Ethiopia hands down is one of my favorite countries. One of the aspects I like most about a country is its cultural and natural diversity and Ethiopia with its mountains, deserts, Serengeti like plains, rock hewn churches, ancient Islamic walled city of Harar, and the Omo tribes has it all. The list goes on and on.  It is the only country in Africa to not be colonized with the exception of a brief foray from Mussolini’s Italy. Its independence from Europe, geographical isolation and strength to resist outside invaders has done well to keep it unique over the centuries. I have photos and stories about the Danakil Desert, and Omo Valley regions of Ethiopia on other pages but for this page I will focus on the highlands of the north where I went to visit the rock hewn churches of Lalibela and Tigray, the gelada baboons and Harar, the holiest city in Africa for Muslims which was forbidden to non-Muslims to visit not too long ago. These are some photos and stories of my various trips around the north of Ethiopia’s highlands.

 

My route in the highlands over various trips to Ethiopia minus the Danakil and Omo Valley

Gelada Baboons

November 2007/2017: Probably the easiest place to see the gelada baboons, the large mountain dwelling baboons that grace in groups ranging from a few dozen to hundreds strong., is in the Muger River Canyon Gorge about 3 hours’ drive from Addis Ababa. The Geladas are one of the largest species of baboon and have distinct red crescent heart shapes in their chest and have a rugged Chewbacca like appearance. They really are amazing to watch and the scenery where they live also tends to be dramatic and involves steep sweeping cliffs. I went to visit them on two different occasions via a taxi to see them in the Muger River Canyon Gorge, where they co-exist with villagers. Children do guard the crops and to keep them out they throw rocks at them but on the ost part people and baboon coexist peacefully.

 

Muger River Canyon Gorge with Waterfall

Family of gelada baboons on the cliff

Same family of geladas clinging to the steep cliffs to the top right. They clamore up and down the cliffs with ease

Friendly village kids near where I saw the gelada baboons

Lalibela

November 2007: After Petra in Jordan, Lalibela has some of the most incredible rock carved structures I have seen in my travels. There are 11 churches that King Lalibela had carved out of rock in the 11th or 12th centuries. According to legend when the king almost died from poisoning, he was transported to heaven in a dream where God and angels asked him to build the churches after Jerusalem. Lalibela at this time was the capitol of the Ethiopian kingdom of Abyssinia and it was extremely isolated by mountains from the rest of the world. Today Lalibela is sacred is no longer the capitol of Ethiopia. Instead, it is a small village where every year thousands of Coptic Christian Ethiopians make a religious pilgrimage to the rock hewn churches each carved out from one large block of stone to worship with the priests and nuns that still live and look after the churches.

My friend Evan and I flew from Addis Ababa to Lalibela to spend a night in Lalibela and visit the churches. We stayed in a cheap guest house near the churches. We happened to be in Lalibela during market day when thousands of people from all around the countryside came into town to trade their goods. It was a biblical looking scene with people wearing white robes, Coptic cross tattoos on their foreheads, and turbans.

I loved Lalibela. The churches were amazing. We watched as pilgrims came to worship with the priests in the churches and chanted in Amharic. There were some holes in the cliffs of the churches with skeletons of pilgrims that chose to be buried in the church. One dark tunnel that beneath one of the churches descends into darkness and for a few minutes you just have to feel your away around in darkness. No lights are allowed because the tunnel is meant to give the pilgrim an impression of what hell would feel like in eternal darkness.

Visiting the churched during the day was amazing but nothing compared to visiting these magical places at night under the pale of a full moon. The churches are not off limits at night and there are no guards. No one visits them at night, and they were completely open. We walked up to the edge of St, George church, the church shaped into a giant cross into the ground. We sat on the edge of the precipice overlooking the church and enjoyed one of those moments in travel that is so surreal that it you will never forget it.

 

Traditional homes of Lalibela

A woman in Lalibela with Coptic Christian tatoo on her forehead of a Coptic cross and neck tatoos

St. George Church carved out of the Ground

St. George Church carved out of the Ground

Skeletons of pilgrims who chose to be buried in open tombs in St. Johns Church

A nun who lives in Lalibela

Pilgrims with Coptic cross tatoos on their foreheads 

Ancient Islamic Walled City of Harar

December 2012: The ancient walled city of Harar, 4th holiest city in Islam, known as Africa’s mecca, was once a thriving trading center between Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and Arabia. It contains dozens of holy mosques and the people of Harar are mostly Muslim. Harar evolved into the Islamic cultural and religious capitol of Africa and to ward off the Christian threat of invasion from the rest of Ethiopia, the city was walled off in the 1500’s. All foreigners especially infidels were banned from entry and any caught trying to enter the city were punished with death. In 1855 British explorer Sir Richard Burton was the first known foreigner to enter the city in disguse as an Arab merchant. Richard Burton also entered the holy cities of mecca and medina in disguise ata time when foreigners were also not allowed entry.

