As Seen in…
Why visit Ethiopia?
The pre-recorded history and legend surrounding Ethiopia is almost as compelling as what you find on the ground today: often associated with being the fabled ‘Land of Sheba’, it is purported that, following her visit to Jerusalem, the Queen returned with child and their offspring are the progeny of Solomon; hence the ancient appellation of ‘Lion of Judah’ attached to Kings of Abyssinia and the royal family’s obsession with Barbary lions, the rare race of big cats that today roam the new Lion Park in Addis Ababa.
Upon the fall of Jerusalem, the country claims that the Ark of the Covenant was sent here for safety and still resides in the ancient and highly protected church at Aksum. Again, after fleeing the wrath of Herod, Coptic Christians record that Jesus Christ’s parents brought him here via Egypt to hide through his infancy. Whatever the truth behind such stories, Ethiopia’s archaeological history rivals its potency: various palaeanthropological finds, the most celebrated being ‘Lucy’ (splendidly on show in Addis’s National Museum) in 1974, suggest that Ethiopia’s highlands may be the cradle of humanity as we know it – dating back to 3.2 million years ago.
The mythical land of Punt and the Pre-Aksumite civilisation from around 1,500 B.C. suggest a highly developed early culture, but these had their flowering in the Kingdom of Aksum from the late centuries B.C. to the 6th century A.D.. A visit here reveals a bath that attests to being the 10th century B.C. Queen of Sheba’s site of ablutions and obelisks and rock hewn tombs tell of a lost glory. The advent of Christianity – certainly by the 4th century – thoughEthiopians claim the first disciples of Jesus walked here – brought new power to Aksum and the footings of the 17th century churches may well be the oldest Christian church site in the continent.
During the rise of what evolved into the Coptic Church, the great churches of the new 12th – 13th century Zagwe Dynasty’s capital at Lalibela were constructed. To climb down into their iconic intricately carved centres within the bedrock is an entirely unique glimpse into a culture of huge resourcefulness and zeal. The subsequent Ethiopian resolve to resist outside invasion has proved a lasting legacy: a bloody period of Islamic wars and huge destruction of sacred sites and then fending off the tide of Oromo migration up The Rift Valley regions followed until the rise of the great Gonder civilisation. Basing its new capital at Gonder, close to Lake Tana’s island monasteries which still today keep incredible manuscripts of great antiquity, the unification of the north led to a period of huge prosperity and despite infighting right into the 19th century Abyssinia built huge palaces, gardens and ceremonial sites which make for fine exploration today.
War with Egypt led to eventual victory and a series of emperors rode out conflict with British interests and brief and partial invasion from Italy in World War 2. Resistance to the invaders with their superior arms was ultimately successful; less so the political machinations of Emperor Haile Selassie, the last monarch, deposed in 1974 and replaced by the Derg (‘committee’) who, whilst stabilising and unifying the nation we see today, practised an increasingly brutal communist regime which led to uprising and eventual progression to democracy in 1995.
Today’s country, despite suffering still economically, is slowly recognising its potential for tourism, though a visit here still leaves you astonished that more people have not been drawn by its incredible and diverse attractions. The Simiens, darling landscape of Attenborough for its high endemic count and dizzying chasms and canyons, the incredibly welcoming tribal lands of the south who delight in sharing their wonderful customs, arts and festivities and the natural corridor of the Rift and Omo Valleys are a secret that it will be hard not to blaze abroad from the rooftops.