The fastest way around the Historic Route is by air, using Ethiopian Airlines domestic flights, but this means missing out on northern Ethiopia’s beautiful and dramatic scenery. All this routing can be done by bus, rather than a 4×4, making it an economical way to travel for groups.
In this trip we incorporate the main sights on the historic route, some of the rock hewn churches of Tigray, two of Ethiopia’s famous markets, and the Simien Mountains.
If people are not so interested, we could drop the markets, and if there are time constraints, we could drive straight from Mekele to Axum, dropping Hauzien and the rock hewn churches of Tigray.
If people do want to take in the markets, departure from USA/Europe should be on a Friday, to make the markets on Sunday and Monday.
Or we can do the circuit clockwise, through Bahir Dar, and plan so we get to Kombolcha on a Sunday night, to visit Bati Market on Monday.
If so, we should overnight at the very attractive lodge at Ankober. Or we could drive down into the Afar Region, through Bati. From there we could drive to Harer.
Essentially, like any itinerary, this is a guide and a suggestion – it is not written in stone, but can be altered and adapted to fit the interests and schedules of our visitors.
Day 1: Depart USA/Europe.
Day 2 (Sat): Arrive Addis Ababa approximately 0700 Saturday morning. After clearing customs etc, transfer to Sheraton/Hilton/Jupiter Hotel (or any other hotel of your choice), and rest of morning at leisure. (NB To ensure immediate check in, it will be necessary to book from the day before.) After lunch we will embark on our city tour. First we drive north up to Mount Entoto. In 1881 Emperor Menelik II made his permanent camp there, after remains of an old town (believed to have been the capital of 16th century monarch Lebna Dengel) were discovered, which Menelik took as a divine and auspicious sign. Addis Ababa at between 2300 – 2500 meters is the third highest capital in the world and Entoto is a few hundred meters higher – as we drive up the hill there is an appreciable drop in temperature and the air is filled with the scent of the Eucalyptus trees which line the road.
From the top, there is a panoramic view of the capital and surrounding countryside. Our guide will point out the city’s major landmarks. Entoto is an important watershed; to the north, water flows to the Blue Nile and the Mediterranean Sea, to the south, to the Awash River and on to Djibouti. Your guide will point out the important landmarks of the city.
Entoto was soon abandoned as a site for the capital – it was cold, difficult to provision and there was a shortage of wood. Empress Taytu was said to have led the move down to the plain of Finfine, and to have named the new capital Addis Ababa, or New Flower. However, two important structures remain within the old imperial compound on Entoto, the churches of Mariam and the Archangel Raguel. It was in the church of Mariam that Menelik was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1889, and in the small museum in the compound there are various clothes, court and household implements and weapons dating from the period. The church of Raguel is unusual in that it is octagonal, rather than round. There is a first story balustrade around which Menelik liked to stroll.
Leaving the churches we descend to Addis Ababa, stopping off at the National Archaeological Museum. Here visitors can see exhibits ranging from the 3.5 million-year-old bones of Lucy, from the Axumite and Gondarene periods through to the period of the monarchs Tewodros and Menelik II.
We now return to our hotel. After a long flight and with an early start the next day, visitors will probably feel like taking an early night. o/n Jupiter Hotel
Day 3 (Sun): We have a busy day today, so should get on the road early. Pick up from the hotel is at 0630, since today we plan to see one of Ethiopia’s great markets at Senbete. It is about 275 km to Senbete or about 4 hours’ drive up the main road north, the Asmara or Dessie road. There is spectacular mountain scenery en route. The road out of Addis Ababa leads up, and we will be able to see the land falling away to our right, to the lowlands and the Awash Valley. Some 130 km from Addis Ababa, we will pass through Debre Berhan. The great Emperor Zera Yaqob (1434 – 1468) made his imperial capital here, after seeing a “heavenly light” (almost certainly Haley’s comet), which he took as a divine sign. Later rulers abandoned the town but once again it became an important centre under the Shoan kings, notably King Sahle Selassie (1813 – 1847). However, it was largely destroyed in 1855, when Emperor Tewodros advanced into Shoa. Emperor Menelik made it his capital for a period, before shifting to Entoto and Addis Ababa.
