Finding positivity in a dark time
It is almost one year since the Ethiopian government confirmed its first case of COVID-19. The global pandemic has had a huge impact on our lives, and on our businesses. The service industry in Ethiopia has been decimated by the virus, and hotels, lodges, airlines, and tour operators are struggling to pay their employees salaries.
When we think about the future, we are uncertain. Today however, I don’t want to talk about the social, economic, and psychological impact of the pandemic. Many others have written about that, and it’s something we’re all familiar with at this point.
Instead, I want to talk about a story that has uplifted me during this dark time, a blessing in disguise as the wise men say. It’s the story of three professional tourist guides in Ethiopia: Biniyam Hailu, Kedemkachew Wosenseged and Enku Mulugeta, and their unsung contribution to the country’s tourism industry.
Ethiopia’s tourism industry is still in its infancy, and the quality of guiding in the country can vary dramatically. Biniyam, Kedemkachew, and Enku took it upon themselves to create a ‘guiding training programme’ in Ethiopia.
The programme helped train guides across the country, as well as providing education on the history of Ethiopia, its geology, flora and fauna, and incredible church paintings. The programme had a theoretical and practical component, with field trips being arranged to various destinations across Ethiopia.
Discovering Balchi Ammanuel
Besides the invaluable training, the platform was a golden networking opportunity for guides. I was lucky enough to attend one of these training sessions myself. During the session, I learned about Balchi Ammanuel, a church located in Shenkora just 3 hours from the capital.
I visited the church on a field trip led by Dawit Teferi - an expert in the field - and learnt all about the history of the church and the stunning paintings found within.
Getting to the church was easy enough, it is a 3 hour from Addis to the town of Shenkora. Most of the drive is on a tarmac road following the Addis-Adama express road, followed by a short 40-minute stretch on gravel road.
The original church is said to have been built in the 16th century, and the present church was built in the 1850s by King Haile Melekot, the father of Emperor Menelik. The church has a circular ground plan with a conical roof, a popular church style after the 14th century. Inside, a 12x12 metre rectangular wall encloses the holiest of holies where they keep replicas of the Ark of the Covenant.
The paintings here - as with many other circular churches in Ethiopia - are found on the walls inside the church (called maqdas). A few of the painting have had to be restored, but most are the original 16th century paintings, and are in the style of the Second Gonderian paintings.
It’s hard not to be moved by the creativity displayed in these painting, and the quality of the art represented here. The painter of this church came from Gonder, and used traditional techniques to decorate these walls. A traditional adhesive is used to plaster the cotton cloth to the wall, and the painter then outlines the figures with charcoal and colours it all in with locally made paints. You can find about 147 paintings within the church.
Besides the religious scenes, there are a number of secular paintings that narrate significant historical events and portray historic figures including Emperor Yohannes IV, Emperor Menilek and Fitawrari Nadew. These secular paintings were added during the 19th century.
Balchi Ammanuel is an undiscovered gem on the doorstep of Addis. The church is a testament to the depth of history and culture in Ethiopia, and shows how much is left undiscovered on most trips to the country.
Bringing new sites like this on to modern day itineraries is only possible thanks to the hard work of people like Biniyam, Kedemkachew and Enku.
In Partnership With
This story was written in partnership with Bennett Gizachew and the team at Wild Expeditions. We've been running trips with WE for years, and always love the fresh ideas and unique perspectives they bring to every itinerary we design for our customers.
The trip to Balchi Ammanuel was a wonderful experience, and a great opportunity for guides to get together and learn about a fascinating church with centuries of history. It's just one of the countless churches in Ethiopia that speak to the depth of history here, and the centrality of religion throughout the ages.
Bemnet Gizachew Head Guide
Popular Trips to Ethiopia
Fusing history, culture, landscapes and wildlife along a perfectly paced circuit, this trip is a synthesis of the very best experiences on offer in Ethiopia’s northern highlands. Explorations of the ancient cities Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar and Lalibela are broken…
Hike across electric landscapes of thick forests, Afro-alpine moorland, peaks and plateaus, and jungle thickets. An extraordinary outdoor adventure, with high altitude hikes unlocking staggering viewpoints, beautiful clearings, and endemic wildlife. At night, the sky is ablaze with starlight in…
A true adventure across the northernmost reaches of Ethiopia. Experience community trekking on the plateaus of Tigray, where horizons stretch for miles, distant mountain peaks morph into hazy silhouettes lit by the evening sun, and pockets of light and shadow…