Ethiopia seems a world apart. Its geographical isolation – perched on a massive plateau of fertile highlands surrounded by inhospitable desert and lowland swamp – has ensured the development of a unique culture, quite different from anything elsewhere in Africa. This culture and the country’s remarkable world heritage monuments are - to the uninitiated - Africa’s greatest surprise. This is a land where great civilisations flourished, emperors reigned and remarkable buildings and monuments were constructed.
Four very different places are considered here, each one testimony to a particular stage in Ethiopian history spanning more than 2,000 years. The earliest is the town of Aksum in the far north of the country, home of teetering 30-metre high stelae, some of which still pierce the sky, while others lie broken into massive chunks of rock where they fell. These and other monuments at Aksum bear witness to one of the great civilisations of the ancient world, the Aksumite Kingdom, which rose shortly after 400 BC at an important commercial crossroads between Egypt, the goldfields of Sudan, and the Red Sea. Christianity came to Aksum in the 4th century AD, and the town is still a major centre of Christian pilgrimage as the Ark of the Covenant is (according to Ethiopian belief) kept here – ever since it was brought from Jerusalem by Menelik I, son of the fabled Ethiopian Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Aksum flourished until the 7th century, when the rise of Islam in Arabia left it isolated, trade dwindled and the whole of Ethiopia entered its ‘dark ages’.
It was another 500 years before the Zagwe dynasty emerged around Lalibela in 1137 and work on the incredible rock-hewn churches was begun. At around the same time, Islam was beginning to spread into the eastern part of the country, and the fortified Muslim town of Harar was established. Its walls were constructed between the 13th and 16th centuries to defend its people against Oromo warriors migrating from present-day Kenya, and it became the 4th holiest city in Islam. In the late 15th century, following intervention by the Ottoman Turks, the Muslim east declared a jihad (holy war) on the Christian Highlands and Ethiopia suffered some of the worst bloodshed in its history. The Christians received support from Portuguese Jesuits, but conflict continued intermittently for almost 200 years. In 1636, however, a new permanent capital was founded at Gondar by Emperor Fasiladas, and by the end of the 17th century, Gondar boasted some magnificent palaces, beautiful gardens and grand public baths. The Royal Enclosure, or Fasil Ghebbi, appears at first to be a magnificent European castle, strangely out of place, but some of the architectural details reveal its unmistakable Ethiopian heritage.
To read more about each of the world heritage sites from ancient Ethiopia, and see a slideshow of each place, follow these links: