Ethiopia’s Natural, Cultural and Historical Attractions
Axum is an ancient town in northern Ethiopia. It lies at an elevation of about 2100 meters just west of Adwa in Tigrai region. Once the seat of the kingdom of Axum, it is now a tourist town and religious centre best known for its antiquities tall granite obelisks, 126 in all, stand (or lie broken) in the central square. Once measuring 33 meters, now fallen, is said to be the tallest obelisk ever erected. The obelisks range from nearly plain slabs to intricately inscribed pillars. Door and window-like shapes are carved into some of the pillars, giving them the appearance of slender buildings. The most recent of the obelisks announces the adoption of Christianity in the 4th century by king Ezana. At least 27 carved stone thrones have been unearthed in the overgrown ruins of the ancient palace.
Axum has long been regarded a holy city for the Ethiopian Orthodox church. It forms the setting of the 14th century work Kibre Negest (“Glory of the Kings”), which relates the tradition of the transference of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Axum by King Menelik I, the son of King Solomon of Israel and Queen of Sheba (Makeda). It is still believed that the Ark of the Covenant is located in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. Over the centuries, however the church has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The present structure is built by King Fasiledes of Gonder in the 17th century. Emperor Haile Silassie I built the new Church of St. Mary of Zion near the old one, in which the Arc of the Covenant is housed, in 1965.
Debre Damo, located 48 kms from Axum, is the oldest monastery of the nation which dates back to the early Axumite times. It is closed to female visitors. Even for men, it needs some courage to access the monastery, as one need to use a rope to climb the 24 mts (78 ft) high cliff.
The cool celestial island of rock offers the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and complete seclusion and peace for the hundreds or so monks and deacons who live there.
The treasures include an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts among the oldest surviving fragments of texts not found anywhere in Ethiopia.
Lalibela, a medieval settlement in the Lasta area of Wello, lies at the centre of an extensive complex of rock churches. Lalibela has 11 remarkable rock-hewn monolithic, semi-monolithic and cave built churches, built by one of the Zagwe Dynasty rulers, King Lalibela in the late 12th and early 13th century. These notable structures are carved, inside and out, out of one solid rock, and are the unofficial eighth wonders of the world. Each building is architecturally unique but each reflects beautifully executed craftsmanship, and several are decorated with fascinating paintings. These astonishing edifices remain places of living worship to this day.
Gonder is a 50 kilometers north of Lake Tana, 700 kilometers north of Addis Ababa and nestles in the foothills of the Semien mountains at an altitude of 2200 meters above sea level. Gonder, founded by King Fasiledes in 1936, was the capital of Ethiopia for nearly 200 years. This fact is reflected by the number of palace buildings in the castle compound.
The city’s main imperial precinct, known as the Royal Enclosure, covers an area of 7.7 hectares and contains five castles raised walkways and connecting tunnels surrounded by high stone walls. The oldest of these is the Castle of Fasiledes, built of stone in the mid-17th century, reflecting a number of influences, mainly Axumite, Portuguese and Indian. The upper storey offers panoramic views and Lake Tana is visible on a clear day. The castle has been renovated recently. Fasiledes’ grandson. Iyasu the great, built his own castle and decorated it with ivory, gold and precious stones but an earthquake in the early 19th caused severe damage.
Bahir Dar is the gateway to the Blue Nile Falls and the monasteries on Lake Tana and the surrounding peninsulas. Measuring 68 kms by 73 Kms, Lake Tana is the largest water body in Ethiopia, is dotted with 37 islands of which 20 shelters Churches and monasteries. Bahir Dar is a beautiful town with tree-lined avenues and set on the shores of the deep blue Lake Tana.
The city of Bahir Dar lies on the southern tip of Lake Tana enjoying a pleasant, tropical type of climate. Today the city is developing fast into a place of considerable social, political and economic activities, with a population of about 130,000. It is also becoming a tip commercial center of the Amhara National Regional State, with cotton and oil factories, polytechnic and pedagogical colleges. There are also a growing number of Banks, Insurance companies, Tour and Travel Agents, Hotels, Pensions and Restaurants.
Bahir Dar serves as a departure and destination point along the “historical routes”. Thus, it is now hosting an ever increasing number of in-flowing domestic and international tourists almost throughout the year. The natural, historical and cultural spots in and around the city attract the attention of many visitors; making Bahir Dar a frequently visited place for both heritage and ecotourism.
