The name Lalibela should be as famous as Petra. It has been said that if Lalibela were anywhere but Ethiopia, the small city high in the Lasta mountains would be considered one of the Wonders of the World.
Lalibela was the reason I went to Ethiopia. Images of its churches have intrigued me for years — and in person, they did not disappoint.
The 11 Christian churches, still in use, were carved down out of solid rock some time in the 13th century; to this day no one is sure how. Each is unique and fascinating. Many are linked through tunnels or passages, forming something like an underground village.
There’s the gigantic Bet Medhane and the relatively tiny Bet Abba Libanos, and the cave-church Bet Mercurios, which is possibly 1,400 years old. But the crown jewel is the stunning Bet Giyorgis (Church of St. George), which stands alone, 15 metres high and carved in the shape of a cruciform tower, in its own private sunken courtyard. Each church comes with its own priest, who, for a small fee, will pose for pictures holding a golden cross, an ancient parchment, or even a modern umbrella.
But Ethiopia is more than Lalibela. This ancient country of friendly people and stunning vistas is also home to Tissassat Falls, Lake Tana, Gondar, Bahir Dar, the Rift Valley and Axum.
The Axumite Empire is still shrouded in mystery, but it was at its peak from the first to the seventh century. In the city of Axum, a collection of stelae (upright stone slabs or pillars) were left behind. The most stunning two, each 23 metres high, are credited to King Ezana. A larger stele, 33 metres long, lies in pieces nearby; scholars believe it fell as it was being hoisted into place, too tall to stand on its small base. There are more than 600 stelae of various heights (most only a couple of metres tall and very plain) in and around Axum, which also boasts the remains of a palace thought to belong to the Queen of Sheba.
The former capital of Ethiopia, Gondar, is home to the majestic Royal Enclosure. Fasil Ghebbi contains six castles and three churches built by Emperor Fasilidas and his descendants in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gondar’s cathedral of Tsion Maryam (St. Mary of Zion) compound also supposedly houses the legendary Ark of the Covenant in a sanctified outbuilding — although no one has actually seen it lately.
The roaring Tissassat Falls, near Ethiopia’s huge Lake Tana, is where the Blue Nile starts on its way to Khartoum to become part of the Nile. And to the south, the northern end of the immense, country-spanning Rift Valley begins.
Ethiopia is not the country of famine, drought and desert many people still believe it to be. It is a lush, green, friendly, adventurous and historically fascinating land striding purposefully into a bright future. Don’t overlook it as a tourist destination.
IF YOU GO
Touring: I travelled with a British-based, small-group tour company that offers trips to Ethiopia and many other countries, of varying lengths and levels of difficulty.
Cost: My two-week trip cost $2,346, which included breakfasts and most dinners, flights within Ethiopia, accommodations at high-end hotels and entry to the sites, but not airfare to Ethiopia.
Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines operates out of Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., and offers direct service to Addis Ababa (with a stopover for fuel only in Rome).
Wendy Rockburn is a stage manager, world traveller and Bollywood aficionado who lives in Orléans.