The second week of our trip has been phenomenal. We’ve seen sights that would rival the major attractions of Europe and antiquity if they were better known, more accessible, and reinforced by greater supportive tourist infrastructure.
On Sunday, we flew north to Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia at about 12 miles by 20 miles. The primary point of interest for us was some ancient monasteries on some islands in the lake.
The churches that are the centerpiece of the two monasteries we visited were unlike any we have ever seen. They were built in the 1300s and consist of a small square chapel surrounded by a round adobe wall surrounded by another wall made from sticks and a thatched roof. The walls of the interior square chapel were colorfully painted with religious scenes.
The lake was a milk chocolate color because of the runoff from the rainy season of June through the beginning of October. At other times, the lake is blue. We stayed at a spa resort in the shores of the lake with stone walls and a room with a wrap-around balcony and fireplace.
Monday we took a bus from Bahir Dar to Gondar. Like our earlier drive through the countryside near Addis Ababa, northwestern Ethiopia is also very green. Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from 1632 to 1850. It features a castle built by a king to counteract the public’s adverse reaction to Spanish and Portuguese attempts to convert Ethiopians from their own orthodox Christian faith to Roman Catholicism after the king had welcomed the arrival and assistance of the Spanish and Portuguese in, helping to defeat Muslims.
On Tuesday we flew to Lalibela. It’s the site of 11 churches carved from stone out of the side of a mountain between the 8th and 12th centuries. One church was carved out like a cave with a temple facade in the side of the mountain. The other ten were carved out from the top down.
On Wednesday, we flew to Axum, the holiest city in Ethiopia. Axum is considered to be the site of the Arc of the Covenant containing the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Arc is kept in a small chapel and can be seen only by one person who is anointed the keeper of the Arc. He has contact with the outside world only through an assistant keeper. He has remained with the Arc for 23 years. Axum also has a grouping of obelisks that date to the first century A.D., the tallest of which is 85 feet. They were carved from a single stone and were erected to mark the burial of kings. On Thursday morning before leaving Axum, we visited the main cathedral because it was a holy day. The crowd in white robes overflowed the cathedral out onto the surrounding grounds.
The food has been good, with fresh tilapia from local lakes, Nile perch, chicken, beef and vegetables. Ethiopia is also the source of origin of coffee. People consume it with a ceremonial flair, heating the pot over a small fire made from straw.
Our group of about 25 is well cared for by our TravelQuest team including a tour director from South Africa, a TravelQuest tour leader who is a medical doctor from Jackson Hole, Wyo., and two Ethiopian tour directors, who are excellent at historical-cultural interpretation as well as all of the travel logistics. More adventures await!