How to travel Ethiopia’s historic north
A few months ago I was able to find a pretty good flight deal from London to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This ancient country had been on my radar for some time, needless to say I booked my flight almost immediately with the intention of exploring the culture and history that had first captured my mind some years earlier.
With this being my first visit to the country, I was content with focusing my efforts in northern Ethiopia for the self-limited seven days that I scheduled to stay. The itinerary would, of course, be jam-packed!
Known as Ethiopia’s Historical Circuit, there are over three million years of ancient treasures to be explored, from hidden tombs and rock-hewn churches to huge obelisks and Ethiopia’s largest lake, Lake Tana. It’s also claimed to be the birthplace of humanity as a result of the discovery of Lucy, the given name to the female skeletal remains confirmed to be 3.3million years old that’s now located in the capital city, Addis Ababa.
I considered Ethiopia to be a country where a specific tour would be necessary however after contacting several companies, it was clear that this would be a more expensive route.
A few hours of thorough research and consultation with friends that had travelled to the country allowed me to come up with the itinerary below, broken down with costs where possible.
Step one: Fly to Addis Ababa before taking a domestic flight to Bahar Dar.
Accommodation: Abay Minch Lodge
Beautiful cottage-style accommodation with huge bed, luxury jacuzzi shower and freshly made breakfast included in the rate. Located slightly away from the town however fantastic staff, very helpful with arranging tours and services beyond the norm like taking us to the bus station in a tuk tuk and negotiating the best rate on our behalf before putting us onto public bus for the journey to Gondar.
- Bahar Dar sightseeing tour cost 3300birr for two people excluding meals. The tour included a Lake Tana speedboat ride and a chance to view hippos in the lake. We also visited a monastery and Blue Nile falls before a 45 min hike then finishing off with dinner at Lake Shore (not included in the tour).
- Bajaj to bus station, 50birr for two people.
Step two: Public bus from Bahir Dar to Gondar
75 birr per person including luggage (we travelled with 1x cabin baggage and a backpack each)
Accommodation: Goha Hotel
From its hillside location, the hotel is a well presented four star accommodation with fantastic views of the town of Gondar.
Guests can enjoy free in-room Wi-Fi and complimentary breakfast.
We found the quality of food to be questionable and the service during mealtimes left a lot to be desired. Some staff appear to be trainees with limited supervision.
Rooms are comfortable and ideal for a short stay. The peaceful location is a bonus after a busy day of travelling/ sightseeing and there’s an onsite pool available. On the plus side, the hotel provides a free shuttle to the airport.
- City tour cost 220birr after some negotiation with a Bajaj driver. We then paid an additional 200birr for entry to Gondar Castle which includes Fasiladas Bath Timket.
- For an additional 100birr, we gained entry to Debre Birhan Selassie Church.
Step three: Fly from Gondar to Lalibela
Accommodation at Sora Lodge Lalibela
Sora Lodge offered a friendly welcome to Lalibela with incredible views across the valley. The style of the hotel provides spectacular sunset and sunrise balcony views from clean and well maintained rooms. The shuttle is not included with the hotel fee but this is available for 280birr return per vehicle – worthwhile as it’s around a 45 minute drive between the airport and hotel.
I arranged a tour via Sora Lodge Lalibela with Gashaw Melegw at a cost of 600birr for two people to see 7 of the churches. This was far more competitive than rates advertised online and with a 1-2-1 experience.
I expected that Lalibela would be the highlight of the trip – ancient rock-hewn churches that are a captivating world wonder and protected UNESCO site.
Note that there’s also a new 1000birr entry fee to the grounds of the churches, not included in the cost of a guided tour.
Judaism was the original religion before Christianity before King Izana introduced Christianity to Ethiopia.
During our visit, we experienced one of the religious festivals (Archangel Michaels day) where white-robed pilgrims gather at the churches and chant in the Gieze language. It’s an example of Christianity in its most powerful form.
There are a total of 11 churches in the north and south separated by the Jordan river (30,000 throughout Ethiopia). Each of the freestanding churches were carved from a single piece of phosphorous basphalt rock; legend says that all of the churches were carved by hand in just 24 years by stonemasons from Axsum – incredible.
The largest church, Bet Medhane Alem houses a replica of the Arc of the Holy Saviour. It’s also the church where 72 pillars were added by the Italians in 1964 to stabilise the structure. Each pillar represents the 72 followers of Christ.
