A rainy day at the Alhambra

Perched on a plateau and dramatically framed by the Sierra Nevada mountains behind, the Alhambra sits serenely overlooking the city of Granada. Walking the maze-like alleys of the ancient Muslim quarter of the Albaicín, you get tantalising glimpses of the Alhambra between buildings. Climb the hill to the Mirador San Nicolas though, and the full glory of the Alhambra reveals itself.

There are several Alhambra miradors, but the little square in front of the Church of St. Nicholas (better still, climb the church tower) offers uninterrupted views. It’s a lively gathering place for people, and often has amateur music and flamenco performances. The view is beautiful at any time of day, but the reddish walls glow in late afternoon sun. We took the view on our first day in the city, the next day we had tickets to visit.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Everyone knows that in Spain it mainly rains on the plain. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. I don’t know how often it rains in Granada (not often I’m guessing), but we woke the next day to a grey, dreary and cold day of drizzle and downpours. Not ideal for wandering around the Alhambra, much of which is outdoors. It was disappointing to visit in bad weather, but we were determined the rain wouldn’t dampen our spirits.

The Alhambra started life as a fortress, the Alcazaba, in the late 9th century, 180 years after the Umayyad Caliphate had established itself in Spain. Cordoba and Seville were the centres of power, Granada little more than a backwater. It wasn’t until 1238 that work began on the royal palaces. By then, the Caliphate was already in retreat, having lost over half the territory it controlled at its peak to Christian kingdoms in the north.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Over the next century the Alhambra grew to be the majestic complex of today. The Palacios Nazaries, considered by many to be the finest example of Islamic architecture in Europe, was constructed in this period. The mix of exquisite rooms, courtyards with fountains, beautiful carved roofs and tiles with mesmerising geometric patterns and Arabic inscriptions, make it hard to argue with that assessment.

This is the real highlight of a visit to the Alhambra. Even with tour groups sweeping through and selfie stick-wielding tourists, it’s hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all. We spent so long in the Palacios Nazaries that when we emerged into the Gardens of the Partal Palace it had stopped raining. We wandered the gardens on our way to the Generalife, taking in the fantastic views over Granada.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The whole place exudes a sense of balance and harmony. The original buildings and gardens compare well to the disastrous later additions made by King Charles I (better known as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V). His Renaissance-style Palacio de Carlos V is like a wanton act of vandalism, a huge unsophisticated lump imposed upon the more refined and delicate vision of earlier rulers.

Walking through the Alhambra today, it’s incredible to think this glorious complex of fortress, palace and pleasure gardens, was abandoned in the 18th century and largely forgotten until the early 19th century. Interest in the Alhambra surged after celebrity American author, Washington Irving, published his Tales of the Alhambra in 1832, kick-starting the slow process of protecting and restoring the entire site.

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra’s obscurity ensured that it survived largely intact, and what you see on a visit today is the 13th or 14th century original. If anything, today it’s become a victim of its own success. More than two million people visit each year, and that must take a huge toll on the fabric of the buildings. Even on a rainy day in winter there were crowds of people, and plenty of disregard for signs asking people not to touch. That can’t be sustainable in the long term.

Ethiopian Portraits

Ethiopia is a wonderful and beautiful country, but no part of it more so than its people. These are some of my favourite portraits from our visit…

Ethiopian woman, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian woman, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman and child near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman and child near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman in a village near Blue Nile Falls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman in a village near Blue Nile Falls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

A walk through ancient Lalibela

Lalibela’s 900-year old rock-hewn churches have been built in two distinct groupings, one group in the north and the other in the east. You can visit both in a single day, but it is probably better to give yourself more time to fully absorb the wonder of this place. The churches are connected by a series of ancient passageways and alleys, which are atmospheric places to wander.

Priest, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A man prays outside a rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A man prays outside a rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The history of Lalibela is palpable. Everywhere you look there are stone corridors and staircases rubbed smooth by the passage of pilgrims over centuries of devoted worship. Buildings are carved with simple, early Christian symbols, and turning a corner can bring you face-to-face with a group of worshippers, in a scene which could have been witnessed at any time over the last 900 years.

