Lalibela is a popular destination for spiritual pilgrims. // © 2014 Shutterstock/Galyna Andrushko
According to the Quran and the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba wowed King Solomon’s court with her unparalleled bounty of gold and spices. After a brief sojourn, she returned south, disappearing from the pages of history. But Ethiopians believe they know what happened after her royal journey. The queen, called Makeda in Ethiopia, came home to Axum after a tryst with Solomon and gave birth to Menelik I, the first of the East African nation’s long line of Solomonic rulers.
Today in Axum, a modest city of 54,000 in the northwest state of Tigray, I found no trace of the legendary queen from the 10th century B.C. But as I ambled across a field, crisscrossed with fallen stone obelisks, I did not doubt for a second that Axum’s past was filled with glory and extravagance. If the rulers could commission these giant engineering marvels thousands of years ago, what other lavishness were they capable of?
Thanks to new roads like the Addis Ababa-Axum highway and increasing domestic airlift, Ethiopia’s historic treasures are more accessible than ever. Take, for instance, Lalibela, 250 miles south of Axum, where a bright civilization blossomed in the folds of the staggering Lasta Mountains in the 12th century.
Lalibela’s legacy lives on in the stupendous rock-hewn churches where Ethiopian pilgrims congregate. The saffron-colored blocks are so elaborate that some locals insist that angels helped carve them out of the mountains. Does it surprise you that, when King Lalibela designed the city, he wanted to create a second Jerusalem? During Lalibela’s rule in the early 13th century, he scoured the world for the best artisans and devoted his life to sculpting a city out of this rugged terrain, digging as deep as 50 feet into the rocky ground. The result is not just an open-air museum, but a splendid, living city where descendants worship in the same Orthodox churches that their ancestors built. Pilgrims, who walk for days or weeks, lose themselves in meditation in these ancient places.
My journey took me to sights like Gondar, a medieval fortress city, and copper-colored Lake Tana, dotted with lonely islands harboring monasteries and villages. In the Simien National Park, where endemic gelada baboons and goat-like walia ibex roam freely, I had to wait patiently for the fog to break before I caught a glimpse of the 1,600-foot Jinbar Waterfall: a perfect metaphor for a country whose touristic sites are emerging from obscurity.
On the last leg of my journey, in the bustling capital of Addis Ababa, I happened upon a festival celebrating the end of the rainy season. It’s a sight both traditional and dynamic. Against the backdrop of giant billboards advertising airlines and cell phones, celebrants in bright national garb greet the new season by parading, chanting and dancing, before the evening culminates with bonfires. Indeed, Ethiopia is welcoming a new era.
Ethiopian Airlines flies direct to Addis Ababa from Washington Dulles and Toronto. From the West Coast, Lufthansa, Emirates and Turkish Airlines offer connecting services.
Cox & Kings offers fully customizable itineraries from $4,310 per person. Travel agents can plan itineraries directly with an expert tour director who specializes in Ethiopia.
Where to Eat
There is a reason why Ethiopian food, such as, spice-rich stews served atop soft, moist sourdough, is gaining popularity across the U.S. The Four Sisters Restaurant in Gondar serves excellent doro wat (chicken stew) with homemade mead tej.