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ETHIOPIA: the best preserved secret of Africa

ETHIOPIA:  Africa’s best kept secret

(Africa’s best kept secret is the usual phrase for this idea, shorter and familiar. But the best preserved secret of Africa is OK, and maybe better because it is not the usual expression. Other phrases might be: Africa’s secret treasure; Africa’s hidden treasure)

I have left the American spelling, but added the British/Canadian/Australian spelling in purple. From which English-speaking countries do you expect to get more interest/guests? Whichever spelling you choose, be consistent, always use either the one or the other.

I have altered the names to conform to the spelling used in the Bradt Guide to Ethiopia, which is the most respected in the English language. I think you have a copy. Try to use these consistently. It will help users of the guide book and the consistency will give them confidence.

There are many mysteries concerning English expression and punctuation whose secrets only a lifetime’s usage might reveal! Try to observe the use of commas and capital letters. It will all look better to the educated tourist – the sort of person who would be interested in a trip like this. I have occasionally added a word or phrase which I think might be helpful. But sometimes, indicated in blue, I do not understand what you wish to say.

You make no mention of meals. Could you perhaps indicate where you will stop for lunch?

I like the title of this trip, but perhaps you should indicate that it includes 3 days trekking in the Simian Mountains, either in the title or in the introduction..




This tour takes in the historical sites of northern Ethiopia, passing through the scenic Ethiopian highlands. We shall see Bahir Dar and Lake Tana with its thirty-seven isles, guardians of ancient Coptic monasteries; the spectacular Blue Nile Falls at Tis Isat – the name means water that smokes; Gondar, ancient capital dating from the days of the Emperor Fasilides, with its castles and churches, among them the famous church with its angel frescoes, and finally, Lalibela, the Jerusalem of Ethiopia with its 11 monolithic, red-colored  churches excavated in the rock and connected by a network of tunnels, today still a vital center (centre) of the Coptic church, where (the -omit) people from the entire country gather during  colorful festivities such as Christmas.


Abiy Ethiopia Tours’ representative will be waiting at the airport to meet your international flight and facilitate (the -omit)procedures. Following the transfer and check-in to your accommodation, you will start your visit to the most interesting attractions of our capital city Addis Ababa, ’’New Flower ‘’in Amharic (the national language). The city, one of the most beautiful of Africa, was founded by King Menelik II in 1887 at the foot of mount Entoto (2326 m). Now the capital city of Africa, Addis Ababa is experiencing continuous and fast growth, a constantly changing prospect for its citizens of more than 80 tribal backgrounds and languages, with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious communities living side by side in harmony.

The visit begins with the NATIONAL MUSEUM to meet the famous Lucy, the hominid adult that lived at least 3.2 million years ago and who was discovered in 1974 with 40% of her bones intact in the lower valley of the Awash River. Our next visit will be to the ETHNOGRAPHIC MUSEUM, a very important place to better understand the rich cultural diversity of Ethiopia. Our third stop will be the ‘’Open Market”, one of the largest in Africa, to be followed by  TRINITY CATHEDRAL, where we find the tombs of the last imperial family. The city tour will be completed by a short drive to (the -omit)MOUNT ENTOTO for a visit to the old palace and to enjoy a panoramic view of Addis Ababa.

   Overnight: hotel in Addis Ababa.


Today we drive to Bahir Dar with stops at different points of sightseeing interest. A highlight is the visit (the -omit) to the Monastery of Debre Libanos, founded in the thirteenth century by saint Tekle Haymanot. The monastery’s (Chief -omit) Abbot (and who -omit) was the second most powerful official in the Ethiopian Church after the Abuna. The monastery complex sits on a terrace between a cliff and the gorge of one of the tributaries of the Blue Nile. Nine of the original buildings of Debre Libanos survive, although David Buxton suspected “there are interesting things still to be found among the neighbouring cliffs.” Current buildings include the church over Tekle Haymanot’s tomb, which emperor Haile Selassie I ordered to be constructed in 1961, a slightly older church (of the cross -omit) where Buxton was told a fragment of the true cross is preserved, and five religious schools. The cave where the saint lived is in the nearby cliffs, a fifty–minute walk away. This cave contains a spring whose water is considered holy and it is the object of pilgrimages.