Countryside surrounding Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Countryside surrounding Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A visit to the churches is both full of surprise and a little disorienting. In true Indian Jones style, the churches of Bete Medhane Alem and Beta Maryam are linked by a tunnel, carved several feet underground out of solid rock. You can’t but admire the enormous effort which has gone into building this New Jerusalem.

Priest sits by a doorway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest sits by a doorway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Tunnel connecting churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Tunnel connecting churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Passageway, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Religious paintings on a door, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Religious paintings on a door, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Set amidst beautiful rolling countryside, this mountainous region provides the perfect backdrop to such an ancient and mysterious town. Yet, despite all the history, Lalibela remains a small and relaxed place largely off the beaten track. Tourism has made an impact here, but remains low key and largely unobtrusive…for how long remains to be seen.

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Traditional houses, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia’s ‘New Jerusalem’, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

Laliebla is a place like no other in Africa. It is home to some of the most awe inspiring buildings on the continent: 900-year old churches carved from solid rock, set amidst glorious mountainous scenery. It is a place where myth and reality merge together almost completely. Historical fact is, at times, impossible to extract from a maze of legends and half remembered truths. In a place as truly extraordinary as this, you can forgive the exaggeration and myth-spinning, because the sight of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches is enough to disorient the senses.

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Local legend states that King Lalibela, in a coma after being poisoned by his brother, was instructed by God to build the New Jerusalem in Ethiopia. So much for WIlliam Blake’s claim that the New Jerusalem would be built in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’. The Ethiopians got there centuries before Blake penned his poem, and there isn’t a ‘dark satanic mill’ anywhere to be seen.

Good to his word, King Lalibela constructed a town of churches like no other, including naming things after their counterparts in the actual Jerusalem. To achieve this monumental feat of engineering and construction, King Lalibela is supposed to have enlisted the help of a legion of angels who, apparently overnight, built the churches. I asked our guide whether people believed this to be the literal truth, and was met with the icy response that in Lalibela people believed this story absolutely.

Priest at the Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest at the Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Modern researchers believe that the churches were constructed in the 12th or 13th Centuries, which does at least coincide with King Lalibela’s reign. Dismissing the angels altogether, this research estimates that a workforce of some 40,000 people would have been needed to build the churches. A project not unlike those of the much more famous Egyptian rulers to the north, and as equally monumental.

In truth, it isn’t really accurate to describe the churches as being built. They are carved out of solid rock into functional buildings; they are literally monolithic. It is an amazing place that will test your perceptions in more ways than you might imagine. Just one look at the church of St.George, carved literally down through the rock, will boggle the mind with the ingenuity and technical skill of the Medieval civilisation which constructed it.

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Lalibela is, first and foremost, a spiritual town and a centre for one of the oldest forms of Christianity on the planet. People come here on pilgrimage from all over Ethiopia (joined by a fair few international pilgrims these days, many from the large Ethiopian diaspora), often walking for days to reach the town which sits in the mountains of northern Ethiopia.

Our timing wasn’t great, dictated as it was by flight schedules. It would have been nice to have been in Lalibela on a Sunday, to witness the hundreds of worshipers who arrive throughout Saturday night to attend services. Otherwise the town is quite quiet. Although during festivals – such as Easter – tens of thousands of pilgrims descend on the town, creating one of the most extraordinary sights in Ethiopia. White robed pilgrims celebrate throughout the night, their candles illuminating the darkness around the churches.

A man prays in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A man prays in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A tunnel between churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

A tunnel between churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Regardless of when you visit Lalibela, it is likely that the impression the town makes on you will be lasting. We hired a guide to take us around the churches and explain their ‘history’. He was a young man who seemed to know everyone in the town, and who guided tourists to support his mother and siblings after his father abandoned the family – an altogether too common occurrence in Ethiopia.

Entrance to a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Entrance to a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient Christian carving, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient Christian carving, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross and umbrella, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross and umbrella, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

We visited all eleven of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, walking through narrow alleys, meeting the priests in each church and navigating between churches through passageways and tunnels carved out of solid rock. It was a magical and mystical experience. The only thing which jars a little, and this is a small issue, is the large metal roofs that have been erected over some of the churches by UNESCO to protect them from water damage. They’re quite ugly, but rather that than churches which are badly damaged.

