Ethiopia: Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Two Days.

When most people think of Ethiopia, I would bet my herd of camels they don’t imagine 16th century castles. On the second day of our journey, we visited Gondar, nicknamed the “Camelot of Africa”. The Solomonic Emperors of the 16th century began to settle in the Lake Tana region of Ethiopia, and in 1636 Emporer Fasilidas founded the city of Gondar.

Wait a minute, Kim, you’re saying. Solomon kings? I’m confused, you’re saying. Also, why was your last post titled, “Iron Like A Lion In Zion”? What’s with all these references? You were in Africa, right? What’s the connection?

I need to clear the air on this whole Solomon/Zion thing, so you can fathom how rich Ethiopia’s history truly is. The Solomonic dynasty are the Ethiopian kings beginning from 950 BC who believe they are descendants of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. King Menelik I was their son, who was one of the first rulers of Ethiopia. On the Ethiopian flag there used to be the Lion of Judah as Solomon was of the tribe of Judah. Therefore, the Ethiopian emperors were descendants of this tribe. This line of emperors continued all the way until Emperor Haile Selassi was deposed in 1974. The lion is still on Ethiopian coins, paper bills, stamps, and t-shirts everywhere. In the Rastafarian belief, the Lion of Judah  as mentioned in the Book of Revelations represents Emperor Haile Selassi. Bob Marley’s song, “Iron Lion Zion” is therefore highly symbolic: the “Lion in Zion” is the Emporer Haile Selassi and Zion is Ethiopia, the Rastafarian homeland. You see, Ethiopia is the only African country never to be colonized. The Rastafarians found this particularly inspiring and believe Haile Selassi  is the messiah from the Bible, God incarnate. In Jamaica in the 1930’s, the Jamacians looked upon him and his country as the ones who would bring peace, happiness, and prosperity. Haile Selassi was actually born with the name “Tafari”, and “Ras” means head (like king). When he became emperor his name naturally became Ras Tafari. Sound familiar? His name Haile Selassi was given to him at his infant baptism; all Ethiopians have two names, one in Ge’ez and one given to them at their baptism. So, there you have it. Next time you crank up some Bob Marley, or any reggae for that matter, listen for lines that reference Ethiopian history – the roots of the Rastafarian movement. Fascinating stuff!

So, Gondar is the site of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. King Fasilidas built a massive castle complex that was added to and built upon from the early 1600’s through the late 1700’s. There are over twenty palaces and royal buildings and thirty churches within the area.

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First we went to King Fasilidas royal baths.  This was outside the city, and the king used it as his weekend getaway.  Look at those magnificent trees!

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We couldn’t get over these trees.

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Here is Sean at the royal baths outside the city. The area is now used for Timkat, or Epiphany to commemorate Jesus’ baptism in the River of Jordan. They fill the baths up with water during Epiphany, and thousands of people come from around the country, and the world, to have their religious vows renewed. IMG_5053

One of the guard walls around the royal baths, and more great trees.IMG_5067

The sign at the entrance to the baths. Notice the Amharic script at the top, this is the language of Ethiopia. I’m not quite sure what it means by “Ethio-Norwegian Project”, but everything was really well restored and in great condition!

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The next place we went to was Emporer Fasilidas’ Castle Complex (known mainly as Fasil Ghebbi). It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. When we arrived, it was difficult to not pretend we were in Camelot! There were over twenty castles that we could wander in and out of. We clambered up and down the staircases, gave mock speeches from the balconies, and held imaginary feasts in the banquet halls. It was really, really unique. We felt like we were in another time! They were all built between the 17th and 18th centuries, and you can see nuances of Nubain, Arab, and Baroque styles.

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Here I am in front of Emporer Fasilidas’ library, or archive. This was my favorite building of the complex; I couldn’t help remembering The Name of The Rose, a fascinating novel by Umberto Eco about murders at a monastery. (It was later made into a film starring Sean Connery. Both the film and the novel are exceptional!)

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Another photo of me in front of the archive. Look at that great tower! Can’t you imagine someone flipping through yellowed pages by candlelight, contemplating the meaning of life?

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The view from a castle balcony. It was amazing you could climb around the place!

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After all that exploring, it was time to take a break. What to have? Beyaynetu, of course.

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The place we had lunch was an Ethiopian cultural restaurant. We listened to traditional music and watched fresh coffee being roasted. The two people above are, of course, in traditional dress. Looking back, I wish I had gotten a dress like that for myself!

