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Bale Mountains

the Bale Mountains National Park might not be as well-known as its bigger brother, but in many ways it’s the more interesting park. The wild, drizzly moorlands, alpine lakes and gushing streams are starkly beautiful, the hiking fabulous and if you want to see the world's rarest canine, the Ethiopian Wolf, then there is simply no better place in which to meet them.

Danakil Depression

Bubbling volcanoes light up the night sky, sulphurous mounds of yellow contort into otherworldly shapes, mirages of camels cross lakes of salt and proud Afar warriors stride away into the horizons haze. Lying 100m and more below sea level, the Danakil Depression is about the hottest and most inhospitable place on earth. If you want genuine, raw adventure, then few corners of the globe can match this overwhelming wilderness. But come prepared – conditions are extreme

Lower Omo Valley

Whether it’s wandering through traditional Konso villages, watching Hamer people performing a jumping of the bulls ceremony or admiring the Mursi’s mind-blowing lip plates, a visit to the Omo Valley will stick with you for a lifetime. But come quick, because a series of mega development projects will, for better or worse (and the jury is still very much out on this count), bring huge changes to Omo and its people over the next few years.

Simien Mountains National Park

The Simien Mountains, a massive table of rock up to 4500m high and riven with gullies, offers easy but immensely rewarding hiking along the edge of a plateau that falls sheer to the plains far below. These mountains are also home to huge groups gelada monkeys as well as magnificent walia ibex.

Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches

These churches are built below ground level, aren’t just carved into the rock but freed from it. And the carving, both inside and out, is exceptionally refined. Time has treated most with gentle gloves.

Bet Medhane Alem
Resembling a massive Greek temple more than a traditional Ethiopian church, Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World) is impressive for its size and majesty. Said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world, it measures 33.5m by 23.5m and is over 11.5m high. Some scholars have suggested it may have been a copy in rock of the original St Mary of Zion church in Aksum.The building is surrounded by 34 large, rectangular columns (many are replicas of the originals). The three jointed at each corner are thought to represent the Holy Trinity. The interior consists of a barrel-vaulted nave and four aisles with 38 columns supporting the gabled roof. The three empty graves in one corner are said to have been prepared symbolically for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On Sundays, worshippers come hoping to be blessed or healed by the famous 7kg gold Lalibela Cross.Read more.

Bet Maryam
Connected to Bet Medhane Alem by a tunnel is a large courtyard containing three churches. The first, Bet Maryam, is small, yet designed and decorated to an exceptionally high standard. It’s the only church with porches extending off it. Dedicated to the Virgin, who’s particularly venerated in Ethiopia, this is the most popular church among pilgrims. Some believe it may have been the first built by Lalibela.On its eastern wall you’ll see two sets of three windows. The upper set is thought to represent the Holy Trinity, while the lower three, set below a small cross-shaped window, are believed to represent the crucifixion of Jesus and the two sinners. The lower right window has a small opening above it, a signal that this sinner was accepted to heaven after repenting his sins and asking for Jesus’ help. The lower left window, which represents the criminal who went to hell, has the small opening below it.Above the western porch and squeezed beneath the roof is a rare and beautifully carved bas-relief of St George fighting the dragon.Inside, the ceilings and upper walls are painted with very early frescoes, and the columns, capital and arches are covered in beautifully carved details including a curious two-headed eagle and two fighting bulls, one white, one black (thought to represent good and evil). At the eastern end of the tall nave, surrounded by seven galleries, is a holy column with inscriptions in Ge’ez, Hebrew and Greek kept permanently wrapped in cloth.

