The Historical Route of Ethiopia

One of Ethiopia’s primary attractions is her abundance of historical sites, unique in sub-Saharan Africa. While much of the history is impenetrably bound up in myth and legend, a great deal of it is well documented. The path to Ethiopia’s famous and fascinating historic sites takes you through magnificent scenery to places with names, which could be out of a fairy tale.

Axum and Surroundings (2100m Altitude)

Axum, the holy city of Ethiopia and resting place of the Arc of the Covenant, reached its height between the 1st and 10th century. It was a kingdom of great wealth and sophistication, controlling the caravan routes from the hinterland of Africa trading with ivory and slaves. Its kings minted gold coinage when almost no one else in the world was rich enough to afford it or sophisticated enough to require it. The Axumite kingdom’s conversion to Christianity in 333 AD, during the rain of King Ezana, made Ethiopia since then a land of innumerable churches and monasteries.

According to the Orthodox Church the original Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of stone with the 10 commandments, lies in Axum. Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, brought it with him when he returned from a visit to Jerusalem to see his father. The Ark is now rests in the St. Mary of Zion church, the oldest church in Ethiopia, under close guard of a priest. Nobody is allowed to see it. Not even the high priest of Axum.

The original St. Mary of Zion, which dated back to the forth century, was burned down in 16th century by the Muslim invader Ahmed Gragn. In the 17th it was rebuilt by Emperor Fassiledes in the same style as his castle at Gondar. A second church of St. Mary (and the only one open to women) was built nearby in the mid 1960’s by Emperor Haile Selassie. Its museum has a small but impressive collection of bibles, crosses and crowns.

Just past the museum is Aksum’s ancient stele field, remains of the city’s past glory. Stele are huge, carved pillars made from a single block of granite. The largest obelisk, which was 35 meters long and weighed 500 tons, lies broken on the ground. Near it stands a smaller but nevertheless most impressive 24-metre-high obelisk – the pride of Ethiopia. A somewhat larger obelisk was taken to Rome in 1937 by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and was returned back to Axum recently.

If you take a walk outside the town, you reach the ruins of King Kaleb’s Tomb and Queen of Sheba’s Palace and if you keep going uphill you’ll end up at the Pentalewon Monastery – women aren’t allowed in, but the views from here are lovely.

Debre Damo Monastery

Debre Damo is built on a high plateau and can only be reached by scrambling up a cliff holding on to a leather rope. Its inaccessibility gives some clue why the monastery served as a sanctuary for Ethiopia’s rulers during times of war.
In the 5th or 6th century nine holy men arrived in Ethiopia to spread Christianity. One of these men, Za-Mikael Aregawi, is believed to have founded Debre Damo. The ancient monastery of Debre Damo is the oldest standing church in Ethiopia and of great importance for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Especially during the Zagwe dynasty, the aristocratic families of the north saw the great monasteries as an alternate base for power. The king often used these grants, known as gült, to enrich the monasteries that would support him, and the Zagwe were quite rightly suspicious of Debre Damo. It was a monk trained here who helped the Solomonid pretender Yekuno Amlak to overthrow the last of the Zagwe kings.


Situated ca. 50 km east of Axum lies Yeha, which used to be Ethiopia’s first capital in the 5th century BC. On the way we pass Adwa, the battlefield where Emperor Menelik II was defeated by the Italians over a century ago. This whole area shows a great amount of terracing on the flanking hills. The imposing, well preserved Yeha temple is visible from the distance, rising above the church of Enda Aba Afse and its enclosure. With up to 52 course masonries and massive walls, it dominates the whole valley with its high windowless wool.

The Churches of Lalibela

According to legend Lalibela was born as the brother of the ruling Zagwe king in the 12th century. As a child he was covered by a swarm of bees, which his mother saw as a sign of his later reign. His brother, not happy with the prophecy, tried to poison him, but did not succeed. Still, Lalibela spend three days in a deep sleep, time during which he was carried away to heaven and instructed to build the rock town he has seen there. At the same time his brother had a vision in which Jesus ordered him to resign in favor for his younger brother.

As soon as Lalibela became king, he began to gather craftsmen and workers for the construction of the rock-hewn churches. According to legend angels worked beside his men as they cut each one from the rock, so the construction was developing fast. The town, formerly known as Roha, became known as Lalibela and began to draw thousands of pilgrims. Although his dynasty was overthrown, Lalibela is still referred to as a saint.

The town of Lalibela, lies among the Lasta Mountains at 2630 m above sea level and remains until today a place of pilgrim and devotion for Ethiopian Christians. Until recent years it was hard to access as there was no road to it. It doesn’t matter if you have seen rock-churches before. Nothing will prepare you for this and you will understand why Lalibela is also referred to as the eight wonder of the world.