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After lunch we visited Debre Berhan Selassie church. Built by Emporer Iyasu II in the 17th century, it is one of the most religiously significant churches in Ethiopia. It is one of few churches that has remained untouched (or unsacked) since it’s origin. All of the artwork on the inside is original. The paintings stretched from floor to ceiling. It was really spectacular.

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Demiss, our driver, is a deacon, so he was showing us how the drumming works during chanting. He really was a fount of knowledge!


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The most famous part of Debre Berhan Selassie is the ceiling. There are hundreds of angels painted on the ceiling, it is really a sight to behold.

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After we left the church, Abby and Kyle went back to the b&b to relax, but Sean and I were dying to get some evening photography done at the castle complex. When we got there, around 6pm, the lighting was amazing. Here is Sean, king of the castle!

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We had the whole place to ourselves. It was magical!

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We kicked off our evening at the Dashen brewery. All of the Dashen beer that is brewed for Ethiopia is crafted at the Dashen brewery in Gonder. It was the freshest beer I’ve tasted in years! Check out the 3 liter “beer tube”—we certainly had our fill of good drinks, good laughs, and great conversation. Demiss, our driver, is in the black t-shirt. The other guy is a friend of ours, his name is Melaku. We met him through Demiss and he helped us arrange a few of the tours we did on our trip. He was so fun to talk to! That is a night that will remain in my memory for a long time.

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After Gonder we made our way up to the Simien Mountains, the culminating activity of our trip. The Simien Mountains are also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I had seen jaw-dropping photos of them before we arrived. We were not disappointed!

They are at an incredibly high elevation; the tallest peak, Ras Dashen, is at 13,650 feet! We had to be careful with the altitude, too. We were doing a lot of hiking and didn’t want to get sick. Unfortunately, after summitting two mountains and hiking fourteen hours in two days, the elevation caught up to Sean and he had a rough night. More on that later, though. For now, check out these fantastic baboons!

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Here I am at the beginning of our first hike. We did a two-night backpacking trip; the first day we set out from Sankaber camp and hiked to Geech (Gitch). The second day we hiked from Geech to Chennek, summitting Imet Gogo and Inatye along the way. The mountains were formed by volcanic activity and years of erosion. All of our hiking was over 12,000 feet elevation. Don’t worry, I doused myself in sunscreen and wore my scarf as a head-covering most of the trip!

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Trekking through the lush countryside…

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A community of Gelada Baboons.

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Great views as the sun got lower in the sky… Our first day’s hike was difficult as we shot up to 10,000 feet and hiked for six hours. Our total elevation gain for this day was 1,200′ as the Gitch campsite was at 10,800′.

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Heading across the hills on the way to our campsite.

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Rest stop near some pools. The trail mix we packed was manna to our growling stomachs!

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Even though it’s over 10,000 feet and in a national park, the hillsides are dotted with villages here and there. It was a surreal experience to be trekking in the “wilderness” and the come upon people going about their daily lives!

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As we arrived at our campsite, the sun was just perfect. I fell in love with these gorgeous trees.

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Okay, I have to confess. It wasn’t true “backpacking”. We hired a chef, a guide, a scout, and mules to bring our things to the camp. All we hiked with were day packs. We never saw the mules, I think they took another trail to get to the camps. It was such a luxury to huddle up with fresh roasted coffee and fresh popped popcorn (an Ethiopian tradition) after a long day of hiking! The “hut” I am in is a steel-sided hut the park service erects for campers. Demiss even came along! He drove the van as far as he could and then hiked another route to get to the campsite. We really loved hanging out with him. Did I mention I miss him? 🙂

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Our first course of the meal, homemade soup.

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A candlelit dinner, a roaring fire, what more could you ask for? I don’t want to hike any other way again!

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Our chef found out that Abby and I were addicted to injera and shuro, so in ADDITION to spaghetti, soup, and vegetables he also made Ethiopian food! We were beyond stuffed. All of these delicacies so high up in the mountains!

There you have it, folks. All of the photos in this post were taken in the course of two days. Can you believe it?

Next time I will post our two summits in the mountains, the rest of our trekking adventure, and our play-date with baboons.

(P.S. Ethiopian airlines has direct flights from many corners of the globe, and has great rates!)

See you next time, and as they say in Amharic, “amasaganalo” for reading my blog!

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One thought on “Ethiopia: Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Two Days.

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