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Visit Ethiopia – Gondar and the Simien Mountains

Ethiopia is a country that is blessed with many amazing places to visit, whether you are interested in wildlife, history, landscapes, or archaeology.

We enjoyed a two week tour of Northern Ethiopia, starting in Addis Ababa, then travelling to Barhidar, Gondar, the Simien Mountains, Lalibela, Axum and Gheralta. During this trip, we managed to visit no less than four UNESCO sites. The area around the city of Gondar alone had two.

Ethiopia Gondar

We had travelled to Gondar from Barhidar. We stayed at the Jantekel Hotel, a couple of kilometres from the main attractions. It’s a modern hotel with the most delightful staff.

Ethiopia Gondar City

The city of Gondar was Ethiopia’s capital between 1632 and 1855. Prior to this the country’s leaders had moved throughout the country. It was King Fasil – Fasilides – who decided to settle and he chose Gondar.

There are a couple of legends connected with the reason that Fasilides chose Gondar as his capital. According to one story, Fasilides was out hunting one day when divine intervention led him to encounter a buffalo which showed him the way to the site. Another cited a prophecy which foretold that that the capital of Ethiopia would be a location that began with the letter ‘G’. Whether these are true, Fasilides was content enough with Gondar to establish his government there.

Fasilides was emperor of Ethiopia from 1632 until 1667. He was of the Solomonic dynasty and claimed to have descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Fasilides was also responsible for the building of the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Zion at Axum, which is reputed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.) He built several castles, palaces and churches as well as a long wall, effectively turning it into a fortified city.

We explored many of the remarkable sites at Gondar. We suggest getting a guide who can show you the main sights and explain the history. It’s also worth considering finding transportation because the main sites are a few kilometres apart. We had arranged a guide who could pick us up from our hotel and take us to each location. We recommend a full day sightseeing – it was fascinating and hugely enjoyable.

The Fasil Ghebbi

The Fasil Ghebbi is the Royal Enclosure of the complex built by Fasilides.  It comprises a number of buildings that were constructed over the years, the most important of which include Fasilides’ castle, Iyasu I’s palace, Emperor Dawit’s Hall, Emperor Bakaffa’s castle and banqueting hall, Empress Mentewab’s castle, an archive, a library and a number of churches. The word ‘ghebbi’ means ‘enclosure’ so the site is surrounded by an extensive wall. It is possible to explore all these structures that have survived the centuries and there are no restrictions about entering the buildings.

What’s interesting about the construction of these castles is that they look very European, with some Arabic and Indian influences as well.

Fasilides Castle

Fasilides’ castle (which is sometimes referred to as the Egg Castle due to its domes) is the most impressive of all the structures. It has huge towers with crenelated walls which give it the appearance of a European mediaeval castle. High up in the castle was Fasilides’ prayer room. The view from the watchtower afforded views all around Gondar. It’s even possible to see Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, on a clear day.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides’ castle
Fasilides Castle Gondar

The royal library was built by Emperor Yohannes, Fasilides’ successor.

Ethiopia Gondar royal library

Emperor Iyasu’s palace was apparently the most refined and sumptuous of the buildings with gilded decorations and plush furniture. Iyasu, who ruled from 1682 to 1706, was known as The Great and was the son of Emperor Yohannes I. Although Iyasu led a number of military campaigns he was also known as an emperor who wanted to reconcile religious differences amongst his people, holding councils to discuss and resolve ecumenical matters.

Gondar Iyasu’s Palace
Ethiopia Gondar Iyasu’s Palace

This gateway was accidentally bombed by the British. We were told that they didn’t mean to, they were helping Ethiopia defend itself from the second Italian invasion (1935-37).

The buildings are largely ruins – very few of the ceilings in the buildings remain, most are destroyed.

Ethiopia Gondar

Dawit’s Hall, named for the Emperor Dawit who ruled from 1716 to 1721, was also known as the House of Song, was a place for entertainment and feasting. Unfortunately the feasting came to an end when Dawit met his demise – he was poisoned.

Dawits Hall Gondar

His successor was the Emperor Bakaffa, Dawit’s half-brother, who ruled from 1721 to 1730 (and who married Mentewab, who became a highly influential empress) Bakaffa’s Castle had a huge banqueting hall.

Bakaffa Castle Gondar

The amazing Zamani project has mapped out 3D models of the main buildings as well as a panoramic view of the site.

Fasilides Baths

A little way out of the city are the Fasilides Baths, a compound thought to be constructed around the same time as the Royal Enclosure. The baths comprise the pool itself, a central tower, and a bridge to the tower which is used when the baths are filled with water.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths
Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths

The walls of the baths have slowly been taken over by the local trees.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths

Fasilides baths are considered sacred and are filled just once each year, on the 19th of January, when Ethiopians celebrate Epiphany in a festival known as Timkat. Timkat translates as ‘baptism’ and the festival represents Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist on the River Jordan. It is celebrated across Ethiopia.

Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace

Mentewab was Empress of Ethiopia from 1722 to 1730. She married Emperor Bakaffa (a son of Iyasu I), becoming his second wife. The first wife died in mysterious circumstances on the day of the wedding banquet, which does seem somewhat suspicious.

After the Emperor’s death, Mentewab was crowned as co-ruler of Ethiopia while her son, Iyasu II, was still a child, and she continued her reign after his murder and when her grandson Iyoas I came to power. She had enormous political influence.

She commissioned several buildings within the Royal Enclosure as well as a church dedicated to St Mary at Qwesqwam, a few kilometres from Gondar. Mentewab also built herself a rather splendid palace next to it, and this became her primary residence and was used as a retreat, away from the Royal Enclosure.

Ethiopia Gondar Mentewab

It had an impressive banqueting hall. Mentewab took a lover after Bakaffa died (her husband’s nephew, known as Iyasu the Kept, who was also a grandson of Fasilides) and was exiled because of it. We were told of a legend whereby she invited nobles to visit her palace, then locked them in and wouldn’t allow them out, even to pee. They were eventually released when they correctly answered a riddle. She didn’t have to take any more flak from them after that.

Ethiopia Gondar Mentewab Banquet Hall

The church and castle were destroyed in a fire in 1888 by Sundanese Mahdists during the sacking of Gondar. Restoration of the church started in the mid-20th century by the Italian occupiers and was completed by Emperor Haile Selassie. The remains of Empress Mentewab, Iyasu II, and Iyoas I, were interred in a glass toppedglass-topped coffin inside the church.

Mentewab church

There is also a small treasury at the site where it’s possible to view a centuries-old bible.

Ethiopian Bible

Debre Berhan Selassie Church and Monastery

This is one of the most important of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. It was built by in the 17th century and its name means ‘Trinity and Mountain of Light.’

Ethiopia Gondar Debre Berhan Selassie Church

Men and women are allowed to enter, albeit through different doors, and shoes must be removed. Women who are menstruating or have had sex the night before are asked not to enter the church. It’s also requested that conservative clothes and a headscarf are worn.

While the exterior of the church isn’t particularly dramatic or compelling its interior is covered with vivid frescoes depicting tales from the bible.

Debre Berhan Selassie Church
Debre Berhan Selassie Church

The remarkable ceiling is covered with row upon row of cherubs looking down upon visitors and worshippers. The figures are painted in a style typical of the Ethiopian churches – known as the Gondarine style.

Ethiopia Gondar Debre Berhan Selassie Church

The Simien Mountains

After exploring Gondar’s amazing castles and churches it was time to take a long, bumpy drive to the Simien Mountains. This area is a national park and another UNESCO world heritage site. We drove to The Simien Lodge, via the small town of Debark, situated at an altitude of 3260 meters. The Simien Lodge is the only lodge in the central area of the park. It offered comfortable accommodation in our own private huts.

Our only criticism of the place was that meals had to be taken as a buffet (there is no choice to eat anywhere else), which wasn’t a problem per se, but all the food was international – there were no Ethiopian options, which was disappointing. It was also quite pricey but that is understandable as the food has to be brought in from the nearest town.

The lodge also claims to have the highest bar in Africa, so we made sure to enjoy post-exploration beers in the evenings.

Monkey Magic

On our first day we enjoyed hiking in the area. The landscapes are spectacularly beautiful. Walking through fields scented with wild thyme we encountered groups of gelada monkeys, which are also known as gelada baboons, bleeding-heart baboons, or lion monkeys. They are found only in the Ethiopian highlands. They look like baboons but are monkeys and are characterised by their long, shaggy golden coats, which look like lions’ manes, and a heart-shaped patch of pink bare skin on their chests.

Ethiopia gelada monkeys

The gelada spend much of their time foraging for grass or herbs in the grasslands but sleep on the ledges of nearby cliffs at night, in order to avoid predators such as servals and leopards as well as domestic dogs.

Ethiopia simien mountain gelada

They have a complex society and the different groups move together as troupe through the day.

We met researchers who were monitoring the monkeys andobserving their behaviour. They had spent some time recording the social dynamics between the groups as well as monitoring diseases.

Unlike baboons, the gelada have a very gentle nature (at least with human visitors – we did see some play-fighting and chasing each other!). They are quite relaxed about people walking among them. Obviously we had to treat them with respect and keep a reasonable distance, but it was an absolute joy to be able to get so close to these wonderful creatures.

Ethiopia gelada monkey

The baby monkeys were having such a fun time in the trees!

Ethiopia Simien mountains

Viewing Spectacular Views

The following day we visited Chenek to see the Kurbet Metaya viewpoint, a wonderful vista overlooking the mountains. The viewpoint is actually a gap in the cliffs revealing views of the mountain faces and a beautiful valley.

