The Nile Outlets
On the skirts of Mount Gishe there is a small stream called Gilgel Abay (Small River in Ahmaric). The Ethiopian tradition considers this stream as the source of the Abay Wenz (Big River) or Blue Nile River and a small church built nearby testified that.
The birth of the Blue Nile was until only few years ago almost unknown by Europeans. Although it was described for the first time by a Spanish Jesuit in 1613 and later by a Scottish explorer in 1770, people did not believe them. Being forgotten during years, the Blue Nile was charted for the first time by Robert E. Cheesman, the British consul in Gojjam. That happened in the thirties (yes, 1930!), when almost all the world already appeared on the map.
Ethiopian tradition and Scientific Community usually don’t go together and nowadays scientists consider Lake Tana as the outlet of the Blue Nile. From there, the Nile River -generally regarded as the longest river in the world- starts its journey, 5.223 km, crossing three different countries until the Mediterranean Sea.
Usually the Lake Tana Churches tour includes the visit of the Blue Nile Outlets. If you are lucky, it is a good occasion to see one hippo or two (picture 2).
Ura Kidane Mehrat
Founded by Empress Mentewwab in 1747 on Zegue Peninsula, this is the most famous (and visited) church and also my favourite one in Lake Tana.
To visit this church, a local guide is compulsory and he will come to offer you his services as soon as you go out of the boat. To arrive to the church you will have to walk for a while along a path crossing exuberant vegetation but full of souvenir stalls. Unfortunately they offer nothing interesting dispersing also the charm of the walk.
The church forms part of a small complex with some huts -I suppose for the monks- and a museum displaying XVIth and XVIIth century crosses and crowns. It is built of stone and it has a round form, which can be considered as an adaptation of the local hut (picture 1). Inside, it is decorated with beautiful paintings on its walls.
Paintings show you the life of Christ, Mary and different saints (picture 2). But they also show you the consequences of being a bad guy (picture 3). Especially beautiful are the equestrian saints being this picture one of the most represented images about Ethiopia (main picture). But common people could also appear on the paintings: a small donation for the Church and they could have their face represented on the walls for the eternity (picture 4).
Lake Tana Paintings
Tana churches hide ancient paintings created with a style that came from Byzantium and has not changed since then. Designs remind the parishioners the truth of their faith. The colour is as important as the shape having both the purpose to catch the observer’s mind and spirit. Topics are always the same: the Virgin (much venerated in Ethiopia), the Trinity, the saints’ life and Saint George killing the dragon.
If you enlarge the main picture, you will see two kinds of design for people: good people (saints, etc) have round face with almond eyes and serene expressions; bad people have long face with ugly expressions and almost all the times are seen from the side (a profile nose and only one eye).
You can spend hours and hours admiring these paintings, walls are a kind of comic strip telling you lots of stories. In fact it was the only way for illiterate people to know about the Holy Scriptures. If you like photography don’t forget to bring your tripod as the light is faint. If it happens to you to visit the churches during a power failure, which IS NOT very rare, then there is not hope for good pictures :-(
Lake Tana Churches
Lake Tana is not only interesting for its natural beauties: its more than twenty islands were also the spiritual retirement of orthodox monks. Between XVI and XVII centuries many monasteries and churches were built in Lake Tana. The oldest of these forty or so churches have their origins in the fourteenth century. They reflect the native building tradition in their round shape, materials and building techniques. Simple architectures without any interest but covered with wonderful paintings with religious scenes, being these murals the highlight of a boat trip on Lake Tana.
Although you could spend days and days visiting churches I think (and I almost don’t believe what I am going to say) that after visiting two or three, all of them will look to you the same. So if your time in Ethiopia is tight, a half a day /one day trip will be more than enough.
We booked our half day trip in Ghion Hotel the day before. It included the visit of Debre Maryam, Intos Exesus Maryam, Kebran Gebriel (men only), Azuwa Maryam, Ura Kidane Meret + the Nile outlets. It was a very complete tour but after seeing three churches we said to our boatman that it was enough. Note that “the trip” means the “transportation by boat to the different islands”. Once you step onto them, you will have to pay an admission ticket to visit the different churches (50 Birr each).
