Story and photos by John Coyne

Ethiopia Addis Ababa

Part One - Ethiopia A Land of Culture, Faith, and Beauty

It was the Peace Corps that first took me to Ethiopia in the fall of 1962. Arriving at dawn in Addis Ababa after a long overnight flight from  Europe, and at the end of Ethiopia’s “big rains”  when the highlands are blanketed with bright-yellow Maskel flowers, I stepped out of a DC-7  and smelled for the first time the burning of 100,000 eucalyptus cooking fires ”Africa distilled at 8,000 feet.” It was love at first sight.

Ethiopia in the early Sixties was not a tourist destination. With its tin  roofed, mud-and-dung houses, Addis Ababa from the air looked like scrap  metal scattered at the foot of the Entoto Hills. A city of less than  half a million, it had only a handful of restaurants, fewer hotels, and  limited public transportation. One walked to a destination, or grabbed  one of the blue-and- white Fiat “Seicento” taxis, which normally ran a  shuttle service along the main streets, accepting passengers until they  were full. The standard fare was 25 cents and the driver would decide if he wanted to take you where you wanted to go. All vehicles, trucks  included, shared narrow streets with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep heading towards the Mercato, the largest outdoor market in Africa.

John Coyne in Ethiopia years ago

Foreigners, known as faranjoch, were gawked at if they walked the city streets, and most of them were Peace  Corps Volunteers, in from the provinces. Tourists were few and seldom  seen on foot.

We did not know it then, but this was the end of an era, the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s long imperial reign. With his fall from power  in 1974, the country suffered years of Communist rule, a civil war, and  famine, only to be revived, starting in the 1990s, thanks to an influx  of Chinese investment and construction. Addis Ababa is now a modern city with towering skyscrapers, thoroughfares, and the first sophisticated  light-rail system in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ethiopia Addis Ababa (2)

Today, Ethiopia is a country that the intrepid traveler wants to see, one of  the top 10 tourist attractions in the world. Ethiopia’s treasures... its  history, geography, and culture... are the same today as they were when I  first arrived in 1962. Now, however, these treasures are much more  accessible. New hotels, museums, art centers, and paved streets and  highways, as well as a much-improved domestic airline, make it possible  for more people to see more of the old Empire.

While Addis Ababa has transformed into a 21st century city, provincial Ethiopia is as it always was, a cloistered world  caught in the web of long ago. If you want to seek the sophisticated,  historic, and authentic, go to Ethiopia. You won’t be disappointed.

Ethiopia Lucy

Treasures of Addis Ababa

When I arrived in Ethiopia I was housed in what was then the dormitory of  Haile Selassie University at the Arat Kilo Roundabout. Today, this area  of the city is the center of the major museums of Ethiopia. Walk five  minutes uphill from this roundabout and you'll see the new four-story  National Museum, a treasure chest of Ethiopian historic wonders. Among  the archaeological exhibits are the bones of the 3.5 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton known as Lucy. President Obama famously was allowed to touch the real  Lucy bones when he paid an official visit to Ethiopia in 2015. Less well known is that when he was on the way to the airport, at the end of the  visit, he asked to stop again at the museum to for a second look at  Lucy. (Do you think it was love at first sight?)

Just north of the National Museum is another roundabout, Siddist Kilo, where a monument in the center is dedicated to the Ethiopians who died in  1937 fighting the forces of Mussolini, who had invaded and occupied the  country in 1935.

Across the street  is the entrance to the main campus of the University of Addis Ababa,  which was once Haile Selassie University and, before that, was the  emperor’s palace. Inside the impressive stone gates, you’ll find the  two-story Ethnographic Museum and Library, considered the finest museum  in Addis. It includes a great gift shop, where you’ll find all kinds of  souvenirs and presents to take home. The prices are reasonable and the  proceeds go to support this museum.