Bet Gabriel - Rufael 
Reached via a series of trenches and tunnels (one is long, narrow and pitch-black) that starts from Bet Gabriel- Rufael, this church may have started as something altogether different. The discovery of ankle shackles among other objects has led scholars to believe it may have served as the town’s prison, or house of justice.Due to a large section of it collapsing, the interior is a fraction of its former size and the brick walls are an unfortunate necessity. Don’t miss the beautiful fresco (maybe 15th century) sometimes said to represent the Three Wise Men; but since they’re holding crosses, this can’t be correct. With their little flipper hands and eyes that look askance, they’re delightful. The 12 Apostles are represented below in a less attractive and probably later fresco. The Passion of the Christ painting on cotton fabric next to the frescoes probably dates from the 16th century. Formerly, such paintings were plastered to the church walls with a mixture of straw, ox blood and mud.
Its entrance flanked to the west by a sloping sliver of hewn rock known as the ‘Way to Heaven’, this imposing twin-church marks the main entrance to the southeastern group. Unlike most Lalibela churches its entrance is at the top and it’s accessed by a small walkway, high over the moat-like trench below. This, along with its curious, irregular floor plan and non-east-west orientation, has led scholars to propose that Bet Gabriel-Rufael may have been a fortified palace for Aksumite royalty as early as the 7th century.The entrance takes you into Bet Gabriel and then another doorway accesses Bet Rufael. Although the section of Bet Rufael’s roof that collapsed has been rebuilt, services only take place in Bet Gabriel. Once inside the surprisingly small complex you’ll realise its monumental facade was its most interesting feature.

St. George's Church 
Resting off on its own, St George’s Church is Lalibela’s masterpiece. Representing the apogee of the rock-hewn tradition, the Bet Giyorgis is the most visually perfect church of all, a 15m-high three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross; a shape that required no internal pillars. Due to its exceptional preservation, it also lacks the obtrusive roofing seen over the other churches.Inside, light flows in from the windows and illuminates the ceiling’s large crosses: beauty in simplicity. Peer over the curtain to see the maqdas’ beautiful dome. There are also two 800-year-old olive-wood boxes (one with opposing corkscrew keys) that locals believe were carved by King Lalibela himself and now hold the church’s treasures. Some of the cavities in the walls surrounding the church hold mummified corpses.

Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael
A trench at the southern end of the Bet Maryam courtyard connects it to the twin churches of Bet Golgotha and Bet Mikael (also known as Bet Debre Sina). The pair have the only cruciform pillars of Lalibela’s churches. The entrance leads first to Bet Mikael and then to Bet Golgotha, which women can’t enter.Bet Golgotha is known for containing some of the best early examples of Ethiopian Christian art including some amazing life-size depictions of the 12 Apostles carved into the walls’ niches. Four are visible with the other eight behind the curtains in the off-limits Selassie Chapel , one of Lalibela’s holiest sanctuaries and home to more fantastic art and also the reputed tomb of King Lalibela himself.

Bet Amanuel
Freestanding and monolithic, Bet Amanuel is Lalibela’s most finely carved church. Some have suggested it was the royal family’s private chapel. It perfectly replicates the style of Aksumite buildings, with its projecting and recessed walls mimicking alternating layers of wood and stone seen at places like Yemrehanna Kristos and Debre Damo.The most striking feature of the interior is the double Aksumite frieze atop the nave. Although not accessible, there’s a staircase to an upper gallery. In the southwest corner, a hole in the floor leads to a subterranean tunnel that connects the church to Bet Merkorios. The chambers in the walls are the graves of pilgrims who requested to be buried here.

Bet Abba Libanos
Bet Abba Libanos is hewn into a rock face and is unique among Lalibela’s churches in that it’s a hypogeous church. In English, that means only the roof and floor remain attached to the strata. Like Bet Amanuel, many of its architectural features, such as the friezes, are Aksumite. Curiously, although it looks large from the outside, the interior is actually very small. The carved corners of its cubic capitals are unique; some guides say they may represent angel eyes. Legend says it was constructed in a single night by Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebra, with a little help from angels.

Bet Uraiel
In the trench fronting the western facade of Bet Golgotha, past the symbolic Tomb of Adam (a giant, hollowed-out block of stone) , Bet Uraiel opened as a church in 1998 in what may have been a storeroom. Its rough-hewn rooms are rarely visited by worshippers or tourists.

Bet Meskel
Carved into the courtyard’s northern wall at Bet Maryam is the tiny semi-chapel of Bet Meskel. Four pillars divide the gallery into two aisles spanned by arcades. 

Northern Stelae Fields

Despite the dizzying grandeur of the numerous rock needles reaching for the stars, it’s what’s under your feet here that’s most important. Amazingly, about 90% of the field hasn’t yet been dug, so no matter where you walk, there’s a good chance there’s an undiscovered tomb with untold treasures under your feet. This is part of Aksum’s appeal: the thought that fascinating finds and secrets lurk in the depths.

