Destinations in the Northern & North Eastern Ethiopia
For many Ethiopians the name Tigray evinces a dazzling history that goes as far back as the time of King Solomon and Queen Saba. For others, it is a place of devout religions. Yet for many others it evokes the memories of the unmatched bravery and sacrifices paid to defend the country’s freedom and independence
Truly Tigray is the Alfa and Omega of Ethiopia’s ancient and remarkable history. As evidenced today by its unique pre–Christian obelisks, countless stones inscriptions, dozens of rock-hewn churches, built monasteries, underground palaces and imperial tombs Tigray was once the country’s architectural work shop. It has always been the purveyor of religious scholarship, ecclesiastical paintings, Christian hymns as well as administrative and political blueprint. Tigray’s historical, religious and cultural wealth is as overwhelming rich as it is diverse.
Those and others make Tigray the pearl of the most preferred destination in Ethiopia, but how much do you know about the tourist destinations of the Region?
Activities in and around Axum
Remains of an early Axum palace popularly tend to have belonged to the legendary queen of Sheba, the elegant architectural buildings or tombs of several ancient Axumite rulers, the local archeological museum rich in findings of different coins stone inscription, house equipment, the temple of Yeha dated back to 2700 years, monastery of Debere Damo are worthy to visit.
Rock Hewn Churches around Tigrai.
Many of the Tigrai rock hewn churches lie along the main road between Adigrat and Mekele, or can be visited from it. The churches lie along the main road between Senkata and Wukro are the most accessible to those without private transport or limited time. The pick of these churches is undoubtedly Adi Kasho Medhane Alem, part of the highly accessible Teka Tesfai cluster 10km south Senkata. A second rather loose cluster consists of Wukro Chirkos – the most accessible of all the Tigrai churches, as it lies 500m from the main road in the town of Wukro – and the magnificent Abreha we Atsbeha church along the Hawzien road. The most extensive cluster is found in the Gheralta region, which lies to the south of Hawzien and includes some the most stunningly situated churches anywhere in Ethiopia. Gheralta can easily be explored out of Hawzien with a vehicle, or over a few days of hiking, bearing in mind that the region’s finest churches are reached by long, steep walks that require a fair level of fitness. A fourth and more dispersed cluster lies in the Atsbi area, to the east of Wukro. With one exception, the Atsbi churches can be explored only with a vehicle. More exception is the Abi Adi cluster which is not found more far than the other clusters: found around the town of Abi Adi.
The Gheralta cluster is the most extensive cluster with some of the most stunningly situated churches. The following are the most visited churches of this cluster.
Abuna yemata Guh: This is the most compelling church in the cluster. Probably the most spectacularly situated rock hewn church any were in Ethiopia. This small but, very beautiful church has been carved in to the top of the fully perpendicular rock pillars. The interior of the church is reached via a small crack in the rock, is notable for its extensive and paintings show apostles and Abune Yemata on horseback.
There are stunning views from the narrow ledge that leads to the church, looking over a sheer drop of roughly 200m.
The last part of the ascent to Abune Yemata Gus involves clambering up a sheer cliff face using handgrips and foot holds.
Debre Maryam Korkor: This monastic church set on a small plateau atop a sheet- sided 2, 480m – High Mountain a short distance southeast of Abune Yemata Guh. The interior is very atmospheric and large, the fine artwork on the walls and columns is said locally to date from the 13th century. After crossing the fields to the base of the mountain, the foot path raises steeply though a natural rock passage.
Two or three minutes walk from Debre Maryam Korkor, another rock hewn church called Aba Daniel Korkor is set above a sheet precipice with stunning views over the surrounding plains.
Abuna Gebre Mikael: Situated on the koraro escarpment about 15 km south west of Abune Yemata. Although this church is one of the finest in the Gheralta cluster, it is the little –visited church. The church has unusually ornate carved exterior and large cruciform interior supported by eight columns. The steep walk to the church takes about 45 minutes and involves some climbing and jumping between rocks, though nothing as dodgy as the ascent of Abuna Yemata.
Abune Abraham Debre Tsion: - Is anomalistic cliff church carved into a rusty sandstone face high above the village of degum it has an impressive and unusually Ornate exterior.
It has the church largest ground plan of any rock-hewn church in the region. The wall is covered in murals of various Old Testament figures Debre Tsion is named for Abuna Abraham, the monk who is said to have founded and excavated the church.