In the town itself, visitors might like to buy the woolen hats worn by shepherd boys, and carpets with the designs characteristic of the area. To the east there is the road to another former imperial capital – Ankober, which used to command the very important trade route between the eastern lowlands and the Showan plateau. There is now a very attractive lodge here, built in the style of the 19th century palaces, but with 21st century plumbing!
We pass through two tunnels built during the Italian occupation (1935-41) at Tarma Ber and Debre Sina. We should ignore temptations to stop and admire the view and aim to get to Senbete the market before it gets hot, and before the other shoppers imbibe too much local beer (tela), honey wine (tej) and home distilled spirits (kati kala)! Markets in Ethiopia are not only about buying and selling, but are major social occasions, where people meet and exchange information. Once the business is done, the socializing begins.
Senbete market is a place where the highlands and lowlands meet, and brings together different ethnic groups: the Afar from the lowlands (with their camels and distinctive knives), the Oromo, the Amhara, Gurage and Argoba. Visitors can buy different kinds of crafts, jewelry, baskets and woven materials.
The Argoba, incidentally, claim to be descendents of the first Muslims to arrive in Ethiopia (they fled from Saudi Arabia before Islam was established there) and there are a number of ancient mosques off the main road.
We arrive at Kombolcha late afternoon and check into the Sunnyside Hotel. (Driving time about 7 – 8 hours.)
Day 4 (Mon): A short distance from Kombolcha is the famous Bati Market, which takes place every Monday. Like Senbete but bigger, and is where the highlands and lowlands meet and trade. A variety of ethnic groups from the highlands – Amharas, Tigrayans, Oromos, Argoba and Gurage – meet with the Afar who inhabit a large stretch of land from Messawa in Eritrea, down the Red Sea Coast, inland to the Danakil depression and down to Awash.
We could visit this market, or if Senbete was enough, we could push on to Lalibela. If we forego Bati, we will arrive in Lalibela before lunch.
Between Kombolcha and Dessie the rod zigzags in a series of hair pin bends.
On our way to Woldiya we pass through the small town of Wuchale, where in 1896 Emperor Menelik II and the Italians signed an agreement about their border in the north. Differing interpretations led to a further outbreak of hostilities and the battle of Adwa later that year.
At Woldiya there is a road running west to Bahir Dar, named the Chinese Road after its builders. From this road we will turn north at a small village called Bete Hor
for Lalibela. We should arrive at our hotel, Mountain View Hotel/Tukul Village/ Jerusalem Guest House, either late morning, or if we visit Bati, mid to late afternoon.
We could start our tour of Lalibela’s churches this afternoon, or simply take a walk through the village of Lalibela, postponing our tour of the sites until the following day.
In Lalibela, as part of an initiative undertaken by Ethiopian Quadrants, local hoteliers and the Guides’ Association, we can arrange visits to a typical farm. The guide can explain issues relating to farm work and the daily life of people engaged in agriculture. The fee for visiting goes to the farmer and his family.
As part of the same initiative, we can also arrange cookery classes in Ethiopian cuisine.
We would like to set these up in advance of your visit.
There are vibrant traditional music houses in Lalibela, with musicians and singers playing without amplifiers or microphones. You could sample honey wine, or tej, and will be encouraged to join in with the dancing! (Driving time about 4 – 5 hours) o/n Mountain View Hotel/Tukul Village/ Jerusalem Guest House.
Day 5 (Tues): At the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries King Lalibela of the Zaghwe dynasty built a series of rock hewn churches – the New Jerusalem as he called it – now rightly acknowledged to be one of the wonders of the world. There are 11 churches in the town named after him, with others in the surrounding countryside. All are still in use today.
