LALIBELA – Rock-hewn Churches
Lalibela a strikingly singular town in Ethiopia is home to one of the world’s most astounding sacred sites:12th century eleven rock-hewn churches, each carved entirely out of a single block of granite with its roof at ground level.
No matter if you’ve visited other rock-hewn churches in the rest of the world; nothing will prepare you for these. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ever since the first European to describe the rock churches of Lalibela, Francisco Alvarez, came to this holy city between 1521 and 1525, travelers have tried to put into words their experiences. Praising it as a “New Jerusalem”, a “New Golgotha”, the “Christian Citadel in the Mountains of Wondrous Ethiopia”.
The inhabitants of the monastic township of Roha-Lalibela in Lasta, province of Wollo, dwelling in two storied circular huts with dry stonewalls, are unable to believe that the rock churches are entirely made by man. They ascribe their creation to one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, Lalibela, who reigned about 1200 A.D.
While You Tour in Lalibela village you will see the mountainous landscape of the region of Lasta, where the peasants labor to cultivate their patches of stony fields with the traditional hook-p lough. Strolling across a gently undulating meadow, you will suddenly discover in a pit below you a mighty rock – carefully chiseled and shaped -the first rock church.
None of these monuments of Christian faith presents itself to the visitor on top of a mountain as a glorious symbol of Christ’s victory, to be seen from far away by the masses of pilgrims on their road to the ‘Holy City’, they rather hide themselves in the rock, surrounded by their deep trenches, only to be discovered by the visitor when standing very close on top of the rock and looking downwards.
King Lalibela of the Zaghwe dynasty built a series of eleven rock hewn churches, carved into the rugged mountainsides.
The churches are carved below ground level and they are ringed by trenches and courtyards and connected to each other by a tangled maze of tunnels and passages. In size and scope, the church complex feels like a subterranean village. These churches are, and what they have been for at least 800 years, an active Christian shrine, and the spiritual centre of a town’s religious life. Lalibela would rightly be celebrated as one of the wonders of the world.
Tour to Lalibela mainly includes the churches divided in three main groups, one on each side of the river Jordan and one other church set apart from the rest.
The town of Roha-Lalibela lies between the first and the second group of churches. It is situated on the higher part of a mountain-terrace on a vast plateau of rock.
The most spectacular of which is Bet Giorgis (St. George’s). Located on the western side of the cluster of churches, it is cut 40 feet down and its roof forms the shape of a Greek cross.Unlike some of the other churches, St. George’s is plain inside. A curtain shields the Holy of Holies, and in front of it usually stands a priest displaying books and paintings to visitors. In the shadows of one fo the arms of the cruciform church is its tabot, or copy of the Ark of the Covenant. One explorer was allowed to open it and found it empty. No one was able to tell him what happened to its contents.
In the “Northern Group” across the main road from St. George, the most notable church is Beta Medhane Alem, home to the Lalibela Cross and believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. It is thought to be a copy of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.
Bete Medhane Alem is linked by walkways and tunnels to Beta Maryam (St. Mary’s), possibly the oldest of the churches. In the east wall of the church is an array of geometric carved windows in a vertical line. From the bottom up is: a Maltese cross in a square; a semi-circle shape like that on the Axum Stelae ( Axum Obelisk); a Latin cross; and a simple square window.
The windows illuminate the Holy of Holies in which the church’s copy of the Ark is placed. Other decorations include a Star of David combined with a Maltese cross, a Sun with a smiling human face flanked by eight-spoked wheels, Mary on a donkey accompanied by Joseph, and an Annunciation.
Next to Beta Maryam is Beta Golgotha, known for its artwork which includes life-sized carvings of saints on the walls. It is also home to the tomb of King Lalibela, over which stands a gold-draped Ark. The Western group is completed by the Selassie Chapel and the Tomb of Adam.
The “Eastern Group” includes:
• Bete Amanuel (possibly the former royal chapel);
• Bete Merkorios (which may be a former prison);
• Bete Abba Libanos; and
• Bete Gabriel-Rufael (possibly a former royal palace), linked to a religious bakery.
