Lush highland scenery, unique wildlife and majestic rock-hewn churches
Few countries are so obscured by misconception as Ethiopia. Associated by most outsiders with drought and famine and often presumed to be a tract of featureless desert, it is in reality one of the wettest, most fertile and most scenically beautiful countries in Africa. Remembered for the murderous communist regime that held power in the 1970s and 1980s, and too often lumped together with its war-torn neighbours Sudan and Somalia, Ethiopia is in reality a peaceful, functioning democracy cohabited by two of the world’s oldest, and most mutually tolerant, Christian and Islamic communities.
It’s also a profoundly underrated travel destination. Perched at the cultural crossroads of East Africa and Arabia, it represents a unique and fascinating fusion of African and Middle Eastern influences reflecting a long, eventful (and as yet only half-understood) history that stretches back many thousands of years – indeed, a plethora of fossil evidence suggests that the prehistory of Ethiopia goes back to the very beginning of human existence. As a result, the country boasts a wealth of historical sites without parallel in sub-Saharan Africa. Most famous among these are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the stelae fields at Aksum and the stone castles of Gondar, but this celebrated trio of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is supplemented by hundreds of other lesser-known churches, ruins and other historic places.
Ethiopia is also arguably the continent’s most consistently scenic country, dominated by a high central plateau that falls away abruptly into the chasm of the Great Rift Valley. The Ethiopian Highlands are truly breathtaking, a succession of spectacular mountain panoramas embracing lush grassy meadows, tangled forests, sparkling lakes and towering rock amphitheatres. Equally grand, stretching down towards the Kenyan border, is the string of beautiful lakes that characterize the southern Rift Valley. Altogether different, and seldom visited by tourists, are the thinly populated volcanic badlands that stretch east through the searing plains of the northern Rift Valley to the remote Somali border. And although Ethiopia is not a conventional safari destination in the mould of, say, Tanzania or Kenya, it does offer some unique and thoroughly rewarding wildlife viewing opportunities. Numerous species of large mammals, such as the gelada monkey, Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf, occur nowhere else in the world, while a tally of fifty endemic or near-endemic bird species places it high on the list of Africa’s top birding destinations.
Ethiopia and its people today retain the fiery independence of spirit that made it the only state to emerge uncolonized from the nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa. In many respects, it is like nowhere else on earth. Ethiopia’s spicy food is totally unique. So too are Ethiopian music and dancing, the script of Ethiopia’s Amharic language, and that quirky variation on familiar Christianity represented by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Never the easiest place to travel, Ethiopia, more than most countries, often pushes travellers outside their comfort zone. But it is also a country whose uniqueness and inherent peculiarity imbues every day spent there with an aura of adventure and discovery.
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A first-timer's guide to Ethiopia
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