Seeking History and Religion in Northern Ethiopia

November 14, 2012

Ethiopia, located in Northeast Africa, is a significant country in many ways. In terms of population, its total of approximately 84 million is the largest of any landlocked country in the world and second among all African nations. Ethiopia is unique in that it has remained independent throughout its long history (except for a brief five year occupation by Italy in the 1930’s). Religion is also significant here, as Ethiopia was the first world empire and portion of Africa to embrace Christianity. Out of this conversion grew the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church, which is a very strong part of the culture today.

Before and after our trek we journeyed through the northern part of Ethiopia. Our travels took us along the so-called Historical Circuit, with almost 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) of road travel and significant stretches on rough dirt tracks. In the process, we visited three former capital cities, as well as numerous ancient churches and monasteries.

Bahir Dar and Gonder

Our semi-circle loop began in the city of Bahir Dar, in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. This city is located on the shore of Lake Tana. On the lake there are about a dozen monasteries and we took the opportunity to visit three of them. The monasteries date from the 16th to 17th centuries and are circular with a walkway between the exterior wall and the church inside. Beautiful frescos adorned the walls of each place, depicting scenes such as the Last Judgment, Christ’s miracles and the life of St. George (an important saint in Ethiopia).

Lake Tana also marks the beginning of the Blue Nile portion of the great Nile River. A huge waterfall can be found a short distance from the lake and we hiked to a viewpoint to see the falls. From this point the Blue Nike snakes through canyons and flows into Sudan, where it meets the White Nile, which originates in Uganda, to form the complete Nile River as it makes its way to Egypt.

The first of Ethiopia’s former capital cities that we visited was Gonder. It is known as the ‘Camelot of Africa’ because of its royal heritage. Emperor Fasiladas made it his capital in 1636. During the next century, castles, palaces and churches were built by Fasiladas and his successors. The Royal Enclosure contains these buildings and we spent a couple of hours touring this site. We also visited the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, which has a beautiful stone structure on the outside and wall and ceiling paintings on the inside.

Aksum and Rock Churches of Tigray

We headed northeast to the region of Tigray and the city of Aksum, considered to be the holiest city in Ethiopia. The Kingdom of Aksum became significant in the 1st century A.D. as it facilitated trade between the Roman Empire and Ancient India. By the 3rd century Aksum was recognized as one of the great world powers, along with Rome, Persia, China and India. At its height its control extended across most of present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

Aksum was the first major empire in the world to convert to Christianity and adopt it as its state religion during the 4th century. It is also believed that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant resides in Aksum.

While in Aksum we visited the site of the oldest church, St Mary of Zion, and saw the building where the Ark of the Covenant is said to reside. Inside the modern St Mary of Zion church, next to the historical one, we saw a beautiful illuminated manuscript. We also toured a stele field of obelisks and saw several tombs, dating from the late 4th and early 5th centuries A.D. Our last stop was the ruins of a palace said to be the Queen of Sheba’s residence.

As we drove through the Tigray region, we traveled through numerous villages. In many of them, children waved to us as we went by. The buildings in the Tigray region tended to be constructed of stone, which was different that the wooden structures we had seen in the Amhara area. More than 80% of Ethiopia’s population is farmers and we also saw wheat being harvested all over the region. Much of this was by hand or using animals, with no use of machines.

Moving south from Aksum, we traveled through the eastern portion of Ethiopia and visited five rock churches. There are more than 120 in Tigray and many of them are perched atop cliffs and mountains, making them historically easier to defend but now requiring a climb to reach. The scenery around the Gheralta area, where many of the most famous churches are located, reminded us of Monument Valley in Arizona.

The churches, constructed as early as the 6th century, are built into the rock. Inside each are various frescoes, some of which are in beautiful condition. Darren visited five churches while Sandy skipped two of the most precarious to climb. Even for the three that we both visited, the climbs are not for the faint of heart!

We moved back into the Amhara region for our final stop in the city of Lalibela. Located in a remote valley with mountains rising all around it, Lalibela was Zagwe dynasty’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. It is most famous for a series of 11 rock churches that were all built during the reign of King Lalibela. Most of the structures are attached to the rock at the base, with one of the churches attached at both the roof and base. They were amazing to see and ponder how each was carved from a single piece of rock!

Our last day was spent driving about 25 miles (40 kilometers) on a rough dirt road to the Yemrahana Kristos Church. It was built inside a cave and predates the Lalibela churches by about 80 years. The exterior was created by alternating rock and olive wood layers and the interior contained both detailed carvings and fresco paintings. It was well worth the rough drive to travel there.

During our journey through the Historical Circuit of Ethiopia we saw and learned so much about the country, as we sought its unique history and the role of religion in its culture. Experiencing the sights and sounds of Northern Ethiopia provided a fitting end to our 6 1/2 weeks on the African continent.

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2 comments on “Seeking History and Religion in Northern Ethiopia
  1. Sharon Johnson says:

    Sandy, you are definitely brave to have made it up to three of those churches if they were anything like that picture of you climbing down. Did you even watch Darren making the climb to the other two?

    • Darren and Sandy says:

      Yes, I hiked up with him most of the way until the climbing got very steep. Long drop-offs are not my favorite thing so that’s why I stayed behind. I took pictures while he was up there. Sandy