Ethiopian History 101

With an eclectic cast of characters including the Queen of Sheba, a 3.2 million year old hominid named Lucy, and the Rastafarian messiah, Ethiopia’s history is rich, layered, and often fantastical. In fact, as the only country in Africa not to have been colonised, one of the world’s first countries to adopt Christianity, with over eighty ethnic groups, its own indigenous script, a prophetic fusing of myth and history, and a fierce sense of national pride, Ethiopia is the most distinct and alien country that I have ever visited. A question that I keep asking myself is “how do I explain Ethiopia to other people”?
You could spend months here touring the sites and still have surplus left over for your next trip. Over a week we strung together four of the most significant ones – here’s the lowdown…

Grat Beal Gebr, Yeha
Yeha in northern Ethiopia was the capital of the D’mt Kingdom from around 1000 BC. Its most famous site is the the Great Temple of Yeha, although unfortunately when we visited its ten metre high walls were covered in scaffolding from top to bottom. The admittedly unimpressive picture here shows the nearby 10th century BC Grat Beal Gebr temple, which is still in the process of excavation by German archaeologists. Our guide explained that in the last couple of years the local people who were using the temple columns as supports for their homes have been kindly relocated by UNESCO, although this has not stopped them from planting crops here. While the Yeha ruins are unspectacular, it is the unexplored, mysterious aspect that makes them appealing. Unlike more established sites on the tourist trail, these have their most exciting days of discovery ahead. Bring your imagination, not your camera.

(Bonus points if you can spot the lion in the picture. Hint: it’s in the mountains)


Stelae field in Axum
The Kingdom of Axum, about 50km from Yeha, was a major trading nation from 100 to 940 AD, with commercial links to the Mediterranean, India and China. The most identifiable remains today are the huge granite obelisks or “stelae” that were used to mark graves of kings and noblemen. These range in form from rough-hewn blocks of three feet in height to exquisitely carved stones ninety seven feet tall, designed to represent a thirteen floor tower. Underneath the larger stones and ripe for exploration are tombs of kings and their families, although these are now hauntingly empty. Stelae inscriptions reflect developing Axumite religious beliefs: earlier stones pay homage to the sun and moon gods, while those after 325 AD have crosses marking the kingdom’s conversion to Christianity and the beginnings of Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Tomb underneath a stelae
As with Yeha, the most exciting aspect of Axum is what remains to be discovered – 95% of the area is unexplored, and many artifacts are still being used as building materials in local people’s houses or are being ploughed out of the fields surrounding the town. One of the royal tombs was only discovered in the last year or so. My integrity was severely tested when a local offered a few ancient coins and carved stones for a pitifully small amount of money*.



“I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I will not be believed if I write more …”
Francisco Àlvarez, 1550 (after visiting Lalibela)

Biete Giyorgis – Church of St. George, Lalibela
Perhaps the most iconic image of Ethiopian Christianity, the rock hewn churches at Lalibela are as stunning as any religious edifice in Europe. Carved in the 12th century on orders from a particularly ambitious and exacting king who also gave his name to the town, each of the eleven churches is a monolith comprising a single piece of volcanic red rock. Connected by a series of clandestine tunnels and catacombs, the churches are arranged into four groups, the most spectacular of which is the solitary Biete Giyorgis, or the Church of St. George (pictured right), which stands to the west of the complex. It is also the only church to not to be covered by the rather unsightly and cumbersome protective white roofs erected by UNESCO.
Ethiopian priest, Lalibela
These, however, do not blemish the rarefied and sacred atmosphere of the place, enhanced by the fact that the churches have been in continuous use since they were built. During our visit the priests outnumbered the tourists, solemnly strolling around garbed in their colourful silk and velvet gowns, holding huge elaborate bronze crosses mounted on staffs. Each church is decorated inside with richly coloured velvet curtains and bright biblical paintings, and on the walls and ceilings are delicate archaic carvings, reflecting Ethiopia’s unique and ancient strain of Christianity. More than one preconception was challenged when I saw the Star of David and the swastika side-by-side on one of the arches.



Fasilides’ Castle, Gonder
I spent about a week mistakenly calling this place Gondor and imagining the stone stronghold of the greatest realm of the kingdom of Men on Middle-earth. This Tolkien comparison isn’t completely wrong. Established in the 17th century as the country’s capital by Emperor Fasilides, Fasil Ghebbi served as the seat of Emperors of Ethiopia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The enclosure is surrounded by a wall 900 meters in length and covers an area of ​​nearly 70,000 m². Within lie numerous well-preserved castles (including Fasilides’ Castle; pictured above), halls, stables, churches, and a library, all built in a similar style which combines Baroque, Nubian and Moorish influences.

While I was mildly impressed by the enclosure, coming from a country where castles are fairly commonplace the buildings did not hold the same exotic mystique for me as Ethiopia’s other historical sites. And with the torrential downpour that started soon after our arrival, I felt like I was traipsing around Doune Castle on a school trip (
*I did NOT buy them. I may be unemployed, but I’m not going to start looting national treasures.
Location: Ethiopia

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