It is estimated that the churches took 25 years to construct – for the Kingdom based on Roha (later renamed Lalibela) to have kept a large work force engaged in economically unproductive labour for such a long period means that it disposed of a large economic surplus and was very wealthy. The area then was clearly fertile and agriculturally productive, whereas now deforestation and other forms of ecological degradation have reduced its productivity and made it prone to drought.
We will start our tour of the first group of churches, returning to the hotel for lunch, and continuing the tour of the second group of churches in the afternoon. (The churches are divided into two groups, the division being the River Yordanos or River Jordan.) Dinner in the hotel. Mountain View Hotel/Tukul Village/ Jerusalem Guest House.
Day 6 (Wed): After breakfast we set off on mule or on foot to the church of Ashetun Mariam, about 4 hours round trip. There are wonderful views from the top of the mountain where the church is located. If visitors prefer a shorter journey, we can go a shorter distance to the cave church of Neakuto Leab.
In the afternoon we set off for the cave church of Yemrehane Christos, built by the king of the same name before the reign of King Lalibela. The church is constructed inside a cave, in Axumite style, similar to the church at Debre Damo, with alternating levels of wood and stone. A 40 km trip from Lalibela followed by a 20 minute hike brings you to this beautiful church, much finer than that of Neakuto Leab. o/n Mountain View Hotel/Tukul Village/ Jerusalem Guest House.
Day 7 (Thurs): After breakfast we continue our journey north, driving first to the town of Kobo on the main North – South road. We pass through the fertile Rayan plains and after the small town of Alamata the road ascends rapidly in a series of steep curves and hair pin bends to the town of Korem. There are spectacular views from the top. After Korem there is the attractive Lake Hashenge, fringed by mountains. At Maichew we could stop for lunch in a local restaurant. Maichew is the zonal capital and was the scene of the last set piece battle between Mussolini’s forces and the Ethiopian army – after this the Ethiopians resorted to guerrilla tactics.
The small town of Adi Shihu sits at the feet of the great mountains of Amba Alage, a key passage for invading armies throughout Ethiopian history. There were battles here in 1896, 1936 and in 1989-90 in the war against Mengistu’s regime. From the top of Amba Alage there are stunning views. As we descend the northern slopes of Amba Alage, and travel north, the land becomes more arid. The small village of Hiwane marks a difference in the style of house construction between southern and northern Ethiopia, a shift from mud and sticks to stone. The ancient Axumites were great builders and masons, and their influence can still be seen in house construction and design today.
At Quiha we turn west to the Tigrayan Regional Capital, Mekele. Quiha is where the main regional airport is situated, and was originally a military town. On our way down to Mekele we will pass Inda Yesus, a military base under the Italians and under the Mengistu regime, now more appropriately a university, with one department specialising in the agricultural problems of arid zones.
We should arrive at our hotel, the Axum/Planet late afternoon/early evening, dinner in the hotel. (Driving time about 7 – 8 hours.) o/n Planet International/Axum Hotel.
Day 8 (Fri): Mekele was established in the 13th century and in the 19th century Emperor Yohannes IV made it his capital. After breakfast, we visit Bait Yohannes, once the castle and home of Emperor Yohannes and now a museum, then we continue on our journey north. Climbing out of the valley where Mekele is situated, the road reaches a kind of plateau at Mai Mukden. Further north the small town of Agula was and to a lesser extent still is and important entrepot for the salt trade from the Afar depression. Amole or bars of salt once constituted a form of currency in Ethiopia.
The first major town we pass through is Wukro, about 60 km from Mekele. From here roads east and west lead to rock hewn churches – there are more than 120 rock hewn churches in Tigray, a few of which still have not been visited by non-Ethiopians. We could stop here to visit one near the road, Cherkos, which local tradition dates to the 4th century.
In recent years there have been a number of significant archaeological finds near Wukro, including the discovery of a temple altar dated to 900 BC. Germany has funded the building of a museum in the town.
Along the route we can see extensive terracing work carried out on local hillsides, part of huge environmental rehabilitation efforts carried out by the regional government, local communities and the local indigenous NGO, Relief Society of Tigray. These efforts include re-afforestation, area closures (to stop grazing), small dams and water catchments.
