Given the Internet struggles, here is a belated post on our tour through historical Ethiopia — Lalibela, Tigrai, Axum, and Gondar.
1st Stop: Lalibela
High in the Lasta mountains sits the ancient holy town of Lalibela. To get there is no easy task. The road from the closest town, Woldia, required slow driving on craggy terrain, and we had to stop our car every few hours to cool down the shocks. Once we arrived at this tucked away town, we searched around for a dinner and camp spot. After a few turns in town, we saw this magical place presiding over a cliff.
Not only does Ben Abeba serve some great fare (shepherd’s pie was a nice change from shiro), but the setting is surreal. Designed and built by 2 local Ethiopian architects, it’s at once modern and also uniquely local, and looks akin to a “witch’s hat.” And the roof view over the Ethiopian highlands was the perfect backdrop for a celebratory beer at sunset.
Partly because of the isolation, and partly because of a large devout following, the famous churches here are still active. Each morning, white robed worshippers glide into the chapels, hands clutching knotted wooden staffs and tattered Bibles. When you enter the church sites, you can’t help but lower your voice down to a whisper amongst the praying priests and nuns.
13 churches are spread around Lalibela, each unique in shape and style. Some monolithic, some carved into caves. Some tower above you — Bet Giyorgis is close to 15m in height. Others are small, compact, and reachable only via a pitch-black underground tunnel 50m in length. (They say it’s symbolic as the journey through hell…)
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2nd Stop: Rock-hewn Tigrai
After Lalibela, we set our sights on Mekele, the northern Afar city from where all Danakil Depression tours are based. Sadly, the tour company we confirmed with showed up at our hotel, hands in pockets, to say our tour was cancelled. With Margot leaving just a few days later, we sought a back-up plan. The rock-hewn churches in remote Tigrai sounded intriguing, and a day later we jetted off to Hawzien!
The first church on our itinerary was Debre Maryam Korkor, a reputedly 4th century monastic church 2,480m high and an hour’s hike away from the ground. One notable part of the journey: a 60 degree rock face, where you scramble up with footholds and handgrips. Special thanks for my guide, Alex, who essentially hauled me up.
A short walk away from Debre Maryam Korkor is Debre Daniel Korkor, a small cave church with only two rooms with stunning views of the valley below.
The real gem of the trip, however, was Abuna Yemata Guh. As Bradt guide describes, “the most spectacularly situated rock-hewn church anywhere.” The church is carved into the top of a rock pillar, maybe 2,000m high. After hiking for the better part of an hour, we reached a sheer rock face. 90 degrees straight up, and in some small parts, even more. The footholds and handgrips into the rock are irregular, and at times, bigger than my arm span. No ropes, no safety net, just the knowledge that if you freeze or slip, it’s straight down onto hard rock.
But the rewards were more than worth the effort. A rarely visited 4th century church, dangerously high and reachably only via a small crack in the rock pillar, Abuna Yemata is undoubtedly a highlight of our trip.
3rd Stop: Axum
For the most ancient Ethiopian capital, and a holy city for the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Axum is a bit underwhelming at first glance. But the city is rich in history and steeped with legends of the Holy Grail.
The Axum Museum is probably the best museum we’ve seen since South Africa, and houses a 700-year-old leather Bible, numerous rock tablets inscribed with Egyptian, Greek, and Ge’ez, and partially excavated tombs.
The main stelae field, unmissable upon passing, consists of roughly 75 stelae erected over the tombs of kings and nobility. These solid blocks of granite up to 23m high, carved with doors and windows, date back to the 3rd-4th century A.D. and are miraculously well-preserved given their age. The highest, which would have been 33m high, lies where it fell soon after erected.
We were also free to explore the tombs and their underground vaults and burial chambers below.
4th Stop: Gondar
Given Eugene and I have spent time in Gondar last year on our trek through Simien Mountains, we didn’t stay long. After a quick pit stop for a bite and fuel fill-up, we were officially on our way to Sudan!