All of the tombs excavated to date had been pillaged by robbers, so very little is known about Aksumite burial customs or the identities of those buried.Tomb of the False DoorIn 1972 the unique Tomb of the False Door was discovered. It lies in the western extremity of the Northern Stelae Field and is thought to date around the 4th century AD. Complex in structure, its stone blocks are also larger and more finely dressed than those found in some other tombs. Comprising an antechamber and inner chamber, it’s surrounded on three sides by a passage.Above the tomb, at ground level, a rectangular, probably flat-roofed building would once have stood (measuring some 12 sq metres by 2.8m high).

Above the stairs descending into the tomb’s chamber was a stone slab carved with a false door almost identical to those found on the stelae. Look for the iron clamps fixing blocks of stone together like giant staples.Judging from the lengths to which the grave robbers went to gain access, it’s thought to have contained objects of great value. A single stone base that held the sarcophagus can still be seen.MausoleumThe so-called mausoleum has a monumental portal (hewn from a single slab of granite) marking the tomb’s entrance and is carved with the stelae’s curious false-door motifs. The portal leads into a passageway with 10 chambers. In total the tomb covers some 240 sq metres. Part of the tomb was disfigured at some unknown date by robbers, who succeeded in digging through 1.5m of solid masonry.Tomb of the Brick ArchesDating from the end of the 3rd century, this tomb is remarkably well preserved and contains four rock-cut chambers, subdivided by a series of brick arches built with lime mortar. These arches are the same as those that had been in the mausoleum before the grave robbers damaged it.The tomb was first excavated by archaeologists in 1974, and though tomb robbers had beaten them to it by centuries, they still discovered fragments of gold jewellery, beads, bronze objects, weapons and glass objects. Nobody knows who was buried here, but archaeologists surmise that the tomb contained the bodies of an elderly woman, a man and one other person and that the treasures found within indicate that they were people of high standing.The tomb remains closed because archaeologists think further excavation is warranted, but you can clearly see one of the arches through the gate.Tomb of Nefas MawchaThe megalithic Tomb of Nefas Mawcha consists of a large rectangular central chamber surrounded on three sides by a passage.

The tomb is unusual for its large size, the sophistication of the structure and the size of the stones used for its construction (the stone that roofs the central chamber measures 17.3m by 6.4m and weighs some 360 tonnes!). The force of the Great Stele crashing into its roof caused the tomb’s spectacular collapse.Locals believe that under this tomb is a ‘magic machine’, the original implement the Aksumites used to melt stone in order to shape the stelae and tombs. The same type of machine was apparently also used to create some of the rock-hewn churches of Tigray.

St. Mary of Zion Churches

Though religions have come and gone, Aksum remains a holy city throughout. Opposite the Northern Stelae Field, in a walled compound, lies the centre of the universe for Christian Ethiopians.A church of some form or other has stood at this spot since the very earliest days of Ethiopian Christianity and it was God himself who, descending from heaven, indicated that a church should be built here, though the original church is long gone. The rectangular old church (men only) at the southern end of the complex is a remarkable example of traditional architecture built by the Emperor Fasiladas, the founder of Gonder, in 1665. Inside there are fine original murals, including a painting of the Nine Saints. Some say the foundation on which it sits may belong to Africa’s first church, supposedly erected by King Ezana in the 4th century and destroyed in the 9th century during Queen Gudit’s devastating raid, and then a rebuilt version was destroyed during the incursions of Ahmed Gragn the Left-Handed in 1535. More remains of this church can be seen next to the museum.The huge new church of St Mary of Zion was built in the 1960s so women had a place to worship and it displays Haile Selassie’s usual hideous taste.