DALOL (DENAKIL DEPRESSION)
The Denakil or Dalol Depression is one of the earth’s hottest and most inhospitable places. It’s more than 100 mts below sea level which makes it the lowest place of our planet. At noon-time, temperature soars to above 500C.
It is also one of the very few places in the world that has high active volcanic activity.
Harar is located in the eastern part of the country and part of the historic circuits. The walled city of Harar is an ancient city with rich and colorful history.
Harar is 523 kilometers east of Addis Ababa, the capital. The most dominant feature of Harar is its strong encircling wall, which embraces the town, its exciting market places, and its 99 mosques. Harar is the fourth holiest city after Makka, Madina and Jerusalem.
Sof Omar, a tiny Muslim village in Bale (south east of Ethiopia), is the site of an amazing complex of natural caves, cut by the Weyb River as it found its way from the nearby mountains. The settlement, which is a religious site, is named after a local Sheikh. Armed with torches and an official map, visitors to Sof Omar Cave make their way underground, far into the bowels of the earth, beside a subterranean stream, and there can see an extraordinary number of arched portals, high eroded ceilings and deep echoing chambers.
SOUTH AND WEST ETHIOPIA
The part of the country is known as the natural and cultural route, it comprises the south Omo and western area of Gambella.
Here you can find the truly exotic culture and nature. It is an area of paradise for nature lovers. There are several and diverse ethnic groups with their unique life styles each different in their way that makes one to feel that he/she is traveling from one country to another, rather than is in the same region. The untouched nature and culture of this area will keep any visitor on a constant surprise. The parks found in this part are truly wild and isolated enabling you to observe the true behavior of the wild animals and their habitat.
SEMIEN MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
The Semien Mountains are a must for all those interested in wildlife, scenery and spectacular landscapes; the Park has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Semien Mountains National Park – the mountains high lands constitute one of the major mountain massifs in Africa. The region includes many summits above 4000 meters in the highest point in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen, at 4620 meters, the fourth highest mountain in Africa. Its dramatic topography is the result of the erosion of basalt lavas, which have been calculated to be nearly 3000 meters thick.
It is home to the endemic mammals of Walia Ibex, Semien Fox, Gelada Baboons and many species of birds and plants apart from its spectacular scenic beauty.
Maximum temperatures during the day are about 150 Centigrade (600 Fahrenheit). At night the temperature usually drops to 3 – 50C (35 -40 0F).
AWASH NATIONAL PARK
Awash National Park, 211 Kms east of Addis Ababa cover 827 square kilometers (319 square miles). The park takes its name from the Awash River which marks the park’s southern boundary. The rivers last gesture is the salt lake, Lake Abbe, on the Ethiopia-Djiboutian border.
The park offers quite good wildlife and outstanding birdlife viewing. It also contains an interesting range of volcanic landscapes. The Beisa Oryx and Sommering Gazelles – in the open areas, Greater and Lesser Kudus – in the bushed areas, the endemic Swayne’s Hartbeest – in the grass plains, the tiny salt Dik-Dik – under the dry acacia bushes and Defarsa waterbuck – in the bushy river area and the two monkey species – the Anubis and Hamadryas – can be seen near the river. Among other monkeys, Colobus and Grivet monkeys are found in the riverside and drier areas respectively. Leopards, Lions, Black-Backed and Golden Jackals, Caracals, Servals and Wildcats are also seen in the park very rarely.
Until recently, 2003, 462 bird species have been recorded. Of these six are endemics namely Banded Barbet, Golden-Backed Woodpecker, White-Winged Cliff Chat, White-Tailed Starling, Thick-Billed Raven and Wattled Ibis. There are several bustard species in the park and secretary birds in the grass plains. The camping grounds, near the bank of the Awash River, and the Filwoha Hot Spring areas are the best sites to spot many species of birds such as Emerald-Spotted Wood Dove, Green Wood-Hoopoes, Red and Yellow Barbets, Carmine Bea Eaters are to name only a few.
One of the main features of the park area is the Fentale Volcano, on the southern flank of which can be seen the dark scar of the last lava flow of 1820. The other feature is the turquoise-blue pools of the natural hot springs in the extreme north of the park where you can spot Waterbucks and Hamadryas baboons and sometimes hear Lions at night.
ABYATA-SHALA LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Abyata-Shala Lakes National Park is formed by the twin lakes of Abyata and Shala. It has a total area of 887 square kilometers (550 square miles) in size, of which 482 square kilometer (300 square miles) is water. Both lakes are terminal lakes but very different in nature. The park was created for the many aquatic bird species that use the lakes, particularly Great White Pelicans and Greater and Lesser Flamingos. The surrounding area is mainly acacia woodland, some of which is very degraded by man.
