Rock-hewn churches, hikes up to hilltop monasteries, the beautiful Gheralta mountains and the ancient Stelae obelisks and ruins in Axum, one of Ethiopia's former capitals... there's lots to see in the northern highlands of Tigrai.
Not recommended during the rainy season
Axum was one of the first capitals of Ethiopia, the centre of the Axumite dynasty. Its heyday was from 150BC to 850AD. The Axumite empire shows the strong influence of the Greeks and Persians, their main trading partners. This city of ruined palaces and mysterious obelisks is also home to the somewhat dubious stories of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopians still believe that the Arc of the Covenant is in Axum guarded by a holy priest. This priest is the only person who is allowed to see the Arc. And he guards it until his death.
Axum is not as overtly impressive as the other Ethiopian cultural icons such as Lalibela and Gondar. But those with a keen interest in history will appreciate its sites and legends. The main sites are the obelisks and the churches of Maryam Tsion. But what’s more fascinating was the wholly unexpected little church museum. Inside is a vast wealth of treasure including the coronation crowns of ancient kings, ornate robes lined with jewels and Axum crosses.
The nearby Gheralta mountains are also a drawcard. En route is the ancient and remarkably well-preserved Yeha temple from the 4th century BC.
The main attractions of this beautiful area are the ancient rock-hewn churches in the Tigrai mountains. These churches have been built into the sandstone rock, some as old as the 4th century, when Christianity first came to Ethiopia. (This area makes a great introduction to Ethiopia as it is home to its earliest churches.)
If you’re looking for some adventure, you can hike up to one of the monasteries perched on the mountain tops. Depending on the monastery, this could be a just a steep walk, or a tricky section of rock scrambling. Or even been hauled up a rope by some strong-armed monks. A knowledgeable local guide is essential. (Note that this final monastery is not open to women!)
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