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Ethiopia Regions and Towns

Addis Ababa, the Capital of modern Ethiopia, and gateway for most tourists, is the political and commercial heart of the Country. Now a city of 4 million people, it was founded by Emperor Menelik in 1887.

Addis Ababa is the country's commercial, manufacturing, and cultural center. It is the focus of a highway network, the site of an international airport, and the terminus of a railroad to the Gulf of Aden port of Djibouti.

In the city there are printing industries, and manufactures include footwear, clothing, asbestos and metal products, processed foods, cement, and plywood. Flourishing handicraft industries produce leather, metal, and textile goods, which are traded along with the regional agricultural produce, such as coffee, tobacco, and dairy items, in the vast open-air market known as the Mercato, on the W side of the city.

Addis Ababa is a sprawling city, well wooded, especially with eucalyptus trees, and crossed by broad avenues. Modern, multistoried buildings sit side by side with traditional one- and two story structures and open spaces. Its high elevation gives the city a mild, pleasant climate. The city is the seat of Addis Ababa University (1950), schools of music and art, and several research institutes. As headquarters of the Organization of African Unity and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the city is the scene of many international conferences. Of note in the city are the octagon-shaped Saint George Coptic Christian Cathedral (1896), the modern Africa Hall with its dramatic stained-glass windows, and the Menelik II Palace, as well as several museums with collections of art, ethnology, and archaeology.

AXUM, the site of Ethiopias most ancient city, is today a small town blissfully ignorant of its glorious past. The 16th century Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion is built on the site of a much older church probably resembling that of Debre Damo, dating from the 4th century AD. Only a platform and the wide stone steps remain from the earlier structure. The Cathedral is the repository of the crowns of some of Ethiopias former emperors. According to church legend, it also houses the original Ark of the Covenant - thus making St. Marys the holiest sanctuary in Ethiopia.

Founded perhaps 500 years after the decline of Yeha, much more is known about the historic highland city of Axum - together with its Red Sea port, Adulis. The latter was abandoned suddenly - probably in the sixth century AD - as the result of an invasion from Arabia, and was never resettled. On the other hand, protected by the mountains of northern Tigray, Axum survives to exert a profound influence on the imaginations and spiritual lives of many Ethiopians.

A small and lowly town surrounded by dry hills, modern Axum does not easily yield evidence of the splendors and pageantry of its glorious past. Its drab breeze-block houses, roofed with corrugated iron, look little different from those of any other contemporary highland settlement and its people seem remarkable only for their impassive stoicism. Part buried, however, but also part exposed, the extensive traces of noble buildings with large stone foundations are found there side by side with the ruins of even more impressive structures: temples, fortresses, and rich palaces. Adding substance to ancient legends of fire-breathing monsters and testifying to the lost truths embedded in myths and fables, the bones of bygone eras protrude everywhere through the soil. Even today, long- buried hordes of gold, silver and bronze coins are exposed by heavy downpours of rain.

The Blue Nile river flows out of Lake Tana with tremendous force and volume over the basalt shoulder of a giant cataract and onwards from there, ever downwards through dark and angry defiles, towards the deserts of the Sudan, on its way to enrich Egypts fertile delta.

The power of the Blue Nile may best be appreciated just thirty kilometers downstream from the point where the river first leaves Lake Tana. There, a rumble of sound fills the air and the green fields and low hills on either bank tremble to the Blue Nile Falls. It is one of the most dramatic spectacles on either the White or Blue Niles, a vision of natural strength and grandeur.

Four hundred meters wide in flood, the Blue Nile plunges forty-five meters down a sheer chasm to throw up a continuous mist that drenches the countryside up to a kilometer away. In turn, this gentle deluge produces rainbows that shimmer across the gorge under the changing arc of the sun - and a perennial rainforest. The pillar of cloud in the sky above, seen from afar, explains the local name for the falls - water that smokes, Tissisat.

The approach to the falls leads through Tissisat village where travelers find themselves surrounded by a retinue of youthful guides and musicians. For a small fee, they will point out many places of historic interest.

