Axum, Lalibela, Bahirdar, Gonder and Harar are the major places in the historical attractions circuit. The route in this circuit is very scenic and we strongly recommend driving some part. Means of transportation to historical routes is by air, by car or both ways combined and the road condition in the historical route: Largely mountainous but most part of this route is connected with recently made asphalt road and the remaining gravel roads are also all weather roads.
Seldom visited by foreign tourists over the past few decades due to its continuing political problems, Ethiopia is most well known as being the possible cradle of humankind. Fossil remains (the famous Lucy) discovered in northeastern Ethiopia have been dated to roughly 3.5 million years, making them the earliest known example of an upright walking hominid. The oldest known stone tools, dating to 2.4 million years, were also found in this same region. But Ethiopia has numerous other claims to fame, including the mysterious granite obelisks of Axum, the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and - most enigmatic of all - the church of St. Mary of Zion, probable location of the Holy Arc of the Covenant.
The early history of Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia) begins with the glorious but little known kingdom of Axum. The origins of the Axumite state are now dated to the middle of the 2nd century BC. At the height of its power, between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, the Axumite kingdom controlled most of present-day Ethiopia, including territories in the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The Axumite rulers were in regular diplomatic and commercial contact with Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine and Persian empires. The achievements of this grand culture are recorded today in the ruins of its cities, reservoirs, temples and most remarkably its towering black granite obelisks.
These obelisks, also called stelae, are known to be the tallest single pieces of stone ever quarried and erected in the ancient world. Their age and use is a complete mystery. Some scholars, extrapolating from ancient coins found at the base of the giant pillars, suggest that they may have been carved and erected around the beginning of the 4th century AD. Due to their proximity to nearby tombs, the obelisks may possibly have been used as memorials to deceased kings and queens, but this is only a speculation. The tallest obelisk still standing at Axum today is 23 meters. Precisely carved upon its sides (and upon the sides of many other nearby stelae) are what seem to be representations of multiple storeys with floors between them.
An even greater mystery surrounds the ancient city of Axum. A few hundred meters from the cluster of towering obelisks is a large walled compound surrounding two churches. Between these two churches, both dedicated to St. Mary of Zion, are the foundational remains of an ancient church and a strange looking, fenced off and heavily guarded "treasury" said to contain the true Arc of the Covenant. Legends tell that long ago this entire area was a swamp inhabited by evil spirits. God helped the local people by coming down to the nearby sacred hill of Makade Egzi and throwing a miraculous dust from heaven that dried up the swamp, dispelled the evil spirits and charged the region with a magical power. Over uncounted centuries shrines were constructed upon the hill and where the swamp had been. Around this holy place grew the cities of pre-Axumite and Axumite kingdoms.
Ethiopian legends say that when the Queen of Sheba made her famous journey to Jerusalem she was impregnated by King Solomon and bore him a son - a royal prince. The name of the prince was Menelik, which means "the son of the wise man." Although he was conceived in Jerusalem he was born in Ethiopia where the Queen of Sheba had returned after discovering that she was carrying Solomon's child. When he had reached the age of twenty, Menelik himself traveled from Ethiopia to Israel and arrived at his father's court. There he was instantly recognized and accorded great honour. After a year had passed, however, the elders of the land became jealous of him. They complained that Solomon showed him too much favour and they insisted that he must go back to Ethiopia. This the king accepted on the condition that the first-born sons of all the elders should also be sent to accompany him. Amongst these latter was Azarius, son of Zadok the High Priest of Israel, and it was Azarius, not Menelik, who stole the Ark of the Covenant from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The group of young men did not reveal the theft to Prince Menelik until they were far away from Jerusalem. When at last they told him what they had done he asserted that they could not have succeeded in so bold a venture unless God had willed its outcome. Therefore he agreed that the Ark should remain with them. Thus Menelik brought the Arc to Ethiopia, to the sacred city of Axum, where it has remained ever since.
A hundred years later, with peace restored throughout the empire, the Ark was brought back to Axum. It was installed in a new St. Mary's church built by King Fasilidas (with Portuguese assistance), immediately adjacent to the ruins of the earlier church. The Arc remained in this church, called Maryam Tsion Cathedral, until 1965 when Haile-Selassie (said to be the two hundred and twenty-fifth direct-line descendant of Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon) had it transferred to a more secure chapel, the so-called treasury, ten meters away from the northeast corner of the old church.
In past centuries, the Arc of the Covenant was brought out during important church festivals, to be taken on processions around the town of Axum. More recently its use in such processions was limited to the festival of Timkat, the major Ethiopian Orthodox celebration that occurs every January. Since the beginning of military conflicts between Ethiopia and its northern neighbour, Eritrea, the Arc has remained securely locked within the treasury. No one but the head priest of the church, not even the president of Ethiopia, is allowed to see the Arc.
