An Ethiopian Journal

"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"

Posts Tagged ‘Tourism

Ethiopia’s wealth of surprises

leave a comment »


February 27th 2014, By Cheong Kamei

The East African country may not be on everyone’s must-visit travel list, but it has a lot to offer

The first time I learnt about Ethiopia was when I watched the video to We Are The World, as images of starving African children with distended bellies flashed across the television screen. And it seems that Ethiopia is still haunted by those powerful images of famine and poverty. The country isn’t exactly on everyone’s must-visit vacation list. To top it off, the costly cocktail of vaccinations I needed — it’s compulsory to be vaccinated against yellow fever, and my doctor advised me to get the meningococcal vaccine and malaria pills — didn’t help put my mind at ease. At first.

As I later found out, giving the country a miss would be a huge pity. Ethiopia is eager to exorcise the ghosts of its past. It wants to show off its beautiful scenery, otherworldly architecture and gracious people. All you need to do is be there.


After a 13-hour red-eye flight from Singapore to capital city Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines, it took another two hours by car to get to resort town and popular day-trip destination Debre Zeit, but it was worth the squeeze through the morning traffic.

Sitting at the restaurant of the Kuriftu Resort And Spa, overlooking Lake Kuriftu, watching people kayak and pelicans swim by, I couldn’t help but feel that Debre Zeit is every bit as gorgeous as vacation hot spots anywhere else in the world. The lush greenery, crater lakes and abundant bird-life are testament to the country’s natural beauty, while the luxurious resort I was at reflected Ethiopia’s current tourist boom.

The temperature at Debre Zeit hovers around the mid-20s (that’s Celsius) throughout the year and the tranquil scene was lulling me to sleep when I caught a whiff of a uniquely heady spice. It was berbere, an indigenous and bright red chilli and spice mix that’s traditionally used in dishes, from steak tartar to lentils and wats (slow-cooked stews). Sweet, fiery and addictively aromatic, it’s easy to see Singaporeans falling in love with it. The ubiquitous staple of Ethiopia, injera, on the other hand, takes some getting used to. This flatbread, made from a grain called teff, is light grey in colour and has a slightly spongy texture — similar to a peanut pancake — and a distinctly sour taste.


My next stop was the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lalibela. “Awe-inspiring” does not come close to describing how impressive Lalibela’s 11 cave churches from the 13th-century are. Built by King Lalibela to be Africa’s alternative to Jerusalem, the churches were not erected from the ground up. Instead, the main structure of each church — complete with windows, door and drainage systems — were painstakingly carved out of living rock.

Nobody knows how exactly it was done, although some scholars speculate it took about 24 years to complete. Seeing the churches, in particular Bete Giyorgis, which is built in the shape of a cross, or Bet Medhane Alem, the world’s largest monolithic church that’s 11.5m deep and almost 34m long, you can understand why the legend goes that angels helped complete this architectural marvel.

It was close to Christmas when I was at Lalibela (in the Ethiopian calendar, it falls on Jan 7), and tens of thousands were making their pilgrimage to this spot. Some perched on rocks to read their Bibles, while others prayed, kissed the crosses that were held by priests or broke down at the sight of the churches. At one church, I witnessed dozens of people tirelessly swaying to the beat of the drummers in their company and chanting hymns in an almost trance-like manner. At every corner were people who had walked for miles — sometimes barefoot — to Lalibela to renew, restore or celebrate their faith. The air of reverence was so intense, it felt intrusive to take photos — it was hard not to feel moved.


A 30-minute flight away from Lalibela is Gondar, Africa’s Camelot, and Ethiopia’s royal and ancient historical city. Our first stop was Fasil Ghebbi, a complex of 17th- and 18th-century castles that marked Ethiopia’s first permanent imperial residence. Earthquakes and bombings during World War II damaged some of the buildings, but the Fasilides Castle is by far the best preserved. It was fascinating to hear about Ethiopia’s rich history, but what I really appreciated was how glaringly tourist-free this UNESCO World Heritage Site was. With plenty of space and time to leisurely stroll through the complex, and blue, open skies, Fasil Ghebbi felt almost romantic.

Separate from the complex of castles is Fasilides Bath. The original use of the 50m-long and 30m-wide bath is not known for sure, but it’s now filled with water every Jan 19 to celebrate Timkat, the Orthodox Christian celebration of the baptism of Jesus.

From Gondar, it is a three-hour bus ride to the Simien Mountains, 3,000m above sea level. Its stirring skyline of jagged mountain peaks, sharp gorges and the undulating plateau have drawn comparisons with the Grand Canyon in the United States. Unlike the Grand Canyon though, the only activities offered at Simien Mountain National Park are trekking and cycling. As I was feeling lethargic from the high altitude, trekking seemed like an ideal way to start the day. The pace and trail were manageable and the guide showed us the best spots to take in — and get great photos of — the mountain scenery and rare animals such as Gelada baboons.

