It involved a couple of long days in the car but the scenery and ancient semi-monolithic churches between Aksum and Lalibela via Adigrat and Mekele were quite incredible.
From Aksum we drove through the Tigray region, with epic views for much of the way.
At one stop we spotted a chicken on top of our car. Turned out that it belonged to our driver, who had strapped it to the tyre, and was going to have it for Christmas dinner.
We stopped at Yeha, the centre of an ancient civilisation. The Great Temple initially seemed quite underwhelming until I learnt that is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Sub-Saharan Africa, dating from the 7th century BC, and that no mortar was used in the walls.
The neighbouring small museum had some attractive books made of velum, goat skin.
The Tigray region is home to around 120 semi-monolithic and cave churches built / carved between the 4th and 9th centuries. The reason for digging into the ground, rather than building on top of, was to align with Jesus’ death in a cave. About 85% of Tigray’s churches are on top of hills to be closer to God, as well making them harder for enemies to find and destroy. The often challenging approaches to them, involving narrow ledges and steep climbs, is deliberate to make people feel closer to God after their near death experience of reaching them!
Medhane Alem Adi Kesho was the first church we visited, and involved a short but quite steep ascent up a rocky path to reach. Built in the 6th century it was quite exquisite and different from any other church I’d visited.
Abraha we Atsbeha was built by King Ezana in the 4th century. He was the first Christian king of Ethiopia and apparently he is buried there. The church was damaged by an invading Jewish queen in the 10th century, and since repaired.
These lovely paintings date from the 18th century.
Mikael Amba also dates from the 4th century, and was reached by a long, winding drive up the mountainside, offering some good views.
The church was carved into the rock face, with incredible craftsmanship.
In between the churches we made a quick stop in Negash. This was home to the first mosque in Ethiopia, and Africa, for Muslims expelled from Mecca in the 7th century. The original mosque is long gone, but the current one has recently been renovated by Turkey.
We took the old road between Mekele and Lalibela, which seemed mostly under construction. The new road is faster and smoother, but the views aren’t as epic, and the villages it passes through are less remote.
We stopped above a photogenic village along a ridge, and immediately dozens of children from the village sprinted up the hill to beg money from us. Very sad, but understandable given the conditions in which they live, and based on past experience with tourists giving them money.
The best views of the day were from where we had an improvised but tasty picnic lunch bought from a supermarket that morning. The views in both directions from the ridge were pretty phenomenal.
We made it to Lalibela just as the sun set…