Some four hours drive from Axum - plus a further two hours stiff uphill walk from the point where the road ends - lies the spectacular monastery of Debra Damo, situated on an isolated cliff top in one of the wildest parts of Tigray.

Damo is unique and unforgettable although, as with most Ethiopian monasteries, women are not allowed to enter it. Even so, there is a daunting obstacle to the monastery: the only means of access is a climb of twenty-five meters up a sheer cliff. Monks lower a safety rope which visitors tie around their waists. Then they use a second, thicker rope to climb with. Some may reflect, as they make their way to the top, that because of this arduous, dangerous ascent the art treasures of Debra Damo have remained intact through the monastery-s 1,400 tumultuous years of history.

The treasures include an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts - among them the oldest surviving fragments of texts anywhere in Ethiopia - and intricate carvings on the beams and ceiling of the ancient church around which the monastery is built. There are no murals as such, but a large number of paintings are preserved there including several that depict the legend of the foundation of Debra Damo by Abuna Aragawi. He is a Saint who is believed to have been lifted onto the cliff top by a giant serpent. According to the legend expressed in a number of the paintings, the Archangel Gabriel stood by with a sword ready to slay the snake if it attacked Abuna Aragawi. It did not, however, and wrapped in its coils the Saint reached the top safely, dropping his cross on a stone, which is today kissed by all who enter the monastery.

Gondar, founded by Emperor Fasilidas around 1635, is famous for its many medieval castles and the design and decoration of its churches - in particular, Debra Berhan Selassie which represents a masterpiece of the Gondarene school of art.

Flanked by twin mountain streams at an altitude of more than 2,300 meters Gondar commands spectacular views over farmlands to the gleaming waters of Lake Tana thirty-five kilometers to the south. The city retains an atmosphere of antique charm mingled with an aura of mystery and violence. An extensive compound, near its center contains the hulking ruins of a group of imposing castles like some African Camelot. The battlements and towers evoke images of chivalrous knights on horseback and of ceremonies laden with pageantry and honor. Other, darker, reverberations recall chilling echoes of Machiavellian plots and intrigues, tortures and poisonings.

The main castle was built in the late 1630s and early 1640s on the orders of Fasilidas. The Emperor, who was greatly interested in architecture - St Marys in Axum was another of his works - was also responsible for seven churches, a number of bridges, and a three-story stone pavilion next to a large, sunken bathing place, rectangular in shape, which is still filled during the Timkat season with water from the nearby Qaha river.

While it remained the capital of Ethiopia until 1855, the city was a vigorous and vital center of religious learning and art. Painting and music, dance and poetry, together with skilled instruction in these and many other disciplines, thrived for more than two hundred years.

A city of mosques, minarets, and markets, a center of Muslim learning, a city which once struck its own local currency, and still has its own unique language - has long been regarded by the outside world as a city of mystery and romance. Situated on a high escarpment overlooking surrounding plains, which extend as far as the eye can reach, it enjoys a balmy climate and a fascinating history.

Harar in the old days could be reached only by a long caravan or mule journey of many days, weeks, or months; today, however, the city is little more than an hours drive from Dire Dawa, a modern Ethiopian railway town, with an international airport and several first-class Government and private hotels.

The well maintained macadamized highway from Dire Dawa to Harar, provides a delightful journey with numerous panoramic views. The traveler, driving up the winding road from the torrid lowlands to the cool Harari highlands, passes through mountain scenery amazing in its variety and charm and is confronted with a succession of wonderful scenes; sheer walls of naked rock, lofty slopes wooded to the summit with acacia, eucalyptus, and various types of cactus, and descents into deep ravines.

The principal road to the Old City leads past the main hotel - the Ras - the Military Academy, and various other buildings, including a small modern shopping center selling all sorts of wares. The Academy is noted for its stained glass windows depicting Ethiopian warriors of former days. These windows were designed by Ethiopian artist Afewerk Tekle, better known for his internationally renowned stained glass in Addis Ababas Africa Hall, the Headquarters of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. Another of his works, an equestrian statue of Ras Makonnen, governor of Harar at the turn of the century, stands nearby, only a few minutes walk from the Ras Hotel.

