Ethiopia trip pt. 3

From Gonder, I flew to Lalibela, the town I was most excited about visiting. Lalibela is a popular destination in Ethiopia because of its 11 magnificent rock-hewn churches from the 12th century. The churches’ monolithic structures are awe-inspiring. Lalbiela is also the second most important Christian site of pilgrimage in Ethiopia after Aksum, a town in the far north that is believed in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith to hold the Ark of the Covenant. I was unfortunately unable to make it up to Aksum but I hope to visit one day. And besides, Lalibela alone was captivating enough.

Bete Abba Libanos

Bete Abba Libanos

Bete Giorgis (St George), the most photographed church of Lalibela

Bete Giyorgis (St George), the most photographed church of Lalibela

Bete Giorgis

Bete Giyorgis

Lalibela is often referred to as Africa’s Jerusalem, because the layout of the churches and many of its intricacies are modeled after the original Israel. It is said that Lalibela was built as a New Jerusalem following the capture of Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. There is a river running through Lalibela that separates some churches from the others, and it is referred to as the River Jordan. One section is meant to represent the Tomb of Adam. And the names of the churches are reminiscent of Hebrew: for example, Bete Amanuel means House of Emmanuel, coming from the Hebrew word beth, meaning house (UNESCO).

Outside Bete Gabriel-Rafael

Outside Bete Gabriel-Rafael

Bete Lehem

Bete Lehem

The sheer size of the churches took my breath away. I wondered aloud how it was possible that these churches were carved into the ground. My guide informed me that although King Lalibela had hundreds of workers, various sections were completed by angels overnight. I was also impressed by the planning required to design the network of tunnels connecting the churches.

lalibela2 Lalibela1

An exit of a tunnel

An exit of a tunnel

Lalibela’s churches are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s wonderful, but when this honour was bestowed upon the little town, hundreds of families living in the vicinity of the churches were displaced due to conservation regulations put in place by UNESCO. Disappointed, I asked my guide what was done with the funds from the church’s hefty $50US admission fee. Based on his response, it is doubtful that much of the proceeds benefit the average residents of Lalibela, a town with considerable poverty.

On my second day of Lalibela, I went on an early morning hike in Lalibela’s mountainside. It was intended to be a hike to a monastery called Asheten Maryam, but I decided to just go for the views of Lalibela. I was monaster-ied out after visiting Bahir Dar and had read reviews that this one wasn’t anything unique. The hike was exhausting but I took some beautiful photos and got to walk by the teff fields and villages of Lalibela’s countryside.


Hiking in Lalibela’s countryside


I spent two nights in Lalibela to soak up the small town vibe. Then it was back to Addis for two more days. At the top of my list was the Ethnological Museum at the main campus of Addis Ababa University. As a sociocultural anthropology student, this museum was a highlight for me. It included pottery, clothing, technologies, children’s games, and various other artefacts from the various ethnic groups making up Ethiopia’s cultural landscape. The second floor boasts a fascinating exhibit on musical instruments and an art gallery. Plus, the building itself used to be a palace of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen, with some of their living quarters preserved. Their bed and bathrooms were surprisingly mundane. I also wondered why the Emperor’s toilet was so far away from his bidet.

Emperor Haile Selassie's bed

Emperor Haile Selassie’s bed

Emperor Haile Selassie's bathroom

Emperor Haile Selassie’s bathroom

Military uniform

Military uniform

I also went to Ethiopia’s National Museum. Although this one also has interesting cultural artefacts, the highlight is its natural history section, which contains the remains of the famous australopithecine afarensis, Lucy. I’m a huge fan of Lucy’s so we took a selfie together. Outside the museum, I also checked out a cannon used by the Ethiopian army to defeat the Italians during the Battle of Adwa in 1896.


Lucy and I

Acheulean tools

Acheulean tools


A cannon from the Battle of Adwa

I also visited the famous Tomoca coffee shop to have a macchiato, buy some beans to take home, and people-watch.


A macchiato

A macchiato


On my last evening, I took a minibus up Entoto Hill, referred to by some as Addis’ rooftop. I needed to take two minibuses and one Toyota pickup truck to get up there, so that was an adventure. At the top is the charming Entoto Maryam church. There wasn’t enough time to go inside, so I spent some time checking out the exterior while a very dedicated group of people prayed outside. From Entoto Hill I also took this photo overlooking the city at sunset.

