Few countries are so obscured by misconception as Ethiopia. Associated by most outsiders with drought and famine and often presumed to be a tract of featureless desert, it is in reality one of the wettest, most fertile and most scenically beautiful countries in Africa. Remembered for the murderous communist regime that held power in the 1970s and 1980s, and too often lumped together with its war-torn neighbours Sudan and Somalia, Ethiopia is in reality a peaceful, functioning democracy cohabited by two of the world’s oldest, and most mutually tolerant, Christian and Islamic communities.
It’s also a profoundly underrated travel destination. Perched at the cultural crossroads of East Africa and Arabia, it represents a unique and fascinating fusion of African and Middle Eastern influences reflecting a long, eventful (and as yet only half-understood) history that stretches back many thousands of years – indeed, a plethora of fossil evidence suggests that the prehistory of Ethiopia goes back to the very beginning of human existence. As a result, the country boasts a wealth of historical sites without parallel in sub-Saharan Africa. Most famous among these are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the stelae fields at Aksum and the stone castles of Gondar, but this celebrated trio of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is supplemented by hundreds of other lesser-known churches, ruins and other historic places.
Ethiopia is also arguably the continent’s most consistently scenic country, dominated by a high central plateau that falls away abruptly into the chasm of the Great Rift Valley. The Ethiopian Highlands are truly breathtaking, a succession of spectacular mountain panoramas embracing lush grassy meadows, tangled forests, sparkling lakes and towering rock amphitheatres. Equally grand, stretching down towards the Kenyan border, is the string of beautiful lakes that characterize the southern Rift Valley. Altogether different, and seldom visited by tourists, are the thinly populated volcanic badlands that stretch east through the searing plains of the northern Rift Valley to the remote Somali border. And although Ethiopia is not a conventional safari destination in the mould of, say, Tanzania or Kenya, it does offer some unique and thoroughly rewarding wildlife viewing opportunities. Numerous species of large mammals, such as the gelada monkey, Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf, occur nowhere else in the world, while a tally of fifty endemic or near-endemic bird species places it high on the list of Africa’s top birding destinations.
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Ethiopia and its people today retain the fiery independence of spirit that made it the only state to emerge uncolonized from the nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa. In many respects, it is like nowhere else on earth. Ethiopia’s spicy food is totally unique. So too are Ethiopian music and dancing, the script of Ethiopia’s Amharic language, and that quirky variation on familiar Christianity represented by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Never the easiest place to travel, Ethiopia, more than most countries, often pushes travellers outside their comfort zone. But it is also a country whose uniqueness and inherent peculiarity imbues every day spent there with an aura of adventure and discovery.
All international flights land at the capital, Addis Ababa, which lies right in the centre of Ethiopia and forms the hub of the internal transport network, ensuring that most visitors spend some time there. Fortunately, Addis Ababa is a thoroughly enjoyable city to experience, whether you are cruising the markets, sampling the nightlife or taking in its historical churches and the fascinating National Museum.
The vast size of Ethiopia (and nature of its domestic transport networks) means that the country is usually explored in the form of one or more loops by road or air out of Addis Ababa. The most popular of these is the northern historical circuit, which has four acknowledged high points. First of these is Bahir Dar and the scenic Lake Tana region, with its ancient island monasteries. Not far to the north, the former capital of Gondar is best known for its European-influenced castles and painted churches. Predating these by several centuries, the towering stelae and ruined palaces that stud the ancient city of Aksum transport the visitor deep into Ethiopia’s fascinating past. Last – but far from least – are the astonishing medieval rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, still active places of worship and widely agreed to be the most arresting of all Ethiopia’s sights.
Although historic sightseeing predominates, the northern circuit also offers some scintillating natural phenomena, from the Blue Nile Falls – magnificent in the rainy season – to the hiker-friendly Simien Mountains National Park, with its rugged peaks and remarkable endemic wildlife. For those seeking a more off-the-beaten-track experience, the dozens of isolated rock-hewn churches scattered throughout the remote cliffs of northeast Tigrai remain an undersubscribed delight if you’re willing to put the time and effort into reaching them.
History takes a back seat to nature in southern Ethiopia, which is bisected by a scenic stretch of the Rift Valley that’s spangled with beautiful, bird-rich lakes. The little-visited highlands rising to the east of the Rift are capped by the Bale Mountains, protected in a national park whose varied habitats – embracing tussocked Afro-alpine moorlands, green grassy meadows, dense bamboo thickets and misty evergreen forests – protect the country’s most diverse selection of endemic mammals and birds.
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Where the northern highlands are dominated by a few closely related Ethiopian Orthodox ethnic groups, Ethiopia’s full cultural and religious diversity is on show in the south and east. The walled citadel of Harar in the southeastern highlands is among the most ancient and holy of Islamic cities. Most compelling of all in cultural terms is the South Omo region, which lies in the remote southwest, close to the border with Kenya, and supports at least a dozen different tribes whose ethnic and linguistic diversity is as breathtaking as their proudly defiant adherence to their own pagan traditions.c