Axum and rock hewn churches of Tigray
Axum was the first capital of Ethiopia and used to be a rich farming and trade area with the Middle East and is only 60km from the red sea making it an important corridor.
On our way to the Tomb’s of King Kaleb and Gebre Meskel we passed a little shack…what could we possibly see here…to our surprise it contained a remarkable find which three farmers stumbled upon in 1988; an Ethiopian version of the Rosetta Stone. The pillar, inscribed in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek, dates from between AD 330 and AD 350 and records the honorary titles and military victories of the king over his ‘enemies and rebels (i.e. people whom refused to pay him taxes)’. The stone was placed next to the main road into Axum from the Red sea to ensure no one could miss it.
A 15 minute walk up hill, we visited the -never used- tombs of King Kaleb and his son, King Gebre Meskel. The Gebre Meskel tomb was the most refined. The precision of the joints between its stones was at a level unseen anywhere else in Aksum. The tomb consisted of one chamber and five rooms, with one boasting an exceptionally finely carved portal leading into it. Inside that room were three sarcophagi, one adorned with a cross similar to Christian crosses found on Aksumite coins. According to our guide the tomb was never used and Meskel was buried at Debre Damo monastery. Like Meskel’s tomb, King Kaleb’s was also accessed via a long straight stairway. But it was less sophisticated; the stones were larger, more angular and less precisely joined. Also for this tomb it is believed that he was not actually buried here. The story is that his body is buried at Abba Pentalewon Monastery, where he lived after abdicating his throne. The tomb’s unfinished state fits with this story. Local rumour has it that there’s a secret tunnel leading from here to the Red Sea, but we have not seen any evidence of this. Both of the monasteries where the Kings are buried, can be visited, but are ‘men only’. Abba Pentalewon is one of the richest monasteries (even today) and still in use by about 150 monks. The Debra Damo is en route to our next destination, but to visit men need to climb up a 15m high rope, not something Wilfred was very keen on…
Next we visited Queen Sheba’s bath; our guide told us that despite the colourful legends, this large reservoir wasn’t where Queen Sheba played with her rubber duck, but that it was an important reservoir rather than a swimming pool or gargantuan bath. Nobody is totally sure of its age, but it’s certainly been used as a water source for millennia. Its large size (17m deep) is even more impressive considering it’s hewn out of solid rock. It’s also known as Mai Shum, which translates to ‘Chief’s Water’. Sadly, the outer portion of the bowl was coated with concrete in the 1960s, giving it a ore modern look than an ancient relic. Nowadays it’s used for Timkat celebrations every January, just like Fasiladas’ Bath in Gondar and on a daily basis locals use it for washing cloths and drinking water for animals
Our last stop of the morning were the ruins of the Dungar (Queen Sheba’s) palace just outside of the old town. though historians think it’s the mansion of a nobleman. It’s fully excavated an from the viewing platform we could make out enough of the 44-room layout of the palace. The most interesting features were the stones and walls recessed at intervals and unusually tapering with height and the kitchen, where a large brick oven can still be seen. Nobody is certain of the complex’s age, but our guide told us it probably dates to around the 6th century AD.
Reunited with Nienke in the afternoon, we visited the St Mary of Zion Churches and a tiny, carefully guarded chapel that houses what most Ethiopians believe is the legendary Ark of the Covenant. The legend tells that the Ark of Convenant is guarded by a monk, who lives in solitary in the chapel, as all doors are cemented. Interestingly a new keep is being built next to it, to temporarily store the Ark of Convenant as the current keep needs to be maintained as its roof started leaking. As a result of an incident some years ago, when an Israeli tourist climbed over the fence to get to the keep (and was shot in his leg by the guards), no tourist is allowed to approach the fence. A rule that is still strictly followed, Wilfred experienced, when he walked to the fence for a picture together with two locals and was called back by the guide. As it was fasting time, there was a daily procession walking three times around the new St Mary of Zion church before every mass. The museum between the ruins of the old and the new church held several interesting items like robes and crowns of kings and bishops and other ancient religious artefacts.
