History and legend in Ethiopia
The magnificent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela attract pilgrims from all over Ethiopia. (John Elk III/LPI)
History and legend are so entwined in Ethiopia that it can be hard to know where one ends and another begins. No matter where you travel in this golden desert land, a plethora of saints, kings, spirits, monsters and wandering ascetics seem to accompany you. But there are some places in Ethiopia where the mists of myth are so deep that it can be hard not to feel as if you are a knight in armour galloping on a white steed toward the palace of the cloven-footed Queen of Sheba.
Ethiopia’s most famous daughter is said to have been the most beautiful and alluring woman ever to live, but she had hairy legs and the cloven foot of the devil. Her fame has lasted 3,000 years and in modern-day Ethiopia she is revered as one of the founding figures of the nation, as well as a symbol of the mystery of Africa’s most exotic corner.
Here are some of the best places to be inspired by the storybook of Ethiopia.
Aksum is built on legend. Did the Queen of Sheba really call the town’s dusty streets home? Are there really secret hordes of treasure hidden away inside undiscovered tombs? And just what exactly do those famous stelae signify? This town has a vibrancy and continuing national importance rarely found at ancient sites. Pilgrims flock here in their thousands to pay homage at its great churches, and all Ethiopians believe passionately that the Ark of the Covenant resides here, in the small chapel of St Mary of Zion.
In medieval Europe, rumours circulated of a fantastic Christian kingdom led by a ruler named Prestor John. It was said that the palace of Prestor John was one of crystal with a roof of ebony, and everyday 30,000 people ate here from tables made of gold. Rumour had it that this kingdom was located in present-day Ethiopia and that Prestor John’s capital was today’s Gonder. Sadly, the rumours turned out to be false, but Gonder, with its collection of castles and palaces (all made of mere stone), was real and is still an Ethiopian highlight.
North Ethiopia is full of creaky old monasteries and churches built atop the craziest crags. Perched on a needle of rock, the best-known monastery is Debre Damo, founded by Abuna Aregawai. Looking at the sheer-sided mountain today you might wonder how Aregawai ever climbed to the summit. But Aregawai had a helping hand. God knew that this was a fine place for a monastery and so he made a giant serpent lower its tail off the mountain and Aregawai was able to scramble up the snake’s back to the summit. Those scared of giant snakes will be happy to hear that today, monks haul visitors up the cliff face at the end of a weathered (very weathered!) length of leather rope.
No mention of Ethiopia is complete without talk of the maze of churches hewn down into the rust-coloured rock of Lalibela. Born in a dream, even the most cynical visitor cannot help but look at this 12th-century wonder of the world and ask “How?” or “Why?”. It is said that when King Lalibela was poisoned by his half-brother, the angels carried him to the first, second and third Heavens. Here he was shown a city of rock-hewn churches and God commanded him to return to Earth and re-create what he had seen. We think that any deity would be mighty pleased with the result. Even the Queen of Sheba.
Stuart Butler is co-author of Lonely Planet’s latest West Africa guide.