This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
I have yet to travel to anywhere quite like Ethiopia, and suspect I never will. It is Africa’s historical highlight, home to medieval castles and amazing religious art and architecture, sprinkled with the evocative leftovers of a brief period of Italian colonial rule. It is even, if legend is to be believed (and many locals do), the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. The country may be vast, but it is an easy place to travel around.
A journey to Ethiopia inevitably reveals the richness of the country’s history. A skeleton of an early hominid, dubbed Lucy, is on display in the National Museum in Addis Ababa. From here travellers can wander through millennia of little-known heritage: the mysterious stelae of the Aksumite empire (which flourished from the 2nd to 9th centuries AD), Ethiopian Christianity’s unique legacy and centuries of lively imperial history.
Ethiopia was the only African state to have stood alone from European colonisation – until Italian occupation in the 1930s. That brief period also left its mark on the country in the form of a still-discernible Italian architectural influence.
It was the Ark legend that first drew me to Ethiopia, through reading Graham Hancock’s book The Sign and the Seal, a pseudo-historical page-turner devoted to his search for the ancient relic. His travels round Ethiopia climaxed with an encounter with the enigmatic monk guarding the treasure in Aksum, the northern city where the Ark is said to reside. This adventure inspired my own first visit, which set out to retrace his footsteps. I ended up, as usual, wandering far off course.
It was divertingly easy to do so. Though road transport remains slow, internal flights with Ethiopian Airlines are efficient and excellent value. In a fortnight it is easy to explore many of the country’s highlights – just don’t expect two weeks to be any more than an introduction to this fascinating place.
Addis Ababa is most people’s first introduction to Ethiopia, and it is every inch the modern African capital city. The centre of the country since the late 19th century, it was chosen for its climate and beautiful location. Alongside the chaos of everyday life – buzzing minivans plying for trade and one of Africa’s largest open air markets – are a fine selection of museums and galleries and a lively nightlife including a wonderful music scene. Regular calls of ‘ferenji’ (foreigner) leave the overseas visitor in little doubt that they are in an alien land. It is all good-natured and Ethiopians are proud of their heritage, and highly welcoming.
It is when leaving Addis, however, that Ethiopia begins to reveal itself, and to take a flight north into green, hilly territory is to step back in time. To the north of the capital are found four main historical centres: Lake Tana’s island monasteries, Gonder’s surreal Arthurian castle, Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches and Aksum’s under-rated ancient remains – and that Ark. Everywhere you’ll find traditional and distinctive Ethiopian artwork depicting historical and religious scenes. Much of it is painted in a colourful folk style that’s enjoyable and slightly eccentric.
Lalibela is unquestionably the highlight, partly for the incongruity of the place. On arrival you find yourself in an unremarkable highland market town, mainly notable for the beautiful mountains around it. Then you see the 11 churches dating from the late 12th and early 13th century; some plain, others rich in detail, all surrounded by Ethiopian Orthodox hermit monks squirrelled in niches, the smell of incense in the air. The largest and finest church, Bet Giorgis, is surely one of the wonders of the world, and is approached so your feet are level with its roof. It is impossible not to be awed. Beyond Lalibela are more noteworthy ancient churches, rewarding those who trek into surrounding hills and grassy uplands.
Ethiopia’s Islamic heritage, which dates back to the earliest decades of the faith, is best understood by heading to neighbouring Djibouti. To the south of Djibouti (and in eastern Ethiopia) is Harar, the fourth holiest city in the Islamic world. It’s quite a journey to reach this fascinating walled city but it’s worth the effort. Here tiny, timeless mosques are everywhere – one even built inside a tree. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived here in the 1880s, first as a trader and then as a gun-runner, and an excellent museum, in an Indian merchant house, bears his name.
Like all the best historical destinations, the visitor to Ethiopia is lured back by what they didn’t have a chance to see first time around. For me, the remote mountain churches of the Tigray region, 19th-century battlegrounds and the wild Danakil Depression – a vast desert basin that was home to nomadic salt traders for millennia – all remain to be explored.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
It’s best to avoid the June to October wet season, but any other time is generally warm and dry. January’s Timkat (epiphany) celebrations are an exciting time to be in Lalibela and Goner.
Best-value flights are usually via the Arabian peninsula on one of the national carriers. Direct flights through Ethiopian Airlines and British Airways are also available.
What to pack
Arm and leg-covering clothes are useful as you tour religious sites, as is a sun hat and a pullover for chilly nights at altitude.
What to bring back
Ethiopia’s crafts are as unique and varied as the country itself, and you’ll find fine earthenware art for sale wherever you visit, most notably Addis Ababa’s sprawling Merkato. A simple coffee pot as used in homes across Ethiopia makes for an affordable and distinctive gift.
Read up on the UK government’s travel advice before you go at: gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/ethiopia
Tom Hall is editorial director for Lonely Planet.com and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine. Read more about Tom’s experiences in northern Ethiopia at historyextra.com/ethiopia