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The Historic North and the Simien Mountains

An ancient land of fertile well-watered mountains that form the main source of the Blue Nile, northern Ethiopia has long stood at the cultural crossroads of Africa, Arabia and the Mediterranean. These divergent influences have bequeathed the region a unique cultural and historical heritage epitomised by a quartet of unique and magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Aksum, Lalibela, Gondar and the Simien Mountains National Park - as well as a vast array of lesser-known but equally fascinating historical sites.

  • Three thousand year old Aksum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where obelisks as tall as ten-storey buildings overlook mysterious ruined palaces once inhabited by the Queen of Sheba and a temple that is said to house the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.
  • Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the atmospheric 12th-century complex of rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, still active shrines of worship today, has been dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
  • Freshwater Lake Tana, a vast inland sea fringed by tropical greenery, is dotted with evocatively painted island monasteries such as Ura Kidane Mihret and Narga Selassie
  • The Camelot of Africa, Gondar is best known for the magnificent 17th century castles that adorn its Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The spectacular hiking trails that traverse Simien Mountains National Park, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, provide an opportunity to see Walia ibex and other endemic wildlife, or to ascend the country's highest peak, the 4,533m Ras Dejen.
  • Negash is Ethiopia’s oldest Islamic settlement, established by a group of Muslim refugees that included close relatives of the Prophet Mohammed during his lifetime.
  • The Blue Nile, which arcs southwest from its source in Lake Tana, plummets over a spectacular 45m high waterfall called Tis Isat (Water that Smokes) into a mile-deep gorge whose scale invites comparisons to the Grand Canyon. 

The towering sandstone outcrops of the Gheralta Escarpment are incised with around two-dozen isolated rock-hewn churches reached along challenging but wonderfully scenic footpaths.

Getting There

Northern Ethiopia covers a vast area so many visitors fly between main centres. Daily flights with Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) connect Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar, Gondar, Aksum, Lalibela and Mekele. There are also connecting flights between most of these towns. Privately owned local airline companies can also arrange non-scheduled or chartered flights upon request.
Most trunk roads in the region are asphalt, but some minor routes remain unsurfaced. Road transport can be arranged through any tour operator in Addis Ababa, or with local operators. Taxis and local guides are readily available in all larger towns.

The Simien Mountains, Guassa, Abuna Yoseph and Gheralta are primarily hiking and trekking destinations.

Accommodation

International-quality accommodation is available in Bahir Dar, Gondar, Lalibela, Gheralta and the Simien Mountains National Park. Midrange rooms are also available in these towns, as well as in Aksum, Mekele and Wukro. Budget accommodation can be found in almost all towns and larger villages in the region including Debark, gateway to the Simiens. Hutted accommodation aimed at hikers is available in the Simien Mountains and at the Guassa and Abuna Yoseph community conservation areas.

Other Practicalities

Holidays such as Ethiopian New Year (11 September), Meskel (Finding of the True Cross; 27 September), Gena (Ethiopian Christmas; 7 January) and Timkat (Epiphany; 19 January) are celebrated colourfully throughout the region. These holidays fall one day later in leap years.
The best places for handicraft shopping are Bahir Dar, Lalibela and Aksum.
Most key sites in northern Ethiopia lie at altitudes of 2,000m or higher, with the high Simiens topping the 4,000m mark. Although day temperatures are rather mild all year round it can be chilly at night or during the rainy season. Bring plenty of warm clothing.
Some monasteries in northern Ethiopia have been closed to women for centuries, a rule also applied to tourists.

Further Information

Amhara Culture and Tourism Bureau: www.amharatours.org.et

Tigrai Culture and Tourism Bureau: www.tigraitourism.com

Gondar Tourist Office: www.gondarcity.gov.et

Simien Mountains National Park: www.simienmountains.org

Axumite Heritage Foundation: www.axumiteheritagefoundation.org

Lalibela Community Tourism Guiding: www.community-tourism-ethiopia.org

Abune Yoseph CCA: www.abuneyosephtourism.org

Guassa CCA: www.guassaarea.org

Further Reading

Bradt Guide to Ethiopia: (7th edition 2015, www.bradtguides.com ).

Guide to Aksum and Yeha: (2009, www.aradabooks.com ).

Guide to Gondar & Lake Tana: (2012, www.aradabooks.com ).

