An ancient land of fertile well-watered mountains that form the main source of the Blue Nile, northern Ethiopia has long stood at the cultural crossroads of Africa, Arabia and the Mediterranean. These divergent influences have bequeathed the region a unique cultural and historical heritage epitomized by a quartet of unique and magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Aksum, Lalibela, Gondar and the Simien Mountains National Park - as well as a vast array of lesser-known but equally fascinating historical sites.
Eastern Ethiopia is a land of astonishing geographic extremes. In the far northeast, the austere lavascapes and salt-flats plunges to 116m below sea level in the Danakil. Further south, the Bale Mountains rise to above 4,300m and support a wealth of highland wildlife including Ethiopian wolves and mountain nyala. Tempering these climatic extremes, are lush well-watered mid-altitude slopes swathed in lovely crater lakes, unexplored montane forests, Harenna Forest, and the historic city of Harar, the spiritual heart of the predominantly Muslim inhabitants of Ethiopia’s exotic east.
The temperate and well-watered ‘New Flower’ founded by Emperor Menelik II at the close of the 19th century, Addis Ababa is world’s third-highest capital city, set at the base of the Entoto Hills, and the diplomatic capital of Africa, having served as the headquarters of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) since its inception in 1963. A cosmopolitan modern city steeped in ancient Ethiopian traditions, it boasts world-class tourist amenities and a lively nightlife, yet it also offering access to some fine museums, atmospheric old churches, and lush montane forests and other green areas.
Western Ethiopia is an underpublicized wildlife-lover’s paradise, where colobus monkeys swing though roadside trees, elephants and buffalos lurk in forest glades, and an alluring bird checklist includes many forest endemics along with the spectacular shoebill and Egyptian plover. Nourished by a plentiful rainfall throughout the year, the loamy fertile soils of its lushly forested slopes are the natural home of the arabica coffee bean and the origin of the world’s favorite hot brew - which still remains the region’s main export crop.
Misty highland meadows and tall escarpment forests make up much of Southern Ethiopia, but the region is also incised by the gaping kilometre-deep tectonic scar we know as the Great Rift Valley, its acacia-swathed floor dotted with beautiful lakes renowned for their diverse profusion of birds. The ethnic diversity of this astonishing region embraces modern cities such as Hawassa and Arba Minch, but also the walled hilltop warrens of the Konso Cultural Landscape, the remote tribes of South Omo, the singing wells of the desert-dwelling Borena, towering Dorze homesteads and thousand year old island monasteries.
The oldest continuously-inhabited city in sub-Saharan Africa, Aksum was founded more than 3,000 years ago in the days of the Queen of Sheba. It served as capital of the Aksumite Kingdom, which was the dominant trade entity in the Horn of Africa for over a millennium prior to the rise of Islam, stretching from the Sudanese Nile across the Red Sea to Yemen. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, Aksum today is replete with towering obelisks, ruined palaces, engraved tablets and other ancient artefacts dating back to its glory days.
The 120-odd rock-hewn churches that grace Tigrai - most of them in active use and with their own oral traditions - were described by academic Ivy Pearce as “the greatest of the historical-cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people”.
Though less well known than their counterparts at Lalibela, the Tigraian churches mostly predate them, and some might even date back to the 4th century.
Of the 30 churches concentrated along the sandstone Gheralta Escarpment, Abuna Abraham Debre Tsion is an atmospherically cathedralesque 6th century excavation, while YohannesMaikudi and Debre Maryam Korkor are decorated with fine 17th century murals. But the undisputed jewel of Gheralta is Abuna YemataGuh, a small but very beautifully painted church carved into a tall perpendicular sandstone pinnacle and accessed by a cliff face suited only to those with a head for heights.