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Priest with Ethiopian Orthodox cross, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The mysterious monasteries of Lake Tana

Lake Tana is a vast stretch of water, 84km long and 66km wide, at a breathless altitude of over 1800 metres, making it one of the highest bodies of water in Africa. While Lake Tana is famed as the source of the Blue Nile, one of the main reasons for visiting this area is to explore the monasteries which can be found on the shores of the lake and, more exciting, on small islands in the middle of it requiring a boat ride across the water to visit. It’s a journey well worth making.

A painting of the Devil, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A painting of the Devil, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Arranging a visit to one or more monasteries is easy from Bahir Dar, boat owners and touts will actively seek you out, and most hotels offer trips. When you’re discussing a visit, and almost certainly haggling over the price, its important to remember that several monasteries don’t admit women. There was a time when women weren’t allowed onto some of the islands, but a recent (magnanimous?) concession to tourism means women can now set foot on the island so long as they stay close to the water’s edge.

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Although these Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries are easy to visit today, for centuries they were inaccessible outposts which housed communities of monks and nuns in splendid isolation. They also house exquisite and priceless religious icons, leather-bound texts, crosses and paintings dating back over 600 years. A visit to the monasteries provides a fascinating insight into the world of the monks and nuns, and into the visible differences between Ethiopian Orthodox and Western European Catholicism and Protestantism.

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

We decided to visit two islands – one male only, the other unisex. We set off early in the morning for the first island, home to the 17th Century Kebran Gabriel Monastery. The island is heavily vegetated, and only as you draw closer does the top of the monastery loom out of the vegetation. The walk up to the monastery is steep and muddy (we visited just after the rainy season), and the first sight of the monastery was, I have to admit, a little underwhelming.

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Painted doorway, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Maryam Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Maryam Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

The traditional thatched roof had been replaced with a metal roof and the rest of the building looked pretty ordinary from outside. If the exterior was disappointing however, the interior was extraordinary – one of the most atmospheric places imaginable, especially as I was the only person visiting. It was an incredible experience: the entire interior seemed to be covered with bright paintings depicting biblical scenes. Although many of the paintings are damaged, the level of artistry is high, and the stories behind them wonderful.

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Interior of Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Paintings, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

The second monastery we visited, was the unisex Debre Maryam Monastery. The original building dates from the 14th Century, but the monastery was rebuilt in the 19th Century. There are many reasons someone might choose to visit Ethiopia. I’d argue that the opportunity to see magnificent ancient texts, illuminated with beautiful illustrations and pictures, in a 14th Century monastery on a tranquil island in the middle of Lake Tana, is as good as any.

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest shows an ancient illustrated manuscript, Kebran Gabriel Monastery, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

As we motored back across Lake Tana towards Bahir Dar, we saw several traditional reed boats used for transporting things around the lake, and for fishing. I was reminded of these boats when I was at another high altitude lake, thousands of miles away on a different continent – the reed boats of Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia.

Tankwa traditional boat carrying firewood, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Tankwa traditional boat carrying firewood, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Tankwa traditional boat, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Tankwa traditional boat, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

There are dozens of monasteries on and around Lake Tana, I just wish we’d had a week to do them justice. Some of the most remote, and most untouched by tourism, are a round journey by boat of ten or twelve hours, each requiring a day’s travel there and back. Next time, next time…

Lake Tana, a walk to the Blue Nile Waterfalls

Bahir Dar isn’t an easy place to love. A sprawling, dusty, bustling commercial centre, it has grown rapidly and urbanisation hasn’t been especially kind. Despite this, it is one of Ethiopia’s major tourist destinations, thanks mainly to its location on the shores of Lake Tana – the origin of the Blue Nile and home to numerous islands occupied by ancient Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries.

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Men sitting by the road. Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Men sitting by the road. Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

I don’t want to be unfair to Bahir Dar. People are friendly, there are good restaurants, a fascinating market and it’s a fairly relaxed place to spend a few days while visiting the nearby sights. It’s just unfortunate that first impressions tend to be lasting. Our first impression was being shown into a hotel room which looked like it was generally rented by the hour (or segments thereof) and had only recently been vacated by its previous occupants. By ‘recently’, I mean there was money lying on the bed and clothing scattered around the room. A used condom adorned the floor.