A motor able track to Debre Tsion is sign posted to the south west of the Work road 3.5 km south west of the Degum. You need to walk for about 20 minutes across flat fields to the back of the mountain then a steep, but easy 45-50 minutes hike brings you to the summit, where the church is curved.
Yohannis –Maikudi: Is situated 2km south east of Debre –Tsion access to this church is through a narrow cliff between bulging walls of bare glaring sandstone.
The walls and roof are densely covered in primitive but evocative painting old and New Testament scenes. Yohannis Maikudi can be visited on its own or in conjunction with nearby Debre Tsion.
Wukro cluster: This cluster is a good base for making a day trip to any of the churches situated back along the main road also there are two main churches in this cluster.
Wukro Chirkos : Wukro chirkos is the most accessible church of Tigrai churches, lies about 500 meters out of town on a low hill east of the main road. Wukro also makes good bases for day trips to any of the churches situated back along the Adigrat road.
Abreha we Atsbeha: Regarded by many experts to be the finest rock- hewn church in Tigrai. Abreha we Atsbeha half way along the new road between Degum and Wukro. The interior is very large 16m wide, 13 meter deep 6 meter high and cruciform in shape, with a beautifully carved roof supported by 13 large pillars and several decorated arches. The well preserved and beautifully executed murals are relatively recent.
Abreha we Atsbeha lies 17km from wukro a long a good but mountainous road and can be easily be visited as a self standing excursion from the town.
Mikael Barka: The most accessible of the churches in this area is Mikael Barak, visible from the main road between wukro-Atsbi.
Mikael Barka is sign posted at the base of a small isolated hill precisely 18.5km from wukro and 6km from Astsbi. The foot path that leads to the church is fairly steep, but not arduous sand the walk up takes no more than 15 minutes.
Mikael Debre Selam: is unusually if not unique in combining a fine rock hewn church with the Axumite sandwich architectural style associated with the monastery of Yemrehanna kristos near Lalibela Ivy Pearce described it as extraordinary a church with in church. Debreselam outwardly consists of a built-up cave church, protected with in a relatively modern whitewashed portico. Mikael Debreselam is situated at an altitude of 2,670m high on a cliff face about 7km north of Astsbi town.
Mikael Imba: This superb three –quarter monolith church is the most impressive exterior of any rock hewn church in Tigrai. The west facing façade of Mikael Imba looks more like a transplant From Lalibela than it resembles any other Tigrai churches. The vast interior is also magnificent.
Mikael Imba is Situated at an altitude of 2,329m on an ambo [Flat topped hill] some 15km South of Atsbi a long a rough road the last one Kilometer is very rough. It would be advisable to walk this Stretch, Which passes through a memorable Landscape of glowing sandstone Cliffs.
Teka Tesfai cluster : This is the most accessible cluster of churches in Tigrai. Sited only 3km east of the main Adigrat- Mekele road. There are two main churches in this cluster
Medhane Alem Adikesho: Clearly it is the Finest of the Teka Tesfai cluster. Some also argue it is one of the finest churches in Tigrai. It is most impressive for its size and complex architecture. The imposing exterior is cut free from rock behind, with four columns in front and two large doors and it is covered in recent but very attractive paintings. The interior has a cathedral like atmosphere, and the magnificent rook is dense with patterned etchings.
Mikael Melhayzenghi: is a church which lies within a domed rock out crop between Medhane-Alem and another church called Petro’s and Palus. This church is very different in execution from any other rock- hewn churches in Ethiopia. Mikael Melhayzenghi is entered via a low door way which gives way to a surprisingly large interior with a finely carved dome almost 3m in height.
Abi Adi cluster: This is a cluster which cannot be reached through the main Mekele-Adigrat road. Although there are many rock hewn churches in this cluster Aba Yohanni and Gebrielwukien
Abba Yohanni: Abba Yohanni is a monastery which was named after the monk who founded it, situated in about 8km off the main Abi Adi- Adwa road. This church is accessible only through a tunnel-like passage on its west side which is built in 1972. This church is classic in its decoration and supreme in its workmanship that one can see the beautiful interior of the church which is divided into four bays (which makes the church in exceptional feature) and three aisles by its arched columns and ceiling adorned by domes which themselves are decorated by finely carved crosses. And one can see a few recent paintings in the masonry depict the twelve Apostles.
