Want something completely different? Head for Ethiopia – a one-off, a country of great diversity, scenic beauty and cultural richness, quite different from anywhere else in Africa – and crucially a country (like Thailand) that was never colonized by Europeans.
It’s Africa, yes, but probably not at all like you think of that continent.
To take the geography first, this is Africa’s highest nation, dubbed ‘The Roof of Africa’, its heartland – half the country – formed by extensive highlands ranging from 1,500 to 4,500 metres in height. No other African country is like that, but Ethiopia is also amazingly diverse in ecology. It includes deserts in its eastern regions, savannah in the far northwest and south, and tropical forests in the south and west. Boasting high mountains and huge lakes, the largest, Lake Tana, is one of the two sources of the Nile, the world’s longest river.
After the geography lesson, here’s the history lesson, and it’s stunning. In 1974, the bones of a 3.2-million-year-old hominid were found in Ethiopia’s arid northeast. Lucy, as she got named, was a denizen of the Afar Depression, which – after further discoveries there – many experts consider to be the cradle of human evolution, the place where we all began.
That’s the pre-history, but the remarkable story goes on. Ethiopia is completely unique in sub-Saharan Africa for having a national civilization that goes back almost 2,000 years. A crucial part of this history is a royal house converting to Christianity in the fourth century AD, making the second oldest Christian nation in the world. That has given Ethiopia a religious culture of highly distinctive characteristics, visible everywhere in the highlands, with rituals and costumes not seen anywhere else in the world.
Ethiopia’s cultural continuity lasting almost two millennia has made a unique and proud country – the only African country with its own script and its own state religion, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; the only African country to resist European colonisation; the country whose ruler from 1930 to 1974 was Emperor Haile Selassie, one of the 20th century’s outstanding characters. Today, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most dynamically developing countries and the continent’s second most populous nation, with just over 100 million inhabitants.
A diverse country ethnically and religiously, with over 80 different peoples, Ethiopia is an overwhelmingly agricultural country. The home of the coffee plant, where all the world’s coffee originated, coffee is the country’s biggest export, and it is rated as some of the world’s finest. Ethiopia is also a major producer of qat, a leaf that is a legal stimulant in the region.
But what is there for the visitor to see? And how to get there? Two words are the key: Ethiopian Airlines. The national airline has frequent direct flights from Southeast Asia’s major capitals to Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital, from where it operates services to 20 domestic destinations. After you’ve enjoyed the capital with its many striking monuments and vibrant nightlife, that makes it pretty easy to get to these outstanding regional sights:
- The rock churches of Lalibela.
- The castles and palaces of Gondar.
- The age-old towering stelae of Aksum.
- The Blue Nile Falls tumbling from Lake Tana.
- The ancient walled city of Harar, unique in black Africa.
- The national parks with extraordinary wildlife, like the gelada baboon.
- The eastern desert region with the world’s lowest and hottest points.
- The western forest region where the coffee plant originated.
- The southern Omo Valley with extraordinary tribal peoples.
THE POWER CENTRE: ADDIS ABABA
The capital city lies on a 2,300-metre-high plateau in the heart of the central highlands, and counts almost five million citizens in its metro area. Despite those numbers, and despite the burgeoning of high-rise buildings in the last few years of rapid economic growth, Addis Ababa is an easy-going and spread-out kind of place, where goat pastures alternate with apartment blocks, and the main sights are easy to get to by taxi or on foot.
The epicentre is the National Theatre, a monument to Africa’s new independent spirit of the 1950s and 1960s, joined by a striking modernist sculpture of the national symbol, the Lion of Judah. Stroll up Churchill Avenue – yes, named after Winston Churchill, the British wartime leader whose forces liberated Ethiopia from the Italian occupiers in 1941 – and you get to a monument commemorating another conflict, Ethiopia’s Ogaden War with Somalia of 1977-78.
