Ethiopia – a remarkable travel destination
For many people, Ethiopia is unexpected. You may have heard of it referred to as ‘the only African country never to be colonised’, ‘the Cradle of Humankind’, or like ‘taking a step back into medieval times’. These are all true. What Ethiopia can also be – if you’re open to it – is a country that shifts your perspectives and makes you re-examine your assumptions. Prepare to be surprised by its natural beauty and diversity, its antiquity, its hospitality, its flavours and its cultures.
Here are just a few of the reasons why we think Ethiopia is a remarkable travel destination.
A long and intriguing history
Ethiopia is an ancient crossroads of African, European and the Middle Eastern cultures; of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has seen the rise and fall of powerful Jewish kingdoms, Christian dynasties and Islamic sultanates, and it has a modern political history that is unparalleled in Africa.
Many travellers visit Ethiopia for the history alone – most specifically for the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the royal tombs and towering stelae of Axum, the palaces and fortresses of Gonder, the ancient walled city of Harer, the remote churches of Tigray and the island monasteries of Lake Tana.
Ethiopia has been inhabited for thousands of years. In addition to towns and sites mentioned above, archaeologists have uncovered dozens of ancient and prehistoric sites, with some human settlements dating from 800 BC.
There’s also one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites, which lies on the banks of the Awash River, and which earned Ethiopia the title of the ‘Cradle of Humankind’. This is where the remains of Dinkinesh – also known as ‘Lucy’ – were discovered. Although you can see the 3.2 million-year-old fossilized hominoid in Addis Ababa’s National Museum of Ethiopia, the site near Hadar in the Ethiopian region of Afar is one of Ethiopia’s 9 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (Others include Axum, Gonder, Lalibela and Harer.)
Giving a brief overview of such a long and complex history as exists in Ethiopia is too great a task for us here. We highly recommend you read The Ethiopians by Richard Pankhurst (Wiley-Blackwell) if you want to explore a history peppered with legends such as the Queen of Sheba and Emperor Haile Selassie.
Then there are the Ethiopian landscapes – beautiful, remote and rich in wildlife – and the opportunities to explore them on foot, on horseback or from the saddle of a bicycle.
The rugged mountains and high-altitude plateaus of the Ethiopian Highlands are the core of the country and the source of the snaking Blue Nile. Many of Ethiopia’s key historical sites lie within them, including Lalibela, Axum, Gonder and Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
Bisected by the chasm of the Great Rift Valley, the peaks, ravines and plains of the highlands cover the majority of Ethiopia, dropping down to the sub-sea-level salted landscape of the Danakil Depression in the north east, the Lower Valley of the Omo, the savannah grasslands and the coffee producing rain forests of Keffa in the south west, and gradually falling across the arid plateau of Ogaden that stretches into Somalia in the south east.
The highlands reach their highest point in the Simien Mountains in the north west of the country. Here, Africa’s fourth highest mountain, Ras Dejen, reaches 4,543m. But there are many other impressive peaks and mountain ranges ideal for trekking, from the rock pinnacles of the Bale Mountains, to the Lasta Massif and the flat-topped ambas of Tigray.
Ethiopia may not be a on the list of traditional African wildlife safari destinations, but it is an exciting wildlife destination. The altitude of the Ethiopian Highlands and its precipitous mountain ranges support diverse habitats, including Afro-alpine meadows, misty cloud forests, stark semi-deserts and open swaying grasslands. Then there are the chain of lakes along the floor of the Great Rift Valley, the vast waters of Lake Tana, and the arid landscapes of the east.
Besides Africa’s big five, this diversity of habitats supports more than 800 birds species, unique plant and insect life, and a number mammals that are found nowhere else in the world, including the intelligent Gelada baboon, the nimble Walia ibex, the lithe Ethiopian wolf and the regal mountain nyala.
The Simien Mountain National Park, the Bale Mountains National Park and mountains around Abune Yosef are particularly rich in plants, birds and animals, with the Bale Mountains being one of Africa’s top birdwatching destinations.
