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Northern Ethiopia - A view from our expert author
Blue Nile Falls © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
It is probably no exaggeration to say that 90% of travellers to Ethiopia base the bulk of their itinerary around this circuit, and rightly so.
The well-defined ‘historical circuit’ through northern Ethiopia forms the core of the country’s tourist industry. It is probably no exaggeration to say that 90% of travellers to Ethiopia base the bulk of their itinerary around this circuit, and rightly so. There is nothing in sub-Saharan Africa – in a sense, nothing else in the world – that prepares the visitor for the wealth of historical and cultural treasures, both ancient and living, contained in northern Ethiopia. The circuit pivots around four cities, all very different from the others, and followed in this section in the clockwise direction favoured by most tour operators and independent travellers.
The standard first stop in northern Ethiopia is the modern city of Bahir Dar, a bustling commercial centre set on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the largest body of water in Ethiopia and official source of the Blue Nile. In addition to hosting a fascinating traditional daily market and rich birdlife, Bahir Dar forms the obvious base for several day trips: to the multitude of atmospheric medieval monasteries dotted around the forested islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana, as well as to the sensational Blue Nile Falls (sensational, that is, on the increasingly rare occasions when the Nile’s water hasn’t been diverted to fuel a neighbouring hydro-electric generator).
To the north of Lake Tana, a popular second stop on the northern circuit is Gondar, which served as Ethiopia’s capital for almost 300 years from 1635 onwards, and is today noted for its impressive 16th-century castles as well as the beautifully decorated Church of Debre Birhan Selassie. To the north of Gondar, lies the staggeringly scenic Simien Mountains National Park, home to the country’s main concentrations of the endemic gelada baboon and Walia ibex. Following the recent construction of a rough road into the Simien Mountains, this lovely range – traditionally the preserve of hardened trekkers and hikers – also forms a feasible goal for a day or overnight 4x4 trip out of Gondar.
A common third stop on the historical circuit is the ancient capital of Axum, which lies close to the Eritrean border at the heart of the former Axumite Empire, the dominant economic and political force in the region for about a millennium prior to its collapse circa AD700. Axum is best known today for the giant engraved obelisks (stelae) that tower over the northeast of the town. But the entire city stands above a fascinating miscellany of ancient relics – dingy catacombs, ruined palaces, rock engravings and inscribed tablets – that pay collective testament to the enterprise and complexity of what is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the ancient civilisations of the Old World. This enigma is amplified when one visits the nearby Yeha Temple, estimated to have been constructed 2,500 years ago. Axum’s Church of Tsion Maryam – claimed by Ethiopians to house the Ark of the Covenant – has for more than 1,600 years lain at the spiritual heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; the Axumite architectural legacy lives on in several ancient churches, notably the male-only clifftop gem that is the Monastery of Debre Damo.
For most visitors to Ethiopia, the highlight of the northern circuit is the medieval capital of Lalibela, where high in the chilly mountains of Wolo stands a complex of a dozen rock-hewn churches often and justifiably ranked as the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Reachable only on foot or by mule until a couple of decades back, but now serviced by daily buses and flights, these churches stand as an inspirational active shrine to a Christian civilisation that pre-dates its northern European equivalent by centuries. And around Lalibela lie several more ecclesiastic gems: the beautiful Axumite cave church of Yemrehanna Kristos, the isolated monasteries and churches around Bilbilla, the remote montane retreat of Asheton Maryam … all set amid some of the most fantastic mountain scenery on the African continent.
The majority of travellers take one of three approaches to exploring the ‘big four’ cities of the northern circuit. The first, and less strenuous, approach is to fly between the aforementioned stops, exploring the towns, and sometimes arranging day excursions to nearby places of interest. One could, in theory, see the best of the northern circuit over five days, since flights generally take only an hour or so, leaving one with plenty of time to explore in between. In practice, however, the combination of sudden schedule changes, occasional delays and the need to reconfirm all domestic flights at the point of departure, makes it advisable to dedicate about eight days to a flying excursion around the northern circuit. This will allow for a full day between flights to explore each of the major towns at leisure.
A more demanding option is to drive around the historical circuit in a rented 4x4 with a driver and/or guide, or – tougher still – to do the whole circuit using buses and other public transport. The disadvantage of road travel is that it is time-consuming and sometimes exhausting – recent improvements notwithstanding, a realistic minimum of 12–14 days is required to cover this circuit by road, and three weeks or longer would be better, especially if you are using public transport. The main advantages of driving over flying are firstly that you get to see far more of the beautiful mountain scenery, and secondly that you have the opportunity of escaping the relatively well-trodden tourist trail to visit areas where tourists remain an infrequent sight. As a thorough read through this section will make abundantly clear, there is infinitely more to northern Ethiopia than its four established historical cities. The list of off-the-beaten-track possibilities is practically endless; to name one example, the vastly underrated rock-hewn churches of Tigrai alone could keep an interested traveller busy for weeks.