Lake Abyata is a shallow pan, only 14 meters (46 feet) deep and its level fluctuates periodically. The beaches are unstable and saline, which creates a very real danger of sinking on the vehicles that venture too close. The lake provides the main source of food for the colonies of great while pelicans on the nearby Lake Shala.
Lake Shala by contrast, is, at 260 meters (853 feet), Ethiopia’s deepest rift valley lake, possibly the deepest lake in Africa north of the Equator. Shalla’s islands are used as breeding sites by many birds, and are home to the continent’s most important breeding colony of Great White Pelicans. The color of the water is like cold tea and there is a high concentration f salts, making it feel soapy. Few fish are found in this lake. It is also one of the seven nesting sites of the bird in the whole of Africa.
Apart from the above mentioned birds, some others include White-necked Cormorant, African Fish Eagle, Egyptian Geese, various Plover species, and Herons. Local mammals are not numerous but include Grant’s gazelle, Greater Kudu, Oribi, Warthog and Golden Jackal. Besides, some of the scenery is very beautiful, especially at dusk; the sight of Pelicans dipping into the silver waters of Lake Abyata is unforgettable.
BALE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Lying south-east of Ethiopia, Bale Mountains National Park covers 2400 square kilometers (1488 square miles) covering wide range of habitats and ranging in altitude from 1500 to 4377 meters (4920 to 14357 feet) at Tulu Dimtu, the highest point in the southern Ethiopia. The spectacular Harenna escarpment running from east to west divides the area into two major parts. To the north is a high altitude plateau area known as the Sanetti Plateau (4000m) formed of ancient volcanic rocks and dissected by many rivers and streams that have cut deep gorges into the edges. In some places this has resulted in scenic waterfalls and alpine lakes.
The vegetation here varies according to altitude. The park can be divided into three main zones. Around Dinsho, in the north, there are grass riverine plains, bordered by bands of bushes, particularly sagebrush and St. John’s Wort. Wild flowers, such as Giant Lobelia, Geraniums, ‘red-hot pokers’ and Alcheilla, form carpets of color. Higher up the mountains heather appears either as small bushes or as mature trees.
The second zone, the Sanetti Plateau, is home to typical Afro-Alpine plants, some coping with the extreme temperatures by either remaining very small or becoming large. The best example of the latter is the curious looking Giant Lobelia, whose stems stand high against the skyline. Wild flowers are many and various, the dominant plant being the Helichrysum, or ’everlasting’ flowers that can be seen in many forms. Keep an eye on the indigenous Abyssinia rose, with its lovely subtle scent.
The third habitat which is the southern part of the park is heavily forested – the moist, tropical Harenna Forest, is home to tree species such as Haenia, Celtis and Podocarpus.
The wildlife of Bale includes many endemic species. The park was originally established to protect the two endemic mammals: the Mountain Nyala and the Semien Fox or Jackal.
NECH SAR NATIONAL PARK
Situated 510km south of Addis near the town of Arba Minch, in between Lakes Abaya and Chamo.
A wide variety of plains game roams freely amongst 514m2 of savannah, dry bush and groundwater forest, which are also the habitat of 188 recorded species of birds. Animals to be seen are Bushbuck, Swayne’s Hartebeest (endemic), Burchell’s Zebra, Grant’s Gazelle, Guenther’s Dik-dik, Greater Kudu, Anubis Baboon, Grey Duiker. Birds seen include Red-billed Hornbill, Grey Hornbill, Fish Eagle, Kori Bustard, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill and more.
A backdrop of hills and mountains combine to make this one of the most attractive national parks in Ethiopia, and its location makes it very accessible. In the far eastern part of the park hot springs bubble to the surface
OMO NATIONAL PARK
Omo National Park, located in the south-west on the west bank of Omo River, is 870km south-west of Addis Ababa. It is one of the most beautiful national parks in Ethiopia.
The Omo National Park covers 4,068 square kilometres of wilderness bordered by the Omo river, is home to an amazing range of wildlife. 306 species of birds have been identified here, while large herds of Eland, some Buffalo, Elephants, Giraffe, Cheetah, Lion, Leopard, Burchell’s Zebra, are quite common.
The park is not easily accessible. The park HQ is 75km from Kibish settlement. However, a new airstrip is available close to the HQ and to a pleasant campsite on the Mui River.