The Tiglachin Monument has dramatic stone-carved reliefs showing struggle, triumph and suffering, propaganda for the Marxist dictatorship that ruled at the time, but well worth the visit. Now, to catch the Christian essence of the country, take a 10-minute taxi ride to Holy Trinity Cathedral, where the solid wood throne of Emperor Haile Selassie with its lion shaped armrests takes pride of place. Also well worth the ride is a trip to the university, which used to be Haile Selassie’s palace where the diminutive king used to stroll the grounds with pet lions and cheetahs. Its main building is now the National Museum, where you can say hello to our ancestor, Lucy, in the basement display of prehistoric remains.
THE WILD HIGHLANDS: NATIONAL PARKS
The highlands may harbour the nation’s metropolis, but in this elevated region you also find extraordinary areas of wilderness teeming with wildlife. To the south of the capital is Bale Mountains National Park, with populations of the rare Ethiopian wolf and the mountain nyala, a large antelope with spiral horns. But the wildlife highlight is undoubtedly to the north of the capital in the Simien Mountains National Park, where the gelada baboon lives in enormous troupes numbering in the hundreds. A distinctive creature with a head of long light-brown hair, growing to about 75cm long, it forages on grasslands, so it is relatively easy to observe these extraordinary beasts, only found in these highlands, when you go trekking in the park.
THE HISTORIC NORTH: ANCIENT ROYAL CAPITALS
Ethiopian history began not in the highlands, today’s power centre, but in the northern region, where the royal capital shifted from place to place over the centuries. Consequently, this is where you see ancient monuments, the like of which exist nowhere else in black Africa.
Aksum (also spelt Axum) is famed for its tall carved pillars, or stelae, relics of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum, which ruled from about 100 to 940 AD. Made of granite, one stele is the tallest such structure in the world, at 24 metres. But even more engaging than the physical monuments are the ancient biblical myths which Aksum’s Christian priests espouse. The holy men claim that the legendary Queen of Sheba came from here, that the Ark of the Covenant holding Moses’s Ten Commandments resides in one chapel, and that one of the Three Wise Men who visited the newborn Jesus is buried here. These mysteries, outlandish but intriguing, hang in the air as you visit the ancient relics of Aksum.
At Gondar, the royal capital for two centuries until 1865, several castles, palaces and other royal buildings testify to a powerful regime in a manner unique in black Africa. Nearby Lake Tana is dotted with 37 islands, many of which had monasteries or churches on them in the royal glory days, and some still do, keeping religious treasures and royal tombs. Besides its historical and spiritual significance, Lake Tana is also a crucial physical feature, forming the source of the Blue Nile, one of the two branches of the world’s longest river, the Nile. Birdlife is prolific, including pelicans, flamingos, cranes and kingfishers. Taking a boat out across the waters to the islands is therefore packed with immense meaning in many ways.
Still, the undoubted highlight of the historic north is Lalibela. Here in the bare red rock of the hillsides, a 12th century king ordered the carving of 11 Christian churches out of the living rock, excavated and fashioned by what means we do not know. Each one is different in shape and size, each one is guarded by a richly robed priest, and some continue to be used as churches with all the ceremony and piety of the Ethiopian Orthodox religion. Pilgrims come from far away to worship here, and they seem as awestruck by the phenomenal sculptures as the tourists who come from distant continents.
And sculptures they are – gigantic ones, not structures. No church was built in any way, each one was carved in its entirety out of the rich red rock. In the last decade, though, most sadly, huge ugly roofs held up by steel pylons have been erected over many of the churches to protect them from rain and sun, so the aesthetic experience has been ruined in many ways. Nevertheless, the rock-hewn churches remain one of the wonders of Africa.
THE ARID EAST: HEAT AND THE HOLY CITY
In complete contrast to all that water, eastern Ethiopia is as dry and hot as hell, and features the planet’s lowest land point, the Danakil Depression, which plummets to 125 metres below sea level. Bubbling volcanoes light up the night sky, sulphurous mounds of yellow contort into otherworldly shapes, and camel trains cross crusty salt lakes in wavering mirages. Reaching temperatures above 50°C, the Danakil Depression is about the hottest and most inhospitable place on Earth, so surreal that it seems like another planet.
If you want raw adventure – plus the danger of attack by separatist militias – few corners of the globe can match this overpowering wilderness. If this were all you could find in this semi-desert region, the east would be for extreme adventurers only – but in fact you also find on this side of the country one of Africa’s most fascinating and oldest cities, Harar.