It’s amazing how much Ethiopia has to offer tourism-wise. In a week, I’d received a five-star spa treatment at Debre Zeit, experienced a spiritual awakening at Lalibela and marvelled at Ethiopia’s regal past at Gondar. And I’d only seen a teeny part of this country — it’s five times the size of Britain, by the way. And I’m already thinking of returning. I’d love to see national parks such as the Omo National Park (one of the most underrated wildlife sanctuaries in East Africa) or take in the surreal beauty of Sof Omar Cave. Now all I need to do is to get used to eating injera.

Written by Tseday

March 16, 2014 at 11:07 am

“Everybody comes from Africa. Visit Ethiopia.” H.E. Dr. Tedros

leave a comment »

Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia promoting Ethiopia’s history and progress to +60,000 people in New York City at the 2013 Global Citizen Festival.

Written by Tseday

November 8, 2013 at 7:47 pm

Ethiopia’s Booming Hotel Industry

leave a comment »

May 17, 2013, by Kurt Davis Jr.

VENTURES AFRICA – The Sheraton Hotel is doing another good day of business on a Monday morning. The hotel, run by Sheik Mohammed Ali Al-Amoud, is Ethiopia’s most recognized hotel. It fills with business travelers from London and diplomats from all over Africa. It also offers similar services and accommodations expected from any major hotel in America or Europe. And for those who find the prices of the bigger international brands too expensive, Jupiter International Hotels, run by a young Ethiopian expat Benyam Bisrat, offers a quality local alternative.

The central parts—Kazanchis and Bole—of Addis Ababa resemble a construction site. New malls and hotels are being erected throughout these areas. These new constructions are mostly locally funded. Jupiter Hotels, as one of those locally funded constructions, has only been running for 5 years. In that time, the company has boosted occupancy rates above 80 percent to match international brands in the market.

Until recently, schmoozing with businessmen of all stripes and African diplomats involved sitting by the bar in the Hilton or lingering around the Sheraton lounge area. During the last African Union meeting, the lobby of the Jupiter Hotel in Kazanchis jammed softly with local Ethiopian jazz crowded out by Africa’s numerous local languages and the usual assortment of romance languages spoken on the continent.

This type of growth is usually the result of growing demand and stalled supply. But the supply of hotel beds in Addis has tripled in the last three years to around 6,000 hotel beds. Competition in this market could potentially push the number over 10,000 hotel beds in the next few years. Jupiter International Hotels will actively expand during this time to more than 1,000 hotel beds to capture approximately ten percent of the market, says Mr. Bisrat, who is also vice president of the Hotel Association of Ethiopia. International brands, including the Marriot, will also help the local hotel industry to reach that number.

Hotel groups are expanding in this capital because the amount of diplomats and corporate clients are growing. Yearly tourism, at approximately 500,000 tourists in Ethiopia, still has a ways to go before it matches other emerging African economies. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has stated its aspirations to make Ethiopia a top five tourist destination in Africa by 2020.

During this rapid growth phase, quality service-oriented business will win out at the end of the day, say Mr. Bisrat, or customers will walk out. He believes Jupiter International Hotels is positioned as top competitor in this space, especially as it plans to develop a value hotel chain. A hot shower, good mattress, and strong internet goes a long way to make a quality value hotel. But Jupiter International Hotels plans to also add a yoga studio, art gallery, and technological add-ons, including iPod docking stations and quality data and voice streaming capabilities in the rooms.

So many foreigners are coming now and more and more are not Ethiopian Diaspora, says Dawit, a local Ethiopian tourist operator. A sense of change has descended upon the country. Gone are filmmakers for aid videos on famine. Rather conference facilities and lobbies bustle with the growing presence of investors and government officials. Hotel groups, says Mr. Bisrat, still have a long way to go to meet the needs of a growing business and diplomatic hub. As Ethiopian Airlines expands its routes to meet the geographically diversifying clientele of the Ethiopia, expect the hotel industry to do the same.

Written by Tseday

May 17, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Discover Ethiopia, Birthplace of Humanity

leave a comment »

“The Ethiopians were regarded by the Greeks as the best people in the world. Homer speaks of them in the Iliad as the ‘blameless Ethiopians’. He claims that they were visited by Zeus, the king of the gods, by the goddess Iris, who travelled to their country to participate in their sacrificial rites, and by Poseidon, the sea god, who ‘lingered delighted’ at their feasts. This theme was taken up, in the first century BC, by Diodorus of Sicily, who asserted that the gods Hercules and Bacchus were both ‘awed by the piety’ of the Ethiopians, whose sacrifices, he claims, were the most acceptable to the gods.”

