Travel Ethiopia: Gondar, Axum, Lalibela

Northern Ethiopia is home to the Amhara and Tigray ethnic groups. But within this two groups there are differences in manners of speech and culture according to regions. So even the seemingly homogeneous north is rich in cultural diversity. As you may have noticed from the previous hub the Ethiopian culture is deeply intertwined to its religion. You can’t escape from writing about the Orthodox religion in almost every paragraph because the religion comprise a big part of the culture. This is especially true of Northern Ethiopia so the same trend will continue in this hub.

Northern Ethiopia is also home to some fascinating historical sights. The obelisks of Axum stands witness to the great civilization that arose there over 2000 years ago. The beautiful 900 year old rock-hewn churches of Lalibela transports you to an old, old world. And if you are lucky enough to be at one of these Churches while the priests are celebrating mass be ready to be transported to another world. The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mass is quite unique than any you may have heard. It has  a beautiful other worldly, trans-formative quality. Then there are the castles of Gondar built during the 17th Century, an era when the Ethiopian nobles where constantly at war with each other to gain power. There are many more such historical sights such as the above including hundreds of ancient churches, monasteries, palace ruins, mausoleums, sacrificial and burial places.   

The Axum Stelae Park

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1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC


Let us now take a closer look at some astounding historical land marks you should visit if you travel to Ethiopia. In northern Ethiopia, in the Tigray region are found the obelisks of Axum, dating back to 2,000 years to the Axumite civilization.They are one of the oldest architectural marvels in the world unique in their design and as giant monoliths. Each one carved from a single gray smooth granite. There are 120 in all. The tallest one 108 meters in length has fallen and lays broken into huge pieces on the ground perhaps due to an earth quake. If still standing, it would have been the world's tallest monolith.The next tallest is a 28 meter one taken by the Italians during their brief occupation of Ethiopia in World War II. It is now returned and is in the process of being erected in its old place in the stele park.

These obelisks are all facing south. Some speculate that this is so because of some kind of worship of the sun.The steles are made to look like tall narrow buildings with false doors at the base and false windows there after, with their apex a semi circle. Their purpose is suspected to be religious and or burial monuments for the Axumite kings though much of the Axumite civilization remains shrouded in mystery.This is probably because of lack of funds for extensive archeological research.

Fallen Stele 108 Meters in Length

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1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC

Nearby the Stelae Park  you will find the ruins of Queen Makeda’s ( Queen of Sheba) bath house. Her magnificent palace is suspected to be buried deep into the earth in the vicinity. In the Axum museum you will find fine vases, jewelry, pottery, iron works, and an amazing collection of coins  that are amazing pieces of fine craftsmanship even in Today’s standards.

These artifacts show that Axum was a vibrant center for art and trade. Axum's greatness was told in many old Greek and Persian books. Axum traded with Egypt, Greek, Persia, india and even China.

Beta Mariam Church - One of the 12 monoliths

Bete Mariam Church 1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC
Bete Mariam Church 1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC


South of the Tigre region in the Wello province in the small town of Lalibela formerly known as Roha, you will find the most amazing fit of monolithic architecture the world over, the twelve rock hewn churches of Lalibela. Ethiopia was known for her ancient priest kings. One of these priest kings was king Lalibela of the Zagwey dynasty. He resided there some 900 years ago. He was one of the most devout of all the priest kings. Legend has it, because of his deep faith in God he was able to build these beautiful churches in relatively short period of time. He later became a saint and is also known as Saint Lalibela.

The Lalibela churches are all hewn from solid red volcanic rock. They are all interconnected by intricate tunnels and passageways. Some intentionally buried in the ground and hidden completely and others are sitting out in the open.The most famous of this churches and the one that is well preserved is Bete Giorgis, St. Grorge ChurCh in English. It is carved into the ground in the shape of a cross. Most of these churches are still in use today and contain many ancient books, paintings, crosses, and other church treasures.

Here Again there is a lack of in depth research as to how these monolithic churches were built and how long it took. But there is no doubt Saint Lalibela built some of those churches and the architecture is local not foreign. Nothing quite like it exists anywhere else in the world.

