Top five sights of Ethiopia: traditional tribes, rock-hewn churches, and medieval castles

As I mentioned on Monday, I’m moving to Harar, Ethiopia, for two months to explore the ancient and unique culture in that medieval walled city. Before settling in, I thought I’d share some of the most popular places to visit in the country. Many of them were covered in my travel series about Ethiopia during my visit last year. All but the Southern Tribes are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Southern Tribes
Perhaps the best known images of Ethiopia come from its sparsely populated southern region. Here there are tribes living much the way they always have, herding and hunting animals and living off the lush hills and open savannah. The most famous tribe is the Mursi, known for their giant lip plugs like you see here in this photo by user MauritsV courtesy Wikimedia Commons. There are many more tribes, and each day will introduce you to a very different culture and set of traditions. The drive is hard going but everyone says it’s worth it.

Lalibela is another famous spot in Ethiopia. Starting in the 12th century the people dug out a series of churches from the bedrock, making fantastic buildings that will keep your jaw dropped for your entire visit. Not only are the stone structures impressive in their construction (or should I say, excavation) but there are rich frescoes and carvings in the interiors. The priests will show you gold and silver crosses dating back hundreds of years. If you’re lucky, you can witness an religious ceremony in which white-robed worshipers chant verses from the Bible and Kebre Negast, a holy book of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Often called Ethiopia’s Camelot, the medieval capital of Gondar offers some of the country’s best architecture. It’s also on some of the best land, a high valley that’s green and soothing, completely the opposite of the parched desert many people imagine Ethiopia to be. Several palace/castles stand here, looking vaguely familiar thanks to the influence of Portuguese mercenaries hired to help the Ethiopians fight off the Somali conqueror Gragn The Left-Handed. I’ll be searching for his capital later in this series. Nobody is exactly sure where that is, so it should be a bit of an adventure.


In the dry uplands of the northern Tigray province stand the remains of Axum, one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world and Ethiopia’s oldest city. In the fourth century BC a civilization sprang up here that even the ancient Greeks admired. It reached across the entire region and colonized what is now Yemen. It traded as far as India and China and probably Europe too. It also converted Ethiopia to Christianity in the fourth century AD, making it the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. While the civilization is long gone, you can still admire its huge palaces and lofty obelisks.


Lake Tana
For several different but amazing experiences all in one day, head to Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. A boat takes you out to where the Blue Nile flows into the lake and you can see hippos wallowing in the water as locals in traditional reed boats steer carefully around them. On several islands are monasteries where monks have lived and prayed for centuries. They’ll show you illuminated manuscripts colorfully illustrated with holy scenes. After a long overland trip, there’s nothing better than sitting on one of these islands, free of electricity and cars, and gazing out at the placid waters of the lake.


For more on Ethiopia, check out this video below. I know nothing about the tour company that sponsored it and this isn’t an endorsement. They do make informative travel videos, though.

And don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Returning to Harar, Ethiopia’s medieval city!

Gondar: Ethiopia’s Camelot

The road north from Lake Tana, Ethiopia, gradually ascends into the mountains. The landscape grows greener and the farms look richer here.

The combination of rough mountains and good farmland made it an obvious place for a capital city, and for many years it was. Gondar is nestled in a mountain-ringed valley at 2133 meters (6,998 ft.) altitude and is free from the malaria that plagues the Lake Tana region. It appeared so attractive that the Emperor Fasilidas moved from Lake Tana and made Gondar his capital in 1635. He built the impressive castle pictured to the right and gathered his court and supporters around him.

If the castle looks a bit European, that’s because Fasilidas took his inspiration from the Portuguese. A group of Portuguese adventurers had helped his father, Susneyos, defeat the Muslim conqueror Ahmed Gragn. Susneyos converted to Catholicism and tried to convert his subjects too, but the Ethiopian Orthodox faith was too strong for such a change. When Fasilidas came to the throne he quickly reconverted everyone back to the traditional church and ejected the Portuguese. This didn’t stop him from learning a thing or two from the Europeans, however, castle architecture being one of them.

Gondar makes a good rest stop after a few days of driving. The mountain breeze is cool and refreshing. The Italians liked it too, and during their brief occupation of the country from 1936-1941 they built an attractive European-style downtown that still retains some faded glory.

%Gallery-87470%Gondar is a place of song. The town’s many churches broadcast prayers and hymns over loudspeakers from the early morning until late at night. While this is common practice across Ethiopia, here the prayers bounce off the slopes and echo across the valley. They are especially audible at the palace complex, where Fasilidas built his castle and his successors vied with each other to make their own mark on history. There are a total of six castles by six different kings, built during Gondar’s 280 year run as the empire’s capital. The entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While that of Fasilidas is the most imposing, each castle has its own distinctive style. A walk around the grounds is best done in a leisurely manner, and some castles offer fine views from the upper windows and battlements, although it takes some convincing to get the guards to let you up there!

Two related sights nearby should not be missed. One is the “Bath” of Fasilidas, actually a giant baptismal font for his famous mass reconversion. Usually it’s left empty, but for Timkat, the celebration of Epiphany, it’s filled with water and the faithful gather around, dressed in white and carrying candles.

The other sight is the Trinity Church built by the Emperor Iyasu in 1674. Of the 44 churches in Gondar, this is the only one to survive the attack of the Mahdi’s forces from the Sudan in 1888. It is said that the bees kept in the orchard on the church grounds swarmed against the Muslim looters and stung them so badly that they fled. The soldiers tried several times to burn the church, but each time they were driven off by angry bees.

However the church was saved, every visitor is grateful that it was. The interior is filled with elegant paintings of miracles and Bible scenes. Even the ceiling is covered in art. Winged angel heads are painted in neat rows along and between the roof beams. They look in every direction, a symbol of God being able to see everything at once.

If he has an eye for beauty, he must be looking at Gondar a lot.

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s wonderful children!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.