Ethiopia’s wealth of historic sites, and an identity defined by its own history and diverse cultures rather than by colonialism, is what distinguishes it from most other African destinations. The best known historic sites – Axum, Lalibela, Gondar and Bahir Dar – make up the Historic Route. 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 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. Today the visitor can see stelae (the largest single pieces of stone erected anywhere in the world), 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 tablets of Moses. (For western audiences, this has been popularised in Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal). 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.)
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, now rightly categorised as one of the wonders of the world.
There are 11 churches within the town named after him, and outlying churches (recommended are Ashetun Mariam and the cave church of Yemrehane Christos) that can be visited on a second day. All are still in use today. It is estimated that the churches in Lalibela 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 population pressures, deforestation and other forms of ecological degradation have reduced its productivity and made it prone to drought.
Gondar was the capital of the Ethiopian Empire from the 17th to mid 19th centuries and is distinguished by its castles and imperial compound and by its churches, particularly Debre Berhan Selassie, the walls and ceiling of which are completely covered in murals. On a second day, visitors could make a day trip to the Simien Mountains National Park or travel south to Gorgora, at the northern end of Lake Tana, and visit the very fine and recently restored medieval church of Debre Sina Mariam.
Bahir Dar is situated on Lake Tana, which is dotted with island monasteries and churches. Many are closed to women, but the churches on the Zeghie Peninsula, with their excellent murals, are open to both sexes. It is possible to cross the lake by boat, from Bahir Dar to Gorgora, or vice versa. South of the Lake is the source of the Nile, which feeds into Lake Tana and exits north of Bahir Dar to create the spectacular Blue Nile Falls, some 30 km downstream. (Although since the opening of the dam in 2003, the Falls are generally only worth visiting when the dam gates are open – the local authorities are aiming for a daily opening, between 0800-1000.)
The easiest and fastest way to get around is by air, by Ethiopian Airlines’ domestic flights, although that means missing out on some stunning scenery, and other interesting though less well known sites. The Historic Route can be done by road, or by a combination of road and air travel. If it is done by road, others sites and activities can easily be added, such as the markets of Senbete and Bati, where the lowlanders and highlanders meet for trade, the rock hewn churches of Tigray, and some days walking in the Simien Mountains. Ideally, two days in each place should be allowed for Axum, Lalibela, Gondar and Bahir Dar. Two weeks plus should be allowed for doing the Historic Route by road. (There are comfortable lodges in the Simien Mountains National Park, and at Hauzien in Tigray, for people visiting the rock hewn churches of Ghera’alta.)
Whether on the Historic Route or elsewhere, visitors can experience and participate in ancient religious festivals, such as Genna (Christmas), Timket (Epiphany), Fasika (Easter) and Mesqal (the finding of the true cross), and the special feast days of individual churches. There are also pilgrimages, some with more than 100,000 pilgrims participating, the most famous being Hidartsion, in Axum towards the end of November, and Gabriel Kolubi, near Dire Dawa, twice a year at the end of September and in June. For more information, please see the section on Ethiopian Festivals.
Guide books have promoted the idea that the major festivals are best experienced in centres such as Gondar and Lalibela, whereas smaller towns tend to offer a more authentic experience, with far fewer tourists in attendance.
Other interesting historic sites, on the Historic Route and elsewhere in Ethiopia: the Church of Gishen Mariam in Wollo; Tigray’s rock hewn churches (there are 120 of them, many predating those of Lalibela) set in spectacular mountain scenery, churches and monasteries on the road from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar, such as Mertulle Mariam; Meqdala, the imperial capital of Emperor Tewodros; the neolithic site at Melka Kunture, near Addis Ababa; the stellae fields at Tiya (near Addis Ababa) and around Dilla in the south; cave paintings at Lega Oda near Dire Dawa; Hadar – the site where “Lucy” and other hominid species were discovered in the Afar Region; the recently restored castle of Abba Jiffar, last independent king of Kaffa, in Jimma. The Muslim city of Harer with its 99 mosques, the old walled city and particular architectural style ranks with the main sites on the Historic Route.