Lalibela: Bete Gorgise Church:

The most well preserved of all the other Lalibela Churches. 1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC By Ben Sumer
The most well preserved of all the other Lalibela Churches. 1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC By Ben Sumer

The Gondar Castles Castles - Gondar

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1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC

Fasiledes Castle

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1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC


North West of Wello you will find the town of Gondar another ancient seat of power of a different era of the Ethiopian empire. Here are the magnificent Fasiladas castles built in the 17th century high up on hill. The first ones were built by Atse Fasile (king Fasil). Then many of his successors built their own.There are banquet halls, a library, stables, churches, and chapels. From this vantage point you will get a stunning view of the town of Gondar with rolling hills and mountains surrounding it and the beautiful Lake Tana shimmering in the distance.

In the same area is the Fasiladas baths that are still used today by the Ethiopian orthodox Church for the celebration of Timket which is the equivalence of epiphany. It is one of the places Orthodox Christians all over Ethiopia make a pilgrimage to for the yearly Timket celebrations. Every year during this time the Fasiladas baths are filled with water. Priests in their colorful finery celebrate midnight mass where large crowds of people have gathered. After mass the people can bath in the holly water that has been blessed by the all night mass, prayers, and blessings.



In Gondar you will also find the beautiful church of Debre Brehane Sellassie. The inner walls and ceiling of the church is completely filled with beautiful Christian paintings done in the 18th Century by a learned Ethiopian scholar and artist. The most interesting part of this art work, something that fascinates many people who visit this church is the hundreds of angels painted on the ceiling with large watchful eyes that seem to be watching over you.

In the church compound you may even see young men and young boys wearing sheep hide seated on the ground surrounding their teacher and listening intently. They are known as, “yekolo temari” meaning students of humble means, devoted to religious study and the study of “kene”( Ethiopian religious philosophy). They are the future priests, monks, and deacons of the Orthodox Church. So Gondar was not only the seat of political power, but was also the center art and of religious and philosophical learning. It still is the center of learning of religion and religious philosophy.

The painting you see on the video is some of the paintings you will see at Debre Brehane Selassie Church and those are some of the angels I mentioned above.


Some 35 kilometers south of Gondar is a pleasant town named Bahir Dar and there you will find  the famous lake, Lake Tana. It is the largest lake in Ethiopia and that is where Abbaye (the Blue Nile) originates.The Lake has several large islands and on this islands are found several monasteries. In these monasteries are housed the tombs of  the ancient kings and queens of Ethiopia as well as their crowns and garments. Some of this monasteries do not allow women to visit because the monks there lead a very strict ascetic life.


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wikipedia creative commons share alike 3.0

Child with Flute - On the way to Tis Abbay

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1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC


Not too far from Lake Tana you will find the spectacular Blue Nile Falls called Tis Abbay by Ethiopians. Tis Abbay means smoking abbay so named because as the water falls down with great force it sprays thick mist and forms a great big gray cloud that makes it look like the water is smoking. As you approach the falls you could hear its thunder and feel its sprays from a long distant. And if you go at a certain time of the day you will see the mists of the falls form a beautiful rainbow and along with beauty of the falls and the surrounding area it is quite a gorgeous sight to behold.

Tis Abbay - The Blue Nile Falls

1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC by Ben Sumer
1999-2010 Orbitz Away LLC by Ben Sumer

Debre Damo Church

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wikipedia creative commons


Ethiopia as one of the ancient Christian countries has many fascinating monasteries. They are usually found in very remote and very hard to get to places. One of these famous monasteries is Debre Damo found in the province of Tigre. It is one of the oldest monasteries in Ethiopia perhaps dating back to the 6th century. It also has a fascinating architecture similar to the Axumits'.You have to climb a steep cliff using a rope to get to it. Women are not allowed there.There also the monks lead strict ascetic life. To become a monk they have to complete years of religious and philosophical study, church song, music, spiritual movement, procession and daily church proceedings.Each of them specializes in one area or another.


