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About Africa
About Ethiopia
WorldScene Africa


Hon. Mahmoud Dirir
Minister of Culture and Tourism
P.O.Box 2183 Meskel Square
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tel: (+251-11) 5512310


In the Queen of Sheba's Footsteps on Ethiopia's Holy Route
by Jerry W. Bird

An aura of excitement and anticipation electrified the morning air, as our team of journalists gathered in the Newark Airport lounge, taking our seats after a brief introduction. Representing Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor and a variety of other media, we would soon share our impressions of Ethiopia as a tourism destination, with each other and the world. For weeks leading up to departure, many of us haunted the book stores and combed local libraries like students cramming for an exam. Yet no amount of reading could have prepared us for the surprises that lay waiting in exotic places like Lalibela, Gondar, Bahar Dar, Harar, Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa. Here at Africa Travel Magazine it became a lifetime pilgrimage -- a precious opportunity to preview the Host Country of ATA's 25th Anniversary Jubilee Congress. Our flight originated in Washington DC, with a stop at New York/Newark, reaching Addis Ababa some 16 hours later, after a brief refueling stop at Rome.

Since Ethiopian Airlines is the only carrier providing direct service from the USA to Northeast Africa, Ethiopia is positioned to become a hot new destination for Americans seeking nature, adventure and culture, plus Christian and Jewish pilgrimage travel. Ethiopian Airlines is becoming a hub for combination tours, including the Middle East, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa and offshore islands.

On behalf of ATA and our fellow journalists, we thank Mr. Hagos Legesse, Ethiopian Airlines North American Marketing Consultant in New York, Mr. Bisrat Nigatu, Chief Executive Officer of the airline, and Mr. Yusuf Abdullahi Sukkar, Ethiopia's Tourism Commissioner for providing this once in a lifetime journey

to Ethiopia took place in 2000, the Africa Travel Association's Jubilee year. Each time, our agenda in the country was arranged by the Hon. Yusuf Sukkar, Ethiopia's Tourism Commissioner, who greeted us at the airport and arranged a private lounge, which is a touch of class in my book of public relations protocol. This professional touch continued and the whole project turned out to be one of the best organized trips we have ever experienced. It provided enough pleasant memories to last a lifetime, plus souvenirs galore, purchased at a wide variety of marketplaces and souks. As an introduction to the charm and mystery of Ethiopia, we joined ten other journalists from the USA on a week long trip which included Lalibela, Gondar, Bahir Dar and Lake Tana and Harar.

On the second flight to Ethiopia we followed the Rift Valley south from Addis Ababa. Several pages on this site cover the various segments of our Historic Route journey. Back in Addis Ababa, after the tour, it was our turn to be interviewed -- this time by Ethiopian press, radio and television. To a person, each journalist agreed it was a positive experience with no feelings of concern or anxiety about personal health and safety. The climate in mid February was perfect, and the hospitality of the people was second to none. What a beautiful prelude to the ATA congress, Africa's 1st major tourism event of the new millennium.

The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Lalibela's Bet Giyorgis, most famous of the eleven rock-hewn churches in this mountainous area, is believed to have been built in the late 12th or early 13th century by King Lalibela. These incredible edifices, which were carved inside and outside from solid rock, are ranked among the wonders of the world. Our team of North American journalists came to Ethiopia with few preconceived notions, yet each had some special areas of concern. For every member of the group, it was a first time journey to this ancient, mysterious, storybook land. What a spiritual awakening it proved to be. The tour of Ethiopia's Historic Route began in Addis Ababa, the capital and geographical center. For starters, Ethiopian Airlines, flew us north to Lalibela, the holy city; to Gondar- Africa's Camelot, and to Bahir Dar on Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. Dire Dawa and the walled city of Harar in the eastern sector completed the agenda. Nothing I had read about the Holy City of Lalibela, its mysteries, legends, saints and monarchs, could have prepared me for what we were about to encounter on this trip. The brief morning flight from Addis Ababa's Airport north was a delight, winging through the cloudless skies, as an ever-changing panorama of awesome gorges, deep canyons and broad plateaus unfolded below.

Everything that I had read about Ethiopia in Wilbur Smith's novels, the River God and Secret Scroll, was as he described. As we learned later from Hon. Yusuf Abdullahi Sukkar, Ethiopia's Tourism Commissioner, airport construction enjoys a high priority, and on the high plain south of Lalibela, a new terminal building is in the final stages of completion. Our temporary waiting area was a baggage shack, where we basked in the morning sun, awaiting the commuter bus.

A Storybook Land: I've never been to Tibet, but the spiritual presence and views we saw during our corkscrew journey up the hillside would easily fit that image. Small wonder this storybook land has such a spiritual presence, a proud tradition and a way of life that has survived three millennia, despite an outside world of hate, conquest, treachery, trial and turmoil. The thatched villages, shepherd boys, terraced farming methods, simple forms of irrigation and donkey power, attest to the fact that time has stood still &emdash; as well it should. Coming from North America it's hard for us to realize that this is the way it has been in this part of the world since time immemorial.