 Still it does cut a dramatic silhouette on the skyline. Beside it, a disproportionately tall bell tower, inspired by the stelae, sprouts heavenwards.Nearby is a museum (soon to be moved and expanded) containing an impressive haul of treasure, including an unsurpassed collection of former Ethiopian rulers’ crowns and a dazzling display of gold and silver chalices, crosses, jewellery and even drums. It clearly demonstrates the immense wealth of the Church. Museum guides expect a tip.Also of historical interest, beyond the gate in front of the old church, are the throne stones where local nobles were coronated.Finally, in between the old and new churches, is the real reason for most people’s devotion: a tiny, carefully guarded chapel that houses what most Ethiopians believe is the legendary Ark of the Covenant.

 Don’t think you can take a peek: just one specially chosen guardian has access to the Ark. Nobody else is allowed in the chapel and foreigners aren't even allowed to approach the fence guarding the chapel grounds because previously some foreigners tried to scale the fence and rush into the chapel! No matter what you think of the legend, there’s no denying that to be in this church compound during a major service or festival, when thousands of pilgrims pour into the city, is an experience of pure devotion and faith that that will leave you spellbound.Note that the building currently has a leaky roof and the ark may be moved, at least temporarily.

Tombs of kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel

Set on a small hill 1.8km northeast of the Northern Stelae Field and offering views of the jagged mountains of Adwa, local tradition attributes these two tombs to the 6th-century King Kaleb and his son, King Gebre Meskel.Although the twin tombs’ architecture resembles the Tomb of the False Door, they show more sophistication, using irregular-shaped, self-locking stones that don’t require iron clamps. The 19th-century British traveller Theodore Bent exclaimed magnanimously that the tombs were ‘built with a regularity which if found in Greece would at once make one assign them to a good period’!The Gebre Meskel (south) tomb is the most refined. The precision of the joints between its stones is at a level unseen anywhere else in Aksum.

  The tomb consists of one chamber and five rooms, with one boasting an exceptionally finely carved portal leading into it. Inside that room are three sarcophagi, one adorned with a cross similar to Christian crosses found on Aksumite coins. This points towards an age around the 6th century, which, as seldom happens, corresponds with local tradition. Though the rest of the story has Meskel buried at Debre Damo.Like Meskel’s tomb, King Kaleb’s is accessed via a long straight stairway. Inside you’ll notice the stones are larger, more angular and less precisely joined. Of those who attribute the making of the tomb to Kaleb, few accept that he was actually buried here. The common theory is that his body lies at Abba Pentalewon Monastery, where he lived after abdicating his throne. The tomb’s unfinished state fits with the theory.

 Local rumour has it that there’s a secret tunnel leading from here to the Red Sea.Above ground, a kind of raised courtyard combines the two tombs. Some scholars have suggested that two parallel churches with a basilica plan lay here, probably postdating the tombs.

A site known as Wuchate Golo is one of the four ancient quarries of Aksum, the birthplace of the famous stelae. Several stelae (all unmarked) were almost completely freed from the rock, but then abandoned. Mystery still surrounds the exact tools that were used by the master craftsmen of Aksum, but here you can see clearly the process by which they cut the hard stone from the rock. After the intended break was mapped out, a row of rectangular sockets was cut. Then, perhaps, dry wooden wedges were inserted into the sockets and made to expand by the use of water.Just as interesting is the Lioness of Gobodura (የጎቦዱራዋ እንስት አንበሳ). It was here that the Archangel Mikael fought a tremendous battle with a fierce lioness. The fight ended when the saint hurled the beast into a massive boulder with such force that its outline is still visible

Gonder

Woleka, The Falasha Village 
Just 3km north of Gonder, several craft stalls with ‘Stars of David’ and ‘’ signs signal what’s really the former Falasha village of Wolleka. Once the home to a thriving population of Falashas (Ethiopian Jews), most were airlifted to Israel in the 1980s and today none remain. There are, however, a few original houses with interesting artwork on their fronts and the small synagogue ; for Birr10 per person you can look inside, but be prepared for an entourage of persistent sales kids.After the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, Falashas had their land confiscated for refusing to convert. To survive, many became skilled craftspeople. Research suggests Falashas may have provided the labour for the construction and decoration of Gonder’s castles. Sadly, the pottery for which they were once famous has mostly degenerated into half-hearted art, though the figurine trinkets do make cool souvenirs. Project Ploughshare Women’s Crafts Training Center is helping disadvantaged women rekindle this craft, along with traditional Amhara weaving and basketry. You can watch the women working Monday toSaturday and buy the high-quality pottery every day.

