Addis Ababa -> Lalibela -> Axum -> Gheralta -> Addis Ababa
1 Addis Ababa
Arrive in Addis at the Bole International Airport to be met by tour staff for transport to your hotel. Sightseeing in Addis Ababa (e.g., the National Museum, the Ethnological Museum of Ethiopian Studies, and the Holy Trinity Cathedral) is possible, depending on your arrival time.
2 Addis to Lalibela
A one-hour flight and you reach the UNESCO World Heritage city of Lalibela, called the “Jerusalem of Ethiopia.” You will explore all eleven of the famous monolithic, carved-rock churches. A guide will lead you through the underground network of tunnels linking the churches. Built during the late-twelfth to early thirteenth centuries, these churches are still in use today. The last monolithic is the magnificent church of Saint George, excavated 50 feet (15m) below ground, and having a cruciform floor plan.
Dinner will be at the Mountain View Hotel for an amazing view of the surrounding mountains and a spectacular sunset.
Overnight in Lalibela.
3 Lalibela to Axum
An early, 45-minute flight takes you to Axum, the oldest city in Ethiopia. A short five-mile drive (8 kms) gets your hotel for check-in. On this busy walking day you visit the impressive stelae field with its amazing concentration of obelisks of all sizes; the grounds of the sixteenth-century cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, the original home of the Ark of the Covenant; the Queen of Sheba’s palace; and the Axum Museum. Any leftover time may be spent souvenir shopping.
Overnight in Axum.
4 Axum to Adwa to Yeha to Debre Damo to Gheralta (138 miles/222 kms)
This morning’s leg of your adventure is a thirty-minute drive through granite hills to Adwa (15 miles/ 25 kms), a city important to Ethiopians because of the 1896 defeat of the Italian army by Emperor Menelik II. The next site is Yeha with its ruins of buildings dating back over 2,500 years ago. The oldest building is a temple used by the Sabeans (a pre-Axumite civilization) for religious purposes, which has ancient wall engravings of ibex. Its excellent condition is attributed to a sixth-century occupation by Christian monks who also protected a stellar collection of illuminated manuscripts and crowns.
The next stop is the Debre Damo Monastery, a sixth-century church built on the top of a high (7,000 feet /3,000 meters), flat mountain (amba). The details of its construction remain a mystery, although many local legends describe mythical flying serpents carrying the fitted stones and wood to the extreme elevation. Certainly the difficulty of access contributes to its attraction for the visitor, as does a magnificent collection of ancient manuscripts. Visitors must be physically fit and agile, as entry to the monastery is achieved by climbing up a sheer cliff face using a leather rope and intermittent foot and hand holds carved into the stone.
Lunch is in Adigrat, followed by a drive to the Gheralta Lodge.
Women are not allowed to enter Debre Damo.
Overnight in Gheralta.
5 Gheralta to Mountain Churches
Gheralta is the site of numerous, ancient, rock-hewn churches with spectacular fresco paintings but, unlike the more well-known and accessible churches of Lalibela, these architectural marvels are carved out of rock outcroppings located throughout a vast and remote area. The climb up to some of the churches is physically demanding, but the effort to reach them is well rewarded, although only the fittest traveler will be able to see more than one or two a day.
Abuna Yemata Guh. Considered to be Ethiopia’s most spectacular site of any rock-hewn church, Abuna Yemata Guh is carved into a tall rock pillar. The wall and ceiling paintings are particularly sophisticated and well preserved. Nine apostles are pictured on one of the roof domes and nine Syrian monks are depicted on the other. This church is reached by a challenging vertical climb and has narrow, precipitous ledges, dropping over 500 feet straight down.
Abreha we Atsbeha. Legends claim that this church, constructed in the middle of the fourth century, was named after the twin Emperors (Abreha and Atsbeha) of Axum. While such stories are part of local tradition, their validity is unsubstantiated. What is not in dispute is that Abreha we Astbeha is one of the largest and most beautiful of all the churches. There are 13 large pillars and several decorated arches supporting the roof. The frescoes, depicting the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox church may be more contemporary than the carving of the original architecture.
Daniel Korkor. This church consists of two small rooms that were the habitation of one monk. The walls and domed ceiling are decorated with paintings depicting Ethiopian saints and evangelists. A small cemetery is also carved into the stone. Both this church and Maryam Korkor are located on top of a giant massif. The panoramic views from these sites are spectacular and it is worth overcoming a fear of heights to see them.
Debre Tsion. An architectural wonder, this huge church with its ornately carved exterior is dated to the fourteenth century, when it was created by the monk Abuna Abraham. It is also considered to be a devotional masterpiece with decorated, domed roofs, pillars, painted frescos and a host of religious relics.
Each of the churches in the area features a different and unique style of painting. Coupled with the physical settings offering infinite vistas, and the profound serenity that mirrors that which was experienced by ancient worshipers, Gheralta is a unique and transformative experience for the adventurous traveler.
Overnight in Gheralta.
Note: Extra days may be added to the tour at this point to more fully explore the churches.
6 Gheralta to Mekele to Addis Ababa
Following an early breakfast at the Lodge, we drive to Mekele (2.5 hrs) for the flight to Addis Ababa.
7 Addis Ababa
Tour staff will transport you to your hotel upon arrival at the Bole International Airport. Later, you can go visit at St. George Gallery or go shopping at the Merkato (the largest open-air market in Africa) and the various souvenir shops on Churchill Road.
Overnight in Addis depending on your flight schedule.