Looking at Addis from Entoto Hill

Looking at Addis from Entoto Hill

Entoto Maryam

Entoto Maryam

I visited my favourite part of Addis Ababa at its peak time. Saturday morning at Mercato Centrale. This is the largest market in East Africa and one of the most hectic, crowded, overwhelming places I’ve ever visited. I loved it! I don’t have any pictures because most of the time I didn’t feel comfortable taking out my camera. And the one time I did, a lady yelled at me to stop, and so I requested her request. I figured out how to get there by minibus, which again was a bit of an adventure. I enjoyed wading through the crowds, visiting the market’s various sections: vegetables, meats, metals, plastics…and my favourite: spices. The spice market was so beautifully colourful and an intense experience for the senses. I made sure to buy some to take home, including Ethiopia’s unique berbere, as well as some incense. Before heading to the airport, I finished my visit in Ethiopia in the best way I can think of – by sitting in a little café in Mercato, having broken English-Amharic conversations with some folks over a coffee.



Ethiopia Trip pt. 2

After arriving in the scenic Bahir Dar, I sat by the shore of Lake Tana at a café and had some coffee to warm me up while waiting for my tour to start. In addition to its gorgeous scenery, Lake Tana has several island monasteries from the 15th and 16th centuries.  The monks that live there today share oral histories of the islands and safeguard beautiful artefacts such as manuscripts and silver crosses.

laketana1monastery3monastery4I hopped on a boat with a group of Ethiopians for the tour. I was the only farenji (foreigner) on board but I was made to feel welcome. An inquisitive older man, an engineer, asked me where I was from and we got to talking. It turns out he lived in Nairobi for several years, so we compared our thoughts of the city as we enjoyed views of the lake.


At the first monastery, Entoto Iyasu, a monk told us that the original inhabitants of the island worshipped snakes before Orthodox Christianity arrived. We were then shown an old and enormous snake skin hanging on the wall. It turns out that a few hundred years ago, there was a big snake that kept eating the monk’s chickens so they added it to the wall decoration. It was then that I confirmed that there would be no messing around with any monks during my stay in Ethiopia. In the island’s church, we saw colourful paintings of various bible scenes dating back to the 15th century.


I was struck by the dedication of the monks to their faith, many of whom were seated quietly praying for extended periods of time, and with the gentle care with which the artefacts were protected. The following two monasteries, St. Gabriel and Debre Maryam, had similar paintings, as well as other interesting artefacts pictured below. In between, our boat driver took us out to the part of Lake Tana that meets the Blue Nile.




Where Lake Tana meets the Blue Nile

After lunch, I hired a tuk tuk driver to take me up to Haile Selassie’s Palace, at the top of a small mountain.  Knowing I wouldn’t be able to go inside, I had some afternoon time to kill and wanted to get a nice view of Bahir Dar. Up top, I was able to see over the city and the lake. The palace itself wasn’t extraordinary.


As sunset approached, I walked by the lakeshore and had a beer outside at a place that I think was called Mango House. Dozens of Bahir Dar residents were seated facing the water as the sun went down. There was a charming carnival with a ferris wheel nearby that caught my attention too.


The next morning I took a minibus to Gonder, about 3 hours drive away. The vehicle was jam packed with people but the ticket was cheap and I still was able to joy the hilly scenery. After arriving at my hotel, the L-Shape, I found a guide, Yigza, to take me around the town (or rather, he found me). We travelled throughout the city by Tuk Tuk and I had a good time hearing about the town from someone who called Gonder his home.

My ride for the day

My ride for the day

Our first stop was Debre Berhan Selassie (“Mountain of Light”) a pretty 17th century church with impressive paintings. It was quiet when we arrived mid-morning, and Yigza had to ask a priest to open the doors for us as nobody was around. I was a bit mesmerized by the painting of angels covering the ceiling.

debreberhanchurch1 debreberhanchurch2 debreberhanchurch3 debreberhanchurch4

We then drove to Felasha Village, which is just outside Gonder. It used to be inhabited by hundreds of Ethiopian Jews. Some of their descendants still live there, and the community is well-known for their handicrafts. We visited the community’s small synagogue, and then explored some of the handicraft shops, some of which were run by a women’s cooperative. We admired the clay pots and carvings, fabrics, and jewelry, before heading back to town.


A synagogue in Felasha village

A synagogue in Felasha village


The highlight of the day came after lunch – a walk through Gonder’s 17th century royal enclosure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we expored the ruins, my guide gave an entertaining account of the antics of various Ethiopian kings in Gonder’s history, including Emperor Fasilidas, the city’s founder. Visitors can see the remaining structures of a concert hall, banquet hall, and lion cages.

royalenclosure royalenclosure2 royalenclosure3 lioncage

A visit to the castles was followed by a short drive to Fasilidas’ Bath. The Bath hosts a special ceremony at Gonder’s annual Timket (Epiphany) celebration in early January. Although it was empty when I visited in

December, the pool is filled with water during Timket. After the water prayed over, dozens of young men jump into the pool to benefit from its blessing and commemorate the baptism of Jesus. Sounds like quite the pool party!


And so went my perfect day in Gonder! Now just one more stop before returning to Addis…