Islam’s fourth holiest city covers just a single square kilometre in eastern Ethiopia, a walled citadel with over 80 mosques and 360 labyrinthine alleyways dating back up to a thousand years. The elegant Islamic architecture, colourful robes and ancient markets seemed to have altered little since then. One of Harar’s main draws is the feeding of the hyenas – a nightly ritual which deters the predators from attacking livestock.
Africa’s Great Rift Valley rips a great scar through the middle of Ethiopia, where lakes have bubbled up and forests have sprung from the ground. The warmth and humidity are a welcome break from the harsh highlands, and journeys up and down the valley reveal a variety of cultures and traditions, where life revolves around market days, traditional ceremonies, farming and weaving – all scarcely touched by tourism.
It is possible to see lion, buffalo, hippo and zebra in Ethiopia – but those after a traditional East African safari experience will be disappointed. What Ethiopia does best is uniqueness – and this extends to its fauna. Gelada baboons, Ethiopian wolves, mountain nyalas and even the comical, big-headed mole rat can all be found roaming the isolated highlands – rare, fascinating and totally unique to Ethiopia.
Local musicians and influences from the diaspora have created a strangely seductive blend of African rhythms, Middle Eastern melodies and traditional Ethiopian folk sounds fused with jazz – the krar being the most distinctive instrument. You’ll hear plenty of it on the car radio – but if you can get to a cultural show in Addis, you’ll see the madly energetic dance that accompanies it.
These 11 rock-hewn churches – up to 13m high – were created in the 13th century, and are the closest thing Ethiopia has to a “big” tourist attraction. They were freed entirely from the rock with just hammers and chisels – complete with elaborate windows, columns and roofs. Lalibela remains very much a living cultural site; 1,000 of its 10,000 residents are priests, and the churches are the focal points for ceremonies, vigils and processions.
The jagged peaks and deep gorges of this mist-shrouded national park are home to Ethiopia’s most striking wildlife: gelada baboons, Walia ibex and lammergeyer vultures. Millions of years of erosion has created a jaw-dropping landscape, recognised by UNESCO. Surreal Afro-Alpine cling to the steep slopes, over 3,600m high. Single or multi-day treks with local guides offer an insight into life on the “roof of Africa”.
A trip to the Omo Valley is to discover the Africa of old, of warrior tribes and pastoralists, or body adornments and blood-drinking hunters. But to go beyond the tourist shows, stay in a community tukul in Konso or Dorze, visit the colourful markets of the north, join a frankincense-scented coffee ceremony and trek the highlands with a village guide.
Using a local guide doesn’t just mean someone from Ethiopia; in a country with dozens of languages, cultural traditions, varied religions and local festivals, you really need a new guide in each place you visit. In Lalibela, local guides know the history of the churches by heart, while in the Omo Valley they can chat to the tribes to avoid cultural conflicts and encourage interaction.
Africa’s highest capital is a largely modern city – but not in a good way. It is filled with blocky, half-finished buildings, chaotic traffic and the sounds of construction. If you’re passing through, though, don’t despair; on arrival, the National Museum provides a fantastic historical introduction to Ethiopia – dating back 3.2 million years, and before departure the Merkato and craft stalls are great places to spend your last birr.
Search for images of the Blue Nile Falls, and you’ll see a stunning, smaller version of cascading greats such as Victoria Falls or Iguazu. So visitors to the falls today may be confused to encounter a muddy trickle. The damming of the river for a hydroelectric plant now cuts off the flow most days; rumour has it that it’s left to flow on weekends, but this doesn’t seem reliable.
1984-85 saw one of the worst famines in Ethiopian history, and news footage shocked the world. But while money raised through initiatives such as Band Aid helped Ethiopians, 30 years on the lingering images – and lyrics – don’t. Ethiopia is huge, most of it is not desert, and “rain and rivers” do, actually, flow across its valleys, hills and forests. Ethiopians would love the rest of the world to finally realise this.
The tribes of the Omo Valley are fascinating, but interacting with the daily tide of visitors is, for them a day job. You can’t expect to stay in a local village or join a local festivity any more than you would in any other country – these people have livestock to tend to and lives to lead, and for the most part, they’d like to keep some aspects of their lives private from camera-wielding tourists.
Amharic is fiendish. “Thank you” is pronounced “ammasay-ge-ne-lo”. If that’s too much to remember, “ishi” – meaning “ok” can also be an informal “thanks”.