The historical heartland of Ethiopia, the north of the country has a history dating back thousands of years in the ancient capital of Axum. From around 200BC to 700AD, Axum was the seat of an empire that extended across the Red Sea to Arabia. It traded with India and China, had its own alphabet and notational system, constructed great engineering works and dams, and was reckoned in the fourth century to be one of the four great powers of the world. It is also the supposed resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, brought from the court of King Soloman by the fabled Queen of Sheba.
The most famous site on the northern route is Lalibela, the ‘new Jerusalem’, which was built by King Lalibela ‘with the help of angels’ in the 12th century, and is now a world heritage site. The area also encompasses the old imperial capital of Gondar, known for its many medieval castles, Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and largest lake in Ethiopia, and Simien Mountains National Park, home to one of Africa’s largest ranges with at least a dozen peaks over the 4,000-metre mark
Explore The North
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Destinations in The North of Ethiopia
Bahir Dar This large town is situated on the southern shore of Lake Tana and has palm-lined avenues and pretty lakeside vistas. Bahir Dar has a population approaching 150,000 and is an important commercial centre. As in so many large Ethiopian towns, the juxtaposition between urban modernity and rustic traditionalism is striking, nowhere more so than in the bustling central market, which is one of the finest in the country.
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 metres Gondar commands spectacular views over farmlands to the gleaming waters of Lake Tana thirty-five kilometres to the south. The city retains an atmosphere of antique charm mingled with an aura of mystery and violence. An extensive compound, near its centre 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 honour. Other, darker, reverberations recall chilling echoes of Machiavellian plots and intrigues, tortures and poisonings. Gondar was the imperial capital from the 17th to mid 19th centuries, and today visitors can see the imperial compound, with castles still in good condition (some recently restored) and the bath of King Fasilides, where at Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany) a nearby river is diverted to fill an area the size of a small swimming pool. Worshippers plunge into the cold water in a re-enactment of the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. Although many of Gondar’s churches were destroyed during the Mahdist invasion from Sudan in the 1880s, one very fine example, Debre Berhan Selassie, was saved, according to the legend, by a swarm of bees which routed the invaders. The walls and ceiling are completely covered with murals - the angels’ faces on the ceiling have become a common motif in Ethiopian design.
Lalibela, the ‘New Jerusalem’ was built by King Lalibela ‘with the help of angels’ in the 12th century, and is a world heritage site comprising 11 rock-hewn churches. Perched among wild craggy mountains and vast rocky escarpments, there is a stark cathedral-like grandeur to Lalibela. The houses of Lalibela are of a design unlike anywhere else in Ethiopia, two-storey circular stone constructs that huddle in an amorphous mass over the steep slopes on which the town is built. The rock-hewn churches are large and several are more than 10 metres high. Because they are carved below ground level, they are ringed by trenches and courtyards, the sides of which are cut into with stone graves and hermit cells, and connected to each other by a tangled maze of tunnels and passages.
Simien Mountains National Park
Simien Mountains National Park The Simien Mountains National Park is situated about 100 km north of Gondar and is one of Africa's largest ranges. At least a dozen of the peaks are over the 4,000 m mark, including Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia. The western side of the range, excluding Ras Dashen, was designated as the Simien Mountains National Park in 1969, and the entire range was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. The Simien range consists of several large plateaux divided by large river valleys. The views stretch north towards Eritrea and are spectacular. Three of Ethiopia's endemic large mammals are resident in the Simiens. The gelada monkey is the most common with an estimated population of 7,000 and are often to be seen grazing in herds of up to 400 individuals. There is also the rare Ethiopian wolf, with a population of no more than 50, that exists high up on the mountains slopes of Ras Dashen, Bwahit and Kidus Yared. Finally there are 600 Walia ibex still surviving. Non-endemic mammals include klipspringer, bushbuck and the common jackal. Flora includes St John's wort and an array of aloe
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