Though its early history is murky (it was likely built in the 17th century though some say 18th) this attractive palace once served as a retreat for Haile Selassie, a residence for Italian generals and a torture chamber for the Derg. It’s now under renovation to serve as a museum of Gonder’s history that will include some of Haile Selassie’s furniture and objects found at the palace and Portuguese Cathedral.

Saturday Market
Originally the city’s weekly market, Kidame Gebya is now packed throughout the week, though Saturday remains the biggest day. Sundayis rather quiet. Traditional clothes vendors are right at the top while the vegetable sellers use ancient-looking dirt perches in the back. It’s 500m southwest of the bus station.

Lake Tana's Monasteries 
Of Tana’s four other far northern monasteries, all west of Gorgora, Mandaba Medhane Alem , which hosts ancient biblical manuscripts and some of Ethiopia’s most dedicated priests, is the only one that most consider worth a trip; even though its paintings only date to 1991. It takes 30 minutes by boat, 90 minutes by tankwa (available at Tim & Kim Village lodge) or two hours walking from town.If you’re a serious monastery lover, or just want to stretch your legs on the way to and from the palace, the other three monasteries are Angara Tekla Haimanot where the current church was built by Haile Selassie; Birgida Maryam , the most rewarding of the three, known for its jungle and dedicated monks; and Galila , which is the oldest

Church of Debre Sina 
The most interesting relic of Gorgora’s former days as a short-lived capital is the attractive Debre Sina church. Built in 1608 by Emperor Susenyos’ son and future founder of Gonder, Fasiladas, on the site of a 14th-century monastery, it’s decorated with fading original paintings. These are older and thus less vivid and complex than the paintings in the monasteries on the southern side of the lake and interesting because of the difference. Locals believe the ‘Egyptian St Mary’ painting (which is supposed to have come from Egypt, but looks no different than the other paintings), has the power to heal. The church’s thatch roof and surrounding stone buildings lend this monastery a more ancient feel than most.

Portuguese Cathedral   Near Susenyos’ palace is the Portuguese Cathedral he funded. The decrepit state (due largely to a 1995 earthquake) symbolises his failed attempt to force Catholicism on his people. The Spanish government has funded some restoration and research here. Except in the rainy season, you can drive close to it or walk (three to four hours each way) the whole way from town. The road begins 7.4km north of Gorgora in Abrecha village, the one with the tourism sign at the junctio.

Ethiopian Historic Tour Package

TOUR CODE: NTO–HR-02
DURATION: 12 Days/11 Nights
TRANSPORT: SURFACE
Addis–Bahir Dar-Gondar-Semien Mountains-Axum-Gheralta Rock hewn Churches-Lalibela
 Tour Itinerary
Day 1 Arrive at Addis Ababa, you will be met by NTO representatives at Bole International Air port and transferred to a hotel.
Day 2 DebreLibanos-Portugues Bridge-Abay Gorge-Bahir Dar
Drive north passing by Mt.Entoto through the Sululta plain, visiting the monastery of DebreLibanosand the Portuguese Bridge, Then, proceed to the spectacular scenery of the Blue Nile Gorge, where you stop for your picnic lunch and proceed to Bahir Dar.
Day 3 Monasteries on Lake Tana-Blue Nile Fall (TissIssat)
After early breakfast a half-day boat trip to explore the old aged monasteries with their priceless heritages on Lake Tana, which includes visiting the monastery of UraKidaneMihret and Kibran Gabriel. In the afternoon drive to visit the Blue Nile fall “Tiss –Issat” on the return Journey make a brief visit of Bahir Dar town.
Day 4 Gondar-the City of Castles
In the morning, drive to Gondar through to Fogera Plain and the mountains of Addis Zemen and Tara Gedam. Then visit the city of Gondar which includes the castle of King Fasiledes, the monastery of Quesquam& the icon rich Monastery of DebreBirhan Selassie.
Day 5 Semien Mountains
Drive to SankaBer, a Segment of the Semein Mountains north of Gondar. It is the most wild and spectacular of all Ethiopian landscape (the Roof of Africa). These also give you a taste of Ethiopia’s remarkable wildlife, home to a variety of endemic mammals, birds and plants. Late in the afternoon, drive back to Debark. O/N in a hotel
Day 6  Axum
After an early breakfast drive north through the Chains of the Semien Mountains and the Tekeze River Valley to the ancient town of Axum and check in your hotel.
Day 7  Sightseeing tour of Axum
After an early breakfast, make sightseeing tour of Axum including Stelae of Axum, tombs, the Church of St. Mary of Zion, the ruins of Palaces and Museum. O/N in a hotel.
Day 8 Gheralta Rock hewn Churches
After early breakfast drive to Gheralta Rock hewn Churches. The Gheralta cluster is considered the most important (with the highest member of churches, and is the most accessible. The most famous of clusters are AbrahaAtsebeha, AbunaYemata Mariam Korkor and MedahneAlem). O/N in a hotel.
Day 9 Mekele-Lalibela
After breakfast, drive back to Mekele and proceed to Lalibela through Ambalage Chains of mountains. O/N Lalibela in a hotel
Day 10  Sightseeing tour of Lalibela
After breakfast, sightseeing tour of the eleven rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela, described as the eighth wonder of the world, which were built by king Lalibela in the 12th Century. O/N in a hotel
Day 11  Lalibela-Dessie
After an early breakfast, leave Lalibela en route visit the monastery of NakutoLeAb and Genet Mariam and Proceed to Dessie. O/N Dessie in a hotel
Day 12  Dessie–Addis Ababa
Drive back to Addis Ababa via the picturesque landscape of North Shewa.