Ethiopia Simien Mountains

We continued to explore more of the area. As ever, it’s always worth looking out for other travellers pointing at something in the distance. In this case it was a rare and endangered Walia Ibex, found only in these mountains. It was actually quite some distance away at the foot of a cliff – this was the camera’s best possible zoom picture!

Walia Ibex

Then we returned to Gondar for one more night at the Jantekel hotel before we caught our flight to Lalibela. The hotel served traditional Ethiopian meals in enormous portions! This is injera, a bread made from teff flour, filled with doro wat, a spicy chicken stew. Injera doesn’t look particularly appetising but it tastes great. It’s fermented and has a lovely sour flavour.

Ethiopian Traditional Bread Injera

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The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches

Hewn From the Living Rock

When planning our visit to Ethiopia it was Lalibela’s rock churches that were top of the ‘must-see’ list. Lalibela is located in northern Ethiopia and you can fly direct from Addis Ababa, although we had spent some time exploring Gondar and the wonderful Simien mountains beforehand, so flew in from Gondar.

The town is named after the late-12th and early-13th century King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty, who was highly revered and was reputed to have commissioned the construction of the churches, but it is more likely that they were built over several centuries. Although the devout claim that holy angels played a part as well.

The churches, which were designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. They are remarkable because rather than being constructed from the ground up, they have been hewn from within the rock, using basic tools such as chisels and hammers, and were built from the top down and then carved from within. There are three main groups: northern, eastern and western. It will take more than a day to explore them thoroughly so make sure you factor in enough time.

You need to purchase a ticket at the main office – this is valid for five days. It’s not cheap but is definitely worth the price. You need to make sure that you keep your ticket as you may need to produce it when you enter each church. It’s generally okay to take photos (keep an eye out for signs indicating if photography is prohibited) but if you are taking photos of someone (and we found that many of the priests encouraged us to do so) it is polite to tip them.

We also recommend getting a guide as they will be able to tell you the history of each of the churches as well as point out some of the more interesting features. The churches are open from 8am-5.30pm, but are closed for two hours at lunchtime, around midday.

These are very much living churches, highly revered by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and a place for pilgrims to visit. We were welcome to join the services.

We explored each cluster of churches in turn. The churches within each group are linked by subterranean passages.

The Northern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches

Biete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, at approx 33 metres long, 23 metres wide, and 10 metres deep, is home to the Lalibela Cross. It has five aisles and its name means ‘Saviour of the World’.

Ethiopia Lalibela Churches Biete Medhane Alem
Biete Maryam

Biete Maryam may be the oldest of the churches, named for Mary.

It has an incredibly deep pool outside which is believed to grant fertility to any woman who bathes in it.

Biete Golgotha Mikael is said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela himself.

Lalibela Ethiopia Churches Biete Golgotha Mikael

The Eastern Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches

It is thought that some The Eastern Group may have been used as royal chapels or palaces.

Ethiopia Lalibela churches Beite Amanuel

Biete Amanuel (House of Immanuel), possibly the former royal chapel.

At Biete Abba Libanos you can see how the church was carved downwards from inside the rock.

Lalibela Ethiopia Churches

Biete Lehem is the house of bread.

The Western Group Of The Lalibela Ethiopia Churches

Last, but by no means least, Biete Ghiorgis, the church of St George, which takes a cruciform shape, and is the most beautiful of the churches.

Lalibela Ethopia Churches

You cannot see it on your approach, so well is it hidden. (Actually you have to be careful not to fall into the courtyard.)

It also appears to be totally inaccessible but there is a passageway carved into the rock behind the church and you walk through a tunnel to arrive at the main entrance.

Lalibela Ethiopia Churches
Lalibela Ethopia Churches

Day Trip from Lalibela

While you’re in the area, it’s also possible to visit Yemrehanna Kristos which is located around 20km from Lalibela. This would make for a pleasant morning or afternoon trip.

The church here is built inside a large cave on Mount Abuna Yosef. The church is named for Ethiopian king Yemrehana Krestos who reigned in the 11th Century.

Yemrehanna Kristos

The area is known for its honey. There is a legend that Gebre Mesqel Lalibela was surrounded by a swarm of bees shortly after his birth. Apparently his mother believed it to be a sign of his future greatness. Whether the legend is true or not, make sure you get to taste the local honey, it is absolutely delicious.

And if you want a tip for a good restaurant at the end of the day’s sightseeing you can’t go wrong with Ben Abeba. The building has a highly unusual design and you can either sit indoors or outside – we recommend the latter as there are some splendid views, especially if you time your visit for sunset. The food on offer is slightly unusual – of course, you can have Ethiopian food, but somewhat surprisingly there are a number of Scottish dishes on the menu! The restaurant is run by a very friendly Scots lady who now lives in Lalibela.  

Ben Abeba

You can explore the Lalibela churches online via The Zamani Project who can offer several digital tours, including maps, photos, panoramas and 3D models of the site.

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