Our guide arranged for us to visit the inside of the new St Mary of Zion church, a build in 1965 and we saw an ancient bible with marvellous pictures of amongst others St. George and the dragon, although we believed it looked too nice to be an ancient bible... The church itself also had some beautiful paintings on the wall most being replica’s from the old bible.
As the old church area may only be visited by men, Wilfred went alone to make some pictures. The most interesting in there was the painting of a ‘dark’ Mary (not covered by a blanket and always visible) next to a ‘white’ Mary. Unfortunately the priest did not speak English and we have no idea what the meaning behind it is, although normally only the paintings that have a special meaning to a church are covered… The old bible in this old church, really looked old and many of the paintings were similar to the book in the new church, confirming our feeling that the other one we saw was a replica (although the guide of the new church kept saying it was ancient and original…).
To conclude our visit to Aksum, we visited the Northern Stelae Field Tombs and the archaeological museum. Despite the dizzying grandeur of the numerous rock needles (stelea) reaching for the stars, our guide told us ‘It’s what’s under your feet here that’s most important’. He mentioned that about 90% of the field hasn’t yet been dug, so no matter where we walked, there’s a good chance there’s an undiscovered tomb with untold treasures under our feet. All of the tombs excavated so far, have been pillaged by robbers, so very little is known about Aksumite burial customs or the identities of those buried on the site.
The most impressive stelae we saw is named the Great Stelae, but unfortunately is not erected anymore…as it toppled it collided with the massive 360-tonne stone sheltering the central chamber of Nefas Mawcha’s tomb. This shattered the upper portion of the stele and collapsed the tomb’s central chamber, scattering the massive roof supports like tooth-picks. Seeing that no other stele was ever raised here, it’s obvious the collapse sounded the death knell on the long tradition of obelisk erection in Aksum. Our guide told us that some people have suggested that this disaster may have actually contributed to the people’s conversion to Christianity. More controversially, some people propose it may have been sabotaged deliberately to feign a sign of God. Whatever the origin of its downfall, the stele remains exactly where it tumbled 1600 years ago, a permanent reminder of the defeat of paganism by Christianity.
Next we walked down some steps to visit Nefas Mawcha’s tomb. The megalithic Tomb of Nefas Mawcha consists of a large rectangular central chamber surrounded on three sides by a passage. The tomb is unusual for its large size, the sophistication of the structure and the size of the stones used for its construction (the stone that roofs the central chamber measures 17.3m by 6.4m and weighs some 360 tonnes!). As mentioned above the force of the Great Stele crashing into its roof caused the tomb’s spectacular collapse.
In the archaeological museum we saw an interesting variety of objects found in the tombs, ranging from ordinary household objects, such as coins, crosses, lamps and incense burners. However the most interesting thing we saw was a scale model of what the Dungar (Queen Sheba’s) palace would have looked like, but unfortunately it was not allowed to make any pictures inside.
Rock hewn churches of Tigray region
The next two days we spent in the Tigray region to visit some excellent examples of rock hewn churches. Our guide drove with us in our truck to Gheralta and on the way we visited the temple complex of Yeha, the Petros we Paulos church and the Medhane Alem Kesho church.
The temple complex of Yeha, now in the midst of a major restoration, was impressive for its sheer age and stunning construction. The 7th century BC Great Temple’s limestone building blocks, measuring up to 3m in length, are perfectly dressed and fitted together without a trace of mortar. So the whole temple is a grid of perfect lines and geometry.
The first rock hewn church we visited was the Petros we Paulos church. This church is only partly hewn and is built on a steep ledge. It’s a five-minute climb up a rickety ladder, but as the key-man is nowhere to be found we just viewed the church from the outside. The second (and last church of the day) was the Medhane Alem Kesho church and is said to be one of Tigray’s oldest (perhaps even the oldest), tallest and finest rock-hewn churches. Its exterior and interior walls are roughly hewn, which only makes the elaborately carved coffered ceiling special. We asked if we could watch the priest unlock the door from the inside of the church; a rather ingenious locking system indeed ! We arrived at the Gheralto lodge, just before sunset and were shown to a nicely decorated triple room (build in a circle; probably the nicest room we stayed during our trip in Ethiopia). Wilfred wanted to enjoy the sunset at a higher viewpoint, while Nienke and Judith indulged in a nice massage.
