Ethiopia - The African Empire
Ethiopia is a land of striking contrasts, defined by the peaks of the Simien mountain plateau and the depths of the Rift Valley, home to the modern city of Addis Ababa and the granite stelae of Aksum, landlocked and yet refreshed by the waters of the Blue Nile. This ancient land, source of fables and stories since antiquity, is full of exciting archaeology to explore. Some of the earliest and most complete remains of human ancestors were discovered here and Saba‘an-style temples dating back to the early first millennium before Christ are still in the process of being excavated. While rock-hewn churches, carved into fabulous shapes and in some cases lavishly painted, hint at Ethiopia’s rich Christian heritage, the city of Harar is a focal point for the country’s Islamic past. Modern history records the hard-fought independence of Ethiopia in the face of colonial powers - ensuring that this land retained its distinctive and enthralling cultural riches.
Follow the Blue Nile south to its source, to venture into the past of one of the world’s most exciting archaeological destinations. Leading this tour is Dr Jacke Phillips, an archaeologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, who has excavated extensively in Ethiopia and is one of the leading figures in Ethiopian archaeology. Jacke’s experience and knowledge of the country are second to none, making her the perfect person to bring the fascinating history of Ethiopia to life.
- Explore the labyrinthine churches and palaces of Aksum, Lalibela and Gondar, Ethiopia’s great imperial cities
- Visit the site of Yeha and the prehistoric Tiya burial complex with its enigmatic symbols
- Pore over artefacts at museums, including the National Museum if Ethiopia, best known for its fossilised remains of early hominids
- Stand before the majestic Blue Nile Falls waterfall and visit Emperor Fasiladas’ atmospheric Epiphany Pool
- Immerse yourself in the local atmosphere, take in the culture and sample Ethiopia’s traditional cuisine
- Rock Art
- Historic Churches
We depart from London and travel overnight to Addis Ababa.
After checking in to our hotel and having lunch, we can either take time to relax and acclimatise, or take a local guided walk. As the capital of the African Union, Addis Ababa is as you might expect, the country’s commercial and cultural hub, but it is also a sprawling city of extraordinary contrasts, some of which we discover during our time here.
This morning we travel south to the Paleolithic site of Melka Kunture in the Upper Awash Valley, where finds dating back over 1.7 million years have been unearthed. This lies on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, and an extraordinary series of levels including butchery and occupation floors together with preserved footprints have been preserved. We continue to the 600 year-old rock-hewn church of Adadi Mariam with an extraordinary story. Buried in the 16th century to preserve it from the invasion of Emir Gragn of Harrar, it was uncovered and is now the most southern of the series of rock-cut churches. Then to the pre-historic burial complex at Tiya, noted for its remarkable stone stelae, many of which bear mysterious symbols, especially swords and knives. We return this evening to Addis Ababa.
An early morning flight with potential stunning views across the rugged highland landscape takes us to Lalibela, centre of the Zagwe dynasty of medieval kings. Here we visit the Cultural Centre and exhibits include ancient manuscripts, cultural artefacts and archaeological finds from local sites. After lunch we drive on to explore the Medieval cave monastery of Yimrehanne Kristos, with its preserved church and royal lodge of the 12th century. Still maintained by monks it remains a centre of worship and seasonal pilgrimage for modern Ethiopians.
A day in Lalibela to visit the iconic medieval rock-hewn churches and monasteries. The city is almost a work of art completely carved from the rock. The Zagwe ruled at a time when the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was impossible, so they built their own. The churches are organised in two groups- those of “Earthly Jerusalem” on the northwest side of the river Jordan, and those of “Heavenly Jerusalem” on the southeast side. These eleven monolithic structures are a testament to the skills of Ethiopia’s stone masons and were understandably declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. We visit a whole series connected by dark tunnels, wide plazas, and steep worn steps.
A day long drive today, as we cut through the Ethiopian countryside on dirt roads to Bahir Dar, modern capital of the Amhara region of Ethiopia. This area was the focal point of the medieval Christian empire, resulting in a wide variety of archaeological sites from the pivotal period in Ethiopian history. Bahir Dar is a lakeside city known for its wide avenues lined with palm trees, its variety of colourful flowers. It is located on the south shore of Lake Tana, which is the source of the Blue Nile. The largest lake in Ethiopia, it is situated at 1,800m above sea level, and is crossed today by both the modern craft and the traditional red boats of the region.