Rocks of Ages: During my recent African excursions, I have been awed by mankind's glorious creations, offset by a Jekyll and Hyde capacity for evil. While we were shocked by the slave castles of West Africa's Gold Coast and Zanzibar's dungeons, we saw the result of godly forces at work in the 12th century rock -hewn churches that have made the Holy City of Lalibela a magnet for Christian pilgrims and historians.

Many come for the famous church festivals in Ethiopia, such as Timket (Epiphany) and other times of celebration and devotion. Souvenirs of King Lalibela are everywhere, as a continuing tribute to his glory and greatness in creating these wonders of the world. Our official photographer, Robert Eilets couldn't get over the abundance of photo opportunities in Lalibela's streets, at the famous stone churches and around every bend in the road leading to this remote highland community. Next time, we vowed to allow an extra day for photography alone.

Footnote: Back in Addis Ababa, it was our turn to be interviewed -- this time by Ethiopian press, radio and television. To a person, each journalist agreed it was a positive experience with no feelings of concern or anxiety about personal health and safety. The climate in mid February was perfect, and the hospitality of the people was second to none. What a beautiful prelude to the ATA congress, Africa's 1st major tourism event of the new millennium. More to come, including map and photos.

Gondar: Africa's Camelot

As our minibus rolled into Gondar, after a short flight from Lalibela, there was ample evidence that here was an area destined for long range development as a destination resort. Several new industries attest to this growing trend, as did our conversation with entrepreneurs at the airport and later at the hotel. Our modern, government operated hotel, the Goha was perched like a sentinel on a hilltop, with a commanding view of the city and countryside. Gondar was Ethiopia's capital and principal city during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century. Perhaps that's why I expected to find it a shrine to past glories, instead of an active, bustling community, with people filling the streets, shops doing a brisk business, and scores of gaudily painted horse and buggy taxis (garis) scooting every which way, like bumper cars at a midway. Several of our group decided to try this hair raising means of transport, and it became a highlight of their day, trotting through the narrow alleys of this centuries old capital.

Thanks to a massive government initiative, many of the castles, palaces and royal structures built by the early Emperors are being carefully restored. These treasures of Gondar include the stone bathhouse of Emperor Fasiladas and the ruined Palace of Kusquam. We also entered the church of Debre Brhan Selassie, to gaze in awe at its unique murals, which have stood the test of time for centuries. These castles display a richness in architecture that reveals the influence of Arabia as well as Axumite traditions, and are said to be the largest concentration of such structures in Africa.

Bahir Dar, Lake Tana, Blue Nile Falls

A pleasant surprise occurred on day 3 of our Historic Route journey through Ethiopia. Following a short flight on Ethiopian Airlines from Gondar to Bahir Dar Airport, the gut-wrenching condition of the road leading west led me to believe our group of 11 journalists would be staying at some dusty lakeside village. However, like several of my colleagues, I was completely bowled over when tall palms and jacarandas suddenly appeared out of the blue. Like part of a royal procession, we entered a modern, well laid out community with broad, tree-lined boulevards. Bahir Dar would rival many seaside retreats on the Mediterranean or Florida.

En route to Lake Tana, I spotted a huge resort hotel complex nearing completion &emdash; a sign of positive things to come. After checking into our hotel, we boarded a motor launch for a spin around Lake Tana, which is Ethiopia's largest lake. We're told there are 37 small islands on the lake, and most of them shelter monasteries and churches, some dating back to the 13th century. On most inland bodies of water of this size, one might encounter powerboats and sleek sailing craft, but on Lake Tana in Northern Ethiopia, leisure gives way to practicality. Here, the waters are alive with a fleet of 'tankwas' , papyrus canoes, carrying charcoal and firewood to market in Bahir Dar.

Nature's Brush, Fields of Gold and Smoke of Fire
In February, the Jacaranda trees are in full blossom, painting city boulevards and village streets in a soft violet hue. It's a signs that will live in my memory forever. On a peaceful hill near Emperor Haile Selassie's Bahir Dar palace, overlooking the Blue Nile, we stopped to mark the moment on film. How fortunate that the royal gardeners had the foresight to plant a mile long stretch of Jacarandas to frame the entrance to this regal spot.

The Ahramic name for the Blue Nile Falls is 'Tissisat' or 'smoke of fire' &emdash; which describes what many claim to be the most spectacular waterfalls in Northern Africa. Here a wide body of water drops over a sheer cliff more than 45 meters deep. In many photos I have seen, that curtain of spray kissed by a brilliant rainbow. Speaking of rainbows and pots of gold &emdash; in September I'm told it's a sure sign of spring, when the 'Meskel" flower turns entire hills and fields to gold.



Adventures on the rivers ofEthiopia and East Africa
Contact Maurizio at Wonz Dar Expeditions
PO Box 19913, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
251-1-757604, Fax 251-1751 377