Once upon a time in Ethiopia

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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 go in this land where deserts are made of gold and baboons have hearts that bleed, 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 too feel as if you’re a knight in armour galloping on a white steed toward the palace of the cloven-footed Queen of Sheba.

For most of us our knowledge of Ethiopia is fairly limited, yet almost every one of us has heard of Ethiopia’s most famous daughter. She is said to have been the most beautiful and alluring woman ever to live but yet she had hairy legs and the cloven foot of the devil. Her fame has lasted 3000 years yet nobody remembers her name. She is of course the Queen of Sheba 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 our tips for the best places to be engulfed and inspired by the storybook of Ethiopia:

Aksum

Aksum is built on legend. Was this small and dusty north Ethiopian town really once the capital of the beautiful Queen of Sheba? Are there really secret hordes of treasure hidden away inside undiscovered tombs? And, maybe most intriguingly, does that small chapel really house the very same Ark of the Covenant that Moses carried down off Mt Sinai?

Related article: Ethiopia's unmissable sights for travellers

Gonder

Image by Martijn.Munneke

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 today an Ethiopian highlight.

Debre Damo

North Ethiopia is full of creaky old monasteries and churches built atop the craziest crags; the best-known is Debre Damo. Perched atop a needle of rock, the monastery was 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 made a giant serpent lower its tail off the mountain and Aregawai was able to scramble up the snakes 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.

Lalibela

Image by Gusjer

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?', 'Why?'. It’s 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.

Image by Marc Veraart

Make sure you check up on the latest travel advice & news before going to Ethiopia on sites like Safe Travel.