The other churches included on the tour included Bete Nagasis, the smallest church to represent house of virgins, Bete Maskal where there’s a processional cross demonstration (and you’re expected to leave a small donation). In addition to this we toured St Michael and Golgota – although women are not allowed into the holiest section.
The final excavation is perhaps the most photographed site in Lalibela, St George’s Church. This is the example of King Lalibela’s masterpiece after perfecting the craftmanship on the other buildings.
The city of Lalibela is, like other parts of Ethiopia, developing its infrastructure but currently has cobblestone streets, excellent views and friendly people. There’s minimal hassle compared to my experience of other parts of the country, surprising with this being the most iconic tourist attraction.
Overall I felt disillusioned by the tour; I felt that there were so many questions, gaps in knowledge and expectations that I’d hoped to resolve with my visit. I came away with more questions and uncertainty about Christianity and dubious about the history of the churches.
Step four: Fly from Lalibela to Axsum
Accommodation at Yared Zema International Hotel
This hotel is located in town and within ten minutes drive of Axsum airport. The shuttle transport is excluded from the cost of the hotel. It’s classed as a luxury hotel (I’d say it’s equivalent to a European 3-star) and whilst prices are much higher than other accommodation, I didn’t regret ‘splurging’ on a cost of around £40 per room per night.
- Tour for 2x people costs 1200birr plus 250birr for entry tickets for some attractions.
The ruins of the ancient city of Axsum mark the heart of ancient Ethiopia close to the northern border. Axsum is the capital of the first Ethiopian kingdom founded at the end of the first century. The city remains a work in progress; 80% of Axsum is still underground and may never be completely revealed.
The city is also a holy site for Christianity which was introduced as early as the fourth century. To this day, the Ethiopian Orthodox church continues to follow early Christian teachings, practices and traditions.
The excess ruins of Axsum, dating from between the 1st and 13th century A.D., include monolithic obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs and the ruins of ancient castles.
The largest obelisk collapsed due to suspected weak foundations – and of course I tried to make a decent photo opportunity from it!
Axsum was abandoned as the capital city around the 9th century when Lalibela gained prosperity. It’s suspected that this is the time when the tombs were robbed of any treasure buried with former royalty.
Other key sights of Axsum included the Arc of the Covenant housed in a building (St Mary Church Zion) built in 1965 and brought to Ethiopia by King Melenik I.
To this day it remains guarded by a sole monk that never leaves the compound. He has dedicated his life to guardianship and is deemed the most holy person in Ethiopia.
As part of a tour of Axsum, I visited the baths of the Queen of Sheba who reigned for 30 years. She never married however the foundations of one of her many palaces remain in Axsum.
Step five: Fly from Axsum to Addis Ababa
Accommodation at AG Palace Hotel
The hotel was clean and well maintained although it’s on a side street that isn’t very well lit at night time and could be uncomfortable for some visitors, particularly if you’re travelling solo. I found the staff to be unfriendly and restrictive with the use of facilities like Wi-Fi but rooms were comfortable for a short stay.
- In Addis Ababa, I opted to take a tour via taxi and agreed a rate of 400birr for the day – the taxi at the hotel offered a higher, non-negotiable rate. There’s no guide required in Addis Ababa as the sites are self explanatory but the fee does exclude entry fees to attractions.
Having researched online and enquiring locally, I visited the National museum of Ethiopia and the Ethnographic museum at Addis University, the former palace of Emperor Hailie Selassie before he donated it to the university in 1960.
The university went on to be established in 1961 and was visited by many distinguished visitors including Queen Elizabeth II in February 1965.
It now acts as a museum to show the journey of the Ethiopian people from birth to death versus cultural traditions at each life stage.
Other sights to see in Addis Ababa included St George’s Cathedral and Holy Trinity church.
I also visited ‘mercato’, the local marketplace (although head to Churchill Post Office for a better shopping experience) and enjoyed lunch along Bole Road at one of the many restaurants. I also highly recommend Addis Gursha Lounge for an open-air roof bar/restaurant experience.
Ethiopia is a country that’s, as yet, largely untouched. The influences are starting to creep into the country; the historical north has signs of developing infrastructure.
I enjoyed spending one week in the historic north and although I had many questions about the religious influences, I look forward to returning to experience the culture of the southern region.
Have you travelled along the historic northern route? Thoughts?