Ancient Ethiopia

Explore Ethiopia’s historic sites to appreciate a history that’s rich, complex and still very much alive. This region is an ancient cultural and geographical junction, and people have been living here for hundreds of thousands of years. Their art, music and traditions have grown from the intersection of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

  • UNESCO Sites
  • Ancient Books
  • Rock-Hewn Churches

Axum, Lalibela , Bahir Dar, Harer and Gonder – each of these Ethiopian towns has a history unlike any other, and all are usually included in standard tours of Ethiopia’s Historic Route.  They offer castles and churches, monasteries and mosques, carvings and frescoes. As well as exploring these magnificent buildings, ruins and relics with expert guides, you have plenty of opportunities to experience local craft, culture and music, and to really understand how Ethiopia’s heritage and ancient history influences the lives of Ethiopians today.

We’re fortunate enough to have priority booking in many of the Ethiopia’s top-end hotels and eco-lodges along the Historic Route, and you have the best rooms with the most beautiful views throughout your remarkable journey.

Although now near the Ethiopia’s northern border, Axum was at the very heart of the powerful Axumite Dynasty in the 1st century.  Also known as Abyssinia, this empire extended from the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden to present-day Yemen. The ruins around Axum date from the 1st through to the 13th century, the most impressive being the royal tombs and the monolith obelisks, known as stelae. The highest of these intricately carved stone spires towers 23 metres above you. Here, you visit a number of beautiful churches dating back to when Christianity first came to Ethiopia in the 4th century, and venture into the Tigray mountains to explore some of the 200 rock-hewn churches and monasteries built into the cliff faces.

If you start your tour in Axum, you then drive through a spectacular stretch of the Ethiopian Highlands to reach Lalibela, passing forests of baobab and frankincense trees. The rise of the Zagwe Dynasty in the 10th century heralded the start of the Ethiopian Christian Empire, and it was the dynasty’s King Labilela who took it upon himself to oversee the construction of a ‘New Jerusalem’. This was to be an alternative destination for Christian pilgrims in Africa, many of whom were dying trying to cross the Sinai Desert.

In this ancient town you stare down on the eleven 12th-century churches, hewn from the red volcanic rock. Inside, each one is different, some bright and patterned, others unadorned.  This is a living World Heritage Site, an important place of pilgrimage where people worship every day as they have done for over 900 years.

It’s another beautiful drive to Bahir Dar, a convenient place from which to explore the 14th century island monasteries of Lake Tana. The unusual circular buildings at the heart of these remote religious communities are richly decorated, almost every surface depicting stories from the Bible or about the saints.

You continue north to reach Gonder, where King Fasilides constructed the fortress city of Fasil Ginb in 1636. With its clutch of palaces, fortified castles and richly decorated churches and monasteries, it’s another one of Ethiopia’s eight cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Here, you see how European and Moorish influences combine in striking public and religious buildings.

Ancient Ethiopia (Classic Ethiopia Tour)

This is a sample itinerary to give you an idea of cost and what you could experience in 13 days. It could work in either direction, and we can tailor it in any number of ways.

Highlights

  • 2 days exploring Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s historic capital
  • 3 days at the Gheralta Lodge in Tigray visiting some of the world’s most inaccessible mountain monasteries, including
  • 2 days in Axum, the ancient capital of the Axumite Dynasty, including a visit to Yeha Temple – the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia
  •  3 days wandering through Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches and visiting Yemrehanne Kristos and the Asheton Maryam Monastery in the surrounding hills
  • 1 day touring Gonder’s fortress city Fasl Ginb, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • 2 days in Bahir Dar visiting the 14th-century island monasteries scattered across Lake Tana

Starting from £2,945 per person on double occupancy basis. (excluding all  flights)
Single supplement: £300

This includes: 

  • All accommodation on B&B basis
  • All airport transfers
  • Entry fees and a local tour guide at all the historic sites
  • An expert guide to accompany you throughout your tour

We suggest you do the Historic Route a little differently. While many tours recommend that you fly between destinations, we don’t. Take time to absorb it all; choose to drive between destinations if you have the time; and weave in other experiences that will give you a depth of understanding and insight into Ethiopian culture that you’re likely to miss out on if you’re jetting from one historic site to the next.

If you do want to visit them all, we would suggest you give yourself at least 14 days. Otherwise we can recommend an itinerary that will make the most of the time you have without compromising on your experience.  To make it a complete historical tour we highly recommend you visit the Islamic walled city of Harer too.

When to go

You can visit Axum, Gonder, Lalibela, Harer and Bahir Dar at any time from mid-September to late June.

Our top tip for Ancient Ethiopia

“Driving from Lalibela through Sekota to the Gheralta mesas in Tigray is unbelievable. I’ve done it myself so many times, and never tire of it.”

To read

For some background we suggest Ethiopia, the Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide  by Stuart Munro-Hay or A History of Ethiopia by Harold G. Marcus.

Practical advice 


Ethiopia makes you reach for over-used words and I select “awesome” with no sense of shame. I fell in love with that land so conclusively that I have a photograph of the Simien Highlands as a screensaver so that I can stare every day at those bewitching mountains and valleys.- Joanna Lumley

I travelled with Tadele Travel to see two key destinations in Ethiopia – Addis Abba and Lalibela. I was met as scheduled at the airport in Addis and delivered safely to my accommodation without a hitch. I felt thoroughly spoilt and well looked after the entire trip. The time is Addis was wonderful. The internal flight followed by my trek along the edge of the Rift Valley was utterly stunning and well organised. When I mentioned I was tired on the trek a pony was found for me much to my delight. All dietary requirements were taken into consideration and I really enjoyed the whole experience. Girma is a wonderful guide and spent time explaining the surroundings. The churches in Lalibela were spectacular and I felt truly informed after my day with a wonderful local guide. I highly recommend this team as their knowledge of Ethiopia is deep and their attention to detail reassuring. I loved the whole experience- Rachel Mansson, London

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