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Can Ethiopia shake off its image as a poverty-stricken
nation to become a tourist destination?
We emerge blinking into the Ethiopian sunshine like Indiana Jones coming up from an archaeological adventure, to find a hermit has made his home in one of the holes in the rocks around the churches of Lalibela. Remains of mummified bodies are piled neatly in the walls, their dry brown bony toes sticking out obligingly for passing tourists to photograph.
The mummies have slept through decades of famine and civil unrest, years when the world forgot about the beautiful churches of Lalibela, the treasures of Gondar, ‘Ethiopia’s Camelot’, and the richness of Axum, centre of the Axumute civilisation which existed 1000 years before Christ.
But Ethiopia too is coming back into the sunlight, as tourists rediscover the ancient country where the Queen of Sheba once ruled and now primitive and modern cultures exist side by side. In the villages, families live in "tukels" with thatched roofs, and life goes on today much as it has for centuries.
In Addis Ababa, there are new buildings of reinforced concrete and glass towering over busy, dusty roadways. Beautiful women wear a gauzelike white fabric covering them from head to foot, and drift through the streets like angels.
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Ethiopia is a land of highs and lows. Some of the highest and most stunning places on the African continent are found here, such as the jaggedly carved Simien Mountains, one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites - and some of the lowest, such as the hot but fascinating Danakil Depression, with its sulphur fumaroles and lunar-like landscape.
Ethiopian history has also seen extremes. As Abyssinia, its culture and traditions date back over 3,000 years. And far earlier than that lived "Lucy" or Dinkenesh, meaning 'thou art wonderful', as she is known to the Ethiopians, whose remains were found in a corner of the Awash valley in 1974.
The only African country that has never been colonized, Ethiopia’s 20th century history was marked by Mussolini’s brief invasion in 1935. The colourful period where Emperor Haile Selaisse held sway also captured the world’s imagination, but years of Communist rule and famine in the 70s and 80s followed.
Now Ethiopia is one of very few countries in Africa which is relatively safe to explore. Ethiopia is conflict-free these days and has a low crime rate.
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Back underground in Lalibela, we hold candles to light our way through the labyrinthine approach to one of 11 remarkable rock-hewn monolithic churches believed to have been built by King Lalibela in the late 12th or early 13th century. We are suddenly at the door of a chapel, carved out of the rock. The sunlight floods in through small arched windows illuminating colourful wall paintings telling stories from the Bible.
Angels, devils and saints observe us shuffling on the cobbles on our bare feet. A priest appears, dressed in colourful robes and holding aloft one of the famous silver crosses of Lalibela. He dons sunglasses to protect his eyes as the cameras start to flash, and he grins like a Hollywood A-lister caught by the paparazzi.
Tours through this beautiful country, little explored by tourists, reveal the legacy of ancient civilisations and medieval emperors. Hikers will love exploring the terrain and budding explorers will be fascinated by the archaeological richness and historical treasures. Many visit Ethiopia because of the remarkable manner in which ancient historical traditions have been preserved.
The Northern Ethiopian historical route takes in the breathtaking sites of Lalibela and Gonder, the ‘City of Castles’ picturesquely located beneath the Simien Mountains. Here is the impressive two-storey Palace of Emperor Fasiladas, hewn out of brown basalt, and the church of Debre Birhan Selassie, whose ceilings are covered with paintings of 80 winged angels, each one with a different cherubic expression.
Axum is home to three magnificent monolithic stelae, carved from single pieces of granite, the Church of St. Mary of Zion and, reputedly, the mystical Ark of the Covenant.
If travelling in mid January, visitors can experience Timkat on 19th January. Ethiopia’s most widely celebrated festival marks the baptism of Christ. Gonder is considered the best place to be at Timkat, as crowds gather to jump into the waters of King Fasiladas’ baths. Christmas, or Leddet, is also celebrated in January from 6th -7th.
The world’s third highest capital, Addis Ababa, is Ethiopia’s gateway city and the starting point of any tour of Ethiopia, A bustling capital city of 5 million people it boasts the Mercato, the largest open-air market in all Africa. Kiddist Selassie (Holy Trinity) Cathedral is the final resting place of the Emperor Haile Selassie. The national museum is one of the best in Africa. Exhibits include the remains of 3½-million year old hominid Lucy to artefacts from the Axumite and Gondarine periods.
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Although hotels across Ethiopia are comfortable, they often lack the sophistication modern travellers expect. However, The Kuriftu Resort & Spa on Lake Tana and its sister resort in Debre Zeit (50kms south of Addis Ababa) look set to start a new trend. They are beautifully designed resorts with accommodation in grass topped bungalows. The owners plan to build eight other similar 5* resorts along the historical route.
The vision of the business is, according to Getachew Amare, the GM of Kuriftu Resort Debre Zeit, "To change the tarnished image of Ethiopia from a drought and poverty stricken nation to an exotic tourist destination".
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Ethiopia travel facts
Flight time: About 8 hours
Don't Miss in Ethiopia
Lake Tana -
Africa's second-largest lake, at 3600 sq km, is the source of The Blue
Nile. A boat ride across the lake takes you past monasteries on the
outlying islands. If you’re lucky you may spot hippos and white pelicans
in the water.
Flights to Ethiopia
Ethiopian Airlines flies to Addis Ababa from London Heathrow six times a week (no flight Tuesdays); the state-owned airline also offers a number of domestic flights around Ethiopia. www.ethiopianairlines.com Reservations 0208 987 7000
Inclusive tour in Ethiopia
Steppes Travel offers a 15-day tour of Historic Ethiopia travelling to Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Axum, Gondar, Lalibela, and the Simien Mountains, including flights, hotel accommodation in double/twin sharing, meals, ground transportation by 4x4 LC, all entrance fees, expert English speaking guide throughout, boat trip on Lake Tana and Scout in the Simien Park. www.steppestravel.co.uk Tel: 01285 880980
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