Ethiopia is an enchanting country whose delights are unknown to most travelers. And yet this is a truly unique destination with such attractions as can be found nowhere else in the world. The biggest draw is the rich Orthodox Christian heritage. Ethiopia was one of the very first nations to embrace Christianity, way back in the 4th century AD. The wonderful churches, monasteries, icons and relics to be found here is a reminder of the central role the Church has played in the history of the country. The painstaking effort summoned to produce some of these tokens of mans faith in God is very impressive, especially for non-believers.
Ethiopia is a very worthy destination and many connoisseurs consider it to be Africa's best-kept secret. Since so few outsiders come here, the tourist infrastructure is not well developed. But on the plus side, there are no crowds of visitors, unlike at other historical destinations such as Egypt. The Christian heritage aside, Ethiopia is blessed with an astonishing contrast of nature's gifts. This ranges from the heights of the jagged peaks of the Simien mountains- a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the bird filled rift valley lakes, to the under sea level lunarscape of the Danakil Depression.
Travelers have plenty of opportunities to enjoy mountain treks, caving, camping, sailing and white water rafting adventures. Though not as abundant as elsewhere in east Africa, there is plenty of wildlife, and 31 rare species are only found in Ethiopia. This is also one of Africa's great birding destinations and 861 species have been recorded of which 16 are endemic. Due to the relatively undeveloped tourist infrastructure, the best way to see the country is by buying a packaged Ethiopia tour.
Most overseas visitors will start off from Addis Ababa. Addis, as the city is popularly known is the capital city and home to Bole International Airport. The city rests at the foot of the Entoto Mountains. By Ethiopian standards, it is a new settlement and came into being in 1887. Addis Ababa means New Flower and its foundation is credited to Queen Taitu - consort to Menelik II. In Addis, make sure to visit the Ethnographic Museum and the National Museum. The Giorgis Cathedral, which was built in 1896 to commemorate victory over Italian invaders, is also worth a visit.
The Simien Mountains National Park is much favored by trekkers. The park has some of the scenic sights in the country. The mastiff reaches to 4620m, the highest point in the country. The park was created to protect the Walia Ibex, which is found only in Ethiopia. Other endemic animal species in the park are Gelada Baboon and Simen Fox. Bale Mountains in the southeast, though less accessible, has trekking opportunities and some wildlife including a few endemic species.
Awash National park is one of the finest and most accessible reserves in the country. The Awash River strides the park before heading to the Dankil depression where it vanishes, never to reach the sea. Some special attractions in the park include the Awash Falls, the dormant Fantale volcano and some thermal springs. Forty-six species of wildlife have been identified here and the bird life is prolific. The park is located just 211 km to the east of Addis.
You will obtain best value for your Ethiopia trip if you have at least an interest in the unique history of the country. The country claims a history going back 5,000 years, and there are Bible episodes mentioning Ethiopia that are dated at least 3,000 years ago. The colorful history is a blend of fact, legend, and tradition. Some incidents dearest to Ethiopians and which they use to affirm unique their place in the world, on close examination appear to be apocryphal. The legend that the Ark of the Covenant is housed in Axum is certainly controversial. But most of the history is almost certainly correct and remains unchallenged.
Despite earlier contact with the outside world, Ethiopia developed in relative isolation and was actually once known as the "Hidden Empire". As a result, some of the living culture is unique to the country and has origins dating back hundreds of years. The Ge'ez language used in most modern day church services derives from the Kingdom of Axum. Ge'ez alphabet has an amazing 231 letters. The country still uses the Julian calendar, which has 12 months of 30 days each and an additional month of 5 days, with 6 days in a leap year. Relative to the Gregorian calendar used in the west, Ethiopia is 7 years behind between 11th September and 8th January and 8 years for the rest of the year.
Festivals of the Orthodox Church are an ingrained part of popular culture. Timket, feast of Epiphany, is a colorful 3-day festival commemorating the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Meskal, celebrates the "finding of the true cross" upon which Jesus was crucified, by Empress Helana -mother to Constantine the Great. It is believed that a fragment of the True Cross is to be found in a monastery in Gishen Mariam. Meskal has been celebrated in the country for over 1600 years. Other Orthodox festivals include the Ethiopian New Year (Enkutatash) and Christmas (Lidet).
Though a friendly people, Ethiopians are fiercely independent and even today appear to distrust outsiders a little bit. This may appear justified when you consider that foreigners such as the British and Italians are guilty of looting historical relics. The Italians carried off to Rome a 150-tonne granite obelisk from Axum, when they occupied the country between 1936-41. Mussolini had sought a rematch of the 1896 defeat by Ethiopia that had greatly humiliated Italian patriots. The British had earlier in 1868 stolen priceless illuminated manuscripts, crowns, crosses, and other treasure. Ethiopia has been waging a campaign to have the artifacts returned.
Most of the historical treasures date from time King Azena of Axum converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD. The highlights of the "Historic Route" are Debre Libanos, Debre Markos, Bahar Dar, Gondar, Axum, Lalibela and Harar. You can reach these sites by air or car, or a combination of both. The route starts at Debre Libanos, 110 km from Addis Ababa. Here in the 13th century, Saint Tekle Haymanot performed a fantastic feat- he stood on one leg for 7 years! A cathedral marks the spot where this happened.
