By Martin Roberts and Naylah Hamour

We arrived at Lalibela, where Ethiopia has its best-known historical sites and treasure, the rock-hewn churches.

This incredible achievement took 23 years under the guidance of King Lalibela, and the churches are divided into two complexes of five each, with the separate Beta Giyorgis.

The latter is the only one without a Unesco-imposed roof, which may do wonders for protecting the frescos in the rainy season, but detracts from the spectacle which Beta Giyorgis provides, with all its magnificent simplicity.

This is, however, a minor quibble. The churches are not only magnificent, but an ample demonstration of the strength of religious feeling in Ethiopia which prevails to this day.

We were there in Easter week and the very small numbers of tourists were well outnumbered by the pilgrims and general worshippers who had come to pray, meditate, or listen to the priests.

The priests were reading out the ancient tomes written in Ge’ez – the same script as everyday Amharic, but just as incomprehensible to the layman as Latin is to the average churchgoer in Europe.

The rock-hewn churches truly deserve to be one of the wonders of the world and would be if Ethiopia had not been off the beaten track for so long. Again, the priests are happy to show off the treasures of each church, including the famous 7kg gold cross Lalibela, which was recently stolen and then recovered.

They are so use to picture requests that they don sunglasses inside the church to cope with the regular camera flashes.

We also went to the church of Yemrehane Kristos, about 40km away from Lalibela, and constructed at least half-a-century before.

The last 12km of this trip involved a jolting ride on a rutted track – the so-called African massage. This was well worth it when we walked up to a church of stunning simplicity and beauty, constructed of marble, stone and wood, but inside a cave of overhanging basalt blocks.

A recent ugly brick wall blocks up the entrance, but does not detract from the amazing spectacle and location.

To Axum

From there, it was on by air to Axum, and the staggering stelae, or granite columns, which stand in the centre of the town.

As you stand admiring the skilful carving and the level of engineering required to lift columns of 25 metres and above into a standing position, it takes a huge leap of imagination to realise that the ones still upright date from 300-500AD.

Ancient Axum Obelisk The largest one is 33 metres, but that has sadly collapsed. If it were still standing, it would be the tallest obelisk in the world.

However, two others, almost as tall, still stand. One is helped to stay upright by a probably unnecessary sling – it has stayed up for nearly two millennia unaided – but the other is breathtaking in its grandeur.

How lucky, then, it was in the last few years returned from Rome, where it had been spirited away by the occupying Italians, who outrageously held on to it for so long.

The walled city Harar and hyenas

Hyenas at HarerBack in Addis for half a day, we moved swiftly on to Harar, taking a break from the northern historical circuit by visiting a walled city which had its own ruling emir for around 1,000 years until taken over by Menelik I.

Harer is considered the fourth holiest city in Islam, and the base for many Muslim incursions into Christian Ethiopia over the centuries.

It was forbidden to non-Muslims until visited by the multilingual British explorer Sir Richard Burton in the mid-1850s, and guides will still point out which of the five old gates he entered the city by.

Those old gates, big enough for a camel, are now superseded by narrow lanes just about big enough for a car.

Harar also makes great play of its association with the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who gave Naylah at Rimbaud up composing verse at 21 and eventually spent the best part of a decade as a trader in Harar at the end of the 19th century.

However, the best part of the city is just being able to soak up the atmosphere, which is remarkably chilled out for a walled city with such a fiercely partisan history.

You can wander through the alleys and lanes without ever going too far astray, and taking frequent stops for cups of coffee, the local crop of which is outstanding even by Ethiopia’s formidable standards.

Finally, don’t forget to watch the hyenas being fed just after dusk outside the city walls. You can even have a go yourself, if you are brave enough.

Back to Addis

In Addis again, we had time enough to take a trip out to Africa’s largest market, Merkato, but take a guide here if you don’t want to get hopelessly lost in the hustle and bustle of the market.

We finished off with a visit to St George’s Cathedral, the day before Orthodox Easter, where we again admired the incomparable modernist frescoes of Afewerk Tekle.

Finally, just a word on Highway Tours again. Everywhere we went outside of Addis, we stayed at the best available hotels (there’s always the Hilton if you want to splash out in Addis) and enjoyed the delicious Ethiopian cuisine.

I’m missing my doro wat and kitfo (raw meat) so we might just have to find somewhere in London.

We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Highway Tours and Eskinder to anyone wanting to travel to Ethiopia.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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