The crossings  of the Blue Nile gorge will be a scenic part of our journey to reach Bahir Dar, scheduled for the late afternoon.

Overnight: hotel in Bahir Dar


Situated at 1,860 m and more or less similar to the shape of a heart, Lake Tana, with its 8,678 sq km, is the largest lake in Ethiopia.

95 km long and 65 km wide, it is dotted with 37 islands and is of volcanic origin: the surrounding rocks suggest that it was formed after a barrier formed due to powerful eruptions.

This tour offers the opportunity to discover and visit some of the monasteries which lay hidden among the greenery on the shores and islands and peninsulas long before the sixteenth century, but which became important and full of treasures around (the end of -omit ?) 1500 AD when kings and guardians of treasures, in order to escape from raids, searched for remote unexplored areas such as these.

The frescoes that adorn the walls depict scenes of the New Testament and the lives of local saints in a completely original style with vivid and extremely charming colors . Even today there are preserved paintings and manuscripts from the middle ages and monks will be proud to show you some of their treasures, medieval manuscripts and icons – crowns, vestments and beautiful crosses which are handheld during (the- omit) processions.

The visit starts from Bahir Dar, the town located on the southern tip of the lake, and consists of taking a fiberglass (fibreglass) motor boat to reach Dekatherm, the largest island on Lake Tana, to start with the magnificent churches of Narga Sellassie (Narga Trinity). On your return you will make several stops to visit the churches of Beta Giorgis, Ura Kidane, Meheret, Azuwa Maryam, Kibran Gebriel, Intos Eyesus, not omitting the point where the Blue Nile flows out from Lake Tana.

The day will be very interesting for its scenic beauty, the architecture and for all the treasures to be found within: the walls painted with scenes from the bible manuscripts, crosses, etc…

Overnight: hotel in Bahir Dar.


In the morning a drive along 32 km of rough road will lead to the waterfalls of the Blue Nile “ TIS ISAT” (SMOKING WATER FALLS). The Blue Nile, which starts some 100 km south of Lake Tana, forms a water course ranging from 300 to 500 m wide and a depth of 47-60 m during the rainy season. In the dry season, the falls will not be at their maximum splendor ; however, they are always of great interest, being described by many as one of the wonders of all Africa. The visit takes about an hour walking on a country track and then crossing the sixteenth century  Portuguese bridge. The return takes another hour and includes walking down to the foot of the falls, crossing a small tributary of the Nile and then taking a boat to cross the great Nile, just before the falls.

Our tour will next take us to Gorgora and, to be exact, to Bezawit Hill (roughly 5km after Go jam – Gondar’s regional border bridge) Here we will visit the palace of Emperor Haile Selassie I.

Just before moving on to Gondar, a city tour of Bahir Dar that includes the market where you can find (the – omit) pottery, traditional hand-made woven clothes and the Woito Basket market, which will be of especial interest.

Overnight :hotel in Gondar


Why is Gondar special? The answers will be several depending on your interests, but one unexpected one is that the city is guarded by the only castles on the African continent south of the Sahara. Even though castles are from Europe, King Fasilidas (1632-1667) built his incredible dark stone castle on Ethiopian territory, precisely here in Gondar around 1635 when he decided to make Gondar his permanent capital city. Thus the small town of Gondar, perched at 2,200m and which previously  didn’t have much importance, became the site of the Emperors of Ethiopia between the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries AD. Not only King Fasilidas but also his successors  built their castles with the help, it is assumed, of half–caste Portuguese or Indian contractors, or at least educated natives of these countries.

