With the Festive Season in full swing, we can often ignore that there are other ways to spend this special time than cuddled around the Christmas tree with our loved ones. If you’re brave enough, however, then the month of December can also be the perfect time to go on an adventure into the unknown, giving the chance to experience a truly different and incredibly spiritual far-away country, such as Ethiopia.
Seldom at the top of travel bucket lists, Ethiopia’s renowned for its reputation as the cradle of humankind. The country has received such a reputation as a result of the discovery of upright-walking hominid fossils that have been dated back to as far as 3.5-million years, as well as stone tools that date back to 2.4-million years.
Despite these incredibly impressive and important discoveries, Ethiopia also boasts a whole host of other “claims to fame” that make it a truly spectacular destination for tourists at this time of year. These attractions include the rocky churches of Lalibela, the mysterious granite obelisks of Axum, and the church of St. Mary of Zion.
The Kingdom of Axum
Dated to the middle of the 2nd century BC, there is very little known about Axum, the kingdom that controlled most of present-day Ethiopia. The ruler of the kingdom held regular commercial contact with the Byzantine, Persian, Green and Egyptian empires, allowing it to develop great stature and a grand culture, the memories of which are etched into the very ruins that are left behind.
Most notable of all the ruins are the great granite obelisks, also called Stelae, which are believed to be the tallest single pieces of stone that were ever erected in the ancient world. How old they are and what they’re purpose was remain complete mysteries to us in the modern world, but their ability to command respect from all who encounter them still remains.
St. Mary of Zion
Set a few hundred meters from the towering obelisks of the kingdom of Axum, tourists will encounter a walled compound that houses two churches. Both dedicated to St. Mary of Zion, the foundational remains of an ancient church lies between the two and hints at a heavily guarded treasury that is said to have held the holy Arc of the Covenant.
The church of St. Mary of Zion was built in 372 A.D. and is the earliest example of a sub-Saharan Christian church. Visited by Portuguese explorer, Francisco Alvarez in the early 1520’s, he wrote of the church: “This noble church has a very large circuit, paved with flagstones, likes gravestones, and it has a large enclosure, and is surrounded by another large enclosure like the wall of a large town or city.”
When it comes to the grandeur of the church, given its isolation in such a remote location, we can only guess. However, if you look at the kingdom of Axum nearby, you can begin to imagine an immensely rich king, who, as the constructor of a powerful empire, built the church, perhaps in honour of the fabled relic that it housed, the Holy Arc of the Covenant.
The Rocky Churches of Lalibela
Axum, despite its riches and power, began to decline in the early decades of the 7th century. This was a result of the rise and expansion of the Muslim Arabs throughout the Middle East. While little is known of what became of the kingdom between the 8th and 11th centuries, shortly after the Ethiopian state reappeared as the Christian Zagwe dynasty that was ruled over by 11 kings.
The most noteworthy of the 11 rulers was King Lalibela, who reigned from 1167 to 1207. According to legend, at the king’s birth, a cloud of bees surrounded him. His mother believed that the bees represented the soldiers who would one day serve her son, prompting her choice in his name, Lalibela, which means “the bees recognise his sovereignty.”
After an attempted poisoning by his jealous brother, Lalibela awoke with the belief that he need not fear for his life or sovereignty, for God had chosen him to build his churches. Lalibela travelled to the city of Roha and began the construction of 12 extraordinary churches over the period of 25 years. The city’s name was changed to Lalibela years later in honour of the King.
Tourists to Ethiopia can still visit the churches of Lalibela, which are arguably some of the most extraordinary creations in the history of mankind. Each one of the churches was sculpted directly from the living bedrock of the earth (a feat that took the already existing art form to a new level). They are still used as places of worship to this day and can be seen regularly filled with pilgrims, who choose to worship with the mummies of pious monks and rich biblical murals around them.
Ethiopia Safaris – If you’d prefer to spend the Festive Season doing something different, a trip to Ethiopia is an experience that will not only immerse you into the depths of thousands of years of a rich and enthralling history, but also overwhelm your senses with a spirituality that is quite unlike anywhere else on earth.