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wikipedia creative commons share alike


The Yared music composition and Songs are what the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Christian church uses for its daily celebration of mass. The musical composition and songs were composed and written by a devout Ethiopian priest known as Saint Yared. St. Yared lived in the holly city of Axum in the 13th Century. He was born into a family of priests and naturally he was recruited to study for the priesthood as a young boy. At first he was not succeeding in his studies. He almost gave up and ran away from home but was inspired by an ant he happened to be watching. The ant kept trying to accomplish her work despite failing to do so several times. He want back home asked for forgiveness, studied hard and became a priest. He eventually composed the beautiful church music and songs that inspires and comforts people to this day

It is said that because of his deep devotion to God he was inspired to write the most beautiful other worldly transcending music and songs. He authored five such books. each containing music, song, and movement appropriate for the various celebrations and ceremonies. The musical instrument used by St. Yared was a specially made large drum used only by the church, sistrum, masinko (one string harp), and the harp. For movement a long staff with a metal tip known as "mekwamia" especially made for this purpose is used.

This church music, song and chant collectively known as "kidasse" is another aspect of the church that is uiique from all the other Eastern Orthodox churches. The tabot which I mentioned in the first hub is the other one.

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wikipedia creative commons share alike


Then there are the Semien Mountains some times known as the roof of Africa. The highest point is Ras Dejen at about 4,500 elevation. These mountain ranges are one of the most remarkable geological formations in the world, formed by earthquakes and volcanic activity. It is dedicated as world heritage sight by the United Nations. The Semien mountains with its sweeping panoramic views of deep gorges and valleys and natural rock sculptures of all shapes and sizes is stunning. Add to that the quietness and the fresh dry mountain air you are immediately transported to a mystical place.Then if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of this rare mammals that reside there such as the mountain Nyala, the Semian fox or the Walia Ibex then you should be enchanted, Most probably you will get to watch the Gelada baboons graze grass in groups and that is thrilling enough.


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wikipedia creative commons share aliike 2.0

I will conclude this hub on northern Ethiopia here, even though I know I have left out many important details. The next hub will introduce southern Ethiopia which has a much more diverse ethnic groups. The land is greener and the climate more humid.               

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Comments 6 comments

Ann Nonymous profile image

Ann Nonymous 6 years ago from Virginia

Wow. Beautifully put together hub, Lelane! I never realized that Ethiopia was so rich in tourist sights. Amazing. Now you make me want to go!

lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 6 years ago Author

Thank you for the great compliment Ann. Yes Ethiopia is full of history and diversity. She is one the oldest countries with continues history in the world. Right now she is poverty stricken and that is all you may hear from the media but that is not all there is to her. Just tourism if managed well could help her a lot. But we have had corrupt governments for the last 40 years and a lot of things are wasted.

shushay hagos 6 years ago

we Ethiopian have a fantastic and amaizing churchs,tourisms and a number of artifacts and all the are originated from the Ethiopian orthodox ,we have to keep them the country is nothing with out lalibela, axum, gonder fasil, debredamo, and the other.....

lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 6 years ago Author

Thank you for your comment Shushay. Yes we do have a long fascinating history with ancient churches, monasteries, and relics from before Christianity to show for it. Then there is Southern Ethiopia with its very diverse ethnic groups and their diverse culture, language and civilizations. Southern Ethiopia is endowed with natural beauty. A large part of the land is rich and fertile. Some parts are as rich as rain forests in their abundance and diversity of plant and animal life. Beautiful rivers and lakes are also abundant in the Southern regions. Ethiopia is beautiful, diverse, and rich in natural resources, culture and diversity. Long live Ethiopia.

Eshetie 5 years ago

Gondar is lovely,very atractive,and has good historical back ground that shows the development of Ethiopia.there for,please visit it.From Adama university.

lelanew55 profile image

lelanew55 5 years ago Author

Thank you for stopping by Eshetie. Gondar indeed is attractive and full of fascinating history so is the rest of our beloved country from Gambella to Affar.

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