Your visit to Gondar will start inside the Royal Enclosure, where we find initially the “Fasilidas Castle” and then continue with the “Iyasu I Castle”,  and the Castle of Queen Mentewab, consort of the king Bakaffa and mother of King Iyasu II, with an adjacent church of Mariam Kuskwame, destroyed by the invasion of the Dervishes of Sudan. We end with  “Fasilidas’s Pool”, once a place of delight for Fasilidas and his successors. Today the pool is where the most lively and colorful  Ethiopian religious festival is celebrated: Timkat (Epiphany), which commemorates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

Another highlight will be the visit to Debre Berhan Selassie (Light of the Trinity) church located on a hill top and built during the reign of Iyasu I. This building is full of paintings and has become universally famous for its amazing and beautiful ceiling covered with  little angels.

The day ends with a walk among the buildings of the fascist colonial era,  reminiscent of old towns in southern Italy.

Overnight: hotel in Gondar.


Veryearly in the morning, we drive to Debark, the town where are located the headquarters of the  Simien Mountains National Park, one of the first sites to be made a World Heritage site by UNESCO (1978). Due to serious population declines of some of its characteristic native species, in 1996 it was also added to the list of World Heritage in Danger.

After dealing with the entrance procedures and picking up our scout and local guides, the drive will continue to Sankaber.

In the afternoon we will enjoy 2-3 hours trekking around Sankaber.

Overnight: campsite at Sankaber.


The Simien Mountains National Park is home to a number of extremely rare species, including the Ethiopian wolf, Gelada baboon, and the Walia Ibex, a wild goat found nowhere else in the world. The caracal also occurs within the Simien mountains. More than 50 species of birds inhabit the park, including the impressive bearded vulture, or lammergeyer with its 10-foot (3m) wingspan.

Today’s trekking starts at Sankaber, heading towards Geech camp site. Very pleasant trekking along paths shaded by Ethiopian pines (juniperus procera), erica trees and giant lobelias (lobelia rhynchopetaium).

Overnight: campsite at Geech.



A whole day’s trekking, taking in the three most breathtaking viewpoints: MET GOGO (3926 m.asl), SAHA (3785 m.asl), and KEDADIT (3760 m.asl).

Here we might encounter the three endemic animals of the Simien Mountains: walia ibex (copra ibex waile), gelada baboon (theropithecus gelada) and Ethiopian wolf (canis simensis)

Overnight: campsite at Geech



Another whole day’s trekking across the amazing landscape of the Simien Mountains.

Overnight: campsite at Chennek.



Even though reaching the roof of Ethiopia is not part of our journey, today’s trekking to Bwayit will allow us to have a panoramic view of Mt Ras Dashen, the  highest point in the country.

Overnight: campsite at Chennek.



(?After so much exercise,?) a full day’s drive to reach Axum: a road full of bends, ups and downs, beautiful views, with stops to enjoy the diverse, awe-inspiring panoramas (that differ one from the other  at a constant height of around 3000 m. Encountering the people living in these parts is particularly interesting. Shepherds, farmers, tattooed women, priests, deacons and monks are the extras along this stretch of road.

Leaving the Simien Mountains on the right, once Debark is reached, the gravel road deviates to Axum, the capital city of the Axumite kingdom. This road connecting Debark to Axum via the Tekeze Valley will be full of breathtaking views.

Overnight: hotel in Axum.

Day 12: AXUM

Due to their historical value, in 1980 UNESCO added Axum’s archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites. Axum was the center (centre) of the marine trading power known as the Axumite Empire, which predicted the earliest mentions in roman ear writings. ?? predated the Roman era according to earliest Roman writings. Around 356, its ruler was converted to Christianity by Frumentius. Later, under the reign of Kaleb, Axum was a quasi-ally of Byzantium against the Persian Empire. The historical record is unclear, primary sources being limited mainly to ancient church records.

