I was on a two week trip of the historic northern route in Ethiopia to see what all the lack of hype was about in this amazing country. Sure, I had heard good things about Ethiopia, but very infrequently, so clearly there must be very few tourists there – and as a seasoned traveller, I love not having to slalom my way through bumbling busloads of package tourists!
First stop was Addis Ababa, at 2600m the 3 highest capital in the world. I headed for the National Museum to give me a good start to Ethiopian history. But looking at all the amazing old and ornate royal crowns, clothing, furniture and military equipment it all seemed too European to me, and somehow it just did not compute. Were we not in Africa? Did they not, way back then, wear the latest in grass or skinwear? Obviously not.
Ethiopia is where the Ancient World once met Africa, and this meeting has left the country with a rich history – of Kings, Queens and castles, of centuries-old churches and monasteries filled with fresco paintings. Combine this with deliciously tasty food (influenced by spices from the nearby Arabian peninsula, hospitable people, and the best coffee in the world. I was having real difficulty getting my head around this one.
My happy confusion continued in Bahir Dar, a town on the edge of Lake Tana. We had buzzed across the large, peaceful lake in a small boat, to visit a couple of island monasteries. The monasteries were filled with brightly coloured fresco paintings and relics, like a 900-year-old chanting book, well-preserved and written on goatskin, and still in use today. Anywhere else they would have long since been pilfered by some treasure-hunting museum.
OK, so Ethiopia had a dynasty of Kings, but where did they live? In castles, of course! There is a whole compound of them in Gondar, known as the Royal Enclosure, around 400 years old, well-preserved and as good as any in Europe. Slowly it was starting to sink in with me that this really was where several roads did in fact once converge – with influences to be seen from Egypt, Europe, and the Middle East. Ethiopia seemed to be a fantastic mix.But the highlight was yet to come…
My midday flight left at 11 am (an hour before departure time – we were in Africa after all!) and had us flying across the beautiful green and gold patchwork barley, corn and wheat fields blanketing the high plateau, to Lalibela. Even the name is beautiful. Lalibela has what is considered to be the 8th unofficial wonder of the world – two clusters of rose-coloured rock-hewn churches, which were literally dug out of the rocky ground. Some of them are also elaborately decorated on the inside, with beautiful columns, archways and paintings – and all just carved right out of the ground (if you say it enough, you might just believe your eyes!) The two clusters of churches were commissioned by the King Lalibela in the 12th century so as to avoid the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year. (Fair enough. No comfy hiking boots back then). Probably the most famous one is Bet Giyorgis, because of its cross-shaped roof, set by itself into a slightly sloping hillside. Marvellous.
It was about now that it was sinking in with me that I had had assumptions about Ethiopia too – I had it expected it to be just another version of Africa. What I learnt though, is that Ethiopia is not at all like any African country I had been to. It is quite unique, it is Africa’s best-kept secret.