom appears to be looking at the observer, decorate the ceiling of the chapel. Above the altar is a rendering of the Trinity. Each of the three members is holding an egg, a symbol of the three-in-one god (shell, yolk, white). To either side of the altar is an entrance to the Holy of Holies, closed to visitors.
The church is normally closed. A priest will open it once a visitor has paid a Birr 25 (about 1.5 US cents) fee to the gatekeeper.
Begun by the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1931 to honor Ethiopians who died fighting the Italians in the 1895-96 war, the Holy Trinity Cathedral was completed in 1945. It was then dedicated also to those who resisted Mussolini's 1936-41 attempt to add Ethiopia to an Italian Empire. It is the seat of the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and also the second holiest church in the country (after St Mary's in Axum).
Stained glass windows add to the beauty of the church's interior. A crypt in the rear of the church holds the tombs of Haile Selassie and his consort, Empress Menen.
Admission is Birr 50 (about three US cents) and the church is open daily from 8am to 1pm and 2pm to 6pm.
Of all the cities on the ‘Historical Route’ of Ethiopia, Axum is the most overlooked. It shouldn’t be. What other city is home to the following?
• The Arc of the Covenant/original 10 Commandments
• The Queen of Sheba
• The golden crowns of Ethiopian Emperors
• The traditional city for all Coronations
• Massive Stelae over 200 years old
• Tombs of Kings
The other nice thing is that Axum is flat, easy to explore and has a relaxed atmosphere. It would be a great town to see just to get away for a few days.
Axum started as an ancient empire that started as early as 400BC. It was a land and naval power which traded across the Middle East and East Africa. Each king built higher stelae to symbolise their power. These also served as places for sacrifice with the holes to drain away the blood still present. The tallest now standing in 82 feet high. Legend has it that they tried to go too high and the last built crumbled meaning the end of the old religion. This would have had the effect of ending the magic around them and the King. King Ezana converted to Christianity around 300AD and his obelisk is the 2nd highest still upright.
The Queen of Sheba was born here (you can see here Palace) and travelled to Israel to marry King Solomon. Their son, Emperor Menelik, retuned as the first Emperor with the Arc of the Covenant. Axum is considered the first city founded in Ethiopia and is the holiest city for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.
You can see all the main sites in 1 day with a guide who will not cost a lot. There is an amazing amount of history to see here.
Ethiopian Airlines is the quickest way here and back and they have an office in town.
The city has a typical Ethiopian atmosphere. It reminded me a little of Harar, Djibouti and Dire Dawa with the same busy dusty streets, the old coffee shops and restaurants and the beautiful colors of the houses. It also has a few modern buildings and hotels where you can have a more “western” meal. If you have time to spare this city is not a bad choice.
Something that made me feel uncomfortable is that the police don't allow tourists to take photos around the city and they may arrest you if you do. Especially in the market and several other parts of the old city they are very strict... You have to go to the police station first and take a written permission....
But the worst is that a lot of uncontrollable and corrupted policemen block the way and stop the buses every few kilometers on the road to Jijiga. It is really irritating. They ask for money for doing nothing and grab whatever they like from local people. They blackmail and treat locals like slaves. Of course they don't bother tourists but it is better not to carry anything illegal with you. They usually look for smuggled goods and take everything they desire from the defenceless locals. Disgusting! Locals have their share of guilt however because they smuggle a lot of electronics or household items and hide their illegal goods wherever they can. Many were put in jail in front of our eyes because only half of them had passports or any papers at all. An enormous bulk of illegal goods come from Somalia, where crime is thriving.
This church is a real wonder and if you visit Ethiopia you cannot miss it. Built at the end of the XVIIIth century on the top of a hill, it is famous for its stunning pictures that decorate the inside walls. Like all the buildings that I visited in Gonder, this church is surrounded by an enclosure with several towers covered with egg-shaped domes (picture 2). In this case the number of towers is 12 symbolising the 12 apostles. The 13th tower, the biggest one, represents Christ and it is used as entrance gate. Take your time and walk around the walls before going inside: hidden among exuberant vegetation there are some surprises (picture 3).