Some of the churches in the Tigray region are a long and/or rather steep climb before you reach the church. And since we are also climbing the Erta Ale Volcano in a couple of days we chose three churches to visit; the Maryam Korkor and Daniel Kokor churches (same location) and the Abraha We Atsbeha church (no hiking needed to visit)
In the morning we started our one hour hike to Maryam Korkor, an rather easy, but steep climb according to the lonely planet…don’t believe everything they write! The first part was indeed a rather easy, but steep climb through a small gorge, but the mid section was serious scramble using our hands and feet for about 15 to 20 metres high ! Nienke was very reluctant to climb this part, but as we were already more than halfway, she gave it a try and we all continued the last part of the climb. When we almost reached the top we saw a group of women hiking down the path and our guide told us that earlier that morning a baby was baptised there and some of them had their baby and their back whilst climbing down…not something we would ever do !
After one and a half hour we were glad to finally reach the top of the mountain and we could visit the two churches there. Maryam Korkor is an impressive, cross- shaped church and is known for its architectural features, (such as cruciform pillars, arches and cupolas), fine 17th century frescoes and some church treasures (although we did not see those). It’s also one of the largest churches in the area. Just a couple of minutes’ walk from Maryam Korkor is the seldom-used church of Daniel Korkor, which sits atop a paralysing precipice and offers astounding views. The door opening of Daniel Korkor church was so tiny that we had difficulty getting in. Nienke decided not to visit this church due to the walk on a small ledge to the church, but our guide convinced her to go anyway… Inside the church were some fine frescos dating from the 17th century.
The last church we visited is called Abraha We Atsbeha, a 10th century church and is architecturally speaking one of Tigray’s finest. It’s large and cruciform in shape, with cruciform pillars and well-preserved 17th and 18th century murals. Some of the church treasures such as procession crosses and a pair of golden shoes, believed to be King Atsbeha’s, are displayed a small museum next to the church.
The end of the afternoon we met up with the tour operator in Me’kele ,with whom we booked our Danakil Depression tour. He explained to us the itinerary for the next four days. After that we found a nice hotel to enjoy our last hot shower and proper toilet for the next couple of days and to securely park the truck while we are in Danakil.
Danakil depression and Me'kele
We booked a four day trip to the Danakil Depression and the next couple of days we will visit the Erta Ale Volcano, Dallol, Lake Asale and Lake Afdera.
We left our hotel at 09.30am in the morning and met the rest of the group with whom we would travel for the duration of the tour. Our first destination is Erta Ale and it was a nice drive on tarmac through the mountains and the last 70 kilometres or so we drove some rougher terrain, mostly sand and (sharp) lava rocks. We arrived early afternoon at base camp, where we could rest a bit, before embarking on our climb to the volcano later that evening. After dinner we started our climb up the volcano with the intention to visit the new and the old crater. The new crater is only two months old, since the last ‘active’ eruption of the volcano on January 12th of this year, however the volcano has been in a state of continuously eruption since 1967. But the pace of the walk is too fast for Judith to follow due to her knee injury and two Estonian’s in our group were having difficulties with the heat (they just arrived from Estonia two days before where it was still freezing…). Since the last eruption visitors are only allowed to visit the new crater from a distance of 250 metres, due to safety reasons. But our guide bribed the military guards and we were ‘allowed’ to visit the old crater where you can walk to edge of the rim, only 2 metres from the edge and look into the lava lake.