Passage from ‘The Ethiopians, A History’ by Richard Pankhurst 

Written by Tseday

June 24, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Trip to Ethiopia offers lessons in faith

leave a comment »


By Lee Witting | February 14, 2009


I’ve just come back from Ethiopia, where a group of us who are students at Bangor Theological Seminary went to visit ancient churches and monasteries. Along the way, I found myself caught up not so much by the ancient art and architecture, but by the living faith of a people so poor, I can only compare them to the Indians portrayed in the recent movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” Yes, it’s that bad.

And yet … And yet, the faith of this predominantly Christian nation is powerfully moving. We were there during Timkat, the most sacred time of the year. It’s a festival during which the faithful parade their churches’ replicas of the Holy of Holies through the streets of the towns, while they sing and pray and dance.

What is their Holy of Holies? It’s nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant — a box, the Bible tells us, which contains the power of God. Ethiopians believe a story told in a 13th century text, the Kebra Nagast, that the Ark of the Covenant came to Ethiopia approximately 3,000 years ago, when Prince Menelik — son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — brought it from Jerusalem.

Today, the Ethiopians claim, it resides in a special building in the ancient city of Axum, where only one caretaker has access to the sacred box — a box of acacia wood, layered in gold, which contains the sacred tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments.

In many ways, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church represents Christianity the way it was meant to be. Ethiopians see themselves as the heirs of Judaism, with bloodlines back to Solomon, and with God’s blessing of the ark, the “Mercy Seat” where Moses encountered God.

The ark was the main reason for building Solomon’s Temple, but if the Ethiopian story is true, the ark was carried away about 400 years before the temple’s destruction in 587 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers swept out of Babylon to conquer Jerusalem.

Jews, on the other hand, would look to Second Maccabees, Chapter 2, which reports that the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave on Mount Nebo, to keep it from Nebuchadnezzar. Second Maccabees quotes Jeremiah as saying, “The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them his mercy. Then the Lord will bring these things once more to light.” Nevertheless, from that date forward, the question has been asked again and again — where is the Ark of the Covenant?

If what the Ethiopians believe is true, God’s blessing moved to Ethiopia, and the ark has been protected and preserved by them ever since. Moreover, Ethiopian legend tells of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus coming to Axum during their escape to Egypt, when Herod was attempting to murder the holy child.

Unlike the Western church, where Christians separated themselves from their Jewish roots, Ethiopians saw Jesus as the Messiah intended to fulfill Torah prophecy. Their orthodoxy blends Jewish and Christian traditions into one continuous faith, which is something we failed to achieve in Jerusalem and the West.

The consequences of that failure were enormous, especially since the Koran suggests Muhammad was influenced by the contradictions of Christians and Jews; he thought it necessary to found a third faith, based upon his own take on Hebrew scripture. The divisions, the killings, and the ongoing struggles between these three scripturally related faiths might have been avoided had the Judeo-Christian faith evolved throughout the world as it did in Ethiopia.

There are also stories that the mysterious Knights Templar, who occupied the Temple Mount and excavated areas in search of the lost ark, then may have traveled to Ethiopia to try to get their hands on it. And while they were there, the Templars may have had a hand in constructing the famous stone churches of Lalibela — churches, chiseled out of solid rock, that could well qualify as the Eighth Wonder of the World. On flat ledges of solid rock, the builders first carved out a 50-foot-deep trench around a block of solid stone. Then they carved a doorway, and proceeded to chisel out the entire interior of each spacious church, with walls, roof and decorated columns all sculpted from the solid stone. Amazing.

And speaking of the Templars, Ethiopian faith gets right what recent theories about the grail legend and Mary Magdalene got wrong. I’ve written before about the confusion caused by Dan Brown’s muddled novel, “The da Vinci Code,” in which he claims the Magdalene’s womb was the Holy Grail. The “grail” was not a cup, not a womb, but a stone. In fact, the Ark of the Covenant, containing the sacred stones, was the gral (stone) the Templars sought. There is power in the ark and its contents, and that’s what the Templars were after.

Incidentally, since the Middle Ages, Jesus’ mother, Mary, has been the one likened to the ark. For like the ark, Mary carried the fire of God within her, and was not consumed by it.

For anyone who’d like to learn more about the Ark of the Covenant, and Ethiopia’s claim to its ownership, I would recommend Graham Hancock’s well-researched speculations in his book, The Sign and the Seal. It reads like a detective story, as Hancock describes being drawn into the ancient legends, and evidence, concerning the Queen of Sheba, the Templars, the Ark of the Covenant and the other sacred mysteries of Ethiopia.

Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

Written by Tseday

February 26, 2009 at 5:35 pm