My Ethiopian Adventure–The Roof of Africa, Part One

Initially, we had planned to go no farther north than the city of Gondar.  However, in the pretrip planning, I came across photos of Simien Mountain National Park and knew I had to go there.  I told my friend Dino to take a look; we went.


The road from Gondar to Debark, the city where one gets the pass, the guide, and the guard to go into the park is typical of the Ethiopian highland country, high, wet, and green.


We kept saying things like “Are you sure we aren’t in Ireland?”  Nothing seemed to fit the stereotype everyone in the US seems to have of Ethiopia.




Acacia trees like these out the front window must surely be among the most picturesque trees on the planet.


Fences are relatively rare in Ethiopia.  Usually, animals are herded by boys and girls rather then enclosed by fences.  To get into Simien Mountain National Park, you must stop, sign in with your name, age, address, and passport in Debark.  After you do this, your party is assigned an official guide and a guard.  Yes, a guard.  These two men stay with you everywhere you go except your room and when you eat in the dining room at the only lodging inside the park.


My room at Simien Park Lodge with traditional Ethiopia textiles for curtains and bedspreads.  This lodge resides at 3260 meters (nearly 11,000 feet) above sea level. There is no heat in the rooms.  To keep warm, each guest receives a hot water bottle to put in bed to keep warm.  I piled on two blankets and crawled in, but before doing so…


I tried a new drink, Romana Sambuca, here in the highest bar in Africa.  We were told that normally, when the British owner is here, the locals, the guides, guards, drivers, etc. are not allowed either in here or the dining room.  We were glad he was not there so everyone could hang out around the fire together.  Even with this, Alemu could not eat with us in the dining room.  Such rules made us quite unhappy.  This sort of elitism seemed totally inappropriate and insulting, especially since this is their country.


Knowing all I would have to keep me warm at night would be the hot water bottle and blankets, I felt reluctant to leave this fire in the bar.


After checking in, we headed out for an afternoon hike.


The hiking was relatively easy, not too up and down, but in places very wet and slippery.


Our guard carried an umbrella (we all did and had the opportunity to use them)  and a Kalashnikov and never let us out of his sight.  He spoke no English so only Dino could actually chat with him.  He seemed very nice and helpful.  Yes, it was cold.  I wore four layers.


Finding familiar plants in a different form fascinated me.  This plant, a type of thistle, bristles with thorns both on top and on the underside of its leaves.  Herbs grow everywhere.


And then the cliffs and vistas overwhelm.  I have been all over the Rockies in the US and some of Canada, have driven through some mountains in Kashmir, and flown in and out of Nepal with a view of the highest mountains in the world.  Nowhere have I seen mountains like these:  endless cliffs falling thousands of feet, endless vistas, and endless emerald green.


Frequently we walked or drove above various bits of clouds.  Sometimes the fog became so thick we could barely see where we were going. I am moderately brave regarding heights but it was wet and slippery.  Sometimes while the guard and my friends climbed right on the cliff edge, I chose to go higher with the guide.  In at least one instance, this strategy really paid off because we walked right through the middle of this huge group of gelada baboons.


These baboons exist only in four places in Ethiopia.  I travelled in three of the four places. The males have a big red heart on their chests and heavy lionlike manes.


The views never failed to astonish me.




IMG_0578After five o’clock the baboons disappear, climbing down the cliffs into caves to protect themselves from predators–leopards and hyenas.


Michael, the guide on the left, and the guard, fearless–these drop-offs are routine.


The heights did not bother Dino.  He scared us with his ability to walk right up to the edge except in one case where he and Zuriash decided it was even too daunting for them.




My Ethiopian Adventure–Lalibela, Part Two–the Monolithic Churches


This is the first of the monolithic churches we visited.  Because the churches were built from the top down and actually cannot be seen until you are very near them, you have to climb down a lot of steps to get to the bottom level from which you can enter into the interior.  The “trenches” around them are the same depth as the churches are high because they were carved out of the solid stone.  As you look at these photos, you will notice multiple cross designs, including Greek, the type found in Axum, those referred to as Lalibela.  Every carving, every painting, every design possesses an explicit symbolic meaning.  I wish I had been able to record all the information provided by the guide.  This church, Bet Medhane Alem, is the largest of this type.  It’s approximate size is 33.7 meters  by 23.7 meters with a height of 11.5 meters (109.5 feet by 77 feet with a height of 37.4).  All sides have columns.




These churches are not mere tourist attractions.  We saw many people walking around, praying, and worshipping.  Services are still held here.  Carved into some of the “trench” walls opposite the church are tombs.  Those buried in these tombs have been removed and their graves now lie on either side of the River Jordan–photos of that later.


The interior decoration includes detailed carvings, elaborate drapes, and paintings.


Certain areas, like this one behind the drapes, only priests can access, mainly because they contain the sacraments.  The floors of all the churches are hard rock so all contain coverings of cloth, Persian type rugs, and bamboo.  Accessing the interior requires a lot of climbing up and down very worn, slick, stone steps.


While smaller trenches and areas separate this first group of churches from each other, the entire group is surrounded by the deepest, large trench.  This is the next church we visited.  It lacks outside columns.


At first the sight of swastikas everywhere startled me until I remembered how old these churches are and the original meanings attached to this symbol.  Our deacon guide explained that they symbolize everlasting life (the circle of life) and also mentioned its meaning in ancient Hinduism–the continual, everlasting cycle of birth and rebirth.


This is the fertility pool.  It is so deep that the priest must be lowered into the water attached to ropes as are the man or woman who wants treatment in this holy water.  At one point, someone realized that the pool was no longer as deep as it was originally.  When they investigated, they found the pool had been filled with dirt below where it could be seen.  When this dirt was excavated, a cache of ancient, holy artifacts were found.  They had been buried there to protect them.