North of Wukro is the historically interesting site of Hamad al-Negash. The early followers of the prophet Mohammed, facing persecution in Mecca from the Quraysh, in 615 sought and were granted asylum by the King of that part of Ethiopia, whom the Arabs called Negash al-Habeshat. This first group was joined later by another 100 refugees, including the prophet’s daughter Ruquyya, his future wives Umma Habiba and Umma Salama, and his cousin Ja’afar Abu Talib. When asked by the rulers of Mecca to return the exiles, the Ethiopian king refused, “even if offered a mountain of gold”. The generosity and principled behaviour of the king impressed the Prophet Mohammed to such an extent that he exempted Ethiopia from Jihad – Holy War. The remains of King Negash (who according to Muslim tradition converted to Islam) and those of the exiles who chose to remain in Ethiopia are buried in the compound of the Mosque.
Looking west from Hamad al-Negash, we can see a church perched right on the peak of a mountain.
At Sinkata, we turn west towards Hauzien and Gheralta Lodge. (We could equally turn west at Wukro and visit the church of Abreha wa Atsbaha en route to Gheralta Lodge. This lodge is built incorporating the building style of the area, and offers great food, with the stunning scenery of the Gheralta mountains as a back drop.
There are many churches in the vicinity, some (such as Abune Yemata, or Goh, and Mariam Korkor) should only be visited by those with a good head for heights, while others are more accessible. The lodge can provide information – to read up in advance, the Bradt Guide to Ethiopia has a good chapter on the Tigrayan churches. (Driving time about 3-4 hours). Gheralta Lodge.
Day 9 (Sat): We will spend today visiting churches in the vicinity of the lodge, such as Abreha Wa Atsbaha, and Dugum Selassie. The local council at Abreha Wa Atsbaha has won UN awards for it work on environmental rehabilitation. o/n Gheralta Lodge.
Day 10 (Sun): After breakfast we set off for Axum. We pass through Adigrat, an important regional centre, a trade hub on the routes north, south, and west to Axum and the Sudan. It is noted for its fine climate, the quality of its mes or tej (honey wine), and the regional culinary speciality, tehlo , balls of barley dipped into a spicy sauce, which is eaten with a wooden fork. It was an important centre for Catholic missionaries and has a fine Cathedral.
Continuing on our journey, to the right of the road is the 7th century monastery of Debre Damo, where the only access is by rope up a 17 metre ascent. It is only open to men, so whether we visit depends on the make up of the group. Soon one of the most dramatic landscapes in Ethiopia will come into view, “the teeth of Adwa” – the jagged mountain scenery in the vicinity of Adwa, where the invading Italian forces were defeated by Emperor Menelik II in 1896.
Shortly before Adwa we will turn left off the main road to visit the pre-Axumite temple at Yeha. Dating to perhaps the 8th century BC, Yeha marks the site of Ethiopia’s earliest known settlement and is sub Saharan Africa’s oldest building. The temple was dedicated to Il-Muqeh, the moon god. In the same compound as the temple is the church of Abune Aftse, one of the “9 Saints”, who did much to spread Christianity throughout Ethiopia.
Near Adwa is the monastery of Abba Gerima, a Byzantine monk, and among the many treasures stored there are two illuminated gospels. The monks and local people have always maintained that these were written by Abba Gerima himself, while non Ethiopian historians gave a later date, at around the 10th or 11th century. However recent radiocarbon dating carried out at Oxford University has confirmed a date between AD 390 and AD 570 for Garima 2, likely the earlier of the two gospel books, making them the earliest surviving dated Christian illuminated manuscripts.
We continue to Axum for an overnight at the Yared Zema Hotel. (Driving time about 4-5 hours.) o/n Yared Zema Hotel.