Once we’d changed hotels, opting for the relative luxury of the Lake Tana Hotel with lake views from the lakeside bar, things improved dramatically. We contacted a guide recommended to us by another traveller, and set off to visit one of Ethiopia’s great natural sights: the Blue Nile Waterfalls. This was a half day walking trip that took us through some beautiful countryside and interesting villages, to the base of the legendary Blue Nile Waterfalls.

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Blue Nile Falls, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl near Blue Nile Falls, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Known as Tis Abay, ‘smoke of the Nile’ in Amharic, the waterfalls make quite a lot less smoke these days due to the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Although the water flow over the falls is significantly reduced, they are still impressive, with near permanent rainbows created by water spray and intense Ethiopian sun. The sound of the falls is quite impressive close up, but there was a time when they were deafening. The falls are about 45 meters (150 feet) high and around half a mile wide, from a vantage point above them they make a truly arresting sight, but you can’t help but wonder what they would have looked like before the dam.

Children near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Children near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Crossing a river near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Crossing a river near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

When we arrived at the nearby village, called Tissisat, I was glad we’d come with a guide. I saw a couple of tourists being hounded by young kids and adults to buy things or to hire them as guides. This is a poor place and you have to appreciate people are desperate for work, but it can make for an uncomfortable time, especially as self-appointed guides will follow tourists and haggle for cash (sometimes just to go away). We bought some food and drinks in the village, and set off for a two hour circular walk to the falls and back.

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking to the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Houses near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Houses near the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman in a village near Blue Nile Falls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Woman in a village near Blue Nile Falls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

The journey takes you through beautiful countryside, with sweeping views to distant hills. At one point we we had to wade across a shallow river, and then you finally arrive at the falls themselves. Despite their reduced size, they are still incredible. When you stand by the side of them, the spray from the Blue Nile cools you down after walking under a hot sun.

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy at the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young boy at the Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Blue Nile Waterfalls, Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

After a hot walk we reached another river, which we crossed in a small metal boat, before picking up a car in Tissisat village, and happily returned to the lakeside by the hotel to watch the sun set with a cold beer. Absolutely lovely.

Boat on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Boat on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, Ethiopia, Africa

Going, going, gone…the descent from Debre Damo Monastery

The ability to block out the unpalatable, however inevitable, is one of the more remarkable things about human psychology. So it was, after climbing up the rock face to get into Debre Damo Monastery. While I explored the hilltop and took in the views over the surrounding countryside, I put the descent out of my mind.

It was only when I got back to the entrance/exit point that the inevitable dawned on me. The view down the sheer rock face was disconcerting at best. Like a child who has climbed a tree, only to find themselves regretting it when its time to come back down, I felt like calling the fire brigade. Unfortunately, there was only one way off this particular rock…time to descend.

Looking nervous, with good reason, before leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Looking nervous, with good reason, before leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Nervous, Moi? Leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Nervous, Moi? Leaving Debre Damos Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

The look on the man who supports your weight as you descend pretty much says it all…or at least, it seems to be saying, “this bloke’s an idiot.”

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

It is seriously vertical…and if I was those four men at the bottom, I’d consider relocating to somewhere less likely to result in death by falling tourist. If anyone was wondering, things like this are the reason for all the grey hair…

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

Leaving Debre Damos Monastery via the vertical rock face, Ethiopia, Africa

At the bottom of the climb were these men seated in the shadow of the cliff. They looked a bit like a panel of judges assessing the climbing abilities of tourists. I suspect they were fairly unimpressed with my efforts…

Looking unimpressed by my efforts, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Looking unimpressed by my efforts, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

All but the last photo in this selection were taken by Boris Kester from the Netherlands, a fellow traveller who I met at Debre Damo.

Debre Damo Monastery, an Ethiopian funeral

For the living, the Debre Damo Monastery is an all male affair. To gain access as a woman, you have to be dead – please don’t shoot the messenger, I don’t make the rules. It just so happened that when I was visiting Debre Damo, I was able to witness the funeral of a woman from one of the local villages. Her first visit to the monastery would, alas, be her last.

There is only one way onto the mountain where the monastery is located, which meant that the coffin had to be hoisted up the vertical rock face before being taken onwards to the funeral service. It was a remarkable sight to see the funeral arrive at the base of the mountain. Accompanied by dozens of mourners and musicians, as well as people carrying ceremonial umbrellas and Ethiopian flags, it seemed more like a celebration than a funeral.

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Mourners arrive with the coffin at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The coffin is hoisted up the rock face at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The coffin is hoisted up the rock face at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

After wondering around the mountain top, I was heading back to leave when a sudden riot of colour in the distance caught my attention. Priests were gathered around under a tree, dressed in wonderfully bright colours and carrying even more extravagantly colourful umbrellas. A band played traditional music and the head priest said prayers. There were plenty of people attending proceedings, but they were all men. I felt rather sad that this woman’s female friends were barred from being there as well.

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman's funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A woman’s funeral at Debre Demo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Damo Monastery, rock climbing into 1400 years of Ethiopian history

They don’t make it easy to get into Debre Damo Monastery. Getting to it involves a lovely drive through some beautiful countryside, its only once you’re there that the problems start. If you’re male, there is a climb up a 40 meter-high sheer rock face, followed by squeezing yourself through a narrow doorway before you finally can say you’ve truly arrived. If you’re female, and there is no easy way to say this, you need to be dead before you can enter the sacred confines of the male only monastery.

Debre Damo Monastery on a hilltop in Tigray region, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Damo Monastery on a hilltop in Tigray region, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

A priest near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

It’s not only human females that are banned from the monastery, there has been a ban on females of any species for the last 1400 years. If I’m being honest, as I was suspended from a rope half way up the rock face, I found myself wishing that they didn’t let males of any species into the place either.

Contemplating the climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Contemplating the climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The climb to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

I can’t quite describe the ordeal involved climbing up the rock face. I’d watched several Ethiopians zooming up without much effort, just using the rope that came down from the entrance. For a tourist like me, the monastery officials tied a rope around my waist and a man, possibly the strongest 80 year old in the world, helped to pull me up. There’s nothing like a ‘senior citizen’ doing the majority of the work for you to improve self esteem. It’s an exercise in humility.

The man who pulled me up the cliff to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The man who pulled me up the cliff to Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Thankfully, it was worth all the effort and humiliation. Debre Damo Monastery is a place that needs to be seen to be believed. The monastery’s location, sitting at 2216 meters above sea level on top of a flat-topped mountain with sheer-sided cliffs, sets a dramatic scene and, once you’ve reached the top of the cliffs, the views are spectacular.

The view from Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The view from Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Young priest, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Young priest, Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The history of the monastery is fascinating. It is dedicated to Saint Abba Aregawi, one of nine Syrian Christians who came to spread Christianity in Ethiopia in the 6th Century. While Aregawi settled on Debre Damo, the other “Nine Saints” all settled in this region and have similar churches dedicated to them. Legend has it that Saint Aregawi flew to the top of the mountain on a winged serpent under the direction of St. Michael, thus avoiding the need to be hauled up there by an octogenarian.

Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Priests outside Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The building itself – which I couldn’t enter because there was a funeral taking place – incorporates stones and other elements from the pre-Christian Axumite Empire into the church’s structure. I was allowed to climb the bell tower of the church, which provided great views over the village and surrounding countryside.

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

The village near Debre Damo Monastery, Ethiopia, Africa

Walking around the large flat hilltop, weaving between houses, you are constantly coming across typical scenes of daily life. Making my way back towards the ‘exit’ I suddenly came across the funeral that was taking place – it was of a woman from a local village, the first and last time she would visit the monastery. But more of that later…

Axum, centre of an ancient African Empire

The flight from Addis Ababa to Axum, or Aksum as its also called, provides a tantalising glimpse of the mountainous highlands which comprise much of northern Ethiopia. We’d have preferred to travel overland, but Ethiopia is a big country with an underdeveloped transport infrastructure. Travel times by road vary from lengthy to inhumane; with only twelve days, Ethiopian Airlines’ internal flights were the only solution.

