Lorna & Family from United Kingdom
I’d been to Ethiopia several times already and traveled the Northern Historical Circuit. This time I would be traveling with my 24 year old daughter, who is into energetic outdoor pursuits like rock-climbing rather than just looking at historical sites. I needed to find something that would excite both of us. Pre-reading suggested that an itinerary involving the rock-hewn churches of Tigray might be an ideal solution. These incredible buildings are also in incredible (and difficult to reach) locations, in the sides of, or on top of, mountains. As many of them are visited by only a handful of tourists each year, we’d have the thrill of discovery, see the real ‘off the beaten track’ Ethiopia and Mandy would have the chance to do some scrambling, at least.
Fest Ethiopia arranged a tailor-made trip for us, at very short notice. They checked carefully to make sure they understood what particularly interested us – what we wanted to see and do – and we discussed accommodation options. Then they found us an excellent driver, a reliable 4 x 4 and a guide with especial knowledge of Tigray – and we set off (from Simien Lodge, where Mandy was working at the time)……
We first took the dramatic road from the Simiens to Axum , built in Mussolini’s time and apparently not repaired since! In Axum we naturally visited all the main tourist sites (the ancient stellae – erected as grave markers – and the Queen of Sheba’s palace and pool) and then started the real adventure!
Over the next 7 days we bumped over extremely rough roads, climbed paths up mountainsides, ascended ladders made from rough branches, and struggled (in my case – bounded, for my daughter) up handholds in rock-faces, usually led by a local priest who strode tirelessly ahead (he would usually have made the ascent at least once already that day to celebrate mass). Once reached, every church is unique – part of its own landscape, cut back wholly or partly into a rock face. Inside are amazing carvings, wall paintings, church treasures (processional crosses, beautiful scriptures written on to goatskin hundreds of years ago, but still in daily use). In every case, the climb was worth it!
Our guide took the view that the rock churches were deliberately built in such inaccessible places not just for security – but also ‘as a punishment’ for believers. The locals still have to make their way up and down regularly – some daily – because these are living buildings, very much at the heart of their communities, and not just historic sites.
Our favorite churches included Miriam Korkor, Michael Imba and Abuna Yemata Guh (although I actually chickened out of the final ascent to this latter). But, with 125 rock-hewn churches to choose from, it’s possible to make a selection to suit any specific interest (for example, in wall painting) or to avoid too much strenuous climbing.
When not actually climbing ourselves, we saw fantastic scenery (reminiscent of Arizona or New Mexico) through the windows of the 4 x 4, wandered round local markets, ate in local restaurants and sat at pavement cafes drinking macchiatos and watching the world go by . It was harvest time and everywhere people were ploughing with oxen, cutting grass with hand scythes, carrying it on their heads, building haystacks, winnowing and threshing grain – just as they have been doing for centuries. In the east of the region, camel trains could be seen – hauling blocks of rock salt, dug out of the floor of the blisteringly hot Danakil Depression, up to be sold in the local towns and villages.
Forget the images of famine in Tigray 20 years ago – this is a fertile land, though intensively cropped, and people are self-sufficient (and proud of it). Tigraians are generally charming, courteous, and friendly. Women are stunningly beautiful, wearing their hair in a characteristic style – the hair is combed straight to the nape of the neck and then tightly braided.
An amazing country – offering dramatic landscape, fascinating history, rich culture and a warm welcome. And relatively few other tourists there! Go and see it for yourselves – and let FestEthiopia organize this for you because they will do an excellent job, with real attention to detail……and they’re also such nice people to deal with!