This morning, we travel across Lake Tana by boat, to explore some of the lake’s islands and churches. There are more than twenty churches scattered across the islands of the lake, the oldest dating to the 14th century, although some may have Pre-Christian origins. These are still fully functioning monasteries with staffs of priests, monks and novices. The interiors of the great circular wooden churches are lavishly painted with biblical stories and Ethiopia’s own pantheon of saints. After lunch, we make a visit to the spectacular Blue Nile Falls, which while not always in full flood, involves a walk over an ancient Portuguese bridge and then via a solid modern suspension bridge which takes us over the gorge of the falls.
We journey north today, passing Guzara Castle where the emperor Susenyos tried to introduce Catholicism, offering spectacular views of Lake Tana. Our destination is the imperial splendour of Gondar, the first capital city of the Ethiopian empire, in the foothills of the Simien Mountains. This afternoon, we visit Emperor Fasiladas’ Epiphany Pool, where the populace we reconverted to Orthodoxy, still used today for huge ceremonies of baptism and cleansing.
Our destination this morning is the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie, with its remarkable painted walls and ceiling. Originally built by Emperor Iaysu the Great it was renewed by Iaysu II in the 17th century and given a unique decorative cycle. After lunch, we visit the Imperial Palace complex at Gondar. The Palace consists of six castles, built by a series of emperors and empresses in the 17th and 18th centuries with help from Portuguese engineers. They include the palaces of Fasilidas, Iyasu the Great and the chancellery of Johannes.
Today, we fly to Aksum, a city founded as early as the 10th century BC and reputed as the one-time home to the Queen of Sheba. The empire of Aksum was one of the great civilisations of the ancient world, and contemporary of Rome and Byzantium lasting until the 7th century AD, and whose empire straddled the Red Sea. The city is most famous for its large stelae, including one solid granite stela 23m in height which still towers above the stelae field. These mark the tombs of Aksumite kings. We visit the Aksum Archaeological Museum, which hosts a wide range of artefacts dating to the Aksumite Empire that flourished until the 7th century AD. We also explore the Tombs of King Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, as well as the Mai Shum reservoir, also known as the Queen of Sheba’s bath. Later, we discover St. Mary of Zion Cathedral, the oldest church in Africa. According to long tradition, the Treasury houses the Ark of the Covenant.
Our day begins with a visit to the Lioness of Gobedra, a fascinating rock sculpture carved into the relief a few miles outside Aksum. We also see the neighbouring quarry, from which it is believed that the stone used to fashion the city’s renowned stelae was sourced. We then explore the palace complex at Dungur. This excavated site, of 16th century AD date, was undoubtedly the semi-fortified residence of one of the great nobles of Aksum though today it is better known as the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, even though she lived some 200 years previously.
This morning, we drive east from Aksum through the dramatic rock formations of Tigre to the site of Yeha. This was the power centre of a state that existed around 700BC and here we will see the Pre-Aksumite Saba‘an Temple of the Moon. Dating back to the 8th century BC, the Temple is believed to be the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia but still stands 12 metres high. Nearby lies a palace complex, and royal tombs. In the afternoon, we visit the Wukro Archaeological Museum, which opened in 2015 and is home to hundreds of artefacts, including many from the Saba’an site of Meqaber Ga’ewa.
On our final full day, we fly back to Addis Ababa, where we explore some more of the city. We shall visit Holy Trinity Cathedral, a modern but architecturally fascinating structure, home to the tomb of Haile Selassie and his wife. We venture to Mount Entoto, on the outskirts of Addis, for its breath-taking views panoramic views of the city. This is where emperor Menelik, who reunited Ethiopia in the 19th century built his Palace. Returning to the city, we explore both the National Museum of Ethiopia, best known for its fossilised remains of early hominids, including Lucy, the ancestor of us all and the Ethnological Museum, located within Haile Selassie’s former palace. As our tour draws to a close, we enjoy a farewell dinner this evening, with the opportunity to share each of our personal highlights of our time spent in Ethiopia. Late this evening we start our journey home.
We arrive in the UK.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach and boat
- Meals - Most meals included
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in programme; tips included
- Field Notes
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Many of our tours can be linked together to form longer programmes. We are happy to arrange connecting flights and hotels, allowing you to spend as long as you wish exploring the ancient world... See suggestions below: