It’s not what Gonder is, but what Gonder was that’s so enthralling. The city lies in a bowl of hills where tall trees shelter tin-roofed stone houses, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood and painted in the pomp of royalty.
I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but swear I by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood.
Some people like to describe Bahir Dar as the Ethiopian Riviera. The moniker sounds strange, but when you pull into town and see the wide streets shaded by palm trees and sweeping views across Lake Tana’s shimmering blue waters, you’ll understand. In the 16th and 17th centuries, various temporary Ethiopian capitals were established in the vicinity of Lake Tana.
The relaxing and rapidly expanding university city of Mekele, Tigray’s capital, owes its importance to Emperor Yohannes IV, who made it his capital in the late 19th century. Though hardly anyone comes to see the town itself, most travellers enjoy killing time waiting for their Danakil tour to depart.
Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray
The landscapes of northern Tigray are almost fairytale-like. The luminous light bathes scattered sharp peaks that rise high into the sky out of a sandy, rolling semidesert. The stratified plateaus, particularly between Dugem and Megab in the Gheralta region lead to inevitable comparisons with the USA’s desert southwest.
Lake Tana & its Monasteries
Lake Tana’s beauty can only be truly appreciated when you get out beyond the city and see its azure waters lapping on lush shores, islands dotting its distant horizon and squadrons of pelicans flirting with its surface. There’s also some artificial beauty in the form of centuries-old monasteries full of paintings and treasures.
Many other fascinating churches and monasteries lie in the stunning countryside within a day’s striking distance of Lalibela, and a journey to them, whether by foot, mule or 4WD, is rewarding. Overnight treks, whether visiting churches along the way or not, are rightfully popular.
Like Aksum, unassuming, urban Adwa belies its status. For Ethiopians, the town holds huge significance. It was in the dramatic mountains surrounding Adwa that the Emperor Menelik II inflicted the biggest defeat ever on a colonial army in Africa, thus saving Ethiopia from colonisation.
Lying 100km north of Addis Ababa is one of Ethiopia’s holiest sites. Debre Libanos monastery was founded in the 13th century by Tekla Haimanot, a priest credited not only with the spread of Christianity in the highlands, but also the restoration of the Solomonic line of kings. Today he’s one of Ethiopia’s most revered saints.
Dessie’s tall and solid downtown, surrounded by a vast city of rusted roofs, appears to offer the promise of something interesting; but it doesn’t. On the other hand, the presence of the Dessie Museum where old weapons form the core of the varied collection, does put it ahead of the curve in the attractions department over most Ethiopian towns.
Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area
Truly off the beaten track, the 98-sq-km Guassa Plateau has one of the smallest but best protected Afro-alpine habitats in Ethiopia. In fact, it’s been a locally managed natural resource management area since the 17th century. The most notable wildlife are the three dozen Ethiopian wolf (best seen 6am to 7am and 4pm to 7pm) and the many gelada monkeys.
Lying 26km north of Dessie, the little town of Hayk is known for its monastery and eponymous lake. The museum at Hayk Estifanos Monastery, on a long peninsula 4km northeast of town, dates from the mid-13th century and was founded by Abba Iyasus Moa. Between the 13th and 15th centuries it was among Ethiopia’s most important monasteries.
The little town of Bati, 39km east of Kombolcha, is renowned for its massive Monday market, which attracts up to 10,000 Afar, Oromo and Amhara, and even some traders from Djibouti. It’s Ethiopia’s largest after Addis Ababa’s Merkato, but it far eclipses the capital’s for interest and exotica.