 

Ethiopian Historic Tour Package

THE HISTORIC ROUTE

 The Historic Route is one of the great treasures of Ethiopia. Nowhere else in the world, you can see riches of man’s past such as those in the northern Ethiopia. A history that stretches back to the time of prehistoric man; to more than 3000 year old history of Axum; the 5th century BC Temple of Yeha, the 12th century Rock Hewn Churches  of Lalibela, and the medieval castles of Gondar. Riches that encompass the history of Ethiopia from 1st early beginning to the modern day, riches that are amongst some of the most stunning scenery in Ethiopia; and where our people work today, just as their ancestors have done for generations.

Tour Code:    NTO-HR-01

DURATION:   11 DAYS/10 NIGHTS

TRANSPORT: FLIGHT/SURFACE

TOUR ITINERARY

Day 1 Bahir Dar

Fly to Bahir Dar. Take a boat cruise on Lake Tana to visit 13th century Monastery of UraKidaneMihret which is the most famous of Zege Peninsula monasteries. In the afternoon, you will b taken to the village of Tis Isat to see the Blue Nile fall or “TissIssat” fall. O/N Bahir Dar in a hotel.

THE DEBRE DAMO MONASTERY

76 km from Axum is the Monastery of DebreDamo (closed to Women) which is said to have the oldest existing intact church in Ethiopia. Local tradition says that AbuneAregawi, one of the Nine Saints, built the church in the 6th century.
 
TOUR             CODE:NTO-109
DURATION:     FULL DAY
DEPARTURE:  A.M. (BY ROAD)


YEHA TEMPLE
 55 km east of Axum is the 5th century BC Temple ofYeha.  Its massive walls house Judaic Relics and Historic artifacts. In the same enclosure stand Christian churches of a later Era.  

 

LALIBELA EXCURSIONS

TOUR CODE:    NTO-104
DURATION:       FULL DAY
DEPARTURE:   A.M. (ON FOOT AND MULE)
YEMREHANNE KRISTOS  “LET CHRIST SHOW US THE WAY”
This remarkable church is situated 42km northeast of Lalibela. It is located in a mountain ridge, on the peak of AbunaYoseph. It would take six hours by foot and mule back combined.
 It is a built up cave church in Axumite wood and stone construction. The church has become renowned for its interior decoration. The flat span roof displays paneling richly adorned with geometrical designs. The beautiful coffer ceiling with inland hexagons and medallions with either figurative of geometric motifs are fascinating. The ceiling over the sanctuary is domed and displays carvings and paintings. The founder of the church is said to have been King YemrehanneKristos, a predecessor of King Lalibela.