I traveled to Harar overland from Hargeisa, Somaliland in a shared mini-van crammed full of other Ethiopian passengers. I was unlucky enough to be seated in the back seat and surrounded by people with no ability to move or open a window and the crushing feeling of claustrophobia was overwhelming. I eventually found a seat in the far back of the van where I could open the trunk and let fresh air in, and my feet dangle out the back of the van to find more space. 

Once in Harar, I found a family run guesthouse to stay in for two nights in the old city. Life in the old walled city has changed for little over time and I would spend hours walking its maze of alleyways observing the people’s way of life.  I photographed people at will and everyone I met was friendly and accepting of photos without asking for anything in return. 

Walled city of Harar

Inside the walled city of Harar

Boy in Harar Old City

Busy marketplace in Harar old City

Faces of Harar

Faces of Harar-Woman with Traditional face Tatoos

Faces of Harar

The highlight of Harar is the wild hyena feeding which happens a few times weekly after sunset just outside of the city’s walls. Locals from Harar have been feeding the hyenas for decades in the hopes that if they are well fed, they will avoid trying to catch livestock or worse children for food in the city. A local man who has earned the hyena’s trust overtime, receives a dead donkey from villagers and uses the meat from the donkey to feed the hyenas. The hyenas come from outside of town in the hills where they stay during the day and gather around the man to feed. They never threaten the man and even though there are records of hyenas killing and consuming humans and they certainly are big enough to do so, they seem to respect the boundaries between hyena and human. Tourists pay the hyena man a small fee for the privilege of feeding the hyenas and are given the option to even feed them from their mouth, a risk I wasn’t willing to take given the huge size of the teeth of a hyena.

Dead donkey donated by a villager to be used for meat to feed hyenas

Hyena man feeding hyenas from his mouth

Me feeding hyenas 

From Harar I took a shared taxi to Dira Dawa and flew Ethiopian Airlines via Addis to Mekele, capitol of the Tigrayan region of northern Ethiopia.

Climbing Up a Cliff to a Tigryan Cave Church

My main reason for flying to Mekelle was that it was a launching site to the Danakil Desert. But since I was there, I decided to visit one of the most unique churches I have ever been to, Abuna Yemata. Abuna Yemata is a Christian church carved out of the cliffside near the top of a mountain that is almost 9000′ tall. The church dates back to the 500’s and has been used by villagers and pilgrims for worship since. It is unique because there is no infrastructure to reach it and the getting the getting there part isn’t for the faint of heart and could potentially be deadly. I hired a vehicle and guide to visit. The village gateway to the cave church is a few hours from Mekelle but is a fascinating drive through rural Tigray, where everyone lives a very traditional rural life wearing white robes and adorned with face tattoos of crosses. The people and children were a lot of fun to photograph and everyone I met was happy to be photographed.

 

Abuna Yemata cave Church Located Near the Top of the mountain In the photo I had to Climb with a Priest

Village Scene

Village Scene

Kids gathered around me in the village laughing and just being kids

Village Scene

Village Scene

Village Scene

When I first arrived in the village, a procession of villagers was descending from the mountaintop. I learned that there was a funeral and the ceremony just ended. Out of respect I waited to climb to the church until after the funeral was over. A village Coptic priest and a few other monks went with me to the church, and I followed them up a 100′ cliff straight up the rock, the equivalent to rock climbing without a rope. One wrong move would result in falling to death. The priest advised me where to put my feet and hand in the cliff. When I asked the priest if anyone had died climbing the cliff, his response was as long as your heart is pure before God you will be protected.

Once at the top of the cliff, we continued to climb along a narrow-unprotected rock ledge with a 1000′ drop off. We also had to cross a small log bridge hundreds of feet high that appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Then along the side of the cliff overlooking a huge canyon, the small entrance into the mountainside appeared where the church was located. The church was a series of small rooms carved out of the mountainside with painted Christian murals inside and Christian artifacts used for worship. The priest showed me the church and we rested inside for an hour.

 

Climbing up a 100′ cliff to Abuna Yemata

Coptic Priest

Climbing Steep Ledge to enter Abuna Yemata

Following the priest into Abuna Yemata

Entrance of Abuna Yemata on a cliff dropping thousands of feet below

Abuna Yemata

Abuna Yemata

Abuna Yemata

Abuna Yemata Coptic Priest

Abuna Yemata

After descending from Abuna Yemeta, the priest invited to the monk’s quarters in a small dark, dingy church with large quantities of incense smoke, where they had made homemade beer and conducted Coptic prayers in the Tigrayan language. I was offered some of the home-made alcohol and I drank it with the monks, despite its gritty soil like taste, I was able to drink it and hoped that I wouldn’t regret it later.  Since the monks were already praying, I asked the monks if I could also lead them in prayer and they enthusiastically agreed. My guide translated form while I prayed for them and their village. it was a unique spiritually bonding experience I will never forget. Ten together we joined in song before I departed back to Mekelle for the night before departing to the Danakil the next morning.

 

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