In 1937, during the Italian occupation, the monks of Debre Libanos annoyed the Fascist overlord who ordered the execution of 297 of them. If you are traveling by road, you can pause at Debre Markos, 305 km north of Addis to see the church of Markos with its beautiful paintings of Biblical scenes.
Bahar Dar is located on the shores of Lake Tana and is 560 km from Addis Ababa. The 3,000 sq km Lake Tana is Ethiopia's biggest and is the source of the Blue Nile. Just 30 km after leaving Lake Tana, over a maximum width of 400m, the Blue Nile drops over 45 m. The result is the phenomenon of the Blue Nile Falls, otherwise known to locals as Tississat or "Smoke of Fire". The falls are a spectacular sight and the spray mist produces rainbows and rainforest vegetation that forms a habitat to monkeys and many colourful birds.
Lake Tana has 37 islands, some of which harbor churches and monasteries. These buildings carry beautiful murals and paintings, remains of emperors, church crosses, icons, manuscripts, crowns and other articles of historical and cultural significance. Some of the monasteries such as Kebrane Gabriel preserve ancient customs and do not allow entry for women. You can break your historical tour by sailing on the Tana. Boats are available for hire at Bahar Dar. The lake is also a delight for bird watchers. Flights are available to Bahar Dar, and some reasonable quality hotels too.
Gondar is 748 km to the northwest of Addis and rests on the foothills of the majestic Simien Mountains. Founded by Emperor Fasilidas, it was the 17th century capital of Ethiopia. Noteworthy attractions here are the cathedrals, castles, and other imperial buildings that were built by Fasilidas and his succcessors. The architectural style combines Axumite, medieval European and Arabian influences. An Indian architect designed the most magnificent of them. For Cathedrals, the most impressive is the hilltop positioned Debre Berhan Selassie (Trinity Church of the Mountain of Light). The city declined after 1855 when Tewodros II removed his capital to Debre Tabor and was subsequently looted in the 1880's.
Axum, one of the key stops on the historical routes, dates back at least 2,000 years. The ancient city is particularly important in the history of the Orthodox Church, as it was the seat of King Azena when he converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD. Every year, the site known as Queen Sheba's bath is the focal point of the ceremony of Epiphany. Archeologist's think that the site and others such as Queen of Sheba Palace were merely named after the famous queen for the city had not been founded in her lifetime.
In its heyday, Axum was a vital and sophisticated kingdom that produced the written language that survives to this day known as Ge'ez. Though Axum is mostly identified with its trademark monolithic stelae, it has other important ruins such palaces and imperial tombs. The stelae were carved from single blocks of stone as markers of the burial places of kings. These were the biggest monolith structures ever made anywhere in the world. Out of the 11 identifiable large stelae, only one stands today at 24 m. In 1937, the Italian dictator Mussolini ordered one of the structures to be dismantled and raised again in Rome.
Axum is also known for the 17th century Cathedral of St Mary of Zion. Legend has it that the original Ark of the Covenant is housed here. The monks jealously guard this treasure and do not allow anybody to view it. This stand has led to much speculation that this object of immeasurable historical and religious value may not actually be in the hands of the monks of St Mary of Zion.
Lalibela is renowned for its marvelous 11 rock hewn churches built in the 12th century AD. The very devout King Lalibela commissioned them, not as monuments, but really as an act of worship. The churches were each carved from a single block of stone. Some are in trenches below ground; while others are built in open quarry caves. Legend has it that the churches were built with great speed because angels continued working the night shift while mortals slept. The result was truly magnificent and the very learned people at UNESCO have declared Lalibela a World Heritage Site. The churches are living monuments and are still in use today. Of all the historic attractions, Lalibela is the one you should not miss.
Harar, unlike other centres on the historic route is associated with Islam. The town with its city wall, towers and narrow streets has the feel of Arabian Nights about it. Founded in 1520, the city is 523 km to the east of Addis. It is an important centre of Islamic learning and has all of 99 mosques. Indeed it is believed to rank fourth in the ranking of holy cities of Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The first Muslims are said to have reached Ethiopia in the lifetime of prophet Mohamed. The city is also famous for its handicrafts, colorful woven baskets, and silverware. It was also once the home of the French poet Rimbaud.
If the evening finds you in Harar, you may witness a most bizarre spectacle courtesy of the so-called Hyena Men. With wild howls, these fearless men summon hyenas from the hills. They then get the ruthless scavengers to snatch pieces of meat from their hands or even their mouths!
In the east of the country towards the Dankil Depression and to the west near Sudan, the climate is very hot and dry. The central highland region is temperate, and nights can get chilly. Rains come twice a year- the rather irregular short rains from January to March and the long rains from June to September. The best time to visit Addis and the highlands region is the dry October - June period. The traveler is advised to dress very light in the lowlands and desert country. In the highland region, temperatures average 16'C and warmer clothing comes in handy at night and early morning.
Some Addis Ababa hotels are of international standard. A few other towns and locations on the Historical Route and other tourist attractions also offer reasonable accommodation. Unlike in other countries that receive many tourists, the budget traveler will find accommodation rates to be very reasonable.
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