After four hours of walking we finally arrived at the top of Erta Ale, but unfortunately Nienke fell ill, just before reaching the top and she needed to rest there, while we continued to the edge of the rim. We walked over softer lava for the last 15 minutes and we heard the lava crack under our soles of our shoes, almost the same sound as when you walk on fresh snow. The view of the bubbling lava below us was unbelievable ! We stayed about 45 minutes enjoying the views before we headed back the camp where we would spent the night. As Nienke did not join us at the rim of the volcano our guide took her there after a couple of hours of sleep. So in the end she got a private viewing of the lava lake of Erta Ale. After only 3 hours of sleep we started our hike down to base camp at 03.30am to ensure we would be there before it became too hot…
After breakfast we drove to the next camp at Hamedela in the Dallol region, where we would stay for two nights. When we arrived and saw the place where we would camp for the next two days we looked at each other in astonishment…the whole place was full of garbage (plastic water bottles, cans, toilet paper, etc.…), a real dump ! This was when Danakil Depression became ‘depressing Danakil’…the base camp at Erta Ale was very similar with garbage everywhere…what happened to ‘just leaving footprints’ when you visit such nice places !
At lunch time Judith had asked our guide what had happened to the goat the was in the truck with supplies. He told us that the other group had goat for dinner. Judith asked if we could have goat that evening and he said he would try. And later Judith saw a goat pulled into the kitchen and out guide said ‘that’s our dinner’ and it was very tasty !
The night sleeping under the stars was a little bit difficult due to the wind blowing the entire evening, but we all got a couple of hours of sleep. After breakfast we drove over the salt lake to Dallol where great warts of twisted sulphur and iron oxide paint a yellow and orange landscape that looked more like a coral reef than anything we have ever seen above the waterline. The base of the hill is the lowest place in Ethiopia at 125 metres below sea level and is said to be the hottest place on Earth with a year-round average temperature of 34.4°C. As it is very close to Eritrea we are escorted by a group of at least 20 soldiers. It felt really weird walking on ‘coral reef’, because we thought it would crack under pressure, but it didn’t. Fortunately for us the weather is not too hot and we were able to enjoy the views for more than an hour where normally group only stay for about 30 minutes due to the heat.
After that we passed some Salt Mountains on the way to Lake Asale. These are high mountains, or at least much higher than the only mountain in the Netherlands, the Cauberg. At lake Asale we walked the dry, cracked lakebed for 10 minutes or so to where the Afar people hack blocks of salt out of the ground. The blocks of salt are then loaded onto camels. These famous camel caravans head to Me’kele, where the salt is sold on the local market. It takes the camel caravan seven days to reach the market. The Afar people sell the blocks of salt for 7-10 birr per block to the camel owners, after transport the camel owners sell it on the market for about 30-40 birr per block. And after processing by the local salt factories it is sold for export.
As Nienke is not feeling well and Wilfred & Judith were not looking forward to spent another night in the midst of garbage…we decided to cut our trip one night short and returned to Me’kele.
All in all Danakil Depression has much to offer to tourists with the active volcano, sulphur lakes, etc. But we do hope that sustainable tourism will be introduced, such as educating the local communities how to properly dispose of garbage, tour operators will start some local projects to improve the living condition in the villages, and that they will start with leaving only footprints on tours (i.e. taking al you garbage and dispose of it properly) as we haven’t seen so much garbage lying around anywhere else in Ethiopia !
When we returned late afternoon in Me’kele we checked in (again) at the Hatsey Yohannes hotel, where we had left our truck during the Danakil Depression tour. Since we were all very tired of the trip we spent the evening watching a couple of episodes of the tv-series the Blacklist and eating pizza…just a relaxing evening in the hotel. The following morning we visited the Yohannes IV museum, just across the road from the hotel. The palace has been nicely restored in the last four years, but unfortunately it was not allowed to take pictures. For lunch we went to a traditional restaurant with a butcher on premise. The house speciality is Zilzil tibbs (lamb) with awazi sauce (a mustard chilli sauce). The best tibbs we had so far during our trip in Ethiopia ! In the afternoon we updated our travelblog and started uploading pictures. Our last evening with Nienke we spent (again) eating pizza and watching some episodes of the Blacklist. The next morning we said goodbye to Nienke at Me’kele airport and we started our (long) drive to Lalibela, a town famous for its lovely rock hewn churches.