Beta Giyorgis Church
This cruciform church, the most spectacular church in Lalibela, is separated from the two other groups. It seems that when King Lalibela finished the two groups of churches, he had an unexpected visit: Saint George, Etiopia’s saint patron, was sad because any church was dedicated to him. The king was very sorry to have offended Saint George so he promised the saint to build the most beautiful church only for him. And voilà, that’s how this church was born!
This church is a Greek cross in plan and has twelve sides with windows and doors. On the flat roof – fully visible from the edge of the huge trench –a triple cross is carved which is both a decoration and a water drainage system which ends with protruding gutters (picture 2). Façades are simple in decoration with horizontal lines carved all around the church (picture 1). On the ground floor doors and windows have the typical Aksumite protruding beam heads while the windows of the third order are ogival and decorated with acanthus leaves. Inside, we find a free plan. Talking about the structure, the position and distance of the walls does not need extra pillars and four cross-shaped pilasters on the corners of the wall are enough to support the four arches that separate the central part from the side arms. The west arm is used as entrance -reminiscence of the ancient Basilica nartex- while the east arm contains the Holy of Holies and its floor is elevated thanks to a platform.
Local tradition believes that this church is the symbol of Noah’s Ark, which would explain the fact that in the first level all the windows are “blind” to avoid water come in. Our guide appointed us a rocky mass outside, on the South East corner of this church, as Mount Ararat (picture 3).
Beta Giyorgis is a good example to explain how these churches were built. Construction techniques implied removing the rock only, with no insertions or additions. The perimeter of churches was first designed on the rock by picks. This stage included the planning of the width of both the churches and the trenches, its heights, orientation, access points and drainage. Then they were excavated from top to down to the base. Once the block for the church was isolated from the rock bank, its inner mass was emptied out to create pillars and other features inside while at the same time the exterior was sculpted. This kind of rock is easy to work as it is either a red tuff or a kind of grey sandstone. Skilled men were needed and the main tool was double face cutting instrument: an axe on one side, a hoe on the other side. They also used chisels for the most difficult and narrow places.
Lalibela Churches - Second Group
This complex includes Biet Abba Libanos, Biet Emmanuel, Biet Mercurios, Biet Lehem and Biet Gabriel Raphael all linked through a variety of inner passages and tunnels. It is very different from the first group, let’s say more chaotic in its organisation and some buildings don’t look like churches and don’t display the East-West orientation. That’s why many scholars believe that these buildings did not have a religious use but a civil use. Other scholars believe that this complex could represent the Heavenly Jerusalem –with Hell, Purgatory and Heaven- while the first group represents the Earthly one.
I think that locals believe this second theory because our guide made us cross a very long, completely dark underground passage that linked Biet Emmanuel with Biet Lehem. We had to follow him bend down, lined up like a train and without our torches saying that it was the way from Hell to Purgatory (picture 2). It was funny. He also showed us the “Roof of Heaven” but I did not want to climb there :-)
From this group I found very interesting Biet Abba Libanos, (picture 4) which is partly hypogeal –three sides are still connected to the rock- and the twin churches of Biet Gabriel and Raphael, which nowadays are approached by a modern bridge (main picture).
The Ark of the Covenant is in Aksum!
Indiana Jones was definitely loosing his time in Jordan and Egypt because the Ark of the Covenant is in Aksum!
According to Christian tradition, this Ark was constructed on Mount Sinai by Moses to host the two stone tables containing the Ten Commandments. This Ark was later housed in King’s Salomon Great Temple in Jerusalem until the Temple’s destruction in the year 587BC. Then silence.
Many legends have appeared about the Ark’s location since that fatidic date. Ethiopian Church claims that the Ark of Covenant was carried off from Jerusalem to Ethiopia by King Menelik I, the son of King Salomon and Queen Sheba (even if we can’t find any texts talking about this subject until the XVIIth century) .
Apparently since Menelik I times the capricious Ark of the Covenant can choose where to live so when you visit Ethiopia it is not strange to find other sanctuaries which claim to have hosted the Ark for a while in the past. However during the last centuries the Ark seems to be quite happy in its current house, Saint Mary of Zion in Aksum. Inside, there is a small chapel where a special guardian surveys the famous Ark all the time. This guardian, the only one to have access to the Ark, is a monk born in Aksum who is chosen by the community of monks for this important role. Since then he will live for ever closed in the chapel and will survey the Ark until his death.