Before leaving Siddist Kilo, walk across to the southeast side of the  roundabout to the small Lion Zoo, home to a handful of dark-maned  Abyssinian lions. The ancestors of these rare creatures once roamed the  grounds of Haile Selassie’s palace; now, the lions in this zoo are all  that remain of the emperor’s famous pride. 

Head downtown on the wide boulevard King George VI Street to Meskel Square,  where there are two more museums. One is the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, dedicated to the victims of the country’s former president Mengistu Haile Mariam. From 1976 to 1978, thousands of  citizens who resisted his Marxist regime were tortured and murdered in  the so-called Red Terror Campaign, memorialized here. A short distance  away is the Addis Ababa Museum, located in Haile Selassie’s last royal  residence, known as Jubilee Palace. This low-key museum has a wonderful  collection of photographs from the early days of Addis Ababa, as well as a display of the ceremonial and official clothing from the days of the  dynasty. It was here, in the fall of 1962, that I and other Peace Corps  Volunteers were welcomed to Ethiopia by His Majesty. It’s also where a  small group of us Americans (Volunteers and embassy personnel) sang Christmas carols to the Emperor and the royal family in December 1963.

Trinity Cathedral The best Cathedral in Addis Ababa

I would often see His Majesty when I was walking down Churchill Street to the secondary school where I taught English. He would often tour Addis  after lunch in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes limousine with his pet dog,  Lulu, sitting proudly beside him in the back seat. Traffic would halt.  Ethiopians would bow deeply or prostrate themselves as he passed by,  waving imperially. His Majesty would always recognize a faranj and nod as we bowed in return to his passing.

The emperor was deposed on September 12, 1974, by a military junta. At the  Addis Ababa Museum, you can visit the room where Haile Selassie was  seized by soldiers, who forcibly removed him from his palace. The  Emperor, who had ruled Ethiopia for half a century, was taken away to  prison not in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes limousine but in a small blue  Volkswagen.

The Historical Route

While Addis Ababa still has a few glimpses of ancient Abyssinia, it is in  provinces where you find the largest treasure house of culture, Coptic  Christianity, and history. There are numerous sites, but the outstanding historical treasures are in these locations: Bahar Dar; Gondar;  Lalibela; and Axum.

All of them can  now be easily reached via Ethiopian Airlines. It’s possible for you  could visit all of them by car, but you’d need to drive a total of 1500  miles to do so.

Blue Nile Falls 1966

Bahar Dar

I first traveled to this small city, located on the southern shore of  Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, by taking two-day winter bus ride  from Addis Ababa. Now you can fly there from Addis Ababain less than one hour. This lake is the famous source of the Blue Nile  (also known as the Abay River), which flows from here to Khartoum, in  the Sudan. There it joins the White Nile and flows into Egypt, then on  to the Mediterranean Sea.

Dotting  Lake Tana are small islands where ancient Coptic Christians built  monasteries and churches. Twenty of them have survived and are still  occupied by Coptic priests; you can visit them by hiring a boat. 

Blue Nile Falls known locally as Tis Isat

For a spectacular view of the river leaving the lake, take a short walk  north of Bahar Dar to the bridge begun by Haile Selassie in 1961 that  crosses the Blue Nile. From there you can spot hippos, especially in the early morning or late afternoon, the occasional crocodile, and always  beautiful and abundant water- and woodland birds.

Farther out of town, but within a 15-mile drive, are the Blue Nile Falls  (called, in Amharic, Tisisat, meaning, “water that smokes”). This is one of Africa’s most spectacular waterfalls, but has been diminished, in  recent years, by the construction of large dams. So, before taking the  drive, check with the hotel to make sure the water level is at a high  point.


Two hours north of Bahar Dar (or 20 minutes by plane) is Gondar, the  capital of Begemeder Province. Gondar is famous for its castles, which  date back to 1635. It was here that one of the great emperors,  Fasilidas, built the largest castle in Ethiopia—three stories of stone,  wood, and lime mortar, combining influences from Portugal, India, and  Axum, the ancient capital of an empire in what is now northern Ethiopia. Gondar has several other historic castles, as well as famous Coptic  churches; one of the most interesting and well-maintained is the Debre  Berhan Selassie Church, well worth a visit.



