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.
The article 'History and legend in Ethiopia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.