Once a crossroads of trade between the Red Sea and inland Africa, Harar is a walled citadel that is sometimes called ‘the fourth most holy city of Islam’, on account of having so many little mosques – 82 at the last count – and 102 Muslim shrines. A warren of narrow alleys sprawling over a hilltop, Harar was until the 1880s a forbidden city which non- Muslims entered on pain of death. This is strange to know today, because the Hararis are quite a friendly people to tourists, or else they ignore you, which is far better than being lynched.
Harar is a one-off, more akin to the ancient walled cities of Morocco such as Fez and Meknes than anything else in black Africa. This is a land apart, literally, because the city and its hinterland – a meagre 334 sq km – form one of Ethiopia’s nine official regions, by far the smallest. This is a tribute to its uniqueness as a culture – and to the vibrant old city still thriving within its ancient ramparts.
Largely pedestrianised, Harar’s main streets function as markets, strewn with fresh produce sold by female vendors. These may be Muslims, but their customs are quite different to those in the Arab countries, where men do all the market trading. All in colourful robes, women also come into the city toting bundles of firewood on their heads, or leading donkeys loaded with it. Near the city’s east gate, a donkey parking lot is a sight to behold.
But the outstanding animal experience is without doubt the hyenas that come into the city from the surrounding countryside at night to feed on leftovers in the garbage bins. Despite their fierce and ugly looks, hyenas are in fact quite timid, and never attack humans. That’s why Harar’s number one tourist show came about: the nightly hyena feeding just outside the city walls conducted in a dramatic way by a local man.
The man sits on a low stool with a bin of raw meat at his side. He takes a piece out, puts it on the end of a short stick, and holds the other end in his mouth. He calls to the hyenas in a special way, and gradually they come loping out of the darkness and into the glare of tourists’ car headlights. One by one, the mottled beasts bare their fangs, snatch the raw meat, and lope away to chew it. It’s extremely scary to watch, but they say that no injury has ever occurred to the showman.
In fact, if you walk the dark narrow alleys late at night, you may feel one of these hairy beasts brush past you, nervously, intent on finding food scraps and certainly not on eating you.
THE TRIBAL SOUTH: EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLES
In the far south of Ethiopia, you find some of the most distinctive tribal peoples in the world in the remote Lower Omo Valley, part of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Here, many peoples engage in elaborate scarification and body painting: the Hamer people fashion their hair in dramatic styles, whilst the Karo people decorate themselves in extraordinary ways, using natural colourings and objects like leaves and flowers, as well as manufactures like ballpens and cartridges to make jewellery. The result is stunningly creative looks that beat anything on the catwalks of Europe. It’s most convenient to join a tour to visit the villages of these peoples, or hire your own 4×4 plus a driver, and June to September is the best time, when there are many celebrations and the weather is dry.
THE STEAMY WEST: COFFEE LAND
Like the Omo Valley, western Ethiopia is low-lying and steamy, with many rainforests and black-skinned peoples such as the Anuak and Nuer dominating close to the South Sudanese border. But the land rises and things cool a little as you head back towards the central highlands, and here in the Kaffa area is the birthplace of coffee. Yes, that drink that conquered the world, especially in the last two decades, has its roots here.
Here the Arabica coffee plant – Coffea arabica – originated, growing wild in the forests which used to spread all over these hills of about 1,400 to 1,800 metres above sea level, and still cover about a quarter of the area. Indeed, ‘Kaffa’ is the word that gave rise to the European words ‘Kaffee’, ‘cafe’ and ‘coffee’.
The region’s main town, Jimma, is the coffee capital, with a huge Ethiopian coffee pot on a traffic roundabout as its signature monument. Head out from the town into the countryside with a local guide, and he’ll point out to you wild coffee plants growing amid the roadside forest, take you to one of the countless small holdings where families grow coffee, and show you around the coffee gene bank of the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation, with their trees growing in serried ranks up a carefully name-tagged slope.