The highlight of the historical sites is the complex of rock-hewn churches  in and around the village of Lalibela. I first went to Lalibela by mule  in 1963; it took two days over bare terrain and across remote landscape. I had to travel in the dry season, because otherwise the dirt roads  were impassable. Admittedly, I could have gone by Land Rover or charter  plane, but mules were the preferred transport for those who preferred to think of ourselves as adventurous types. Now Ethiopian Airlines offers several flights daily to Lalibela, no mule required.

No matter how you get there, you must go... you can’t say you have seen  Ethiopia until you’ve visited this stunning cluster of 13 medieval  churches and chapels. They aren’t just made of stone; they were  carved... sculpted, really... out of pure rock at the direction of Lalibela, a 12th century king famed for his piety. According to  Ethiopian legend, angels helped the king build these churches after he  received an order from God to create a new Jerusalem in Abyssinia.

Lalibela is rightly known as the unofficial eighth wonder of the world. And  since 1978, the churches have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each is a monolith of stone, detached from its surroundings and hollowed and  decorated with the most exquisite care. Except for the ground floors,  each of the churches is entirely separated from the surrounding rock  walls.

Make sure you arrange your  visit to Lalibela for a Saturday. That way you can first visit the local market, which will take a full day to tour, and on Sunday you can  attend religious services in one of the churches. A morning Mass lasts  at least three hours and is a beautiful ritual—though people have been  known to slip out quietly somewhere in the middle.

Axum Obelisk


Axum, a day’s drive from Lalibella is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site  (since 1980), and one of the oldest inhabited cities in sub-Saharan  Africa. Axum is a city cloaked in legends. As the story goes, the Queen of Sheba... who, according to the Bible, was the Queen of Ethiopia... went to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon. During her visit, Solomon seduced her,  and upon returning to her own land, she gave birth to her only son,  Menelik I. When Menelik came of age, he went to visit his father, and  brought home to Ethiopia the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in  Jerusalem. The Ark was subsequently carried to Axum, where it is still  housed in the sanctuary of the Church of St. Mary of Zion. This story is well told in Graham Hancock’s fascinating book The Sign and the Seal.

Axum was probably founded during the first century B.C. and reached its  zenith between the third and fifth centuries A.D. In the third century,  the Arab historian Mani placed the Axumite kingdom among the four  greatest empires of that time: Babylon, Rome, Egypt and Axum.

St Mary Zion Axum

Well, clearly, Axum has seen better days. It is not a world-class city today.

But left over from Axum’s glory days are great obelisks known as stelae,  created between the third or fourth centuries AD and notable for their  size and their extraordinary design. At the base of many of the stelae  are large chambers which probably served as tombs, leading some to  theorize that the stelae were meant as memorials.

Directly across from the Park of the Stelae is the “new”€ church of St. Mary’s.  This Byzantine-style church was transplanted to Ethiopia in the fifth  century A.D. and was modified into a uniquely Ethiopian form. It was  re-dedicated and opened in 1965 by His Imperial Majesty, on the occasion of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Axum.

So you can say, Axum has been graced by the Queen of Sheba and the Queen of England.


Ten miles from Axum is the small village of Adwa. While overlooked by most  tourists, Adwa is famous to Ethiopians because it was here, in 1896,  that the Emperor Menelik II defeated an Italian army and stopped further European invasions, thereby ensuring that Ethiopia would be the only  African country not colonized by a European power in the late 19th century.

Nearby are the monastery of Abba Garima, founded in 494, and the church at  Abba Garima, which is said to be 1,500 years old. Abba Garima houses an  extremely rare collection of ancient crosses, crowns, and other  artifacts donated throughout Ethiopian history by emperors and nobles.  Also here are two illuminated gospels that were supposedly written by  Abba Garima himself. Carbon-dating tests done by Oxford University have  shown that the Garima Gospels were written between 390 AD and 660 AD,  making them the oldest illustrated Christian manuscripts in the world.