Guide to Lalibela: (2008, www.aradabooks.com ).

Simien Mountains National Park: A Traveller’s Guidebook by Eliza Richman &

Biniyam Admassu.

The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant by Graham

Hancock: (1992).

  1. A scenic highlight of the drive to Lake Tana is the road up and down the terraced slopes and euphorbia-studded cliffs that hem in the magnificent Blue Nile Gorge, Africa’s largest canyon.
  2. Administrative capital of Amhara Regional State, Bahir Dar is a bustling modern inland port city with excellent tourist amenities, a lively market and traditional music scene, and a lovely setting on the Lake Tana shore.
  3. Freshwater Lake Tana, a vast inland sea fringed by tropical greenery, is dotted with evocatively painted island monasteries such as Ura Kidane Mihret and Narga Selassie, and the papyrus boats (tankwas).
  4. Downstream from Lake Tana, the 45m high Blue Nile Falls, also known as Tis Isat (Water that Smokes), rank among Africa’s most spectacular waterfalls in the rainy season.
  5. A former capital of Ethiopia, Gondar has been dubbed the Camelot of Africa in reference to the stunning 17th century castles that adorn its Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  6. The scenic drive from Gondar to Aksum traverses the western Simien Mountains National Park, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, and involves a spectacular descent through the Simien foothills to the Tekaze River Valley. Walia ibex and other endemic wildlife can be seen from the spectacular hiking trails that traverse the Park, whose 4,533m Ras Dejen is Ethiopia’s highest peak.
  7. Stretching back to the reign of the Queen of Sheba, Aksum is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in sub-Saharan Africa and its oldest church reputedly still conserves the lost Biblical Ark of the Covenant.
  8. The market town of Adwa, situated in the hills 20km east of Aksum, is the site of the historic Battle of Adwa, where in 1896 the Ethiopians defeated the invading Italian troops.
  9. Yeha, the center of a civilization that bloomed in the 8th and 9th centuries BC, houses the ruins of a 12m high temple, the oldest standing structure in sub-Sahara Africa.
  10. Renowned for its ancient Aksumite architecture, the 6th century male-only clifftop Monastery of Debre Damo can be accessed only by scaling a 15m high cliff with the assistance of a rope.
  11. Negash, Ethiopia’s first Islamic settlement, was established by Muslim refugees, including close relatives of the Prophet Mohammed, during his lifetime. The tombs of 15 of the original settlers are protected in a new mosque.
  12. Ancient Wukro houses a lovely rock-hewn church claimed locally to date to the 4th century, while a 2,800 year old pre-Aksumite sacrificial altar can be seen in situ at nearby Adi Akaweh.
  13. East of Wukro town lies Atsbidera Plateau with its striking churches – Mikael Barka, Mikael Imba and Debreselam Mikael - perched on mountains and with beautiful views.
  14. The towering sandstone outcrops of the Gheralta Escarpment are incised with more than two-dozen isolated rock-hewn churches reached along challenging but wonderfully scenic footpaths.
  15. Mekele, the energetic and well-equipped capital of Tigrai Region, is a popular fly-in springboard for exploring the rock-hewn churches of Gheralta and expeditions into the Danakil Desert.
  16. The subterranean complex of 11 rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, in active use since it was excavated in the late 12th century, has been dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
  17. The cave monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos incorporates an 11th century church constructed in the Aksumite style, with alternating layers of wood and white gypsum.
  18. An excellent trekking goal from Lalibela, 4,284m Mount Abuna Yoseph is protected in a community conservation area, serviced by an overnight hut, and home to endemic wildlife.
  19. A birdwatcher’s paradise, mountain-ringed Lake Hayk, near the bustling city of Dessie, is also the site of the ancient monastery of Hayk Istafanos.
  20. Every Monday, Bati hosts a colourful livestock market that attracts traditionally attired Oromo, Afar and Amhara villagers from miles around.
  21. A 110km2 Afro-Alpine plateau conserved by the local Menz people for 400 years, the Guassa Community Conservation Area harbours populations of Ethiopian wolf and gelada baboon.
  22. Endemic birds, gelada baboons and a restored 19th century palace can be seen at Ankober, chilly capital of the Shewa Kingdom until Emperor Menelik II founded Addis Ababa in the 1880s.