Discovering Ethiopia ... Unesco World Heritage sites

| August 12, 2014

Have you ever wanted to know more about Ethiopia’s heritage? You can find out more about its past, and where to discover it, below.

The Royal Enclosure, Gondar

From unforgettable safaris to city adventures, the nations of Africa offer some truly remarkable holiday experiences. In terms of heritage, few countries can rival Ethiopia, which is home to more Unesco World Heritages than any other in the continent.

Discovering these sites, which include churches hewn directly from the rock around them and ancient, story-filled cities, is an excellent basis for any trip around Ethiopia. It is worth bearing in mind that there are many other historical sites that don't boast Unesco status, which are a joy to discover on subsequent visits to the nation. The World Heritage sites we are going to introduce you to below, however, are absolutely ideal for your first time in Ethiopia.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

Perhaps the most famous of Ethiopia's Unesco World Heritage sites are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Indeed, they are likely to be the most unusual sight during your time here, with these vast churches not only being hewn directly from the rock around them, but also hollowed out from it, leaving a series of vast, imposing churches all situated below ground level.

But it isn't only their position and unusual construction that makes them remarkable. Look carefully and you will notice they are also beautifully carved and, despite dating back to the 13th century, are well-preserved; their Unesco status should help safeguard them for the future, with the organisation having added protective roofing here.

Where did these unusual churches come from? They were created in response to Muslim conquests in the Holy Land, which brought a halt to traditional pilgrimages. Lalibela was fashioned as a 'New Jerusalem', with the churches being forged specifically for the purpose. And, indeed, they are still popular pilgrimage sites today.

As the churches are so visually stunning, it is virtually impossible to come here and not leave incredibly impressed, but for the best experience possible, you really should be led by a guide. Knowing the churches intimately, guides will be able to point out wonderful subtleties that are easily missed if you do not know what you are looking for, not to mention lead you to spectacular viewing and photo points.

Rock church, Lalibela


Another perennially popular Ethiopian heritage site, Axum is a fascinating place. Once, this ancient city was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the historic Kingdom of Axum; today, it stands in living memory to this time, scattered with imposing ruins. However, Axum is more than a ruined city - it is a living town, with daily life and trade unfolding amid the remarkable ruins.

Visit Axum today and you will travel into the heart of ancient Ethiopia. The ruins here date from the 1st to 13th centuries AD, and include everything from towering obelisks to ancient inscriptions that can easily compete with the Rosetta Stone in terms of importance.

During your visit, you can expect to encounter all kinds of spectacular ruins. Among the most impressive are the obelisks, though the largest now lies flat rather than standing upright. Once, it would have stood an incredible 33 m high. The tallest one still standing is 23 m, and is decorated with beautiful carvings. Ruined palaces and large stelae are among the other wonders you can expect to see here.

One of the wonderful things about visiting Axum is that, while being an ancient site, it is a very much a living place. What's more, despite its historical prestige it has managed to avoid becoming laden with overtly tourist-focused attractions and amenities; this is very much an authentic, local place.

Priest in Axum


Venture into the Gondar Region and you can discover another of the country's Unesco World Heritage sites - Fasil Ghebbi. This fortress-city was once home to the Ethiopian emperor Fasilides and his successors, who lived here during the 16th and 17th centuries.

While the city went into decline in the 1900s, there is still much to see here - including palaces, churches and monasteries built with a range of different influences clearly visible, including Hindu, Arab and Jesuit. Indeed, it is in no small part this mix of styles and heritage that makes Fasil Ghebbi such a fantastic place to visit.

Gondar is home to the Unesco World Heritage Site Fasil Ghebbi
Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar

Among the best things to see during your exploration is the Debre Berhan Selassie church, which is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Its combination of arched doors, stone walls and thatched roof make it particularly aesthetically pleasing, while a trip inside will give you the opportunity to see some marvellous - and very well preserved - paintings. Don't forget to look up - the ceiling is painted with the faces of approximately 80 cherubs, and is one of the most photographed sights in the country.

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