The new church of Saint Mary of Zion was built by King Haile Selassie in 1960 who was a difficult architectural taste. People can visit the church, its paintings and small museum but will be kept far from the chapel. Few years ago two Belgian tourists tried to climb the railings that protect the chapel and since then the chapel is even more protected. I did not visit the church and did not take pictures of it either but the idea of being so close of a so mythical object was very spooky!
Aksum and its stelae
The Aksumite kingdom was born in the north of Ethiopia by the I century BC. Situated on an important trading crossroad, it quickly became a wealthy civilisation who did business with countries like Egypt, Arabia and India and had its own currency. Aksumite society was rich and well organised and worshiped solar and lunar gods. Today, some huge stelae still testify about that glorious past. These stelae were elaborated tombstones for the ruling families. They could be a simple slab or a very elaborated monument, like a house with a door and several floors. The monkey-heads (picture 2, the protuberances on the door) are also a typical decoration of the Aksumite style.
The Stele Park is situated in the centre of Aksum and contains about 120 stelae of different size. In theory, any stele marks a tomb underground. Only few tombs are already excavated and you can visit them but Archaeologists still have a lot of work to do and a lot of mysteries about the Aksumite civilization could be revealed here in the following years.
The underground tombs (pictures 2 and 3) that you can see today consist in a long corridor with niches on both sides. There is no decoration or other objects left but you still can admire the incredible precision used to join all those huge stone blocks.
The most beautifully carved stelae are from the 3-4th century AC. The tallest standing obelisk, the Rome Stele, is 24,6 metres high (main picture). But the tallest and more spectacular stele is the Great Stele -33m high- which lies broken on the floor (picture 4). The Great Stele is considered the largest single block of stone that men have ever tempted to erect. A legend says that its fall was seen by Aksumite people as a fateful sign to abandon their pagan gods.
And that’s what happened! Tradition says that a delegation of nine Syrian monks convinced in year 330 the Aksumite king Ezana to convert to Christianity, becoming the Ethiopian people the first people to embrace officially the New Religion (Constantine I the Great embraced Christianity only in the year 337). Some years later a new language, the Ge’ ez was adopted in the kingdom. Ge’ez became the language of the Church and all the sacred text were translated from Greek into this language.
Don’t leave the Stelae Field without visiting its small but interesting Museum! It has different objects found in the tombs and a very interesting collection of coins which allowed Archaeologists to establish a detailed chronology of the Aksumite kingdom –coins have the portrait of the different kings wearing a head-cloth or a crown-. There are also some models of historical buildings today disappeared which give you an idea about how powerful the Aksumite Kingdom was.
The National Museum: paying our respects to Lucy
You cannot talk about the Man’s origins without mentioning Ethiopia. In this region (Great East African Rift) appeared sooome years ago the man’s oldest ancestor.
5.3 – 4 Millions of years ago, we already find the first vestiges related to our origins. The Palaeontologist discoveries grow in number during the Middle Pliocene, 4-3 Millions of years ago. From this period the most famous discovery is Lucy, a fossilised hominid found in Awash Valley in 1974.
Lucy belongs to the Australopithecus Afarensis species and has both human and simian characteristics. She was biped -even if she still lived in the trees in a wooded environment- and her crane was already human. Until nowadays Lucy, our hairy ancestor, is the oldest and most completed hominid ever found. That’s why Ethiopia claims to be “the Cradle of Humanity”.
The National Museum in Addis Ababa has an excellent Palaeontologist Section with items from 5.3 -4 Millions of years (teeth, cranes and other bones) until Lucy who, like a star, has her own room, the “Lucy Room”. I don’t understand a lot about Palaeontology but the ensemble was so well displayed, with interesting explanations and useful chronological schemas, that everything appeared very clear to me.
Apart from the Palaeontology Section, the National Museum has interesting objects related to all the Ethiopian history, from the pre-Aksumite period until our days. Sadly these exhibits are poorly (or no) labelled so most of the times you see nice items without no explanation. It is a pity because most of the items were delocalised to belong to a most important and global collection but the final result is not good. However the National Museum is for me a must in Addis Abeba and it shouldn’t be missed. Don’t leave the Museum without visiting Lucy’s Restaurant which offers meals and any kind of drinks and sodas in a very relaxing “ethnical” atmosphere.