The church corresponds to a basilica type –which is very common in the north of the country- with a quadrangular plan lined up direction west-east (picture 4). It is surrounded by a beautiful veranda and has doors on three sides: west, north and south while the east side is sacred and closed. People enter to the church from the main door in the west side (the darkness) and move forward to the sancta sanctorum in the east (the light) where the tabot is kept but only opened to clergy. Inside, the main wall shows the Trinity -always represented by three old bearded man- surrounded by the symbols of the apostles (picture 5). Above, the scene of the crucifixion and king Egwala Seyon at the foot of the cross. Other remarkable paintings are the knights- saints, Christ’s life on the north wall and an enchained devil on the south. But the most famous paintings in this church are the uncountable winged cherubs that invade the wooden roof looking at the four directions with their almond eyes (picture 1). Try to count them!
Flash is not permitted inside but the impassive priest will accept from you all kind of immobile positions to get good pictures. It seems that he is used to it!
Baboons are Old World monkeys. There are 5 species in Africa. The Ethiopian species is called “gelada baboon” and they are very funny with a big red mark on their chest. I thought that it would be difficult to see them, that it was a rare species to meet but there are hundreds of baboons and they are not afraid of people, I would even say that they like to pose for photographers :-))) You will find baboons in big groups, called troops, where it is easy to distinguish the big boss looking like a sultan with his harem. They spend most of their time sitting, like to clean their skin between them and speak a lot (vocal exchanges). I guess that they also enjoy doing the top models for a while. We met many troops of baboons during our second day hike.
We decided to do the Simien Mountains trek as late as possible. That was because we were in the rainy season (August – September) so we thought that if we started the trek later we would have more chances of good weather. That turned to be a wise decision because one week before, in Bahir Dar, we met a couple of Scots that could not do the trek because of heavy rain. However everyday we had our little shower by 3.00 -4.00 pm. This was not a problem because by that time we had already finished the daily walk and we were safe in our den.
We left Debark in the morning direction to Buyit Ras. This is a 10km walk which takes four – five hours. The landscape is beautiful with green valleys and some rivers to cross (boots off –boots on). During our way we also found some small villages of Ahmaric people. They live from agriculture and farming in very hard conditions. In the morning you cross many people who go to Debark loaded with wood, animals and other food to sell in the market. This is terrible because each time you have to stop to let them pass and it breaks your walking rhythm. This was the hardest and most tiring day for me
but I managed to keep my dignity (M. K’s glucose tablets helped!) and we arrived to the den at the expected time (just before the rain!)
The National Park of Simien Mountains is a great break during the Historical Route. Gorgeous valleys, canyons, rivers and mountains . . . at an average height of 3.300m are a delight for photographers and trekkers. In Simien Mountains you will also find three endemic animal species of Ethiopia: Walias, Simien Jakals and the so funny Baboons.
You need to arrange your trek (and pay the entrance fee) in the Park Headquarters situated at Debark. An armed scout with you is compulsory. A mule + mule man for your stuff and food is optional but very useful. Your route will depend on the number of days that you want to stay in the mountains. We decided to do a three days trek so we spent the third day walking back what we have done in the two previous days. I have put some prices at my Packing List tips. These prices are fixed and there is no possible negotiation.
One full day in Harar was enough to us to catch the spirit of the city and visit its main spots.
Harar by day is a busy, brilliant and noisy city. The colorful souq (picture 1) is an immersion to the Harar’s everyday life with interesting smells and colors. Take your time also to explore the city's narrow streets and the walls (pictures 2 and 3) around it: even if the architecture is very poor, with almost no details, there is always a surprise around the corner. Crooked minarets are always a reference dot on the skyline and also put some color to the flat ensemble. I found very interesting the Sewing Machines Street where all the tailors work on the streets in front of their workshops (picture 4). Rimbaud’s House was for me only an opportunity so see some Rimbaud’s stuff in a beautiful architecture (picture 5).
Harar by night is dark and lonely. Outside the walls there is still some life, with last people selling chatt and the hyena show for tourists, that we did not see. Inside the walls red light pubs open its doors widely, even in Ramadan time. It's also prostitutes' turn, who don’t mind to smile and look brazenly at men-foreigners even in presence of their female partners!