Excavated from a sloping mass of red volcanic scoria underlaid by dark grey basalt and interconnected by a maze of tunnels and passages with openings to hermit caves and catacombs the rock-hewn churches give the impression of an underground city. But not only have the rock-churches survived until today. Something far older has, too. The churches’ breath. If you see believers with a bible in their hand sitting there in prayer and listen to the chanting, you get the impression that time is standing still, that you witness a scene who has taken place hundreds of years ago. The churches are for at least 800 years the religious and spiritual center of the region. Lalibela is referred to as a New Jerusalem, with a river named Jordan and sites corresponding to the holy places of the great city. An Ethiopian saying says: “If you do not wish to see Lalibela, you are like someone who has no desire to see the face of Christ.”

There are two main groups of churches, with another church dedicated to Saint George a short distance away. All eleven rock-hewn churches can be visited within two days. From the street and even closer they are hardly visible, something that has preserved them until today. Some churches are monolithic, some of the basilica type, having archaic features and imitating architectural elements from earlier periods, some of them are remarkably similar to the architecture of ancient Axum, yet each church has its individual style. Some churches do not follow the conventional alignment of churches to the east which gives room for speculations that they were originally build for some other purpose.

The first group of churches comprises of six churches which lie in rock cradles one behind the other. Bet Medhane Alem, with 11,5m height the largest one, is built like a Greek temple and its stone floor is so polished by the countless numbers of visitors that it reflects shafts of light from apertures in the walls high above. In a corner are three empty graves symbolically dug for biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A short passage leads to Bet Maryam, Bet Danagel und Bet Meskal. Bet Gogotha and Bet lies somewhat isolated in the southwest part of the village on a sloping rock terrace. It can only be reached through a tunnel. The other group of four, south of the Jordan River, comprise of Bet Emanuel, Bet Mercurios, Bet Abba Libanos and Bet Gabriel-Rufa’el. Bet Gebriel-Rafael is the most imposing church of the southern cluster, displaying Axumite influences. According to legend it was built within a single day. The circa 1400 year old cave church Bet Mercurios could have served as a prison. Some of the churches could have been built before the reign of Lalibela.

More rock churches (also open for women) can be visited with an excursion from Lalibela:

Asheten Maryam Monastery:

  • Built on a ridge at 3150 m altitude, 8 km from Lalibela, lays this 13th century monastery, offering excellent views of the surrounding countryside. The steep road to the monastery, which looks like a twisted rope hugged to the wall, takes about 4 hours by mule and is a rewarding experience. Inside the monastery you find the 13th century processional crosses of King Nakuto Le’Abe who ruled in Ethiopia for 40 years just after King Lalibela.

Yemrehanne Kristos:

  • This most impressive cave church, 42 km north-east of Lalibela, was built by King Yemrehanne Kristos in the year 1087 AD. This wood and stone construction with its white marble panel exterior resembles the architecture of old Axum. In medieval times the church attracted many pilgrims due to its curative holy water. The remains of over 10.000 pilgrims from Syria, Egypt or Jerusalem, who came here to die, lie in a chamber behind the main building and add to the eerie feeling that the cave already has.

Genete Maryam:

  • One hour drive from Lalibela (or 4 hours by mule) lays this monolithic rock church on a high platform of pink stone. The church was build during the reign of King Yakuno Amlak in the 13th century and does not resemble any of the Lalibela churches. If you keep on walking for about two hours you reach Mekina Medhane Alem, which resembles with its layer building style Yemrehanne Kristos. The church was probably built in the 6th century and its inner walls are decorated with complicated geometrical designs and paintings.

Bilbala Giorgis:

  • Southwest of Arbuta Insesa, only the façade of this church is visible. Three of the church walls are carved from the rock while the ceiling is still part of it. Nearby lays Bilbala Cherqos with its excellent murals of saints and evangelists.

Nakuto Le’Abe Monastery:

  • This most impressive monastery is built – rather than excavated – within a big cave on the edge of a steep cliff. King Nakuto Le’Abe gave up his throne in 1270 AD and went to this cave to live a hermit’s life. This cave has ever since become a monastery. It houses an interesting collection of ancient crosses, illuminated manuscripts and other icons, some of them belonging Nakuto Le’Abe.

Arbuta Insesa:

  • South-west of Yemrehanne Kristos, 6 km from Bilbilla, lays this tiny monolithic sanctuary built in the style of ancient Axum. A spring within the church produces holy water.

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