Day 11 (Mon): From around 200 BC to 700 AD, Axum was the seat of an Empire which 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 and which was reckoned by the 3rd century Persian historian Mani to be one of the four great powers of the ancient world, along with Persia, China and Rome. Today the visitor can see stelae (the largest single pieces of stone erected anywhere – how they were brought from the quarry 4 km away and erected is still not fully understood), the tombs and castles of kings, Axum Museum and Mariamtsion Church, built on the site of Ethiopia’s first church. A chapel within the church compound is believed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to house the Ark of the Covenant, or the original tablets of Moses (see Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal).
We start our tour with a visit to the newly constructed museum, immediately behind the stellae.
We then ascend the hill to the east to see the castle and tomb of King Kalab, passing on the way Mai Shum (or the bath of the Queen of Sheba), and also the stone on which is carved exploits of the Axumite kings in three languages, Ge’ez, Himyar (from Yemen) and Greek.
Coming back into town we will see the tomb of King Basen, whom Orthodox Ethiopians believe was one of the three Magi who brought presents to the infant Jesus. We could break for lunch here, either in town or back at the hotel.
We then proceed to the grounds the grounds of Mariamtsion Church, we can see the ruins of the old church, and the stone seats of judges.
Inside the grounds we will visit the small museum (women are not allowed inside, nor into the 17th century church built by Emperor Fasilides, but the priests usually bring out some crowns of kings for women visitors to see), and end the day with a visit to the site known locally as Queen Sheba’s Palace, although in fact it is of a later date, the villa of an Axumite notable from around the 1st century AD. Yared Zema Hotel
Day 12 (Tues): We set off early on the road to Gondar. We drive first west, then turn south at Enda Selassie or Shire as it more widely known, skirting the Simien mountains to the east. In the past this area was “shifta” or bandit country. Shifta were often rebels against feudal lords, and there are many traditional songs about them. We descend to the Tekezze Gorge, and then steadily ascend, passing through clouds at different stages throughout the day. We descend to the Tekezze Gorge, and then steadily ascend, passing through clouds at different stages throughout the day. (The Takezze is a tributary of the Nile, becoming the Atbara when it enters Sudan.) The ascent from the Takezze, first built by the Italians during their brief occupation (1935-41) has recently been rebuilt, and is considered a major feat of engineering.
At many stages throughout the day there are marvellous vistas of the Simiens – great photo stops, but we will see better tomorrow. Late in the afternoon we will arrive at Debark, and after paying our park entrance fees and picking up a scout, we drive to the Simien Lodge, some 20 km inside the park. (Driving time about 7-8 hours.) o/n Simien Lodge
Day 13 (Wed): A UNESCO World Heritage Site since the late 1960s, the Simien Mountains National Park presents perhaps the most dramatic scenery in Africa – great volcanic plugs, formed some 40 million years ago and eroded over the aeons into fantastic crags, pinnacles and flat topped mountains, “the chess pieces of the Gods”, as one writer described them, tower over precipitous gorges, river valleys and plains stretching all the way to Eritrea. There are many peaks over 4000 metres, and Ras Dashen at 4620 metres is the highest in the country and the fourth highest in Africa.
In the Simiens visitors can see the endemic Gelada or bleeding heart baboon, the Walia Ibex, the Simien Wolf (the rarist canid in the world) and rock hyrax, and endemic birds such as the Thick billed Raven, Black headed Siskin, White Collared Pigeon, Wattled Ibis, White billed Starling, Spot breasted Plover and White backed Black Tit. Cruising Lammergeyers are often seen.
The park is also famous for its Afro-Alpine flora, meadows and grasslands punctuated by Giant Lobelia and flowering Red Hot Pokers.
Today we can hike around Sankaber – where we will see plenty of Gelada baboons or drive further into the park, up to around Chenek, where we should see Walyas, both animals being endemic to Ethiopia. These days there are more sightings of the endemic Simien Wolf, the world’s rarest canid.