During the XVth and XVIth centuries Ethiopia had its first cultural contacts with Europe. But it was also a busy period due to never ending wars against Muslims, who invaded the north west and the south of Ethiopia. In 1535 Emperor Lebna Dengel, desperate, had to ask for the Portuguese help –who were already in the area- to fight against the Muslims. Thanks to them the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia was saved.
Portuguese and Jesuit missions coming from Goa in India meant an interesting cultural exchange for Ethiopia. They also did their best to convert the Ethiopian Emperors (King Za- Denguel and King Susenyos) into Catholicism which provoked the population’s rebellion. Susenyos’ son and successor, King Fasiladas, managed to re-establish the traditional faith and Europeans were expelled off the country.
Emperor Fasiladas’s predecessors did not have a fix capital. The Emperor and his court lived in tents and moved from one place to another depending on the grain of the close villages and the wood from the forests.
In 1636 Gonder, a small and secondary village, was chosen by King Fasiladas to build his Empire. Tradition tells us about an archangel who prophesied to King Lebna Denguel the future of his dynasty and told him that the initial letter of their new capital would be letter “G”. King Sarsa Denguel chose the city of Gouzara and King Susenyos moved the capital to Gorgora. It seems that King Fasiladas found his capital following a buffalo until Gonder when he was hunting. He converted Gonder in a beautiful and wealthy city with several imposing castles and forty four churches. His successors went on with the construction of the royal enclosure (Fasil Ghebi) and beautiful gardens, banquet halls and libraries were added during the following years. Gonder became the city of arts, crafts and impressive feasts attracting visitors from all the world. But this Camelot in Africa was also the city of intrigue, conspiracy and assassination. In fact, only four monarchs were in the power during the so called Gonder Period.
Gonder was the capital of the Ethiopian Empire from 1636 until 1864, when Emperor Texwdoros II moved the capital to Magadala in 1885.
Once you are face to face with the falls go down again to have another side view from below. It is a muddy path but there is a pleasant corner at the end where you can sit on the rocks, admire the falls and take more pictures without getting another shower (picture 1).
It was during this excursion to Tis Isat when I understood the meaning of the Ethiopian proverb on my homepage “The foot that is restless will tread on a turd”: all the path from the village to the falls is full of mud, mud and sometimes slippery stones to avoid mud . . . or to fall on it (picture 2). That’s why I decided to take long stick and a young + handsome valet to help me along the way, crossing the small streams and jumping on the stones. He was expensive (I had to pay also for the rent of the stick!) but turned to be also a good company and told me nice stories. However, some younger tourists were luckier than me ;-) (picture 3)
Going back to the main point, you can watch the falls for the last time taking a cup of coffee under the shadow of a tree.
Once Lake Tana is left behind, the Blue Nile travels between papyrus and cultivated fields for 32 km to fall 45 m down on the Tis Isat falls. Tis Isat (smoke of water in Amharic) was described on my guidebook as a “melange of mists and rainbows” and it is really how I saw it. It seems that falls are more impressive during this period (rainy season, between June and September) even if the colour of water is more brown than blue because of the mud.
Once you arrive to Tis Isat village there is an admission ticket to pay at the Tourist Office. There you can also arrange a guide but it is not really necessary as you will always be surrounded by children showing you the way and eventually selling some souvenirs.
From the Tourist Office there are two possible paths: the so called eastern path, the shortest path, which crosses a beautiful XVIIth century Portuguese Bridge. If you take this path you will have a nice front view of the falls but from a certain distance.
We decided instead to take the less steep but more adventurous western route, which starts at 50m of the ticket office. After 1-2 km of walk you have to cross the Nile’s banks by motorboat and then follow the river above the falls crossing beautiful green landscapes with chatt fields (picture 2) to meet the or the first time from the side (picture 3). Views from here are gorgeous! But if you want still more impressive shots go down for a front view and feel that “smoke of water”, that “melange of mists and rainbows” on your skin. This is the main viewpoint (pictures 1 and 4).
Tis Isat was without any doubt one of the highlights of my Ethiopian trip.
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Bahar Dar, Ethiopia
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Couples
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