Top Cultural Experiences in Ethiopia
Lalibela, the ancient churches and hidden artefacts
Buried deep below the surface, a long cross-peaks its squared-off sandstone head above a crumbled crevice. Surrounded by an unending network of winding tunnels and secret passageways that lead deeper and deeper into the earth, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were, for centuries, hidden along with their most prized possession...
Also known as Afro Ayigeba, the Lalibela Cross is a large ornate processional cross, elaborately adorned in lavish gold, and is held in high regard as an artefact of immense historical, cultural and religious significance. The central cross dovetails down vertically, spreading two glistening gold arms out horizontally, meeting an ornate band that circles the circumference of the cross. Designed in a traditional manner, the Lalibela cross has a second, smaller semi-circular band along the bottom known as ‘Adams's arms’. This style of the cross has become synonyms with this original artefact, so much so that all crosses bearing similar resemblance are known as Lalibela crosses.
The spiritual epicentre of these rock churches in the Church of Saint George, the most famous of them all, and the most visually impressive.
Experiencing the morning service in the rock churches is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The nighttime services during Ethiopian Christmas are extraordinary, and once you've explored the churches in the centre of town, there are plenty of amazing cultural experiences on offer in the highlands around Lalibela.
More than just a beverage
Considered a simple convenience in most parts of the world, coffee holds a place of real cultural significance in Ethiopia.
Not only do they consume anywhere between 3-6 cups a day, but they also honour the drink with a ceremony, which draws many parallels to the tea ceremonies of Japan.
Within Ethiopia households, these ceremonies are often held daily, with up to three taking place in a day, especially over the weekends. The making of coffee is an art in Ethiopia, from only selecting the finest beans, to triple pouring each cup, nothing is left to chance and this reflects in the taste.
Traditionally, coffee in Ethiopia is served black, with liberal helpings of sugar, sometimes with a little soft twig of rue. Referred to in Amharic as Tena Adam, which means ‘The health of Adam’, rue is an ancient medicinal herb that grows wild in most parts of Ethiopia.
An ancient epicentre of power and politics
Once the beating heart of a mighty empire that spanned for over a thousand years, Axum is famed for its 24-metre megalith surrounded by a ring of smaller Obelisks. Built-in the 4th century by King Ezana, the 160-tonne monument had stood in place for over a thousand years, until the Italian occupation of Ethiopia sent a shadow of the future of the monument.
Having spent over 90 years away from its original home, the story of the Obelisks of Axum is as fascinating as the Obelisk itself. Discovered in 1935 by a group of Italian soldiers, the semi-submerged Obelisk was partially taken apart, and over two years was transported to Rome as a spoil of war. Re-erected in Portal Capea square, it spent the next few years on show, far from its home, waiting like the prodigal son, to return home.
Since it returns, the graphite monolith is one of Axum’s key attractions, dominating the skyline and drawing visitors from far and wide. From the ground, the squared-off monolith features two orientated false doors, with layers of ever-morphing patterns that intermingle as they slither up the tower to the semi-circular domed top. The detailing on these decorations is so precise that the windows and doors all have locks carved into them.
Adjacent to the stelae field lies another of Axum's wonders, a church that is said to house the Ark of the Covenant.
Trips across the spiritual hubs of Ethiopia usually come with a dose of art, with many of the bigger churches featuring endless memorials sprawling along the winding corridors and cramped caverns. Many of these paintings are relics of long-lost times and depict in vivid detail, tales from the bible, allowing the mainly illiterate practitioners of the past the chance to embrace God’s teachings. Now, these relics shine as bright as ever, still imprinting their stories in the psyche of all those who visit.
Also known as the ‘the Camelot of Africa’, thousands of years of royalty and blood have helped form Ethiopia's formed capital into the metropolis that visitors see today.
Found in the Semien Gondar Zone of the Amhara Region, Gondar is north of Lake Tana on the Lesser Angereb River and south-west of the Simien Mountains and is usually visited as part of a trip to the mountain range.
Guarded by twelve towers representing the 12 apostles, the city is home to several royal castles, including those in the Fasil Ghebbi UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the Castles were built in the 1600s under the reign of King Fasilides, who also built the city's bathhouse often used for its baptismal waters during Timkat festival.
With a name that translates to the City of Saints, Harar is known as one of Islam's biggest spiritual hubs in Africa.
For centuries, the city had been a major commercial centre, linking trade routes from the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and, through its ports, the outside world. According to UNESCO, it is "considered 'the fourth holy city' of Islam" with 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, and 102 shrines.
The colourful array of architecture stands out from much of the rest of the country, with its Arabic influenced design a stark juxtaposition to the more Christian influences found on the northern circuit. One of the key architectural attractions is Harar Jugol, the old walled city, was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2006 by UNESCO in recognition of its cultural importance.
Most famous for the hyena feeding you can do there, the town has a special connection with these wild beasts, and a long-standing tradition of feeding meat to spotted hyenas also evolved during the 1960s. Also in the city is the Harar Brewery. Established in 1984, beers brewed within its walls can be sampled at the adjacent brewery social club.
Cultural 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…
Experience the colourful Timket festival along the sweeping plateaus of rural Amhara on a community trek. Continue your adventure through the classic northern circuit where you'll discover ancient monuments from bygone civilisations, diverse wildlife, incredible views and wonderful people.…