Here in the Kaffa area is also the place to make sure you enjoy the coffee ceremony that is integral to Ethiopian culture. A woman roasts dried beans over a little charcoal brazier, grinds them with mortar and pestle, makes a brew, and pours it out into little handle-less cups. You drink three cups, because the third one bestows a blessing.
That sets you up for the one-hour flight from Jimma back to Addis Ababa, and onward to home. As you fly back, even if you’ve only managed to see some of these outstanding sights, there’s no doubt that you will think to yourself: “I’ve never been anywhere like that before!”
Ethiopia is a one-off, which for some people turns into a magnet drawing them back again and again. Just listen to travel guide author, Anthony Ham: “In a lifetime of travel in Africa, I’ve never been anywhere quite like Ethiopia. It has all the essential elements that call me back here time after time… [plus] a spiritual dimension that infuses every aspect of travel here, and brings ancient stories and landscapes to life in a way that I’ve never encountered anywhere else on the continent.”
Africa is many things, and Ethiopia is a stand-out among them all.
ETHIOPIA IN A NUTSHELL
- Sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest nation (almost 2,000 years).
- The world’s second oldest Christian nation.
- The cradle of humankind with some of our oldest relics.
- Africa’s second most populous nation.
- Africa’s highest nation, the ‘Roof of Africa’.
- The only African country with its own script.
- The only sub-Saharan country with major historical monuments.
- A diverse country with over 80 ethnic groups.
- Follows a unique form of Christianity (Ethiopian Orthodox).
- Diverse ecology with rainforest, mountain, savanna and desert landscapes.
- The home of the coffee plant, where all the world’s coffee originated.
- Producer of some of the world’s most highly rated coffee.
- One of Africa’s most dynamically developing countries
FACTS : ETHIOPIA TRAVEL FILE
Ethiopia is Southeast Asia’s main gateway to Africa, with Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s oldest and biggest airline, providing connections to 37 African countries, flying from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila and Hong Kong to its hub city of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
Visit www.ethiopianairlines.com for full details of services and offers.
By air: Ethiopia is a vast country with a lot of difficult terrain, so flying is the best way to get around, using Ethiopian Airlines, which operates to 20 destinations from Addis Ababa.
By train: There is one passenger train service, a new Chinese-built line connecting Addis Ababa with Djibouti on the Red Sea coast, stopping at Dire Dawa, which is near Harar.
By bus: There are bus services to all but the smallest towns, with varying degrees of comfort.
- Addis Ababa: Ras Hotel, Gambia St;
T: +251 11 551 7060, www.rashotel.com
A modestly priced classic hotel centrally located near the National Theatre.
- Simien Mountains National Park: Limalimo Lodge;
T: +251 93 168 8062, www.limalimolodge.com
Brand new, expensive and stylish boutique lodge.
- Aksum: Sabean International Hotel;
T: +251 34 775 1224, www.sabeanhotel.com
A new hotel, well appointed, with good service.
- Gondar: Goha Hotel;
T: +251 58 111 0634, gohahotel.com
Comfortable hilltop lodging with an outdoor pool.
- Lalibela: Red Rock Lalibela Hotel, Shenberma keble 01;
T: +251 33 336 1030.
Comfortable and conveniently located amid the churches.
- Harar: Harar Ras Hotel, Charleville Avenue;
T: +251 25 666 4343.
A long-standing institution recently upgraded with decent accommodation and facilities.
- Omo Valley: Paradise Lodge, Arba Minch;
T: +251 46 881 2914, www.paradiselodgeethiopia.com
Luxury hut accommodation with great views.
- Jimma: Central Jimma Hotel;
T: +251 47 111 8282.
The best hotel in town, including a new wing, gardens and a pool.
In most places, Ethiopian food is the menu, though versions of Western and Chinese food can be found in the larger cities, especially in hotel restaurants. The staple of Ethiopian food is injera, a pancake made from a grain called tef, on which a spicy stew is usually heaped.
Ethiopians (apart from the Muslims) are great beer drinkers, with several brands available. They also enjoy a mead (honey wine) known as tej; it’s sweet, with varying strengths.
Western governments advise avoiding all the border areas because of ongoing conflicts. especially those areas close to South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. Also, because of potential violence over internal conflicts, visitors should avoid all protests and demonstrations.