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Axum was the centre of imperial power for the mighty Aksumite Empire. The empire was thriving by 300 BC, by 300 AD it rivalled the empires of Rome, Persia and China in importance. Contemporary reports describe a magnificent city, socially and culturally highly advanced, flourishing on international trade. Today, none of this is particularly obvious when you first arrive in Axum.

Typical house in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Typical house in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

A young girl eats a ice lolly, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

A young girl eats a ice lolly, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Men working in the fields, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Men working in the fields, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

The town is decidedly underwhelming. The sense of disappointment is not dissimilar to that I felt on arrival in Timbuktu in Mali. Like Timbuktu, Axum is hot, dusty and sleepy; unlike Timbuktu, Axum is home to a wealth of sites of great historical importance. This area is also the cradle of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the region is dotted with rock-hewn churches and ancient monasteries. What Axum lacks in vibrancy, it makes up for in historical grandeur, and a physical heritage unheard of elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ancient stelae in honour of King Ezana, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in honour of King Ezana, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Axum’s main attraction is a large field of stelae and burial sites at the northern end of the town. The largest standing stelae is 23 meters high, and was carved in a local quarry before being transported (possibly by elephants) to the site it still occupies. This is King Ezana’s stelae, and it is carved with a doorway and several windows, thought to mirror the chambers in his tomb. Ezana was the first Aksumite king to embrace Christianity, and this monument has stood since his death in 360 AD.

This was the last of Axum’s stelae to be erected. Although the stelae aren’t thought to have religious significance, the adoption of Christianity as the state religion probably caused the tradition to end. It appears that Ezana’s stelae was deliberately erected at an off-centre angle, but no one has yet come up with a convincing explanation for how it was erected.

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

There are two larger stelae known to have been erected in Axum. The largest, at 33 meters, belonged to the 3rd Century King Remhai. It lies shattered on the ground after falling over, its 500 ton weight too much for inadequate foundations. The second largest stelae was cut into three parts and taken to Italy during the Italian occupation. It stood in the Piazza in Rome, a giant bauble hanging around Mussolini’s ego and fascism’s supposed superiority. The stelae was recently returned to Ethiopia, but wasn’t re-erected when I was there.

Ancient stelae belonging to King Remhai, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae belonging to King Remhai, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tomb in the stelae field, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tomb in the stelae field, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

There are numerous historic sites dotted around the town, many in the surrounding countryside. We went to the Gudit group of stelae, bizarrely stranded in the middle of a wheat field. These stelae are small, around 2 meters high, without any carving on them, reminding me of ancient stone circles in Britain. Across from the stelae are the ruins of a ‘palace’. Locals tell you it belonged to the Queen of Sheba, although it was built several hundred years after her reign – no one knows who constructed it.

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Axum was connected by the Nile to the Nubian and Egyptian civilisations, and to the Roman Empire; as well as by trade across the Red Sea to the Middle East. It became an important trade junction between China, India, North Africa and Europe. Its all the more frustrating then, that there is so little historical certainty about it. In the absence of fact, myth has attached itself to Axum’s history, particularly the legend of the Queen of Sheba. She looms larger than life in Axum.

Camels in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Camels in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

There is similar doubt around the remains of another palace, located on top of a hill a short walk away. The Tombs of Kaleb are all that remains of this palace. The problem is, no one really knows if King Kaleb was buried here, and grave robbers have taken anything valuable which might have identified who was buried here. Descending out of the blinding Ethiopian sun into darkness, our guide lit a couple of candles and we had a spooky tour by flickering candlelight. It was all a bit Indiana Jones.

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

As we walked back from the tombs we passed yet more stelae, just lying in a field, and we were joined by about twenty school children who, between fits of hysterical laughter, were desperate to practise their English on us.

Stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

We spent a couple of days in Axum, touring the sites and getting to grips with the altitude and climate. Its a nice town, even if there is little to hold you there beyond its history. Axum is also close to the troubled border with Eritrea, and the disputed status of the border, following a UN-sponsored ceasefire between the two countries, remains a burning issue. We came across a number of UN military personnel, including some Argentinian pilots, who are stationed in the town to monitor the ceasefire. An odd place to wash up when you’re from Mendoza.