The city of Axum also occupies a central place in the traditions of the Muslims. The remote town of Axum was the earliest historical center where the followers of Muhammad freely exercised their religion in an atmosphere of peace without the fear of persecution. In the fifth year of Muhammad's mission (corresponding to the year 615 in the Christian era), the Axumite king, Ella Saham, offered asylum to a small group of Muhammad's followers (11 men and 4 women, including Uthman ibn Affan, who was to become the third Caliph). A few years later, nearly 100 more Muslims came to join this first group and altogether they stayed in Axum for thirteen years. Scholars believe that Axum was selected as a place of asylum because there existed a close commercial link between the kingdom of Axum and the city-state of Mecca long before the rise of Islam.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
Axum began to decline in the early decades of the 7th century following the rise and rapid expansion of the Muslim Arabs throughout the Middle East. Both Byzantium and the Persian Empire fell to the Arabs and this dealt a deathblow to the trading endeavours of the Axumite kings. Little is known of what became of the Axumite kingdom between the 8th and 11th centuries. Around the middle of the 11th century the Ethiopian state reappeared as the Christian Zagwe dynasty with its center in the town of Roha in the Amhara region of the Ethiopian highlands. The Zagwe dynasty, ruled over by eleven kings, lasted until the 13th century, when its last king abdicated in favour of a descendant of the old Axumite dynasty.
The most notable of the rulers of the Zagwe dynasty was King Lalibela who reigned from 1167 to 1207. A brilliant achievement of his reign was the construction of a dozen beautiful rock-hewn churches. According to legend, a dense cloud of bees surrounded the Prince Lalibela at the moment of his birth. His mother, claiming that the bees represented the soldiers who would one day serve her son, chose for him the name Lalibela, meaning "the bees recognize his sovereignty". Lalibela's older brother, King Harbay, was made jealous by these prophecies about his brother and tried to poison him. While Lalibela was drugged, angels transported him to various realms of heaven where God gave him directions to build a New Jerusalem with churches in a unique style. Lalibela also learned that he need not fear for his life or his sovereignty, for God had anointed him so that he might build the churches. After three days of divine communication, Lalibela returned to mortal existence and accepted the throne from his brother, who had also been visited by God (and told to abdicate to Lalibela). Both brothers traveled to the city of Roha and began the construction of the churches. Assisted by angels and St. Gabriel, they built twelve extraordinary churches over a period of twenty-five years. The Ethiopian Orthodox church later canonized the King and changed the name of the city of Roha to Lalibela.
The churches of Lalibela are among the most extraordinary architectural creations of human civilization. Each church is sculpted, both inside and out, directly from the living bedrock of the earth (this type of architecture was not new to the area for there are numerous other examples around Ethiopia dating to earlier periods; the Zagwe constructions, however, took the art form to a new level). There are two basic types at Lalibela: rock-hewn cave churches which are cut inward from more or less vertical cliff faces and rock-hewn monolithic churches which imitate a built-up structure but are actually cut in one piece from the surrounding rock and separated from it by an encircling trench. The probable method of construction was for craftsman to first sink trenches directly into the stone, then to slowly chisel away excess stone to reveal exterior and interior spaces. Narrow, labyrinthine tunnels connect several of the churches, and the walls of the trenches and courtyards contain cavities and chambers filled with mummies of pious monks and pilgrims. The churches are still used for worship today and many are filled with richly painted biblical murals.
The most remarkable of the Lalibela churches, called Bet Giorgis, is dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia. According to legend, when King Lalibela had almost completed the group of churches which God had instructed him to build, Saint George appeared (in full armor and riding his white horse) and sharply reproached the king for not having constructed a house for him. Lalibela promised to build a church more beautiful than all the others for the saint. The church of Bet Giorgis is a nearly perfect cube, hewn in the shape of a cross, and is oriented so that the main entrance is in the west and the holy of holies in the east. The nine windows of the bottom row are blind; the twelve windows above are functional. One of the most sophisticated details of Bet Giorgis is that the wall thickness increases step by step downwards but that the horizontal bands of molding on the exterior walls cleverly hide the increase. The roof decoration, often used today as the symbol of the Lalibela monuments, is a relief of three equilateral Greek crosses inside each other. The church is set in a deep pit with perpendicular walls and it can only be entered via a hidden tunnel carved in the stone.
Lalibela was the refuge for one of Christianity's most interesting heresies, known as Monophysitism. This belief states that Christ was both divine and human before his incarnation but that his divine nature left his body and only reentered it after the Resurrection. First professed at the 2nd Council of Ephesus in 449 AD and soon thereafter condemned as heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Monophysitism spread through Asia Minor into Africa and Ethiopia. In different forms it survives today in the Syrian Orthodox church, the Armenian church, the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopian Orthodoxy.
Dozens of tribes and the Great Rift Valley are also the highlight of the cultural attractions circuit. Hamer, Mursi, Karo, Surma, Erbore, Konso, Borena... are among the major tribes. The Great Rift Valley with its chains of lakes and National Parks are the part of this breathtaking region. The natural tourist attractions in Ethiopia include the Danakil Depression, different National Parks and Sof Omar Cave. These are much less visited but among the most compelling attractions of Ethiopia.