Simien Mountains - Days 2 and 3
The second day we did the path between Buyit Ras and Geech Camp, via Sankaber (13 km, 7-8 hours). This day was more enjoyable for me, I was already used to the height and walk so I felt less tired. Landscapes were also more beautiful than the previous day, with terrific views along the escarpment on the west, between Michibi and Sankaber.
I especially enjoyed the trees full of likens, some unknown exotic flowers (for me) and of course the baboons! I thought that they were very rare to see but there many and they are not afraid of humans (look at my following tip!). Once we arrived to the den and after some rest, we could walk around the area to enjoy other views before the rain.
The third day we had to go back to Debark. That means that we did in one day what we have done before in two days! But by that time we were fit so we woke up very early and did not waste too much time eating, taking pictures or admiring the landscape. For sure after that a hot shower in Debark was more than deserved!
The Simien Mountains trek was not very easy for me. I was not super fit + I had been ill only one week ago so I did not start the trek in my best conditions. But landscapes were gorgeous, baboons very funny and I have an excellent trek partner who told me many interesting things about local flora, fauna and rocky formations. At the end the Simien Trek, even if hard, turned to be an unforgettable trek!
Lalibela Churches - First Group
I would describe this group as an ensemble of churches, grottos, tunnels and drainage channels. This complex includes the Tomb of Adam, Petros and Paulos grottoes, the churches of Micael, Golgota and Selassie, Biet Mariam, Biet Maskal, Biet Denghuel and Biet Medhane Alem.
Nowadays there are different entrances but the original path –also called the Spiritual Path- started from the Tomb of Adam (the original sin) in the West, passing through Micael, Golgota and Selassie Churches –which symbolize Passion and Death and ending at Medhane Alem (the Saviour of the World) in the East. As you can see each church is interesting by itself and at the same time has a symbolic meaning in the ensemble.
Generally speaking Lalibela churches were built according to the ancient Christian Basilica plant. They have a rectangular plan, sometimes enriched by side niches. The entrance is in the West -the side of the darkness and the sin- while the Sancta Sanctorum where the Tabot (a replica of the wooden box containing Moses’ Tables of Laws) is kept in the East, the side of sun rising and light. Pillars are cruciform or quadrangular in section - never circular - and usually divide the space in two or three naves. But sometimes they just cut the perspective ;-). Usually the central nave is higher and vaulted while the others are flat. Sometimes we can find the absidal area separated by a higher platform and a triumphal arch. Sometimes the entrance has a kind of vestibule, reminiscence of the ancient Basilica’s nartex.
Inside the rock that surrounds the churches we often find many niches excavated, used as tombs in the past. Nowadays they are the living place of hermits who want to be close of this sacred place.
Talking about decoration Lalibela churches still have some Aksumite features like the keyhole windows – the shape typical on the top of the stelae -, the beam heads on the windows and doors called “monkey heads” – having here only a decorative purpose - and of course the Aksumite cross. Interiors are simply decorated with paintings telling us the stories of the saints. Some of them are very fade and sometimes can be unnoticed by visitors so a guide pointing them out with his torch can be very helpful. Crosses have a major role in the churches’ decoration. We can find 8 basic shapes of crosses but there are many more.
In this group the Tomb of Adam (picture 2) reminds us about the first man’s tomb. Biet Golgota (main picture) is said to be the final rest of King Lalibela, placed exactly under the Christ’s tomb but the entrance to the grave is forbidden. Bieta Maryam (picture 3) was Lalibela’s favourite church and the guide will appoint you the place where he used to pray. Bieta Masqual (the Cross House) is said to have contained for some time the Cross relics (picture 4). Bieta Medhane Alem (House of the World’s Saviour) could be a replica of the great cathedral of Aksum, built by King Khaleb in the VIth century and nowadays disappeared.
Harar, the Muslim Holy City
Harar is a place apart, far away from the North Historical route. This place has always been a crossroad for commerce in India, Africa and Middle East. During XVIIth and XVIIth centuries Muslims, who were already there one century before, converted Harar in a cultural and religious focus being considered Harar the forth holiest city of the Islam. For years and years Harar was a closed city for the unfaithful and the adventurer Richard Burton only could enter the city dressed up as Arabic merchant in 1854. Later, in 1875, Egyptians took Harar and opened it to international trading companies. This is why many foreign merchants – Arthur Rimbaud between them – could enter the city with the Egyptian Administration’s ok. You still can feel the colonial atmosphere from those years in many corners of the city.