We leave the park after lunch, and should arrive in Gondar mid to late afternoon, when we check into the Goha Hotel which is situated on a mountain overlooking the city. From the hotel terrace, guests can see magnificent sunsets and occasionally swooping Lammergeyer vultures, with their 3 metre wing span. (Driving time, about 3-4 hours) o/n Goha Hotel
Day 14 (Thurs): After breakfast we start our city tour. Gondar was the imperial capital from the 17th to mid 19th centuries, and today visitors can see the imperial compound, with castles still in good condition (some recently restored) and the bath of King Fasilides, where at Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany) a nearby river is diverted to fill an area the size of a small swimming pool. Worshippers plunge into the cold water in a re-enactment of the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. We can take a break here for lunch in the hotel.
Although many of Gondar’s churches were destroyed during the Mahdist invasion from Sudan in the 1880s, one very fine example, Debre Berhan Selassie, was saved, according to the legend, by a swarm of bees. The walls and ceiling are completely covered with murals. We end our tour with a visit to the ruined palace of Queen Mentowab, and the church of Qusquam.
Later in the afternoon we will visit the former Felasha (Ethiopian jews) village at Wolleka, to buy some of the characteristic pottery sold there. (Most of the Felasha or Bait Israel as they prefer to be called, were taken to Israel in the 1980s).
Gondar is a great place for experiencing the Ethiopian tradition of azmari music, where a couple of wandering minstrels, a girl with a strident voice clapping in time to the music accompanied by a man playing a single stringed violin or masinqo, entertain their listeners with songs about life, the world and their audience. Currently the best place is the Belageru. A good place for dinner is the Four Sisters, run by four sisters! o/n Goha Hotel.
Day 15 (Fri): We leave by road for Bahir Dar, a distance of about 180 km or 3 hours’ drive, there is attractive scenery en route as the road skirts the lake.
Bahir Dar is an attractive town, well laid out with tree lined avenues and with the blue of the lake in the background.
On arrival we check into the Kuriftu Lodge and Spa, situated on the shores of Lake Tana. 68 km wide and 73 km long, Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake and is dotted with islands, on many of which are found churches and monasteries.
We take lunch in the hotel and then leave by boat for the Zeghie Peninsula, which is known for its 14th century, round, grass roofed churches and their magnificent wall murals. We visit two churches, Betra Mariam and Ura Kidane Mehret, walking through dense forest with lots of bird life, before returning to our hotel.
Bahir Dar has several clubs and bars where visitors can see traditional and modern Ethiopian music and dancing, and is also quite safe for wandering around at night. o/n Kuriftu Lodge and Spa.
Day 16 (Sat): We check out and leave for the Blue Nile Falls. There is a 40 minute drive, followed by a 20 minute walk to the Falls, which are at their most spectacular during and after the rainy season (from about June to January). Here the Blue Nile, which contributes 85% of the main Nile flow, starts its long journey to the Mediterranean.
We return to Bahir Dar and set off of the road back to Addis Ababa. We will be making no major stops, and should arrive in the town of Debre Markos late afternoon. o/n Gozamen Hotel.
Day 17 (Sun): This morning we will descend around 1000 metres into the Blue Nile Gorge, ascending the same distance on the other side. If we leave early enough, we could stop for a quick visit to the monastery of Debre Libanos an important monastic center for Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the monastery there was founded by the renowned 13th century mystic, Saint Teclehaimanot and there is a small cave near the church (which is of recent construction) where he is said to have stood for seven years on one leg, until the other wasted away and dropped off.
Near the cave monks may show visitors the remains of some 300 monks, slaughtered in 1936 by the Italian invaders. Mussolini and the fascist authorities saw the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as one of the key elements of an independent Ethiopian identity, and thought that by carrying out the massacre they would cow the Church and by extension the Ethiopian people into submission. Rather, this atrocity fed the flames of resistance.
(For those visitors with more time, there is now a lodge situated on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Jemma Valley, great views and really peaceful.)
An early start should get us back to Addis Ababa mid afternoon, giving us time for souvenir shopping. We can have day rooms for freshening up, and will have a farewell dinner at the Yod Abyssinia, which is famous for its national food and traditional music.
Transfer to the airport around 10.30 for a departure at around 0100 on Day 18 (Mon):