Our morning visit will begin with the archeological museum and the Axum stelae, one still standing with a height of 21 m, the biggest of 33.5 m fallen and broken in four pieces and the one repatriated from Italy. The morning continues with a visit to Maryam Tsion (new) church, and then to the ruins of the old church and its museum. We will see the church which is believed to contain the original Ark of the Covenant, the one Yahweh delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. Finally a visit to Maryam Tsion (old monastery), where (the – omit) access to females is forbidden, will (be the – omit) end (for – omit) the morning’s tour.

This needs re-writing. It suggests the Tabot is located in the new cathedral, whereas it is actually in a smaller church nearby which women may not approach. The old Maryam Tsion ruins can be approached by women.

The afternoon  starts with a visit to some Axumite tombs of great importance and the Queen of Sheba’s Bathing Pool. In the late afternoon an excursion will be made to the Gobedra Lioness and to the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s Palace.

Overnight: hotel in Axum.



Early in the morning we start the drive to Hawzen, visiting the Yeha Temple, the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia. This tower is built in the Sabaean style, and dated through comparison with ancient structures in southern Arabia to around 700 BC. Although no radiocarbon dating testing has been performed on any sample from Yeha, this date for the great Tower is supported by local inscription. David Phillipson, an archaeologist who conducted excavations, attributes its “excellent preservation“ to two factors: “the care with which its original builders ensured a level foundation, firmly placed on the uneven bedrock and to its rededication – perhaps as early as the sixth country AD – for use as a Christian church”. Two other archaeological sites at Yeha include Grate Beal Gebri, a ruined complex distinguished by a portico 10 meters (metres) wide and two sets of squares pillars, and graveyards containing several rock–hewn shaft tombs first investigated in the early 1960s. One authority has speculated that one of these tombs contained a royal burial, while another believes the ancient residential area was likely one kilometer (kilometre) to the east of the modern village.

A second visit is dedicated to the Debre Damo monastery, the only remaining original example of  typical Axumite architecture. It is famous for its access by a rope. Here, once again,  access to females is forbidden. We expect to arrive in Hawzen in the late afternoon.

Overnight: lodge in Hawzen.


Day 14:  HAWZEN

Hawzen and the surrounding area is home to the ancient churches of Tigray. Early in the morning we will drive to the Gheralta mountain(s – omit) range for a pilgrimage-trek to the ancient churches of Tigray: Mariam Korkor and Daniel Korkor.

Overnight stay in Hawzen.



Another day in these marvelous (marvellous) mountains will enable us to visit the Abreha we Atsbeha and Wukro Chirkos churches. The former is judged to be the more important one from the religious point of view; the latter was the first to be discovered.

Overnight: hotel in Mekele.



(A full day’s drive to reach Lalibela: a road full of bends, ups and downs, beautiful views, with stops to enjoy the diverse awe-inspiring panoramas (that differ one from the other – 0mit) at a constant height of around 2000 m. (, will lead us to Lalibela . I don’t think you should repeat exactly the same introduction that you wrote for the road to Axum. May I suggest: Another full day’s drive at a height of about 2000 m to reach Lalibela, through more scenery whose variety and stunning views you will find enchanting.

We will be traveling (travelling) through the mountainous landscapes of the Rift Valley. and no doubt (that – omit) what will remain in the memory will be the curious flattened hills, the so called “Ambo”  or the flat- topped mountains.

(Meeting the people living in these areas is particularly interesting. Shepherds, farmers, tattooed women, priests, deacons and monks are the extras along this stretch of road.) Again, better not to repeat the same words as before. May I suggest: Once more, there will be plenty of human interest along the way, a variety of people going about their daily lives.

Once we reach Gashena village, we will take the difficult 60 kms dirt track which (at – omit) initially (seems to – omit) descends dizzily into the Tekeze river basin before climbing again to Lalibela.

Overnight: hotel in Lalibela.



