The Travel Directors from Australia
Sincere thanks to Fest Ethiopia from my partner, Tony Evans, and myself for the simply wonderful week we spent in the country recently.
We were researching a possible escorted tour to Ethiopia next year and visited Addis, Axum .Gondar , Bahir Dar and Lalibela. We were dazzled by the sights, the sounds, the smells of this amazing part of the world. Above all we were overwhelmed by the friendliness and generosity of spirit of the people.
We have since put together a fabulous itinerary and already have groups that traveled in February and September of 2006.
Needless to say Fest Ethiopia will be our Ground operator as we were most impressed with the professionalism of the company. We feel that Ethiopia is a sleeping giant as a travel destination and that a boom in visitor numbers is imminent.
Our aim is to establish ourselves as Australia ‘s premier ‘ Ethiopia bound’ travel company before that boom happens!
Lalibella: …… As our Ethiopian Airlines Fokker 50 swooped out of the African sky the view below was difficult to comprehend. Rolling green hills, dotted with Eucalypts and Acacias, fields of corn and sugar cane and cultivated pastures of rich brown soil.
Hardly the desert I had expected, because 20 years ago this now verdant countryside, surrounding the ancient Ethiopian capital of Lalibela, was in the grip of a devastating drought which sparked one of the most cataclysmic famines of the 20th century.
Two decades on, that image of a country racked by war and famine, is still the popularly held one among the vast majority of westerners – and I shamefully admit to having been one of them until a recent flying visit to this simply astonishing country.
Ethiopia today is desperately keen to redefine and popularize itself as a serious tourist destination in the western world. And why shouldn’t it? This, after all, is the well-known ‘cradle of civilization’, where the earliest known human skeleton, nicknamed Lucy and dating back three and a half million years, was found. Its former rulers include the legendary King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is also the birthplace of coffee, and still produces the finest in the word. The country’s archeological sites are phenomenal and it is popularly believed that the Ancient city of Axum , another former capital, is the resting place of the sacred Ark of the Covenant.
Our plane touched down in Lalibela and we were met by Joseph, a highly educated and personable Fest tour guide who greeted us with a beaming smile. On the 30-minute drive from the airport to the city, which took us through some spectacular mountain views we passed a multitude of people, young and old, tramping along the side of the road. All of them waved and grinned at us. “Welcome to Lalibela”, many shouted. I have rarely, if ever, enjoyed a warmer welcome to a country.
Lying 640 kilometers north of Addis Ababa at an altitude of 2630 meters, Lalibela was the capital of Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th centuries. Previously known as Roha it was renamed after the death of King Lalibela in 1221. Today it is little more than a large village and still relatively undeveloped.
However, this remote settlement is one of the world’s greatest, yet least visited, archeological sites and is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.
What Lalibela is famous for is its astonishing medieval churches, all of which were hewn by hand from solid red volcanic rock hundreds of years ago. Some lie almost totally hidden in deep trenches; some stand in open quarried caves. Others are inter-connected by long tunnels or narrow passageways. All are mysterious and magnificent.
Legend has it that King Lalibela was responsible for these amazing constructions after seeing a heavenly vision. He employed thousands of masons who worked at great speed and with remarkable skill, chiseling out the churches over a span of just 23 years. When they stopped their day’s work, so the story goes, the construction was continued at night by angels from above.
What makes this complex even more thrilling for the visitor is the fact that they remain working churches. Each day hundreds of pilgrims, clad in white, flock to the buildings for long Christian services. In the dark interiors bearded priests, some of whom live in nearby caves also carved from the rock, officiate and give succour to the poor and sick. On our visit to one church we watched as a multitude waited patiently in line to be blessed by a priest, who patted and stroked them with an ancient metal cross. The chanting and strong smell of burning incense created an almost overpowering atmosphere.
Bet Gyorgis is wonderfully preserved and shaped in the form of a Greek cross. Walking down the steep earth ramp to access the church, we followed another group of white-robed worshippers up the high steps into the building. As with all the churches, one is required to leave shoes at the entrance.
These are guarded by one of many “shoekeepers” who latch onto you at the first church and stay with you until the last. They are friendly chaps and are extremely grateful for a few birrs in the hand at the end of the jaunt.
The interior of Bet Gyorgis is full of Orthodox Christians, most of whom seem to be waiting for something to happen. The priest is in attendance but ignores his flock to retrieve another sacred cross for our perusal, and also to point out an olive-wood box, said to have been carved by King Lalibela himself. Walking round one of the giant rock pillars we are confronted by an even greater sight: dozens of tiny dark faces, their eyes blazing out of the darkness, staring up at us. Lalibela’s children are awaiting the morning service and doubtless are unaware that they are doing so in one of the world’s most incredible churches.
There is little doubt that Lalibela, and Ethiopia for that matter, are sleeping giants of world tourism. With the country’s troubles now behind it, this amazing destination is awaiting discovery. The advice is to go sooner rather than later.
Thanks again Fest Ethiopia !
Jim and Tony