Ethiopians wrap themselves in white not just to go to church, but in general.  I constantly marveled how they keep these garments so incredibly white in spite of dirt and rain and walking through mud everywhere.  The person on the right is our guide, a deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  He knows the meaning of every carving, every painting, every symbol.  The extent of information explained was not only detailed but extensive.


Only some of the churches possess paintings on the walls as well as carvings.  The wise men, Mary, everyone looks Ethiopian at least to some extent.


Notice the Star of David.  This symbol is everywhere because the Ethiopians believe they are descendants of Solomon and Sheba.  As a consequence, the paintings, carvings, all the symbols reflect not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament.


Every church has this curtain behind which only a priest can go.  Every church has a copy of the Ark of the Covenant.  They believe the original was taken by Menelik I, the son of Solomon and Sheba, to its current location in Axum in a special treasury next to the Church of Saint Mary of Zion.  It has been safely kept there through the millennia.





Protective roofs cover some of the churches.  The guide explained that the hardness of the basalt varies.  Because some of the stone is softer, churches carved out of this softer stone had begun to deteriorate.  The coverings protect and preserve them.


To get from church to church in this first group of churches, usually we walked through these trenches.  To reach the actual church entrances requires climbing up steps.  These trenches enable water drainage into the River Jordan during the rainy season.  The floor of the churches remain above the water.


Walking through these churches kept me in a constant state of awe.  They were built more than 800 years ago without modern tools.  And there are eleven of them all here, carved out of solid stone.


St. George and the Dragon hold a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox symbolism.  The dragon represents paganism.  St. George slated the dragon.




We left this  group of churches, climbing out from this trench and headed to one of the most photographed.


We encountered two walking funeral processions complete with chanting.  I took no photos because it seemed disrespectful.



My Ethiopian Adventure–Lalibela, Part One


The final climb to Lalibela nearly terrified me–switchbacks up and up, no guard rails as I recall, and drop-offs more than a thousand feet.  This photo, taken from my hotel room patio, fails to really show just how far down the drop really is.  The other buildings in the photo are also hotels.  Having been told that only one really good restaurant exists there, we ate at the same place two evenings.  It rests at the end of a narrow unpaved road at the edge of a cliff.


The second evening there, we met the owner, an older woman from Scotland who originally came to Lalibela at the request of a friend to teach.  She stayed, bought this land, and hired two young architects from Addis to design the restaurant–to look like a flower.




To get to this restaurant from the hotel, Alemu had to turn the corner as tightly as he could, backup a bit, and then proceed on this road.  Immediately below where we backed up,  there is a steep cliff.  I asked him if anyone ever fell off. He said a friend of his did.  I assumed he had died, but no, his vehicle was caught by a tiny ledge and he survived.


The road up to Lalibela as viewed from my hotel patio.  We stayed at the Maribela Hotel which was one of the nicest on the road trip.  They were still building a restaurant but served an excellent breakfast.


Lalibela is to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church what Jerusalem is to Jews and many western Christians.  It is famous for its eleven churches carved from solid rock.  It has been called the New Jerusalem, a New Golgotha.  In approximately 1200 AD, King Lalibela, one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, came to power after God told his brother, who was king, to abdicate.  The name Lalibela comes from honey, sweetness because when a baby, King Lalibela was surrounded by bees which prophesied his future greatness.  The story becomes quite complicated but in essence, angels took his soul to heaven and showed him the churches he was to build.  They were built in twenty four years with the help of angels.  Lalibela then became the holy city.  Like the ancient rulers from Axum (the original holy city where they believe a church holds the Ark of the Covenant), the Zagwe dynasty traced their origin to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

In Lalibela two types of rock churches still stand:  rock hewn monolithic churches which were cut out of solid basalt from the top down with trenches surrounding them and rock hewn churches which were cut inward from a cliff or by using a natural cave or indentation in a cliff as a starting point.  The architectural and technical building skill required is clearly evident.  The churches are on several levels and built in such a way that they drain to carry off the heavy rain flow during the rainy season.  The trenches around the churches also serve to feed the River Jordan–an area made to duplicate the original River Jordan.  The architecture of the monolithic churches exists nowhere else in the world.

To tour the churches requires a professional guide who knows the history and architecture intimately.  Our guide held the position of deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  While many Muslims live in parts of Ethiopia, Lalibela is a Christian town in a heavily Christian area.  Deacons and priests can marry, but if a male wants to become a bishop, he cannot marry.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, like the traditional Catholic Church with Latin, has its own ancient religious language, Ge’ez.  The alphabet of modern Amharic is the same as Ge’ez. Priests learn to read Ge’ez.  Later, in Gondar, we were able to get a priest to chant from a religious text in Ge’ez.  For more details regarding the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a list books in both the New Testament and Old Testament, as well as other sacred texts and hymnals, go to: There are many more books in the Orthodox Bible than in those used by European and American churches.


Ethiopia–From the Roof of Africa to the Nile

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageInternet is not so reliable at times here.  Yesterday we saw 23 Walia ibex in the Simien Mountins above 14,000 feet.  They are found only there.  Photos include Simien Mountains, the highest bar in Africa, the castles in Gondar, and the Blue Nile River, the longest in the world.  Staying at a hotel on Lake Tana.  Saw several hippos near the Nile bridge, but the guard said no photos.  For some reason, these photos loaded in reverse order.  We were in the Simien Mountains first where we stayed in a hotel above 13,000 feet with no heat, took a small trek, and saw hundreds of gelada baboons.  We saw the castles today and went to an overlook over the Blue Nile.