There are also several other churches in the vicinity: including the beautiful built up cave church of Yimrehane Kristos Church (from 11th century), the tiny rock church Arbatu Entzessa, Bilbala Gioris,Asheton Maryam,Nakuto Laab Cave Church , Genete Maryam and Much More .
At TIMKET (Ethiopian Epiphany. ca. January 19) a vivid ritual unfolds before the spectator: here the dances of the priests take place after the annual repetition of mass baptism in the river Jordan.
GONDOR – The Medieval Capital of Ethiopia
Gondar was founded by the Emperor Fasiledas in 1636 and was the capital of the country for the next two centuries.
The city’s main imperial precinct, known as the Royal Enclosure, covers an area of 7.7 hectares and contains five castles, raised walk ways and connecting tunnels surrounding by high stone walls build in the mid-17th & 18th century; it reflects a number of influences, Axumite, Portuguese and Indian.
Beside the royal enclosure, Visitors inspects the Bathing palace of Emperor Fasiladas, which is used for the annual Timket or Epiphany, celebration; the ruins of the palace and abbey, of the redoubtable 18th centuries Empress Mentewab at Quesquam ,the decorated church of Debre Berhan Selassie, which the walls and ceiling are completely covered in murals and the Felasha (Ethiopian Jews) village, though vacated by almost all of its Felasha occupants.
Visitors could make a day trip south to Gorgora, at the northern end of Lake Tana, and visit the very fine and recently restored medieval church of Debre Sina Mariam or a day trip or longer treks in to the awe-inspiringSimien Mountains National parks. (It is UNESCO’s World Heritage Site and Ethiopia’s popular hiking destination.)
AXUM– Civilization In Africa
The northern Ethiopia ancient city of Axum (Aksum), regarded as the cradle of Ethiopian culture and Christianity, is the country’s oldest extant urban settlement.
From around 200 BC to 700 AD, Axum was the seat of an empire that extended across the Red Sea to Arabia, traded with India and China, had its own alphabet and notational system, constructed great engineering works and dams was reckoned by the 4th century, Persian historian Mani to be one of the four great powers of the ancient world, along with China, Persia and Rome.
After its conversion to Christianity, early in the fourth century, Axum also emerged as an important religious center, site of the country’s most important and revered Church of St Mary of Tseyon, which, according to Ethiopian tradition, is the repository of the biblical Ark of the Covenant.
Axum Tourist Attractions
All that remains now of Axum’s past glories are the huge granite stelae (pillars), some fallen and some still perpendicular. Made of single blocks of granite, the tallest stood over 33 meters high – the largest monolith in the world.
The biggest now standing is 26 meters high that returned from Italy All three section of the 1,700-year old Axum obelisk has arrived back and re erected in Axum, 68 years after it was looted by Italian.
The 16th century Church of St Mary of Zion Church built on the site of Ethiopia’s first church and it is a chapel of the holiest Christian sanctuary in Ethiopia,
The Grave of King Kaleb and the Grave of King Gabre Meskel, the reputed Bath of the Queen of Sheba, and a Museum are other historical attractions in the town. The ruins a few kilometers out of town to the north were once the Palace of Sheba apparently.
The entrance stairs and floor plan are intact and the Palace had over 50 rooms. and Ethiopians believe that the church houses the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tables on which Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. Menelik is reputed to have brought it to Axum, along with 12,000 Jewish children.
The Chapel is constantly guarded by monks, and not even the President has sufficient authority to enter.
A visit to Axum can be extended to take in the 800 BC pre-Axumite temple at Yeha, 55 km east of Axum and a little further, the 7th century monastery at Debre Damo. (Women are not allowed to enter the latter, and the only access is by rope.) And the historical town of Adwa is among the several attractive sites that can be covered within a day excursion.
BAHIR DAR – Blue Nile Falls & Lake Tana’s Island Monasteries
BAHIR DAR is a pleasant city; situated on the southern shore of Lake Tana its streets are lined with palm trees and plants.