A profound and ancient culture
And finally, there’s Ethiopian culture. We have over 3,000 years of history, legends and conquests behind us. Many of our existing traditions are directly traceable to the times of the Old Testament, and there are threads of Middle Eastern, Indian and European influences enmeshed in Ethiopian life.
Ethiopia has a unique calendar system consisting of 13 months, tells the time differently to anywhere else in the world, and is the only country in Africa to use its own script. Fidel, a simplified version of the ancient Semitic language of Ge’ez, which is still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. It consists of 33 characters (each of which has seven different forms) and is used to write Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language. (The conflicting spellings of Amharic words when written in the Roman alphabet are down to the fact that there’s no universal agreement on transcribing Amharic into Roman letters.)
The two strongest influences on modern Ethiopian culture are the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the rich traditions of Islam. Although Christianity is more dominant in the North, and Islam in the South and East, the followers of both faiths live side by side as they have done for centuries.
The Ethiopian Church is one of the oldest in the world. Christianity was introduced to northern Ethiopia in 330AD, and become the official religion of the Axumite Dynasty. However, Ethiopia was already very familiar with Judaism.
According to the Ethiopian holy book, the Kebr Negest, the legendary Queen of Sheba hailed from Axum, and visited Israel more than a thousand years before Christianity arrived. Menelik I, the son she had with King Solomon of Israel, is said to have founded the powerful Semitic Empire of Ethiopia. Upon returning from visiting his father in Jerusalem he brought with him a number of Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant, which remains in a church in Axum.
Islam is practised by over a third of Ethiopians today, and Ethiopia was one of the first regions in the world to adopt the religion. The Axumite Dynasty offered shelter to the daughter and son-in-law of the Prophet when they were forced to flee Mecca to escape persecution in 615 AD in a migration known as the First Hirjah. The fourth holy city of Islam, Harer, lies in east Ethiopia and has some of the oldest mosques in Africa, dating back to the 10th century.
Religion has influence the country’s rich musical history too, and for music lovers, Ethiopia has plenty to offer. The province of Wollo was the birthplace of Menzuma, an ancient form of Islamic praise songs, while St Yared is the 6th-century musician credited with the development of the unique tradition of Ethiopian church music, as well as Ethiopia’s system of writing music. Today Ethiopia has a strong traditional music culture, with many Ethiopian instruments still being very popular. Alongside this are distinct Ethiopian versions of jazz, blues and contemporary music to explore and enjoy.
Delicious food and drink
The food is another reason to visit Ethiopia. Meals in Ethiopia traditionally start with kolo, a crunchy mix of roasted grains, predominantly barley, along with some chickpeas and sunflower seeds. It’s a snack you can enjoy at any time of day, with coffee or a cold tela (beer).
Spicy meat or chicken stews known as wet, or shiro – stews made with ground broad beans, chickpeas or peas – served with the fine pancake-like rounded bread called enjera are Ethiopian staples. The stews are often spiced using berbere, a distinctive Ethiopian mix of herbs and spices that includes chilli, garlic, black azmud (nigella), fenugreek and korerima (Ethiopian cardamom). Enjera is made of teff, a very fine and very hardy grass grain.
Stews made with lentils and beans are commonly eaten on fast days – of which there are around 180 in the year for Ethiopian Christians, including every Wednesday and Friday. Delicately spiced vegetable dishes usually accompany these fasting foods.
Desserts are not a part of Ethiopian tradition, although coffee to end your meal most certainly is. This is the country where coffee originated, and the first wild coffee beans were gathered in the rain forests of Keffa, a province in south-western Ethiopia. The coffee ceremony is central to Ethiopian culture, the beans being roasted and ground in front of you, their aroma thickening around you, building your anticipation of that first sip from the small steaming cup your host will offer you.
For more information see our practical guide for travelling in Ethiopia
Do you still need convincing?
Almost certainly Ethiopia will not meet your expectations. Rather, Ethiopia will astonish, intrigue and delight you on each day of your journey. This is just a brief introduction to the country we love. You can discover more about the extraordinary journey that Ethiopia can offer you in our suggested experiences. And of course we would be more than happy to answer any questions you have and discuss your plans for exploring Ethiopia.