Next month, I’ll talk about the wildlife of Ethiopia, from the Gelada  Monkeys to the Hyena Man of Harar. Yes, I’ve seen him. Well, that was a  long time ago, so maybe it was his father.



Addis has a number of first class hotels. I’d recommend the Sheraton Addis Hotel, which is considered the best in Ethiopia, if not the whole of Africa. The  hotel has seven restaurants, a swimming pool, nightclub and several

A new contemporary highrise is the Radisson Blue. This hotel has a very Westernized atmosphere and you can feel sealed off from the city, which can sometimes be

One of my fondest memories of Africa is the Ghion Hotel. Once  the palace of Haile Selassie, set on beautiful wooded grounds  that offer great birdwatching, it was turned into a hotel in 1950.  Located in the center of the city, near Meskal Square, the hotel has a  variety of room, from private bungalows to singles, and a huge swimming  pool, where I loved to take a break back in the ‘60s. It also has four  restaurants, and Ethio-jazz every night.


Where to Dine

Ristorante Castelli: You must have one evening meal at Castelli, in the Piazza. Established in 1948, it is still owned and operated by the same family. This is Addis’s most  famous restaurant, as well known for its history as for its antipasti,  and you’ll likely see visiting celebrities at nearby tables. Book  ahead. 

Yod Abysinnia: Located near the airport just off Cameroon Street it is the city’s best and  busiest “cultural house”, meaning a place where the focus is Ethiopian  music and culture. There are wonderful dance performances every night  and the traditional food is excellent. It’s always full of tourists as  well as Ethiopians celebrating special occasions, so book ahead.


Where to Stay

Kuriftu Resort & Spa: Located on the shores of Lake Tana, this relatively new hotel is quite  charming. The stone-and-wood bungalows are spacious, with four-poster  beds and private patios. And there’s a swimming pool, as well as good  food in a tukul-style restaurant, the traditional round shaped Ethiopian building.


Where to Stay

Maleko Lodge: This new lodge, close to Gondar and the airport, is set in a compound of  gardens and individual cabins, plus a swimming pool and a spa.

Goha Hotel: Built on a hillside, this hotel has spectacular panoramic views of the city,  plus an outdoor swimming pool and a restaurant deck overlooking Gondar.


Where to Stay

Mountain View Hotel: In 1963, I camped out by the historic churches, but today there is a  sophisticated architect-designed hotel that provides a panoramic view of the valley below the town, first-class rooms, and a rooftop terrace  bar, perfect for sunset drinks.

Where to Dine

Ben Abeba: Located within a short walking distance of the Mountain View Hotel is Ben  Abeba, a new hilltop restaurant. Its multi-deck structure is a little  bizarre, but the decks provide incredible views of the valley below.  This joint Scottish-Ethiopian venture offers traditional local dishes as well as home-style European fare. Friends tell me the shepherd’s pie is a winner.


Where to Stay

Sabean International Hotel: Built in 2013, this well-run hotel is in the center of Axum. It is small and comfortable. 

To read the Second Part of the Ethiopia story click here.

Guide Book

Ethiopia by Philip Briggs, 7th Edition published in 2015 (The Globe Pequot Press). This is not only a  great guide book, it is also jammed with historical data and tidbits.

Map Guide

The Map Addis from Addis Guides. 1st Edition 2016.

Tour Agents

Overland Ethiopia Tours


Ethiopian Quadrants


Dinknesh Ethiopia Tour

Boundless Ethiopia Tours PLC


Abeba Tours Ethiopia


Village Ethiopia Tours

John Coyne, a novelist and travel writer, is the author of “Long Ago And Far Away”, a novel partially set in Ethiopia. 




© July 2017 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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