Bahir Dar is one of a popular stop for travelers making their way through Ethiopia, Lake Tana monasteries, Blue Nile Falls and the colorful daily Bahir Dar Market.
About 35 km from Bahir Dar, there is the Blue Nile Falls or Tis Abay (in Amharic) where waters of the Nile plunge over a cliff that is 50 meters long and 400 meters wide. Although much of the water is now diverted to a power dam, it is still a spectacular sight: smaller than Niagara Falls, but amazingly scenic.
Lake Tana is the primary reason that Bahir Dar exists. It is a huge lake – one of the largest in Africa and it feeds the Blue Nile River ( or Abay) which flows up to the White Nile and on to the Mediterranean with an area of 3600 km sq.
There are 37 islands dotted all over the lake and 30 of them house some of the world’s oldest churches and monasteries of great cultural and historical interest. They contain beautiful manuscripts, objects of worship and crosses dating back to 14 century and after.
In some of these monasteries, women are not allowed to enter. Be aware of the traditions and rules of the Ethiopian Orthodox church when you visit. Excursions boat trip is made from Bahir Dar to explore the islands monasteries of Lake Tana one of the famous and most frequently visited monastery is Ura Kidane Meret, has the largest church – a classic tukol style building which is round kind of looks like a yurt.
There is also an interesting small museum here that has ancient traditional instruments, cooking utensils and an interesting example of a beehive. Honey is a fairly large agricultural product here and it is very good! The inside of all of these monastery churches starts out with a hallway that goes all the way around the center which is enclosed (storing the replica of the ark). The walls of the enclosed part are covered with very colorful paintings all depicting a specific religious story
Bahir Dar grew around a Jesuit settlement, founded in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, from which time the Pedro Páez building dates. One of Emperor Haile Selassie’s palaces is located near the city, and the Emperor considered moving the national capital to the town. The palace is an impressive architectural work of its time. Facing Lake Tana it provides a beautiful, picturesque scene of the Blue Nile.
HARAR – The Fourth Holy city of Islam
HARAR is one of Ethiopian World Heritage Site located in east Ethiopia on a hilltop, in the eastern extension of the Ethiopian highlands five hundred kilometers from Addis Ababa with an elevation of 1885 meters.
Harar is an ancient walled city. Possessing as many as 99 Mosques, three of which date from the 10 th century and 102 shrines. Harar is considered to be the fourth holy city of Islam with Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. In Ethiopia as Axum was the window for Christianity, Harar is the same for Islam.
The wall of Harar is locally known as Jugol, The old city cramped within its ancient walls, the new extending freely. The walls are believed to have commenced by Ibn al Wazir Mujahid Nur, a nephew of Ahmed Gragn, who is said to have dug a defensive trench around the town in 16th century.
Beside the wall, the dominant features of the town are the traditional Harari house; the childhood home of late Emperor Haile Selassie; the exciting open market that presents medley of people and culture; the Rimbaud House named after the French poet who lived there in 1880 and the hyena-feeding ritual – where, after dark, the legendary Hyena Man feeds meat by hand – and mouth – to the wild hyenas that haunt the city’s fringes.
A half day excursion from Harar can be made to Babile Valley of Marvels, situated about 30km from Harar, which is noted for amazing rock formations.
Harar Jugol has been included in the World Heritage List in 2006 by UNESCO in recognition of its cultural heritage.
Harar is also famous for its distinctive, natural processed COFFEES which bear the same name.
Harar Attractions are The old town is home to 110 mosques and many more shrines, centered on Feres Magala Square. Notable buildings include Medhane Alem Cathedral, the house of Ras Mekonnen, the house of Arthur Rimbaud, and the sixteenth century Jami Mosque. The colorful Muslim Market and Christian Market. Harar Beer Stadium is the home stadium for the Harar Beer Bottling FC.
A long-standing tradition of feeding meat to Hyenas (HYENA MAN) is also an impressive night show for Tourists.
The Harar Brewery was established in 1984. Its beers can be sampled at the brewery social club adjacent to the brewery in Harar