We went to Harar because M. K wanted to follow Arthur Rimbaud’s steps. It is a long day trip from Adis Abeba by minibus only entertained by terrific landscapes and co travellers’ laughs after eating their chatt dose. But there is not much left from Rimbaud apart from some objects and old photos in a house (turned into museum) which never belonged to him.
In 1887 the city surrendered to Emperor Menelik II but the Hararis have always kept a kind of ethnical and cultural independence and own language until our days. This is the interest of a visit to Harar: its old markets and streets where there is always something different to see and smell, crooked minarets, colorful houses or just a little bit of people watching from a terrace, always with a beer.
Debark is a sleepy village without any interest but if you want to visit the Simien Mountains then Debark is your place! The Park Headquarters, where you will pay the entrance fee and arrange all the logistics for your trek, is located in Debark. Debark also has a small market (main picture), a bakery and some groceries so you can buy your supplies here as well. You can reach Debark by bus from Gonder in the South and from Shire in the North. Arrive at the bus station before 6.00 am because Debark is not a frequent destination and few buses go there. Use also Debark to sleep well and have a hot shower before /after the great trek :-)
Fasil Ghebi is the royal ensemble in Gonder. Its more than 900 m long walls close inside different palaces and buildings built by Emperor Fasiladas and his successors, from 1632 until 1770. Fasil Ghebi is the most important example of a unique architectural style called “Gonder Style”: a mixing of Arabic style with Baroque influences brought by Portuguese missionaries using Indian construction techniques brought by masons from Goa. This style will mark the architecture of the city in the XVIIth century and visitor will find massive constructions with egg-domed towers everywhere. The result looks a piece of Medieval Europe moved to Ethiopia.
The most interesting buildings are Fasilada’s palace (picture 1), Iyasou’s palace, Fasilada’s archive and Bakaffa’s palace with its impressive banqueting hall and stables (picture 2). The most curious site is for sure the Lions’ house with some lion cages still left (don’t forget a commemorative picture playing the lion here!). The three churches of the ensemble have separated entrance gates and maybe separated entrance tickets but I am not sure about that because I was not interested in visiting them.
The site of Fasil Ghebi is huge and there are not a lot of indications inside. Although it is funny to pop from one construction to the nearest one trying to imagine how the king and his court lived, you can miss like this a lot of interesting details and maybe some stories of love and intrigue. A good guidebook with a site map and some descriptions could be a good idea for your walk. If not, at the entrance gate there are always some university students ready to play the guide for some Birrs.
Not far from the city centre there are other interesting constructions from the Gonder Period: Fasiladas’ Baths and Qousquam Palace. These constructions were small palaces where kings and queens used to spend their free time and organise some parties. You will need to take a taxi and few hours of your time to visit both places but this excursion is worth it. For more information about these places read my Gonder page.
Arriving to Lalibela
The journey to Lalibela (2630m high) is an experience by itself. The holy town of Ethiopia was almost inaccessible for centuries, protected as it is by the mountain chains of Lasta Region. Even if the town has become more accessible recently and you can travel comfortably (well more or less!) by minibus, the winding and narrow roads still give the feeling of an arduous expedition (picture 3). But the landscape is wonderful with some of the highest mountains in Ethiopia around, vast green spaces with typical Lasta houses and the amazing shapes of the rocks (pictures 1 and 2).
The area containing the complex of churches is approximately 500x500m with one group of churches located to the North, a second group located to the East and Beta Giyorgis Church standing alone to the West. The first and the second group are separated by Jordan River which is believed to be diverted and canalised into its present position in order to recall the biblical river and complete the “New Jerusalem”. When we visited Lalibela, the river had no water so the general impression was less spectacular, I suppose. A new and fashion tourist centre has been built recently by Unesco. This building includes the ticket office and a small but interesting museum with some religious objects displayed. Here you can also contract the services of a guide. Even if you can visit the site by yourself I strongly recommend you to take a guide, otherwise you will miss a lot of interesting details and tales related to the site. Believe me, it is worth it!
While I didn't stay here, I called in to view the grounds and hotel. Impressive place, with bars,...more
You can camp here for $10 or for the same price you could stay en-suite in a budget hotel here. This...more
Bahar Dar, Ethiopia
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