Here’s another stronghold of the Solomonic dynasty perched on the mountains of Lasta. Lalibela, a town lying at 2630 m, offers one of the wonders of the world with visits to 11 monolithic churches constructed in the rock in the thirteenth century AD by the Zagwe kingdom as a substitute for Jerusalem, access to which was blocked by the expanding Muslim empire.

Local tradition  says  that 11 monoliths  were  built  before 1225 (and – omit) in a timespan of only 23 years by king Lalibela,  emperor of  the Zagwe  dynasty.  Services are still held in these 4 monolithic churches,)  and  the remaining  underground  monolithic  churches  are grouped into two major architectural complexes with refined emigration.  and perhaps the result of handiwork by Coptic artisans from Egypt or Jerusalem. The first group of architectural gems include bête Maryam with its beautiful frescoes, the majestic bête Medhane Alem, the iconic  bête Giyorgis  in the shape of a Greek cross, bête Golgotha and bête Danagel. The second group includes bête Emanuel (former royal chapel), bête Mercurios (old prison), bête Abba Libanos,  bête Gabriel and bête Rafael.

The day will be challenging,  and  interesting too, as we shall find ourselves in the midst of the Amhara  people going about their daily life,  peasants closely  linked to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  In the narrow streets that we use to go from church to church we shall encounter faithful ecclesiastical people, traders, farmers, peasants and very welcoming simple people.

Overnight: hotel in Lalibela.



Today you are offered a unique experience:  a pilgrimage riding a mule to the monastery of Asheton Maryam. Asheton Maryam is another monolith, built by King Nakuta La’ab,   grandson of King Lalibela, at a height of 3500 m on a rocky amba.   To experience this, we must wake up early in the morning.  For those who do not feel this is for them, Lalibela  offers a very lively open market (on Saturday).

(There is always the possibility of taking them up by van, or walking part way, as we did, and completing the distance by van on the plateau.)

The afternoon is dedicated to the visit of another of Lalibela’s main sights. This time an expedition of 40 km in the Tekeze valley brings us to the monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos. Built in a cave above a valley, this church was constructed by King Yemrehanna Kristos during the 13th century. In the church there are more than 5000 (thousand dead -omit) human  skeletons. They have been lying there without any covering for the past 700 years. It is supposed they were pilgrims from Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia. The exquisite stonework and murals on the dark walls of the church, the year-round spring water descending from above the church, and the forest around are all very impressive and well worth the visit.

Overnight: hotel in Lalibela.



Seven miles outside Lalibela we will visit the beautiful rock-hewn church of Nakuta La’ab. Hidden in a large cave, the church is dedicated to the last king of the Lalibela dynasty and marks the end of the reign of the Zagwes.

This will be followed by an attractive drive to the town of Kombolcha, which we expect to reach in the late afternoon.

Overnight: hotel in Kombolcha.


Our visit to the Hayk Stefanos monastery is the highlight of the last day of this historic route. The monastery is situated in Hayk town on a peninsula surrounded by  Lake Hayk, which is 6.7 km long and 6 km wide. With a surface area of 23 km2 and (has – omit) a maximum depth of 88 m, it lies at an elevation of 2,030 meters (metres) above sea level.

The monastery is responsible for producing five people, known as “lights”( or important sources of knowledge and Christian salvation) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. One of these Lights was saint Tekle Haymanot, who was educated in this monastery, and helped to convert Shewa and other southern provinces by ministering and building churches. Estefanos monastery was looted by imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghaziin in 1531, who, upon coming upon the lake ordered the Arabs in his ranks to construct boats to reach the island. When the first boats, constructed out of wooden beams bound by cords, proved unsatisfactory, one of the imam’s followers suggested  sacks made of cow’s skins to each raft, and this allowed the imam’s forces to sail across the lake to the monastery. Seeing that they were now defenseless , the monks of the monastery surrendered their valuables to prevent the destruction of their home.

We expect to arrive back in Addis Ababa in the late afternoon.



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