Gebriel Wukien: This
church can be reached 16km North West of Abi Adi and some km across the
field and further 10minutes ascent of the mountain side. One can see
the grave yard and hanging stone bells on the northern side of the
church yard. This Architecturally interesting church has three aisles
and four bays and remarkable features such as it is well-carved, has
interesting details (which makes some to compare it with Mariam Wukro of
ImbaSeneyti and Medhane-Alem Adi Kosho of TsadaImba), has six massive,
and finely hewn freestanding pillars and three cupolas.
The Simien Mountains is one of the major highlands of Africa, rising to the highest point in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen (4620m), which is the fourth highest peak in the continent. Although Simien is in Africa and not too far from the equator, snow and ice appear on the highest points and night temperatures often fall below zero.
The national park has three general botanical regions. The higher lands are mountain grasslands with fescue grasses as well as heathers, splendid Red Hot Pokers and Giant Lobelia. The park was created primarily to protect the Walia Ibex, and over 1000 are said to live in the park. Also in the park are families of the unique Gelada Baboon with its scarlet ‘bleeding heart on its chest,’ and the rare Simien fox. The Simien fox, although named after the mountain is rarely seen by the visitor. Over 50 species of birds have been reported in the Simien Mountains.
Access to the park is from Debark, 101km from Gonder, where riding and pack animals may be hired. This should be arranged in advance through your local tour operator or the Office of the Wildlife Conservation Department.
Blue Nile Falls
Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile from where it starts its long journey to Khartoum and on to the Mediterranean sea. The 37 islands that are scattered about the surface of the Lake shelter fascinating churches and monasteries, some of which have histories dating back to the 13th Century. However, it should be noted that most of the religious houses are not open to women. The most interesting islands are: Birgida Mariam, Dega Estefanous, Dek, Narga, Tana Cherkos, Mitsele Fasiledes, Kebran and Debre Maryam. Kebran Gabriel is the principal monastery which can be visited by male tourists from Bahar Dar with its impressive Cathedral-like Building first built at the end of the 17th Century. Dega Estephanos, which is also closed to women, is on an island in the lake, and is reached by a very steep and winding path. Although the church is relatively new (only one hundred years old), it houses a Madonna painted in the 15th century. However, the treasury of the monastery is a prime attraction with the remains of several emperors, as well as their robes and jewels.
On the banks of the lake are many more religious houses such as Ura Kidane Mehret and Narga Selassie, many of which are open to women.
Near Gorgora, at the northern end of the lake, the Susneyos palace is a forerunner of the magnificent palaces and castles of Gonder, and dates from the reign of Emperor Susneyos. In the same area the medieval church of Debre Sina Mariam is particularly important.
Along the lakeshore bird life, both local and migratory visitors, make this an ideal place for birdwatchers. Bird lovers will not want to miss Fasilidas Island, which is especially famous as an important wetland. The whole of the Lake Tana region and the Blue Nile Gorge have a wide variety of birds both endemic and visitors.
North East Ethiopia - Danakil Depression
The landscape is dotted with bright yellow sulfur fields, green crystal pools and sparkling salt beds. This is the Danakil Depression, a basin in north-eastern Ethiopia, close to the Red Sea. It is one of the lowest points on earth not covered by water. Danakil is renowned for being the place with the highest average temperature on Earth. It tops 34 °C every day of the year and soars to 55 °C in the summer.
The people who are living in the region are Afar tribes, they are pastorals and some of them engaged in salt mining as the depression is covered with salt.
Erta Ale Volcano
Erta Ale ranks as one of the most alluring and physically challenging natural attritions anywhere in Ethiopia. Rising from below sea level to an altitude of 613, Erta Ale is a shield volcano with a base diameter of 30km and 1km 2 caldera at its summit. Nestled within the caldera are two pit craters: more northerly one, though currently inactive, held a lava lake in 1968 and 1973, while the smaller ellipsoid central pit contains the world’s only permanent lava lake, which measures about 60m across and is 100m long.
Scientists think the lake must have a continuous link to a shallow magma chamber, which is itself fed on a regular bases by magma associated with the formation of the rift. Significant changes in activities where noted at Erta Ale over flank, and a fresh breach on the southern crater that has caused the lava to overflow its terrace and rise up to within 20m of the crater rim. Several earthquakes have also been recorded in the vicinity of Erta Ale in recent years, suggesting that a major eruption may be imminent.