Harar, then as now, was situated in rich and highly cultivated agricultural land, watered by innumerable springs, streams and rivers. This land yielded an abundance of crops: wheat, millet, maize and other grains, as well as an unimaginable variety of fruit and vegetables. Also of great importance was coffee, cultivated for many centuries in gardens around the city, and the mild narcotic chat, or Catha edulis, which, as the years rolled by, became increasingly popular, and is today exported in large quantities to neighboring lands.

The historical importance of Harar, its unique buildings, its great encircling wall, and its well fashioned gates, received international recognition in 1989 when they were listed by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage, not only of the city and of Ethiopia, but of humanity as a whole.

After the decline of the Axumite empire, lamenting their lost grandeur, Ethiopias rulers retreated with their Christian subjects to the lofty escarpment of the central uplands. There, protected by mountain battlements more formidable than anything the hand of man could fashion, they were able to repel an increasingly expansionist and militant Islam trapping and confusing their enemies in the precipitous maze of valleys that intersects the high plateau.

Inevitably, a fortress mentality took root: an intense suspicion of the motives of strangers, a hatred of intrusion and interference, a protective secrecy. During this period roughly from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries AD - the Ethiopians, encompassed by the enemies of their religion, were described by the British historian Edward Gibbon as having slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten. It is true, moreover, that in holding back those who sought to destroy their faith, the highlanders also effectively cut themselves off from the evolving mainstream of Christian culture. This is the only sense, however, in which they slept. Their unique, idiosyncratic civilization was otherwise very much awake - a singular and spirited affirmation of the creative power of the human intellect.

Lalibela, previously known as Roha, is named after the king. The word itself, which translates to mean the bees, recognizes his sovereignty and the people of the region still recount the legend that explains why. Lalibela was born in Roha in the second half of the twelfth century, the youngest son of the royal line of the Zagwe dynasty, which then ruled over much of northern Ethiopia. Despite several elder brothers he was destined for greatness from his earliest days. Not long after his birth, his mother found a swarm of bees around his crib and recalled an old belief that the animal world foretold important futures. She cried out: -The bees know that this child will become king.

The Lake Tana The Blue Nile Falls Click here for tour information Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia, situated north of the beautiful town of Bahir Dar is the source from where the famous Blue Nile starts its long journey to Khartoum, and on to the Mediterranean.

The 37 islands that are scattered about the surface of the lake, some 20 of these shelter churches and monasteries of immense historical and cultural interest; decorated with beautiful paintings and housing innumerable treasures.

Along the lakeshore bird life, both local and migratory visitors, make the site an ideal place for birdwatchers. The whole of the lake Tana region and the Blue Nile gorge host a wide variety of birds both endemic and migratory visitors. The variety of habitats, from rocky crags to riverside forests and important wetlands, ensure that many other different species should be spotted.

Ethiopias history begins with a glance at the tantalizing remains of Yeha - the countrys earliest high civilisation. In a remote part of Tigray region, Yeha lies several hours drive from the more accessible city of Axum, The journey takes you on rough tracks through dramatic highland scenery and eventually ends in a beautiful and serene agricultural hamlet. It is there, close to a much more recent Christian church, that you may see the towering ruins of Yehas Temple of the Moon - built more than 2,500 years ago, in Sabaean times.

The temple is an imposing rectangular edifice. Though it has long since lost its roof and upper storeys the ruins stand some twelve metres in height. As evening falls, the temple's finely dressed and polished limestone reflects the glow of the setting sun with a warmth and brilliance that cannot be accidental. The huge, precisely fitted blocks from which the inward- inclining walls are formed seem to bear out ancient opinion that Sabaean buildings could be filled with water without a single drop being lost.

Apart from the temple, however - which speaks eloquently of the works of a high civilisation - little or nothing is known about the people who built this great edifice. Indeed, their origins are wrapped in mystery of which, perhaps, the greatest is this: if a culture had evolved to the level of sophistication required to build monuments of such quality in the highlands of Tigray by the sixth century BC, then what were its antecedents? What came before it? And how far back does Ethiopian civilisation really go? So far the archaeologists have uncovered no convincing answers to these questions.

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